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BALTIMORE — Needless to say, the main topic of conversation following the Orioles’ 10-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers was the fourth-inning ejection of starting pitcher Jason Hammel.
The right-hander had just surrendered three consecutive home runs before plunking left fielder Matt Tuiasosopo in the left shoulder on the first pitch of the at-bat. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt immediately tossed Hammel — the first ejection of his career — despite objections from the pitcher, manager Buck Showalter, and catcher Matt Wieters arguing that he had thrown a slider.
Many fans were infuriated by the decision with it commonly accepted that pitchers will use their fastball to drill hitters intentionally, but allowing three straight homers eliminates most benefit of the doubt in that instance. The Orioles’ position was predictable, acknowledging where the umpire was coming from but maintaining Hammel’s innocence as the pitcher expressed there was “zero intent” to drill the Tigers outfielder after the game.
Truthfully, I don’t believe Hammel was throwing at him intentionally and a warning probably would have been as effective considereing it was a breaking pitch, but the starter’s own ineffectiveness eliminated most benefit of the doubt and put Wendelstedt in a difficult position that can escalate quickly and become very emotional if not treated with assertiveness.
“I understand his position; I still don’t understand why he threw me out,” Hammel said. “That was the quickest toss I’ve ever seen. It was almost immediate, so, he didn’t have time to asses the situation.”
Unless you talked to the Tigers fan base, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who is 100-percent convinced that Hammel was intentionally throwing at the batter in frustration. His command was poor throughout the short outing and both he and Showalter mentioned that several sliders had slipped out of the pitcher’s hand on a 90-degree day in Baltimore.
But, ultimately, no one knows for sure whether Hammel was trying to hit Tuiasosopo on purpose other than the pitcher himself, so it’s a tough call to make with almost two-thirds of the game remaining. In most situations like these, umpires are instructed to err on the side of order before an altercation can potentially take place later on.
“It’s tough on umpires trying to judge intent, but they get a lot of pressure from the major league offices,” Showalter said. “But obviously we’re biased, very biased. I understand what the umpire’s trying to do, but it’s very tough for them to judge intent.”
The decision in this case was more about taking a preventative measure than it was about disciplining Hammel. And in the heat of an emotional moment, the umpire threw him out even though Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters after the game his club didn’t feel Hammel hit Tuiasosopo on purpose.
The Orioles were understandably unhappy, but there’s no way of proving the general rule of using the fastball to hit someone intentionally as an absolute. And it’s likely the hometown fans would have been calling for the same outcome if opposing starter Justin Verlander had done the same exact thing.
“I know you’ve seen guys trying to get by with doing that with a breaking ball,” Showalter said, “but most guys that I’ve ever seen do it want to make sure everyone knows. If you’re doing that, you’re going to throw a fastball — not a breaking ball.”
As for the impact of Hammel’s ejection on the game, it didn’t really matter as the right-hander was clearly unable to command his fastball like he had in each of his last two starts — both victories — and T.J. McFarland, Troy Patton, and Tommy Hunter went the rest of the way for the Orioles.
Showalter said after the game he felt the bullpen should be in decent shape for Sunday’s series finale in which rookie Kevin Gausman goes against the Tigers’ powerful lineup. Steve Johnson only threw four pitches on Friday night and should be available in a long-relief role while Hunter was appearing in his first game since Wednesday and threw only 12 pitches in a scoreless ninth.
A day off on Monday should do the trick in providing the necessary rest to get the bullpen back on track, regardless of how Gausman fares.
After the game, Hammel was angriest about the position his ejection put on the bullpen — telling Showalter after the game he could pitch in relief on Sunday if needed — but he put himself in position to be judged harshly.
“You can issue a warning there,” Showalter said. “Obviously, three balls left the park and then a breaking ball hits the guy. You put yourself in their shoes and put yourself in our shoes. That’s what I try to do. I can’t speak for the umpire. I understand the intent of what they were trying to do.”
And maintaining control of the game was more important than giving Hammel a break in that situation.
Even if it might have been the wrong call.