Foul Pole Is A Bit Pesky In the Nats' Close Win

Marlon Byrd
Marlon Byrd can't pull in a drive by Braves right fielder Brian Jordan in the seventh inning. Initially ruled a home run, umpired reversed the call. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Brian Jordan, standing along the first base line, saw one thing.

"It hit off the pole," he said.

Marlon Byrd, leaping to catch the ball struck with Jordan's bat, saw another.

"I saw it go left of the foul pole," he said.

Jerry Layne, the third base umpire standing down the left field line, called it a home run. Jordan trotted the bases. Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson came out to discuss the situation. Layne turned to crew chief Ed Montague, umpiring at second.

"Coming over from second base," Montague said later, "I didn't have it hitting the pole. I still don't have it hitting the pole."

Thus, a stunning reversal. In RFK Stadium's first case of "He said, she said -- wait, let's check what someone else said," the Nationals caught the biggest break of their season yesterday, beating the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, in no small part because Jordan's ball was ruled foul, though replays appeared to show that it struck the base of the foul pole.

Had Robinson checked the replay? "I'm not looking for it," he said afterward. "I won't even watch 'SportsCenter' tonight."

If Robinson were to take in the highlight packages, they would show his team -- fairly or not -- winning its second straight game not only because of the questionable reversal, but because right-hander Tomo Ohka threw seven innings of three-hit ball, because left fielder Byrd came through with two RBI doubles, and because Jose Guillen's run-scoring single in the bottom of the eighth gave the Nationals a two-run lead, allowing closer Chad Cordero to nail down his 12th save despite giving up a home run to Andruw Jones in the ninth inning.

But for any of the 39,705 fans who went to flip a few burgers and have a beverage or two after watching Washington's first Memorial Day with baseball in 34 years, the talk had to be about that one play: the home run that wasn't.

In the top of the seventh, the Nationals led 2-1, and Ohka was in the midst of perhaps his best outing of the season. The Braves managed an unearned run in the third, but had produced just a slew of lazy fly balls and easily handled grounders since. The theme of the day seemed to be simple: Ohka (4-3) was back, and now has allowed just two earned runs in his last 15 innings of work. It would have been a nice, neat holiday story: the pitcher who was banished to the bullpen returning to solidify the rotation, his ERA now down to 3.20.

"I'm happy for Ohka," Robinson said, "because I know he's struggling and he was very upset about being put in the bullpen."

With one out in the seventh, Ohka faced Jordan, who had already ripped a ball to second that was originally ruled an error on Washington's Jamey Carroll -- yet after the game, changed to a single -- and hit another single. With the count 1-1, Jordan turned on a pitch from Ohka, lifting the ball down the left field line. At first, he thought it was hooking -- clearly foul. Yet the wind pushed it back, and it came straight down, right at the 335-foot mark. Replays appeared to show the ball hitting the base of the pole, which is painted black, rather than yellow.

The Braves' dugout erupted. The scoreboard showed the result: Braves 2, Nationals 2.

"It was a home run," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "It was obvious, not even a tough-call home run."

Except Robinson saw Byrd arguing with Layne. He went out to discuss it with his player, then convinced Layne to get another point of view. Layne went to Montague.

Montague extended his arms, parallel to the ground. Foul ball. Cox argued for several minutes. No matter. Jordan was forced to return to the plate, the count now 1-2, and he hit the next pitch right back to Ohka. After he crossed first base, having been retired, Jordan angrily threw his helmet back toward the dugout. "That changes the whole ballgame," Jordan said. "They took it away from us."

Regardless of how it happened, the reality is this: The Nationals, with a five-game losing streak less than 48 hours behind them, clawed within 2 1/2 games of the Braves and Florida Marlins, who share the lead in the National League East.

"Hey, we won," Guillen said. "That's what matters. That's what we care about in here."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company