Oneil fractures ankle on collision, benches clear around him

Santana, White Sox catcher Zavala exchange words after awkward crash at plate

April 9th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- Based solely on wins and losses thus far, the Pirates should be basking in good vibes. They’ve won six of their first nine games. They’ve won back-to-back series, a feat they pulled off just once last season. They are, in short, playing good baseball. Following their 1-0 win over the White Sox on Sunday, however, the mood was somber. Few smiles. Few laughs. There was no secret as to why.

, one of Pittsburgh’s foundational players with an unparalleled skill set, suffered a fractured left ankle after crashing into White Sox catcher , a collision that resulted in tempers flaring and the benches clearing. Per manager Derek Shelton, Cruz is still being evaluated.

“It hurts a lot because he’s like my brother,” said through team interpreter Stephen Morales. “It hurts the team, too. We all feel the pain.”

The injury occurred in the bottom of the sixth when Cruz attempted to score from third on Ke’Bryan Hayes’ weakly hit grounder right at Chicago’s Yoán Moncada. Cruz hustled down the line but didn’t begin to slide until he was several feet from home, causing him to awkwardly barrel into Zavala, who leapt to grab Moncada’s throw and tried to maintain a sliding lane. Cruz’s left leg bent awkwardly as he fell to the ground, and he instantly writhed in pain.

Despite Cruz being in obvious pain, Zavala yelled at Cruz as he rolled on the dirt, unable to move his left leg. Carlos Santana took exception and yelled at Zavala. The two approached one another, and Santana shoved Zavala in his chest protector, causing the benches and bullpens to clear. Santana and Zavala were quickly separated from one another, with White Sox first baseman Andrew Vaughn wrapping Zavala in a hug and leading him away from the crowd. No players were ejected as a result of the altercation.

“[Cruz] wasn’t trying to hit [Zavala] on purpose,” Santana said. “It was a quick play. Everything was fast. I don’t like how [Zavala] screamed at [Cruz] when he got hurt. For me, I had to support my teammate.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to have a teammate’s back,” Hayes said.

Zavala said he wasn’t happy with the lateness of Cruz’s slide and the two exchanged “baseball words,” according to the White Sox catcher. Zavala commented that “everybody will forget about it” in a couple of days. When informed that Cruz fractured an ankle, Zavala added, “Just a baseball play. Didn’t want anybody to get hurt, didn’t want it to escalate that far. It escalated and I can’t really do anything about it.”

Chicago manager Pedro Grifol said he asked home-plate umpire Laz Díaz whether the slide was clean. Díaz confirmed to Grifol that it was, even though it resulted in a collision.

"I know it’s really unfortunate that he’s going to miss some time," Grifol said. "I’m a fan of his. I admire him. I admire his game."

As the Pirates and White Sox converged, assistant athletic trainer Tony Leo tended to Cruz, who remained on the ground for the entire scuffle. After several minutes, Cruz was helped up and departed from the field alongside bench coach Don Kelly and physical therapist Seth Steinhauer, putting barely any weight on his left leg.

“My heart dropped right away,” Castro said.

Now, the Pirates have to figure out where to go from here.

With Cruz certainly headed to the injured list, Castro stands to be the team’s starting shortstop for the time being. He is familiar with the position, having logged 155 innings at short last season, as well as 426 innings during his Minor League career. Ji Hwan Bae, who has played 726 innings at shortstop in the Minors, could see time there as well. With a roster spot set to open, the Pirates will likely bring up an infielder from Triple-A Indianapolis, their options including Tucupita Marcano, Mark Mathias and Chris Owings. 

"We have to keep going and the next person that comes in needs to step up,” Shelton said. “I think the one thing that we've talked about throughout the year that is different this year than other years is we have depth. And I think that's important. Obviously, losing Oneil is a blow, because he's a big part of what we do on both sides of the ball. The flip side of that, because of the depth we've created over the last couple years, we're probably in a better spot to handle it than we have been previously."

Figuring out who will play shortstop is one thing. Keeping the energy positive is another. On that front, the Pirates will rely on veterans such as Andrew McCutchen and Santana to maintain equanimity.

“We have to do our jobs and pick them up and lead by example and continue to just keep pushing and know that Cruz is going to get back,” McCutchen said. “But right now, let's take care of each other in this clubhouse, and honestly, let's go out there and do it for him while he's out.”

Cruz shared his grand ambitions during Spring Training, saying he was aiming for a 30-30 or 40-40 season. For the time being, those aspirations are on hold. The question is for how long.