A great number of things went wrong for the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, leading to another early playoff exit and another disappointing outcome in a do-or-die postseason game.
There was Max Scherzer’s implosion. There was Jayson Werth sliding right past a line drive in left field. There were 13 runners left on base and three innings from starter Gio Gonzalez, and other weird plays of the dropped-third-strike and hit-by-pitch variety.
Then there was Jose Lobaton and his eighth-inning rally-killing pick-off from first base. It effectively ended the Nats’ late-inning threat and handed the momentum right back to the Chicago Cubs.
And the Nationals totally got screwed by replay.
Michael A. Taylor had just singled to make the score 9-8 in the eighth, then Lobaton singled to move Taylor up and put runners at first and second with two outs. A base hit and the Nats might have tied this wacky back-and-forth game and maybe even been on a plane to the NLCS in Los Angeles. Instead, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras caught Lobaton slipping and back-picked him at first base.
Lobaton got back safely, but lost contact with the base ever so briefly while Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo kept the tag on. Lobaton was initially ruled safe on the field, but the Cubs challenged and he was called out after a video review. Third out. Inning over. Rally over. Game soon to be over.
It was tough to swallow. First off, the replay itself was tough to sort out since one camera angle couldn’t capture both the glove and Lobaton’s foot on the bag. Did he lose contact with the bag? Yes, it sure looked like it. Did replay eventually make the right call? Probably
But another equally important question: Should this type of thing really be replay’s job?
Is this really the spirit of the replay in baseball? It’s there to correct bad calls, not help umpires find the split-second piece of evidence that negates what looks like a good call on the field. It’s there to aid baseball’s human element not set cyber detectives loose into in the replay booth.
These types of plays have gotten more common in MLB since replay has been introduced. Fielders know that base runners who slide or dive into a bag are often left in vulnerable positions. If they move just so or can’t hold their foot or hand in the right place and the tag is still on, bingo! While it might technically be correct, it’s not the spirit of baseball.
We used to take as a norm the “neighborhood play,” where a middle infielder could turn a double play by just getting close enough to the bag. When replay came around, the “neighborhood play” stayed because it was deemed non-reviewable and completely up to the umpire’s discretion. It wasn’t until MLB put in new rules about take-out slides in spring 2016 that the “neighborhood play” became reviewable and thus umpires started to more strictly enforce the notion that infielders had to tag the bag. To go from, in less than two years, allowing the neighborhood play to nit-picking split-second player movements on a pick-off attempt — well, that just seems like a huge overcorrection.
Keep this in mind: MLB isn’t the strictest enforcer of all its rules. Just some. The league mostly looks the other way in regards to pitchers using sunscreen or pine tar to doctor the ball so they can get a better grip. The only time it becomes an issue is when the pitchers are too egregious with their foreign substances. How are we allowing that but not giving runners a little bit of wiggle room after sliding into a base?
If a throw legitimately beats the runner to the bag and the tag is applied and replay shows it, great. The system has done its job. But to hold the tag for a few extra seconds hoping your opponent goofs because you know it’s being recorded, that seems more like manipulating the system.
This wasn’t the reason the Nats lost. Not solely anyway. They made a number of mistakes — not the least of which was Lobaton even putting himself in a position to get picked off with two outs and the tying run a base ahead of him.
But this moment, this cruel split-second that hurt the Nats, proved in a big moment that baseball has taken this replay overcorrection too far.
Get it right — but don’t pervert the spirit of the game with technology’s new tools.
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