The pitch seemed to have a purpose when Cole Hamels hit Bryce Harper in the back with it during the first inning Sunday night. Later on, after the Philadelphia Phillies had beaten the Washington Nationals 9-3, Hamels admitted that it did. As quoted by reporter Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hamels said:
"I was trying to hit him. I'm not going to deny it."
By admitting to hitting a player on purpose, Hamels probably faces a five-game suspension by Major League Baseball, the net result of which probably will be having a future start pushed back one day. So, no real penalty for him, aside from a small fine.
Harper winced briefly after getting hit, but he otherwise did the right thing by just walking to first base. But while Harper later said he didn't have a problem with Hamels' throw, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo had a much different take than his phenom player.
Here's what Rizzo said when Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post got him on the phone Monday morning:
"I've never seen a more classless, gutless chicken [bleep] act in my 30 years in baseball," Rizzo said. "It was a gutless chicken [bleep] [bleeping] act. That was a fake-tough act. No one has ever accused Cole Hamels of being old school."
"Cole Hamels says he's old school? He's 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."
Rizzo, of course, was referring to Hamels' defense, which references the old school "code" in baseball which, no matter what you think of it, definitely does exist.
"It's something I grew up watching," Hamels said. "That's what happened. I'm just trying to continue the old baseball. 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. That's the way baseball is. Sometimes the league is protecting certain players. It's that old-school prestigious way of baseball.
"I'm not going to injure a guy. They're probably not going to like me for it but I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't trying to do it. I think they understood the message and they threw it right back. That's the way, and I respect it. They can say whatever they want."
Very Jedi. The key part of that somewhat garbled explanation was this: "I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn't say anything."
What Hamels meant, I think, was that Harper has had it too easy so far. He's just 19 years old (if you hadn't heard) and has been playing like a veteran. Coming into Sunday, he had four doubles and five walks in 29 plate appearances. He's been hitting the ball hard and avoiding swinging at pitches out of the zone. Hamels hitting Harper is the pitcher taking back the inside part of the plate, while also reminding the rookie to mind his elders.
Strangely, what Hamels also did was baseball speak for "We respect you." Just as no one boos nobodies, run-of-the-mill rookies don't get buzzed at the plate for little to no reason.
Ultimately, it was Harper and the Nationals who had the last laugh. Though they lost Sunday's game, they took two of three games in the series and showed no fear of the Phillies, who reside in the NL East cellar. Their lack of fear was even evident during Sunday's loss when Harper, two batters after getting plunked, stole home on Hamels' pickoff attempt to first base. Nats pitcher Jordan Zimmermann also retaliated conventionally by hitting Hamels with a pitch later in the game. Ah, the hazards of sending messages in the National League.
Not that any of it bothered Hamels. He seemed to enjoy ushering in a budding rivalry.
"It could be a really good rivalry," said Hamels, who dazzled in eight innings. "We're so close. Our fans can drive down. Their fans can drive up. Their team is starting to peak into a really good, competitive team."
A worthy — and unafraid — opponent for the five-time reigning NL East champs.