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Game 6: Nats win despite potentially critical blown call

Well. Ask for an interesting World Series game and the baseball gods provide.

2019WS

After the two duds in Games 4 and 5, Game 6 was a fine entry. Close score, tense pitching, threats abound. Homers, sacrifices, line drives, and great defense. And, of course, to make it super special, an umpire had to get involved and potentially ruin things.

Fortunately, this latest umpiring malfeasance—home-plate umps have been an issue all Series, really—didn't end up influencing the final score in any significant way. Washington ended up scoring two instead of three-plus in that inning and then added on later, so Sam Holbrook can rest easy, relatively speaking. The Nationals took the game 7-2 and live to fight another day. But there was no knowing that would be the case when the potentially catastrophic call was made—Holbrook could easily have been the successor to Don Denkinger atop the pile of World Series umpiring infamy.

If you missed it, here's what happened: It's the top of the seventh inning. The Nats had persevered against Houston starter Justin Verlander and drove his pitch count over 100 in the fifth and finally bounced him from the game, leading 3-2 on the strength of two majestic solo home runs from Adam Eaton and Juan Soto two innings prior. Brad Peacock is on in his second inning of relief for the Astros and serves up a leadoff single to Washington catcher Yan Gomes. Next, Trea Turner chops at the first pitch to him and bounces it down the third-base side of the infield. Peacock rushes down to field the ball himself and throws off-line, to the home-plate side of first base. It's a strong throw, but Turner is ahead of it by half a step and is passing a lunging Yuli Gurriel, the Astros' (right-handed) first baseman, who while attempting to catch the wide throw hits Turner in the butt with his mitt and in fact loses the mitt from his hand. The ball was past him already and ended up hitting Turner in the leg a fraction of a second later. As the ball rolled away, Gomes went to third and Turner to second base. But wait—Sam Holbrook has called Turner out! His claim is that Turner interfered with Gurriel's ability to catch the throw and thus not only is Turner out, but the ball is dead and Gomes must return to first base.

Naturally, nobody in the Nationals' dugout was pleased with this. Manager Dave Martínez argued, insisted that the umpires convene and review the rule that Holbrook was justifying his out call with. They did convene, going so far as to consult the replay umpire in New York via headset, but ultimately said the call stands; Martínez then tried to lodge a formal protest, but the rule in question—Rule 5.09(a)(11)—is not a hard-and-fast rule, it relies on "the judgment of the umpire," and a judgment call is not an acceptable basis for protesting a game. Martínez erupted at that and was eventually ejected from the game by Holbrook.

Now, the next batter, Anthony Rendon, took a lot of heat off of Holbrook by sending his second pitch deep into the left-field seats and giving the Nats some breathing room at 5-2. But this is the World Series, and we all have seen how flammable the Washington relief corps is, and a three-run lead is not nearly as comfortable as a four-run lead would have been; or, with the second-and-third, none out scenario the expected call would have given, Rendon may have approached things differently and continued a rally that kept pressure on the Astros and resulted in more runs. Or not. But the play was setting up big things for the Nats, and Holbrook basically squashed it because he judged that Turner had interfered with the first baseman.

This call depends on the running lane you see on the latter half of the baseline between home and first. It's existence is mysterious, counter-intuitive, and in this instance, misapplied. Quoting Rule 5.09(a)(11):

Rule 5.09(a)— A batter is out when:  (1) ... (10)

(11) In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, [the baserunner] runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;

Rule 5.09(a)(11) Comment: The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base. [emphasis mine]

So, two problems here for Holbrook. 1: Turner did not prevent or attempt to prevent Gurriel from catching the throw. The throw was past Gurriel at the point Gurriel's mitt contacted Turner's butt. Further, the throw was not impeded by Turner as Peacock's angle to first base was well clear of Turner's trajectory from home to first; it was just a wide throw that would have been wide regardless of Turner's position. 2: At the point of contact, Turner was in the act of reaching first base, as stated in the rule, "by means of step, stride, reach, or slide," so his presence in or out of the running lane should be irrelevant, particularly given that he in no way impeded the throw.

It is true that Turner was never inside that running lane. Because the lane is placed outside of fair territory and outside of a straight-line path from the batter's box to first base; had Turner entered it, he would have lost a precious half-second on his way to a bang-bang play at first. Its very existence seems . . . flawed.

Lots of people took to Twitter to defend Holbrook, citing the fact that Turner was not ever in the running lane.

Again, a couple of issues.

1: Every infield chop like this results in the runner taking the most direct route to first base. It happened several other times in this very game. If that were the standard, every bang-bang play at first would be an out on the same basis.

2: No less an authority than Joe Torre stated bluntly that Turner was not called out because of the lane thing but because Gurriel whacked Turner's butt and lost his mitt. "The call was that he interfered with Gurriel trying to catch the ball. You notice the glove [sic; first basemen and catchers have mitts] came off his hand. That's when Sam Holbrook called him out for basically interference."

Again, Turner did not interfere. He did not veer from his straight-line trajectory, his presence was not the cause of an off-line throw. If anything, Gurriel interfered with him. But it didn't affect his reaching first ahead of the play regardless, the throw was already past Gurriel, and Holbrook was simply wrong. More support of this comes from Rule 6.01: Interference, Obstruction, and Catcher Collisions. From section (a), "batter or runner interference," subsection 10, it is interference by a batter or runner when:

He fails to avoid a fielder who is attempting to field a batted ball, or intentionally interferes with a thrown ball . . . . The umpire shall call the runner out in accordance with Rule 5.09(b)(3)*. If the batter-runner is adjudged not to have hindered a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball, and if the base runner’s interference is adjudged not to be intentional, the batter-runner shall be awarded first base;
[emphasis mine]

* Rule 5.09(b)(3): Any runner is out when he intentionally interferes with a thrown ball or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball

Holbrook could just as easily have called obstruction on Gurriel. It would have had the same support or lack thereof from the rules. Rule 6.01(d): "In case of unintentional interference with play by any person herein authorized to be on the playing field the ball is alive and in play. If the interference is intentional, the ball shall be dead at the moment of the interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as will nullify the act of interference." Penalties are proscribed by Rule 6.01(h)(1):

If the batter-runner is obstructed before he touches first base, the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, if there had been no obstruction. The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction. Any preceding runners, forced to advance by the award of bases as the penalty for obstruction, shall advance without liability to be put out.

You can bet the Astros would have raised holy hell had Holbrook gone this route, and they'd have been right to do so because Gurriel did not intentionally obstruct Turner any more than Turner intentionally interfered with Gurriel.

Denkinger's call against the 1985 Cardinals may well have cost them a Game 6 win and he was hounded for it for the rest of his career. Holbrook escaped such infamy. He should count himself lucky. That said, this was such an egregious call, so completely without basis, that two things should happen: Holbrook should be disciplined in some way, something other than a fine; and that running lane should be re-examined.

 The lane exists in order to allow a clean throw to be made, generally by a catcher, to first base from behind the baserunner. Its practicality is solely present in circumstances where a throw is from a small enough angle that a direct throw would hit the runner on its way to the first baseman. A rule adjustment should be implemented that either does away with the lane entirely and imposes some other protection for such throws, or, more practically, limits the involvement of the lane to only throws from the immediate vicinity of home plate. This seems obvious without codifying a rule, but, as with other (and far more important) things we've witnessed in recent months and years involving people that work in Washington, DC, we should protect against ignoramuses and fraudsters who would abuse or ignore this common sense expectation.

But hey, we got Big Drama in an exciting World Series game and we get to tune in tomorrow for a decisive Game 7. So . . . yay?

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