The Atlanta Braves have a home run problem.
The problem isn't that they give up too many (their 126 surrendered is tied for fourth-best in the NL), nor that they're not hitting enough (they lead the league). The problem is that they seem to have no idea how to behave like adults when home runs happen.
We'll get to their fight with Carlos Gomez on Wednesday night in a bit, but first, it's worthwhile running through the other nonsense Atlanta has instigated over longballs this year. Over the last couple months, the Braves, perhaps feeling threatened by the ascent of Arizona's curmudgeon kings in the West, have stepped up their game. Atlanta's first major flare-ups came in August, across six games with the Washington Nationals, and involved young Nats outfielder Bryce Harper. First, Julio Teheran hit Harper with a pitch, after Harper took perhaps scant seconds too long to round the bases on a home run, causing benches to clear, and then Luis Avilan drilled him with a fastball a few weeks later, which was met by raucous applause in Atlanta because … well, actually, Harper hadn't hit a home run that game, and he'd already been hit by a pitch once, so perhaps Atlanta fans just don't like him. He hadn't broken any other aspects of the mythical, much-beloved code of the game, unless the code's been rewritten such that batters not only have to take whatever punishment the Braves deem fit, but also have to thank them for it.
The Braves' next target was someone with a less outsized public persona, rookie Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins. Fernandez stopped and stared after jacking his first career major league home run out to left field -- and he did it on purpose, too, because earlier in the game, Braves rookie Evan Gattis had stopped to watch his own ball leave the yard. Brian McCann has yet to weigh in on Gattis's proclivity to break the very code McCann spends so much of his time enforcing, but there he was at home plate, armored up and looking to impart some wisdom to the young Fernandez. Benches cleared again, and again, cooler heads prevailed.
Finally, Wednesday night, the Atlanta Braves got what anyone who's been watching them lately knew they were going to get if they kept acting like this: a fight. Carlos Gomez was already upset with Atlanta starter Paul Maholm for drilling him earlier in the year, and when he took Maholm deep to left, he made a point of taking his time watching it go. The Braves made sure they got their money's worth out of this one. First, the pitcher starts yelling as Gomez leaves the box, then first baseman Freddie Freeman gets into it, prompting Gomez to respond (which he continued to do, with feeling, through the rest of the trot). And then, finally, in what must be construed as a direct challenge, Brian McCann, in full catcher's gear, blocked the plate and refused to allow Gomez to touch home.
That gave Braves outfielder Reed Johnson just enough time to sprint out of the dugout and land a flying elbow on Gomez, as he argued with the catcher. Which led to a brawl where Freeman decked Aramis Ramirez. A fight which it's hard to argue the Braves weren't looking for in the first place.
I have never seen a catcher refuse to allow a hitter to touch home plate on a home run. I have never heard of it happening, certainly never as some post-hoc, "protecting the sanctity of the game" temper tantrum. If Brian McCann feels so strongly about something Carlos Gomez has done to him that he wants to fight about it, then Brian McCann can take off his catcher's gear and tell Carlos Gomez to meet him in the parking lot.
But that's not what happened here, because what happened here is baseball. What happened here is, Carlos Gomez ticked Paul Maholm off, Paul Maholm ticked Carlos Gomez off, and in their next meeting, Carlos Gomez hit some of Maholm's slop to Jupiter. That happens sometimes. Other times, Gomez keeps up those ridiculous swings of his and strikes out. If Paul Maholm wanted that second outcome, maybe he should've thrown better pitches. And if Maholm or the Braves are still offended after the trot -- which their own player instigated by hitting Gomez in the first place -- then they can plunk him again, if there's still some bizarre, unwritten rule they think they need to respect.
A catcher blocking the plate on a home run trot, though? That's not old-school baseball. That's not protecting any code. Only Johnson and Gomez will be disciplined, each receiving a one-game suspension, but there should have been a suspension for McCann for at least the last three days of the season, if not a playoff game as well. (McCann left Thursday night's game with a right adductor strain and is considered day to day.) There should be a suspension for Freeman, too -- and I don't want to hear anything more about his "MVP case." He already didn't have the numbers to win it, but any claim he had to "the intangibles" gets tossed out the window, now that he's shown he's willing to get himself tossed from a game his team needed to win (and didn't), to keep pace in the race for homefield advantage, because he felt like clocking someone, and Aramis Ramirez was close at hand.
That's the thing about the Braves: As cartoonish as Kirk Gibson's Diamondbacks can get at times, at least they're consistently on the side of being boring, serious mopes. Right now, led by McCann, Atlanta just seems to be looking for a fight.
One might expect that to be a problem if the Braves draw the Dodgers, who have had trouble with Arizona, but I don't think so. The teams that Atlanta challenged were the Nationals, Marlins and Brewers -- disappointments in 2013, teams clearly inferior to the Braves, and teams they could afford to jerk around because they were so far ahead in the standings. That won't be the case in October, when Atlanta will face tougher teams, not to mention the danger of getting bounced from the playoffs in a short series.
No, when confronted by a team that's a real threat, I expect that the Braves will be on their best behavior.