Rays-Red Sox: The day after

Pondering Tampa's momentum-changing (ha!), pennant race-affecting (ha!) win. Plus: ESPN's Gammons and Co. confidently err on the rules.

Topics: Baseball, Paul Shirley, ESPN,

A few thoughts about Wednesday’s game of the century, the Tampa Bay Rays’ 4-2, 14-inning win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The win was the second in a row for the Rays, giving them the series and restoring their lead in the American League East to two and a half games.

What had been a five and a half-game lead on the morning of Sept. 1 had shrunk to half a game after the Sox won the series opener Monday night.

1. This was a big, fun September game, but not so much because of the pennant-race implications. As hobbyhorsed in this space before, there really isn’t much of a pennant race going on between the Sox and the Rays because, barring a total collapse, the second-place finisher will make the playoffs anyway as the wild card.

Now, the Rays had been looking pretty total collapsy before Tuesday’s win, losing six out of seven, and that could still happen. But that would be a total collapse and wild-card race story, not a pennant-race story.

And in fact, that was the compelling story line Wednesday night. Are the Rays, the story of the season so far, the perennial sad sacks who have turned themselves into an exciting pennant contender in the space of a year, collapsing? Or can they beat out the defending World Series champs, Evil Empire Jr., and win the division?

It’s a far more compelling question in St. Tampasburg, where winning the division would be huge, than it is in Boston, where winning the division or wild card is a minor question as long as the Red Sox win the World Series.

2. As likewise hobbyhorsed ad nauseam around here: The idea of momentum in baseball is bunk.

It’s the ninth inning Tuesday night. The Rays have lost four in a row and six out of seven, including Monday night in Boston, when the Red Sox handed Tampa Bay its second shutout loss in a row. The Sox, meanwhile, have won two in a row, six out of seven and 11 out of 14. In the bigger picture, of course, the Sox are the defending champs and a baseball superpower. The Rays are the Devil Rays with new uniforms.

The Red Sox have just scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 4-3 lead. In every way it’s possible to have momentum, the Red Sox have all the momentum.



The Rays score two in the top of the ninth and win the game, 5-4.

So, OK, momentum fans. Who had it coming into Wednesday night’s game? The Rays, with that stirring comeback? Or the Sox, who had still cut four games off Tampa’s lead this month, had still won six out of eight and 11 out of 15 while the Rays had still lost six out of eight themselves?

And who has it now?

The answer is nobody. Day off Thursday, whole new ballgames Friday, the Rays in New York and the Sox home against Toronto.

3. Did you catch that Steve Bartman play in the second inning? Fan interference down the left-field line. It looked eerily like that famous play in the 2003 National League Championship Series, when the Chicago Cubs fan appeared to reach over the barrier and interfere with Cubs left fielder Moises Alou as he tried to catch a foul fly.

The umpires didn’t rule interference on that play, and within moments the Cubs, who had been five outs away from the World Series, collapsed, blowing a lead and losing that Game 6 to the Florida Marlins, who also won Game 7.

Mike Lowell was — ironically, as they’d say on TV — in the Marlins lineup that night, and he lifted the pop down the left-field line Wednesday. A fan reached over the barrier, above a sliding Rays left fielder Dan Johnson. The ball hit the fan’s hands and fell to the ground. Lowell was quickly called out on fan interference by third-base umpire Mark Wegner.

First, the play was Example 8,234,531 of a point I made after the Bartman Game, that all of the people bloviating over how the fan, later identified as Bartman, should have known enough to get out of the way of the home-team fielder and let him catch the ball were full of it:

“I do know that I’ve never, ever seen a fan of the home team get out of the fielder’s way in that situation, and I’m pretty confident I’m never going to see it,” I wrote. “All those people throwing beer at the guilty fan would have done the exact same thing if they’d been in that spot.”

This wasn’t quite the same thing. This time the visiting team was in the field. So OK, the fan was interfering with a possible double. Doesn’t matter. It’s just a kind of instinct to reach for the ball. It’s what fans do.

But let’s get to the call. Lowell popped the ball down the line and Johnson is a first baseman by trade. Before Wednesday night he had played a couple dozen games in the outfield in the minor leagues and none in the majors. He ran over and went into an awkward slide across the line.

He had ducked his head and was no longer looking at the ball when the fan touched it. Judging from where his glove was, it looked like Johnson had a better chance of being eaten by wolves at that moment than he had of catching the ball.

The ball clanked off the fan’s hands as he reached onto the field. Johnson jumped up and objected, and Wegner signaled that Lowell was out. The Red Sox argued a bit. This wasn’t a call reviewable under the new instant-replay rules.

ESPN’s announcing crew immediately decided that the umpire had made the correct call. They were able to determine this by leveraging their complete lack of understanding about the rule.

“This is an umpire’s opinion,” Rick Sutcliffe said. “Could he have caught the ball? I don’t think there’s any question that he could have. You saw by the way Johnson reacted. When he jumped up, he said, ‘I could have made that play.’”

Actually, the question isn’t whether he could have caught it. It’s whether the umpire thinks he “clearly” would have caught it. There’s no way at all Johnson would have caught that ball.

Dave O’Brien thought the call was so obvious he was surprised to see Sox manager Terry Francona get a little hot in the argument: “It is rather surprising because from our angle, the ones we’ve shown you, that’s not a difficult play for an umpire to rule on,” he said.

Sutcliffe: “I mean, you look at where the glove is, I don’t even think Johnson was still looking at the baseball. Probably not going to make the play. Might have been a double. You don’t know exactly where it would have come down.”

Sutcliffe reads like he talks like the first President Bush, doesn’t he?

The down-the-line replay made it look like the ball would have landed just foul. Not conclusive, but that’s what it looked like.

“Whether or not he definitely would have caught it is not the point,” chimed in a voice from on high — Peter Gammons, atop the Green Monster. “He could have caught it,” Gammons said. “The umpires made the right call.”

The relevant rule, as it was in the Bartman game, is Rule 3.16:

3.16
When there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his opinion will nullify the act of interference.
APPROVED RULING: If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out.

Emphasis mine. The fan did not “clearly prevent a fielder from catching a fly ball.” It prevented a fielder from having what looked like maybe a one in a billion chance of catching a fly ball. It prevented a ball from, most likely, landing foul near a sliding fielder who wasn’t looking at it.

It’s not a big deal for announcers not to know a rule like that off the top of their heads. It doesn’t come up that often. I didn’t know it offhand. But it sounded wrong to me when the announcers started talking about the standard being whether the fielder could have, rather than would have, caught the ball.

So I looked it up.

Wasn’t there anybody within earshot of ESPN’s announcers who could have done the same? They had all night. They have Internet access.

It wasn’t the only call that went against the Red Sox Wednesday night. Jacoby Ellsbury beat out a grounder with two on and two out in the ninth but was called out on a bang-bang play. The Sox also argued about an out call on a force play at second in the fourth inning when Akinori Iwamura bobbled the throw, but second-base umpire Dale Scott ruled, correctly, it appeared, that Iwamura dropped the ball on the transfer to his throwing hand.

All important plays in what turned out to be a 14-inning loss for the Sox. But at least — in the longer-than-15-inning view, at least — they still have all that momentum.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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