ST. LOUIS — The first tangle of bodies came at third base, where Will Middlebrooks of the Boston Red Sox stretched to take a throw from home, the winning run sliding in at his feet. Catch the ball, and the third game of the World Series would have remained tied. Miss it — and, well, sit down, because this will take some explaining.
The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Red Sox, 5-4, on Saturday night at Busch Stadium with one of the most bizarre plays ever to end a World Series game. Middlebrooks was called for obstruction on runner Allen Craig, and even as the Red Sox chased down the throw down — eventually making what looked like a successful attempt to nail Craig at the plate — the game was over.
Forget that play at the plate. Forget the throw from left fielder Daniel Nava and the tag from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Third base umpire Jim Joyce had watched Craig slide into Middlebrooks, and Middlebrooks fall on Craig, and made the obstruction call — granting Craig home plate, where he scored the winning run, and immediately found himself in the second tangle of bodies, with the Cardinals celebrating around him.
“Tough way to have a game end, particularly of this significance, when Will is trying to dive inside to stop the throw,” Red Sox Manager John Farrell said. “I don’t know how he gets out of the way when he’s lying on the ground.”
Yet the Cardinals were immediately prepared to argue the other way.
“It was going to be a conversation one way or another,” St. Louis Manager Mike Matheny said. “We saw the tangle there. It’s just a matter of how they interpreted it — and that’s the rule.”
How unusual was this ending? Joyce and crew chief John Hirschbeck — veteran umpires both — were asked if they had ever seen a game end in such a fashion.
“Never,” Hirschbeck said.
“Never,” Joyce said.
Untangle this one before Game 4 begins Sunday night, with St. Louis holding a two-games-to-one lead. Boston reliever Brandon Workman — who, strangely, was allowed to have his first major league plate appearance in the top of the ninth — began the ninth inning of a 4-4 game by striking out Matt Adams. But Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina followed with a single to right, and here came Farrell to get Workman.
This brought up a point: Why was Workman still in the game if he was going to be removed so early in the ninth. The Red Sox had Mike Napoli, a key cog in their best-in-baseball offense, on the bench because they had started regular designated hitter David Ortiz at first base. But with one out in the ninth inning of a 4-4 game, Farrell let Workman face Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal — who dismissed him with three straight fastballs.
“Having Workman hit against Rosenthal is a mismatch,” Farrell said. “I recognize it. But we needed more than one inning out of Workman.”
But he went just one out more than one inning, and here came Koji Uehara, the Red Sox’ closer. Craig, the Cardinals’ regular first baseman who has a reduced role in this series because he missed six weeks with a foot injury, came on to pinch-hit, and he sent the first pitch he saw into left field. Molina chugged into third base, and the Cardinals had runners on second and third with one out.
Up came center fielder Jon Jay. With the infield drawn in, Uehara threw him a sinker, which he fouled off. Uehara went next to his splitter, and Jay hit it on the ground toward second.
There, Dustin Pedroia made a lunging, game-saving play. Throwing from his knees, he gunned down the lead-footed Molina with ease. There were two outs, and the Red Sox seemed poised to get out of the inning, to extend the game. The next hitter was the offensively inept Pete Kozma — 1 for his last 23, including 0 for 4 Saturday — and Uehara would have had the advantage.
Instead, though, Saltalamacchia, Boston’s catcher, decided to throw to third, where Craig was barreling down on Middlebrooks. Mind you, this came two days after Boston reliever Craig Breslow — backing up a throw to Saltalamacchia, which had gotten away — decided to throw to nail a runner at third. That throw was exceptionally wild, and it sent the winning run home for the Cardinals in Game 2.
So here was Saltalamacchia, history be damned, firing to third this time. The throw was not as wild as Breslow’s, not nearly. But Middlebrooks stretched to the infield side of the bag, and he could not handle it.
Obstruction, Hirschbeck said later, is called when a fielder who no longer can field the ball impedes a runner. Intent does not matter. When both Middlebrooks and Craig fell to the ground, Middlebrooks’s feet went in the air. Craig tried to get up to advance to the plate, but he couldn’t do so cleanly.
“When he tried to advance to home plate, the feet were up in the air, and he tripped over Middlebrooks right there,” Joyce said. “And I immediately and instinctively called obstruction.”
Still, the play continued. Craig eventually freed himself and headed home. But Saltalamacchia prepared to take the throw, even as Joyce had made his call. It didn’t matter. The run was going to count.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Rosenthal said. “But I just know that we won.”
That, at the end of a tangled night, might be the best way to sum it up. One city will wake up mad Sunday, one grateful. And the play will remain, indelible, part of World Series history.