Red Sox vs. Rays in ALCS

Varitek ruled down by contact, so his fumble on a key tag play doesn't count and the Angels join the White Sox in defeat.

Published October 7, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

The ground cannot cause a fumble in baseball, evidently, so the Los Angeles Angels are out and the first round of the playoffs is over without a Game 5 having been played.

Jed Lowrie's single drove in Jason Bay with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth Monday as the Boston Red Sox beat the Angels 3-2, giving them the best-of-five series in four games. The Tampa Bay Rays took care of the Chicago White Sox 6-2 earlier in the day in Chicago for the first postseason series win in that franchise's 11-year history.

So it's the Rays and the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series starting Friday in St. Petersburg. We already knew the Los Angeles Dodgers would be meeting the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series starting Thursday in Philly.

The Angels had a chance to take the lead in the top of the ninth of a 2-2 game Monday, but they botched a squeeze play. At least that's how it'll go in the books. With Reggie Willits at third and one out, manager Mike Scioscia called for the suicide squeeze with Erick Aybar batting against Manny Delcarmen. Aybar offered at the 2-0 pitch but missed, hanging Willits out to dry on the third-base line.

Catcher Jason Varitek chased the speedy outfielder back toward third, feinting with the ball as Willits stopped and started and tried to find a way out of the pickle. Willits finally committed to dive back to third, but by that time the lumbering, gear-laden catcher had enough momentum to catch him and tag him on the butt.

Varitek tumbled to the ground, and when his mitt hit the dirt, the ball rolled out. Willits, who had relaxed, scrambled over Varitek to get back to the bag, but umpire Tim Welke ruled Willits out, maintaining that Varitek had had control of the ball when he made the tag, that the fumble had come after the fact.

Scioscia argued, but not that vehemently. Aybar made an out and the Red Sox scored in the bottom of the ninth to end the Angels' season.

Welke's call makes sense, in that football way of breaking down fluid plays into segments that are completely separate from each other -- if the hair on the ball-carrier's arm touched the ground a picosecond before the ball comes loose, it's not a fumble. That sort of thing. But in the reasonably rational world of baseball, Willits should have been safe.

I don't think Welke would have made the call he made before the age of instant replay in football taught officials to break activities down into their component parts.

There was a play in the Phillies-Milwaukee Brewers series that showed how baseball traditionally does things. Brewers right fielder Corey Hart caught a fly ball as he crashed into the fence. He fell and rolled over, and along the way the ball came out of his glove, where it had been resting comfortably through the whole ordeal.

The ruling: Hit. It's not enough for a fielder to catch a ball. If he falls or dives or otherwise makes it hard for the umpire to see whether he's caught it, he has to hang onto it long enough to show it to the ump.

One of the most memorable plays I ever saw in person was a game-winning home run by Brian Downing of the California Angels against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 14, 1985. With the score tied and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Downing hit a deep fly ball down the left-field line in Anaheim. Blue Jays left fielder George Bell raced to the box-seat rail, leaned into the crowd and caught the ball for the third out. But before Bell could straighten himself up and get his glove out of the crowd, a fan reached in and plucked the ball out.

Home run.

It wasn't enough for Bell to go into the crowd to catch the ball. He had to bring it back. As with Hart, the play didn't end when the ball went into his glove. He had to complete his task, and he didn't do it.

The same should have gone for Varitek. Falling and dropping the ball was of a piece with tagging Willits. He needed to hang on to the ball to complete the play.

I know what you're thinking: What about that play at second base where the infielder drops the ball on the double-play pivot, but the runner is still called out at second because the umpire rules the infielder was taking the ball out of his glove for a throw? Taking the ball out of the glove is a new, separate action, though having said that, I'd be OK if the runner were called safe on that play.

If Welke's call was correct -- I suspect it was, though I can't find anything in the rule book about how long a fielder has to hang on to the ball on a tag play -- baseball should change that rule and force fielders to complete their plays in all cases. No component-part plays. Leave that to football.

Not that the Angels necessarily would have won had Willits been safe, or even scored. It's hard to argue the Red Sox weren't the better team in this series, and you can't ask for a more interesting matchup than the defending champion and budding dynasty Sox against the Rays, their division rivals, a team that a year ago went 66-96 and finished last in the A.L. East for the ninth time in their first 10 years. The other year, they finished next to last.

The Rays and Sox had a brawl in June, highlights of which you'll see 47 times between the time you read this and the first pitch Friday. It was a defining moment for the Rays, who took the opportunity to tell the world that they were tired of getting pushed around by the bullies on their block, the Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Now they'll have a chance for a far greater defining moment.

By King Kaufman

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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