WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - In the absence of formal justice brought down upon the Houston Astros hitters who conspired to steal signs illegally in 2017 and 2018 - the result of Major League Baseball’s decision to grant players immunity in exchange for their testimony - a loose band of opposing pitchers appears ready to dole out their own form of justice to the Astros: the type that involves a fastball to the ribs.
"I don't think it's going to be a comfortable few at-bats for a lot of those boys, and it shouldn't be," Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger said last month.
"I would lean towards yes," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling told reporters Friday when asked if he would hit an Astros batter on purpose if given the chance. "In the right time and the right place . . . Yeah, it would be on my mind."
Such talk bothered new Astros Manager Dusty Baker enough that he made a preemptive plea to MLB to protect his players.
"I'm depending on the league to try to put a stop to the seemingly premeditated retaliation that I'm hearing about," Baker said Saturday. "In most instances in life, you get kind of reprimanded when you have premeditated anything. I'm just hoping that the league puts a stop to this before somebody gets hurt . . . It's not good for the game. It's not good for kids to see it. I think both stop the comments and also stop something before it happens."
As it happens, the first team to play the Astros in 2020 will be the last team that played them in 2019: the Washington Nationals. Less than four months ago, the Nationals outlasted the Astros in seven games to win the World Series. On Feb. 22, they will face each other in the stadium they share each spring, Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
If the Nationals' pitchers feel an obligation to the rest of baseball to send an immediate and unmistakable message to the Astros, they weren't revealing those feelings on Saturday, one week before the Grapefruit League opener.
While Clevinger’s Indians and Stripling’s Dodgers both lost to the Astros in the postseason - the Indians in the 2018 Division Series, the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series - the Nationals, having actually vanquished the Astros, may not have the same motivation to put their disgust on high-and-inside display.
"I might be singing a different tune if they'd beaten us in Game 7," said Nationals reliever Daniel Hudson, who threw the final pitch in their World Series clincher. "There are going to be [pitchers] who feel they have to do that stuff. But for me personally, I don't see any point in doing that. [The Astros] did what they did. They're the ones who are going to have to live with it."
MLB's investigation into the Astros found they used their illegal sign-stealing scheme - in which opposing catchers' signs were stolen using a center field camera and a video monitor, then relayed to Astros hitters by banging on a trash can to indicate the type of pitch - during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but that the scheme was not used in 2019.
The teams the Astros beat while using their sign-stealing scheme "might have a bigger issue with them than we do," said Nationals reliever Tanner Rainey. "They might have a grudge. And if they do, they'll handle it between themselves. I'm not going to say this is going to be forgotten about, but we still have to move on."
Unsurprisingly, Saturday brought another fresh round of vitriol toward the Astros from across the game, a leaguewide attack on one team that is unprecedented in the sport's recent history. Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was the latest to unload on the Astros, calling their actions a "disgrace" and criticizing the team's apology on Thursday as lacking "sincerity" or "genuineness."
"If they didn't get caught," Bryant said, "they'd still be doing it."
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen called the Astros' sign-stealing scheme "worse than gambling, worse than steroids," and called the punishment handed out by MLB - which included a $5 million fine and the loss of four premium draft picks - "the weakest punishment in this history of sports."
The Astros, for the first time, hit back at the criticism, with shortstop Carlos Correa, in separate interviews with MLB Network and Astros beat reporters, blasting Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger for claiming Astros second baseman José Altuve "stole" the 2017 AL MVP award from runner-up Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees. Altuve, according to Correa, was one of a handful of Astros hitters in 2017 who did not participate in the scheme.
"Whatever people have to say [about the sign-stealing scheme] we have to take that on the chin. It was wrong. We have to own that," Correa said. "But when you stand in front of the camera and you try to rip one of my teammates like that . . .. That doesn't sit well with me. We all in that clubhouse know Altuve's integrity is going to be intact. Because he earned that MVP, and no one can take it away. When you stand up there and say lies on my teammates, that's when I have to say something."
Correa also denied accusations made by Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki to The Washington Post that the Astros were "cheating" during the 2019 World Series via a system of whistles that the Nationals could hear during games. The Yankees also accused the Astros of using whistles to signal pitches during the ALCS.
"The commissioner's report clearly says in 2019, nothing happened. It was straight-up baseball players with talent playing the game of baseball," Correa said. "And you have the audacity to tell the reporters, yeah, they were cheating because we heard the whistles? The fans whistle in the game. The fans are whistling all the time in the game. What does a whistle mean? So don't go out there telling reporters that we were cheaters, and don't go above MLB, the investigation, the lawyers, the report, when there was obviously nothing going on.
"And they won the championship. And [Suzuki is] still talking about that? Enjoy your ring. Enjoy your teammates. Enjoy what you guys accomplished. Congratulations to you guys. You guys played better than us. That was it."
Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, somewhat cryptically, said Saturday he expects more information to trickle out "for a long time" about the scheme, and appeared to be referring to an expected MLB investigative report into the 2018 Boston Red Sox when he said, "We obviously know that there's more information coming out about other teams. Where that leads, what happens, I don't know . . . I don't want to insinuate about other organizations."
MLB is in this position - with pitchers openly speculating about drilling Astros hitters this season - in part because of its decision to grant immunity to Astros players during the investigation. Despite the fact the report called the scheme "player-driven," the only player named within it as a participant was Carlos Beltran, a designated hitter for the 2017 Astros who this winter was named manager of the New York Mets.
Beltran was fired by the Mets in the wake of the report, making him the third manager to lose his job from this scandal, joining the Astros' A.J. Hinch and the Boston Red Sox's Alex Cora, the latter of whom was bench coach for the 2017 Astros and was also named in the report as a principal instigator.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has defended the decision to grant players immunity, telling reporters earlier this month at the quarterly owners' meetings, "We made a decision in the Houston investigation that, in order for us to get the facts that we needed, somebody had to get immunity. That is not a novel thought . . .. I saw that as a specific [strategy] in order to help us get to the bottom of went on."
Manfred will have another opportunity to defend the choice when he meets reporters Sunday at a media day event at the Atlanta Braves' new spring training complex in North Port, Florida.
However, the lack of discipline for Astros players remains a sore spot for some players on other teams. Speaking to reporters on the question of justice, Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood said, "Somebody will take it into their own hands [by drilling an Astros batter], and they'll get suspended for more games than any of those guys got for the biggest cheating scandal in 100 years. It'll be pretty ironic when that happens, because I'm sure that's how it will end up playing out."
Asked about opposing pitchers potentially targeting Astros hitters, Verlander said, “I think the commissioner has made it clear in the past few seasons that throwing a baseball at somebody intentionally is not an appropriate form of retaliation in the game . . . The problem is knowing if it’s on purpose or not, but I guess when you come and say, ‘I’m gonna do it on purpose,’ then you know.”