Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Immaculate Obstruction: A Game for the Ages and the Twelve Seconds of Infamy

When Jarrod Saltalamacchia caught the ball for the last time Saturday night, the game was tied. He applied the tag before the baserunner touched home plate. For a moment, there was confusion. Four seconds before Allen Craig was tagged out at the plate, he tripped over Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who had attempted to make a play to send the game to extra innings. Whether intentional or not, Middlebrooks was called for obstruction, as he was in the path of Craig. For the second straight game, fate turned in favor of the Cardinals on an errant throw from home to third. But while the obstruction itself will be over-analyzed for years to come, how game three even required a moment  is equally bizarre

By most accounts, it should have been a blowout. Boston starter Jake Peavy's first inning was rough. With one out, Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday crossed the plate, giving St. Louis an early advantage. It seemed as if the Cardinals were going to walk away with game three much in the same manner that Boston had taken game one. Then Peavy settled in. In the fourth inning, the Cardinals had the bases loaded with no outs. For any team, and especially a championship-caliber team like either present in this series, the probability of scoring in such a situation is considerably high.

Pete Kozma out on strikes.
Joe Kelly pops out to second.
Matt Carpenter pops out to short.

As he walked off having quelled the threat, the cool and calm Jake Peavy who started the game had been replaced by the fiery, energetic pitcher of old.

Then the tide turned as it has so often in this young World Series. Xander Bogaerts tripled to lead off the road half of the fifth inning. It would take two outs to bring him home, but finally the Red Sox were on the board. In a game that felt like it should already be out of hand, the lead had just been cut in half. Tight baserunning would also be the cause for a run scored the following inning. Boston tied the ballgame. Going into the seventh inning, Busch Stadium hit the reset button. Three innings to go.

Each team ran through a few relief pitchers in the middle innings. Craig Breslow, the man bearing the weight of game two's failure, threw high and inside to Carlos Beltran. The ball nicked his elbow pad. Beltran turned to the umpire and immediately was given first base. Breslow's day was over. Junichi Tazawa, the Boston setup man, came in with two on and nobody out. Three pitches in to the at-bat, his eighty-eight miles per hour forkball was punched down the left field line, deep into the outfield. Two Cardinal runs would score, and again it appeared as if St. Louis would run away with the game.

Down four runs to two in their half of the eighth, Boston had yet another comeback in the works. Jacoby Ellsbury singled. Then, in equal serendipity to Beltran's hit by pitch, Shane Victorino took an eighty-one miles per hour curve ball to the left side of his torso. While Victorino was in visible pain, he took his base and stayed in the game. Both men moved up one base from a weak, infield knock from Dustin Pedroia. The only play was at first, as Ellsbury and Victorino had attempted a double steal. Both runners would score on a paid of hits by Daniel Nava and Xander Bogaerts. Again, Boston had tied the game.

Then came the bottom of the ninth.

Allen Craig had missed considerable time from injury and returned to make the St. Louis World Series roster. With catcher Yadier Molina on first following a soft single, Boston closer and American League Championship Series most valuable player Koji Uehara came in to shut down the threat. Craig sent Uehara's first pitch screaming down the left field line. It was a double. The placement of his hit prevented Molina from ending the game. This set up one of the most enigmatic finishes in World Series history.

Dustin Pedroia crept in on the infield grass. Joy Jay gave him exactly what he wanted. In a bullet-quick swoop, Pedroia made a play on the ball and fired it to a waiting Saltalamacchia, who immediately tagged an early-sliding Molina. While what happend next will be the focus of the game, the opportunity never arises if not for Pedroia's game-saving play. Saltalamacchia whipped the ball to third in attempt to beat Allen Craig to the bag. Will Middlebrooks lunged for the ball. He missed. As left fielder Daniel Nava motored toward the ball, Craig stood up from his slide and stumbled over the prone third baseman. Umpire Jim Joyce, of Armando Galarraga blown-perfect-game call fame, immediately made the call of obstruction.

Nava fielded the ball and sent a fastball home to Saltalamacchia, just as Craig was preparing to slide. The catcher tagged the runner before he touched the plate, but home plate umpire Dana DeMuth waved his arms out to signal safe, then immediately pointed to third to validate the Obstruction call. Allen Craig was safe. The game was over, and nearly every witness was in disbelief. For the game that seemed to have everything, it ended in a way no World Series game ever had before, and may never again.

Following game one in Boston, St. Louis was left for dead. After two immense fielding gaffes by the Red Sox, they have seized control of a wild World Series. With two games remaining in the Cardinals home schedule, they can wrap up the team's twelfth championship in the comfort of their own field, but as the first three games have proved, rarely does October baseball ever go according to plan.

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