This is the kind of thing you hate to see happen with the playoffs approaching: A key player on a playoff team going down with a season-ending injury. Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman/shortstop Jung Ho Kang is out for the season after suffering a torn MCL and fractured tibia from a takeout slide by Chris Coghlan of the Chicago Cubs in Thursday's 9-6 Cubs victory.
First, Coghlan's slide. In watching analysts discuss the play, nobody seemed to have a big problem with the slide. The Pirates TV broadcasters were OK with it, calling it a hard but legal slide. John Smoltz of MLB Network was a little more on the fence but ultimately thought it was just one of those unfortunate things that can happen. Joel Sherman of MLB Network then reminded us that these are competitive athletes reacting in split-second time.
Whenever something like this happens we hear that all the batter has to be able to do is touch second base with his hand when he slides. So if he's three feet off the bag to take out the infielder but can reach back with his finger to touch the bag, the slide is legal. That's what everyone says. This is sometimes referred to as the Hal McRae rule, a result of McRae's infamous takeout slide of Willie Randolph in the 1977 playoffs, when McRae simply threw himself into the air to barrel through Randolph turning a double play.
Here's the thing: That's not exactly the way the rule reads. Rule 7.09 reads:
It is interference by a batter or a runner when --
(e) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.
(f) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a batter-runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball, with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead; the umpire shall call the batter-runner out for interference and shall also call out the runner who had advanced closest to the home plate regardless where the double play might have been possible. In no event shall bases be run because of such interference.
The "three feet" rule is more about how the umpires have decided to interpret the rule. Did Coghlan have an "obvious intent to break up a double play"? As my colleague Keith Law tweeted, "Coghlan is clearly running at Kang here, not the base. I don't care if it's 'legal;' it's disgusting."
By the letter of the rule, Coghlan's slide is not legal. Was it dirty? Keith believes so. It's not like Coghlan was just sliding off the bag a bit but at least feet first. No, he turned his body and kicked his legs sideways, the better to strike down Kang. It was, as they say, a hard slide, and I'm guessing most players wouldn't have a problem with it. Indeed, Kang himself a statement Thursday night saying, "It is unfortunate that what would be considered heads-up baseball would cause such a serious injury. That said, Coghlan was playing the game the way it should be played. I'm confident he meant me no harm." Sure, this play happened in the heat of the moment and Coghlan wasn't trying to deliberately hurt Kang, but I think it was over the line.
I get that some will say we don't need a further wussification of baseball, especially after the rule to eliminate home-plate collisions. Sorry, if you want violence, go watch football. Kang is largely defenseless and he shouldn't be expected to perform gymnastics while turning a double play several feet away from the bag.
What does Kang's injury mean for the Pirates?
For starters, they lose a hitter who has spent most of the past two months hitting fourth or fifth in the order. He played a lot of shortstop when Jordy Mercer was out with an injury, but Kang has mostly been playing third base in September. Thursday was just his second start at shortstop since Sept. 2. That suggests manager Clint Hurdle had largely settled on Mercer at short and Kang at third heading into the postseason, with Josh Harrison primarily being used in a utility role at second base and left field.
Harrison, who started at third on Thursday, may take over there on a regular basis, although Aramis Ramirez can also play there. Neil Walker, who has a .591 OPS against left-handers, can still be platooned at second base if you play Harrison at second and Ramirez at third. If you play Ramirez at third, you can still platoon Mike Morse and Pedro Alvarez at first base. Got all that?
The Pirates' position player depth is a strength, but now Hurdle has lost some of that ability to mix and match, or to pinch-hit for Mercer and shift Kang over to shortstop. Kang was an unknown at the start of the season -- he started just six games in April -- but hit his way into a regular role with some pop (15 home runs). Harrison is a tough out but doesn't have Kang's power.
So losing Kang hurts, but the Pirates can overcome this. The Giants won the World Series in 2012 after Melky Cabrera had been suspended for PEDs and Gregor Blanco filled in for him. They won the World Series again last year with Angel Pagan injured, Blanco again filling in nicely.
Hurdle will have to rejigger his lineup and find the right guy to slot in behind Andrew McCutchen. It's not an ideal situation but nobody said winning a World Series would be without adversity.