ST. LOUIS -- It is a play that may live in infamy.
The circumstances are slightly different, not yet as immediately decisive. Perhaps the Red Sox will shed the feeling of emptiness in the week of their Game 3 defeat and come back to win the World Series, in which case, the play will become a memorable footnote rather than a defining moment. But maybe they won't.
And if the Red Sox should go on to lose the World Series to the Cardinals, then late on Saturday night in Busch Stadium, a successor to Pesky holding the ball and the groundball through Buckner's legs and Grady leaving in Pedro may have born.
The head-spinning play that led to the Red Sox' 5-4 walk-off loss to the Cardinals in Game 3 (and a 2-1 advantage for St. Louis in the Fall Classic) provoked a sense of injustice, agony and disbelief inside the Red Sox clubhouse. Perhaps most powerful, intermingling with all of those emotions was a sense of helplessness about what had just transpired.
How, a shellshocked Sox team wondered, had a remarkable World Series game been decided in unprecedented and unimaginable fashion? How could a game of such pivotal meaning have its decisive play occur on an umpire's obstruction call, the winning run awarded on a play where Cardinals slugger Allen Craig was tagged before reaching home plate?
"Tough way to have a game end," grimaced manager John Farrell. "Tough pill to swallow."
"I'm absolutely shocked that a game of this magnitude could be decided like that," said starter Jake Peavy. "It just doesn't seem right. We don't know the rulebook hand and foot, but it certainly just doesn't seem right there. It's all I can do to just say that. I'll leave it at that. It's a crying shame... It's just unbelievable that happens in the World Series."
So what happened in those 15 decisive seconds that offered the painful and wild culmination of a painful and wild game for the Red Sox? The play will be revisited hundreds of times, yet the sequence of events that yielded a one-of-a-kind walkoff remains difficult to comprehend.
The situation: The Red Sox had come back to tie the game, 4-4, in the top of the eighth inning with a two-run rally that was punctuated by a two-out, RBI single on a bouncer up the middle by 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts against previously untouchable Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal. Reliever Brandon Workman kept the Cardinals off the board in the bottom of the eighth, batted for himself (a development that Farrell acknowledged could have and should have been avoided) in the top of the ninth and remained in the game for the bottom of the frame.
The right-hander punched out Matt Adams to open the ninth, but then yielded a bloop single to Yadier Molina with one out. That, in turn, prompted Farrell to summon closer Koji Uehara, who was available for as many as five outs.
Yet Uehara, so often untouchable, yielded a first-pitch double to pinch-hitter Allen Craig, putting runners on second and third with one out. With the game-winning run 90 feet away, the Sox did not intentionally walk John Jay to set up a force at any base, but instead drew their infield in to cut down a potential run on a grounder.
Jay fouled off a first-pitch fastball. And then...
Jay rocketed an elevated splitter away, managing to square it and pull it for what looked, off the bat, like a potential game-winning hit. But Dustin Pedroia made an astonishing play on the smash, diving to his right to pick it, jumping up and setting to make a strong throw to the plate. Molina was a goner at the plate. Out No. 2.
Saltalamacchia looked up and saw Craig -- who, until his return to the Cardinals lineup for Game 1 of the World Series, had been out since early September due to an injured left foot -- lumbering towards third. The catcher felt he had a shot at gunning down a player whose health prevented him from being able to play the field.
"Pedey made a great diving play, threw the ball to me, we were able to get [Molina]," said Saltalamacchia. "I wasn’t expecting [Craig] to go. But at the same time, you’re taught to make the tag and look up. I made the tag and looked up, saw he wasn’t even halfway there and he’s not been running great. I thought I was able to get him. I made the throw.”
The throw was not a good one, the decision to throw at all questionable. Even had the throw been on the money, there is a decent chance that it would not have beaten Craig.
"It's a bang-bang play [with a good throw]," said Farrell, who took note that the Cardinals scored the game-winning runs in both Game 2 (Craig Breslow's wild throw to third) and Game 3 on plays at third base. "As it turns out, we have forced a couple of throws to third base that have proven costly. Tonight was a costly throw."
