BOSTON, MA: Cody Ross #7 of the Boston Red Sox connects for a three-run home run against Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. In honor of Jackie Robinson Day, all players across Major League Baseball will wear number 42. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Monday, the Boston Red Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays by one run. One wonders how things might have gone had the game's final at-bat been called differently.
As you're reading this, a baseball game on Monday has already started and ended. The Boston Red Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0, with James Shields defeating Daniel Bard. It's Patriots' Day, see, and it's a Patriots' Day tradition for Fenway Park to host an unusually early matinee.
For the most part, this was just another baseball game. A low-scoring baseball game, but a fairly unremarkable baseball game. Shields nearly went the distance, which was something. Bard walked seven batters, which isn't good, but Bard also struck out seven batters, which is good. The Rays had seven hits. The Red Sox had four hits.
I'm not here to write a recap of Monday's game between the Rays and the Red Sox. You can find one of those somewhere else. I'm here to address the game's final at-bat, because that's what people are going to be talking about for the next several whiles. It was the game's final at-bat that turned this from being a 1-0 baseball game into a 1-0 baseball game that gets discussed a lot. Monday morning, the story was Bobby Valentine criticizing Kevin Youkilis. Monday afternoon, but that's on the back-burner.
It was 1-0 Rays going into the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Shields walked Dustin Pedroia, and Joe Maddon replaced Shields with Fernando Rodney. Rodney got a ground out, and he then elected to walk David Ortiz intentionally to face Cody Ross with the winning run on first. That ground out moved Pedroia to second base, by the way. I should have mentioned that earlier.
And so began the controversial at-bat. The home-plate umpire was Larry Vanover. The common technique here is to paste in a strike-zone image from MLB's Gameday or some other source. I'm going to bypass that in favor of game screenshots, because I think they're more telling.
Here are the five pitches that Rodney threw to Ross:
Fenway's camera is just about dead-center. Vanover called three of those five pitches strikes. I'm not going to bother telling you which, because it doesn't matter. All five were probably balls. Maybe - maybe - one of them was a strike. Cody Ross responded to the game-ending punch-out the way most of us would've responded:
No matter how you feel about Cody Ross and the Red Sox, there's no denying that they kind of got the royal screwjob right here. There's no guarantee that Ross would've walked had the pitches been called right, since Rodney might have changed his approach. There's no guarantee that the Red Sox would've tied the game or won, since Ross would've had to come through, or the next batter would've had to come through. Larry Vanover did not cost the Red Sox the game. But he cost them an opportunity to tie or win the game by calling balls strikes. The Red Sox and their fans have every reason to be upset.
As it happens, the game's only run scored on a bases-loaded walk. That provides a nice bit of symmetry, or asymmetry. I'm not sure which it is. I didn't major in identifying things that are symmetrical.
This'll get people calling for robots, and that's not wrong. We're beyond the point at which it's silly that we don't have an electronic strike zone. I think the degree of support for more automated umpiring is such that the hip opinion now might be to not want more automated umpiring. I'm pretty sure that's how popular things work.
The Red Sox might've improved to 5-5, were it not for Vanover. They might've fallen to 4-6 anyway. We'll never know. The Red Sox were already something of a circus to begin the week, on account of the Valentine/Youkilis stuff. Now there's this to whip everyone into even more of a frenzy, and did I mention that most of Boston spends Patriots' Day drunk? Most of Boston spends Patriots' Day drunk. This'll be a calm Monday night in the heart of Massachusetts.
As for the Rays, one of the big reasons they signed Jose Molina was because he adds value as a pitch-framer. I guess Jose Molina just pitch-framed his ass off.