In the middle of the catastrophic fifth inning that helped sink the Washington Nationals’ season Thursday night, a controversial — and, the Nationals believed, missed — call severely worsened the damage at one of many pivotal moments of the team’s Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs’ scored a run on a two-out passed ball on a strikeout and continued to rally until they led by three runs. But the umpires appeared to either miss a call or misinterpreted a non-reviewable rule that, legislated another way, would have ended the inning with the Nationals trailing by only a run.
With two outs and runners on first and second, Javier Baez swung and missed at Max Scherzer’s 0-2 slider in the dirt. The ball skidded through catcher Matt Wieters’s legs to the backstop. Wieters scampered to retrieve the ball and fired a panicked, wide throw to first base. Addison Russell scored from second, extending the Cubs’ lead to 6-4.
The Cubs would tack on another run after a catcher’s interference call and a hit batsmen concluded a remarkable chain of events. When the inning ended, the Cubs led, 7-4.
But when Baez swung, his wild backswing grazed Wieters. If so, Baez seemingly should have been out, under rule 6.03(a). The pertinent section of the rule states:
“If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire’s judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.”
Wieters gestured at umpires after the play unfolded. The crew, led by crew chief and home plate umpire Jerry Layne, met in the infield. Manager Dusty Baker walked out to talk with the umpires. At the end of the discussion, the result of the play stood.
“I believed I was protected under the rule,” said Wieters, who also faulted himself for not blocking the ball.
Layne told Wieters and Manager Dusty Baker that the rule only applied to stolen bases.
“Backswing interference is a play where a guy is stealing or there’s a play being made a runner hindering the catch,” Layne said afterward. “It was a wild pitch and went past him. That is no longer in that particular description, in my judgment. In my judgment, the passed ball changed the whole rule around to where, in my judgment, it had nothing to do with everything. Therefore, it didn’t have any effect on it. In my judgment.”
Layne also suggested the contact Baez’s bat made with Wieters did not affect the play.
“When the ball gets past him, all right, in my judgment he didn’t have any more opportunity after he had a chance to field the ball,” Layne said. “There was no further play that could have been made on it. The graze of the helmet didn’t have anything to do, in my judgment, with anything at all, with that particular play. I understand, it’s pretty much my judgment. I got together and found everybody was in agreement. That’s what we went with.”
“If you look at the replay, it’s clearly gone past him,” Layne added. “That’s where we were in our discussion and the judgment. Now, if it was right there in front of him, we’d have a different night.”
The Nationals believed Layne did not have discretion, under the rules, to make a judgment on whether Baez’s backswing hurt or helped Wieters retrieve the ball. In the end, it was one more moment that went against the Nationals.
Read more on the Nationals: