Baseball deserves much better than Wednesday’s Red Sox-Rays fiasco

A compelling game between playoff contenders was done in by easily solvable buffoonery.

Alex Cora had plenty of words for the umpiring crew in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday.
Alex Cora had plenty of words for the umpiring crew in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday. –NESN Screenshot

COMMENTARY

The 25-minute umpire conference during the eighth inning on Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field shouldn’t entirely have surprised you. Not in a league that, in six years, hasn’t even figured out how to eliminate the duffel bag of giant headphones that makes every replay review look like it involves a 1970s hi-fi.

It was a worst case, yes. It was also inevitable in a sport so studiously denying simple fixes to improve its product. Though to be fair, Rob Manfred and crew have made sure the scourge of waiver trades in August won’t trouble us again.

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But I digress.

It was a big three days for the Red Sox at the St. Petersburg Pinball Machine, the start of their season-defining two weeks exclusively facing the Rays and Yankees. Returning to a place where they, at 6-13, swept what was then the best team in baseball, this seemed an easier pull — Tampa had lost 5 of 6, wouldn’t have Cy Young winner Blake Snell starting, and lost defensive superstar Kevin Kiermaier to a headfirst slide.

The Sox got what they needed via a 9-4 cakewalk and a white-knuckle 5-4 affair that required Marcus Walden to clean up a ninth-inning mess. (You might think $240 million would yield more than a journeyman’s journeyman in crunch time. Well, you would if you haven’t been watching all year.) It could’ve been another sweep, but on Wednesday Charlie Morton outdueled David Price, who gave up just four hits, all on the second time through the order.

“The way [Morton] has thrown the baseball all season long, that’s very impressive,” said Price, who became the fourth straight starter to finish six innings — the sort of run that’ll need to become the norm if this season is anything other than a disappointment. “Knowing you’re going against him and you get staked to an early two-run lead … that was tough.”

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So too is what comes now. New York isn’t yielding an inch and won its final two at Central-leading Minnesota, making it 25 of 33 since mid-June, when the flickering Rays were a half-game up rather than 10 games back.

The Sox are minus-20 in runs while opening 1-6 against their rival, who’s won seven straight Masahiro Tanaka starts — he opposes Rick Porcello in a Thursday rematch of their London bonanza — and who continues to prove its mettle each night.

“Who wants it more? Who is going to step up and deliver the big hit for us? Guy after guy continued to do that,” Aaron Judge said of Tuesday’s 14-12 win over the Twins straight from the 2018 Red Sox playbook, New York winning despite 8-2, 9-5, and 11-10 deficits, plus two blown saves. “That’s what championship teams are made of.”

The 2019 Yankees win those games like Tuesday’s. The 2019 Red Sox lose those games like Wednesday’s. The high-level baseball, however, is not the takeaway here.

Angel Hernandez shamefully saw fit to that. Manfred, too, by extension.

At least now the commissioner has the footage to silence any umpire who believes the status quo is just fine for 2020 and beyond.

Whether the handling of Tampa’s unorthodox switches in the aforementioned eighth inning:

— Chaz Roe replaces Adam Kolarek, batting 9th, replacing first baseman Ji-Man Choi.
— Adam Kolarek replaces Austin Meadows, batting 3rd, playing first base.
— Nate Lowe replaces pitcher Chaz Roe, batting 9th, playing first base.
— Adam Kolarek replaces Chaz Roe, batting 3rd.

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… affected the result or not isn’t the point. (I think not, likely why Boston’s protest will be denied and the loss will stand.) The entire thing was handled just about as poorly as it could’ve been, and subsumed a fine game between two good teams.

Hernandez’s reputation precedes itself, but even by his standards, his 15-minute mulling and ultimate proclamation that Tampa manager Kevin Cash didn’t specify his batting order changes is a doozy. The two spoke for more than 30 seconds, lineup cards in hand, when the initial switch was made, then again when Kolarek went back in to pitch.

What’s worse: Hernandez trying to cover a mistake in his recording the move, or that he’s so bad at his job that he didn’t ask?

Cash, for his part, said simply, “There appeared to be some confusion, but I’m confident that we got it right.” Cora clearly disagrees, but he didn’t deign to tell us exactly why.

“It is kind of hard to explain,” he said, in part. “I’m sorry I can’t go over it, because there’s a lot.”

Which, frankly, would seem less dubious if not for the 17-inning loss in Minnesota where Cora screamed his head off over a batter’s box ruling that replay immediately showed the umpires got right. (Cora promptly apologized.)

Remember how the replay train really got started a decade ago? Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game in 2010. A clearly wrong call, for which there was literally no redress. It was a perfect storm that forced change, because what if something like that happened when it really mattered? (Note: It already had, but human error was more acceptable when the tech was 1985 level.)

Wednesday should help do the same, because the tech now is there. What’s happening in the Atlantic League proves it. A BU study published earlier this year laid it out plain: “In 2018, MLB umpires made 34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls, for an average of 14 per game or 1.6 per inning.” Younger umps do a better job. Older umps a worse one.

They can all be fixed and helped tomorrow, without an added second’s disruption. Cameras judge lines in tennis seamlessly. They judge goals in the Premier League and other high-level soccer matches, seamlessly. (We’re talking goal-line tech, not VAR.)

And though it doesn’t directly address what happened on Wednesday in St. Petersburg, letting the tech handle what it does better than humans allows for something simple: The human umpires to handle things better handled by humans.

Check swings. True judgment calls. Knowing the rules.

In short, keeping the game moving. Maybe even by enforcing the rules already on the books.

Instead, Manfred experiments. He hints at implementing change, then backs off, knowing the Players Association might finally come together to fight back on the next CBA. (I say might because of stories like this from the All-Star Game.) While he waits, average time of game this season is 3:08 — a minute higher than in 2014, the season after which MLB formed its ‘Pace of Game Committee‘ to address the issue.

While he dreams about expansion and new stadiums in Oakland and Tampa, more than a third of plate appearances end with one of the three true outcomes (home run, walk, strikeout), easily the most ever. Half swings on balls away go for 400-foot home runs, and no one supposedly knows why.

Free agency in both basketball and hockey are infinitely more dynamic. Five AL teams might lose 100 games, chasing draft picks in an attempt to mimic successes in Houston and with the Cubs.

If it’s not 20 minutes of Angel Hernandez staring at a lineup card, it’s five trying to parse frames on a slide into home. The game is great, but it deserves better than what it got Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

We certainly do too. We can only hope the memory of that embarassment prompts it.