Benches clear after Oviedo’s inside pitches to Acuña

Benches clear after Oviedo’s inside pitches to Acuña

5:04 AM UTC

ATLANTA — By the time Johan Oviedo stood at his locker to chat with reporters, roughly four hours had passed since his kerfuffle with Ronald Acuña Jr., a sequence in which verbal barbs led to cleared benches. At 11:30 p.m. ET, Oviedo was jovial, light. At 7:30 p.m., Oviedo was fiery, tense. Oviedo had opinions on what unfolded, and on Saturday night — following the Pirates’ 8-4 win over the Braves — he didn’t mind letting them be known.

“You never wait for a fight, but you have a man right in front of you, ‘Why are you looking at me?’” Oviedo said. “If you do that, you’re trying to get something out of it. I’m not going to be provoked by what you’re doing, because I’m trying to be locked in on my game. I’m trying to be smart about it.

“If you’re going to make that scene, make it for a reason. Don’t just make a whole lot of noise, make everyone run to the field and the benches clear. It shouldn’t happen. If you’re going to stay chill about it, don’t go over. Get mad and try to hit a homer off me or try to hit a single like he did.”

The drama began brewing from the jump. Oviedo, who allowed three runs in 3 2/3 innings, began the plate appearance with a pair of fastballs that ran inside. After bringing the count to 2-1, Oviedo fired another inside four-seamer that brushed Acuña back.

Acuña took exception to the inside heat and hit Oviedo with a side eye. Oviedo threw one back. They exchanged words — words that grew in volume and volatility. Oviedo walked toward Acuña, and Acuña walked toward him. The benches vacated. The two were quickly separated, Oviedo pushed behind the mound, Acuña pulled near the third-base dugout.

“You never want to provoke a fire,” Oviedo said. “You try to throw to the weakest [zone] that the hitter has — especially him. He’s a really good hitter. He’s a really good ballplayer. I’m not going to give him anything easy. … We’re not playing chess. It’s how baseball works.”

“I understand pitchers want to pitch me inside,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “The adrenaline can spike, but it’s all part of the game. Fortunately, we were able to maintain our cool.”

Tensions quelled, Oviedo returned to the mound and Acuña returned to the plate. With the count at 3-1, Oviedo bounced a fastball that was nowhere near the plate — or Acuña, for that matter. On the very next pitch, Acuña attempted to steal second base, but Pirates catcher Endy Rodríguez delivered a perfect throw to record the inning’s first out.

“Once that happens in the first inning, the crowd’s into it and this is a tough place to play for a bunch of young players, but he just tamped it down right away,” said manager Derek Shelton.

Acuña and Oviedo faced each other two more times before the evening was over, both battles going to the potential MVP. Following Acuña’s third-inning single, Oviedo threw another unintentional inside fastball that forced Acuña off the plate in the fourth. Acuña shot Oviedo another dirty look. Oviedo couldn’t help but smile.

To Oviedo, Acuña already had his chance to “do something,” and he wasn’t going to entertain him further. Two pitches later, Acuña smashed a 109.7 mph grounder into right field for an RBI single and broke out the “rock-the-baby” celebration as he pulled into first base.

“Why would I follow his game?” Oviedo said. “All he wants is to get the ball off of him. … I was laughing because you already got your chance to do something about it. I don’t know, man. Baseball has become a little bit soft. No one wants to get fastballs in. It’s part of the game. You’re going to get fastballs in.”

Oviedo likened a pitcher unintentionally hitting a batter to a hitter unintentionally hitting a pitcher with a line drive. To Oviedo, both parties are just trying to do their job. The capacity crowd had more boos in store for Oviedo before night’s end. On Oviedo’s final pitch of the night, he plunked Austin Riley in the left elbow, tapping his chest to signal it was not premeditated.

As Oviedo walked off the mound, pulled from the game with the bases loaded and the score tied at 3, the sold-out crowd showered him with disdain.

While Oviedo orchestrated jeers, the rest of the Pirates created silence.

Ryan Borucki inherited loaded bases with two outs after Oviedo hit Riley, but the southpaw got Matt Olson to hit an inning-ending popout. From the fifth inning on, the Pirates outscored the Braves, 5-1. Bryan Reynolds hit a two-run shot and came a triple shy of the cycle, while Peguero had his seventh homer of the year.

“As a young team, a lot of people don’t give us the respect that we should have because they’re like, ‘It’s the Pirates. They’re pretty much not going to make the playoffs. They’re a young team,’” Oviedo said. “That’s when people fall against us. … When we play games like this and we win like this with young players, we’re speaking out that we’re not just going to give up.”

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