A relatively sedate weekend stretch in Washington gave way to a tumultuous Tuesday in Texas, as the Nationals staved off elimination with a 7-2 win in Game 6 of the World Series. Coming into this game, the 2019 World Series seemed like it would end up looking close, because it went six games, when in fact the Astros retook the initiative in Game 3 and never looked back. But the 2019 World Series coughed up a memorable contest that fit the proud legacy of World Series Game 6 classics: 1975, 1986, 2011. This one was, in keeping with the theme of the 2019 playoffs, full of anger and confusion, peppered with bizarre umpiring, and dominated by a single heroic starting pitcher.
This was the first World Series game to feature multiple lead changes since last year’s 18-inning Game 3 epic; the Nationals took a first-inning lead off Justin Verlander but coughed it up to Alex Bregman in the bottom of the frame, an event the Astros third baseman celebrated by taking his bat to first base. In the fifth inning, Washington surged back ahead on home runs by Adam Eaton and Juan Soto, the latter of whom parodied Bregman’s celebration with a bat carry of his own.
Alex Bregman did it first... Juan Soto did it right back— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 30, 2019
We're all in on this back and forth pic.twitter.com/C6oWj3BFRe
But neither that, nor Stephen Strasburg’s masterpiece, would end up being the defining image of the evening; that would belong to the chaos and bewilderment that followed a shocking seventh-inning runner interference call. With Yan Gomes on first and nobody out, Nationals shortstop Trea Turner dribbled a ball to the left of the mound. Houston pitcher Brad Peacock picked the ball up and tossed it to first base. The throw, like pretty much everything that comes out of Peacock’s hand, carried some wicked arm-side motion, and with one of the fastest runners in the league hauling ass out of the box, the ball, Turner, and first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s glove all arrived at the same spot near first base at about the same time.
Gurriel lost his glove, the ball squirted away, and by the time the dust had settled, Gomes was on third and Turner on second. But only briefly, because plate umpire Sam Holbrook called Turner out for interference. The white line that runs parallel to the first-base line is supposed to create a runner’s lane, and Turner was technically outside that area. Under rule 5.09(a)(11), which MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre read aloud from the rule book at a postgame press conference, a batter is out when he runs outside that lane and interferes with the first baseman taking a throw.
But Turner was running a straight line from the right-handed batter’s box to the bag, which is entirely within fair territory, and more important than the way the rules are written is how the rules are enforced by umpires, and how their implementation is understood by players. Precedent of enforcement isn’t as binding in baseball as common law in the real world, but it informs players’ actions just the same.
Which is to say, this almost literally never gets called. Certainly not in the seventh inning of Game 6 of the World Series, on a play that, according to the FanGraphs WPA Inquirer, reduced the Nationals’ win probability by 14.2 percentage points. The controversial call had more impact on win probability than all but two actual plays in the game, and because the game in question was Game 6 of the World Series, it could quite easily have decided the championship. The Nationals immediately lodged an official protest, which was rejected on the grounds that a judgment call can’t be protested.
Nevertheless, the umpires called the league office for what looked like a replay consultation but was actually a rules clarification. Turner went ballistic, singling out Torre, who was “sitting with his head down, trying not to look up.” (Torre’s awkward and opaque postgame interview with Ken Rosenthal supported the theory that he would’ve been better off keeping his head down for the rest of the night.) Nationals manager Dave Martinez went ballistic as well, reading Holbrook the riot act as he tried in vain to get the rules applied in something approaching a normal fashion.
Two batters later, hitherto untouchable Houston reliever Will Harris had replaced Peacock. And a third ballistic event, off the bat of Anthony Rendon, rendered the whole opprobrium moot. The Nationals third baseman authored a corollary to Wallace’s first principle of spherical probity, and extended his team’s lead to 5-2. It was the first time all series that the Nats had drawn blood off Harris, who had put down rallies in games 3 and 4.
That didn’t stop Martinez from going back for a second helping of Holbrook during the seventh-inning stretch, causing a sufficiently messy ruckus to earn the Washington manager the first World Series ejection in 23 years. Martinez, who underwent a cardiac catheterization just last month, got his money’s worth, bouncing off his assistant coaches in a furious bid to touch noses with Holbrook and register his frustration. That all of this unfolded while the assembled multitudes of Minute Maid Park were engaged in a rousing chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” only heightens the absurdity.
I just want to point out that this meltdown happened during "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" which is not clear on the Fox broadcast, and it's hilarious pic.twitter.com/pHFJwSmLMQ— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) October 30, 2019
At his postgame press conference, Martinez shrugged off three questions about the incident and immediately pivoted to praising his team’s performance. A fourth question, about the protest specifically, finally got Martinez to respond.
“So I know the rules,” Martinez said. “I know you can’t protest a judgment call. … But part of me just said, ‘Hey, we’ll protest the game. I know we can.’”
Martinez’s reaction to the call—both the knowingly futile protest and the high-leverage ejection—is an oddly reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. The interference call was like getting pulled over for driving one mile per hour over the speed limit, a showily petty bit of legal literalism that contravenes a lifetime of lived normative experience. On some level, it’s got to feel worse than having an umpire actually blow a call, and ought to be confronted with such force as to get a manager kicked out of a close World Series game.
The Astros never troubled Washington again, and never seriously tested the managerial mettle of bench coach Chip Hale, Martinez’s understudy. Strasburg recorded the next seven outs on just 18 pitches, then gave way to Sean Doolittle, who surrendered a hard double to Carlos Correa but closed out the game without further incident. A pair of ninth-inning doubles by Turner and Rendon bookended an Eaton hit-by-pitch to provide the final five-run margin.
It’s a relief that this umpiring decision didn’t end up factoring into the outcome of the game, that Holbrook’s name won’t go down in history alongside Don Denkinger’s. The Nationals had played well enough to extend their season another day, had by all rights won another chance at the title in Game 7, and looked in danger of being denied that chance by an umpire. The outrage the call inspired—not just from Martinez or Turner, but from fans across the country—testifies to the sour taste such interference in a decisive contest would have left in the mouths of the baseball world.
But Rendon and Strasburg held off that unsatisfying end, to say nothing of the Astros. Now the fate of the World Series rests in the hands of two likely Hall of Fame pitchers, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke, and not (the baseball gods willing) some overactive umpire. That is as it should be.