Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2013

At Least The Umps Are On The Ball

Headline writers gave us a range of adjectives from which to choose on Sunday morning. The shorthand descriptions for the ending of World Series Game Three ranged from “bizarre” at the New York Times to “wild” at the Washington Post. As the home town paper for the losing Red Sox, the Boston Globe predictably chose to call the game’s final play “controversial.” In an understandably better frame of mind and no doubt thankful to have squeezed out a victory after watching his team twice blow two run leads, the beat reporter in St. Louis opted for the superlative of “zany” to describe the interference call at third base that allowed the winning run to score in the Cardinals 5-4 walk-off win late Saturday night.

With the game knotted at 4 and one out in the 9th, Yadier Molina singled softly to right field off of Boston’s Brandon Workman. With pitcher Trevor Rosenthal due up, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny turned to Alan Craig to pinch hit. The Cardinals were without Craig’s bat for the final month of the season after he sprained his left foot in a game against the Reds on September 4th. He was in the lineup as the designated hitter for the first two games of the Series at Fenway Park, but returned to the bench with the shift to the National League venue. As Craig headed to the batter’s box Red Sox manager John Farrell countered by signaling for closer Koji Uehara.

Uehara is one of seven veteran free agents with playoff experience signed by the Red Sox prior to Spring Training. All contributed mightily to Boston’s worst to first resurgence this year, with Uehara recording 21 saves during the regular season and winning MVP honors in the ALCS. But Saturday Craig lashed the first pitch he saw down the left field line for a double, moving Molina to third. Then in a curious and ultimately fateful move, Farrell opted to bring his infield in and have Uehara pitch to John Jay, despite having first base open and the weak hitting Pete Kozma on deck.

Jay fouled off Uehara’s first offering, and then sent an off-speed pitch on the ground toward center field. For an instant it looked like the sharply hit ball would get past the drawn-in infield, but Dustin Pedroia dove to his right and made a dazzling play, snagging the grounder on a short hop. The All-Star second baseman came up throwing to the plate, where catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia had plenty of time to tag out Molina. But Saltalamacchia then tried to get more out of the play than was warranted. He hurried a throw to third baseman Will Middlebrooks in an attempt to double up Craig, who was moving up from second. The replay, which has been running on a virtually endless loop since the game ended, clearly shows that Craig would have beaten even a precise throw. To the horror of Red Sox fans, their catcher’s throw was anything but.

It pulled Middlebrooks off the bag in a vain dive for the ball, which sailed on into foul territory as Craig slid past the sprawled third baseman. With Jose Oquendo frantically windmilling his right arm from the coach’s box, Craig got to his feet to head home and promptly tripped over the prone Middlebrooks, who was directly in his path with his lower legs in the air. Even as the stumbling Craig resumed his race for home and left fielder Daniel Nava retrieved the ball and fired a strike to Saltalamacchia, third base umpire Jim Joyce was signaling that Middlebrooks had interfered with Craig’s right to advance along the base path. Nava’s throw clearly beat Craig but that throw and the subsequent tag no longer mattered. Home plate umpire Dana DeMuth saw Joyce’s call, and signaled Craig safe with the winning run.

For the next several moments confusion was the order of the evening, with the Cardinals pouring out of one dugout to celebrate and the Red Sox streaming onto the field from the other to argue. But DeMuth, Joyce, and the rest of the officiating crew were firm in their call and clear in explaining it, both on the diamond and later before the media. The Boston Globe headline aside, a call is not really controversial when it is manifestly correct, as Joyce’s was. The fact that Middlebrooks had no chance to get out of Craig’s way is meaningless, because intent does not factor into the application of the obstruction rule. Crew chief John Hirschbeck made this point after quoting the one sentence definition, “Obstruction is the act of a fielder obstructing the runner when not in the act of fielding the ball.”

Substitute “throw” for “ground ball,” and the example cited in the MLB rule book to illustrate the rule reads like a description of Game Three’s final play: “After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the ‘act of fielding’ the ball. For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.”

It was the second time in three games that this umpiring crew has taken center stage, a place that no group of officials in any sport wants to occupy. But both times the umpires got it right. In Game One DeMuth by his own admission stayed focused too long on whether Kozma’s foot beat the sliding Pedroia’s to second base, and thus completely missed the fact that the St. Louis shortstop never grabbed a toss from second baseman Matt Carpenter. But rather than stubbornly standing by the mistake, the six-man crew huddled and quickly overruled DeMuth. The Red Sox, given the bases loaded and one out rather than runners on the corners with two outs, went on to plate three 1st inning runs on their way to an 8-1 victory. Saturday night in Game Three, a second crucial and correct call went the Cardinals way. For the veteran Joyce, whose long career was blemished by a badly blown call that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010, it was a moment of quiet redemption.

The Cardinals committed three errors and looked overmatched in the Game One blowout. The Red Sox returned the favor by allowing a double steal and then committing two errors on one play, allowing St. Louis to come from behind in Game Two. Saturday night St. Louis twice allowed Boston back in the game. Apparently unable to cope with such kindness, the Red Sox promptly showed they needed still more practice at throwing the ball the 90 feet from home plate to third base, and then Will Middlebrooks fell down and couldn’t get up.

There will be a parade in one city or the other within the next week, and it’s too soon to say whether it will feature Clydesdales or Duck Boats. We can still hope that before that happens both squads will show us the kind of play that earned each 97 regular season wins. The dominant uniform color for both teams is red. But through the first three games of this World Series, the best team on the field has been the one wearing blue.

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