On the critical play at the plate that cost the Nats

For a team that knows run-scoring opportunities are few and far between, this was a moment to perk up. With one out in the top of the seventh Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, the Nationals had Josh Bell on second base, Josh Harrison at the plate and a 3-1 deficit to the Rays on the scoreboard.

And when Harrison promptly lined a base hit to left field, all eyes immediately shifted toward third base, to see if Bell would attempt to score or be held up by Bob Henley.

Bell-Tagged-Out-at-Plate-Gray-Sidebar.jpgHenley, as he does more often than not, sent him. And Bell wound up being thrown out at the plate, though not by a convincing margin. It required a replay review for Laz Diaz’s initial out call to be confirmed, just the latest dagger of a moment for a Nats club that can’t buy a run in a key situation.

“Great send,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters, throwing full support behind his third base coach. “Absolutely, great send.”

Maybe the situation warranted the risk. Maybe the thought of leaving runners on the corners with one out for Starlin Castro offered no better hope of scoring a run, even though it would’ve required only a fly ball to get it done. But what was clear in the moment, and after the fact, was that this was no clear-cut call.

It began with a delayed read by Bell as he led off second base. Worried that Harrison’s line drive might be caught by the shortstop, he had to pause for a split-second before then heading full-steam toward third base.

“Was just telling myself: ‘Freeze on the line (drive). Don’t get doubled off,’ ” Bell said. “So I got a late start from second base.”

Bell wound up arriving at third base just as Randy Arozarena was playing the ball off a bounce in left field. That’s usually the demarcation point for a third base coach. If the runner reaches the base before the outfield has the ball, send him home. If he doesn’t, put up the stop sign.

There were, however, other factors to consider on this play. Arozarena’s arm. Bell’s speed. And the way the ball bounces higher on the artificial turf of the Rays’ domed stadium than it would on natural grass. All of those factors taken into consideration together convinced Henley to wave him around.

“He saw the play ahead of him. I saw the play as well,” Martinez said. “The ball bounced, and on this turf, (Arozarena) had to sit back and wait for the ball. (Bell) was just about to touch third base. I thought that was a great send by him. It was a bang-bang play. You’ve got to send him in that situation.”

Arozarena’s throw beat Bell to the plate by a seemingly comfortable margin. But it indeed took a high hop off the synthetic turf and pulled catcher Mike Zunino toward the foul side of the baseline. Bell noticed that and decided to try to slide toward fair territory, hoping he could get his leg to the plate before Zunino could get back to him with ball in mitt.

“Running home, I saw the ball kick up, so I tried to change lanes and get my foot in there,” the lumbering slugger said. “Didn’t exactly get the slide I wanted, but I figured if my toes were sliding into the plate, I beat him there.”

It was close, but Zunino appeared to get the tag down in time, and Diaz didn’t hesitate to call Bell out. Nor did the Nationals hesitate to question that call, ultimately challenging the ruling and leaving it up to a replay review at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York.

On replay, it looked like Bell’s foot and Zunino’s mitt arrived at the same time. The front of the foot might have been raised a bit over the ground, as well, costing Bell a fraction of a second. But there didn’t appear to be a conclusive angle that proved anything one way or the other.

So the officials in New York upheld Diaz’s original call, and Bell remained out. Had the original call gone the other way, so perhaps may have gone the review.

“Looking at the replay, if Laz calls me safe, it doesn’t get overturned,” Bell said. “It’s one of those bang-bang plays. It’s just discretionary on the umpire. I’ve seen it from pretty much every angle. It’s definitely close. Yeah, if Laz calls me safe there, definitely that call would stand.”

The way things have gone for the Nationals this season, it’s no surprise Bell was called out. This team isn’t fortunate enough to get a big call to go its way. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

So it was that the Nats went down quietly to a 3-1 loss. They stranded the bases loaded in the eighth, and that was the most agonizing sequence of the night. But the out at the plate lingered as well for a lineup that has a devil of a time producing more than three runs a game.

“I figured we haven’t been scoring a lot of runs, either,” Bell said. “So you pretty much have to send me in that situation, to get the game just a little bit closer. It was definitely bang-bang. I wish I could’ve stuck my foot out a little bit differently, but I misgauged the dirt, kind of got stuck in it.”

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