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Fault Lines: Of Interference and Momentum

A pivotal call in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series begs the question: Can a seven-game series turn on one call? History provides (part of) the answer.

First Base Line Fenway by C.S. Imming is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Fault Lines: Of Interference and Momentum

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Baseball Rule 5.09(a)(11): A batter is out when: In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball.

In the 7th inning of Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals was struck by a throw by Houston Astros reliever Brad Peacock while running to first base, and was called out for interfering with the throw.

So what’s the problem?

The quick analysis of this play is fairly simple. Turner was running inside the baseline and was hit by a thrown ball. Whether he did it intentionally or not, he interfered with the throw. Therefore, the ball is dead, the runner is out, and all other runners are returned to their original bases. The rule mentions nothing about intent, only whether the fielder was interfered with.

To avoid this, Turner should have run in the box that is drawn in foul territory on the outside of the last half of the first-base line. That lane is specifically designed for the runner so that they won’t be called out for interference. (Now, Turner wasn’t paying attention to that. None of us do. In that situation, your brain is yelling “GET TO FIRST” at the top of its lungs, and you’re not watching your feet, you’re looking at the bag and nothing else.)

In effect, in the umpires’ judgment, if Turner was running where he was supposed to be, Gurriel would have made the play. To the rule, and how it’s interpreted, they made the correct call. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the rule – but it IS the rule.

I don’t believe it was the right call, but it was the correct one.

My opinion is that intent matters, as well as other mitigating factors. For example, he was still in range of the baseline, so there wasn’t a gross deviation. Also, his path never changed; as Gurriel moved to take the throw, he actually appeared to try and AVOID any interference. In my interpretation of the play, there’s obviously no intent and no gross violation – Peacock shouldn’t have thrown the ball into the path of the runner.

(When I was catching, we actually drilled this; you’re taught that when you field a bunt, you call “INSIDE” or “OUTSIDE” to the first baseman, and you damn well better throw it there.)

Any ballplayer watching that game said the same thing at the same time. “If Peacock had made a better throw, then I wouldn’t be sitting here watching the umpires talk on the damn phone again.” So, while Turner was charged with interference, just about everyone knew that the fault was Peacock’s.

In this case, Rendon’s subsequent home run rendered the play moot, as the Nationals won the game anyway. But the question is: can one play determine the outcome of an entire series? This question leads me to discuss the reason why that box on the first-base line exists at all.

As usual, you can blame the Mets.

In Game 4 of the 1969 World Series, Mets’ backup catcher J.C. Martin was called upon to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Tom Seaver in the bottom of the 10th inning. (Yes, the starter was being pinch-hit for in the tenth inning. And Seaver hadn’t come into the game in relief, either, as so many starters do now. Oh, how the game has changed!) Rod Gaspar was on second base in a 1-1 game, with the Mets already leading the Series 2 game to 1.

Martin bunted to pitcher Pete Richert in an effort to move Gaspar to third. Richert’s throw hit Martin as he ran to first base, and Gaspar scored the winning run as the ball bounced away down the first base line. (Why did all of the goofy stuff at Shea Stadium seem to happen on the first-base line?) Replays showed that Martin was clearly inside the first-base line when the ball struck him. However, the umpires didn’t call him out on interference because they felt that he didn’t intentionally interfere with the play. Martin was safe on a throwing error, Gaspar scored the winning run, and the Mets took a 3-1 lead in the Series, which they won the following day.

This play has garnered much attention and discussion over the years.. In fact, it is the reason that we now have the “runner’s lane” on the outside of the first-base line. As a result of the ensuing controversy surrounding the play, MLB added the “runner’s lane”, as well as changing the way that the rule is interpreted. But is this play the reason that the Orioles lost a World Series in which they were so heavily favored?

In short, no.

To look at that Series on paper is to realize that four out of five of the games in that Series were decided by three runs or less. Much more crucial to the Mets’ success than an errant throw were their pitching (Seaver and Koosman) and their defense (Agee and Swoboda). From a fan’s perspective, or through the prism of hindsight, one play didn’t define that Series. The Orioles had plenty of other opportunities in the Series, and the Mets still had to win three other games.

And yet, my ballplayer’s brain says, “Hold up a second”.

Ballplayers are big on the idea of momentum. You’ll hear ballplayers say, “Get one at a time”, or “It starts here”. Little things build to bigger things; it’s a player’s or team’s way to convince themselves that they can tackle a big problem by taking care of small things.

Momentum is a fleeting and intangible part of sports – especially baseball – but is also indisputable.

I’ll give you an example: This past summer, I was playing right field for my Expos against the Indians with us leading 3-0 in the top of the 7th inning. (Point of order: our 7th is actually the 9th. Games during the week only go 7 innings.) All we needed was 3 outs for a 3-0 win.

The first batter of the inning, a left-handed hitter, lined a rope down the right-field line. I charged toward the line to field the ball and throw to 2nd base. Mindful of my aching right arm (which is a story for a later post), I charged the ball hard, and when it took a bad hop, it went past me and all the way to the wall. I ran it down, pivoted, and threw to the relay man in an attempt to keep the batter, now halfway to third, from coming all the way around to score. My weak arm wasn’t up to the task, my throw went wide, and the run scored.

Immediately, my first thought as I pounded my glove and walked back to my position with a dull ache in my arm was, “I just cost us this game.”

Ballplayers know the power of both positive and negative thought. Immediately, immediately, I shook that thought away. “It’s one run.” “Not your fault.” “These guys will pick you up.” But ballplayers are also human. A three-run lead was now two, the top of the lineup was coming up, and every man on that field felt just a little unsettled at what had just happened – and how fast. Just as quickly, it seemed, we found that the bases were loaded and the game was tied at 3. (We got out of the inning and finished the game in a 3-3 tie.)

Momentum is like that. It’s very tricky, very mystical, and very, very powerful.

So the thought is, what if Martin had been called out on interference? Is it possible that, with Seaver now out of the game, the Orioles scratch out a run in the 11th inning of Game 4? Maybe they go on to win, and now they’ve guaranteed themselves a Game 6 back in Baltimore, where they have the home crowd. Or, maybe losing Game 4 behind Seaver demoralizes the Mets enough that the three runs Baltimore scored in the third inning of Game 5 are enough to beat them. Perhaps the Series goes back to Baltimore with the Orioles up three games to two.

We don’t know. We can’t know. But it’s possible.

So, to answer the question, “Can a team lose or win a series on one play?”

Yes. And no.

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