Game 7 of the World Series cannot become another Ump Show

BY Martin Rogers u2014 @MrogersFOX • October 30, 2019

The Houston Astros want one outcome from Game 7 of this gripping, intense and logic-defying World Series on Wednesday night. The Washington Nationals, naturally, want another.

No matter which team ends another evening of high drama with beaming smiles and blinking the celebratory champagne out of their eyes, baseball is seeking its own vital triumph once things are settled at Minute Maid Park.

This grand, old, intoxicating sport needs, wants and should be praying for the lingering discussion to emerge from the final game of the year to be about an epic pitching display from Max Scherzer or Zack Greinke. Or a stunning relief performance from one of the bullpens. Or one final, critical home run blast to decide a season that overdosed on long balls. Or about Alex Bregman. Or Juan Soto. Or some other hero who rose to the ultimate occasion.

With all due respect to the under-siege “third team” of this battle, the sport will benefit little if the chatter at the end of this special duel — one that will have played out across nine days, two cities, one presidential visit and no end of statistical weirdness — is about the umpires.

No one wins if the names of Lance Barksdale, Gary Cederstrom, Doug Eddings, Sam Holbrook, James Hoye and Jim Wolf are the ones being traded across argumentative lips and social media assertions on Thursday morning. Or if regulations with lots of parentheses start trending in the wake of the on-field action.

That’s what happened on Tuesday night and then into Wednesday, when the officiating on display by the crew of World Series umpires was the main talking point for the second straight game.

The moment on every fan’s mind occurred in the seventh inning of Washington’s skin-saving 7-2 Game 6 win. Nationals leadoff hitter Trea Turner topped a soft grounder — effectively a swinging bunt — up the third base line and took off sprinting. Pitcher Brad Peacock retrieved the ball and flung it towards Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. Then things got wild. Gurriel set up with his left foot on the bag — and Peacock’s throw drifted to the right. As Turner arrived at the bag, so too did the ball, missing Gurriel’s glove, striking Turner’s leg and rolling away.

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It was a huge break for Washington as they tried to arrest their three-game skid and stave off elimination. Turner moved to second base and Yan Gomes hustled over to third. The Nationals had two runners in scoring position with no one out — a spectacular situation as they were at that point clinging to a slim one-run lead. But then, a move that stunned everyone in the park: plate umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Turner out for interference, imposing (and this is where those parentheses come into play), Rule 5.09 (a) (11): interference.

The rule is an odd one that basically says a runner has to be outside the first-base line for every step of his advancement until the final one to the base. If things such as legalese and fine print get you going, go read the rulebook for yourself.

Making things even more confounding was this: if Peacock’s throw had been accurately tossed into Gurriel’s glove, there would have been no interference. Turner, having sped down the inside of the line in a straight path (and no further inside the line than any average runner’s normal dash to first), was essentially penalized for his rival’s poor fielding.

The Nationals went berserk. Even after Anthony Rendon blew the game open with a home run blast, manager Dave Martinez vented uncontrollably at the umpires, shoving through his own staff’s attempts to restrain him. As “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played during the seventh inning stretch, Martinez became the first manager to be tossed during a World Series game since the mercurial Bobby Cox back in 1996.

“It was a terrible call and the judgment is wrong,” FOX baseball analyst Alex Rodriguez said. “Maybe they need to change that rule. Too much of a ramification; that play right there could have sent he Nationals home. We have got to fix that for this game.”

Also on the FOX broadcast, Frank Thomas was mystified by the fact the play could not be reviewed on account of it being a judgment call, something that took nearly five minutes to figure out on the field.

“Everyone is (watching) that replay over and over and over,” Thomas said. “We have got the best replay system in all of pro sports, basically. Please get it right, because the world is watching on this grand stage.”

The simmering tension obscured that fact that this was an absolute game for the ages. Nationals fans don’t want to think about it, but it’s possible this was the last time impending free agent Stephen Strasburg pitched in a D.C. uniform. If so, what a parting gift. Strasburg gave up two runs in the first but was imperious thereafter.

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By the time he was done, he had become the first pitcher in history to go 5-0 in an MLB postseason and somehow, unthinkably, condemned Justin Verlander to a World Series career record of 0-6 (in seven Fall Classic starts).

Weird? That’s not even the half of it. Across baseball, the NBA and the NHL, there have been 1,042 series that have gone to a Game 7. Never before — not one single time — have all six games leading up to the final showdown been won by the road team. Greinke likes pitching at home and Houston spent big at the deadline for this exact reason, but can we even say the Astros have the advantage given the road team sway thus far?

There was angst and passion and fire long before Martinez was tossed. Bregman gave a metaphorical snarl by gripping his bat all the way up to first base on his early home run trot. Soto responded in kind in the fifth. The Nationals, on top in this series and seemingly unstoppable, then apparently beaten down and headed for the exit just days later, rallied once more to take it all the way.

They don’t have seven-game series so that they can be done in four. This is how it’s supposed to be. This is baseball at its most compelling.

The ruckus only added to the theater. But while controversy is part of the lifeblood of sports, enough is enough. On Wednesday night, the umpiring crew needs to have the game of its life. In the wake of Game 5, when Barksdale’s pitch-calling performance was widely ridiculed, every ball and strike will be subject to scrutiny.

Fans of both teams feel they have been wronged. As much as Joe Torre is baseball royalty, we don’t want to see him this game, having to defend the officials in his role as MLB’s chief baseball officer.

We’ve had unexpected quirks and epic momentum shifts. We’ve had great pitching and bad pitching, long bombs and spiky disrespect, and it all added to the spectacle. Even the furor over the past two games has only built up the hype.

Now it’s time for Game 7; time for the stars to shine and the other narratives to take a back seat. It’s when every play, every decision, has the potential to decide a championship, and all those legacies along with it. That’s why they need to be right, like never before.

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