Indeed it was. The throw was off target, near the dirt, wide of third base and with some tail towards the shortstop position. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks tried to reach to dig the ball to his left, going into something of a dive towards the ball, a few feet off the third base line, but the ball snuck under his glove and bounded into foul territory down the left field line.
It was at that point, about 10 seconds into the play, that a fateful entanglement occurred. Craig, who had slid into third, turned his head to track the ball as it bounded past the infield. He recognized the opportunity to advance, hopped up and took off towards home.
But as he returned to his feet and attempted to advance, he stumbled over Middlebrooks, who was lying on his belly with his legs bent at the knees, feet up. Craig briefly lost his footing, stumbled and regained his balance by pushing down on Middlebrooks -- a sequence observed by third-base ump Jim Joyce, who immediately pointed at the spot of the collision to indicate his ruling of obstruction.
"When [Craig] tried to advance to home plate, [Middlebrooks'] feet were up in the air, and [Craig] tripped over Middlebrooks right there, and immediately and instinctually I called obstruction," said Joyce. "The feet didn't play too much into [the ruling] because [Middlebrooks] was still in the area where the baserunner needs to go to advance to home plate, and unfortunately for Middlebrooks he was right there. And there was contact, so [Craig] could not advance to home plate naturally."
Once they found out that Middlebrooks had been found in violation of the obstruction ruling, the Sox struggled to wrap their heads around the verdict. What, they wondered, could Middlebrooks have done? He dove to catch the ball, and hadn't had time to get up before Craig stumbled over him. Moreover, because Middlebrooks dove to his left in an attempt to stop the ball, he was inside the baseline, at least a couple feet towards the shortstop position when Craig ran into him.
"There's nowhere else for me to go. I can't just let that ball go and think, 'Oh, man, he's going to run into me five feet inside the baseline and be called safe.' That's never going through your mind, obviously," said Middlebrooks. "There was nothing I could have done differently.
"It's tough because you can't do anything different there. You've got to go for that ball. you can't just let it go. A lot of plays like that go for the baserunner. Like I said, I was a good ways inside the baseline. If he's in the baseline, he's not on me."
Two clarifications are necessary. First, the fact that Middlebrooks' entanglement with Craig occurred unintentionally rather than as a willful impediment to the runner did not matter. When Craig was running, by rule, he had a right to a clear path to the plate. Even if Middlebrooks couldn't get out of the way, the obstruction ruling still could have been applied.
Indeed, the definition of obstruction under Major League Baseball Rule 2.00 seems to point to precisely a play like the one involving Middlebrooks and Craig.
"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: 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."
In other words, regardless of whether the obstruction was purposeful or accidental, it was still an act that merited the ruling. Middlebrooks was no longer making a play on the ball. He was in the way of the baserunner. Thus, he obstructed.
"With the defensive player on the ground, without intent or [with] intent, it's still obstruction," said Joyce. "You'd probably have to ask Middlebrooks that one, if he could have done anything. But that's not our determination."
The second clarification pertains to the baseline. Craig hopped up on the inside of the third-base bag after his slide, and he was inside of it when he ran over Middlebrooks. But that, too, doesn't matter in rendering the obstruction judgment.
"The runner establishes his own baseline," noted umpiring crew chief John Hirschbeck. "If he's on second on a base hit and rounds third wide, that baseline is from where he is, way outside the line, back to third and to home plate, it's almost a triangle."
At the time, virtually everyone on the Sox was tracking the ball and no one saw the obstruction ruling. Indeed, there was popular confusion in the Red Sox clubhouse after the fact, as many believed it was home plate ump Dana DeMuth, rather than Joyce, who rendered the ruling.
At the time of the obstruction ruling, it's worth noting that the play was not over. The obstruction call only mattered if it changed the outcome of the play -- meaning, if Craig was thrown out, he would only be ruled safe if it was determined that he would have been safe in the absence of the obstruction. The play had to continue.
And continue it did, again in somewhat spectacular fashion. In left field, Daniel Nava did a tremendous job of backing up the errant throw, ranging far to his right to glove the ball well into foul territory and fire a one-hop throw to Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the outside of the plate. Saltamacchia grabbed the ball and swept it back across towards the plate, tagging Craig just before he arrived at the dish.
