- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Make Your Own Rules

Good news for all you kids out there. You can now play baseball any way you like. The rules don’t apply. Just slam into middle infielders at will. You don’t even need to be on your way to second base. You do this, and you and your team shall be rewarded handsomely.

That’s my takeaway after a playoff game roving bands of baserunners and umpires conspired to take away from the New York Mets [1]. The Mets might have given it away themselves, but the dirtiest of Dodgers and his de facto co-conspirators couldn’t depend on that to happen.

In the seventh inning of the second game of the National League Division Series Saturday night in Los Angeles — with the Mets leading the Dodgers 2-1 — Chase Utley [2] slid into Ruben Tejada [3] without a base being close to his body or his thoughts. The slide transpired in the midst of Tejada attempting to turn a double play. It probably wouldn’t have been a double play on its own merit even had Utley not essentially tackled Tejada. It might not have been technically been a single play, given that Tejada did not step on the bag. Second base umpire Chris Guccione called Utley out initially because umpires make mistakes. Replay review exists to correct them. Replay showed that Tejada, in taking an imperfect feed from Daniel Murphy [4] on Howie Kendrick [5]’s sharp one-out chopper up the middle of what had been a first-and-third situation, missed the bag by a hair before attempting to set and fire to first.

On the other hand, it could have been called a neighborhood play, in which case Guccione wasn’t off base, even though Tejada was. A neighborhood play is the one play on the diamond for which everybody agrees to overlook the basic rule about feet touching bases in order to record putouts. It is too dangerous, it is agreed, to penalize a shortstop or second baseman for protecting his life and limb from onrushing baserunners. We all know the runner’s gonna be out, let’s just call him out. That’s the gentlemen’s agreement.

Chase Utley is no gentleman, which is his business, except when his business becomes the maiming of Ruben Tejada or any middle infielder he takes out as he doesn’t much attempt to reach second base. Utley said he wasn’t trying to break Tejada’s leg, even though he did. He said he was trying to break up a double play. That’s fine. Except — and we learned this first-hand eight years ago [6] when Marlon Anderson [7] was our baserunner trying to do the same thing — you can’t break up double plays without making second base your reasonably realistic destination.

You watched this game. You saw Utley slid exceedingly late into Tejada with zero intention of sliding into second. In fact, wherever Tejada’s foot had been an instant earlier, Utley never reached second, not even as a matter of follow-through. He broke up a double play and, incidentally, the fielder’s fibula. Utley may very well have wished no harm come from his action, but he did act and there was harm.

That’s cause enough to declare an inning-ending double play [8]. It was a double play when Anderson was ruled to have slid away from second base in order to interfere with an opposition fielder (Utley’s then-Phillie teammate Tad Iguchi) and it should have been a double play Saturday night.

Instead, because baseball’s officiating infrastructure is the envy of Swiss cheese producers the world over, somehow Utley — who never touched second; who never really tried to touch second; who sacked Tejada as if Ruben was scrambling behind the line of scrimmage — was told he was not out. He was allowed to stand at second base, a spot that was never on his itinerary. Meanwhile, the runner on third, Kike Hernandez, had scored to make it 2-2 and Kendrick was on first. There was still only one out and nothing good was going to come of any of this.

It didn’t. Noah Syndergaard [9]’s breathtaking six-and-a-third innings of starting pitching went for naught. The solo home runs blasted off Zack Greinke [10] in the second inning by Yoenis Cespedes [11] and Michael Conforto [12] (the latter a laser that smacked the right field foul pole) were matched and surpassed as Adrian Gonzalez [13] at last woke up (a two-run double to right) and Justin Turner [14] continued dishing out cold revenge (an RBI double) against Addison Reed [15].

To back up from the moment of impact, you could question any number of elements of the Mets’ approach to the seventh, which was going to be Syndergaard’s final inning regardless.

Maybe Terry Collins takes Thor out after Hernandez walks with one out.

Maybe Collins calls on Jon Niese [16] to face pinch-hitter Utley, given that Utley has only three hits in 32 career at-bats versus the lefty, and why do the Mets need a lefty in the bullpen if he’s not going to face a potentially lethal lefty off the L.A. bench?

Maybe Collins doesn’t turn to Bartolo Colon [17] all of a sudden to face Kendrick, though Kendrick — in Colon’s vast younger days — was 2-for-22 against Bartolo.

Maybe Murphy fields Kendrick’s chopper a bit more cleanly, feeds Tejada a bit more gracefully…but this is Murph we’re talking about.

There was also a stolen base from Hernandez on which Travis d’Arnaud [18] made an ineffectual throw, along with the whole issue of Reed not being a solid bet to come in with runners on base. He flied out Corey Seager [19] after the whole Utley mess, but then was filleted by Gonzalez and Turner.

Worth mentioning, too: the Mets couldn’t touch Greinke after their solo shots in the second. Two runs in seven innings is better than most teams did against the possible N.L. Cy Young [20] winner in any given game, but it wasn’t enough to translate to victory on Saturday.

Some or all of the seventh-inning damage could have been avoided had a valid judgment call been made that Utley slid dangerously and illegally. Deem it “hard-nosed” or brand it with some other charming euphemism, the inference that could be drawn from any angle is that Utley wasn’t trying to reach second base. He wasn’t coming close to second base. He went after Tejada. He didn’t remotely disguise his real target.

How that was overlooked, I have no idea. Explanations so shaky they could have rumbled up from the San Andreas Fault were proffered later — MLB Secretary of Explaining Stuff Joe Torre [21] was at a loss [22] to delineate how a runner called out should have been precautionarily tagged by a broken-legged fielder just in case he wasn’t actually out — but they solved nothing…just as Met hitters didn’t solve Greinke and two Dodgers relievers…just as Reed didn’t solve two of the three hitters he was tasked with retiring.

So the Mets lost the second game of the NLDS, 5-2, and they lost their shortstop. Since he first made the team as 20-year-old in 2010, Tejada has proven himself an uncommonly resilient cat. The number of lives he’s had as a Met stalwart is displayed on the back of his jersey. Hell, he was getting clobbered on dubious slides by Chase Utley back when he was a rookie [23] under Jerry Manuel [24]. How many times have we dismissed Ruben’s potential contributions only to find him back in the lineup, working counts, tiring pitchers and subtly creating offense? How many times have we looked for another shortstop only to find us looking to good ol’ No. 11 to get us the out we needed? We finally wind up in the playoffs and who was starting ahead of folk hero Wilmer Flores [25]?

Was, but no longer. With Tejada’s fractured right fibula knocking him out of the postseason for good, Flores is the shortstop again (his backup to be determined). That’s not bad news for hitting purposes — the Mets have scored seven runs in their past 61 innings, dating to September 30 and could thus use all the muscle they can muster — though it adds intrigue to the concept of strength up the middle. Maybe Flores, like Murphy, will hit enough to make a person glance away politely on challenging ground balls and the like. Or maybe Flores, like Murphy, will hang in there on defense because the Mets didn’t get this far by letting obstacles overcome them.

We’ll miss Tejada on principle, and not just for the way he went down. He’s one of ours and he should be playing a part in our finest hour. Make no mistake, we’re still in the midst of that hour. Saturday night was a blow — both the loss of the shortstop and the loss of the game — but we went to L.A. and beat one of the two great Dodger moundsmen. Now it’s back to Flushing, one more ace up our sleeve for Game Three.

Monday night. Matt Harvey [26], you know where to be, you (hopefully) know when to be there, you know what to do, you know who to do it to [27].

Heal up, Ruben. Watch out, Dodgers.