Canada still has a chance to advance to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. Mexico now looks likely to be relegated to the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier. But as the crowd streamed out of Chase Field on Saturday night, no one was talking about WBC ramifications.
Canada’s 10-3 win over Mexico will be remembered for the fight.
In the ninth inning of Canada’s easy win over Mexico, the World Baseball Classic’s run differential rule may have died a little lamented death. Because the tiebreakers lead to an incentive to run up the score, there are times when it leads players to do things that would normally appear to be outside of the understanding of “how the game is played.”
No sport has more unwritten rules than baseball. If this was a normal Saturday game at Chase Field, what Chris Robinson did would have been universally decried as being bush league.
Already leading by six runs heading into the top of the ninth, the Canadian catcher dropped down a bunt that surprised everyone in the Mexico infield. It could be viewed as running up the score on a team that was already just waiting for the final outs to be recorded.
But this is the World Baseball Classic, where run differential can be the difference between advancing and going home. Robinson knew that. So did everyone on Team Mexico, at least in the abstract. That didn’t mean they were real happy to see this done to them. And as third baseman Luis Cruz stewed after being showed up by a catcher dropping down a bunt in front of him, he wasn’t working out in his head what another run allowed would do to Mexico’s Total Baseball Quotient.
As he scooped up the ball after the bunt, Cruz turned to pitcher Arnold Leon and pointed to his ribs.
Cruz didn’t exactly try to hide what he was doing. Over at first base, Canada first base coach Larry Walker saw it clearly.
“Their third baseman was sitting there taking the ball and telling him to hit him,” Walker said. “I told Robinson. I said it so (Mexico first baseman) Adrian (Gonzalez) heard me. We all saw it clear as day.”
Leon, one of the younger players on Team Mexico, obeyed his teammate. Well, at least he tried to.
He buzzed Tosoni with the first pitch but failed to hit him. The next pitch was in the same spot, once again missing Tosoni. This time Tosoni reacted by yelling at Leon. Home plate umpire Brian Gorman then warned both teams about any further close calls.
Hello unwritten rule # 2. If Leon had plunked Tosoni in the ribs with the first pitch, there probably would have been a little yelling and nothing more. Canada did not take kindly to seeing a pitcher take multiple shots at one of their guys.
Finally on the third pitch, Leon plunked Tosoni. And then all hell broke loose.
“He had one shot to hit our player,” Canada manager Ernie Whit said. “He missed him twice. So yeah, I mean, something’s got to be done about it.”
“In his tournament every run counts. But in our position you get mad,” Mexico lefthander Oliver Perez said.
A team of former hockey players like Canada isn’t likely to let such slights go unpunished.
“It’s hockey night in Canada and Don Cherry can’t wait to get on the air,” Walker said.
Both teams poured out onto the field. Usually in these kind of baseball fights, a little pushing and shoving leads to nothing. But as players for both sides explained after the game, when you’re wearing your country’s jersey, there’s a little more pride on the line.
Cruz appeared to throw the first punch in the midfield scrum. Several satellite fights quickly developed on the periphery with Alfredo Aceves and Tyson Gillies tumbling to the ground in one brawl. Canada's Jay Johnson landed at least one big blow while lying on top of Mexico's Eduardo Arredondo.
“I grabbed Adrian (Gonzalez). I said ‘listen stay away. You’re too important to jump in and do something stupid,” Walker said. “Then I grabbed (Alfredo) Aceves. I got a hold of him and I think I saw Satan in his eyes. I’m glad he didn’t throw punches at me because I would have been in trouble.”
Eventually the players’ fight settled down. As Canada’s players headed back to the dugout, starting pitcher Chris Leroux gestured to some of the fans behind the Canada dugout. One of them them threw a bottle which hit Canada coach Dennis Boucher in the head. Shortstop Cale Iorg threw the bottle back into the stands. Once play resumed, a fan threw a foul ball back onto the field, winging by Walker, standing in the first base coaching box, close enough that he said he felt it fly by.
“I was glad I was wearing a helmet,” Walker said. “I’ve played winter ball in Hermosillo. I’ve seen a lot worse. Playing over there there were fights every night in the stands and things being thrown, usually bottles.”
Walker turned around and popped his jersey back at the fans.
“I was fired up and I just stand in the box and say there are two outs,” Walker said.
It’s worth noting that even though it took Leon three pitches to hit Tosoni, Mexico manager Rick Renteria did not take a trip to the mound to cool him down. Four Mexico players–Leon, Oliver Perez, Aceves and Arredondo–and three Canadian players–Pete Orr, Tosoni and Johnson–were ejected.
In the aftermath as tempers cooled, there still seemed to be plenty of anger directed at the format that makes running up the score a part of the game.
“In this tournament you play baseball like it’s 0-0. That’s the unfortunate thing,” Whitt said. “What happened tonight is because of the rulings that they have. Regular baseball, during the season, you never see that happening … I mean it’s unfortunate what happened, but it happened. They need to take a look at that.
“There’s got to be another method other than scoring runs, running up the score on the opposing team. No one likes that. That’s not the way baseball is supposed to be played. There’s a professionalism that we’re accustomed to here in North America. And unfortunately teams are knocked out of the tournament because other teams run up the score on them.”
Mexico’s manager Rick Renteria saw it the same way. He said that in the moment, the players were thinking less about the rules of the tournament than the slight.
“I think just in the heat of the moment you lose sight of (the run differential rule) and maybe that’s how it occurred,” Renteria said.
It is worth noting that Renteria did not come out to the mound to settle things down after the first two pitches missed Tosoni. The anger was allowed to boil over.
No one playing in this first round seems particularly enamored with the run differential tiebreaker. But MLB has few good options to revise it. A double elimination tournament would be more equitable, but it would also lead to more games and more uncertainty about how to use pitchers, which would make it even tougher to get MLB teams comfortable with letting their pitchers head to the World Baseball Classic.
Some have suggested using runs allowed instead of run differential as the tiebreaker because the attempt to keep runs off the board would not create the same perverse incentives.
An MLB spokesman said that members of the Technical Committee “will review the fight and determine if any action is required.”
MLB would not offer further details about whether there could be suspensions, but any suspensions would lead to some interesting dilemmas. WIth no chance to fill roster spots for suspended players from a ready pool of reserves, Canada would likely be forced to play shorthanded for the game or games where players are suspended. And since Mexico’s tournament is over, the suspensions would only affect one of the two teams in the fight.
Before the fight, Canada put together what had easily been its best effort of the tournament. Canada strung together five straight hits in the first inning to take a 4-0 lead. They then held on for much of the game before feasting on the Mexico bullpen for a run in the sixth, two in the seventh, two more in the eighth and the one run–thanks to Robinson's bunt–in the ninth.