Welcome to every manager's worst October nightmare -- 2014 edition.
A runner comes charging toward home plate. The throw has clearly beaten him, from here to Ray Fosse's house. The tag is applied. High-fives are flying. But wait ...
The runner is pointing at the catcher. Umpires are going to the replay headsets. Someone in New York is deciding the catcher didn't give the runner a clear lane to home plate. And ...
The winning run of a momentous postseason game has just been scored -- by a man who would never have been safe on any similar play in the history of baseball.
Until this year.
Until the implementation of a collision rule that has accomplished its mission -- keeping catchers from getting Buster Posey-ed at home plate -- but is still looming as an incredible source of confusion, misunderstanding, controversy and frustration.
And we're less than a month away from October. Yikes.
"What's going to happen in the playoffs?" asked Marlins manager Mike Redmond this week. "You know something is going to happen, when runs are at a premium and there are so many bang-bang plays at home plate and everything is magnified 100 times over. What's going to happen? It would be a real shame if a playoff game -- or two, or three -- gets decided on a play like what happened to us."
And what kind of play was that, you ask? What happened to the Marlins, you ask? OK, let's tell you what happened to the Marlins, back on July 31. It was quite the spectacle.
They were playing the Reds. Had a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning. Todd Frazier lifted a bases-loaded fly to right. Giancarlo Stanton gathered it in, set and launched a beam-of-light throw that arrived at home plate so far ahead of the runner, Zack Cozart, that if you watch the replay, you won't even find Cozart on your screen yet, not even if it's 72 inches wide.
It looked like the third out. It felt like the third out, judging by the jubilation in the Marlins' dugout. It should have been the third out. But ...
It wasn't the third out, as it turned out, because the replay umps 1,000 miles away ruled -- after a fun-filled six-minute review -- that Jeff Mathis was blocking the plate before he caught the throw. And while that may have been technically true, let's just say Mike Redmond wasn't a big fan of either that call or of the ever-popular Rule 7.13 which produced it.
He fired his cap. He untucked his jersey. He kicked dirt halfway to Coral Gables. His face turned the color of a bowl of strawberries. And after his team went on to lose that game, he snapped: "To lose this game on a technicality is [baloney]."
Except he wasn't talking about lunch meat.
Over a month later, at least Redmond was able to laugh as he looked back on that night and the George Brett pine-tar-tirade impression it inspired in him.
"That might," he chuckled, "be the poster play of the collision rule."
Well, no posters are currently available at a Marlins concession stand near you. But if that particular play isn't the signature moment in the debate over this rule, it's all the plays just like it that are finally beginning to attract the attention of everyone in the sport, including the powers that be.
Just four days before that Marlins furor, there was a nearly identical play at the plate in a Diamondbacks-Phillies game. In that one, the Phillies' Ryan Howard appeared out by 15 feet and never even touched home plate -- only to be ruled safe, after a review, with what turned out to be the winning run.
Afterward, Diamondbacks players were enraged by what they thought was a misapplication of the intent of the rule. And with good reason.
"If that happens in a playoff game," said one player privately, "it will be one of the biggest controversies in the game -- ever."
OK, so it won't quite be the Black Sox scandal. But even Howard now admits, a month and a half later: "There's no doubt that, for the first 100 years of baseball, that's as clear as day an out." And his bench coach, Larry Bowa, says he's still troubled by a rule that allows a runner to be safe "when you're out by 20 feet," even when it's his own team's runner who's being called safe.
"I understand the whole concept of the rule," Bowa said. "We want players to be healthy. And players have not gone out of their way to hurt catchers ... and that's good. But I've also seen guys out by 15-20 feet that they're awarding a run to, which I think is bad. I'd just hate to see a team not get in the playoffs because of a play like that or, take it a step further, have it happen in the seventh game of the World Series."
You won't be shocked to learn he's definitely not the only one. Even Braves president John Schuerholz, who is chairman of baseball's replay committee but not directly involved in discussions about the collision rule, told ESPN.com he thinks baseball needs to arrive at more "clarity" about what this rule is intended to accomplish.
