The Rays were robbed -- but not by the umps

I’ve watched 10 minutes of baseball all year but happened to have the Rays/Red Sox game on last night when this happened, and was aghast at the ruling.

Which turned out to be the correct ruling, if you define “correct” in terms of comportment with the rulebook.

If you define it in terms of basic intuitive justice, it’s a travesty.

This was Game Three of a divisional series that’s tied at one game apiece, which meant the winner would move to within one win of clinching and would likely take the series. It was extra innings too; effectively the season was on the line for both teams, frame by frame. Rays’ third baseman Yandy Diaz was on first in the top of the 13th when centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier came to bat and launched one to right-center. Importantly, Diaz was running with the pitch; by the time the ball landed he was well past second base and approaching third.

What happened in the outfield was one of the luckiest breaks a team in a (near) do-or-die game could ever hope to get.

Even the announcers didn’t know what to make of it. Because Diaz was off with the pitch, he would have scored easily if the ball had remained in play. Kiermaier may or may not have made it to third for a triple but Diaz’s run would have given Tampa Bay the lead and a chance to close out the Sox in the bottom of the inning. Surely his run should count, no?

No, said the umpires. Kiermaier’s shot was a ground-rule double, which meant Diaz could only advance two bases. Because he started on first base, he’d have to go back to third. The next Rays’ hitter, Mike Zunino, struck out, ending the inning without Tampa Bay scoring. And then the Sox won it on a two-run walk-off home run by Christian Vazquez in the bottom of the 13th.

The Rays were robbed of a lead they deserved, but it wasn’t the umpires who robbed them. It was the dopey rules of this declining sport.

Q. Sam, looking at that rule, there’s no discretion in terms of moving the runners?

SAM HOLBROOK: “Correct. It’s in the rule book. It’s a ground-rule double. There’s no discretion that the umpires have. First of all, thank you all. I really appreciate you letting us come in here and explain the rule. A lot of times that doesn’t happen and things get messed up, but I really appreciate it.

If you don’t mind, what I’d like to do, this is our umpire manual, and what I’d like to do it just quote from the manual. It’s item 20 in the manual, which is, balls deflected out of play, which is in reference to official baseball Rule 5.06(b)(4)(H). It says, if a fair ball not in flight is deflected by a fielder and goes out of play, the award is two bases from the time of the pitch.

“From the time of the pitch.” Diaz was on first at the time of the pitch so he advances to third on the play and no further. Cut and dried.

It would have been a different story if Hunter Renfroe, the Sox outfielder who misplayed the ball, had had “complete possession” of the ball and then somehow fumbled it out of play. In that case runners are allowed to advance two bases from their position on the basepaths at the time of the outfielder’s miscue. Diaz would have scored in that scenario. But because Renfroe never possessed the ball, it’s an old-fashioned ground-rule double. No different from if Kiermaier’s drive had dropped in front of the fence and then bounced over cleanly.

Which, as I say, is a travesty for a simple intuitive reason: “A more sure-handed outfielder might have handled the bounce without any issue. The Rays were penalized because Renfroe isn’t one of those outfielders.” The team on the field misplayed the ball — but it was the team at-bat that suffered for it. With their season essentially on the line.

Red Sox fans eagerly reminded the Rays afterward that Tampa Bay has had recent experience with this terrible rule and didn’t seem to mind it before:

That’s a sound argument that Rays fans are being hypocritical by complaining but no argument at all in support of the rule being written as it is. Obviously, in the event of a defensive misplay, the umpires should have discretion to award runners an extra base if they believe the runner would have safely made it to that base had the ball remained in play. The offense can’t be deprived of a run because the defense is bad at its job. A team at bat has to live with the prospect of a bad break in the form of a long drive bouncing over the fence, depriving a runner on first from scoring. A team in the field should have to live with the prospect of a bad break in the form of a runner on base scoring if one of its players deflects the ball out of play through no fault of his own.

The good news for baseball is that Vazquez’s game-winning two-run homer makes it conceivable that the Sox would have won even if Diaz’s run had counted. Maybe Zunino still strikes out, ending the Rays’ inning with a 5-4 lead. And maybe the bottom of the 13th goes the same way, with Vazquez homering to win it, 6-5. But “maybe” is a hard pill to swallow for Rays fans if they end up dropping this series after winning the division this year.

I’ll leave you with three analysts on the MLB Network after the game doing their best to reconcile what the rules say with what basic fairness says.