JUPITER, Fla. - The Nationals snapped a seven-game losing streak with a convincing 7-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, a result that will be relegated to footnote status because the two teams spilled out off benches and out of bullpens during a seventh-inning fracas that Washington manager Jim Riggleman believes was rooted in a case of mistaken intent.
At the center of the Cardinals' ire was the fact that Nationals center fielder Nyjer Morgan collided with first baseman Albert Pujols in what appeared to be an innocuous play for the first out of the fifth inning. Morgan, trying to bunt, bounced a ball in front of the plate and took off for first. Catcher Gerald Laird's throw up the line to first arrived just before Morgan did, and Morgan connected with Pujols' gloved hand after the out was recorded. But Pujols stood there, with his glove off, shaking his hand and a trainer had to be summoned to make sure he wasn't injured.
During most Grapefruit League games, that would have been the end of it. But the Nats and Cards - more specifically, Morgan and the Cards - have some history. Last Aug. 28, Morgan ran over St. Louis catcher Bryan Anderson, despite the fact that Anderson had stepped in front of the plate and wasn't trying to block it as he scored. Apparently, old memories die hard.
That led to the predictable preliminaries: each team hit an opposing batter. Laynce Nix was stuck in the right arm by Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter with two down in the fifth; after the game, Carpenter told reporters from St. Louis that he was having trouble with his command and that the plunking was unintentional. Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez followed by drilling Colby Rasmus with one out in the bottom of the inning. But Hernandez didn't hide the fact that he was retaliating, calling it the proper response to Carpenter's actions.
"You hit somebody on purpose and you know I'm going to hit somebody because I'm old school. I hit somebody and it's over right there. ...You got to take care of your teammates," Hernandez said in an admission that could draw him a fine from Major League Baseball. "If something happen to your teammates, you got to go and step up and do something. This is what I do. Take care of my teammates. Always."
It could have ended there - with the umpiring crew issuing warnings to both benches - but it didn't.
"I think it was such a subtle thing at first base with Nyjer, (the umpires) probably didn't sense somebody was going to be throwing at somebody, any intent. It got by them in that respect," Riggleman said.
Ex-Nationals pitcher Miguel Batista came on to pitch the bottom of the seventh - the Cardinals had both Batista and Jason Motte warming, something Riggleman found curious - and after getting Morgan to fly to center, Batista hit Ian Desmond in the back with his first pitch.
Hernandez, watching from behind the left-field fence, was stunned.
"I hit (Rasmus) because (Carpenter) hit somebody. ... I was surprised (Desmond got hit) because you're not supposed to hit (a third) guy," Hernandez said. "That one's a problem. In the old-school baseball, and (Cardinals manager Tony) LaRussa knows, if you hit somebody first, you're supposed to take the next one. That's it, it's over. Then you hit another guy again. It's not fair. That one's not real baseball."
Desmond stood disbelievingly at the plate, palms outstretched as if he were asking his former teammate what was going on. He slowly trotted to first base, jawing all the way, and as he got to the bag, continued to voice his displeasure. That's when players spilled out of the dugouts and relievers ran in from the bullpens, forming a large scrum around first base.
"It's just part of the game. ... It's no big deal," Desmond said later, even getting a zinger in on Batista by saying, "It was intentional, but Miggy throws like Miss Iowa."
(Ironically, when he was with the Nats last summer, Batista came to Desmond's defense June 6 and was ejected by umpire Joe West for throwing at Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips, who had tried to run into Desmond between second and third bases to draw an interference call.)
Home plate umpire Fran Burke had immediately and demonstratively warned both benches after Desmond was plunked, unaware of what was starting to happen up the first base line. The scrum got too big to control and in the middle was Riggleman, pointing an accusatory finger at LaRussa, his longtime friend and former boss. Riggleman appeared to be telling LaRussa that the Cards had gone too far with the extra hit batsman, and once the managers were separated, Riggleman had to be restrained after getting into a shouting match with Cardinals coach Joe Pettini. When order was restored, crew chief Angel Hernandez tossed Batista.
