Setting aside the rightness or wrongness of the three plays referenced in the title, I think we can all agree that the fact that they played out the way they did and were called as they were amounted to three huge breaks for the Cubs. Without them, the Cubs very well might lose that game. And yet, all three plays happened/were called in the Cubs’ favor. If that’s not the clear emergence of Cubs Voodoo Magic, I don’t know what is.
Let’s chat about each of those plays, though, because the day after question seems more to be: did the Cubs get a break on the calls? Like, should any of those calls have gone the other way?
My ruling on each …
The Javy Baez Strikeout
In the midst of the INSANE FIFTH INNING (which is how it will be known henceforth), Javy Baez struck out swinging at a pitch that got by catcher Matt Wieters. On his backswing, Baez’s bat hit Wieters in the face mask. Thereafter, Wieters went to get the ball, and Baez ran to first. Wieters made the terrible decision to throw, the Cubs scored a run, and the INSANE FIFTH INNING continued.
In the immediate aftermath, nobody really thought much about the correctness of that play unless this popped up on Twitter:
I don't want to be an alarmist, but… it would appear they seriously messed that up. pic.twitter.com/0aABJlzGkC
— Jeff Long (@JeffLongBP) October 13, 2017
Sounds bad, right?
Well, the rub there is twofold: for one thing, in the umpire’s judgment, Baez’s swing did not affect Wieters, and thus there was no interference in a very plain sense (Washington Post). For a second thing, the umpire said the rule is really for stolen base or play in front of the catcher type situations where you wouldn’t want the batter’s wild swing interfering with the catcher’s ability to make a play.
Putting on my former lawyer parsing goggles, though, I think the umpire is wrong about his interpretation of the language there. The “in the umpire’s judgment” clause is written as to modify the word “unintentionally”, which means that the clause stands to separate that part of the rule from intentional interference by the batter, which automatically results in the batter being out.
In other words, if a guy is stealing and you kick the catcher in the face before he can throw, you’re out and the runner goes back to first. But if you accidentally strike the catcher on your backswing (and accidentally is determined in the judgment of the ump), then it’s a strike and the ball is dead. Applied very strictly, that rule would mean Baez was out from the moment his bat hit Wieters, and the inning is over.
HOWEVA, is that really how MLB would want that play to turn out under this rule? I think what we have here is a rule that is meant for a different situation and is not written in a way to properly contemplate what happened last night. And when you have that situation and you apply a rule strictly, you get bad results. In my view, if this rule had been applied strictly last night, that would have been a bad result.
So, in the end, on the Javy Baez K, my ruling is that it was the wrong call, and in that way, the Nationals got screwed … but the “right” call would have been totally against the actual spirit of this rule. So, in cosmic fairness terms, this one went the right way. Sorry, Nats.
The Jon Jay Takeout Slide
In the 7th inning, the Cubs got a critical insurance run – their final run – on a Kris Bryant force out. Jon Jay slid hard into second base, breaking up any real chance at a double play (Bryant runs so well he was probably going to be safe anyway), and the Nationals wondered if the slide rule had been violated.
Here’s the play, and the screencap MLB.com uses for the video actually shows you a pretty good shot of why it was reviewed:
On this one, Jay could have very easily been called for interference, which would have meant Bryant was out, and the run doesn’t score.
Here’s the new slide rule, in case you forgot:
When sliding into a base in an attempt to break up a double play, a runner has to make a “bona fide slide.” Such is defined as the runner making contact with the ground before reaching the base, being able to reach the base with a hand or foot, being able to remain on the base at the completion of the slide (except at home plate) and not changing his path for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder. The slide rule prohibits runners from using a “roll block” or attempting to initiate contact with the fielder by elevating and kicking his leg above the fielder’s knee, throwing his arm or his upper body or grabbing the fielder. When a violation of the slide rule occurs, the offending runner and the batter-runner will be called out.
Accidental contact can occur in the course of a permissible slide, and a runner will not be called for interference if contact is caused by a fielder being in the runner’s legal pathway to the base.
Daniel Murphy was definitely not in Jay’s path, so that’s off the table. Similarly, Jay did everything you need for a “bona fide slide,” so that’s all good, too. The questions are (1) did he “change his path for the purpose of initiating contact” with Murphy, and/or (2) did he “elevate and kick his leg above” Murphy’s knee?
Going with that second one first, it’s really close. Jay’s leg gets up very high, and pretty much right at Murphy’s knee level. But if the standard on that part is that it has to be above the knee, I think Jay gets a pass.
So we’re left with: did Jay alter his path to hit Murphy? In my view, he did. Murphy took the throw in such a way as to leave a very clear, direct path to the base – which is what the runner is supposed to take – but Jay veered slightly out to the left so that he could slide sideways and make contact with Murphy.
Yes, since time immemorial, that’s a good, clean baseball play. But the new rule was designed to force runners to go straight to the base when that is available to them. Jay did not. Just barely. It’s close.
Would I have had the stones to overturn this one and call interference? I’m not sure as I sit here today. If it had gone against the Cubs, though, I’ve gotta be honest, I probably would have griped about the rule being applied too broadly or some such thing, and I would have moved on. I would not have thought – under the language of the rule – the Cubs got screwed.
So my ruling on this one? The Cubs caught a break. Not an unreasonable break. Not a break that the Nationals should linger on for months. But a break.
The Jose Lobaton Pick-Off
In the (always dreaded) 8th inning, with Wade Davis grinding in what was to be his second of three innings in the game, it looked like the Nationals might score more than just one run and tie the game up. Or maybe that’s just how it felt, because it was the 8th inning and we’re Cubs fans.
In any case, Willson Contreras took it upon himself to end the inning, firing a pick-off throw to first base and nailing Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton after a replay review.
Here’s the play, on which Lobaton looks extremely safe in real time:
But the Cubs’ video crew saw that momentary blip when Lobaton’s cleat came off the base while Rizzo was still applying the tag, and Lobaton was called out.
It’s correct. He was not on the base and a glove with the ball in it was pressed to his body. So, he’s out. That’s baseball.
… and I hate it.
I mean, obviously I love it for last night, because who knows what happens if the Cubs don’t get that out. All appropriate credit to Contreras, Rizzo, and Cubs video guy Nate Halm.
But I have always expressed my severe distaste for instant replay being used in this way, because – as we’ve seen – the micro view of the way the body works leads to this kind of “out” far too often. Arguably worse, these reviews encourage runners to slide head-first so they can grab the base with their hands … and tear ligaments and break fingers in the process.
To me, it’s a pretty easy fix, and a way to kill two birds with one new rule stone: if a runner slides into a base feet first, makes contact with the base before he is tagged, he is safe so long as the natural movement of his body gets his foot right back on the bag if there’s a momentary slip off the base.
We can massage the language as necessary, but that’s the gist. Not only does it do away with these kinds of reviews, but it also encourages feet-first slides.
So, my ruling on this is that the out call was quite obviously correct under the current rule landscape, but I think that landscape needs to change this offseason.
In the end, the Cubs caught three breaks in how these plays went. I’m not sure the letter of the law was applied correctly in the first two, but I’m also not sure the outcome in each case was totally “unfair” to the Nationals. The letter of the law was definitely correctly applied in the third instance, but boy oh boy does that letter of the law need to change.