White Sox 2, Angels 1
Snap a picture of the moment, the last instant when everything made sense in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, before chaos, euphoria and fury ruled the night. In the background, you can see the scoreboard: Los Angeles Angels 1, Chicago White Sox 1. Bottom of the ninth. Full count. Now study the principal subjects. Strike three is in the catcher's mitt. The umpire's fist is raised, chest-high. The batter is turning to go back to his dugout, head down. The catcher is casually tossing the ball back to the mound. He is thinking about hitting in the top of the 10th.
Now, snap a picture of the end of the game, moments later. The scoreboard now says 2-1, White Sox. It is in the books, a final. The White Sox are pouring out of their dugout, congregating around their hero, Joe Crede, in the infield dirt. The Angels are on the top step of theirs, shouting and gesturing angrily, refusing to leave. The crowd of 41,013 at U.S. Cellular Field is positively glowing.
What happened in between -- from the moment the pitch in question from pitcher Kelvim Esocbar settled into the mitt of Angels catcher Josh Paul, to the instant Crede won the game for the White Sox three pitches later with a double to left -- is something that will be debated, rehashed and remembered as long as there is baseball on the south side of Chicago and in the sunshine of Orange County. It will certainly be on everyone's minds Friday night, when the series, deadlocked at a game apiece, shifts to Anaheim for Game 3.
What did happen, you ask? Only the most absurd, unimaginable moment to occur in the late innings of a postseason game since a kid named Steve Bartman, on the other side of this town, reached across a wall at Wrigley Field and dislodged the National League pennant from the Cubs' grasp.
"I just ran," said the White Sox's A.J. Pierzynski. And that's when the trouble began.
Pierzynski, whose main contribution to that point in the game had been catching Mark Buehrle's dazzling nine-inning pitching performance for the White Sox, had swung and missed at a low breaking ball from Escobar, on a full count, with two outs and no one on base in the ninth. Nobody disputes that.
That would have made it strike three -- inning over, we're going to extra innings -- except Pierzynski thought the pitch might have been in the dirt.
"If the third strike is in the dirt," Pierzynski said, "you run."
But Pierzynski didn't run at first. First, he made a move back toward the dugout, and Paul, the Angels' catcher, tossed the ball back toward the mound. Suddenly, Pierzynski was sprinting to first, and the ball was lying in the infield grass.
"I thought I caught it," said Paul, the Angels' third-string catcher, who had entered the game an inning earlier, "so [the inning] is over."
Replays are inconclusive as to whether Paul caught the ball, or trapped it in the dirt. But what is absolutely clear is Eddings raising his fist in the air -- the universally recognized gesture for, "He's out." That's what Angels first baseman Darin Erstad saw, which is why he, too, headed for the dugout.
"But then Doug was still watching the play," Erstad said. "He had his mask off. A.J. was still running. That's when I knew something was wrong."
Eddings said his fist gesture was not meant to indicate an out -- only that it was strike three, a swinging strike. But the gesture still looks like an out call. And anyway, isn't strike three tantamount to "He's out"?
"It's never been an issue," Eddings said of that confusing distinction, "until now."
Of course, Paul could have made the whole issue a moot one by simply tagging Pierzynski, just to be safe, even if he believed he had caught the ball. Why on earth did he not just do that? That's what Eddings, among others, wanted to know.
"That's why I was pretty shocked at what took place," Eddings said.
Paul's answer: "Customarily, if a ball is in the dirt, [the umpire] says, 'No catch, no catch, no catch.' I didn't hear that."
The Angels argued vehemently, with Manager Mike Scioscia pleading with three different umpires at different times -- which means he fell a second-base-umpire short of arguing for the cycle.
"When an umpire calls a guy out and you're the catcher," said Scioscia, himself a former catcher, "he's out."
"Since Doug did not say the batter was out," league umpire supervisor Rich Reiker said, clarifying the umpires' position, "play continues, and the ball is alive."
Once Scioscia finally returned to his dugout and Pierzynski was replaced by pinch runner Pablo Ozuna, there was still the matter of the Angels having to face Crede with the go-ahead run on first base and two outs. Escobar, who had tried to stay loose during the lengthy discussion by playing catch, got ahead with two quick strikes, with Ozuna stealing second on the latter.
And on an 0-2 pitch, Escobar made the first real mistake of his otherwise excellent 22/3-inning stint -- an outing that included five strikeouts, one of which he will never forget. He grooved a pitch over the plate, which Crede crushed on a line into the left field corner.
There was no play at the plate, only joy on one side of the diamond and agony on the other. And there was plenty of time for both teams, on those planes heading west, to sort through it in their minds, to pull out the snapshot and study it closely.