Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Jack Flaherty insists he didn’t hit Ronald Acuña Jr. on purpose

15 Comments

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.

Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

Blue Jays roster and schedule
Getty Images
1 Comment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”