Let the players decide

Let’s review the end of a rather remarkable World Series baseball game. Saturday night, past midnight, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox on an obstruction call. We will get to that call in a few minutes . Let’s start with the top of the ninth inning. The score was tied at 4 entering the ninth, and the Cardinals were pitching Trevor Rosenthal. The Red Sox first batter of the inning was Will Middlebrooks, who had made -- or not made -- what I thought was the key play of the game up to that point. Back in the seventh inning, Red Sox manager John Farrell had decided to pinch-hit Middlebrooks for shortstop Stephen Drew, who has looked entirely helpless at the plate the entire postseason. This was a defensible but, it seems to me, extremely odd move. Sure, Middlebrooks hit 17 home runs and so Farrell was playing for lightning in a bottle. Didn’t happen. Middlebrooks flew out.

While Drew’s offensive feebleness is unquestioned -- he is now 4-for-44, which is a lot of “for-for-for” sounds in a row -- he’s a very good defensive shortstop. Pulling him meant jumbling a Boston infield defense already teetering with David Ortiz at first base. It meant moving 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts to shortstop, which was his natural position in the minors but he has only played eight games there in the big leagues. And it meant putting Middlebrooks at third.

“Middlebrooks is an excellent defensive third baseman,” Joe Buck told America upon his entrance though there really is little evidence of this being true. His defensive numbers, the advanced ones, are not particularly good. The bottom of the inning began with Matt Carpenter hitting a ground ball toward the hole between third and short. Bogaerts awkwardly fielded the ball and threw off balance and in the dirt to a hopelessly overmatched Ortiz. So Carpenter was on first. Then Carlos Beltran was “hit by a pitch,” and we could spent a whole other post on that one. We won’t.

Then Matt Holliday hit a hard ground ball to third.

We talk often here about foolishness of the error statistic -- the only errors that are ever called are ones where the fielder gets himself in position to make the play and then botches the play. It is like only marking incorrect math answers where the student clearly KNEW how to to do the problem but made a careless mistake in the calculation. Will Middlebrooks did not botch Holliday’s grounder at third. He never got close enough to botch it. Instead, he did more or less everything wrong. He was playing in a weird position -- well off the bag, a bit closer to the plate than you might expect -- as if halfheartedly preparing for a bunt. But that couldn’t have been the reason. There was exactly 0.000% chance that Matt Holliday would bunt. You know the last time that Matt Holliday sacrifice bunted? That would be 2004.

So Middlebrooks started off in a weird position and then he did not pick up the ball off the bat. Look at the replay and you will see there’s a clear instant of non-recognition before Middlebrooks sprung into action. Then he kind of fell over, as if trying to fall out of quick sand. The ball got under his glove, banged around in left field, and was a double. Two runs scored. The Red Sox compounded the awfulness by throwing home without a prayer of getting the runner, allowing Holliday to go to third.

I don’t think Buck or McCarver made any reference to Middlebrooks’ defensive sluggishness. It seems people don’t talk much about defense unless it’s something obvious -- a great play or a terrible one. Middlebrooks’ play wasn’t either. It was simply a missed opportunity.

Anyway, back to the ninth inning action, Middlebrooks led off by striking out against Rosenthal. And then, Farrell made one of the oddest moves in World Series history. He let his relief pitcher, Brandon Workman, hit. It is not often that you see a manager make a move, especially in the World Series, that is inarguably stupid. Even the moves most people might disagree with -- a shaky bunt decision, a questionable pitching change, an ill-timed intentional walk, whatever -- will have its counterargument. But hitting Workman was one of those moves that has no counter. It was just a brain cramp by the guy who will probably win manager of the year. It’s hard to believe that somebody, anybody, didn’t stop him from doing it.

Farrell after the game admitted his mistake, but even in his admission he seemed to miss why the move was so awful. Farrell said his error was not double-switching Workman back in the seventh inning. Then, he could have put catcher David Ross in the game in the pitcher’s spot, and put Workman into Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s spot (Salty ended the eighth with a groundout). That, of course, is true and should have been done. Farrell missed the double-switch opportunity. That’s a clear manager’s error.

But he doubled down on that blunder in the ninth inning. He decided to hit Workman because, he said, he NEEDED Workman to pitch more than one inning. This was pure nonsense. Everyone in the entire world knew that as soon as Workman gave up a single or a walk or anything else to put a runner on base, he would get yanked and closer Koji Uehara would come into the game. So, Farrell absolutely DID NOT need Workman to go more than one inning, and had no intentional whatsoever to stay with him if he got into even the mildest trouble. Farrell batted Workman because he was not thinking clearly.

And, what’s worse, as you know, the Red Sox had one of the better hitters in baseball, Mike Napoli, just SITING ON THIS BENCH. Two innings earlier, Farrell proved willing to play havoc with his defense just to give Will Middlebrooks the puncher’s chance of hitting an unlikely home run. But in the ninth inning of the World Series, he hit his pitcher instead of Mike Napoli -- still boggles the mind -- and again his explanation was as baffling as the move. He said he wanted to hold Napoli back because he thought the game would get into extra innings and the pitcher’s spot might come again. This is just so bizarre you don’t even know what to say.

