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A’s and Angels briefly clear benches Friday, but cooler heads prevail

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Ohtani and Canha worked out their issue like adults

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics
“I’m done” - Mark Canha
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels nearly had a benches-clearing brawl Friday night, but then a really cool thing happened. Instead they just didn’t, and worked out their issues like adults.

The kerfuffle began in the 3rd inning, when Shohei Ohtani threw a 93 mph fastball high-and-tight that forced Mark Canha to duck his head out of the way. It was clearly an accident — Ohtani is an excellent pitcher but he’s wild at times, and he was trying to go inside to a tough hitter in a scoreless game.

But in the moment, when you get buzzed by a heater near your face, you react. After jumping out of the way, Canha glared at Ohtani and barked something, which in turn drew a reaction from catcher Kurt Suzuki. Canha and Suzuki jawed at each other for a moment, but Canha quickly calmed down, raised his hand toward Suzuki, and said “I’m done” several times. Suzuki kept going a little longer but the umpires separated them.

The benches did clear, but by the time everyone got to the diamond there was nothing much left to brawl about. Canha and Suzuki had chilled out, and the whole time Ohtani had been on the mound using every piece of body language possible to effectively say, “My bad.” Both teams returned to their dugouts and play resumed.

There was no problem here. It was just some heat of the moment, and cooler heads prevailed before the heat needlessly escalated into a fire. Ohtani made a bad pitch and appeared to apologize in several different ways, Canha briefly reacted and then gathered himself, and Suzuki defended his pitcher as fiercely as he thought necessary. Everything was fine, nobody had even been hit by an actual pitch, and the A’s didn’t retaliate.

***

In the 6th inning, it happened again, and the result was a refreshing sight in MLB.

With a runner on first and nobody out, and the game still scoreless, Canha came up and Ohtani once again went up-and-in with a 93mph fastball, on the same 1-0 count. This time it missed its spot even worse, and pegged Canha square in the back. Ohtani immediately dropped to a knee in clear frustration with himself.

Screenshot from NBCS broadcast

You can never truly know another human being’s motivations, but if you want to see a portrait of what it probably looks like when a pitcher didn’t mean to hit the batter, that’s it above.

At this moment, the situation could have gone a couple different directions. After already being brushed back once, and now being hit his next time up, Canha would have been well within his unwritten baseball rights to charge the mound. Maybe a punch would get thrown, both teams would spill out and bump chests for a while, a few players or coaches would get ejected and later suspended, and the rest of the evening’s awesome game would have been worse. When keeping it real goes wrong.

Instead, Canha laid down his bat and trotted to first base. He knew it wasn’t intentional, and there was no reason to pretend it was. And let’s be honest, while this particular pitch would have hit anybody, part of the reason Canha leads 2021 MLB as well as all of Oakland A’s history in HBPs is because he crowds the plate and doesn’t make much effort to get out of the way, so, as commentator Dallas Braden put it in the 3rd inning, he’s “not afraid to wear one.”

Once again, Oakland didn’t retaliate, because the punishment for a genuine mistake happened organically. The HBP of Canha pushed the lead runner Elvis Andrus to second base, and then Andrus got bunted over to third, and then he scored on a sac fly for the first run of the game. The A’s went on to win 3-1.

Nobody in the Angels lineup took a pitch to the ribs to settle the score. Their pitcher took an earned run to his ERA to untie the scoreboard. That’s justice.

Before the 2019 Wild Card Game, I asked Canha about the topic of leadership. He talked about how baseball is a team sport but also has clear individual aspects, like a pitcher and batter facing off one-on-one, and that he hoped to rub off on his teammates by working to make himself the best he can be.

In other words, lead by example, and that’s what he did in the 6th inning. His reaction to the HBP was going to dictate how the rest of his teammates reacted, and his mature judgment helped avoid pointless conflict. Equal credit to Ohtani, who stayed professional throughout both incidents and fully acknowledged his whoopsies, which is not something we always see from pitchers.

***

There was one final test. Ohtani is unique among American League pitchers because he bats as the DH on days when he’s not on the mound, and the two clubs played again Saturday. He was the second batter of the game, and now A’s pitchers would get their chance to send him a message if they wanted.

Nope. In his first at-bat, he saw six pitches, all either in the strike zone or slightly below it, and he flew out to the warning track. Next time up, he struck out on four pitches, all of them over the plate. Third time up, he got a pitch in the dirt and then drilled the next one for a two-run single. Just a normal day for one of the best hitters in the world.

***

This was a non-story, which is exactly why I love it. Well played, A’s and Angels.