ST. LOUIS - As frustrating as the end of their Game 3 of the World Series loss was for the Boston Red Sox, no matter how they tried to rationalize or explain away the obstruction call the gave the St. Louis Cardinals a walk-off victory, the umpires and rule book had an answer.
"Obstruction is the act of a fielder obstructing a runner when not in the act of fielding a ball," said John Hirschbeck, the crew chief of the umpires handling the game. "It does not have to be intent."
The two points stunned Red Sox players kept bringing up was that third baseman Will Middlebrooks didn't intentionally trip runner Allen Craig and that the contact didn't occur directly in the baseline between third base and home.
Though Middlebrooks insists he didn't consciously raise his legs while face down in the dirt, causing Craig to stumble, that's irrelevant - just as Hirschbeck explained and as is laid out in the rule book definition of obstruction.
As part of that definition in Rule 2:00 is the comment:
"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."
Though this was a throw rather than a ground ball, the same interpretation applies. Once the throw from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia got past the diving Middlebrooks, he was no longer attempting to make a fielding play.
Yes, it was a mere second or two from the time he no longer was by definition making a fielding play to when he made contact with Craig, that's something the even-sympathetic umpires can't change.
"You'd have to ask Middlebrooks if he could have done anything (to get out of the way)," said third umpire Jim Joyce, who immediately made the call. "But that's not in our determination. The runner has every right to go to home plate unobstructed. ... Unfortunately, the defensive player was there."
The position of the baserunner is irrelevant as long as he doesn't interfere with a fielder and as long as he is attempting to take a direct route to the next base.
"That never played into any decision," said Joyce. "He had slid, stood up and he was literally right on the chalk."
Some of the Red Sox disagreed that Craig was close to the foul line, but that's another moot point.
"Don't forget, the runner establishes his own baseline," Hirschbeck said. "That baseline is where he is."
One other crucial element is that Craig continued his attempt to score, even though the ball was retrieved and beat him to the plate.
"That's the last, most important part of this rule," said Hirschbeck. "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. But since it was right there - bang-bang play - obviously that's obstruction."
The reactions on all sides were predictable -- the euphoria for the Cardinals, the frustration for the Red Sox, even congratulations among the umpires.
"I was on the left field line," Hirschbeck said. "Immediately after we got off the field into our locker room, we congratulated Jim and said, 'Great call.'
"It's out of the ordinary, but when it happens, and it's the World Series, you expect to get it right."
They did and, in the end, even Red Sox manager John Farrell had to grudgingly agree.
"I don't know how he gets out of the way when he's lying on the ground," Farrell said of Middlebrooks. When Craig trips over him, I guess by the letter of the rule, you could say it's obstruction. That's a tough pill to swallow."