ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - When I saw umpire supervisor Jim McKean this morning at the Rays-Yankees game, I figured something was up. After Joe Girardi made such a big deal out of Rays infielder Elliot Johnson running over Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli last Saturday and breaking his right wrist, you knew bad blood was flowing liberally between these teams.
McKean was certainly there to make sure his umpiring crew had a grasp of the situation. And soon enough they were pressed into action.
The Yankees had received word in the morning that Andy Pettitte wasn't going to pitch because of soreness in his elbow, which is not a good sign for a pitcher who has had a history of elbow problems. He was replaced by Heath Phillips. Well, Phillips was gone in the first inning when he plunked Rays third baseman Evan Longoria with a fastball inside. Then Shelley Duncan, who I must admit, creates a lot of energy on that Yankee club, slid heard into Rays second baseman Aki Iwamura, who suffered a small cut on his knee, in the top of the second.
Duncan had stroked a ball down the left-field line that hit off Longoria's glove. He tried to stretch it to a double, but when came into second on a play where he was going to be easily tagged out, Duncan came in spikes-first trying to knock the ball ajar.
The benches emptied and after a little pushing and shoving, peace was restored.
"In my mind, there's only two things you can do -- a weird slide or slide hard into his glove," Duncan said. "I made a hard slide into his glove."
Duncan's play was indeed a tad over-the-top even though Johnson's play on Cervelli was perfectly legitimate - spring training or no spring training. Asking different people around the game the past few days about the play, there wasn't one person who sided with Girardi. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon teaches his players to run hard and play hard. All the time. So when Johnson came barreling in, he was watching Cervelli blocking the plate. To a runner trying to score, that's like a bull seeing red. Girardi was hoping that the player wouldn't go all out so not to get anyone injured, but a young player is trying to make a statement, trying to make the team, trying to prove to his manager he'll do anything to score a run.
Girardi called the play "unnecessary," but even his former manager, Don Zimmer, disagreed with Girardi, even though he says he loves him like a son. Zimmer, a Rays senior adviser, believes you play baseball, no matter whether it's a real game or an exhibition. Johnson was playing baseball.
In addition to Phillips and Duncan, also ejected were Yankee coaches Bobby Meacham and Kevin Long and Tampa Bay DH Jonny Gomes.
Phillips, as expected, denied he tried to hit Longoria.
"It wasn't intentional at all," Phillips said. "What happened, happened. I was surprised because I didn't really think the ball hit him at first. I told the umpire I was trying to throw a fastball inside and it got away from me."
We've heard that one before, haven't we?
The Rays are a legitimate team, finally after all these years. And they're not going to back down to anyone. To the Rays, the Yankees used to be at a whole other level, but the Rays can play with them now and they're starting to assert themselves.
The obvious contempt the teams have for one another reminds me of the Red Sox-Yanks of the late 70s. It's kind of fun to see two teams getting nasty like this.
"I just think Duncan tried to inflict some pain on Aki," Gomes said. "I was taught all the way from T-ball to have a teammate's back. It's a baseball field. There's fans and kids watching. I had to let him know that's not going to fly."
You can bet this will spill over into the regular season.