By Larry Fine
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Even the masters of the rules had to admit the ending to Saturday's Game Three of the World Series was well out of the ordinary.
An obstruction ruling at third base turned an apparent double play that would send the contest into extra innings into a sudden 5-4 walk-off win for the St. Louis Cardinals and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Asked if they had ever seen a game end in this manner, let alone a World Series game, the umpires' answers came quickly.
"Never," said crew chief John Hirschbeck.
"Never," said third base umpire Jim Joyce, who made the obstruction ruling and went on to explain the call.
"The play developed after (catcher Jarrod) Saltalamacchia threw the ball at third base, after the ball had gone straight through, and (Craig) Allen had slid into third and stood up to attempt to go to home plate.
"When he tried to advance to home plate... he tripped over (Will) Middlebrooks right there, and immediately and instinctively I called obstruction," Joyce said.
"The baserunner has every right to go unobstructed to home plate and unfortunately for Middlebrooks, he was right there. And there was contact, so he could not advance to home plate naturally."
Craig was actually tagged out at the plate after a splendid throw home by outfielder Daniel Nava, backing up the play, but the St. Louis player was awarded the run due to the obstruction.
Joe Torre, Major League Baseball executive vice president for baseball operations, joined the umpires at a post-game press conference.
"Let me read, it gives the example on Rule 2, 'An infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him, and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.'
"Intentional or not intentional. He just has to clear the path. I know sometimes it's unfair because he's laying on the ground, but that's the way the rule is," Torre added in parsing the interpretation of baseball's rule book.
The last detail of the call was resolved by the end of the play.
As soon as Nava fired home in time to nip Craig at the plate, home plate umpire Dana DeMuth pointed to third base umpire Joyce to acknowledge the obstruction call.
The fact that the play was relatively close at home plate, sealed the verdict, the umpires said.
"Our determination is whether or not he could have scored or not," Joyce added. "As soon as Craig slid into home plate, Dana immediately pointed down at me knowing that we had obstruction and it impeded Allen to score the run, essentially."
Crew chief Hirschbeck concurred: "That's the last, most important part of this rule, that the umpire has to determine. If... he's out by 20 feet, then the umpire determines that if the obstruction had not occurred, he would have been out.
"But since it was right there, a bang-bang play, obviously that's obstruction, definitely had something to do with the play."
(Editing by John O'Brien)