For the first time under new owner Steve Cohen, the New York Mets played a game at Citi Field on Thursday afternoon. The Mets played their home opener against the Miami Marlins, and it was not without controversy. Miami entered the ninth inning with a one-run lead that was quickly erased by Jeff McNeil's solo home run against Marlins closer Anthony Bass.
Nothing controversial about that. It was a big ol' dinger. The Mets then proceeded to load the bases on an infield single, a double, and an intentional walk. Nothing controversial about that either.
The controversy came when Michael Conforto, with the bases loaded and one out in a tie game, was hit by a pitch to force in the game-winning running (NYM 3, MIA 2). Replays show the ball hit Conforto, there's no doubt about that, though it sure looks like he leaned into the pitch. At best, Conforto did not make an effort to get out of the way.
Here's the play:
Home plate umpire Ron Kulpa was ready to ring Conforto up there. The two-strike pitch appeared to be in the strike zone and Kulpa seemed to change his mind as he prepared to punch Conforto out, then called the hit by pitch.
"The guy was hit by the pitch in the strike zone," Kulpa told Newsday's Anthony Rieber after the game. "I should have called him out."
Here is the pitch location, per Statcast. Even if it wasn't called a strike, it would have gone down as ball as ball two, and the at-bat would have continued.
"From my point of view, it was a slider. It felt like it was coming back to me. I turned," Conforto told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, following the game. "There may have been a little lift to my elbow just out of habit, out of reaction, and it barely skimmed the edge of my elbow guard."
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Not surprisingly, Marlins manager Don Mattingly was irate, and the umpires got together and reviewed the play. The thing is, only the hit by pitch itself is reviewable. Did the ball pitch hit Conforto or not? It did, clearly. You can't review a judgment call, however, and a player sticking his elbow out is a judgment call. You can't review intent.
"(Kulpa) knows it was a strike. He couldn't go backwards in his mind," Mattingly said (video link). "Honestly, he's probably feeling bad. To be honest with you, I bet he feels awful."
MLB Rule 6.08(b) covers hit batsmen and says the pitch is to be called either a ball or strike depending on its location if the batter is deemed to have not made an attempt to avoid it. Here's the rule:
(The runner is awarded first base if he) is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.
APPROVED RULING: When the batter is touched by a pitched ball which does not entitle him to first base, the ball is dead and no runner may advance.
The pitch was is in the strike zone per Statcast, so if Kulpa had determined Conforto did not make an effort to avoid the pitch, it would have been strike three and the second out of the inning.
"I just looked at the replay ... I don't think he leans, but that's kind of how he moves his hands," Mets manager Luis Rojas said (video link). "Even throwing to him in batting practice, he does that on pitches in."
For what it's worth, the exceptional broadcast booth on SportsNet New York (Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez) said they believed the call was incorrect, and that Conforto leaned into the pitch and should've struck out. They called out the replay system for being inadequate for such plays as well. There was no homerism on the Mets broadcast.
"A win's a win," Conforto said, according to Newsday's Tim Healey. The win evened New York's record at 2-2 on the young season. The Marlins have lost four straight to fall to 1-6.