None more anticipated than Clemens-Piazza

Originally Published: April 11, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- It's hard to tell who's more excited over Daisuke Matsuzaka's Fenway Park debut -- millions of baseball fans in Japan or the dozens of neighborhood parking lot proprietors who'll be raking in all that yen.

The last time Boston hyperventilated this much over a ballgame, Pedro Martinez was grabbing Don Zimmer's bald head and flinging him to the ground.

The media crush, euphoric scalpers and electricity in the air are testaments to Matsuzaka's impact on this city. But that's only the beginning: Matsuzaka's first pitch to the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday night will be to Japanese countryman, .331 career hitter and six-time All-Star Ichiro Suzuki. Does it get any better than that?

Which got us thinking: Through the course of baseball history, have any other pitcher-batter confrontations generated light and heat of this magnitude? In the opening installment of "Starting Nine," we bring you nine encounters that were buzz-worthy, whether for previous bad blood, media hype or all-around historical significance:


Roger Clemens vs. Mike Piazza, 2000 World Series


1

The setup: The emotions have been building to a crescendo since Clemens hit Piazza in the head with a fastball in July. Yankees manager Joe Torre is livid over the media's constant rehashing of the incident, and baseball observers wonder what will transpire when Piazza steps in the batter's box against Clemens in the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

The payoff: Clemens saws off Piazza's bat with a fastball, and looks borderline deranged as he flings the bat barrel in Piazza's direction. "What's your problem?" asks Piazza, as he takes several steps toward the mound. Clemens later claims he mistook the bat for the ball, which prompts Mets pitcher Al Leiter to wonder why he didn't just throw it to first baseman Tino Martinez.

Oh yeah -- Clemens throws eight shutout innings, and the Yankees go on to win the Series in five.


Juan Marichal vs. John Roseboro, April 3, 1966


2

The setup: In one of the ugliest episodes in baseball history, Marichal is standing in the batter's box on Aug. 22, 1965, and takes offense when Roseboro's throw back to the mound apparently clips his ear. "It was the first time I ever saw a duster come from behind the plate," said Willie Mays. Marichal responds by clubbing Roseboro over the head with his bat, opening a bloody, two-inch gash and damaging his professional reputation in the process. Commissioner Warren Giles lets Marichal off surprisingly easily with an eight-game suspension and a $1,750 fine.

The payoff: The adversaries meet in spring training in Phoenix eight months later. According to baseball historian Larry Gerlach, they decline an invitation to shake hands and make nice for the cameras. In his first at-bat, Roseboro lines a hit to right field, and Giants outfielder Jesus Alou stumbles and plays it into an inside-the-park home run.


Bobby Thomson vs. Ralph Branca, April 19, 1952


3

The setup: On Oct. 3, 1951, Thomson hit an 0-1 pitch from Branca into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds to give the New York Giants the National League pennant and complete a comeback from 13½ games down in the standings. Teammates mob Thomson as he passes third base. Grown men cry tears of joy and despair, and broadcaster Russ Hodges' cry of "The Giants win the pennant!" is immortalized for eternity.

The payoff: Six months after the Shot Heard 'Round the World, Hodges still has laryngitis, and Branca gains a very small measure of revenge. He beats the Giants 11-6 and coaxes an O-fer out of his nemesis, Thomson, who fails to hit the ball out of the infield in five plate appearances.


Reggie Jackson vs. Bob Welch, 1978 World Series


4

The setup: Welch, a hard-throwing rookie reliever for the Dodgers, gets his baptism under fire in Game 2 when he's asked to hold a 4-3 lead with two on and one out. First, he retires Thurman Munson. Then Jackson steps to the plate with menace in his eyes.

"It was the classic confrontation, the Boy of Summer versus Mr. October," writes Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. "It was Casey-at-the-Bat, Take-Me-Out-to-the-Ballgame stuff."

Score this one for the kid. Jackson swings and misses to end the game, and flings his bat in disgust on the way back to the dugout.

The payoff: Welch and Jackson meet again in Game 6, and Mr. October reasserts himself with a two-run homer in a Series-clinching, 7-2 victory. Jackson hits .391 with two homers and eight RBI in the Series, but teammate Bucky Dent wins the MVP award.


Larry Walker vs. Randy Johnson, 1997 All-Star Game


5

The setup: Walker, on his way to a .366 season for Colorado, has been the target of criticism for ducking Johnson in interleague play, so their All-Star Game encounter is a prime topic of discussion in Cleveland. Johnson even hints that he might "take a bag of tricks" with him to the mound.

