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Why Gerardo Parra’s decision to not slide into home may have cost the Nationals

Gerardo Parra decided not to slide in the seventh inning against the Dodgers on Friday, figuring that catcher Russell Martin gave him no path. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX (10348199t)
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The Washington Nationals were rallying in the seventh inning Friday night and Adam Eaton had just lofted a single into left field. Gerardo Parra was barreling toward home plate, until he wasn’t.

Parra, the Nationals’ utility-outfielder-turned-cult-hero, represented the go-ahead run in a tight game. But he slowed up ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Russell Martin, figuring he didn’t have a clear path to slide, and was tagged out trying to tiptoe past the lunging catcher.

The Nationals challenged, hoping Martin would be called for illegally blocking the plate and the run would count, but replay review confirmed that home plate umpire Brian O’Nora made the correct call. The score remained tied at 1 and the Nationals eventually lost, 4-2, after Justin Turner hit a three-run homer in the next half-inning.

That wasn’t it for the odd play. After the game, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez expressed frustration and confusion about the ruling. Major League Baseball distributed its ruling to reporters at 4:23 a.m.

Below is a look at what unfolded, how a murky rule forces players to make split-second subjective decisions, and why not sliding was Parra’s worst option:

“The first one is my fault, because I want to slide,” Parra said following the loss. “But when I saw him in the middle, I didn’t know if I wanted to slide to this side or this side. That’s [why] I stood up. That’s my fault."

Martinez discussed the play with O’Nora — before and after the replay review — and recounted O’Nora’s message to reporters in his postgame news conference. Umpires can be requested to speak after games, but MLB said that they should not be expected to clarify any rulings made by the league office. Martinez recalled O’Nora telling him Parra needed to slide, and, if he had, the collision rule could have been called against Martin. Martinez then added, secondhand, that O’Nora said they “probably would have overturned it” in that case.

That first part is in line with the final decision and MLB rule book. The second is where this gets a bit muddy.

This is what was decided by the league once Martinez called for the review: “After viewing all relevant angles, the Replay Official definitively determined that no violation of the Home Plate Collision Rule occurred. The catcher’s initial setup was legal, and he moved in reaction to the trajectory of the throw. Additionally, the catcher is not at risk for violating OBR 6.01(i)(2) unless the runner slides. The call is CONFIRMED, it is not a violation.”

Rule OBR 6.01(i)(2) prevents catchers from blocking home plate and makes a runner safe if the violation is committed. But the final line of the rule states that a catcher won’t be subject to that ruling if the runner has a path to slide. While watching replay of the play — over and over — it seems that Parra has a window when he is a step away from home plate. At that point, Martin is straddling the back of the plate, and he only moves forward once he fields the throw, an act that permits catchers to go wherever they need to. That seems to be why MLB decided that Martin’s “initial setup” was legal. And that’s why Parra was out.

But the second part of the official decision is what Martinez and O’Nora supposedly spoke about. Martin was cleared of blocking the plate, so there was no violation regardless of whether Parra had slid. Yet the rule would have come into play only if Parra did slide, raising another round of questions: Why is a runner required to leave his feet to prove the plate is being illegally blocked, if the ultimate goal is to avoid a collision between the two players? Or what is the difference between sliding and standing up on such a play?

“He didn’t know where to slide; [Martin] was in front of home plate,” Martinez said of Parra. “It’s something that I don’t understand, because in reality his first thing was to knock him over, we’re all taught to do that, and [Parra] didn’t know what to do. So he tried to step around him.”

That strategy didn’t work, and the Nationals were left without a run. Maybe the last two innings go differently if they are playing with a lead. Maybe not . But the takeaway, however confusing, is that a runner has to slide for rule OBR 6.01(i)(2) to come into effect. That has to be recognized while critical moments are unfolding at great speed.

Parra, and the Nationals, now know how difficult that is to do.

“In that moment, I got frozen,” Parra said. “Maybe if I want to slide, slide to the left side. It’s hard. You’ve got a second to make a decision.”

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