Opening up the unwritten rulebook

ST. LOUIS - As if the Nationals don’t see enough young hurlers with upper-90s fastballs in their own division - with Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Craig Kimbrel and others - they had to deal with another one last night.

Michael Wacha is just 22. He’s made just 15 big league appearances. But when you throw 98 mph and can control a changeup that comes in around 88-89, you’ve got a good chance to be successful in the bigs. Add in a sharp curveball, and you can see why they’re excited about Wacha here in St. Louis.

This is becoming the reality now for major league hitters, though. You’re going to have to be able to hit guys that consistently throw 96-98 mph with quality offspeed stuff if you’re going to make it at this level.

“We’ve been joking about it that if somebody’s throwing low 90s, they better be left-handed or submarine, it seems like,” Adam LaRoche said. “Every young guy coming out of the ‘pen we face is throwing 100, and now you’ve got starters doing that same thing.”

When discussing the same topic, Ryan Zimmerman put it simply.

“The game’s changed a little bit,” Zimmerman said with a smile.

There have been a couple moments in games this season where the so-called baseball code has come into play. We discussed it when Julio Teheran hit Bryce Harper after he felt Harper had admired his home run a bit too long in his previous at-bat. We discussed it when Stephen Strasburg was ejected a little more than a week later for throwing behind Andrelton Simmons. And we got another little view into another aspect of the baseball code last night.

Baseball players and coaches have a certain idea about how the game should be played. It should be played professionally, and players shouldn’t try and show each other up. But there are some grey areas in the baseball code that sometimes can get interpreted differently by players who share the same field.

Last night, Denard Span came up with two outs in the sixth inning, with Wacha’s no-hit bid in its middle stages. The Nationals trailed 2-0 at the time, and with Zimmerman on deck, Span decided to try and bunt for a base hit in an attempt to bring the tying run to the plate. He squared around on the first pitch from Wacha and pushed a bunt up the third base line. The ball eventually rolled foul, and Span turned around and slowly made it back towards the batter’s box.

As he did so, boos rained down upon him from the fans at Busch Stadium, upset that Span had tried to break up the no-hit bid with what they might have felt was a wimpy bunt attempt.

But in Span’s mind, he did nothing wrong in that situation, largely because of the score.

“My thought process is: The game is two-zip, it’s the sixth inning, I’m trying to get on base,” Span said. “I’m trying to get on. It happened the other day - I got on first base and Zim hit a home run. I get on base, he hits a home run, one swing of the bat, it’s a tie game.”

I asked Span if, under that same 2-0 score, bunting for a base hit during a no-hitter would still be kosher in his mind even in the later innings. In other words, is there a point where it would have been out of line for Span to drop down a bunt in a 2-0 game, or is it fair game in any inning?

“In my mind, technically, I don’t think I would’ve been wrong even in the ninth inning,” Span said. “Technically, with a 2-0 game. You tip your hat off to (Wacha for pitching) as good as he pitched, but we’re trying to win a ballgame. Two-zip, we get somebody on, whether it’s a walk or a bunt or any way, and somebody comes up and hits a home run, we’re playing extra innings.

“If the game is four-zip, five-zip and he has a no-hitter, then I respect that. But I think you’ve got to try to win the game first, you know what I mean?”

I do, Denard. I do.

There are a few factors here that lead me to agree with Span’s take on the matter and believe that he in no way was in the wrong in that situation. First, there’s the score, and as Span indicated, if he reaches, Zimmerman can tie the game with one swing. Had it been 8-0 at the time, it’d probably be a different story, but you need to do all you can to come away with a win, and in a tight 2-0 ballgame, bunting is by no means off limits in my book.

Secondly, there’s the inning. There are probably dozens of pitchers who have taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning this season. That’s not late enough in the game, in my book, for players to feel like an opponent is taking a cheap shot by trying to spoil a no-hitter with a bunt base hit. There’s still far too much game left at that point.

Third, there’s the fact that Span is a speedster, and bunting is part of his game. (This was an angle pointed out by Scott Hairston after the game.) If, say, Wilson Ramos drops down a bunt when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter, the opposition might have more reason to view that as crossing the line of proper no-hitter protocol. But Span is always looking for a way to use his speed and get on base, and bunting is part of that, even if it means laying one down in the sixth inning of a no-hitter.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t happen to see any quotes from Cardinals players complaining about Span’s actions in the sixth. I’m not suggesting the Cardinals were upset by Span’s decision to lay down a bunt and I don’t think we can take Cardinals fans booing Span as a sign that he violated the baseball code in any way. After all, fans will boo pretty much anything that goes against their team.

I just thought it was an interesting topic, and another look at how complex baseball’s unwritten rules can tend to be.

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