"I can't speak for any committee because I'm not a member of any committee [that addresses] this rule," Schuerholz said. "I'm speaking just as an old-time baseball executive. But I think there is probably a way for that to be cleaned up, tightened up and made more easily judgeable by the umpires and more understandable by the managers and catchers and baserunners.
"We now have the technology available in instant replay, and we have the capability to utilize that technology for collision plays," Schuerholz went on. "We just have to come to some sort of clear understanding, so that 30 organizations, and every major league manager, and every major league baserunner, and every major league catcher knows exactly what it is. And we have to get there. I think that's attainable. But whether it's attainable in three weeks, I don't know, because it's a complex matter."
"I understand the whole concept of the rule. ... But I've also seen guys out by 15-20 feet that they're awarding a run to, which I think is bad. I'd just hate to see a team not get in the playoffs because of a play like that or, take it a step further, have it happen in the seventh game of the World Series."" Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa
Nevertheless, sources have told ESPN.com that the commissioner's office and the players' association have had conversations recently to attempt to arrive at some sort of "clarification" of Rule 7.13. And that clarification would specifically address plays like the ones we've described, to provide umpires -- and everyone else -- with what one source described as "some understanding of how that play should be called."
Their hope is to arrive at that clarification "soon," said a source, so that it takes effect down the stretch and, most importantly, in October. But as always, that sounds fairly simple -- until they try to put it into words.
Dating back years, practically to the day in 2011 that Posey got plowed over at the plate, most people in the game have agreed that baseball needed some kind of rule to protect catchers.
But then came the hard part: How would you word a rule like that? MLB and the union wore themselves out debating that question all last winter. And now that it's clear the current rule is leading to issues like the ones we've laid out here, it doesn't appear it's going to be any easier to word the clarification.
So being the helpful website we are, we went looking for suggestions.
"I don't know how to write it," Redmond said. "But it should be something where, when a guy is clearly out, he's got to be out. Again, I don't know how to write it. But there have been these plays where the guy is so far out, he hasn't even had a chance to slide yet. It shouldn't be like that. And I know the rule wasn't intended to do that."
"I think, for me," said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, "the block-the-plate rule should be: If the baserunner comes in and he slides, that means he's trying to get to the plate and the ball was on the way. Then you can go back and look at it. But if the ball is there in plenty of time, you've got to use common sense [and not review it]."
All right, now that he's so helpfully brought that up, does anyone ever go wrong using common sense as a guide? So Knorr is all for giving umpires the leeway to apply common sense on plays like this.
"Umpires know," he said. "They've been doing it for enough time now. They know that, 'Come on, the guy's out. Why am I replaying it?'"
And, in fact, we all ought to know what an obvious out looks like when we see one. It's difficult to write a rule that says that. But it doesn't seem that difficult to communicate that particular concept to all concerned. Does it?
"We should be making clear to everyone," Schuerholz said, "that the intent of the rule was not to hammer the catcher. ... But if, in the umpire's judgment, the catcher had his leg in the basepath but he also had the ball when the baserunner was only two-thirds of the way to home plate ... the intent of the rule is still that, if that's the case, the runner is out. He was dead out in 1910. And he should be dead out in 2014."
Of course, there were no replay machines to consult in 1910. So life was less complicated then. Nowadays, on the other hand, it sometimes feels like one giant Rubik's Cube.
This home plate collision rule is now five months old. And you can still probably find more people in this sport who could recite the Gettysburg Address than could explain a rule that affects the most important play in baseball:
How runs are scored.
"I'll be honest," said Washington's Jayson Werth, one of the game's most cerebral players. "I don't know what the rule is. I might have seen it, but I don't know if I've comprehended it."
And that sums up the feelings of more players than you'd think. Watch a close play at the plate sometime. Watch how often the catcher isn't sure where to stand, the runner isn't sure how to slide, the umpire isn't sure what to call and the replay umps aren't sure whether to overturn the call that was just dumped in their laps.
So whatever baseball clarifies this month, let's hope it clarifies all of that -- because October is right around the bend, and trouble at the plate is the last thing this sport needs.
"You know something's going to happen. You know it's going to show up," said Randy Knorr. "So hopefully, we're on the beneficial side of it."