From the on-deck circle to the right of home plate, Jayson Werth stared at the Nationals Park video board and saw the Washington Nationals’ season teeter on a ragged edge. He watched Jose Lobaton slide back into first base, ahead of Willson Conteras’s pickoff throw and Anthony Rizzo’s slap tag.
For 100 years, Lobaton would have been safe, the original and seemingly obvious call, and everybody would have moved on to the next pitch, unbothered and riveted to the eighth inning of a one-run game. As Thursday night became Friday morning, a ballpark engaged in near-forensic video study, squinting to see if Lobaton’s leg had come off the base at a moment when Rizzo’s glove touched him.
“It didn’t look great,” Werth said. “At the same time, since this replay thing has been in, half the time, you don’t know what they’re going to do. I feel they’re flipping coins up there.”
In 2014, Major League Baseball implemented replay to circumvent embarrassment. It feared a game turning on an egregious missed call when technology existed to avoid it. Other sports had introduced replay, and it had become ingrained in how fans consume sports. Sometimes, it has bailed MLB out. More often, replay reviews lead to the kind of unintended result that occurred in the Nationals’ season-ending, 9-8 loss in Game 5 of the NLDS: the reversal of a noncontroversial call to the naked eye that fundamentally changes a game, a season and perhaps the course of a franchise.
After minutes of huddling and communicating with umpires sitting in a control room in New York, umpires called Lobaton out. The park groaned. Werth tucked his chin to his chest and dropped his bat. Rather than Trea Turner batting with two outs and two men on with the Nationals down a run, the eighth inning abruptly ended.
According to FanGraphs.com, the Nationals had a 28.6 percent chance to win before Contreras picked Lobaton off and a 16.4 percent afterward. Their odds dropped from a little better than pulling a club out of a deck of cards to about the same as rolling an ace with a standard die.
A safe call guaranteed nothing — the Nationals still needed a clutch hit or two, and to keep the Cubs at eight runs. A million other moments Thursday swung the outcome more. “There were too many things in that game that happened to put anything on replay,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable talking about it.”
Still, MLB must decide whether those plays and those reviews are how fans want to watch baseball, whether they make for a better product.
With two outs in the eighth, Lobaton shot a single up the middle to put two runners on. Hoping to score the go-ahead run a double, Lobaton wandered off first base with a long secondary lead.
Contreras makes more pickoff throws to first base than any catcher in baseball and possesses perhaps the strongest catcher’s arm in baseball. He snapped a throw to first base, Lobaton scampered back, ahead of the throw. With the tape slow and zoomed in, a viewer could see Lobaton’s foot hit the base safe, his leg slide up the bag before Rizzo’s tag — and the his leg lift off the base for a split-second, just as Rizzo happened to slap the tag.
On a technical level, Lobaton was out. In the spirit of the game, had the Cubs earned an out? Lobaton beat the tag, and an umpire’s eyes would have told him he remained safe. Replay made for a correct call. It didn’t make for a better call, unless what we want out of baseball is for players to be rewarded for keeping tags on base runners and perfectly controlled slides.
“Tough to say,” Lobaton said. “If it’s in your favor, you feel good. If it’s against you — I thought for sure I got a couple replays when I threw the guy out at second, and I was happy. Today, I was like, you see in the replay that it was just my foot just came off just a little bit. That was enough for the replay to show I was out. What can I say? It’s part of the rules right now. We have to take it.”
Baseball’s replay system also is circumstantial in how it is employed. Manager Joe Maddon may not have checked the call early in the game, when he had just two challenges at his disposal. In the eighth inning, he could ask for a challenge with no downside, without losing anything. “There’s no reason not to challenge right there,” Maddon said.
This time, it worked out great for the Cubs. As to whether it’s better for the sport?
“Listen: It’s the rule,” Maddon said. “So whether you agree with it or not, it’s the rule. There’s some things I don’t agree with. But it’s the rule. For example, for them to even be able to review the slide by Jon Jay — it’s the rule. It’s just where we’re at right now. Technology has permitted us different looks into the game. Whether you like it or not, whether you agree with it or not, that’s the way it is.”
The Nationals did not lose Thursday night because of a replay reversal. But in a crucial moment, technology drastically shifted the game. They got the call right. Baseball will have to grapple whether the call made it a better game.