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When blocking the plate blocks common sense

by Matt Smith

The Sunday night game is Game Two of the NLCS between the Chicago Cubs and LA Dodgers.

Compared with the Yankees-Astros series, this NLCS is not so easy to follow for British fans as only one game from the series is currently scheduled to start before midnight UK time and that’s the potential Game Six on Saturday 21st. It would start at 9pm BST as the opener before Game Seven of the ALCS; however if the Yankees-Astros series is over by that point then the Cubs-Dodgers game would get moved to the prime-time slot and back into ‘early hours’ territory for us.

The Cubs will be looking to even up the series on Sunday after taking a 5-2 loss in the series opener. Jon Lester and Rich Hill are the scheduled starting pitchers, landing another jab in the ribs to me and fellow A’s fans who seem to be staring at ex-Oakland players in every game this October.

Blocking the plate

The big talking point from Game One came in the seventh inning when the Dodgers’ Charlie (‘not Corey Seager’) Culberson was initially called out at home plate before the replay crew called him safe on review, judging that Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras blocked the plate illegally.

As soon as the play was challenged, commentator Ron Darling (one of the best around based on his SNY Mets work) was fearing that “the silliest of rules” was about to ruin an excellent fielding play. He called it right when reviewing the footage that Contreras clearly put his leg across to block Culberson’s path to the plate before he received the ball, but in doing so wasted little time in putting across the players’ view that the rule is wrong.

When the rule on what a catcher can do in that situation was changed in 2014, it immediately gained the informal name of the ‘Buster Posey rule’ given that it was the injury suffered by the Giants’ star in 2011 that many feel was the catalyst to it.  Joe Maddon’s opinion that had it been a third-string Atlanta Braves catcher nothing would have happened unfortunately is probably true, but fairly or not rule changes often only come about when a high-profile incident occurs.

Whether you like the rule or not is a personal choice. I never understood why it was acceptable for a base-runner to be able to smash into the catcher to try to dislodge the ball, so I’m fine with the rule as it is now, although I’d be inclined to defer to the wishes of the players when it comes to making a rule changed based on player safety, given that it’s their bodies that are on the line, and it’s not only the ex-players that don’t like the rule.

However, what can’t be debated is that the rule is clear and what Contreras did contravened it.

You see it a lot in football where former-players on TV criticise off-side decisions or ‘hard-but-fair’ tackles and then brush away the laws of the game as a mere technicality getting in the way of their opinion.  The job of the officials is to call the game based on the rules as they are, not based on what some people think they should be.

The replay review unquestionably led to the right call being made and the commentators generally struck a fair line in acknowledging this point whilst expressing their disagreement with the rule that the umpires have to uphold.

However, the exception came when Cubs manager Joe Maddon came onto the field and started screaming at the on-field umpires.

“Joe Maddon, rightly so, is out of his mind but by the letter of the rule book you’ve got to give him a lane, he didn’t”.

In one sense I understood that, as Maddon clearly was not alone in thinking the rule is stupid and that it had therefore cost his team. Yet to say he was “rightly” out of his mind is a bit of a stretch.

Maddon’s response to his antics after the game was to say: “I have to stick up for my boys … I’ve got to stick up for everybody that plays this game. I thought it was inappropriate”.

The run made the score 5-2 to the Dodgers in the seventh inning, so the Cubs were still in the game with a couple of innings still to be played. Where is the sense in getting yourself chucked out of the game at that point to scream in the face of the on-field umpires who hadn’t made the call and who would have been right even if they had?

Maddon was entitled to rant all he liked about it in the press conference after the game; that’s fine if that’s how he feels. But at that moment his job was to keep his composure and help mastermind a way to lead his team out of the hole, not to “stick up for everybody that plays this game” in some ridiculous display of honour.

It was then no surprise that Contreras’s response after the game was to double-down on his manager’s own self-righteousness:

“I think that was the wrong call,” Contreras said. “I will not change anything. If I have to do that again, I will do it again. They have to change everything. Not me”.

Well, Wilson, if you want to cost your team again then that’s up to you. It wasn’t the wrong call, however much you may disagree with the rule. If the series is on the line in Game Seven, presumably Maddon will be more than happy for his catcher to do the same thing. They can walk off the field defeated but with heads held high that they ‘played the game the right way’.

What a load of nonsense. It’s no different to someone deciding that the ball hadn’t gone over the fence, but it should be called a home run anyway (in fact, the Yankees’ Todd Frazier cheekily tried that one on in yesterday’s Game Two of the ALCS when the ball got lodged in the fence before the umpires called him out of the dugout and back to second base – nice try though, Todd).

Like it or not the players and managers know the rule and so long as it is in place they have to play with it in mind. The aim is to win a World Series, not to win a battle against the rule-makers.

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