PHILADELPHIA — Off the bat, it looked like a groundout to the shortstop. Not the most routine of groundouts, but a play Ian Desmond figured to make.
Leading off the bottom of the eighth of a tie game, Ben Revere rapped a sharp grounder slightly to Desmond’s right. The Nationals shortstop scooped it up and fired his throw to first base. It was a bit high, perhaps not too high for the 6-foot-3 Adam LaRoche, but just a smidge too high for his replacement on this night, Kevin Frandsen (listed at an even 6 feet).
Frandsen stretched as high as his body would allow, catching the ball with his left hand as he tried desperately to keep his right foot on the bag.
Did he manage to do it? Well, first base umpire Gary Cederstrom initially ruled yes, calling Revere out on the bang-bang play. Ryne Sandberg, though, wanted them to take a closer look at it, so the Phillies manager challenged the call.
As another umpiring crew at MLB’s New York command center watched the replays, Desmond replayed the whole thing in his mind.
“I was just sitting there trying to digest it, and I don’t think there was a whole lot else I could do,” Desmond said. “He hit the ball sharp to my backhand side. I was a little too close to backhand it. I don’t really have time to aim, I just have to get rid of it as quick as I could and make a good throw. But he’s safe — if he’s safe — by an inch at most.”
Revere was safe, at least according to the New York crew, which determined there was sufficient video evidence to overturn Cederstrom’s call. A call that set in motion the chain of events that dealt the Nationals a wrenching, 4-3 loss, their second straight by 1 run to the last-place Phillies.
Revere stole second off Tyler Clippard. Then he took third on Jimmy Rollins’ flyball to right. Then he scored on Carlos Ruiz’s sac fly to center. After clawing their way back against Cole Hamels to tie this game, the Nationals now trailed, thanks in large part to a crucial call for which there didn’t seem to be any consensus.
“I’ll take a look at it and see if there’s anything that I would see differently,” manager Matt Williams said minutes after the game ended, before he had a chance to watch replays in the clubhouse. “But on the [scoreboard], I didn’t know whether he was or wasn’t. Pretty close both ways. They deemed he was off, then they stole second, got him over and got him in. They executed.”
Indeed, the Phillies won not only because they successfully got the close call overturned, but because they were able to make the most of the situation and manufacture the go-ahead run. The Nationals, meanwhile, missed some opportunities of their own earlier in the game, whether in the form of Gio Gonzalez missing a bunt sign with a man on second and nobody out, Desmond getting picked off first base on what the Nationals felt was a balk by Hamels or Danny Espinosa scorching a ball with two outs and the bases loaded right at Rollins at shortstop.
“We’ve got a guy at second base and nobody out, we give him the bunt sign and he swung away,” Williams said, referring to Gonzalez’s plate appearance in the top of the third. “We need to make sure that we do that. … They did a good job tonight in the last inning of getting him to third. That wins you games. Got to make sure we’re doing a good job of that, as well.”
Despite their earlier miscues, the Nationals ultimately couldn’t help but point to the critical call in the bottom of the eighth that turned the fortunes of this game. Not to mention the circumstances that led to it.
With LaRoche needing his first night off in nearly four weeks to rest a tight lower back, Frandsen found himself playing first base for only the fourth time all season. He did his best to try to make the play but admittedly was restricted to his own physical constraints.
“I don’t think it matters what I think (about the overturned call),” he said. “Replays showed what they thought, so we gotta live with, and I gotta live with not being tall enough.”
LaRoche did actually pinch-hit for Frandsen with two outs in the ninth — he lofted a flyball to left to end the game — raising the question of whether he could have replaced Frandsen in the field the previous half-inning. Williams, though, made it clear he was trying to avoid using his veteran slugger at all, until a point arrived in which he felt he had no choice but to send him up to the plate.
“He could’ve (played the field),” the manager said. “But we’re trying to stay away from that, too. But in that situation (ninth inning), we don’t have a choice. We’re down by a run, we need an extra-base hit. So we’re trying to stay away from him for the night if we can. Turned out we couldn’t.”
All of it could’ve been moot had Clippard not let the speedy Revere swipe second, putting him in position to score on the back-to-back flyballs. But there were plenty of “could’ve beens” at the end of a frustrating night at the ballpark, one that left the Nationals’ diminutive backup first baseman shaking his head over something he couldn’t control: genetics.
“It’s a tough play, but it’s basically your human nature,” Frandsen said. “How tall are you? How much of an arm length do you have on that? So that one is hard to answer, because it’s a play that’s tough to make and a lot of things have got to go the right way. And obviously it didn’t.”