Thursday, October 9, 2014

The key play of Dodgers/Cards Game 4

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

While everyone knows by now that the biggest play in the St. Louis Cardinals clinching victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers was that three-run homer by Matt Adams off Clayton Kershaw, the second most important play of the game seemed to slip through the cracks from an analysis standpoint.


Well, the Dodgers had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the sixth and had runners on first and third with two outs, threatening to score more.  A.J. Ellis, who had an unbelievable series against the Cardinals (7-13 with a double, a homer and four walks, batting .538, slugging .846, with an astounding OPS of 1.493 – while only for a four-game series, his 14-game playoff career numbers are also astounding), was at the plate trying to drive in at least one more run.

Cardinals reliever Seth Maness is on the mound and, with a 2-1 count on Ellis, he throws a breaking ball down and away from the right-handed hitting Ellis.  The ball bounces off star catcher Yadier Molina’s glove and bounces back and to the right of Molina, maybe seven or eight feet from Molina.

Andre Ethier, leading off third, starts to come home.  But Ellis tells him to stop and Ethier turns to run back to third, looking a split-second too long back at Molina (why?), who picks up the ball and makes an incredible throw to Matt Carpenter at third.  The throw is a little high and wide (which it, to some degree, had to be, since Ethier was correctly running back to third inside of the third base line in fair territory).

However, Carpenter catches the ball a few feet to the infield side of third and tags Ethier about belt high as he is getting back to the base.  The third base ump calls Ethier safe and Carpenter immediately signals to the dugout to appeal the play.


In the ensuing approximately two minute and ten second review with the umps in New York, the Fox broadcasters talked mostly about replay and their personal opinions about whether the call should be reversed or not.  They did comment on Molina’s excellent throw (in this writer’s opinion, it was one of the greatest throws one could imagine in a big moment (a playoff game)).

In any event, by the time the announcement was made, all of the Fox announcers had it wrong.  They all thought it would be upheld but it was reversed, ending the inning and taking the bat out of the hands of the Dodgers leading playoff hitter.

This would be important if the final score turned out to be close.

Cardinals 3, Dodgers 2.  You get the point.


Well, not just the announcers, but everybody at Fox Sports Live, ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter simply missed the obvious:  that Andre Ethier, by failing to simply slide back into third, gave Carpenter a chance to tag him out.

Ethier, awkwardly, kind of went down on one knee trying to get back to third and, since he didn’t slide, Carpenter was able to tag him.

There is virtually no doubt that, if Ethier slides, there is no chance that he can be tagged by Carpenter who, again, catches the ball in virtually the only place Molina could throw it without hitting Ethier – high and away from third.

Indeed, if Ethier hook slides into third (that is, with his body in foul territory and his right toe touching the front corner of third base right on the foul line), Carpenter would have missed him by about five feet.  While, apparently, the hook slide is no longer taught to baseball players, that absurdity is a conversation for another time.

But make no mistake: had Ethier just slid back into the base with a normal, straight- ahead slide, he would have been safe.

Would that have changed the game? Well with the runner on first going to second on the ball that got by Molina (who threw to third), the Dodgers hottest hitter would have had a chance to drive in two runs.  While we will never know what could have happened, certainly, at a minimum, the Dodgers would have had an opportunity to open the game up.


And here’s a beautiful thing about baseball that doesn’t seem to exist in other sports:  if Ethier slides back safely, it’s second and third with two out and the count 3-1 on Ellis, who, despite being the Dodgers’ best hitter in this series, is batting eighth.  That means Clayton Kershaw is up next. 

So, if the Cardinals decide to walk Ellis, does Don Mattingly pull Kershaw to try and break the game open?  While, in retrospect, it sounds like a good idea (Kershaw was pitching brilliantly but was also pitching on short rest and had been hammered in Game 1 by the Cardinals in the seventh inning and would give up the game-winning homer in the seventh inning of Game 4), it says here that Mattingly would have left his ace in for at least another inning or two. 

But the permutations and combinations in a baseball game are fascinating.  This is just another example.


What it means is that the baseball analysis, as opposed to the replay-rule analysis, was, essentially, completely ignored by three “experts.”  Indeed, the numerous additional “experts” at all of these other shows mentioned above simply missed the boat.

While analysis of the replay rule is something that should be discussed, it’s hard to believe that, in 2014, the “expert” analysis is so lacking that a simple understanding of a simple baseball play (slide, Ethier, slide) could be totally ignored by so many.

But that’s exactly what happened in the second biggest play of a deciding Game 4 in a major league baseball playoff series in 2014.  Bad, bad, bad.

Whatever you may think of Tim McCarver, in his time one of the great analysts who had clearly lost a little in the last few years, it says here that he definitely would have seen what was pretty obvious – if Andre Ethier had simply slid back into third, there maybe (maybe, not definitely) might have been a different outcome in a series-clinching playoff game. 

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