By Steve Kallas
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While everyone knows by now that the biggest play in the St. Louis Cardinals’ clinching victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers was that three-run homer by Matt Adams off Clayton Kershaw, the second most important play of the game seemed to slip through the cracks from an analysis standpoint.
The Dodgers had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the sixth and were threatening to score more as they put runners on first and third with two outs. A.J. Ellis, who had an unbelievable series against the Cardinals, going 7-for-13 with a double, a homer and four walks, a slugging percentage of .846, and an OPS of 1.493, was at the plate.
Cardinals reliever Seth Maness was on the mound and, with a 2-1 count on the right-handed hitting Ellis, he threw a breaking ball down and away. The ball bounced off star catcher Yadier Molina’s glove and back and to the right, maybe seven or eight feet from Molina.
Andre Ethier, leading off third, started to come home, but Ellis motioned for him to stop. Ethier turned and ran back to third, looking a split-second too long back at Molina, who picked up the ball and made an incredible throw to Matt Carpenter at third. The throw was a little high and wide, which it, to some degree, had to be, since Ethier was correctly running back to third inside of the third base line in fair territory.
However, Carpenter caught the ball a few feet to the infield side of third and tagged Ethier about belt high as he was getting back to the base. The third base ump called Ethier safe and Carpenter immediately signaled to the dugout to appeal the play.
In the ensuing 2-minute, 10-second review, the Fox broadcasters talked mostly about replay and their personal opinions about whether the call should be reversed or not. They did comment on Molina’s excellent throw, which, in this writer’s opinion, was one of the greatest throws one could imagine in such a big moment.
In any event, by the time the announcement was made, all of the Fox announcers had it wrong. They all thought it would be upheld but it was reversed, ending the inning and taking the bat out of the hands of the Dodgers’ leading playoff hitter.
This would be important if the final score turned out to be close.
The Cardinals went on to win 3-2, so you get the point.
SO, WHAT DID THEY MISS?
Well, not just the announcers, but everybody at Fox Sports Live, ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter simply missed the obvious: that Ethier, by failing to simply slide back into third, gave Carpenter a chance to tag him out.
Ethier kind of went down on one knee, awkwardly trying to get back to third and, since he didn’t slide, Carpenter was able to tag him.
There is virtually no doubt that, if Ethier slid, there would have been no chance that he would have been tagged out by Carpenter, who, again, caught the ball in virtually the only place Molina could throw it without hitting Ethier — high and away from third.
Indeed, if Ethier did a hook slide into third — that is, with his body in foul territory and his right toe touching the front corner of third base right on the foul line — Carpenter would have missed him by about five feet. While the hook slide is apparently no longer taught to baseball players, that absurdity is a conversation for another time.
But make no mistake: had Ethier just slid back into the base with a normal, straight-ahead slide, he would have been safe.
Would that have changed the game? Well, with the runner on first going to second on the ball that got by Molina, the Dodgers’ hottest hitter would have had a chance to drive in two runs. While we will never know what could have happened, certainly, at a minimum, the Dodgers would have had an opportunity to open the game up.
And here’s a beautiful thing about baseball that doesn’t seem to exist in other sports: if Ethier slid back safely, it would’ve been second and third with two out and a 3-1 count on Ellis, who, despite being the Dodgers’ best hitter in this series, was batting eighth. That would have meant Kershaw was up next.
So, if the Cardinals decided to walk Ellis, would Don Mattingly have pulled Kershaw to try and break the game open? While in retrospect it sounds like a good idea — Kershaw was pitching brilliantly but was also pitching on short rest and had been hammered in Game 1 by the Cardinals in the seventh inning — Mattingly likely would have left his ace in for at least another inning or two.
But the permutations and combinations in a baseball game are fascinating. This is just another example.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
What it means is that the baseball analysis, as opposed to the replay rule analysis, was, essentially, completely ignored by three “experts.” Indeed, the numerous additional “experts” at all of these other shows mentioned above simply missed the boat.
While analysis of the replay rule is something that should be discussed, it’s hard to believe that in 2014 the “expert” analysis is so lacking that a simple understanding of a simple baseball play (slide, Ethier, slide) could be totally ignored by so many.
But that’s exactly what happened in the second biggest play of a deciding Game 4 in an MLB playoff series in 2014. That’s bad, bad, bad.
Whatever you may think of Tim McCarver, in his time one of the great analysts who had clearly lost a little in the last few years, he definitely would have seen what was pretty obvious — if Andre Ethier had simply slid back into third, there might have been a different outcome in what ended up being a series-clinching playoff game.
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