The Sox thought they had just witnessed one of the greatest plays in franchise history.
"Should have witnessed one of the best plays in the history of the World Series -- two guys thrown out at home," noted Jonny Gomes.
But at that point, home plate umpire Dana DeMuth immediately signaled that Craig was safe and pointed to third base, the point of obstruction. While Nava's throw had just barely beaten Craig to the plate, in the absence of the obstruction, DeMuth determined that the Cardinals plodder would have been safe, and so he was credited with scoring the decisive run.
Chaos ensued. The Cardinals dugout swarmed the field to celebrate with Craig. Farrell, Pedroia and Middlebrooks charged at DeMuth to try to figure out what had happened and, once they learned of the obstruction call, to join Saltalamacchia in collective protest.
The two-team convergence at home plate offered an appropriate visual embodiment of a confounding moment, with the Sox' request that the umpiring crew convene -- as they did in Game 1, when they overruled DeMuth's call when Pete Kozma closed his glove before catching a fielder's choice -- going unanswered.
"It's a play you can't overturn unfortunately, but golly, man, it's hard to end a game like that on a call like that… To play a whole three hours and come down to that was rough," said Nava. "It was just kind of weird and something that doesn't happen too often and hopefully it doesn't happen again to us or anyone. I don't think you want to win a game. If you win it, you want to win it on a walk-off hit or lose it on the other team doing that."
The umpiring crew did not need to confer, however. There was consensus that Joyce had made the right ruling.
"Immediately after we got off the field into our locker room, we congratulated [Joyce] and said, 'Great call,' " said crew chief Hirschbeck. "I could see it all in front of me as it happened.
"We're trained to look for these things," he continued. "It's out of the ordinary, but when it happens, and it's the World Series, you expect to get it right."
There are times when the enforcement of the law still comes with a whiff of injustice, when individuals are penalized for actions over which they have little control. Yet an unintended crime is still a crime, and it comes with consequences, something that the Red Sox -- particularly Middlebrooks, who was charged with the walk-off error, the first in a World Series since Mookie Wilson's bounder went through Buckner's legs 27 years and a day earlier -- were left to lament.
Peavy, in particular, seemed consumed by distress. Long removed from his four-inning, two-run outing, he repeated a refrain over and over.
"It doesn't seem right," he repeated time after time. "It doesn't seem right.
"You have two great, great baseball teams playing out there and you had such a great game tonight. This was a phenomenal game tonight all the way down to the final play. Guys just absolutely pouring their heart out. For it to end on a call like that, I don't know how anybody can say, 'Yeah, that's the way it should have ended.' Go find me one person who's OK with that call other than Cardinals fans because their team won the game. That's not OK.
"It's a joke. It's a joke," he added. "When you watch how hard these teams are playing in the World Series and what it takes to get here, what it takes to do what we did climbing back, it's just amazing to me that it would end on a call like that that's not black and white. I just don't know what else to say."
There was nothing else to be said.
There were elements over which the Sox had control that contributed to that game-ending breakdown. Saltalamacchia could have made a better throw. Middlebrooks could have made a better play to catch the ball. Farrell could have made better late-innings decisions. Uehara could have thrown a better splitter to Craig.
Yet while all of those facts were true, they were likewise all superseded in an emotional Red Sox clubhouse by the reality that the winning run was scored by a player whom everyone on the team saw getting tagged before he reached home plate.
So what now? Unlike Buckner's blunder or Pesky holding the ball to permit Enos Slaughter's game-winning mad dash from first in the 1946 World Series, the obstruction occurred at a much earlier stage of the series. There is more time to recover, more time for the Sox to rebound. And so, a Sox team that demonstrated remarkable resolve throughout the 2013 season insists that it will do the same as it prepares for Game 4 on Sunday.
"This game's not going to define our team, by any means," said Pedroia. "We lost a tough game. We'll come out and play tomorrow. This won't stop us."
A bold claim, to be sure, and one that won't necessarily be easy to fulfill. But at this point, the Sox have little choice but to do so if they are to avoid having those 15 crushing seconds transform into a symbol that will haunt them for years.