Things got a little bit snippy between the Braves and Cardinals during the NLDS. In Game 1, Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a two-run homer off of Carlos Martínez in the ninth inning, helping close what was a four-run deficit. An exited Acuña who, earlier in the game did not run hard out of the box on what turned into a long single that he thought had home run distance, gesticulated wildly towards his dugout as he rounded the bases. After the game, Martínez said of Acuña, “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.”
Things were civil between the two sides in Games 2, 3, and 4. In Game 5, the Cardinals hung a 10-spot in the top of the first inning, giving Jack Flaherty a virtually insurmountable cushion before he ever took the mound. Flaherty threw a great game, holding the Braves to one run across six innings. He made only two mistakes: allowing a solo home run to Josh Donaldson in the fourth inning, and hitting Acuña with a fastball in the fifth. Acuña wasn’t happy about it, understandably. Warnings were issued to both sides and the game went on without any further incident?
It’s tough to say, as an outsider, if Flaherty clearly intended to hit Acuña. Flaherty was ahead 1-2. Catcher Yadier Molina set up inside and Flaherty missed his spot by a lot. It doesn’t seem like the most obvious spot to hit Acuña. Others would say that provided the necessary subterfuge for plausible deniability, plus the Cardinals had almost no risk in giving Acuña a free base.
After the game Flaherty denied hitting Acuña on purpose, but also inadvertently tipped his hand. Per Jeff Jones, Flaherty said:
We were trying to go in. WE’ve got two strikes on him, we were trying to go in. If we’re gonna go in, we’re gonna go in tight. It hit him. He took exception to it. That’s the guy he wants to be. That’s how it is. He’s been having all his antics all series. The guy hits a ball off the wall, he gets a single out of it. So he wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants. He can talk all he wants. But we tried to go in, we talk, our scouting report is go in, we go in. So it got away, it hit him. He wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants.
That Flaherty pointed to Acuña’s “antics,” even while denying intent, points to intent.
Furthermore, manager Mike Shildt used Acuña’s behavior in his postgame rallying speech to his team. Bench player Randy Arozarena live streamed the speech, which probably won’t sit well with anyone with the Cardinals. STL Sports Central has the video in which Shildt says, “The [Braves] started some [stuff]. We finished the [stuff]. And that’s how we roll. No one [messes] with us ever. Now, I don’t give a [hoot] who we play. We’re gonna [mess] them up. We’re gonna take it right to them the whole [freaking] way. We’re gonna kick their [freaking] [butt].”
Acuña’s behavior was clearly on the Cardinals’ mind all series long. Given his postgame denial and Shildt’s speech, the claim there was no intent behind Flaherty’s pitch looks spurious at best.