CINCINNATI — Move over, Kris Bryant.
There’s a new Cardinals villain in the National League Central.
Flexin’ Nick Castellanos, your time has come.
With a bat flip, a ball flip and one rather demonstrative display of his upper body physique, the slugging right fielder and No. 2 hitter for the Reds just made a hard slide into first place on the list of active Redbird agitators.
With all due respect to the Cubs’ third baseman Bryant and his “St. Louis is boring” act, that old grudge compared with this one is, well, boring.
Flexin’ Nick, a former Cub, has been promoted. His charge? Allegedly showing up a Cardinals rookie reliever.
The Cardinals lost to the Reds 9-6 here Saturday, but the fourth-inning fracas will be all anyone remembers about this one. The fallout could be bigger than one loss.
Where it all started can and will be debated, with opinions differing between Cincinnati and St. Louis as much as appetites for Skyline Chili and Imo’s Pizza.
Where it all ends remains to be determined, considering Major League Baseball is still operating under the COVID protocols that call for increased punishments for players and teams that have baseball games boil over into shoving matches. How costly this dustup will become should be known in the near future.
"I’ll be very honest with you, I have nothing to do with that and that’ll be taken up with the league," crew chief Jim Reynolds said when asked if more punishment than his ejection of Castellanos could come.
What we knew for sure as Saturday night came to a close was this — two teams that have a long history of rubbing one another the wrong way just opened up a new can of beef in the second game of at least 18 meetings the division rivals will share this season.
Flexin’ Nick lit a wick.
Who knows how long it will burn.
“We will see moving forward,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “The fact of the matter is, we play ourselves. We respect our opponent, regardless of who it is. We are going to show up and play good hard-nosed baseball. Chips fall where they may. We’re not going to back down from it. We are on record for that. We’re not going to start it. But we will do our part. We will show up. We’ve got a group of fighters now. There’s no doubt about that.”
There might be some doubts about how the heck things got here, with a fired-up Shildt not exactly closing the book on the bad blood. Let’s review.
Castellanos, who is off to a blistering four-for-seven start against the Cardinals in this series, didn’t like getting hit by rookie Cardinals reliever Jake Woodford with a 92 mph sinker in the first pitch of his two-out at-bat as the Reds led the Cardinals 6-2. He seemed somewhat satisfied with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina’s answer that it was not intentional, but not enough so to completely let it go.
"It's possible," Castellanos said after the game.
Castellanos walked toward the mound, bent over to get the baseball that had bruised him, and flipped it back to the 24-year-old righthander Woodford.
“He (Castellanos) got animated,” said Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, whom Woodford had entered the game to replace. “I mean, he got hit. It hurts to get hit. The ball is hard. It got a rib. It probably ticked him off. You never offer the ball back to the pitcher, though. That’s tired. He should know better than that.”
It was that moment — not Castellanos’ enthusiastic bat flip after a home run in Thursday's series opener — that put the radar up on the Cardinals’ side of things, per Wainwright.
But that alone wasn’t enough to set off the biggest Cards-Reds brouhaha since former Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips followed up calling the Cardinals “whiny (you know whats)” with a regrettable tap of Molina’s shin guards back in 2010.
And neither was Castellanos later barreling home hard on a wild pitch by Woodford that left the pitcher and the hitter tangled up at the plate after Castellanos was called safe.
“That’s baseball,” Shildt said, though he was not pleased Castellanos seemed to assume Woodford drilled him intentionally with the pitch in the first place.
“First of all, there is no need,” Shildt said. “Why would we hit him? I have no idea why we would think about hitting him. The guy has gotten some good swings off. We’ve had a lot of guys get good swings off over the last couple of years. That’s baseball. We have to figure out a way to pitch him better, pitch him differently. If somebody is going to hit somebody — and our record is we just don’t do it – you make it clear in spring training that if we are going to do it, it will come from me. It will come from me. And I have not had to do that in my tenure here going on four years. There was zero intent there. And that wouldn’t be the guy we would do it with anyway. It wouldn’t be Woody. We would not put a young kid in that situation.”
A tense situation boiled over the moment Castellanos popped to his feet, flexed over the rookie pitcher who had not yet picked himself up off the ground and yelled, "Let's (bleeping) go!"
Problem. Big one.
“There’s not a place for that in our book,” Shildt said.
Woodford, who insisted he didn’t plunk Castellanos on purpose, made it clear to Castellanos he wasn’t going to be posterized.
Molina brushed past the umpire and clamped a hand on Castellanos’ shoulder. Wait, why wasn't Molina ejected?
"Because sometimes contact happens between players and umpires that is not aggressive," explained Reynolds. "That is why he was not ejected."
As the benches and bullpens emptied, some Cardinals made more of a wake than others.
The almost always unassuming Paul Goldschmidt and brand new third baseman Nolan Arenado came crashing in from the corners like they were closing in a bunt, with Arenado gesturing wildly toward Castellanos with a pointed finger and Goldschmidt pushing around the pile like a pulling guard.
Jack Flaherty, who pitched the season opener and had nothing to do with the day’s game, was in there before teammates realized it and pulled him out.
Reliever Jordan Hicks looked prepared to go full blown MMA on the opponent who said something to upset him when the jawing reconvened in the outfield.
This was a true team effort. Fortunately no punches were viewable from the press box. We'll see if more punishment comes. This was the first benches-clearing incident of the 2021 season. Participants could be turned into examples.
“I just thought what Castellanos did was a little disrespectful to Woody,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “Obviously Woody didn’t mean to hit him earlier in the game. He can take that how he wants, but overall, we’ve got Woody’s back. ... He (Castellanos) made a good play, scoring on that ball. But what he did after, we all thought it was unacceptable. That’s just the way it goes. We are going to have to stand up and fight for each other. We don’t go looking for something but we have to react occasionally.”
As the Cardinals went crazy, Flexin’ Nick morphed into a choir boy. The remarkable transformation happened right before our eyes. He tucked his arms behind his back and replaced his snarl with a face of flabbergasted innocence as players collided around him.
After the game, he gushed about wanting Molina’s autograph and made Wainwright’s case for Cooperstown.'
"I got nothing but respect for that cat, bro," Castellanos said about Molina. "He's a real one. He said his piece. And I listened. That's it."
Golly gee, maybe everything really was just a big misunderstanding. Or, maybe not.
“If it’s directed toward his bench and his team, that’s a little more acceptable,” DeJong said. “You’ve seen the NBA highlights, where Shaq dunks on somebody and pushes them. There’s a place where it crosses the line.”
Seventeen games between these two to go.
It won’t be boring.
A new Cardinals villain has arrived.
@Ben_Fred on Twitter