The only MLB Spring Training game on today's schedule not being broadcast anywhere on TV or radio has no doubt been the most talked, written and tweeted about. The Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals met this afternoon in Jupiter, Florida's Roger Dean Stadium. It almost got ugly.
The story through the first three innings was Nats' starter Livan Hernandez, and his impressive ability to work into and out of trouble. After a 1-2-3 first on the mound against the Cards, the 36-year-old 15-year veteran got help from his 39-year-old catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez in the second. The Future Hall of Fame catcher gunned Matt Holliday down trying for second after the St. Louis' outfielder singled to start the bottom of the inning, and a groundout to second by Lance Berkman and flyout to right by David Freese later, Hernandez had two scoreless in the books.
Things were trickier in the third as the one-time-Expo and original National surrendered back-to-back singles to start the frame, picked off one runner and overcame an error (by Ian Desmond) and a two-out walk to pop Colby Rasmus up for the final out of the inning. The Nats were no luckier against 35-year-old Cards' right-hander Chris Carpenter. Nyjer Morgan singled to start the first and promptly got picked off. Ian Desmond singled, but a Laynce Nix DP grounder ended the Nats' first. Michael Morse reached on a one-out error in the second and Pudge Rodriguez got a one-out walk before Danny Espinosa's double play grounder ended any threat. The Nationals went down in order in the third, but finally got to Carpenter in the fourth.
Desmond walked and scored on Nix's RBI triple. Nix scored on Adam LaRoche's ground-rule double. LaRoche scored from third on an RBI single by Pudge and Michael Morse, who'd sent LaRoche first to third on a single of his own, scored one-out later when Alex Cora singled in a run with the fifth hit of the inning off the Cards' starter. Livan gave two runs back in the bottom of the fourth when Albert Pujols led off with a single, took third on Matt Holliday's double and scored on Freese's RBI groundout. 4-1. And then 4-2 when Holliday scored on an RBI single by Gerald Laird.
In the top of the fifth, Nyjer Morgan collided with Albert Pujols on a play at first when Pujols reached into the running lane for a bad throw from Laird. After Pujols was attended to on the field, a report at the time by Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) said Cards' Skipper Tony LaRussa was seen glaring dugout to dugout at the Nats, and one-out later, Laynce Nix stepped to the plate and was drilled. Purpose pitch? In spite the fact that they loaded the bases on back-to-back walks by Carpenter and his replacement Fernando Salas, the Nats failed to score in the fifth. Pudge Rodriguez left three men on base with an inning-ending groundout in the next AB and then one out into the Cards' fifth Livan Hernandez exacted revenge, drilling Colby Rasmus. Even? With two on and two out, Hernandez got Lance Berkman swinging and held the Nats 4-2 lead through five.
Top of the seventh. Still 4-2. One out in, 2010 Nats' reliever Miguel Batista, now with the Cards, hits Ian Desmond. Desmond wants to know why? And he reportedly asks the Cards' dugout and both benches clear to discuss it. No punches are thrown. Desmond jaws at LaRussa. Nationals' Manager Jim Riggleman lets LaRussa know the Cards went one HBP too far. Batista's ejected. Desmond scores on an RBI single by LaRoche and Danny Espinosa drives two runs in with a two-out single to make it 7-2 Nationals. After it ends that way, Livan Hernandez told reporters that he'd absolutely hit Rasmus on purpose. Ian Desmond dismissed Batista's HPB by saying he threw like Miss Iowa and a Nats/Cards rivalry stretching back to last season was renewed.
It's not just the Nyjer Morgan connection, with everyone immediately remembering what MLB officially declared to be an "unnecessary" run the Nats' center fielder took at Cards' catcher Bryan Anderson last August which resulted in a separated shoulder for the then-23-year-old rookie backstop. No one's connecting the two events involving the oft-criticized Nats' outfielder and several writers have warned against making any such connection since Morgan was clearly wrong then but seemingly blameless today. Morgan was held out of the lineup the night after he collided with Anderson last year because Riggleman believed if he put him in the lineup he'd get hit. He knows LaRussa well from the time the two spent together in St. Louis.
But there was also the issue with Drew Storen and Matt Holliday in that same series. The Nats' rookie closer hit the Cards' outfielder on the hand to force in a run in a bases loaded jam two nights before Morgan ran into Anderson and then the night afterwards in the finale of the four-game series, Storen threw a fastball behind Holliday drawing the St. Louis' skipper out of the dugout to argue for Storen's ejection. After the game, LaRussa let the Nats know, in an article by MLB.com's Matthew Leach entitled, "Holliday, La Russa take exception to pitch", that he didn't think what had happened was acceptable:
"...here's a guy that hits a single and a double and they throw the ball behind him. There was going to be no ifs, ands or buts. But in their opinion, the pitch got away. ... If somebody throws the ball behind you, you're not happy. Especially up in that area. If you don't have that kind of command, it wasn't intentional, then you don't belong in this league."
"'It's the Major Leagues,' LaRussa continued to rant, 'It's [94 miles per hour] and it hits a wall behind you, that doesn't have anything to do with what happened before that.'" As that series ended I noted that the Cards, "had every right to be frustrated. After Morgan's actions and the accusations they had about Storen's it's probably a good thing the Nats and Cards don't play again this season," I wrote, "It will be interesting to see if La Russa stores this one away for 2011..."