By Michelle Dingley
Before the first pitch was thrown in Friday’s Giants-Phillies game, every fan expected a fight would break out. The tension in the San Francisco air was palpable even in the valley. The Giants had lost 6 out of their last 7, after winning two of three in Philadelphia. The Phillies, on the other hand, had won each of their games after dropping the series against the Giants, including Thursday’s game one of the series by the bay. The Phillies have the best record in baseball. The World Champ Giants are struggling to maintain their foothold of first place in the NL West. The Phillies want to prove that they can beat the Giants after falling to them last year on our way to the World Series. The Giants want to prove that their makeshift roster can still compete.
Add, on top of that, an interesting pitching matchup. For the Phillies, rookie Vance Worley took the mound. The Sacramento native and McClatchy graduate pitched his first big-league complete game against the Giants just 10 days earlier, giving up only 3 hits. Toeing the rubber for the Giants was Jonathan Sanchez in his first start since returning from the DL. Sanchez has a rocky history against the Phillies, specifically Chase Utley. In 2009, Sanchez threw a pitch at Utley’s head. The second baseman launched a big fly later in the at-bat. In game 6 of the 2010 NLCS, Sanchez drilled Utley in the back, more than likely unintentionally, since the pitcher had been quite erratic. Utley and Sanchez exchanged words and the benches emptied, but little to no physical damage was done. Nonetheless, everyone was waiting for Utley’s first at-bat on Friday.
Giants fans were holding their breath to see which Jonathan Sanchez would take the mound. The good Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2009, a perfect game except for a fielding error. The bad Sanchez is leading the majors in walks and has little control of his pitches.
The good Sanchez struck out the Phillies’ leadoff batter. The bad Sanchez followed that up with a walk. The good one got out of the mini-jam with a double-play ball, ending the inning. In the top of the second, Utley came to the plate . . . and uneventfully lined out. Through three innings, it appeared that the good Sanchez was in control.
In the fourth, Shane Victorino smashed a solo shot off a decent pitch from Sanchez. Utley came up next and singled. After another single, a fielder’s choice, and another homer, the Giants were down 4-1. Sanchez would eventually go 4 2/3 innings, giving up 5 runs off 7 hits, walking 2 and punching out 4. Sanchez only faced Utley twice, and noting of note happened between the two players. Fans knew a fight was coming; they just had the players wrong.
When Sanchez was removed, Ramon Ramirez took over. Ramirez was still pitching in the top of the 6th when the score was 5-2 Phillies. After giving up a walk and three singles, the score was suddenly 8-2 Phillies. The Giants would have 4 innings to try to get those 6 runs back, but the way they have been hitting this season, a 6-run deficit is nearly insurmountable. Ramirez continued to have trouble hitting his target. Jimmy Rollins stole second, and Placido Polanco singled. Next to bat was Shane Victorino. The first pitch to Victorino, a 91 mph fastball, hit him squarely in the back. This is when the action began.
Victorino flipped his bat away and took a few steps toward the mound. Eli Whiteside sprang up from his crouch behind the plate and put himself between the hitter and his battery-mate. The home plate umpire followed suit, keeping Victorino at bay. Eli turned and saw Polanco rushing toward Ramirez from second base. Eli held back Polanco, who was soon joined by a legion of Phillies trying to push Eli over from his tackling position. In the meantime, both benches emptied, and we had bedlam at AT&T Park. It was not just the players, but coaches and umpires were in the thick of it, trying to prevent everyone from doing something regrettably stupid. Victorino pushed an umpire who was trying to hold him back. Just when the fight was starting to cool down, Victorino broke free and ran into the scrum, taking down Giants coach Hensley Meulens in the process. When the dust settled, Victorino, Whiteside and Ramirez were ejected. Eli received a roaring ovation upon leaving the field.
When the game resumed, Affeldt took over pitching, and Chase Utley came to bat. The first pitch was high, around the letters, but over the plate. Utley bent down and leaned in with his shoulder, then dashed towards first as if he was hit. The home plate umpire wasn’t buying it, immediately shaking his head. There was no way that ball was thrown at him, and if it had slightly grazed him, it was because Utley deliberately leaned into it. On the next pitch, Utley grounded out, leaving the bases loaded. The Giants ended up losing the game 9-2, but at least the brawl kept the fans interested.
So what set this all off? Was it a deliberate hit by pitch called by the bench? Did Whiteside call it? Maybe Ramirez was a lone gunman? Or maybe the ball slipped out of his hands? Was Rollins’ stealing of second with a six-run lead the final straw, and they wanted to send the Phillies a message? Is there just so much tension between the two teams that, given enough time, something like this was bound to happen? Or are the Giants so exasperated that they can’t put two wins together that they are taking it out on the team that makes winning look so easy? In a postgame interview, Whiteside said he called for an inside fastball, and it just went a bit too far inside. That is probably the only answer we will get.
Ramirez plunked Victorino, but who started the fight? After the game, Victorino said that he didn’t know why he was targeted. He said he stepped toward the mound “to go out there and get an answer.” He claimed, “I had no intentions of going out there and charging the mound.” I have never seen a batter take one step toward the mound without it resulting in a brawl. I have absolutely never seen a batter go up to a pitcher during a game and ask why he was hit. That is just not how baseball works. Eli went out there to protect his pitcher. He made no real move until Polanco rushed in from second. Even then, Eli used a defensive tackle move, rather than cold cocking him. Polanco was straight-forward about the knock-down drag-out, stating, “I was trying to grab somebody.” He added, “We’re both in first place and we want to win the division.” True, but this rivalry would have so much more meaning if they were in the same division. There are divisions enough for both of us to win. Let’s save the drama for the postseason.
If the bad blood was limited to certain Giants and Phillies before, it is definitely team-wide now. Jeremy Affeldt, who was unable to join the brawl during the NLCS game, got to take part in this one. Everyone was in the middle of the scrum, even Pat Burrell and Barry Zito, who are both on the DL and not allowed on the field. They could be suspended for that. Also facing possible suspension is Pablo Sandoval, who might have thrown a punch while in the dog pile. Victorino and Polanco could be suspended for their role in the brawl. With two more games in the series, retaliation is not out of the question. The melee may have allowed the teams to let off some steam, but the pot is still boiling. The next two games will be just as tense.