Already thought to be on the hot seat for much of the year, with his Reds clearly in rebuilding mode and performing a little worse than expected, manager Bryan Price may not have thrown the switch on his own execution Thursday night. But being asleep at the switch against a team looking for every break it can get clawing for a second National League wild card spot can turn up the seat’s heat even further.
Merkle’s Boner? Welcome to Price’s Plotz, if not Miller’s Muff. And hapless Fred Merkle’s team, the 1908 New York Giants, had a lot more time to redeem themselves and snatch a pennant* than Price’s Reds have to do . . . whatever it is that rebuilding teams do with the regular season three days from being history and their spoiler roles finished.
The Reds play the Cubs this weekend. Unless you’ve just arrived from deep in the Delta Quadrant, you know as well as we do that the Cubs clinched the National League Central coming out of spring training, right? But handing the Cardinals a 4-3 win, to keep them a game behind the Giants for the second wild card, on a night the Mets were off and holding a one-game lead for the first card, wasn’t supposed to be part of what the Reds do.
With two out in the bottom of the ninth, and Matt Carpenter on first and running on the pitch, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina ripped a two-out line drive to left. The ball sank to the deeper part of left and bounded up and off a Missouri Lottery advertising sign behind the wall. Reds left fielder Adam Duvall played the carom perfectly and hit his cutoff man as Carpenter rounded third and motored home, sliding headfirst well ahead of a potential tag.
There was only one problem with the play. Busch Stadium ground rules should have ruled Molina’s shot a ground rule double and Carpenter should have stayed on third. Third base umpire Steve Berry apparently didn’t see the ball carom off the sign as it happened, either.
Carpenter probably saw Duvall playing the carom and wheeling to throw as though the ball hit the top of the wall and kept his transmission at ludicrous speed. Duvall probably should have waved his arms or given some other signal for a ground rule double, but he probably had no idea what the umpires would rule and was probably smarter to keep the play going just in case.
Except that the umpires ruled nothing. From the postgame commentaries it looked as though Berry, crew chief Bill Miller, Bryan Knight, and Tony Randazzo didn’t see the ball carom off the sign, either. If they had, they’d have called ground rule double. If they hadn’t, they were within their right to call for the immediate review that never came.
Price never came to the top of his dugout’s steps to call for a review of the play until well after the time allotment a manager has to call for a review on a game-ending play. By the time he made any eye contact with any of the umpiring crew, they were walking off the field and well on their way to their dressing room.
“I waited for my partners to come off the field,” Miller said after the unlikely finish. “I looked into the dugout, the Cincinnati dugout and Bryan Price made no eye contact with me whatsoever and then, after 30 seconds, he finally realized. Somebody must have told him what had happened and we were walking off the field.”
Miller also made a point of saying that if he or any of his crew had any idea that the ball bounded up to hit the lottery sign—from their own possible sight or from any signal from the Reds’ outfielders—they would have called for a review post haste. Price, for his part, said nobody in the Reds dugout could hear the dugout phone ringing, which it did, the Reds’ video people trying to alert the team that there was a challenge to make on the play.
Even the Cardinals couldn’t believe what they’d just seen and done. “That’s a fun way to win a ball game,” Carpenter said, possibly in a small state of disbelief himself. It couldn’t have been half the disbelief in which the Cardinals sat after the Reds blew them out 15-2 Monday. Or, when they themselves blew Kolten Wong’s ninth-inning leadoff triple Wednesday and lost 2-1.
Molina himself had no clue, or so he suggested after the game. “I just kept my head down and kept running,” said the catcher who’s been a part of the Cardinals’ postseason chases and triumphs since 2006. “I didn’t really see or hear anything.”
Which wasn’t half as bad as what Price didn’t see or hear when it came to the challenge rule. Miller was actually trying to be generous with the Reds, letting them have longer than the replay/review rule’s ten-second margin for calling for review on any game-ending play. “It’s a terrible rule,” Price fumed. “I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
He hastened to take the blame away from the umpires, though. “I’m blaming the system,” he said. “You couldn’t hear anything. And then all of a sudden, someone is screaming, `the ball hit the top of the back wall.’ Which would have made it a ground-rule double.”
“I saw it. I heard it,” Duvall said after the game. “There’s a gap in between the sign and the fence. I wasn’t sure if it was in play or not.” Didn’t anyone bother briefing the Reds on the Busch Stadium ground rules during the series? If Duvall wasn’t sure the ball remained in play, why didn’t he holler for help after he threw the ball in?
The Giants seemed to take the net result in stride, considering the stakes and considering the much-needed ground they’d have picked up if the Cardinals went on to lose the game, likely in extra innings, assuming second and third and runners stranded to come. “Obviously in this situation you hate to hear that,” said manager Bruce Bochy about the play. “I guess there were two outs, too, which is a big difference. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You hate to see that happen in these games because they’re all so critical and important.”
Price has probably done the best he could with what he has with the Reds rebuilding, enough that many considered him worthy of keeping his job for 2017. Nobody expected the Reds to be part of the coming postseason, especially with a bullpen showing a 5.04 ERA, 31 losses, 24 blown saves, and 99 home runs against them.
But nobody expected the skipper to be caught with his pants that far down on a play like that Thursday night, either. Price may well survive to manage next season. If so, you can be sure Thursday night’s non-review call will be entered into his file, in very bold red ink.
* – History, actual and alleged, has too often ruled that Fred Merkle’s baserunning mistake, ending a crucial game with a tie against the Cubs down the 1908 stretch, when umpires couldn’t clear fans from the playing field, was the key to the Giants’ losing the pennant at season’s end. Except:
a) No less than Giants manager John McGraw himself cited “twelve” games the Giants should have won that would have made the difference; and,
b) The tiebreaker the Cubs and the Giants played—which followed a makeup game between the Cubs and the Pirates, with the Cubs winning to knock the Pirates out of it—might not have come to that if the Giants could have won better than ten of their final fifteen games in that pennant dogfight while the Cubs won eight of their final ten.
Because they lost the tiebreaker, Fred Merkle stayed in infamy, and the Cubs would go on to win their last known World Series title.