“Immediately once we got off the field, and into our locker room, we congratulated Jim. We said ‘great call.’”
Those were the words of crew chief John Hirschbeck, referring to third base umpire Jim Joyce’s obstruction call that gave the Cardinals a 5-4 win in Game Three of the World Series. The Red Sox weren’t so sure.
To say the call was controversial would be an understatement. It rivaled football’s infamous “tuck rule game,” but this time it didn’t benefit a team from New England, nor did it happen in a snowstorm. It happened in a sea of Busch Stadium red, white towels twirling, and ended one of the most-captivating baseball games you’ll ever see.
Boston manager John Farrell’s interpretation is telling.
“I’ve seen [the replay] and I can’t say the legs were being raised to impede his progress,” said Farrell. “It’s a tough way to have a game end. He’s on the ground, and if he tries to raise up, then he’s clearly getting in his way.”
In other words, there was nothing third baseman Will Middlebrooks could do to avoid being called for obstruction. Much like what happened in Foxboro in 2001, an umpire was forced to make a call that arguably defies logic. Joyce’s explanation backs that up.
“The feet didn’t really play too much into it,” said Joyce. “He was still in the area where the base runner needs to go to advance to home plate. The base runner has every right to go, unobstructed, to home plate, and unfortunately for Middlebrooks, he was right there.”
“Obstruction is the act of a fielder obstructing a runner when not in the act of fielding the ball,” said Hirschbeck. “There does not have to be intent.”
Middlebrooks claims there was no intent, and the runner, Allen Craig, said “He was in my way, but I couldn’t tell you if he tried to trip me or not, I was just trying to get over him and score” But again, that doesn’t matter. In order for obstruction to have not been called, Middlebrooks would have had to become invisible.
Asked what Middlebrooks could have done, Hirschbeck said, “Just get out of the way quickly and not obstruct the runner. It’s really as simple as that.”
What led up to the first obstruction walk-off in post-season history wasn’t so simple. The game had twists and turns throughout, and some questionable decisions. The wheels began turning in the sixth inning, with St. Louis leading 2-1.
Shane Victorino — who had just walked for the second time in 114 plate appearances — was on first base with one out. Mike Matheny went to his bullpen, bringing in lefthander Randy Choate, who had held same-handed hitters to a .171 average. His job was to retire David Ortiz, but the Red Sox slugger singled to put runners on the corners.
Due up next was switch-hitting Daniel Nava, a .252/.311/.336 hitter from the right side. Had Farrell brought in Jonny Gomes or Mike Napoli to pinch hit, Matheny would have opted for right-hander Seth Maness, who was warming in the bullpen.
Instead, Farrell let Nava hit, and Matheny… went with Maness anyway. Choate is primarily a lefty specialist, but he isn’t terrible against righties. In 42 plate appearances this year, they hit .275/.310/.325 against him.
Maness, who has a neutral split, had a 73.8 ground-ball rate versus left-handed hitters this season, so Matheny was presumably banking on a double play. Instead, Nava — a .322/.411/.484 hitter versus righties — lined a first-pitch single to tie the game.
Three innings later, with the game tied 4-4, Farrell made a questionable decision of his own.
Despite having Mike Napoli available to pinch hit, Farrell allowed rookie-right-hander Brandon Workman to bat — and strike out on three pitches — in the ninth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, after a one-out single by Yadier Molina, he brought Koji Uehara into the game. Basically, Farrell gave away a free out to get an out.
That was the same amount of outs Uehara recorded. It came on a play at the plate, which was followed by another play at the plate that was over-ruled by an umpire. Controversy ensued.
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