Workman struck out on three pitches, of course, and I suspect will never forget his first big league at-bat. Yeah, that’s right. His first big league at-bat. But that’s OK. He never got a minor-league at-bat either. This at-bat is legend now.

Jacoby Ellsbury grounded out to end the inning, and the evening and the morning and the first half of a disastrous inning.

The bottom half of the inning began with Workman striking out Matt Adams and then giving up a bloopy fly ball single to Yadier Molina. It’s not entirely clear where the outfield was playing Molina -- Ellsbury seemed to start Springfield, Shane Victorino in St. Joe -- but we just don’t have time to get into all the bizarreness of the inning. Of course, Koji Uehara came in right away, meaning Workman’s at-bat was traded for one out and one base runner. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny promptly pinch-hit Allen Craig rather than let Trevor Rosenthal hit -- how novel -- and on the first pitch Craig laced a double to left field. If the batter on first had been anyone not named Molina, he might have scored on that double. As it was, the Cardinals had runners on second and third, one out, and Jon Jay came to the plate.

I suspect that I don’t need to review my loathing, unadulterated loathing, for the intentional walk. And so it is with great regret that I say here: I cannot believe the Red Sox did not intentionally walk Jon Jay. If you are ever, ever going to use the intentional walk, this was it:

1. You set up the force play at the plate. 2. You set up a potential double play. 3. Instead of facing Jon Jay -- a left-handed hitter with a career .300 batting average against righty pitchers -- the Red Sox would face Pete Kozma, who can’t hit. The Cardinals had backed themselves into a corner by using up their entire bench. Kozma and his season-long .217/.275/.273 line -- he has had one hit in the NLCS and World Series combined -- was followed by Kolen Wong, a rookie who hit .153/.194/.169 this year. 4. The one significant disadvantage of loading the bases -- that a walk or hit batsman would force in the winning run -- was almost entirely muted by the fact the Koji Uehara was pitching. The man has not walked or hit a a single batter since August 3. Repeat: He has not walked or hit a batter since August 3.

I firmly believe the intentional walk should be discouraged with a harsher penalty, but this was clearly the time to use it.

Farrell, continuing his odd laissez-faire managing policy, let Uehara pitch to Jay.

And then: Mayhem. Jay hit a ground ball toward second, and Dustin Pedroia, playing almost up by the pitcher’s mound, made a superman diving play on it. He threw home to get Molina at the plate. It was a fantastic play that overruled the Farrell bizarreness and seemed, for only a second, to free the Red Sox from their fate. Then catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia threw wildly to third in a self-destructive attempt to get the double play on Allen Craig. As a high school football coach used to tell me, there were a lot of brain fuses popping.

The throw was a terrible decision AND it was an awful throw. Despite what the commercials might tell you, sometimes AND is not better. Middlebrooks on third -- who certainly grasped that if the ball got by him, the Cardinals were going to win -- did not come off the bag to try and prevent the ball from getting by. Again, like on the ground ball in the seventh, he seemed initially paralyzed. He seemed to have some vague illusion of catching the ball and tagging out Craig, but that wasn’t going to happen. He again dived at the last second, tumbling over Craig. The ball went out into left field. the game was over.

Or was it? Middlebrooks was lying on the ground and Craig still had to get around him. The two men tangled up. Craig fell and then finally headed home. Boston left fielder Daniel Nava chased down the ball, threw home and Salty laid the tag on the thoroughly beaten up Allen Craig.

But, no, it was right the first time. The game was already over. Third base umpire Jim Joyce had immediately ruled obstruction, meaning Craig was safe at home.

Of course, there was mass hysteria because nobody could ever remember a game ending on an obstruction call. At first, the eyes focused on Middlebrooks and his intentions -- he lifted his back legs while on the ground, which seemed to thwart Craig’s efforts to run home, but had he done that on purpose? -- but as it turns out, intent has nothing to do with the rule. Any blockage, accidental or on purpose, after the ball gets by on that throw is obstruction. The rule:

Obstruction is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.

Seems pretty simple. And in the comment it becomes even simpler:

“After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the ‘act of fielding.’ 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’s so rare that you have an actual “textbook call” that is covered specifically in the rulebook. But here’s one. Replace “ground ball” with “horrendous throw” and you have a perfect match. Joyce clearly made the right call. The anger by the Red Sox and fans, while understandable because it was such a freakish play, does not fit the moment. Once Salty made that throw, once Middlebrooks failed to stop it, the Cardinals won the game. The rest is praying for a bailout.

And that’s why the one complaint I’ve heard that stands above all the others is that the umpires should “Let the players decide.” The thinking is that umpires and officials should not interfere with the natural course of play. You hear this all the time in sports, all sports. It comes up whenever a foul is called in the final seconds of a basketball game, whenever a referee calls a penalty in a hockey overtime, whenever an official calls a holding penalty or something like it on the critical play in the final seconds. The whole “let the players decide” line of thought seems pretty suspect most of the time.

But in this case, it’s downright ridiculous. You will never see a game where the manager and players DECIDED more than this one. When Farrell decided to hit his pitcher, when he decided to leave Napoli on the bench to rot, when he decided to pitch to Jay, when Salty decided to throw to third, when Middlebrooks decided not to come off the bag and throw his body Secret Service style to stop the ball, the Red Sox decided to lose. And they did.