Monday, May 7, 2012

Cole Hamels, Bryce Harper and "bully teams"

Bryce Harper gets hit by the pitch...

If you were watching ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball last night. you saw Philadelphia's Cole Hamels drill superrookie Bryce Harper in the back in the first inning. You also saw Harper take third base on a single to left (two outs and Juan Pierre throwing, but still rare) and then steal home on a Hamels pick-off throw to first base (video here).

Which is better retribution for an intentional plunking than charging the mound. The 19-year-old hotshot embarrassed the veteran pitcher.

... and then steals home.
Hamels admitted after the game that he hit Harper on purpose, calling it a "welcome to the majors" old school moment. (And Washington pitcher Jordan Zimmermann later hit Hamels in the leg in obvious retribution.)

Hamels wasn't be the first guy to greet a heralded rookie with a HBP, and he won't be the last. But I think there was something more to the incident.

The Phillies have won five straight divisional titles. The Nationals had taken the first two games of their weekend series and are now in first place.

When a young, unheralded team suddenly becomes a threat to a veteran dynasty, the veteran team often tries physical intimidation. As I recall, the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 had separate bench-clearing incidents with both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, both of them begun with buzzballs from the accustomed contenders. I think of this as "bully ball" — something teams resort to when they realize the upstarts might actually be better.

Usually that realization comes later in the summer. That Philly turned to it in early May is illuminating. The Nationals may not win the division this year (Jayson Werth broke his wrist Sunday, which probably matters a lot more than the outcome of this particular game), but I think the Phillies' domination of the NL East is over.

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