Monday, October 01, 2007

Where's the Hand?

Is it just me or did the tiebreaker between San Diego and Colorado go from brilliant to suck the moment umpire Tim McClelland made his delayed call at home plate?

Up until that point, the 13th inning was a masterpiece. Brian Giles drew a five-pitch walk at the top of the inning, and was brought home by Scott Hairston's homer to left centre two pitches later. With a two run lead and all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman taking the mound, the Padres looked set to meet the Phillies in the playoffs.

Recent history suggested that things might be more complicated. On Saturday, the Padres were one strike away from the playoffs when Tony Gwynn Jr hit a game-tying triple off Hoffman. Tonight, he was immediately in trouble.

On his sixth pitch, Kaz Matsui stroked a double to centre. Matsui had all of 32 extra base hits and a .396 slugging percentage this year, but tonight was his moment. Seven pitches later, rookie of the year candidate Troy Tulowitzki doubled himself, scoring Matsui and bringing the game within one. On the next pitch, Matt Holliday sent the ball to deep right and landed on third with a triple. The game was tied.

At this point I thought the game was a masterpiece. While extra innings had dragged after Heath Bell left the mound (the stout right hander had pitched a thrilling 2 2/3 innings with 5 strikeouts), the back-and-forth 13th had the crowd on its feet. An intentional walk to Todd Helton put runners a the corners with none out, and it seemed clear that the Rockies were about to win the game.

That's when things went awry. Jamey Carroll had been hitting for Garrett Atkins since the he came in as a runner in the 7th. Still there in the 13th, he lined the ball into Brian Giles' territory in the outfield. The play at the plate was closer than anyone expected: with Michael Barrett blocking the plate, Holliday went in face-first wide to the right. The ball landed at Barrett's feet and slipped away, but umpire McClelland hesitated. Then his arms swept wide in as he called Holliday safe and ended the game.

The television replays were all too brief, and from too few angles. What we could see appeared to show Holliday's hand sliding wide of the base -- and he failed to go back to attempt to touch the bag. By the time Barrett found the ball and tagged him, the call had been made. There was no appeal to the crew chief.

The wire reports give McClelland the benefit of the doubt: "replays were inconclusive on whether Holliday touched the plate with his left hand or was blocked by Barrett's left foot."

Even more gracious is Padres manager Bud Black: “It looked to me like he did get it."

Other are less sure: "He missed the tag!" say the Sons of Steve Garvey. "Questionable," is the verdict here. This fellow wants to see instant replays. And the primates are chiming in from all points of view.

It's not the greatest controversy we've ever seen in a baseball game, but it is disappointing. Holliday looked out to me. Colorado defenders argue that it's payback for a Garret Atkins double that should have been called a homerun (the same double that brought Carroll in as a pinch-runner), or that Colorado would have won the game anyways. These arguments are wholly unsatisfying.

Beyond the dispute, which will barely be remembered days from now, there's one image that remains from tonight's contest. It's of a dejected Trevor Hoffman leaving the mound.

“I'm having a hard time expressing myself right now,” he said after the game. “I wish I could, but I can't after what happened tonight.”

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