The payoff: Johnson, who nearly gave John Kruk a myocardial infarction in the 1993 All-Star Game, begins the at-bat with a turbo fastball high over Walker's head. Walker, displaying a deft sense of comic timing, flips his batting helmet around and moves to the right-hand side of the box. Then he steps back in for real and draws a walk. After the game, the two players make dinner plans, and Johnson urges the media to cut Walker some slack. "Leave the poor kid alone," he says.


Tony Conigliaro vs. Dave McNally, April 8, 1969


6

The setup: Conigliaro, a home run champion at age 20 and a player with the talent, looks and charisma to be a megastar, suffers a devastating injury in August 1967 when he's hit in the face by a pitch from Jack Hamilton. After an arduous 20-month rehab, he returns to play on Opening Day for Boston against Baltimore.

The payoff: According to David Cataneo's book, "Tony C," the fans at Memorial Stadium cheer progressively louder as they realize the magnitude of what's taking place. Conigliaro strikes out against McNally, but hits a 10th-inning homer off Pete Richert to win the game for Boston. He hits 20 homers for the Red Sox in 1969 but has only one more productive season before his star-crossed career ends.


Shawn Estes vs. Roger Clemens, June 15, 2002


7

The setup: Clemens is pitching at Shea Stadium and will have to grab a bat in interleague play, and someone has to get even for all those mean things the Rocket did to Piazza two years earlier. The responsibility falls to Estes, an affable Californian and back-end-of-the-rotation guy. In the days preceding his start, the New York papers speculate on whether he'll plant one on ol' Roger.

The payoff: Estes hits a home run and pitches the Mets to an 8-0 victory, but he fails miserably in the retaliation department. After his 87 mph fastball sails behind Clemens, he's pilloried by ESPN studio analyst Rob Dibble, who assails his manhood and calls him a "clown." Mets manager Bobby Valentine fights back, calling Dibble "unprofessional and uninformed." The aftermath is more entertaining than the actual game.


Hideo Nomo vs. Ichiro Suzuki, May 2, 2001


8

The setup: It's Golden Week in Japan, and vacationing baseball fans are either tuned to their TV sets for the live broadcast or inspired to make the trip to Seattle to see two national treasures in action. It's Nomo pitching for Boston against Ichiro, on his way to capturing the MVP award and the Rookie of the Year for Lou Piniella's Seattle squad.

The payoff: Things begin uneventfully when Ichiro grounds out and flies out in his first two plate appearances. In the fifth inning, Nomo loses control of a cut fastball and drills Ichiro in the back between the numbers. Ichiro drops to his knees and needs several moments to regain his breath before taking first base.

"I didn't think it was any different than any other game," Mariners catcher Tom Lampkin tells ESPN.com writer Jim Caple. "But there are probably 10 million people in Japan who thought differently."


Jose Mesa vs. Omar Vizquel, April 22, 2006


9

The setup: In Vizquel's book, he writes that Mesa's eyes were "vacant" when the Indians called upon him to save the finale of the 1997 World Series. Mesa, a tad sensitive about having his fortitude questioned, has already plunked Vizquel twice and vows to keep drilling him until eternity or their end of their careers -- whichever comes first.

The payoff: Mesa makes it a perfect 3-for-3 when he hits Vizquel and sets off a beanball war between the Rockies and Giants. On a positive note, Vizquel is still alive. And Mesa, suspended four games by Major League Baseball, has finally come to his senses.

"I'm going to play the game from now on," Mesa says. "I'm going to pitch him away, let him hit a ground ball to me, and I'll throw it to first."


Honorable mentions

• Tom Glavine vs. Dale Murphy, June 19, 1991: After Philadelphia's Roger McDowell drills Atlanta's Otis Nixon in the top of the ninth inning, it's time for payback. The responsibility falls to Glavine, whose body language suggests he would rather drill Mother Teresa than his friend and former teammate, Murphy. Glavine throws four batting-practice fastballs well inside, but can't muster the enthusiasm to paint Murphy's back porch red. Umpire Bob Davidson ejects Glavine, regardless.

• Barry Bonds against Greg Maddux, Aug. 13, 2006: Bonds goes hitless in three at-bats against Maddux in the first encounter ever between a 700-home run hitter and 300-game winner.

• Albert Pujols vs. Brad Lidge, Sept. 12, 2006: Nearly a year after taking Lidge deep to prolong the National League Championship Series, Pujols does it again. He doubles home two runs in the ninth inning to give St. Louis a 6-5 victory and puts a dagger in Houston's wild-card hopes.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer