BOSTON — In terms of numbers alone, the 268th pitch in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series was not particularly noteworthy. It left Nathan Eovaldi’s hand at 80.4 mph and dropped more than four feet on its way to Christian Vazquez’s gauntlet. It spun slower than Eovaldi’s average curveball. It didn’t move much back and forth. If he had thrown it at a different point in the game, to a different batter, in a different situation, it would have just been a different pitch.
In an alternate universe, or at least one that follows the rulebook strike zone, the pitch was a strike, a strike that would have ended the ninth inning and the Boston Red Sox, owners of two walkoff wins this postseason, the chance would have given a third coin minting. In the real world, where the rulebook strike zone is a castle in the sky, the field was a ball, a ball that Jason Castro kept at the plate, a ball that preceded the 269th pitch of the night, which he made a mistake , and the 270th, which he hit for a go-ahead single that opened the floodgates of the Houston Astros’ 9-2 win over Fenway Park on Tuesday-evening.
It’s a field lamented in the park and in text chains that linked Red Sox fans who hungered for a commanding lead but ended up in a series draw and lost home field advantage. One pitch that Eovaldi was so sure of was a shot that he knocked down the mound, perhaps because he thought he had done his job and maybe he was trying to get the plate umpire, Laz Diaz, to take out Castro, because he, like everyone else, roll #268 was on the edge of the attack zone, which isn’t really a zone as it’s a concept subject to the execution of the man enforcing it. A field that, if Game 4 ends up being the detour that sent this series aside for the Red Sox, will live in infamy in these parts if the attack wasn’t.
“If it’s a strike,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, “it changes the whole thing, doesn’t it?”
Well. But to characterize Game 4 as won or lost by pitch No. 268 ignores the 267 before it — the ones that could have been something else, even a hit on one of eight hitless at bats with runners in scoring position for Boston — and the untold number behind in the sliding door version of this game. It was far from guaranteed that the Red Sox would win in the ninth or keep the Astros’ dangerous line-up scoreless in the tenth and beyond.
Home-plate umpire Laz Diaz missed 21 ball-strike calls tonight, according to @ESPNStatsInfo. That’s the most of all umpires this postseason. The green dot in the top right corner is the Eovaldi curveball which would have finished at the top of ninth with a score of 2-2.
It is now 9-2. pic.twitter.com/VzdyL4lth3
Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 20, 2021
And yet, because Diaz called an objectively questionable zone — strokes for balls, balls for strokes, two throws in nearly identical locations with one a ball and the other a shot — it left the 268th toss as the natural end of an evening. who recalled a truth worth acknowledging as Boston deals with lazdiaz as his latest curse word: Even a human with an incredibly well-tuned eye can have trouble following balls traveling at 80mph and breaking 4-plus feet. Or drop 5 feet and sweep nearly 2 feet wide, as pitch No. 193 of the night did. Or hissing at 94.6 mph and squirming outward, as Field No. 109 did—a call strike three on JD Martinez that left Cora fuming.
“It’s a tough job,” Cora said. ‘I understand that. It’s – it’s a tough job.’
Cora worked three levels with his postgame approach. First, he knows Diaz, has known him since he played at the University of Miami, and Diaz arbitrates his matches. Next: He doesn’t want to be fined for criticizing the umpires because he’s smart and likes money. Above all, blaming the umpires – blaming one pitch – is a losing mentality. Cora expects a lot of responsibility from the players at the Red Sox clubhouse. He holds to that same standard, and he did just that in the aftermath of the game, then took the blame for using Eovaldi, who had started Game 2 on Saturday, in the ninth inning of a tie.
But when Cora sees the replay of field No. 268, he will see: Castro wags his bat, Eovaldi sat down like a crane before sticking more than six feet from the rubber and letting go of the field, bending the ball over the outside corner on Castro’s belt, Castro nods, Eovaldi hops and Diaz comes out of his squat with his hands on his hips, that’s really all that needed to be said.
On the Fox broadcast’s pitch tracker, the ball’s landing site was colored in — meaning it was a strike. On the MLB website, the field ended up on the edge of the zone – a strike. Neither of those things. The only computer that mattered was Diaz’s brain — and it processed the field like a ball.
Little did Diaz know that of Eovaldi’s 48 strikeouts with a curveball this season, only seven had watched, none of them in the postseason. No one has a dirtier repertoire — a 100-mph fastball, a biting slider, an obscene splitter, a dashing cutter, and a curve that’s almost there like a palate cleanser for the bad taste all those other pitches can leave. There are few tougher pitchers to referee. The scene took place in front of field #268 before anyone realized it.
How it will live on in Red Sox lore depends on what happens next, just as how it registered in this game depended on what happened next. If Castro had rolled over the fastball instead of polluting it. If Castro had swung over the splitter instead of stringing him in the middle. If either had happened, pitch No. 268 would just be pitch No. 268, a bad call on a night when Diaz made 23, but not the impetus behind Wikipedia graffiti and cry for robot umpires.
If it’s nothing more than a one-game impediment for the Red Sox to start their fifth World Series appearance in 18 years, it will be forgiven, if not completely forgotten, because they’re not forgetting anything here. But if the alternate outcome comes to fruition—if the Astros avenge their loss to Boston in 2018—the 268th roll of Game 4 of the 2021 ALCS will join the phantom tag of the ’99 ALCS and Ed Armbrister’s meddling in the 1975. World Series in the Red Sox pantheon postseason-umpiring what-should be.
Not the kind of third attack Boston was looking for.
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