BOSTON In the unwritten code of baseball etiquette, Derek Lowe felt he was obligated to hit Baltimore Orioles outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. with a pitch in the fourth inning of yesterday's game at Fenway Park.
And Matthews, while upset that he was plunked in the backside leading off the fourth inning of the Orioles' 12-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox, understood Lowe's motivation. The Red Sox right-hander (and probable AL Cy Young Award winner) was protecting teammate Manny Ramirez, who was hit by Baltimore's Scott Erickson the inning before.
What Matthews didn't understand was Lowe's subsequent verbal abuse when he tried to steal second base shortly afterward. And that little misunderstanding set off a bench-clearing brawl, the likes of which the Orioles have not been a part of in four years.
"He has a job to do, he has to protect his players. That's fine," Matthews said. "We hit them, they hit us. But if a guy gets on after that and tries to steal second and then you're going to walk towards me and pop off? That's not something that I'm going to tolerate."
Matthews was one of three people ejected from the game, joining Orioles reliever Willis Roberts and Red Sox coach Tony Cloninger. Given the nature of the brawl, which broke off into several separate scrums and took more than 10 minutes to sort out, it was surprising that there were not more ejections.
The Orioles' first major on-field incident since the famed 1998 Armando Benitez-Tino Martinez-Alan Mills-Darryl Strawberry melee started at the pitcher's mound and spilled into shallow left field. Cloninger, Boston's 61-year-old, 260-pound pitching coach, was tossed after putting both Baltimore catcher Brook Fordyce and bench coach Sam Perlozzo into headlocks. More than 150 feet away, Roberts got into it with a host of Red Sox players, throwing a punch at Carlos Baerga and appearing to push one of two umpires restraining him.
And when order was finally restored and the sellout crowd of 33,371 calmed down, the man who appeared to start it all remained in the game, on his way to his 14th win of the season.
"Lowe was an instigator more than anybody out there," said Orioles first base coach Rick Dempsey, who saw the whole thing develop. "And he got away scot-free."
The Red Sox have been upset in recent weeks at how much opposing teams have hit Ramirez, their All-Star outfielder (though his season total is only six). They were particularly irked when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays plunked him twice July18 without any resulting suspensions.
So when Erickson (4-10), in the midst of one of his worst pitching performances of the year, hit Ramirez on the back of his left shoulder during a five-run third inning, Lowe took notice (though he said he was in the clubhouse at the time and didn't actually see the play). When Matthews came to the plate to lead off the next inning with the Red Sox ahead 7-0, Lowe (14-5) immediately retaliated by hitting him in the backside.
"There's no reason for us to throw at Manny," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said, "no reason at all."
Upon being hit, Matthews starting jawing at Lowe, ultimately being restrained by Dempsey and home plate umpire Randy Marsh. Tony Batista came to the plate, and on Lowe's second pitch, Matthews broke for second. When Batista fouled the pitch off, Matthews retreated to first and was surprised to hear Lowe yelling back at him.
"He stepped toward me and said something," Matthews said. "I stepped toward him and asked him what he said."
"Actually, I initiated the whole thing," Lowe admitted. "I maybe said something that I probably shouldn't have said, but it was just a crazy situation."
By that time, both dugouts and bullpens had spilled onto the field and the incident had begun. Cloninger tussled with Fordyce and caused the Baltimore catcher's lip to bleed. Near the mound, Melvin Mora and Boston catcher Jason Varitek had words, prompting several more players to join in, including Roberts.
The flamboyant relief pitcher has irked many opposing players with his antics on the mound, and Baerga in particular took offense to Roberts' interference in the fight.
"He was throwing punches like crazy," Baerga said. "I grabbed him and said, 'If you're going to throw punches like that, you're going to get hurt.'"
Roberts had two baseballs in his back pockets and at one point took one out. Egging Baerga and others on, Roberts was eventually restrained by two umpires, who tried to take the ball away from him. Roberts resisted, pushing one umpire away and prompting his ejection (and possibly a subsequent suspension or fine).
"Some players hate me. I don't know why," he said. "I don't do nothing.
"I saw two players take Mora. I went to help him, and then somebody pushed me [from] behind. I don't know why he did it. Maybe he doesn't like me. I don't like him."
The rest of game was completed without incident, with the Red Sox coasting to a blowout victory and the Orioles (48-53) trudging off to Tampa Bay to open a four-game series with the Devil Rays.
Baltimore will get their first look at rookie John Stephens in tomorrow's game. The Australian right-hander, who is 11-5 with a 3.03 ERA at Class AAA Rochester, is expected to be called up to start against Tampa Bay, with originally scheduled starter Jason Johnson likely headed for the disabled list.
Johnson (3-8) already knew his turn in the rotation would be skipped because of tendinitis in his right shoulder, but he had hoped he would miss only one start. If he goes on the DL, he will be forced to miss at least two outings.
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