If you missed it, perhaps the oddest at-bat of the year, or any other year for that matter, came Friday in Colorado and it became the turning point of the game. The at-bat consisted of four pitches, three of which were catchable fly balls. None were caught, but the Rockies went from a man on first with no outs to none on with two outs. It was all the odder as it came soon after what some are saying is the best at-bat of the year, Alex Cora's 18-pitch home run the other night.
The score was 3-1 in favor of Colorado in the bottom of the fourth. The Phils had just gone down in order on eight pitches and resulted in three groundouts, two of which were to the pitcher. Jeromy Burnitz lead off the fourth with a home run to run the score to 3-1. Charles Johnson followed with a nine-pitch walk after falling behind 0-2. So basically Phils' starter Eric Milton was on the ropes and Rockie starter Joe Kennedy was cruising.
Then came the at-bat.
Matt "It's A" Holliday was up next. Holliday popped up the first pitch a few feet from first in foul territory. First basemen Jim Thome was set directly under the ball and seemed to get a glove on the ball but just flat out dropped it for an error. The next ball was hit closer to the dugout on the first base side. Again Thome got under the ball and again he dropped it for an error. Both seemed to hit off the heel of his glove.
As if those two plays weren't odd enough after an 0-2 ball, Holliday hit a soft fly to second baseman Tomas Perez. Apparently, Thome's two dropped balls gave Perez an idea. Perez had the ball directly in front of him from his second base position a few feet in front of the cutout. However, the ball fell in front of Perez, who kept the ball in front of him and tossed the ball to first. Holliday was then out. A stunned Charles Johnson was then tagged out by Thome in foul territory for the double play.
The next batter, Kit "Yes, That's My Real Name" Pellow, popped out on the next pitch to short to end the inning. The Phils went on to score three in the next half-inning on a two-out Jimmy Rollins single followed back-to-back home runs by Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell on back-to-back pitches, both of which appeared to be aided greatly by the thin air at Coors—Burrell hit his on one knee with one hand. Jim Thome next singled to right on the next pitch and it looked like batting practice. It then took ten pitches to finally get Mike Lieberthal to fly out to end the inning. The end result was that the Phils took a one-run lead that they never relinquished. Milton stayed in for two more innings and held the Rockies scoreless. He is now unbeatable (4-0), while Kennedy lost for the first time in 2004. He's now 4-1.
The win put the Phils at 6-1 on their road trip (they finished 8-2) and just a game behind division leading Florida. Colorado, meanwhile, is competing with the other dregs of the NL West for the honor of finishing a distant third, apparently.
If you ask why first-base ump Wally Bell never called for an infield fly, it's because it never applied. By definition the infield fly rule is only invoked if there are runners at first and second or first, second, and third. And the ball must be fair, so the Thome balls were doubly disqualified. From the definition:
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out... If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare "Infield Fly, if Fair." The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.
The rule that could have applied is 6-5 (l):
A batter is out when…(l) An infielder intentionally drops a fair fly ball or line drive, with first, first and second, first and third, or first, second and third base occupied before two are out. The ball is dead and runner or runners shall return to their original base or bases; APPROVED RULING: In this situation, the batter is not out if the infielder permits the ball to drop untouched to the ground, except when the Infield Fly rule applies.
Even though it seems counter-intuitive, Bell's interpretation of the rule seems accurate: Perez never dropped the ball so Holliday was not out by 6.05(l) and the ball was not dead. Therefore, the ball was like any other ground ball in the infield. The batter was out when Perez' throw beat him to first. Meanwhile, Johnson was tagged out but would have been called out for being too far outside the baselines (rule 7.08: "Any runner is out when (a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from a direct line between bases to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball").
Colorado manager Clint Hurdle argued the play and the announcers discussed Perez' intent. However, Hurdle had no argument and whether Perez made an attempt to catch the ball or not had nothing to do with the call.
What should Johnson have done on the play? Could he have avoided the tag? According to rule 7.08e: "Any runner is out when…[h]e fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner. However, if a following runner is put out on a force play, the force is removed and the runner must be tagged to be put out." When Holliday was out, Johnson was no longer required to advance. If he stood on first, he would have been safe.
It seemed apparent that Perez let the ball drop, but whether he thought he would get the double play we'll never know. Given the fact that the runner can stay on first, it makes sense not to include it in the infield fly rule. That is, if the runner stays on first, then it's the same whether the fielder catches the ball or not. However, given the confusion that this play induced, I don’t see why more fielders (esp. second basemen) don't try the play. As long as you can get the runner at first OR you can fool the lead runner to stay near first and then force him at second, then it's worth an attempt. And you never know, you could get lucky like Perez and get two outs when the runners get confused. It seems worth the risk.