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BEIJING 2008 : BASEBALL

It's almost a brawl game

August 19, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

Beijing Our relations with China were nearly broken at the plate.

A near-brawl with our Olympic hosts in a baseball game won, 9-1, by the U.S. team Monday night resulted in an unexpected outbreak of tension for the international pastime.

Three members of China's team were ejected from the game.

A pair of jarring plays at home plate led to an injury to a Chinese catcher and a confrontation with another.

An American player was then hit in the head with a pitch. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.

"That was the last straw," said U.S. center fielder Nate Schierholtz, another of the principals.

Jim Lefebvre managed China's team (as he once did major league baseball's Cubs, Brewers and Mariners) and was kicked out of the game by the plate umpire, as were China coach Steve Ontiveros and a pitcher.

Davey Johnson managed the U.S. team (as he once did the Dodgers, Mets, Orioles and Reds) and was unhappy at five of his players being hit by pitches, particularly the last one.

Emotions ran high right up to the very last pitch.

In the ninth inning, with the Chinese team down, 9-0, catcher Yang Yang hit a home run. He circled the bases with his right arm raised and a finger pointed to the sky.

U.S. relief pitcher Blaine Neal brought the evening to an end by fielding a grounder and tagging out the batter personally, then flipping the ball into China's dugout.

Schierholtz said he and his teammates would have rushed the mound if they were certain China's pitcher had hit U.S. right fielder Matt LaPorta in the head on purpose.

"We would have charged for sure," Schierholtz said. "You hit five guys and you hit our leaders, you're going to pay for it."

Lefebvre denied that the U.S. batter was hit deliberately. The 66-year-old former Dodger pointed the blame toward Schierholtz, who bowled over replacement catcher Yang while scoring on a sacrifice fly, one inning after LaPorta's similar play led to China's starting catcher being hurt and the manager's ejection for arguing.

"We not only lost the game but our catcher," Lefebvre said. "If you come in and have a collision at home, you never hit someone in the chest. It was an illegal slide and the umpire should have ejected [LaPorta]. That's where the game got out of control."

Schierholtz's knockdown of Yang escalated tensions. The catcher walked toward him after the play and umpires came between them.

"He blocked the plate. I did what I had to do," Schierholtz said. "It was a close game at that point. I wasn't trying to take him out. That was the nature of the play. If the guy hadn't blocked home, it would have been fine. If they can't accept that, that's not my problem."

LaPorta was struck on the helmet with the first pitch of the next inning.

He told manager Johnson he was OK, but was sent to a hospital for a precautionary CAT scan. He was diagnosed with a mild concussion.

Johnson demanded the pitcher and Lefebvre's replacement be ejected.

"The reason I went out was because the home plate umpire didn't immediately throw the pitcher out and the acting manager out," said Johnson, 65. "We were under warning. Once anybody gets hit, even if it's accidental, you're gone."

Ontiveros, 47, a former pitcher who had a 10-year career with the A's, Phillies, Mariners and Red Sox, came out to argue. But he and his Chinese pitcher both joined Lefebvre in being ejected.

A couple of old-school former second basemen, Johnson and Lefebvre had been looking forward to a nice, friendly game.

"I talked to him a long time before the game," Johnson said, "but not after. Maybe he doesn't want to talk to me now."

The incidents overshadowed the U.S. clinching a spot in the Olympic semifinals and the three-hit pitching of Jake Arrieta and three relievers.

It was a 1-0 contest until the fifth inning. LaPorta, scoring from first on a Taylor Teagarden double, ran over China catcher Wang Wei rather than attempting to slide around him.

Wang was hurt and left the game. Lefebvre came out to argue with plate ump Edwin van den Berk of the Netherlands, who threw him out.

Schierholtz was hit by a pitch while leading off the next inning. He was the fourth U.S. batter to be hit.

On third base when Terry Tiffee hit a fly to shallow left, Schierholtz tagged up. He smashed into new catcher Yang and was safe. Tempers flared. Ontiveros got into an animated discussion with Johnson about the play.

Johnson said, "I don't think Ontiveros understood. He said the guy wasn't blocking the plate. In my view, [the catcher] was standing right on top of it. I think if you look at a replay, you'll see that."

The next inning began with LaPorta being struck in the helmet by China pitcher Chen Kun.

"I think it's pretty brutal to throw at a guy's head. . . . It's just a game," Schierholtz said.

Lefebvre was angry afterward and left abruptly, but not before saying: "We do not throw at or hit people. We do not teach that in China or in the U.S. . . . The ball got just away from him."

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