You would think by now the Nationals wouldn’t find themselves in the middle of yet another argument over the interpretation of Rule 5.09a(11). Not after it was used against Trea Turner twice, including most famously in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series.
Yet there was Josh Bell, pleading his case after being struck in the back by a throw just as he reached first base in the top of the 10th Monday night in Miami, and there was Davey Martinez, giving an umpire an earful in the Nats dugout before getting ejected.
And so here we again, debating the merits of the batter-runner interference rule, whether umpires should use more common sense in the judgment portion of the call and why the Nationals seem to be the only team in baseball this keeps happening to.
“To me, it’s brutal,” Martinez said during part of a postgame Zoom session with reporters in which he had to be careful to catch himself before saying anything that might really get him in trouble. “You know what? They want to keep doing that, put the base on the other side of the line. ‘Cause here’s the deal: If he ran on the other side of the line, and the ball hit him in the back, is he out or safe? The ball still hit him, right? So what does that say?”
The play in question, for those who missed it: With the bases loaded and one out in the top of the 10th, Bell hit a grounder to first. Marlins first baseman Lewin Díaz threw to the plate to get the force out, then tried to catch Nick Fortes’ return throw to complete the 3-2-3 double play. Bell, who clearly was running in fair territory most of his way down the line, stepped on first base a split-second before the ball hit him in the back and trickled away.
If the umpires, headlined by crew chief Bill Miller, don’t call Bell out for interference, the Nationals likely score the go-ahead run. But because they did call him out, the inning was over, and the Nats would go on to lose in the bottom of the 10th.
“I really don’t know what to say, other than I touched first and then I felt the ball hit me,” Bell said. “(First base umpire Gabe Morales) was telling me at first I have to give him an opportunity to catch the ball. And that was like the only thing that kind of made sense to me, because it felt like I was going to be there regardless. But if that play escalates and a run scores because I’m in the way there, I think things change.”
That was the Nationals’ argument. They conceded that Bell was outside the designated running lane. But Martinez was adamant the umpires should’ve invoked the second part of Rule 5.09a(11), which says a batter running outside the lane should be called out only if “in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base.”
In this case, the Nats argue that Bell beat Fortes’ throw, which was off-target and pulled Díaz’s glove into Bell, causing it to be knocked off. Thus, interference shouldn’t have been called.
“They never do that,” Martinez lamented. “They see it for what it is, and for them it’s clear as day, and it’s a done deal. If the ball hits him before he gets on the base, and he’s out of the baseline? Of course he’s out. But come on. The second part of that ruling is the judgment. Judge! One umpire’s got to say: ‘Yeah, I’m not going to reward a catcher for making a bad throw.’ “
Miller, speaking to a pool reporter in Miami, disagreed.
“In the umpire’s judgment, it has nothing to do with the throw,” the crew chief said. “It has to do with the first baseman’s ability to catch the ball. In that situation, Josh Bell is running in fair territory, and the ball hit him in fair territory, and the first baseman was not able to stretch and catch the ball.”
What made this play particularly unusual was the fact Bell, as a left-handed batter, wouldn’t naturally run down the line in fair territory the way a right-handed batter like Turner would. He attributed that to the fact he was out in front of the pitch, a changeup, the momentum of his swing bringing him forward and leaving him in fair territory as he began his trip down the baseline.
Even so, Bell had ample opportunity to veer back into the running lane and ensure the call would never be made. And given this team’s history with that particular call, you’d think everyone would go out of their way not to give umpires a reason to enact it.
There were other controversies in the fateful 10th inning. The Nationals wanted to challenge whether Fortes’ foot was on the plate when he caught the initial throw from Díaz but were told they waited well beyond the 20-second window to formally request it. They again were given the same explanation after the game’s final pitch from Sam Clay came close to hitting Lewis Brinson in the foot before skipping away and allowing the winning run to score from third.
But Rule 5.09a(11) once again stood front and center at the end of a Nationals game. And unless something changes - either the Nats going out of their way to adhere to the rule or Major League Baseball altering it to acquiesce to many players’ and managers’ gripes - it’s probably going to come back to bite them again some day.
“I hope they consider changing it,” Martinez said. “Really, honestly.”