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One second you’re working on a story about Justin Steele’s first outing of the 2022 season, and then the next, you’re looking up to see the baseball version of the Royal Rumble breaking out between the Cubs and the Brewers down the first-base line.
Nothing more than words were exchanged during the eighth-inning scuffle between the two sides on Saturday, but as both benches and bullpens cleared out onto the field, another chapter was written in the rivalry between the National League Central foes.
The issue began during Milwaukee designated hitter Andrew McCutchen’s plate appearance against Keegan Thompson. Following a first-pitch cutter away for strike one, Thompson threw inside on three straight four-seamers.
The second four-seamer nearly hit McCutchen, who managed to skirt out of the way. The third and final one, however, got McCutchen right on the hip, and he immediately turned around to have an exchange with Thompson (who ended up getting ejected).
Two of the Cubs longest-tenured players certainly showcased their leadership on the team once the field started filling up.
Jason Heyward, who was playing deep enough in center field that he was behind the classic Cubs logo mowed into the outfield grass, sprinted to the middle of the scrum as soon as he sensed something might happen. Not to escalate the situation, mind you, but just to make sure he was the one out in front of his own team.
Heyward didn’t get into specifics of what was said on the field, but he said everyone there, from players and coaches of both teams to the umpires getting between them, handled the situation how it needed to be handled.
“That’s what J does. J is a leader of this team, and he’s a guy that is always there to protect his teammates,” Ian Happ said. “He’s been around a long time, he’s seen a lot, and he’s the guy that you want in the middle of that talking to both sides. I think he’s always done a really good job of controlling situations like that and being a leader.”
As McCutchen made his slow walk down the first-base line, Willson Contreras got up from behind the plate and walked with him. Not wanting to escalate anything either, Contreras didn’t get involved in any action, but he said he made sure to stand in McCutchen’s way of the mound to make sure he didn’t charge it.
It was an impressive showing of restraint from Contreras, considering the moment may have stemmed partly from his own experience of hit by pitches when facing the Brewers. After going the first two seasons of his career without getting plunked by Milwaukee, Contreras has been hit 15 times since the start of 2018. He was hit four times apiece in both 2020 and ’21, and now, after getting hit on the elbow in the fourth inning, he’s got an “HBP” in his box score for each of the first two games of 2022.
On Thursday, it was Brewers reliever Jake Cousins who threw too far inside to Contreras, and the Cubs catcher showed his frustration. On Saturday, it was Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff who did the deed, and even though he was less visibly frustrated, the look on his face clearly showed his annoyance with yet another beaning from a Brewers pitcher.
“Would you get frustrated if you got hit?” Justin Steele said. “What was it, 12 or 14 times? Yeah, I would be frustrated.”
To Contreras and Chicago’s credit, they haven’t speculated that anything is being done intentionally. Despite accounting for more than half of the times the Cubs have been hit by the Brewers since the start of 2020, he doesn’t think he’s been getting hit with any malicious intent. Instead, he believes it’s just a Brewers game plan of pitching him inside more often, and it’s when those pitches get away from Milwaukee pitchers that he ends up taking balls to his body.
“Being hit that many times is not fun,” Contreras said. “I know they’re not trying to (hit him on purpose), but like I said before, if you don’t have the command to go in, just don’t go, because you’re gonna get somebody hurt. I’m not trying to get hurt by a hit by pitch.”
“There’s just some guys that it’s in their scouting reports where they’re trying to get them out,” Happ said. “Don’t think it’s on purpose, obviously, but it’s your teammates. If you’re going to come inside, you’ve got to throw strikes. You’ve got to be able to command it, because it gets dangerous, but besides that, I don’t think it’s on purpose.”
Before we start to get into any conspiracy theories, let’s first clear something up: this isn’t a one-sided affair.
As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian noted, over the previous two seasons, the Cubs and the Brewers had been jockeying for the lead of who could hit more of the other team’s batters:
Do the math and you can see that the two sides came into the season tied in HBPs against the other. Milwaukee now holds the lead as of Saturday because Nick Madrigal was hit in the first and Happ got hit on the left knee cap in the seventh — he came out of the game but said postgame that x-rays came back negative — but Ethan Roberts also followed the McCutchen HBP by hitting the Brewers’ Christian Yelich in the ninth.
It’s not an outwardly intentional thing, but there’s certainly blame to go around on both sides. Specifically with Thompson, McCutchen told Brewers reporters that, though he felt it was intentional, if he’d been hit on the first pitch of the plate appearance, he would’ve walked to first base and that would’ve been the end of it. However, if it was indeed on purpose and Thompson still threw that first pitch for a strike, in McCutchen’s mind, that was the wrong way to do it.
Nobody on the Cubs would speculate if the beanings will continue, though Contreras did say he hopes it “dies right there.” Despite being rivals, neither side wants to see players get hurt.
As far as Chicago is concerned, the team is ready to move onto Sunday and play the game with a completely new slate, and whatever happens then, happens.
“Tomorrow, we’ve got a game,” Heyward said. “We’ll see how that goes.”
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