ATLANTA - In the hours leading to the final game Thursday night in a contentious home-and-home series between the Braves and Blue Jays, fallout continued from Wednesday’s wild 8-4 win by Atlanta. It included confirmation of Freddie Freeman’s fractured wrist after being hit by a pitch, a two-game suspension for a Toronto player’s use of a homophobic slur, and more criticism of Jose Bautista for his bat-flip and stares at Braves players not at all amused by the antics.
Toronto center fielder Kevin Pillar was suspended two games by the Blue Jays for shouting a homophobic slur at Braves reliever Jason Motte in the seventh inning, which led to the first of two benches-and-bullpens-clearing incidents (Bautista would cause the second one just an inning later). Major League Baseball is also investigating the incident and could levy further discipline.
Pillar, upset at being “quick-pitched” by Motte — Pillar struck out on the outside pitch to end the inning — shouted the slur at Motte, which was clear to anyone watching the game on television and reading Pillar’s lips, and audible to many fans in the seating sections behind home plate. Both benches and bullpens cleared as players raced onto the field, though no punches or shoving resulted before the scrum was broken up and play continued.
Pillar called Motte after the game to apologize, and on his Twitter account Pillar said he’d used “inappropriate language” and that, “By doing so I had just helped extend the use of a word that has no place in baseball, in sports or anywhere in society today. I am completely and utterly embarrassed and feel horrible to have put the organization in this position.”
Motte didn’t make himself available to reporters following the game or before Thursday’s series finale.
Pillar wrote on his Twitter account that he had “apologized personally to Jason Motte, but also need to apologize to the Braves organization and their fans, and most importantly to the LGBTQ community for the lack of respect I displayed last night.”
Part of the team’s written statement said, “The Toronto Blue Jays are extremely disappointed by the comments made by Kevin Pillar” and that “in no way is this kind of behavior accepted or tolerated, nor is it reflective of the type of inclusive organization we strive to be.”
An inning later, Bautista repeated behavior that he has, on the other hand, become known for. With similar results as previous incidents, though he didn’t get punched like he did a year ago.
With the Braves leading 8-3 in the eighth inning, Bautista riled the Braves when he homered off Braves reliever Eric O’Flaherty and flipped his bat. As Bautista rounded first base in front of Jace Peterson, the Braves’ fill-in first baseman shouted to Bautista to let him know what Peterson thought of the bat flip and staring at O’Flaherty. Bautista briefly looked as though he were about to stop — Peterson said Thursday it would not have been pretty if Bautista had stopped — before the Blue Jays veteran continued his trot around the bases.
“That’s something that’s making the game tough to watch lately,” O’Flaherty said afterward. “It’s just turned into look-at-me stuff, it’s not even about winning anymore. Guy wants to hit a home run in a five-run game, pimp it, throw the bat around — I mean, I don’t know. It’s frustrating as a pitcher. I didn’t see it at the time, but I saw the video — he looked at me, tried to make eye contact. It’s just tired. We’ve seen it from him, though.”
This wasn’t anything quite like Bautista’s over-the-top bat flip against the Rangers in the 2015 playoffs, when he tossed it at least 20 feet in the air in the direction of the Rangers dugout. But given the game situation — Braves led by five runs and bases were empty — the flip and subsequent hard stares from Bautista irked the Braves.
When Bautista crossed home plate and stared at Kurt Suzuki, the Braves catcher stepped up and told him what he thought of the whole incident, too. As they two exchanged words, the benches and bullpens cleared again. Order was again restored without punches thrown or ejections.
After the game, O’Flaherty delivered a withering line about Bautista: “I’m surprised he’s ready to fight again after last year. But he’s throwing some looks around so … it’s what it is.”
He was referencing a famous punch May 15, 2016, when the Rangers’ Rougned Odor hit Bautista with a devastating right hand, after the Texas second baseman took offense to Bautista’s hard slide and then punished him when Bautista dared shove Odor as things escalated.
If Bautista had stopped at first base Wednesday, the stage was set for a potentially similar incident with Peterson, a former college football defensive back and linebacker who wasn’t about to back down if the situation had gone next-level.
“I’m not out looking to start a fight,” Peterson said. “But for me it’s just about situations, I think different situations you can handle the way the game’s going and do things differently. Bautista’s a great player. I don’t think he did it with intent, but he did it. At that moment it kind of triggered me. I felt like we were disrespected a little bit. Now it’s just time to go on and play baseball.”
In the first inning Thursday, Julio Teheran threw inside on the first pitch to Bautista and hit him in the thigh with the second pitch. This time, Bautista didn’t stare at the pitcher. He trotted to first base.
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