A walkoff obstruction call probably won't be remembered romantically when talking about classic World Series moments, but how the Cardinals won Game 3 of the 2013 Fall Classic is certainly memorable.
Third-base umpire Jim Joyce ruled that the Cards' Allen Craig was obstructed on the basepath by a sprawled out Will Middlebrooks, preventing him from scoring the game-winning run cleanly. Craig was apparently thrown out at home plate by left fielder Daniel Nava, but umpire Dana DeMuth said he was safe, pointing to Joyce's call and ruling that Craig would have scored had he not been obstructed. That gave St. Louis a 5-4 win over the Red Sox and a 2-1 series lead.
But perhaps some explanation to how the game reached that point is in order. With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Yadier Molina singled off Brandon Workman. Allen Craig pinch-hit for reliever Trevor Rosenthal, who was batting sixth as the result of a double-switch by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny in the top of the eighth. The Red Sox brought in Koji Uehara to face Craig. Craig hit a double on Uehara's first pitch, giving St. Louis runners on second and third.
Here's the decision that the Red Sox, fans and media will question in the hours leading up to Sunday's Game 4. Manager John Farrell opted to pitch to the following batter, Jon Jay, rather than intentionally walk him to load the bases and set up a force play. Yet the choice paid off when Jay hit a groundball to second base. Boston's Dustin Pedroia made a diving stop, immediately threw home and Molina was tagged out at the plate.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia then threw to third base in an attempt to get Craig, but threw the ball wide of Middlebrooks into left field. Craig got up from his slide, turned to look back toward left field, and began to run. However, he stumbled over the Red Sox third baseman at the bag and fell down. That led to Joyce ruling that Craig was obstructed at the base and would have scored had Middlebrooks not interfered with him.
The official MLB rulebook (under the Rule 2.00 heading) explains obstruction as follows: "OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner."
Middlebrooks wasn't in possession of the ball, nor was he in the act of receiving a throw, and he absolutely impeded Craig's progress on the way to home plate. Though some may criticize Joyce for making such a controversial call — and quickly so — on a game-ending play, it was absolutely the correct interpretation of the rule, regardless of whether or not Middlebrooks could get out of Craig's way.
"That's the last, most important part of this rule," crew chief John Hirschbeck explained to reporters after the game, including MLB.com's Ian Browne, "is that the umpire has to determine — if what you saw tonight happened and he's out by 20 feet, then the umpire determines that if the obstruction had not occurred, he would have been out, OK? But since it was right there, bang-bang play, obviously that's obstruction, definitely had something to do with the play."
Equally open to criticism are Farrell for not choosing to walk Jay to begin with and Saltalamacchia for throwing to third instead of holding on to the ball. That would've kept Craig at third base and let Uehara pitch to Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, who had gone 0-for-4 in the game and was hitless in his eight World Series at-bats.
Perhaps just as surprising as the bizarre play that ended this game is that both the previously impregnable St. Louis and Boston bullpens allowed runs to score.
The Cardinals took a 4-2 lead in the seventh when Craig Breslow allowed a leadoff single to Matt Carpenter and hit Carlos Beltran with a pitch. Junichi Tazawa took over for Breslow and gave up a double to Matt Holliday that drove in both runs. But the Red Sox tied the score in the eighth in somewhat similar fashion. Jacoby Ellsbury singled off Carlos Martinez to lead off the inning, and Shane Victorino was hit by a pitch. Martinez then intentionally walked David Ortiz to load the bases, and St. Louis brought in Trevor Rosenthal to pitch to Daniel Nava.
Nava grounded into a force play at second base and Ellsbury scored. Xander Bogaerts followed up by hitting a single up the middle to drive in Victorino and tie the game. The score remained 4-4 until the bottom of the ninth and the game-deciding obstruction call.
Game 4 of the World Series will be played Sunday at 8:15 p.m. ET. Clay Buchholz is scheduled to start for the Red Sox, but he was pushed back in the rotation due to shoulder fatigue and may not be able to pitch many innings. Ryan Dempster could thus end up working in long relief early for Boston. The Cardinals will counter with Lance Lynn, who has no such health concerns going into Sunday's game.