The umpires got it right.  Will Middlebrooks obstructed Allen Craig while he was trying to score the winning run from third base in game three of the World Series Saturday night on an overthrow by Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Even with the second straight history making ending in this Series in game four, this is the play that will be most discussed when the hot stoves are stoked and long time officianados of the game recall a sizzling Series in chilly October temperatures.  “I don’t know how (Middlebrooks) gets out of the way when he’s on the ground”, Sox manager John Farrell said after the game, wondering how, in that position, Middlebrooks could avoid interfering with the runner.

He can’t, that’s why the call wasn’t interference, it was obstruction, in which the intent of the fielder is not a factor, the runner has to be allowed unimpeded access to advance.  The rule book is specific, “If a fielder not in possession of the ball or in the act of fielding the ball impedes the progress of a runner it is obstruction.  After the ball goes past the fielder he can no longer be considered in the act of fielding the ball.”

At the moment in question the ball was sailing into foul territory beyond third base.  Middlebrooks says he was at least five feet from the baseline.  Before he raised his legs, the most blatant act of obstruction, his right foot was in contact with the foul line.  The third base ump made the call immediately and, with Craig running for home the home plate ump was already pointing to third base, acknowleging the obstruction call before he called Craig safe at the plate.

The “swallow the whistle” philosophy many Red Sox fans offered the next morning condones changing the rules at the end of the game, ninth inning, extra innings, last two minutes, and is supported only by the team and fans the rule works against.  It’s that inconsistency alone that demands the letter of the law be the final deciding factor.  Contrary to popular opinion good officials don’t “swallow the whistle” in the final two minutes of a basketball game, bad ones do, and they won’t be blowing that whistle much longer.

Several factors in that play cost the Sox the game, umpires making a correct call wasn’t one of them.  No team is ever “robbed” by a valid call.  Saltalamacchia shouldn’t have thrown to third.  Middlebrooks shouldn’t have tried to lay out to stop the ball, he should have come off the bag and caught it.  If he made the catch there would have been runners at the corners, or second and third, depending on how the batter, John Jay reacted to the ongoing play, with two out and the score still tied.  A clean play at third would have likely kept him at first.

Farrell would have been well advised to walk Jay.  There’s no guarantee the same play would have unfolded, but with the bases loaded and a ground ball to the infield Saltalamacchia could have touched home plate and made the throw from a standing position, or throw to first for the double play, rather than having to go down to tag the first runner.  It was Farrell’s second tactical error of the inning, his first was allowing pitcher Jason Workman to hit in the top half.

To call the end of the game “controversial” is to ultimately cast a shadow on the integrity of the umpires.  It was by the book, not controversial.  Every analysis of the play has to begin and end with “The umpires got it right.”

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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