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Machado, Ventura altercation will hurt Orioles more than Royals in long run

There is blame to be shared in Tuesday’s brawl between Manny Machado and Yordano Ventura, but the Orioles stand to be worse off by virtue of losing their best player when suspensions are handed down.

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Locked in a tight divisional race with the Boston Red Sox, the Baltimore Orioles will soon be without their best player, and one of the most valuable players in the game, as suspensions loom for shortstop Manny Machado and Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura following a brawl between the two in Tuesday night’s 9–1 Orioles win at Camden Yards.

Ventura and Machado both have a history of getting into on-field dust-ups, but there was no known conflict between the two prior to Machado’s second at-bat of the game against Ventura. In the bottom of the first inning, Ventura worked away from Machado, falling behind 3–1, at which point Machado dropped the bat-head on a low two-seamer that tailed inside, hitting it down the leftfield line for an RBI double that started the scoring in what would be a four-run inning for Baltimore. When Machado’s turn in the order came back around in the second, Ventura fired in two more two-seamers that tailed in to Machado at 98 miles per hour, the first starting over the plate then tailing up and in. The second was belt-high, but further inside, forcing Machado to jump backward. That second pitch got Machado’s attention, drawing a cold stare from the Orioles shortstop. After Machado hit Ventura’s next pitch, a 97 mph two-seamer over the plate, into a stiff wind blowing in from leftfield, he called out to the pitcher while jogging down the line, getting Ventura’s attention then issuing him a warning in Spanish.

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That at-bat set up what came in the fifth. With one out, the bases empty, and the Orioles now up 5–1, Ventura’s first pitch in Machado’s third plate appearance was a 99 mph fastball that hit Machado in the small of the back. Machado immediately discarded his bat and helmet and, with a slight limp, charged the mound, where Ventura, who had similarly tossed aside his glove and cap, was waiting for him. Both players threw one round-house right, Ventura missing badly, Machado being partially blocked by Ventura’s left arm, after which Machado put Ventura in a headlock and the two fell to the ground as the benches rapidly emptied on top of them.

The fighting was limited to those two combatants, however. Despite the speed with which the players and coaches flooded the field, the intent of all appeared to be to break things up. When the dust cleared, only Machado and Ventura had been ejected and no apparent injuries had been suffered. However, suspensions are clearly coming for both Machado and Ventura, and in that the Orioles will have gotten the worst of this affair, losing a far more valuable player in a much tighter divisional race.

Baltimore entered Tuesday’s action with a mere half-game lead on the Boston Red Sox in the American League East, while Machado entered the day ranked fourth in the American League in’s wins above replacement, to which he added an RBI double, a run scored, and an excellent defensive play in Tuesday night’s game. Ventura, by comparison, entered Tuesday night’s start with a 4.82 ERA (89 ERA+), which rendered him a replacement-level player on the season according to bWAR, and he had failed to make consecutive quality starts all season, a fact confirmed by his poor performance on Tuesday night. Whatever it is the Royals need to close their 2 1/2 game deficit to Cleveland in the AL Central, Ventura has not been providing it.

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Hitting Machado didn’t help, either, as Chien-Ming Wang, forced into the uncomfortable position of warming up on the game mound, gave up home runs to the first two men he faced, Mark Trumbo, who added a sixth run to Ventura’s line in the process, and Chris Davis.

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Ventura was suspended for seven games last April after being ejected from consecutive starts, the first for hitting then-Athletic Brett Lawrie with a 99 mph pitch, the second for inciting a brawl with the Chicago White Sox by shouting at White Sox centerfielder Adam Eaton after Eaton hit a comebacker. In his start prior to those two, Ventura had also attempted to pick a fight with Mike Trout. His suspension was thus a reaction to his accumulated bad behavior.

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After the White Sox incident, I wrote that Ventura needed to learn that “there’s a difference between being intense and being confrontational, and Ventura has crossed the line in three of his four starts this year.” He made it through the remainder of that season and the first third of this one without further incident. However, Tuesday night’s kerfuffle remains part of a pattern of behavior that has to be troubling for Major League Baseball, particularly given that it is coming from a player who effectively takes the mound in possession of a deadly weapon in the form of a fastball that can hit triple-digits. Ventura’s suspension in this case should be longer than his last. There is precedent for that. Ian Kennedy was suspended for 10 games for throwing at Zack Greinke in 2013. That stands as the longest suspension for an on-field incident in the last decade.

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Machado isn’t just an innocent victim here, however. When the notoriously hot-headed Lawrie was hit by a 99 mph Ventura pitch last year, he dropped his bat and headed to first without so much as looking at Ventura. Machado could have done the same. Instead he charged the mound with the clear intent to hurt Ventura. This is not an isolated incident for Machado either. Machado first displayed his tendency to react badly to perceived slights in a series at home against the A’s in June 2014. In the Friday night game of that series, he took offense to what he perceived as an unnecessarily hard tag from A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson, getting in the clearly bewildered Donaldson’s face after the play and prompting the benches to empty. Two days later, he reacted to a low and inside pitch from A’s lefty Fernando Abad, by attempting to throw his bat at Abad via a delayed swing, again causing the benches to empty. Machado was suspended for five games for the latter incident, a suspension that likely would have been longer had Machado not missed by so much.

Machado did manage to keep his wits about him when drilled in the shoulder by a 93 mph Jonathan Papelbon fastball last September, yelling at the pitcher, but not charging him. Perhaps even in a fit of pique, Machado was able to discern the difference between the burly 6’5” Papelbon and the lanky 6’0” Ventura. Either way, a suspension for Machado is clearly in order, as well, though that seems unlikely to be more than another five games.

Still, Machado is so important to the Orioles that losing him even for that brief span could significantly impact their season. Not only is he one of the best hitters in the majors, ranking seventh with a 157 OPS+ entering Tuesday’s game, but he’s also one of the game’s best fielders and has been filling in at shortstop for the injured J.J. Hardy for the last month. Hardy, out with a fractured left foot, isn’t expected back until the end of the month, if then. Losing Machado would thus leave the left side of the Baltimore infield completely in the hands of replacement-level bench players such as Paul Janish, who replaced Machado after his ejection in Tuesday night’s game, and Ryan Flaherty, who started the game at third base. Flaherty did homer off Ventura Tuesday night, but even with that, the two have hit a combined .198/.299/.257 in 117 major league plate appearances this season.

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If the Orioles fall a game or two shy of the Red Sox for the division title or, worse, a game or two shy of a wild-card berth come October, Machado’s inability to take the high road against Ventura could well have made the difference. Just because Ventura was the aggressor in this situation doesn’t excuse Machado from taking the bait and lowering himself to Ventura’s level. Ventura’s issues go beyond Tuesday night’s incident, and the Royals are clearly growing frustrated with his behavior—just watch Salvador Perez’s frustrated reactions in the various video clips above—as well as his disappointing performance on the mound. Machado, however, is a nearly perfect player, and though he won’t turn 24 until next month, he needs to realize that his constant presence on the field is more important than any perceived slight. He’s good enough to let his outstanding play serve as his retaliation. Here’s hoping he does just that going forward.