10/23/08 3:05 AM ET
Pickoff play looms large in Game 1
Rays allege Hamels balked, but Phils contend play was legal
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
After denting Cole Hamels' armor for single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, Tampa Bay got its leadoff man on base in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday. Carlos Pena reached on an error by Ryan Howard, turning an easy out into the start of a potential rally, with burgeoning star Evan Longoria coming to the plate.
Pena, thinking nobody was paying attention to his relatively slow self, decided to try and push it. He took off for second base. But Hamels got a look at Pena, fired to first base as Pena bolted, and Howard threw on to shortstop Jimmy Rollins to tag Pena out at second base. The Rays did not get another baserunner for the rest of the night, and the Phils held on for a 3-2 win.
On a night full of twists and turns, there may have been none bigger. And the Rays contended that much of the twisting and turning was done by Hamels, who they thought balked on the play.
"That balk right there -- it would have been great if I would have been at second base with no outs," Pena said. "I thought I had the base easily there, but that's the way baseball is sometimes. These guys are good out there. These umpires are really good. They are trying to do the best they can. So you can't expect all the plays to go your way. Today, they didn't."
Rays manager Joe Maddon was furious, as were plenty of players in the home dugout at Tropicana Field. Maddon took up his case with home-plate umpire Tim Welke, arguing that Hamels moved toward home plate, making the play a balk. Rule 8.05 (c) states that a balk occurs if "the pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base."
Rule 8.05 (c)
|The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base.|
|Rule 8.05 (c) Comment: Requires the pitcher, while touching his plate, to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base. If a pitcher turns or spins off of his free foot without actually stepping or if he turns his body and throws before stepping, it is a balk.|
A pitcher is to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base but does not require him to throw (except to first base only) because he steps. It is possible, with runners on first and third, for the pitcher to step toward third and not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. This is legal. However, if, with runners on first and third, the pitcher, while in contact with the rubber, steps toward third and then immediately and in practically the same motion "wheels" and throws to first base, it is obviously an attempt to deceive the runner at first base, and in such a move it is practically impossible to step directly toward first base before the throw to first base, and such a move shall be called a balk. Of course, if the pitcher steps off the rubber and then makes such a move, it is not a balk.
|Click here for complete pitching rules.|
That's what Maddon contended had happened. Welke disagreed, and no balk was called.
"Timmy told me that he had stepped a bit towards first base, and my response was, 'That may be true, but he also stepped towards home plate,'" Maddon said. "I thought it was clearly a balk, and obviously you can't argue a balk. You can get kicked out arguing a balk. So even what I did was inappropriate. But nevertheless, I had to take that chance right there, because I was adamant that I thought he had balked."
Hamels was coy about the play.
"He was out," the lefty said. "That's all I can say. Being able to get a guy out, especially on a pickoff play, is huge. It puts some momentum back in my shoes."
The problem is that even the rule itself is considered somewhat unclear. By some interpretations, any move at all toward the plate must be followed by a pitch rather than by a pickoff throw. Another interpretation rests on the pitcher's "free" leg (as opposed to his planting leg), and argues that if that leg or knee crosses the plane of the pitching rubber, the pitcher must come home.
"In my opinion, it was balk all the way," Pena said. "I saw the lead leg."
Naturally, the Phils saw it differently. Pitching coach Rich Dubee said he had no doubt the move was normal and legal, as did catcher Carlos Ruiz.
"I heard a couple guys in the dugout saying it was a balk," Ruiz said. "I think it's the right move. That's what I think, and that's what the home-plate umpire said. He told me, 'I don't know what they see.'"
Rollins just enjoyed watching the play develop, and, of course, applying the tag.
"In the back of my mind, I was like, 'I've seen [Pena] do this in the last series, get on first and take off, because he thinks no one's paying attention,'" Rollins said.
"It's a real simple move. If he thinks you're not going, he'll keep reading, reading, commit to the plate and sometimes they get him, sometimes he gets you. That's just part of basestealing."
And a big, big part of a memorable World Series game, as well.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.