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Prior to Thursday, you could count the amount of times a team notched 20 strikeouts in a single game on one hand. Unless you’re Antonio Alfonseca or the guy from “The Princess Bride,” that’s no longer possible thanks to the Boston Red Sox and some bad umpiring.
Entering the ninth inning, the Red Sox sat four strikeouts away from tying the record. While it’s not impossible to accomplish, a four-strikeout inning is pretty rare. It’s only happened 72 times in the history of baseball and almost always involves a dropped third strike. Closer Craig Kimbrel found a way to notch the 73rd four-strikeout inning, but his may have been the first of its kind.
It all started with the first batter of the ninth inning. Texas Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara worked a 2-2 count against Kimbrel to kick things off. On the fifth-pitch of the at-bat, Mazara swung at a breaking ball that wound up hitting him in the ankle. The ball deflected off Mazara and flew to the backstop. He ran to first base and was ruled safe.
If you think something sounds a little fishy about that chain of events, you are absolutely right. According to rule 6.05, a batter is out when he swings at a third strike, but gets touched by the ball.
While it was the wrong call, it was a simple mistake, right? The home plate umpire simply missed the ball hitting Mazara in the ankle. He thought the ball hit the dirt and skipped away from catcher Christian Vazquez. That explains why Mazara was awarded first. A simple review of the play should have been enough to overturn the call.
Except it wasn’t. A review was called for, but the replay officials did not change the call. Mazara was rewarded with a hit by pitch and allowed to stay at first.
You can probably guess some of what happened next. Kimbrel struck out the final three batters he faced. The Red Sox won the game 6-2. When the game ended, the Red Sox had recorded a total of 19 strikeouts. They were one away from tying the major-league record.
Hold on a minute … how the heck did the Red Sox pick up their 20th strikeout if the game ended? Well, it all happened after the contest was complete.
The replay room in New York admitted they made an error in not accepting the initial review. Because the result was so clear, Mazara was charged with a strikeout. It was retroactively determined that he reached first on a wild pitch from Kimbrel.
That ruling gave Kimbrel four strikeouts during the inning. It also gave the Red Sox’s pitching staff 20 total strikeouts, tying the record.
So, what the heck happened on the field initially? Why wasn’t the play overturned even though it was obvious Mazara should have been called out? Crew Chief Alfonso Marquez said the replay office in New York would release a statement explaining the decision, but left it at that.
Apparently, the officials in New York misinterpreted the request, and believed the play could not be challenged. They reversed the decision after it was clear a mistake was made. A hit by pitch on a swinging strike is a reviewable play, according to the rule book.
It marks the sixth time a team has notched 20 strikeouts in a single contest. Four of those instances have come by a single pitcher. Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer is the most recent player to accomplish the feat, striking out 20 Detroit Tigers in a May 2016 start. The only other time a team has combined for 20 strikeouts came in 2012, when the Los Angeles Angels relied on Zack Greinke, Garrett Richards, Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri to get the job done.
The Red Sox needed five pitchers to get there. Drew Pomeranz carried the load, striking out 11 batters over six innings. Heath Hembree and Robby Scott combined to strike out the side in the seventh. Matt Barnes notched two strikeouts in the eighth, leaving Kimbrel with four in the ninth.
Racking up strikeouts is nothing new for Kimbrel. Over 21 1/3 innings, Kimbrel has notched 44 strikeouts this season. In fact, it’s not even the first time Kimbrel has picked up a four-strikeout inning. He first accomplished the feat in 2012 as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
That should at least soften the blow for Rangers fans. If you’re going to be on the wrong end of a major-league record, it might as well come against a dominant pitcher. Still, Kimbrel doesn’t exactly need any extra motivation from the umps. He’s already pretty excellent on his own.
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