LOS ANGELES — For its first three hours or so, Game 2 of the NLDS appeared as if it was going to prove a facsimile of Game 1. The same elements were in place: A strong outing from the Dodgers’ experienced and celebrated starter, in this case Zack Greinke and not Clayton Kershaw. An even stronger one from the Mets’ younger and harder-throwing starter, in this case Noah Syndergaard and not Jacob deGrom. A few runs scratched out by the Mets on a couple of mistakes, which on Saturday resulted in solo homers in the second inning by Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto.
Another Mets win.
Then, in the bottom of the seventh inning, all hell broke loose. The devil, as it has so often been for the Mets over the years, was Chase Utley, and the result was a 5–2 Dodgers victory and a series that will head back to New York knotted at one game apiece.
Syndergaard, the Mets’ 23-year-old rookie, threw six pitches in excess of 100 mph in the first inning, and though his velocity slightly decreased thereafter, he departed with one out in the seventh and a 2–1 lead. Utley, the Mets’ intra-divisional tormenter for the 13 years he spent with the Phillies before he was traded to the Dodgers in mid-August, was the one whose pinch-hit single to right finally knocked Syndergaard out after 115 pitches. That play was undeniably clean and without controversy.
What Utley did next was neither.
With Utley on first and Kiké Hernandez on third, Bartolo Colon—working as a reliever this postseason—induced the next Dodgers batter, leadoff man Howie Kendrick, to hit a sharp grounder up the middle that was gloved by second baseman Daniel Murphy. It had the look of an inning-ending, lead-preserving double play, one that might conceivably result in a virtually insurmountable 2–0 series lead for the Mets. The 36-year-old Utley would have none of that.
Murphy flipped the ball to shortstop Ruben Tejada, who appeared to tap the side of second base and then wheeled around, intending to throw to first. Utley slid on his knees, well to the right of and past the bag, and undercut the pirouetting shortstop. Tejada crashed to the ground with, as it turned out, a broken right fibula. The run scored.
To make matters worse for the Mets, after a Dodgers-requested replay review of four minutes and 52 seconds—during which time Tejada was loaded on to a stretcher as, bizarrely, techno music blasted in Dodger Stadium—the umpires ruled that Tejada missed the bag and failed to record any outs on the play at all. They directed Utley back to second base, a bag that he not only never touched, but also hadn’t appeared to attempt to touch (although he was never tagged, either). By the end of the inning, the Mets were not only down a shortstop, but also by the score of 5–2, which would prove the final one.
As always happens after such a play, the baseball world immediately exploded with acrimony, and instant interpretations of the confusing nexus of rules that might apply, as well as the eligibility for replay review of those rules.
In the Mets' clubhouse, anger reigned, though it was overshadowed by bewilderment.
“My understanding is that when you slide, you have to try to slide somewhat into the bag,” said Mets third baseman David Wright. “I still don’t think he ever touched the bag until he came back out when the call was reversed. Once a player is called out, you don’t go tag him, especially when you have a broken leg. I have a number of questions, and don’t quite understand the sequence of events.”
“He’s running, he’s playing, he’s playing hard,” said Mets infielder Kelly Johnson of Utley. “That’s what we’re taught to do. Break up the play. However, he did go in late, he did hit him first before hitting the ground. Now we got a shortstop out for the postseason with a broken leg. What’s the line? Where does the rule book come into play?”
For the record, the rules did appear to be applied correctly, such as they are, as even Mets manager Terry Collins had to admit. “The umpires handled it right,” he said. Utley’s takeout slide, as violent as it was, appeared permissible; Tejada did miss the bag, and the “neighborhood play” did not apply, as Murphy’s throw pulled him away from it; and Utley was properly placed back on second base, even though he never touched it, because he’d incorrectly been called out and, as league rules state, a replay official “shall place base runners on bases he believes they would have reached had reviewed call been made correctly.”
Utley, for his part, explained himself as best he could, and perhaps inadvertently revealed the tragedy of Game 2 and of plays like this. “I feel terrible Ruben was injured,” he said. “I was trying to put a body on him to try to break up the double play.” Later, Utley reconfirmed that “there was no intent to injure Ruben whatsoever.”
While he is not the most emotive of players, Utley’s words seemed heartfelt. Baseball culture does not consider what he did to be dirty; in fact, it considers it to be hard-nosed, an act of selflessness and bravery. Utley was taught to do what he did on Saturday night long ago, and the rules, as currently constituted, confirmed that he had done the right thing.
The tragic part, though, it that there is no logical reason why a base runner can take out a fielder on the bases in such a way, when he no longer can do so to a catcher, and when baseball is not a contact sport to begin with. It is an anachronistic loophole in the game’s rules, and one that will almost certainly soon be closed. Joe Torre, speaking on behalf of the league, revealed on Saturday night that base runners in the Arizona Fall League this year will be required to slide directly into bags; the Utley play in Game 2 will almost certainly hurry that change into existence at all professional levels.
It won’t come soon enough to alter what happened in Game 2. Thanks to a strange loophole, a classic pitching matchup between one of baseball’s old stars and one of its new ones was overshadowed, as was virtually everything else that happened at Dodger Stadium.
It was only three weeks ago that another middle infielder for a playoff team, Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang, was lost for the season on a similar play, in which the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan went out of his way to slide into him. When baseball changes the rule, it will be too late for the Pirates and Kang, just as it will for the Mets and Tejada. Late Saturday night, Tejada limped out of the visitors’ clubhouse, a black orthopedic boot on his right foot and a single crutch beneath his right armpit.
While this postseason is only just beginning, his was already over.