Gabe Kapler’s point was that words matter and the irony was that he seemed to be missing the point.
The manager wanted to make a strong statement Monday about something that happened Sunday afternoon in Miami.
He had said after the Phillies’ 3-2 loss to the Marlins that it was “unacceptable” when Cesar Hernandez failed to get to second base on a ball that hit off the right-field wall in the top of the sixth inning.
Kapler, however, had not pulled Hernandez from the game, which was the chosen option of Atlanta manager Brian Snitker one week earlier when Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves’ young superstar, turned a double into a single by failing to run hard out of the batter’s box on a ball that hit off the wall in right-center field at Sun Trust Park.
Like Kapler, Snitker had limited bench options. Unlike Kapler, Snitker reacted rapidly, pulling Acuna from the game after giving his replacement (Adam Duvall) an inning to get loose.
The message was sent loud and clear first by Snitker’s action and later by his words.
“He didn’t run,” Snitker said after the game. “You’ve got to run. It’s not going to be acceptable here. As a teammate, you’re responsible for 24 other guys and that name on the front is a lot more important than that name on the back of that jersey. You can’t do that. We’re trying to accomplish something special here. Personal things have to be put on the back-burner.”
There was nothing ambiguous about any of that.
Fast-forward a week and a day to Monday at Citizens Bank Park and Kapler’s attempt to send a strong message to not only Hernandez, but his entire team. That part is important because Hernandez was not the first offender of the failure-to-run fiascoes that have dogged Kapler in his second season.
You need two hands to name all the players who have been guilty of not running when they should have at least once this season, but the epidemic started when Jean Segura failed to run out a pop-up in San Diego in early June that not only became a double play but also resulted in a season-ending injury to outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Had Kapler benched Segura that night maybe some of the other instances would not have followed. Since then, however, Kapler has sent mixed messages about failure-to-hustle plays.
Maybe that’s why we remained in the land of confusion Monday night even after Kapler thought he made it perfectly clear why Hernandez was not in the starting lineup for the series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The manager thought he had driven the point home by having a brief team meeting before the game.
“It’s in response to [Sunday],” Kapler said. “So I was taking a look at the calendar and recognized how important every game is for the rest of the season and the little things really matter right now. And I felt that it was appropriate to show that’s really meaningful to all of us as a group in the clubhouse. Cesar could end up playing in today’s game and could play a meaningful role. But I felt the timing was right to let our club know how important every inch is right now.”
Hernandez did enter the game in the seventh inning as a defensive replacement for Scott Kingery, who left with abdominal soreness. He went 0-for-3.
Kapler explained when and why he decided to bench Hernandez and he said his second baseman “understood and I’ll leave it at that.”
There was only one problem: Hernandez did not seem to entirely get the message.
“I talked to [Kapler],” Hernandez said through team interpreter Diego Ettedgui. “He said he was just giving me a day off, but I had to be ready for the game and any situation.”
So, Hernandez was asked, this did not have anything to do with Sunday?
“No, nothing to do with [Sunday],” the second baseman said.
That led to a rare and unusual post-pregame news conference with the manager.
“It’s probably a misunderstanding that I’ll need to clarify with Cesar,” Kapler said. “I think I can clarify by saying [Hernandez’s benching] is in response to what happened [Sunday], but language is really important here. It’s not a punishment. It’s a response. This is absolutely in response to the incident where he did not get to second base on a ball that was clearly a double.”
Before Monday’s game started, Kapler met with Hernandez and made it clear to him why he was not in the starting lineup.
“He’s very accountable and he fully understands,” Kapler said.
That’s nice, but it should not be that difficult for the manager to get his message across. Kapler is right about the words. They do matter, and sometimes when you’re the manager those words need to be strong and firm. If feelings get hurt, so be it. It does not matter if Hernandez thinks he is being punished for his actions.
Adults are punished all the time for things they do wrong. A speeding ticket is a punishment. Is it also a response for going too fast? Of course. Does calling it a “response” make the ticket any less punitive? Of course not. And referring to Hernandez’s benching Monday as a “response” to what happened Sunday does not make it any less punitive either.