Verducci: Umpires made the right call
It may have been the most controversial call to ever end a World Series game, but Tom Verducci says the umpires were correct to call obstruction on Will Middlebrooks
ST. LOUIS -- For all of you who want to dumb down baseball to nothing but the American League style of play -- ridding the game of its 9-vs.-9 origin by including a designated hitter in all games -- understand that the unforgettable if quirky gem that was World Series Game 3 Saturday night would never have found its place in posterity without National League rules. The greatest games of this era continue to take place under the rules of the sport as it was meant to be: Game 4 of the 1996 World Series in Atlanta, Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona, Game 6 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis and now this beautiful tangled web of a game that was Game 3, won by the Cardinals 5-4.
Only under NL rules do benches, strategy and the great pastime of second-guessing come this much into play.
Get this straight: The Red Sox did not lose on a bad call by third-base umpire Jim Joyce and home plate umpire Dana DeMuth. The umpires got the call right. The Red Sox lost because for a second straight game they threw a ball away from home plate to third base. You can go an entire season without seeing two throws by the same team air-mailed from home to third that allowed the winning run to score. And yet Boston pitcher Craig Breslow and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia did exactly that in back-to-back games.
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And the Red Sox lost Game 3 because they couldn't figure out how to play under NL rules, as is usually the case with AL teams. Since 2001 AL teams are 11-23 in NL parks.
"[Darn] National League rules," Boston manager John Farrell said from behind his desk when I asked him about it, except he used something much saltier than darn. After a long pause he did say, "But that was a great game."
It was baseball's version of Inception. So convoluted went the plot, with all of its games within the game, that the two teams combined to use 15 different players in the ninth spot in the batting order. Boston starter Jake Peavy would have still been on the mound if the game were in Boston, but in St. Louis he was out after four innings and 64 pitches because his spot came up in the batting order in the fifth inning with his team trailing 2-0. That's real baseball.
Those same NL rules are why the Red Sox lost the game without ever using Mike Napoli, normally their starting first baseman and the usual protection for David Ortiz. Without the DH, Ortiz, Boston's best hitter, started at first and the Cardinals walked him twice (once intentionally, the other one an obvious pitch-around) because Napoli, his usual protection, was on the bench.
Worst of all, Farrell missed a key double-switch late in the game that had him kicking himself. He brought in reliever Brandon Workman to pitch the bottom of the eighth and simply put him in the ninth spot in the order. Saltalamacchia, the seventh-place hitter, had made the final out of the top of the eighth. Farrell should have put David Ross in for Saltalamacchia on defense and in the ninth spot in the batting order. It would have pushed Workman and the pitcher's spot -- due up second in the next inning -- seven spots further.
Instead, without the double-switch, the seeds were planted for a disastrous endgame for Boston. Workman took the at-bat with one out in the ninth in a tie game against Trevor Rosenthal -- while Napoli continued to watch. Farrell had to keep Workman in the game because his only other options were Ryan Dempster and Franklin Morales (not good) or to force his closer, Koji Uehara, into the tie game sooner than he wanted. Workman struck out.
And the non-double-switch meant that Saltalamacchia remained in the game, leaving him to play a leading role in one of the most bizarre finishes in World Series history, the walkoff obstruction call. It wasn't quite John McNamara leaving Bill Buckner in at first base in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, but karma can be a cruel jokester that way. This was the third World Series walkoff loss in Red Sox history, each one with a historic amount of infamy attached: the Buckner Game, the Ed Armbrister Game (Game 3 of the 1975 World Series, when interference was not called on the Reds' Armbrister when he impeded catcher Carlton Fisk on a bunt) and now the Walkoff Obstruction Game.
Farrell finally had to push Uehara into the game in the ninth when Yadier Molina nicked Workman for a bloop single with one out and Allen Craig coming off the bench to pinch hit. Craig laced a first-pitch double into leftfield.
The Red Sox brought their infield in with John Jay at the plate. Jay hit a bouncer that second baseman Dustin Pedroia snared with a nifty backhand. Pedroia fired a strike to Saltalamacchia, who put the tag on Molina for the second out. Saltalamacchia then noticed Craig still hobbling toward third base. Craig, who missed almost all of September and the first two rounds of the postseason with a foot injury, runs like a man who forgot his walker. Saltalamacchia did have a play on Craig, but his throw sailed wide of third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who dove in vain toward the infield side of the foul line.
