Was Obstruction the Right Call to Make on Wild Last Play of Game 3?

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Was Obstruction the Right Call to Make on Wild Last Play of Game 3?
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The third game of the 2013 World Series was the most dramatic contest of the series to date. For that matter, it can be filed away as one of the most dramatic World Series games in recent memory.

Its ending, however, was a real head-scratcher. 

If you missed it, the end result of Game 3 was a 5-4 victory for the St. Louis Cardinals over the Boston Red Sox. The Cardinals won it on a walk-off when Allen Craig crossed home plate in the bottom of the ninth inning.

But Craig scored not on a home run, hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, wild pitch or anything of the sort. Instead, he scored from third base on an obstruction call made by veteran umpire Jim Joyce, subsequently awarded home by plate umpire Dana DeMuth. Not exactly the kind of thing you see every day, nor the kind of thing you want to see happen in the World Series.

However, Joyce made the right call. 

It may have been a call that came at an unusual time, and it's certainly a call that Red Sox Nation is never going to let go. But all Joyce did was abide by the rule book, as umpires are supposed to do.

We're going to break down why Joyce's call was the right one, but first things first. For those who missed it or just want to watch it again, here's the video of the play.

Courtesy of MLB.com.

The series of events in order: Dustin Pedroia making a great diving play, Yadier Molina getting tagged out at home, Jarrod Saltalmacchia's throw to third sailing up the left field line, Allen Craig and Will Middlebrooks getting tangled up around the third base bag, and then the call and the end of the ballgame that saved Craig from being tagged out at home for the third out of the inning.

So there's that. Now for second things second: defining "obstruction."

Here's how obstruction is defined by Major League Baseball:

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.

It's clear just from watching the video that Middlebrooks impeded with Craig's progress toward the plate. For good measure, here's a still image of Craig standing just off the bag and preparing to make toward home plate once he saw the ball skip down the line:

A fraction of a second later, Craig found himself running right into Middlebrooks' spikes:

Then a fraction of a second after that, Craig was on the ground:

You can see that Joyce had his eyes on Allen Craig immediately after the ball went sailing into left field. Joyce also had his eyes on Craig when he actually tripped over Will Middlebrooks, and his eyes were still on Craig the moment after he had tripped over Middlebrooks.

There was no question that Craig's progress was impeded by the Sox third baseman, and there's no question that Jim Joyce had a complete picture of the play. The only thing he had to consider in the heat of the moment was whether there was a reason to let Middlebrooks off the hook.

There are times when an umpire can let a fielder off the hook in a case of possible obstruction. And they are:

If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. For example: If 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.

Those last two passages are bolded here because they apply to Middlebrooks. Once Saltalamacchia's throw sailed past him, he ceased to be an infielder in the "act of fielding" and became merely a body in Craig's way. As the rules state, lying on the ground as the result of a play is no excuse to obstruct a runner.

For those who are wondering, it doesn't matter whether Middlebrooks intentionally raised his legs as part of an attempt to trip Craig. Via MLB Public Relations' Twitter account, here's World Series crew chief John Hirshbeck:

With intent being neither here nor there, Middlebrooks could have laid as still and as flat as a rock if he wanted to—had Craig still tripped over him, it still would have qualified as obstruction.

As for what happens when there is obstruction, here's rule 7.06: "When obstruction occurs, the umpire shall call or signal 'Obstruction.'"

Joyce didn't hesitate to make the crucial call, signalling in the direction of Middlebrooks and Craig before Craig had even gotten all the way to his feet:

Once Joyce's call was made, then it was a matter of applying rule 7.06(b):

If no play is being made on the obstructed runner, the play shall proceed until no further action is possible. The umpire shall then call “Time” and impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction.

Rule 7.06(b) Comment: Under 7.06(b) when the ball is not dead on obstruction and an obstructed runner advances beyond the base which, in the umpire’s judgment, he would have been awarded because of being obstructed, he does so at his own peril and may be tagged out. This is a judgment call.

Nava's throw from the foul ground beyond third base just barely beat Craig to home plate. The judgment of the crew was essentially that Craig would have been safe had he not been obstructed.

"If what you saw tonight happened and he's out by 20 feet, then the umpire determines that if the obstruction had not occurred, he would have been out, okay?" said Hirschbeck after the game, via MLB.com. "But since it was right there, bang, bang play, obviously that's obstruction, definitely had something to do with the play.

And that was that. A walk-off win and a 2-1 series lead for the Cardinals, and a gut-punching, heart-breaking loss for the Red Sox. All courtesy of MLB's rule book.

Was it a lousy way to end a ballgame? Absolutely. Especially considering that it ended a truly great ballgame. 

The Cardinals and Red Sox had played eight-and-a-half excellent innings of baseball. The Red Sox had come back from a 2-0 deficit, and then back from a 4-2 deficit after Matt Holliday's two-run double in the bottom of the seventh inning. What's more, Boston's second comeback came against the seemingly invincible duo of Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. It's a shame that the drama had to come to a stop thanks to an application of the rules.

But since it was a correct application of the rules, blaming Jim Joyce for costing the Red Sox a game is folly. 

If there's anything worth being upset about, it's the language of the rule book. The question at hand now is and likely always will be just what the heck Will Middlebrooks was supposed to do, and we know that question is a fair one because it doesn't have a logical answer.

Middlebrooks obviously didn't help himself by raising his legs and making it look like he was trying to trip Craig, but he could have been called for interference even if he had been lying completely still. And if Craig had tripped over Middlebrooks while he was trying to get out of the way, Middlebrooks could have been called for interference then too.

Basically, Middlebrooks was in a no-win situation the second he hit the deck and Craig decided he was going to go for home. The only way he was going to avoid being called for obstruction is if Craig successfully hurdled him or went around him.

Maybe Game 3 will serve as an excuse for MLB to consider a tweaking or addendum to the rule book that allows for infielders to be cut some slack. If that happens, then perhaps future controversies will be avoided.

But in this case, Joyce's call is only controversial because of the timing, not because it was the wrong call. According to the rule book, the Cardinals won the ballgame fair and square.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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