Thomas Boswell: Jarrod Saltalamacchia costs Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the World Series

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 27, 2013

Few fans can spell the name Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but everyone in New England knows how to spell — and scream — “No!!!!!”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

That was the sound made by millions of Red Sox fans, counter-pointed at the same split second by just as many whoops of joy by St. Louis Cardinal fans when the Boston catcher made the utterly unnecessary decision to throw to third base in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tied World Series Game 3. His wild throw cost Boston a 5-4 loss that gave the Cardinals a 2-1 lead in the series.

Few know the exact explanation of baseball’s “obstruction” rule. But now, having seen Allen Craig trip over Boston’s prone third baseman Will Middlebrooks as Salty’s wild throw rolled down the left-field line, they know that an umpire can award the winning run in a World Series game without anyone ever crossing home plate.

As Craig fell over Middlebrooks, who was sprawled on the ground, and perhaps kicking a bit to try to trip Craig, third base ump Jim Joyce was already making the correct call, ruling that Middlebrooks had “obstructed” Craig’s run for home. When Craig was perhaps halfway home Joyce had already awarded him home plate to end the game.

Highlights

“Never,” said Joyce, when asked if he had ever seen a game end on such a play.

To complete a scene of almost perfect insanity, as Craig, recovering from an injured foot, tried his best to run home, the Red Sox quickly retrieved the ball and fired it to Salty in time for — you guessed it — Craig to be thrown “out” by a clear margin.

It’s often said that every time you come to the ballpark, baseball will show you something that you have never before seen. But Game 3 may take the absolute nutcake prize for millions of us who have never seen a play like that end any game, much less a game that may swing a Series.

“I don’t know how [Middlebrooks] gets out of the way when he’s lying on the ground. That’s a tough pill to shallow,” said Red Sox Manager John Farrell.

“Obstruction is the act of a fielder obstructing a runner when not in the act of fielding a ball,” said crew chief John Hirschbeck. “It does not have to be intent. There does not have to be intent, okay?”

Yes, okay. Joyce’s call was correct. The questions will always be about Salty.

“We’ve made a couple of costly throws to third base this year,” said Farrell, “and this was a costly throw.”

Saltalamacchia had just tagged out Yadier Molina at home plate on a brilliant fielder’s choice — a diving stop of a Jon Jay ground smash by second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who threw accurately to the plate. Everything was suddenly right in the Red Sox world — or pretty close to it. A huge Cards rally in a 4-4 game was in the verge of being extinguished. With Craig going from first-to-third on the Pedroia snag and throw to the plate, the Cards would have runners on the corners with two outs, but the Red Sox would have Koji Uehara, the best closer in baseball, on the mound.

No, no, no, don’t do anything crazy!

But Salty, an instant after tagging Molina, had the sudden inspiration or World Series dementia of the moment to clamber to his feet and attempt a play for the ages: gun down Craig to end the inning all by himself. His peg to third would not have nailed Craig if it had been accurate. But it wasn’t — sailing into the sliding runner, nicking his uniform.

Boston’s Middlebrooks will spend many a night wondering why, how, he did not prevent that throw from getting past him and rolling down the line in foul territory. By the 10th time you see the replay, you’re pretty sure that, while Saltalamacchia will always get the error and be the shaggy goat, Middlebrooks gets a “D” for Preventing Disaster.

If Middlebrooks actually tried to trip, or at least tangle-up Craig, how could you blame him? If Craig runs free, he scores easily.

Never, perhaps, has a Series game ended with a wilder scene around home plate with players from both teams all trying to understand what had happened and Farrell begging for an explanation.

But from that fatal instant of poor judgment, this game was in the books.

At times it seems that the World Series itself announces, so that every fan and both teams can clearly hear: “Now we will begin this contest in earnest.”

That moment doesn’t have to come in a Game 1 or 2. Sometimes the Series waits until later to make it clear to even the most obtuse that the truly serious business of deciding a world title is now afoot.

That juncture, sure as the devil, arrived tonight and well before the ninth inning. It showed up in the middle innings as the Boston Red Sox fought back from a 2-0 deficit to a tie, then rallied again from a 4-2 deficit to tie at 4-4.

What mattered so much was not which team was temporarily scaring the dickens out of the other but that both made it clear that they’d throw haymakers ‘til the last out.

The Cardinals landed the final blow, on a play for the ages — and one that required explanation. Joyce explained the ruling so clearly and simply that, even in an age of argument, few will probably dispute it.

Once a player has had a chance to make a play on the ball, he simply cannot impede the runner. “Right there, and immediately and instinctually I called obstruction,” said Joyce. Middlebrooks’s intent is irrelevant.

The intent that will always be questioned will be Salty’s. And the answer will always be, “Nooooo!”

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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