Step aside, Yankees-Red Sox and Giants-Dodgers. There is a new most-heated rivalry in baseball. The Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals are no longer just NL Central rivals: They are officially blood enemies.
In closing out the Reds' 9-7 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday -- completing Cincinnati's first three-game sweep over St. Louis since 2007 -- Francisco Cordero hit Albert Pujols with an 0-2 fastball that rode a little far in. Now, the pitch wasn't that far off the plate ... maybe a couple inches. But like so many hitters these days, Pujols crowds the plate, his hands hanging over the black like a couple sides of beef. It was good purpose pitch; and as Cordero said after the game, he wasn't trying to put Pujols on base, not since he represented the tying run ... and Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman were on deck.
But in typical Tony La Russa fashion, the Cardinals starting barking. La Russa wasn't at the game as he was dealing with an eye infection, but his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, acting manager Joe Pettini and players on the bench didn't like their star getting hit and started yelling at Cordero. So after Cordero struck out Berkman to end it, he yelled back and pointed to the St. Louis dugout.
"They took offense to it, we took offense to it, and the soap opera continues between these guys," Pettini said. "It's always something when you come in here."
Pujols acknowledged after the game that Cordero wasn't trying to hit him, but this incident comes on the heels of last August's brawl in Cincinnati, when Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina exchanged pleasantries that led to a bench-clearing brawl in the first inning, a brawl that led St. Louis backup catcher Jason LaRue suffering a severe concussion after getting kicked in the head by Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto.
"I know our guys," La Russa said after that game. "This is not the first time that we've been challenged. You just go up and down our roster -- we've got a bunch of guys that are very tough characters. Like I say, there's times that you beat us, we're not good enough. But you're never going to scare us and we're never going to back down."
That's definitely a typical La Russa response, and a reason his teams are often in the middle of these conflicts. La Russa does seem to believe in a certain code of conduct when it comes to pitching inside -- not that he necessarily follows that code too religiously himself. The Cardinals are second in the NL in hit batters, and while they ranked 13th last season, they're usually in the top half of the league: 13th, 8th, 8th, 3rd, 2nd, 9th, 6th, 7th, 5th and 2nd, going back to 2001.
As for the Reds and Cardinals, the sweep pushed the Reds past St. Louis and into first place. They're 9-2 over their past 11 games as they allowed more than four runs just twice over those 11 games. Scott Rolen returned to the lineup this weekend and went 7-for-15. Drew Stubbs is playing like an All-Star center fielder, hitting .282/.371/.468, with 31 runs and 13 steals in 14 attempts. Their catching duo of Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan continue to be a secret weapon, combining for eight home runs and 27 RBIs. Reds mananger Dusty Baker seems reluctant to pull the plug on Jonny Gomes, who is down to .186 and doesn't play good defense, in place of Chris Heisey, a solid defender with an .847 OPS so far in 57 at-bats.
As for the rivalry, I think it's the best in baseball. Sure, Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez aren't going to dinner together, but the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has cooled down from its 2003-05 peak. The hate seems to come from the fans than it does the players. The Dodgers and Giants haven't been in a pennant race against each other since 2004. Those two just don't have the animosity and dislike that fuels every Reds-Cardinals game these days.
The Reds and Cardinals next meet July 4 in St. Louis. Think there may be some fireworks?
SERIES OF THE WEEK
Cubs at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday
The series everyone wanted to see in 2003 will finally happen as the Cubs visit Fenway Park for the first time since the 1918 World Series. The Red Sox won in six games despite hitting .186, as Babe Ruth won two games.
By one measure, Matt Garza has been the third-best pitcher in baseball this season. FanGraphs rates him third in WAR (behind Roy Halladay and Dan Haren), thanks to his 1.61 FIP, which factors in his walk rate (2.9 per nine innings), strikeout rate (11.8 per nine, best in the majors among starting pitchers) and home run rate (one in 49 2/3 innings). What Garza hasn't been doing is eliminating base hits: his .382 average on balls in play is worst in the majors. Has he been unlucky or the victim of bad defense? The Cubs do rank 29th in Defensive Efficiency and 21st in UZR, so he's not getting backed by Gold Glove-caliber defense.
After last Thursday's start, John Lackey uttered the infamous "Everything in my life sucks right now" quote in reference to his bad start and his wife's battle with breast cancer. A disappointment a year ago, Lackey's strikeout/walk ratio has deteriorated to 19/18. His ground ball percentage is a career-low 34 percent (compared to 46 percent over his career). So he's giving fewer ground balls, walking more and striking out fewer. The Red Sox will soon need to consider other rotation options.
PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Beckett has allowed 10 runs in eight starts (none in his past three, although one of those was rain-shortened) and opponents are hitting .175 off him. Verlander has not struck out 10 batters in a game this season, but his opponents are batting just .175 off him. Also pay attention to this: Roy Oswalt returns from the DL to face red-hot Jaime Garcia, who is 5-0 with a 1.89 ERA for the Cardinals.
1. One of the biggest disappointments this season has been Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman. He's been so bad that Baker brought him in for mop-up duty with a 9-2 lead in the ninth on Sunday. Chapman walked four of the five hitters he faced, giving him 20 walks in 13 innings. He may throw hard, but right now the Reds need to send him down to Triple-A to see if he can find the strike zone.
2. On a similar note, when do the Marlins pull the plug on Javier Vazquez? He's had a nice career (154 wins), but after another bad start Sunday he's 2-4 with a 7.55 ERA and looks near the end of the road. He has 24 walks and 20 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings. He's allowed 17 first-inning runs, most in the majors. The Marlins have a good team -- Logan Morrison returned this weekend and showed no ill effects from his DL stint -- but they need more production from the back of their rotation (Vazquez and Chris Volstad). How they replace Vazquez could go a long way towards them staying in the NL East race.
3. Jose Bautista is crazy awesome right now. After hitting three home runs Sunday, he's hitting an insane .368/.520/.868. "It's ridiculous, it feels like a dream right now," Bautista said after his three-homer barrage, which gives him 16 in just 32 games he's played. "Sometimes I can't really believe it myself, but I keep seeing the good pitches." His OPS+ entering Sunday's game was 266 ... which is Barry Bonds territory. Bonds holds the three best OPS+ seasons of all time, led by a 268 mark in 2002. Bautista is the best player in baseball right now.
RANT OF THE WEEK
My editor Nick Pietruszkiewicz makes a guest appearance: "I swear I watched the entire fourth quarter of the Heat-Bulls game in the time it took the Red Sox and Yankees to play a half-inning." And that's saying something since the usual NBA playoff game consists of eight timeouts in the final two minutes. (Of course, that game wasn't close, so I'm guessing the timeouts were avoided.) But that's always the problem with Yankees-Red Sox: Their. Games. Take. Way. Too. Long. Their six games this season have gone 3:07, 3:26, 2:58, 3:35, 3:26 and 3:41. And that's worth ranting about.
PHOTO OF THE DAY