"Tony and I are great friends, but Tony and I have barked at each other a few times through the year during games," Riggleman said after the game. "Tony doesn't consider me a friend during the game and I don't consider him a friend during the game. That all goes out the window. Words were exchanged. It's unfortunate that most of it happens through something that someone perceives that didn't really happen."
At the crux was whether Morgan's run-in with Pujols was intentional. The Nationals claimed it wasn't. Morgan was one of the first Nationals out of the dugout, but at the end of the disturbance, he stood with spring training instructor Trent Jewett, arms draped over each other's shoulders and watching as spectators.
"Basically, I think it all stemmed, like so many of these things in baseball that happen, from a misinterpretation of something that happened," Riggleman said.
Desmond turned to self-deprecating humor to explain the fracas.
"We were really trying to keep the fans around once Pujols came out of the game," Desmond quipped. "Carpenter came out of the game and we were really just trying to add some entertainment for them."
Morgan wasn't allowed by a Nationals public relations representative to talk at length to reporters waiting to speak with Hernandez. "That ain't nothing," Morgan said. "Standard baseball, little melee."
And if Morgan was the reason the Cardinals were upset, Riggleman pointed out, why didn't they retaliate against him when he batted before Desmond in the seventh?
"If that was the case, then hit Nyjer," Riggleman said. "I left Nyjer in the game. They could have hit Nyjer."
Riggleman said he hoped the issue was closed, but at least one National seemed to think bad blood still lingers because the Cardinals are the ones stoking the fires.
"You know what? You guys saw what I did," said first baseman Adam LaRoche. "It's very typical of playing these guys. I leave it at that. I've played against them a lot and, for whatever reason, it's the same situation. Nothing surprises me. It's surprising (the umpires) didn't do something about it before they did."
Desmond said the unpleasantness played out like it should have given the circumstances. "Give a little credit to both managers and both teams. Everything was done pretty much to script," he said.
Now, onto the unforgettable and forgettable performances of the day:
LaRoche: Continuing to display why he has a reputation as a good defensive player, LaRoche dove to his right to take a base hit away from pinch hitter Mark Hamilton in the sixth, turning a sharp grounder into a 3-6 force at second. If Adam Dunn is at first, that's an RBI single, the Nats' lead is shaved to 4-3 and a possible big inning continues. Offensively, LaRoche went 2-for-3 with two RBIs to raise his spring average to .368.
Hernandez: After getting some work in on the minor league side of spring camp, the Nats' opening day starter made his third spring start and allowed two runs on six hits over five innings, walking three and fanning one. Give Hernandez props for not hiding behind the old excuse about the ball slipping. He wins points with his teammates by sticking up for them, something you'd expect of a veteran.
Danny Espinosa: The rookie second baseman drove in two more runs and upped his team-leading total to 14.
Umpiring crew: The men in blue could have prevented some of the problems by recognizing earlier than they did what was happening. Burke, who usually works the Triple-A International League, got carried away with making sure he was overly demonstrative, playing to the fans instead of trying to short-circuit the disturbance. But veteran arbiters like Hernandez, James Hoye and C.B. Bucknor should have known the history between the teams and been prepared for what happened. A warning should have been issued after each team had hit an opponent.
Situational hitting: The Nats grounded into double plays to end the first, second and fourth innings. Nix hit into a 3-6 tag play with a runner on first in the first, Espinosa ended a two-on, one-out rally with a 3-6-3 in the second and Hernandez ended a four-run fourth by hitting into a 1-6-3 with runners on the corners.
What to watch: The Nationals and Cardinals play one more time this spring, Friday at Space Coast Stadium in Viera. With only a few exhibition games left after that meeting, and with veterans getting more and more playing time in the waning days of camp, it will be interesting to see if there is any carryover. Neither team wants to risk suspensions so close to opening day.
Coming up next: Left-hander John Lannan tries to get on track when the Nationals entertain the Houston Astros at 1:05 p.m. Lannan has a 7.36 spring ERA and has not pitched in a major league spring training game since March 12.