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Blood boils over beanings

JAYS 5, RAYS 4: Aubrey Huff is hit, then two Rays are ejected after near miss, riling Hal McRae.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

TORONTO -- The ball that smacked him in the face in March not only broke his cheekbone but required 11/2 hours of surgery to repair the damage and kept him off the baseball field for weeks.

That still-fresh memory was what made Luke Prokopec's fastball in the fourth inning Thursday at SkyDome, which drilled the back of Aubrey Huff's batting helmet, so harrowing.

"That's the first time I have ever really seen a ball come at my head like that," Huff said. "It's kind of a scary thing. ... Whether it was intentional or not, only the guys on their team know."

Prokopec's pitch in Huff's first at-bat after hitting a home run led to the emptying of both benches and the ejections of Rays starter Joe Kennedy and manager Hal McRae for retaliation in the seventh inning.

It remained the hot topic after the game, which the Rays lost 5-4 on a pinch-hit single by Eric Hinske in the ninth inning before 24,069.

"Any time the pitcher throws at an opponent's head, that's bush league," McRae said. "I can see him planting one in the ribs, but up near his head is bush. And he's a bush individual."

Prokopec denied purposely hitting Huff. Toronto manager Carlos Tosca hinted that Kennedy's fastball, which sailed over Ken Huckaby's head and prompted his ejection in the seventh, might have been on purpose. Kennedy said it was an accident.

But it was McRae who spoke loudest about the incident, particularly about Prokopec.

"You can hit a guy in the ribs, but don't throw at a guy's head," McRae said. "That's not professional. That's very unprofessional. (Prokopec) was a very unprofessional individual today."

Prokopec maintained that he'd been trying to establish his hold on the inside corners all day and that he had thrown brush-back pitches to Steve Cox and Randy Winn in the first inning.

"You've got to try and send a message by throwing inside, saying that's my part of the plate, stay off it," Prokopec said. "Those are honest intentions. You're trying to keep them honest and make pitches."

Leading off the second inning, Huff hit a low and outside changeup over the rightfield wall. It was the only run Prokopec allowed until the fourth, when the Rays scored two to tie it at 3.

Huff led off that inning as well when he was hit in the back of the head by Prokopec's fastball. Home plate umpire Kerwin Danley warned the pitcher and both benches against further action or retaliation.

"I just made a mistake," Prokopec said. "I got under the ball. I tried to throw it too hard and the ball sailed on me."

McRae and Tosca came out of the dugout seeking an explanation.

"You get off scot-free if you strike first," McRae said. "It's a strike-first rule. You hit them first and nothing is going to happen to your pitcher. They retaliate and then the manager and the pitcher is gone.

"It's an unfair rule. That is not baseball. He (umpire) should let us retaliate and then warn us so we're even. ... That's fair."

The Rays did get even, and not because the score was tied at 4 in the seventh inning.

Kennedy retired the first two batters of the inning when Huckaby, whom the Blue Jays brought up from Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday, came to bat. The left-hander threw a fastball that nearly hit Huckaby in the head and actually hit his bat for strike one.

"It was just an unfortunate accident," Kennedy said.

Danley immediately ejected both Kennedy and McRae.

"This guy pitches to the other side of the plate," Tosca said. "He pitches away to right-handed hitters and all of a sudden the ball comes up and in on him.

"I can't speculate on what a guy is thinking. But in a tie game, if you put a gun to my head, I probably would speculate he was doing it (on purpose). But I can't speculate."

Huckaby jawed at Kennedy and players from both benches and bullpens came onto the field. No punches were thrown.

"Kerwin said he threw it over his head, but he hit the bat," McRae said. "He gets ejected and I get ejected on a strike."

And the Rays lose.

Travis Harper was warming up when Kennedy was tossed after giving up four runs on four hits, walking three and striking out three. He didn't allow a run in the seventh or eighth but walked the first two batters in the ninth.

Joe Lawrence reached on a fielder's choice and, with the bases loaded, Hinske launched a run-scoring single off the centerfield wall. It was the Rays' sixth loss in their past seven games.

"The base on balls did us in," McRae said. "Otherwise it was a decently played game."

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