Rosenthal: Did Astros intentionally hit Rangers in pivotal ALCS moment? It’s difficult to believe

ARLINGTON, Texas — People will see what they want to see. I said on the FS1 broadcast that Bryan Abreu obviously was not throwing at Adolis García. Perhaps that was too strong.

The umpires ruled Abreu’s pitch was intentional. Several Rangers players believe the pitch was intentional. But it’s telling that manager Bruce Bochy would not go that far, saying, “Who knows?”

Bochy was well aware that a hit batsman was the last thing the game situation warranted. He was more upset by a delay that lasted almost 12 minutes as the umpires sorted out the fracas in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, leading to the ejections of Abreu, García and Astros manager Dusty Baker.

The delay, Bochy said, affected Rangers closer José Leclerc, who had just gotten the final out of the eighth inning, and ultimately would give up Jose Altuve’s go-ahead three-run shot in the ninth, the decisive blow in the Astros’ wild 5-4 victory.

Before litigating the uproar, let’s imagine an alternate universe where García simply would have jogged to first base after Abreu drilled him in the front shoulder with a 99-mph fastball.

That universe did not exist, for even Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said, “I think every hitter in baseball would have taken it the same way.” García hit a go-ahead, three-run shot in the sixth. Abreu hit him with the very first pitch of his next at-bat. In the heat of the moment, García was going to react, particularly given the past incidents between these teams.

“He could have hurt me,” García said.

But here’s the thing: If García had simply gone to first, the benches and bullpens would not have cleared. The Rangers would have had runners on first and second with none out, a chance to add on to their 4-2 lead. They ultimately did not score in that situation, mind you. But the delay happened because the fracas happened. And Maldonado, the initial target of García’s anger, said the incident fired up his team.

“Yes,” said. “Of course it did.”

Leclerc gave up pinch-hitter Yainer Diaz’s first hit in 11 postseason at-bats leading off the ninth. He then walked pinch-hitter Jon Singleton, who was making his first plate appearance in 19 days. And then, Altuve did what Altuve does, hitting his — gasp — 26th postseason home run.

Afterward, the Rangers were stewing, over their failure to close out a game they controlled, over the Astros taking a three-games-to-two lead in the series, and yes, over Abreu hitting García.

What, though, would have been Abreu’s motivation to throw at García intentionally? Justin Verlander, who allowed Garcia’s homer, said the Astros were not upset the slugger walked up the first-base line, then spiked his bat, saying, “I don’t think anybody is mad about him pimping a homer, it was the biggest homer in his career, quite honestly.” Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe suggested Abreu might have been retaliating for Aroldis Chapman nearly hitting Yordan Alvarez in the top of the eighth, but that, too, seems a stretch.

While players occasionally do dumb things, Abreu would have been completely dumb to put the Astros in position to fall further behind in the pivotal game of the ALCS. Retaliatory pitches occasionally happen in the regular season, though far less regularly than in the past. But in the postseason, when the Astros were three outs away from losing a game that would have severely compromised their chances of defending their World Series title?

Here’s Lowe:

“Wearing this jersey, having Adolis be my teammate, it feels pretty intentional. There’s a history, obviously, between these two teams. I’m sure Alvarez didn’t like the ball high and tight to him either. But in today’s game, we throw fastballs up. If you want to get emotional about something like that and take it out on a guy that hit a three-run homer, that’s too bad. I don’t really stand for it.”

But what about the game situation? Wasn’t it an odd time for Abreu to hit García?

“It’s a beautiful excuse, isn’t it?” Lowe asked. “That’s how I view it. When half your bench is running out in a hurry and guys on the injured list want to run their mouth and starters who aren’t involved want to get involved, it seems like there are more emotions tied in than gameplay.”

Catcher Jonah Heim was more restrained than Lowe, saying, “It looked bad. That’s all I can really say. We don’t know if it’s intentional or not. But it wasn’t the best look.” Another Rangers player, granted anonymity in exchange for his candor, essentially accused Maldonado of masterminding the whole thing.

“One of the best relievers in baseball just suddenly lost command?” the player asked, referring to Abreu. “Maldonado’s smart. They got exactly what they wanted, Adolis riled up. Crazy coincidence, isn’t it?”

Maldonado is certainly smart. He also can be an irritant. And evidently, he is inside the Rangers’ heads.

If Maldonado is playing the kind of three-dimensional chess the Rangers player suggested, some team should hire him immediately as player-manager. And if Lowe says it’s OK for Chapman to throw a fastball high and tight at Alvarez, then the same logic for Abreu throwing one high and tight to García should apply, no?

That’s what Abreu insisted he was trying to do — “My plan was to try to get the ball up and in. I just missed with the pitch,” he said. Maldonado, though, offered a curiously different view. He said the pitch was supposed to be away, and set up accordingly. His differing account will offer further fuel for conspiracy theorists.

After the pitch, Maldonado said García asked him, “Why like that?” To which Maldonado replied, “Why what?” Abreu said García overreacted. “I went in and said, ‘Hey, my bad, it wasn’t on purpose.’ He said, ‘Hey, bull—-.’ I was like, OK, I’m done, you’re hot. I just tried to move back.”

Abreu hit only three batters during the regular season. Is it possible he simply was trying to make García uncomfortable, in the same way Chapman might have been trying to make Alvarez uncomfortable? Sure. And that is what enraged the Astros about Abreu’s ejection. Baker said, “I haven’t been that mad in a long time.”

Dusty Baker said after the game: “I haven’t been that mad in a long time.” (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

García’s homer off Verlander, Baker said, was a mistake, a pitch that was down and in. “We pitch him up and in,” Baker said. “And anytime you’re throwing a projectile 97 miles an hour, some of them are going to get away. I don’t care if you’re big league, Hall of Fame, I don’t care who you are.”

Baker was still fuming in his office a good hour after the game, saying, “You cannot prove intent.” Ryan Pressly, the Astros’ closer who replaced Abreu and escaped first-and-second, none-out jams in both the eighth and ninth, said, “Nobody’s trying to hit anybody in that situation.”

The umpires disagreed, taking the unusually audacious step of ejecting both Abreu and Garcia from a postseason game. Crew chief James Hoye told a pool reporter that all six umpires determined Abreu’s pitch was intentional. Garcia was ejected for being the “aggressor” and trying to go through plate umpire Marvin Hudson to get to Maldonado. Baker was ejected for arguing Abreu’s ejection.

And the delay that so frustrated Bochy? Hoye said the umpires took their time because they did not want to make a mistake. Further discipline is possible for those ejected, according to Michael Hill, the league’s senior vice president of on-field operations. Any suspensions likely would not be served until next season. That’s what happened during the 2017 World Series when the league suspended then-Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for five games after he made a racist gesture at then-Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish.

The incident will be debated for years. People will see what they want to see. But the bottom line is this: The Astros are on the verge of going to their third straight World Series. Seems difficult to believe that in a game they badly needed to win, they were willing, for the sole purpose of vigilante justice, to fall further behind.

(Top photo of Adolis Garcia getting hit by a pitch in the eighth inning: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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