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‘That’s a heartbreaker’: Rays stunned by ground rule double call, MLB rulebook after bad bounce, walk-off loss

For nearly a century, Fenway Park’s quirky dimensions and funky ground rules haunted the home team more than anyone. Yet since the Boston Red Sox snapped an 86-year championship drought in 2004, fate has seemingly bedeviled the visitors more often.

Sunday night, it was the Tampa Bay Rays departing the Fens stunned by a bad bounce and an ironclad ruling that went against them.

It seemed they’d taken control of the pivotal Game 3 of their American League Division Series when Kevin Kiermaier smoked a two-out double to the right field warning track with two out in the 13th inning. Yandy Diaz was running on the play, and was just a step or two from third base as the ball struck the warning track, the wall, and spun back to ricochet off Boston right fielder Hunter Renfroe.

And over the wall.

Diaz crossed home. Kiermaier reached third. Play stopped, and for the next several minutes, Kiermaier’s face would serve as a measure of the Rays’ emotional tenor.

As umpires, huddled, a look of stunned disbelief crossed his face. The rulebook was clear – even after ricocheting off Renfroe, even after the ball did not hop the wall on its own, all baserunners would get two bases, and no more.

There would be no go-ahead run scored by Diaz, not after Mike Zunino struck out to strand Diaz and Kiermaier. There would be no series-seizing victory, not after Christian Vazquez crushed a two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning, giving the Red Sox a 6-4 win and 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.

Hunter Renfroe watches a ground rule double hit by the Tampa Bay Rays' Kevin Kiermaier during the 13th inning  at Fenway Park.
Hunter Renfroe watches a ground rule double hit by the Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier during the 13th inning at Fenway Park.

No, only the helpless feeling of a go-ahead run taken away in the biggest game of the year, and the wonder of what might have broken differently.

“I’m just in awe right now,” Kiermaier said after the Game 3 loss. “That’s the ruling. The umpires explained it to me. So I can’t go against that. The rules are what they are. But man, that’s just, that’s a heartbreaker, plain and simple.”

Here, in fact, is Rule 5.05(a)(8):

“Any bounding fair ball is deflected by the fielder into the stands, or over or under a fence on fair or foul territory, in which case the batter and all runners shall be entitled to advance two bases.”

Even if the baserunner was moving on the play. Even in a disparate and funky alley of Fenway Park. Even in an era of instant replay, when some discretion, you’d imagine, could be applied.

“Oh, I definitely wish it was different,” says Rays manager Kevin Cash. “Certainly in the moment — you can appreciate somewhat of a blanket rule, but we put a lot on these umpires, and now we’ve introduced video to umpires. I think it would be a very easy call if somebody stepped in and said it was stating the obvious that he was going to score.

“Saying that, it’s been a rule for a long time, and we’re going to play within the rules that are presented to us this season.”

There surely will be cries to change the rule or expand umpires’ latitude to rule – be it those on the field or in a New York replay studio – and perhaps will merit discussion within the game. Yet the vast majority of such judgment calls – and there would be hundreds over the course of the season – wouldn’t be as obvious as the Renfroe Bop.

And Sunday’s crew chief, Sam Holbrook, indicates there wouldn’t be much sentiment among umps to receive more latitude.

“I like it. It’s cut and dried from an umpire’s standpoint,” he said after Game 3. “It’s been that way ever since I came in the game. I don’t see any need to change it.”

The Red Sox would certainly agree. A crucial sequence in their still-unprecedented comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the 2003 AL Championship Series came in Game 5, when Tony Clark hit a two-out, ninth inning double into the right field corner at Fenway, the ball hopping the 3-foot wall near Pesky Pole.

That forced Ruben Sierra to stop at third. He didn’t score, the Red Sox prevailed in 14 innings and baseball history was wildly altered.

Four Red Sox championships later, it’s the Rays on the wrong end of that hop, which occurred just a few yards away from Clark’s bad bounce.

“It’s incredible that it worked out to their advantage,” says Kiermaier, “just like that.”

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