The Phillies' Cole Hamels buried a fastball into the small of Nationals rookie Bryce Harper's back in the first inning Sunday night, partly to warn the 19-year-old phenom that life at this level will be harder than expected, partly provide a physical component to the opinion that the Nationals' 18-9, NL East-leading start -- 5 1/2 games ahead of last-place Philadelphia -- was still at least 75 wins short of actually meaning something.
Just in case there was any leeway in possible interpretations, Hamels made things clear after the game, telling the world that the pitch was laden with meaning.
"I was trying to hit him," Hamels said. "I mean, I'm not going to deny it. It's something that I grew up watching. I'm just trying to continue old baseball, because I think some people get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn't say anything because that's the way baseball is. But I think unfortunately sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not as that kind of old school, prestigious way of baseball."
Whether Hamels was annoyed by Harper's questioning the strike zone in an earlier game -- even as the Phillies pitched around him -- remains unclear; the lefthander declined to discuss the point at which he decided to plunk him. It doesn't matter. This is how veterans handled rookies for generations. It was as retro an act as could be imagined in the modern game.
Frank Robinson was hit 20 times during his rookie season -- the most of his career -- a result, he once told The Sporting News, of "those guys ... trying to test me. They were trying to see what I was made of." Don Drysdale did much the same thing when he buzzed Orlando Cepeda in the future Hall of Famer's first major league at-bat. In 1939, Browns manager Fred Haney ordered that Ted Williams be knocked down twice in a game, after the rookie had gone 7-for-16 against St. Louis over the previous four contests. Twice Williams got up, and put a stop to the tactic with a homer, a double and six RBIs.
Which, to Harper's credit, is not dissimilar from what the rookie ended up doing on Sunday. After the 19-year-old was drilled, he didn't hesitate in taking third when the next batter, Jayson Werth, singled to left. The moment Hamels threw to first to keep Werth close, Harper stole home, sliding in easily under the tag of Carlos Ruiz.
Harper's skills have never been questioned. With displays like Sunday's, his mental toughness will probably soon reach that point as well, if it hasn't already. "If he continues to do that, he's going to make a really good name for himself," Hamels said afterward.
The circle was closed in the top of the third, when Washington starter Jordan Zimmerman responded by hitting Hamels in the leg. (Unlike Hamels, Zimmerman denied intent. Also unlike Hamels, nobody believed him.) For his part, Hamels considered it an appropriate response. "That's the way it should work," he said.
Though Hamels lost the battle, however, he clearly won the war. Harper may not have been prone to intimidation, but the Phillies' lefthander shut down the rest of the Nationals over eight innings, allowing just five hits and one (stolen) run in a 9-3 victory. With as clear a message as Hamels delivered to Harper, there appeared to be just as much intent toward an increasingly confident Nationals team that, Hunter Pence told The Washington Post, was playing like it had "a chip on their shoulder."
Which brings up one more possibility when dissecting Hamels' mindset. The act brings to mind the moment in 1974, when Dock Ellis sought to knock the swagger out of the upstart Cincinnati Reds with the revolutionary tactic of hitting every batter he faced. He opened the game by drilling Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession, then walked Tony Perez on four pitches after the first baseman -- in clear recognition of imminent danger -- bailed out as soon as each pitch was released. The righthander was removed by befuddled Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh after going 2-0 on the next hitter, Johnny Bench, but by that point it didn't matter -- Ellis' message had been sent. And here's the key point: The most important recipients weren't even members of the Reds, but Ellis' own teammates. Intimidating Cincinnati was an obvious bonus, but the pitcher's primary goal was to jolt what he viewed more and more as a complacent Pirates clubhouse.
It worked. Having won only six of 18 before the game, Pittsburgh went 82-62 the rest of the way and won the National League East for the fourth time in five years.
The Phillies, by contrast, have won five consecutive National League East titles. Hamels hasn't shared his views on his team's toughness (or lack thereof), but as one of only two pitchers remaining from the beginning of that run (Kyle Kendrick is the other), it would not be surprising were Hamels looking to send a message to a club struggling to maintain its position atop the National League's pecking order.
Hamels' act has drawn scorn from various circles, not least of them Washington's front office. "I've never seen a more classless, gutless chickens--- act in my 30 years in baseball," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told The Washington Post. "[Hamels] is the polar opposite of old school. He's fake tough. He thinks he's going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year rookie who's eight games into the big leagues? He doesn't know who he's dealing with."
In one capacity, at least, Rizzo is dead wrong. Hamels knows a lot about the guys he's dealing with -- at least the ones he's dressing with each day.
The pitcher's message couldn't have been more clear. Now it's up to the rest of us to figure out its intended recipients.