Houston's interpretation of Adam Wainwright's message fastball thrown behind the back of catcher Brad Ausmus on Saturday was about as subtle as the pitch itself.
"I thought it was intentional, yes," Ausmus said. "Wainwright shook (off signs from catcher Jason LaRue) four times to get to the pitch. So, if I were betting my life's savings, I'd say he did it intentionally."
In the third inning of the Cardinals' 4-3 victory at Busch Stadium and the fifth game of an increasingly chippy rivalry, Wainwright fired a first-pitch fastball that went behind the Astros' catcher. That pitch came one inning after Houston starter Roy Oswalt clipped LaRue with an inside pitch and two after Oswalt skirted the inside edge on Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. Ausmus was furious with the pitching, shouting long enough at Wainwright that both dugouts emptied and both bullpens ran onto the field.
Ausmus jawed with Wainwright and manager Tony La Russa before teammates corralled him and umpires defused the brouhaha.
Both benches received warnings from ump Tim Tschida.
"It applied to us, but I don't know if it should have," Houston manager Cecil Cooper said. "I don't think it was called for. I'll say that. ... We're not throwing at anyone. Theirs looked deliberate to me. ... The ball was actually behind (Ausmus). Now don't tell me that's not deliberate."
Said La Russa: "Everybody looks at it a different way. They throw the ball inside, they're playing the game. We throw the ball inside, there's some intent. ... We're not going to mess around, that's not our style. But we do pitch inside just like they do."
Oswalt and Wainwright echoed each other after Saturday's game, saying they both were trying to pitch inside to "move the batter's feet." Twice during Pujols' first at-bat, Oswalt threw inside and off the plate.
The timing of LaRue being hit made any intent questionable.
With two outs in the second inning and an .048-hitting LaRue at the plate, Oswalt fired a 2-2 fastball inside. LaRue said the pitch "grazed" him. The Astros maintained that no retaliation was mandated.
"Not only wasn't it called for," Ausmus said, "it's not even good baseball."
Oswalt called it "bad baseball" if La Russa called for the purpose pitch and "terrible baseball" if Wainwright threw with intent. The righthander then repeated several times: "Hopefully it was a wild pitch."
"It is what is. It's competing," Wainwright said when told of the Astros' comments. "I'm working inside. I'm moving guys' feet. I'm trying to do what he does. They should know I'm not a malicious kind of guy. ... If they want to read something into it that's not there, I'm going to pitch against them many more times. I'm sure, at some point down the road, feelings are going to get hurt."
After only five games this season, the rivalry has already had some caustic skirmishes. In the series in Houston, a slide by Pujols that upended catcher J.R. Towles at home plate led to a pregame spat between the Cardinals first baseman and Brandon Backe, who starts Sunday's game. Backe had to be restrained by Cooper and removed from the field.
The Cardinals came out of Pittsburgh sensitive to a couple of pitches that thumped Pujols, and on guard for Houston after the series in Texas.
"The intensity is high — I know the intensity on our end is higher when we play the Cardinals," Houston's Lance Berkman said. "Brandon is a competitor. Pujols is a competitor. Things can sometimes get out of hand. Sometimes they can escalate. This is an emotional game. You put three or four bulls in a pen together and you're going to have some fights."