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Culture / Sporting Life

Astros Absolutely Robbed by MLB and Phantom Fan Interference Call

Epic Playoff Game Marred by Unfathomable Replay Decision — and Houston’s Repeat Bid May Die Because of It

BY // 10.18.18

It is one thing to see a potential dynasty derailed by an all-out, all-guts, full sprint, diving catch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. It is something else entirely to leave feeling like you’ve been robbed by Major League Baseball.

But make no mistake. Before Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi steals at least a game-tying hit from Astros MVP Alex Bregman for the 27th out with a play for the ages, the defending champions took a sucker punch from MLB that has some of them wondering just what the heck is going on.

“We’ve seen how replay goes for the Houston Astros,” outfielder Josh Reddick says at his locker in an otherwise quiet Astros clubhouse. “That’s how replay always seems to go for us. Nothing seems to ever go the Astros way.”

Reddick shakes his head. Conspiracy theories are as much a part of professional sports as personal seat licenses and crazy money TV deals. And after Jose Altuve’s first inning, two-run home run is called back by a phantom fan interference call — and two Houston runs are taken off the board in what turns into an epic, eventual 8-6 loss — well… there’s enough fodder for Oliver Stone to suddenly consider a baseball movie.

With the help of that call — umpire Joe West’s initial fan interference call and then an almost unfathomable replay upholding of the call, despite video that seem to clearly show that the Houston fan in question, Troy Caldwell, did not reach out over toward the field — Major League Baseball is suddenly one Red Sox and one Dodger win away from getting the coast-to-coast huge market World Series that’s the best television draw.

This does not mean that anything untoward, funny or remotely fishy really happened. But it sure does guarantee some new conspiracy theories. And one gets the feeling that some Astros players may even harbor some of those views.

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“Pissed off,” Reddick says when a reporter asks him to describe the mood in the Houston dugout after the home run that wasn’t ruled a home run. “We were talking about it the whole rest of the game.

“We lost the game by two runs and that’s two runs right there. We’d clearly still be playing.”

Instead, the defending champs are down 3-1 in this best of seven American League Championship Series, one loss from seeing their repeat bid go up in smoke. And a replay review.

What a bizarre game, what a way to see the Astros’ would be dynasty, and the best sports run that many of us in this city have ever seen, teeter to the edge of extinction.

There are kangaroo courts with a clearer sense of justice.

“It was 100 percent not correct,” Reddick says. “That was a home run… You have enough cameras in this ballpark. You have to make sure you get it right.”

If baseball wants drama — and national attention — it sure has it now.

This ultra controversial Game 4 features 24 hits, 12 pitchers (each team uses six), 11 extra base hits, nine walks and enough sudden, unbelievable plot twists for a Lifetime series. It lasts longer than it takes to fly from Houston to Boston (against headwinds), clocking in at four hours and 33 minutes.

And yet despite all the brilliant moments in this epic — from Jackie Bradley Jr.’s latest monster bomb, to Carlos Correa’s three hits on a bad back, to little Tony Kemp’s home run just inside the Chick-fil-A cow sign right field foul pole, to Reddick’s diving catch to deny Mookie Betts in the top of the ninth, to Benintendi’s fearless, either make an incredible catch or likely lose the game and arguably the entire series, dive for the final out — it is likely the phantom fan interference that will be remembered most of all.

That’s a shame. For this is too incredible of a postseason game to mar.

Jose Altuve’s Pure Pain

To have it happen to Altuve too, the reigning American League MVP who is hobbling around on a bad knee that’s likely to need offseason surgery, the man who is in many ways the face of everything that is good about this game, just makes it even more unbelievable in a way.

And there is Altuve at his locker afterwards, doing Altuve things, refusing to throw a dedicated Astros fan under the bus. There will be no Steve Bartman phantom goat created at Minute Maid Park. These Astros are too classy for that.

“What would you do as a fan? I would do the same thing,” Altuve says. “You’re trying to catch a ball. I don’t have anything against him. He’s another good Astros fan rooting for us.”

He’s a good fan who is left to live with a bit of infamy he never deserved because of the replay decision.

“It’s convenient to think about it that way,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says of the denied two run homer being the difference in a two-run loss. “But there’s a lot of game left. There was a lot of action in that game.

“No, I’m not going to go there. But it would have been nice to tie the game at that point.”

It’d be nice if this incredible October classic of a baseball game does not come with such doubt, too.

What a game. What a shame.

An Epic Game Marred

As balls keep rocketing around Minute Maid Park at the rate of dancers colliding in a mosh pit, the game starts to take on the feel of that epic 13-12 World Series Game 5 from last October. The Astros take a 4-3 lead in the fourth inning, their first lead of the night. The Red Sox come back to tie it in the top of the fifth.

Houston retakes the lead in the bottom of the fifth on a bit of Correa hitting magic. Boston bombs back, grabbing a 6-5 advantage in the top of the sixth inning thanks to the latest monster power flex from Red Sox ninth hitter extraordinaire Jackie Bradley Jr.

That Cruz/Beto debate had less back and forth.

When Kemp pokes that home run just inside the Chick-fil-A sign that hugs the right field foul pole to give Houston its first lead, it looks like things might be swinging back the defending champs’ way despite the robbed Altuve homer. Kemp — the underdog who often delivers hugs for homers — gets love from all the major Astros stars in the dugout.

Marwin Gonzalez picks up the 5-foot-6 Kemp in his arms and raises him into the air.

Minute Maid Park is roaring. The train is chugging along on its home run track high above left field. It feels like the magic of 2017 is returning in a rush.

When Correa comes through with his third hit of the night to put runners on second and third in the bottom of the seventh, the feeling (and the roar) returns. But pinch hitter Tyler White strikes out looking to end the inning. (Maybe, future star Kyle Tucker should have been given more of a chance to adjust to the Majors?)

And Kemp is thrown out trying to turn a leadoff single into a leadoff double in the bottom of the eighth inning — an inning in which Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel desperately needs every out he can get.

“I didn’t love it,” Hinch says of the attempt by Kemp, a playoff rookie, to reach second base. “Down by three, it’s a tough gamble.”

It is tough ending for Bregman too, who is only batting with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth because Hinch moves him up to the leadoff spot. Bregman slashes the first Kimbrel pitch he sees — and it’s a missile diving right for open outfield grass. Bregman is more than ready to play hero.

Benintendi’s dive says otherwise, leaving Bregman with a rare 0 for 5 night. Of course, MLB replay officials leave the Astros with so many more questions by claiming that there is not enough evidence to overturn West’s original call.

“That was an amazing call by Joe,” Bradley Jr. says. Bradley Jr. admits that he is surprised that the 65-year-old West is in position to see the play at the fence clearly.

Astros Game 5 starter Justin Verlander’s wife, Kate Upton, more accurately brands the call, “Bullshit” on Twitter. Joe West sees it about as clearly as your grandmother sees the road at midnight.

The umpire and his MLB replay backup (this is the entire reason to have replay) both somehow get it wrong. The Astros pay big.

What’s your conspiracy?

What a game. What a shame.

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