Varitek's tag squeezes Angels in ninth
Ball dislodged from Boston catcher's glove after key play
BOSTON -- With Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek tumbling over third base, Angels runner Reggie Willits scrambling to his feet and the ball squirting out loose, a classic postseason moment was born at Fenway Park on Monday night.
The Angels were unable to execute a squeeze bunt in the top of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series, and manager Mike Scioscia was left to argue that his runner should have been safe at third.Umpire Tim Welke disagreed, insisting that Varitek held the ball long enough to tag out Willits even though it popped loose when the catcher hit the ground. This was not a case where the ground can't cause a fumble. "That's the NFL," said Steve Palermo, the Major League supervisor of umpires, after the game. "We don't have that in baseball. He had possession of the ball when he made the tag." So the Angels missed a chance to take the lead and the Red Sox added another piece of history to that outcome with Jed Lowrie's walk-off single in a 3-2 Red Sox victory that clinched their fourth AL Championship Series in six years. "I feel he had to have control of the ball," Scioscia said afterward. "It depends on what they consider control. Tim Welke felt that the tag was made and the out was recorded before he lost the ball. But it's like -- guy slides into the bag, you put the tag on him, and if the infielder drops the ball, there is a gray area there of interpretation of what happened. He felt he had control of the ball." Said Willits: "He dropped the ball, but I don't know when he dropped it. It was close, but I'm sure they got the call right."
It was definitely a pivotal moment of the game. The Angels, after Torii Hunter's two-run single in the eighth, had momentum in a 2-2 game and had a chance to take the lead. If they had done so, then closer Francisco Rodriguez would have pitched the ninth and the Angels would have been three outs away from taking the series back to Anaheim."I thought it was a good situation for us with the guy at third base, with the guy at the plate and the count we had," Scioscia said. "And it didn't work out." Kendry Morales started the ninth-inning rally with a double off Red Sox reliever Justin Masterson. Willits came in to pinch-run and Howie Kendrick bunted him to third. That brought up Erick Aybar, the Angels shortstop who delivered the game-winning hit Sunday night. The Red Sox countered with Manny Delcarmen to replace Masterson. "The first thing we talked about, once I came into the game, [Varitek] was like, 'They might try to squeeze here, so let's be aware,'" Delcarmen said. "'Just stay with me.'" Delcarmen missed inside with two pitches. Scioscia then put on the squeeze. "I thought it was going to be a pitch that Erick could handle," Scioscia said. "The first two pitches were fastballs up and in to see what they would do," Delcarmen said. "I saw him square a little bit on the first one. And then on a 2-0, I was trying to throw a fastball for a strike down and in. It was a good pitch." The pitch was inside. Aybar missed the ball and Willits was caught off third. Varitek went after him while Willits kept feinting and darting back and forth like the classic game of pickle. "I was just trying to stay in the rundown, get close to the base and then get back to the base," Willits said. Varitek held on to the ball as he ran toward Willits. "You're taught to go as hard as you can," Varitek said. "You've got to get the runner committed. He wasn't committed, wasn't committed, and I was running as fast as I can. I felt like I had to make the tag at that point. Made the tag, fell, came to try to hold the ball up. Then fell, and when my elbow hit, it finally popped out." That's when Welke ruled that Willits was still out. Aybar then grounded out to end the inning, and he would be the last Angel to bat in 2008. "[Varitek] looked like a linebacker trying to tackle him," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "He had some closing speed. I've never seen that out of him. I'm just excited that [Aybar] didn't get the bunt down. That would have been huge momentum for them. It actually shifted our way." Varitek said he wasn't worried that Willits was going to beat him back to third base. "Not with my speed," Varitek said.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.