ST. LOUIS – Not every classic sports moment needs a pretty little bow on it, you know. We crave those, of course. The game-winning home run and the last-second field goal and the buzzer-beating shot. They're great. They're perfect snapshots in time. And on a night like Saturday, when the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox treated us to one hell of a World Series game, every pitch seemed to be begging for that perfect ending.
We got it. That wasn't obvious in the immediate aftermath, when nobody knew what the hell happened. Nor in the hours after, when we were still parsing through the mess that was the final play and trying to understand how and why, exactly, the obstruction rule was applied to the winning run. No, this was not an unforgettable walk-off. It was a never-before-seen fall-off.
This is baseball, and sometimes a game is going to end with Allen Craig in a heap at home plate, his St. Louis Cardinals teammates coming out to mob him, Will Middlebrooks and the rest of his Boston Red Sox teammates clueless as to why they had just lost Game 3 of the World Series and utter, sheer, mass chaos. Baseball is funny like that. The game invents new gifts to unwrap, and it happened to save a whopper for the Cardinals' 5-4 victory at a Busch Stadium stuffed with people who had no idea why they were cheering, except that their team had taken a two-games-to-one advantage and were two wins from their 12th championship.
The play and call were complicated. So let's get the specifics out of the way before we get to the mechanics behind it.
Craig stood on second base after his pinch-hit double moved Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina to third. There was one out. The Red Sox had come back from deficits twice to tie the game 4-4. Closer Koji Uehara was in to face Jon Jay. Jay hit a hard two-hopper up the middle against a drawn-in infield. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia made a brilliant stop and threw home. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia easily tagged out Molina. Craig, playing in just his third game since missing nearly seven weeks with a foot injury, ran toward third base. Saltalamacchia's throw hit a sliding Craig and ricocheted away. Craig started running toward home and tripped over Middlebrooks. Third-base umpire Jim Joyce pointed with his left hand to signal obstruction. The play continued. Craig ran home. The throw beat him there and Saltalamacchia tagged him. Home-plate umpire Dana DeMuth called Craig safe anyway. The Red Sox were apoplectic. The Redbirds were euphoric.
After the game, the umpires tried to describe why they made the call. A number of on-the-fly interpretations factored in, and Joyce, so maligned for his blown call in the Armando Galarraga perfect game, and DeMuth, who mangled a call that was overturned in Game 1, both did their jobs to perfection.
Because no play was being made on Craig, he set his own baseline. It happened to be slightly inside the fair/foul line. Because Middlebrooks impeded him, even if it was accidental, it counts as obstruction nonetheless. Still, an obstruction call in and of itself in this case did not automatically award Craig another base. Instead, Craig ran toward home at his own risk. DeMuth was left to interpret whether the obstruction had impeded him from scoring. When the play at home was close – Saltalamacchia tagged a sliding Craig in front of the plate – DeMuth determined Middlebrooks' obstruction had kept Craig from scoring and thus awarded St. Louis the winning run. Had Craig been out by 20 feet, or whatever measure DeMuth deemed large enough for the obstruction not to matter, it would have been immaterial. DeMuth would have called him out, and the game would have gone to extra innings.
Once DeMuth spread his arms sideways to signal safe, the Cardinals streamed out of the dugout to surround Craig even though outfielder Carlos Beltran said "maybe 75 percent of the guys didn't have any idea what happened." They weren't the only ones.
"I didn't know if I was out or safe," Craig said. "I looked in the dugout and saw everyone running out. So it must've been something good."
The win was temporary salve for pain that coursed through Craig's left foot. He spent time in a walking boot during September because of a Lisfranc injury and was thought to be lost for the postseason. After DHing in Boston for two games, he found himself on the bench as the Cardinals and Red Sox engaged in the sort of strategy-rich game meant for this stage.
So many of the moves had direct effects on the final play, too. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny saved Craig for an opportune moment and found one after Molina's single with one out in the ninth. Red Sox manager John Farrell, on the other hand, never used his best bench player, Mike Napoli. Earlier in the game, Farrell had pinch hit Middlebrooks for shortstop Stephen Drew, batting under .100 this postseason, which moved starting third baseman Xander Bogaerts to shortstop and left Middlebrooks to end up as the new example of obstruction. In fact, in Major League Baseball's Official Rules, the comment for Rule 2.00 (obstruction) reads: "For example: 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."
Protests from Farrell, Middlebrooks, Pedroia and others did no good. And Craig talked afterward like someone who had been in a car crash, saying he didn't remember much because "it happened so fast." The specifics of it didn't matter to him, either. The Cardinals, remember, had told Craig he needed to run under control so he didn't reinjure his foot. His postgame limp did not portend well for Game 4 and beyond. Such is the price of a World Series win.
"Running under control in that situation didn't cross my mind," Craig said. "I'm trying to score and run as fast as I possibly could."
When the lights turned off and the crowd dissipated, Craig turned away from his locker and limped to the shower in a pair of flip-flops. For nearly four hours, the Cardinals and Red Sox traded haymakers. St. Louis jumped on Jake Peavy for two runs in the first inning, and Boston chipped away to tie it, and a two-run double by Matt Holliday doubled their advantage, and Boston got to Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis' wunderkind relievers, to tie the game again. Both teams missed opportunities with runners on base, and both executed big pitches in big moments, and it was a wonderful slice of baseball between these two evenly matched teams who tied for the most wins in the regular season.
Because there was so much good to this game, a sentiment prevailed afterward that this was the wrong way for it to end, like on a pass-interference call or an iffy hook that gives a team a power play.
"You'd have like to have it maybe end a little cleaner," Holliday admitted.
No thanks. It's OK that we have to look up rules in an arcane rulebook and break them down and interpret them and ferret out the truth well after midnight and look at the replay again and again and again and again and maybe one or five or 20 more times after that. It's OK because this is the game, and sometimes it gets a little dirty, and you know what? Not everything needs a pretty little bow.
The Fall Classic got its classic fall, and that was plenty.