By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
NEW YORK, May 25 -- On Monday, the game-changing play actually lasted six minutes. Out of sight, somewhere in a video room deep inside Citi Field's lowest level, three umpires huddled, scanning replays, trying to make sense of what they just saw.
Under review: a Gary Sheffield three-run homer. And, by extension: the Washington Nationals' chance to keep a game competitive.
The Nationals didn't lose on Monday night simply because of a controversial instant replay decision. But the delivery of that ruling -- as the chief umpire reemerged from the stadium's innards, spun his right hand and affirmed the home run -- fairly replicated the reading of a sentence in a courtroom, and the Nationals couldn't do much about the verdict.
Washington's 5-2 loss against the Mets on Monday at Citi Field will be remembered most for its only home run, which traveled 380 feet -- or an arm's length shy of the wall -- if that's what you want to believe.
When John Lannan threw the pitch that led to the first instant replay call of Washington's season, the game was tied 1-1 in the sixth, with runners on first and second and no outs. One swing later, Sheffield had his fourth home run of the year and the Mets had a 4-1 lead. Then it was just a matter of determining the legitimacy of both.
"From the dugout," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said, "I didn't think the ball went out."
This much everybody knew: Sheffield's fly ball had traveled just far enough to graze the outstretched hands of a fan seated in the first row of the left field stands, just one section in from the foul pole. While left fielder Adam Dunn drifted back, a T-shirted fan, leaning against a railing exactly at the top of an 18 1/2 -foot wall, extended his hands. The ball, with the sharp downward trajectory of a Plinko chip, slipped through his grasp and landed on the field.
Dunn picked it up and turned toward the infield, but it didn't matter. Third base umpire Adrian Johnson was already signaling a home run, and just like that, the scoreboard at Citi Field registered the damage of New York's eighth hit.
Within seconds, Acta emerged from the dugout, gesturing to Johnson how the fan interfered. Acta wanted Sheffield returned to second and Carlos Beltran returned to third.
"It's pretty close," Acta said later. "But I'm just standing by [the fact that] if you reach over that rail, with the trajectory of that ball, I don't think the ball was going out of the ballpark."
Said Ryan Zimmerman: "It looked like he reached over."
The central question: If the fan hadn't touched the ball, would it have hit above or below the orange stripe atop the wall, the dividing line for home runs? Several camera angles suggested that, indeed, the fan made contact with the ball while it was still in play -- and after it had fallen below the orange stripe.
"I don't know," Dunn said. "It's hard to tell, because I wasn't exactly under it, because I thought it was gonna hit the wall and kick off."
Three of the four umpires retreated to the video room to figure out what happened. Only since late last season has Major League Baseball even afforded umpires the option; Commissioner Bud Selig instituted a limited form of replay to scrutinize home runs. Only irrefutable evidence could overturn the initial ruling. Selig wanted reviews to occur quickly.
But here, everybody kept waiting. Sheffield was sitting in the dugout, and Lannan paced from the mound to the infield grass, where he chatted with Dunn and right fielder Austin Kearns. The SNY television cameras in New York showed a split screen of Acta and New York Manager Jerry Manuel. In the time everybody waited, the two managers could have finalized a contract for Jim Lehrer to moderate.
After six minutes, the umpires returned to the field, and crew chief Larry Vanover, who later declined to comment on the ruling, signaled the verdict:
Sheffield's home run stood.
Washington's chances took a hit.
"It was weird," Lannan said. "It was like the top of the inning or the bottom of the inning, and I was just standing out in the field instead of sitting. I tried to warm up and then I threw two more pitches just before I got in there, and I felt fine. But it was just weird. Because you don't know how the call is gonna go because I put two scenarios in my head. Is it going to be second and third with no outs or bases open?"
Until then, Lannan had pitched well enough, battling New York's John Maine. Lannan didn't have his sharpest control, but he dodged serious trouble with the help of double plays in three of the first five innings.
But following the Sheffield home run, neither Lannan nor his team could recover. After the replay-caused layoff, Lannan walked David Wright on five pitches. With that, Acta removed him from the game. By the time the sixth inning was over, Washington trailed 5-1, and Lannan (five-plus innings, five earned runs) had his poorest start since Opening Day.
New York's relief pitchers did everything in their power to let the Nationals back into the game. The Mets' reconstructed bullpen couldn't find the strike zone, which was okay only because Washington's lineup couldn't find a way to take advantage.
The first New York reliever, Bobby Parnell, walked three batters in the seventh -- but that led to just a single run. Eighth inning man J.J. Putz and closer Francisco Rodriguez walked a combined three. But both pitched scoreless innings.