Craig unfolded himself into a standing position and started to run. Middlebrooks was still prone on the ground from his dive. Just as Craig began the leap over Middlebrooks' legs toward home, Middlebrooks, unaware of Craig, bent his knees to lift up his feet. Craig tripped over his legs and fell, whereupon third base umpire Jim Joyce gave the mechanic, or hand signal, for obstruction.
Now Craig hobbled home. Children on hobby horses or barflies staggering home after closing time may lend a smoother visual of locomotion than Craig did trying to run home. Imagine a '73 Pinto on the highway with one flat tire. The relay throw back to the plate, naturally, arrived before Craig did. Saltalamacchia applied the tag before Craig reached home -- if he ever did.
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DeMuth properly signaled safe while pointing to Joyce and his colleague's obstruction call. Game over. A new terminology entered the World Series lexicon: walkoff obstruction. The Red Sox were still stewing after the game, but here's why their arguments fell apart:
Argument 1: Middlebrooks did not trip Craig intentionally.
End of Argument 1: Doesn't matter. The runner has the right to run the bases unobstructed, regardless of whether the defensive play hinders him intentionally or not.
Argument 2: It wasn't possible for Middlebrooks to get out of Craig's way.
"What was I supposed to do? Army-crawl to second base?" Middlebrooks said. "I wouldn't have done anything different. I don't understand the call."
End of Argument 2: Doesn't matter. The rules specifically refer to a situation in which "an infielder dives at a groundball and the ball passes him, and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner." It's just terrible luck for Middlebrooks, who didn't have the time to get away and happened to raise his feet at precisely the wrong time.
Argument 3: Craig was out of the baseline when the contact occurred, so no obstruction could take place. This was Farrell's biggest beef; he thought Craig veered toward the middle of the field slightly before making his way home.
End of Argument 3: The baseline is not defined by the foul line or even the basepath. It is defined by the direction the runner is headed. In this case Craig had only just begun to head home when he was tripped by Middlebrooks -- and even then he has three feet to each side that defines his area of the basepath. Craig was in his defined basepath when Middlebrooks tripped him.
Argument 4: Craig clearly was out at home plate, so he should not be awarded the base.
End of Argument 4: This is an easy one. An obstruction call does not automatically give the runner a free base. The runner must continue his attempt to get to the next base, and if he is tagged out, it becomes the judgment of the umpire at that next base -- in this case, DeMuth -- to decide if the obstruction prevented him from scoring. In other words, if Craig simply jogged and was tagged out far from home plate -- as Miguel Tejada once did in the playoffs for Oakland -- DeMuth would have called him out. But because Craig was out by only a step or two -- the steps that Middlebrooks' trip cost him -- it was an easy call by DeMuth to award him home plate.
The Red Sox likely never will fully accept the call, not when it decides something as huge as the third game of a World Series that had been tied at one game each.
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"Man," Farrell said, leaning back in his chair and his hands behind his head, "we have to do something about these throws to third base, huh?"
The Cardinals, in their own way, were lucky to win the game. Third base coach Jose Oquendo made an all-time gaffe when he was out of position (not far enough down the line) and make a terrible stop with Molina coming around third base on a hit in the fourth. The hit was a roller to an outfielder with a bad arm, Jacoby Ellsbury -- such an easy send that Ellsbury was conceding the run by throwing to third base. The Cardinals didn't score, thanks to two of four awful at-bats they had in the first seven innings with a runner on third and less two outs (three whiffs and a pop-out). They stranded 11 runners in the first eight innings. They blew a pair of two-run leads. Carlos Beltran cost them a run when he misplayed a single into a triple.
But all of the Cardinal sins were forgiven with one wild play in the ninth inning that immediately gained a unique place in World Series history. The obstruction rule was applied properly. In the end, after nine innings of madness, 35 players -- including 12 pitchers, five different third baseman and five pinch-hitters -- 298 pitches and 234 minutes of baseball, one truth came shining through: NL rules.