Legs are more important to baseball than the casual observer might believe. After all, it’s the hands and arms that are used to wield a bat, glove and ball. But anyone connected to the game will tell you that the legs are where nearly all a player’s power — be it for a batter, pitcher or fielder — is generated. But legs can also get in the way, tangling, tripping and otherwise disrupting expected outcomes. They certainly did over the weekend in Games 3 and 4 of the 2013 World Series, providing a pair of bizarre, unprecedented outcomes.
On Saturday night, it was the legs of Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks that played a starring role. With Game 3 tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning and runners on second and third for the Cardinals with one out, Jon Jay slapped a grounder to Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who immediately fired the ball home in time for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to tag out a sliding Yadier Molina. By all accounts, that should have been the end of the play, and Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma — who had managed just one hit in his previous 23 at bats — should have stepped to the plate with two outs and runners on the corners. Instead, Saltalamacchia fired the ball to third base in an ill-advised attempt to beat Allen Craig to the bag. His throw was late and wide, and the ball ended up in left field.
That’s when things went from frantic to downright bizarre. As Boston left fielder Daniel Nava went to collect the errant throw, Craig lifted himself up off the dirt and tried to run home. Enter the legs of Middlebrooks. Depending on your allegiances, you’ll either say that Middlebrooks lifted his legs in an attempt to trip up Craig or was simply trying to stand up. In either case, Craig was slowed enough that Nava’s throw home beat him and Saltalamacchia applied the tag that appeared to send the game to extra innings. Except that it hadn’t. As it turned out, Craig could have moonwalked down the third-base line — he’d already been awarded home when third-base umpire Jim Joyce signaled Middlebrooks and his legs for obstruction. Cardinals win 5-4.
By all accounts, it was a genuine “holy sh–” moment — one that sparked heavy excavation into baseball’s rulebook. But all involved, including the umpiring crew and executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre, agreed the call was the correct one. Here’s the pertinent section of the rulebook:
Obstruction is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner …
Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: … After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the act of fielding the ball. For example, an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him, and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.
Obstruction is a rare call to begin with, but this was the first time in the 109-year history of the World Series it had ended a game. Turns out it wouldn’t be the last history-making end to a World Series game of the weekend.
One of the first things you learn as a base runner when you transition from T-ball leagues that don’t allow stealing to live-ball leagues that do is that you never, ever bounce while taking a lead. The thinking being that — unlikely as it may be — if you should happen to bounce away from the bag at the exact wrong moment when the pitcher has decided to throw over, you’ll be caught flat-footed with your momentum going in the wrong direction. In the bottom of the ninth on Sunday night, Cardinals rookie Kolten Wong’s legs bounced away first base at the worst possible moment.
The Cardinals were trailing 4-2 in the final frame of Game 4, with the American League’s best closer, Koji Uehara, on the mound for the Red Sox and had been whittled down to their final out. But they had a runner on first and one of the greatest postseason hitters in baseball history, Carlos Beltran, up at the plate. The odds were not in their favor, but at least they had a shot. And then, all of a sudden, they didn’t. Wong took an extra bounce off first, and Uehara fired over at an impossibly fortuitous moment. Wong — who had pinch-run for Allen, Game 3’s hero — slipped as he tried to dive back in, Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli applied the tag and the series was suddenly tied at two games apiece. It happened so quickly that the Fox cameras only managed to catch the aftermath of the tag. It’s hard to blame them though — it was the first time a World Series game had ever ended on a pickoff attempt.
Monday’s Game 5 matchup in St. Louis will put one team just a single game away from the championship, but making any sort of prediction appears to be an exercise in futility. Just don’t count on history being made for a third consecutive night — they might want to save something for Boston, where the series will return, one way or the other, on Wednesday night.