In the days following the Mariners’ memorable brawl with the Angels, Erik Swanson grew irritated each time the replays were shown or the situation was analyzed on MLB Network and ESPN.
In what he and the Mariners believe to be a false narrative perpetuated by Angels interim manager Phil Nevin, All-Star outfielder Mike Trout and other members of the team, Swanson was being looked at as the reason for the “retaliatory” purpose pitches from right-hander Andrew Wantz because of two pitches the night before that were up and in on Trout.
“It didn’t lead to anything,” Swanson said. “Just a very, very frustrating situation all around.”
Inserted as an opener ahead of scheduled starter Jose Suarez, Wantz threw a pitch behind the head of Julio Rodriguez in the first inning and hit Jesse Winker in the hip in the second inning, which incited the brawl.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Swanson was brought in to pitch the bottom of the ninth and close out a 5-3 game at Angel Stadium and get his first save of the season.
“I take pride in my command,” Swanson said. “I throw the ball where I want to very often; unfortunately that night it was a bit sporadic.”
With two outs, Trout stepped to the plate as the tying run. In the previous series in Seattle, he’d hit five homers and tormented the Mariners pitching staff.
Pitching coach Pete Woodworth visited the mound to make sure Swanson knew what they wanted, which was pitch to Trout carefully and don’t miss down in the zone — his sweet spot.
Swanson’s plan — like many pitchers — was to pitch Trout at the top inside corner of the strike zone, to tie up his hands.
“That’s a guy that you have to do that to,” Swanson said. “If you leave anything over the plate, his coverage is so big that he can get to pretty much anything. So you have to pitch him in a certain way, and he knows that, everybody knows that.”
Swanson’s first pitch — a 94-mph fastball — missed that location, riding up and in near Trout’s chin. It caused the perennial MVP candidate to shake his head. Undeterred by the miss, Swanson tried to hit that top inside corner again. The pitch was higher and more inside. Trout made a dramatic retreat and was clearly agitated.
With a 2-0 count and seeing Swanson struggling to execute that pitch, manager Scott Servais signaled to home-plate umpire for the intentional walk.
“Hitting him is the last thing I want to do there,” Swanson said. “I’m trying to get him out there and end the game. That’s the final out and Ohtani, who is the MVP, is on deck as the winning run.”
Per Baseball Savant’s MLB Statcast Data, none of Trout’s 23 homers have come from the upper third of the strike zone. He swings and misses at more than 40% of the pitches thrown in the top part of the strike zone.
It meant that the tying run was now on first base and Shohei Ohtani, the reigning MVP, was coming to the plate as the winning run. Swanson was able to get Ohtani to make a lunging swing on an 0-1 splitter to get him to line out to end the game.
But the “game” had just started for Nevin and the Angels. They waited for the Mariners to finish shaking hands. And when it was finished, Nevin pointed to someone on the Mariners, presumably Swanson and Servais and started yelling curse words and pointing to his head — a hint of retaliation.
“If you can’t pitch inside, don’t pitch inside,” Trout told reporters. “If you’re going to hit me, hit me in the ribs, don’t hit me in the head. I don’t know if that was the intent, but anything at the head, you don’t do that.”
Swanson believes he can pitch inside. He’s hit five batters in 121 1/3 career innings. He pitches to the upper parts of the strike zone with his fastball and counters with a diving splitfinger and a sweeping slider.
“I pride myself on throwing ball where I like to throw it,” he said. “I’ve earned the right to be able to throw in and that’s why I’m having the success I am is because I’m able to set up other pitches. Unfortunately, that pitch missed where it did. I don’t blame him for being (expletive) off about it. Emotions run high and you get a ball thrown near your head, it sucks. Nobody wants that.”
Swanson and the Mariners saw the comments and tried to reach out through Justin Upton and others to let the Angels know the situation. The communication went unanswered. When Upton was hit in the helmet by a Michael Lorenzen fastball in the previous series, the Mariners accepted his comments that the baseballs were exceptionally slippery and he lost his grip on the pitch.
“That’s the frustrating part because if I have a conversation with somebody on their team, just knowing the situation and being able to say, ‘hey, nobody’s trying to hit you there.’ Especially him; you’re not going to go after Mike Trout,” Swanson said. “That’s not what you do. I’m trying to get him out. It’s just him and I, and he’s the third out of the game.”
Swanson doesn’t want to be construed as some headhunting reliever.
“It’s been looked at in the sense where it was intentional, but it was far from intentional,” Swanson said. “The last thing in that situation anybody’s trying to do, especially myself, is go up-and-in that high on him. It got away from me. I’m not going to blame the baseball, not going to say it was slippery. It got away from me, unfortunately.”