Niyo: Replay decision is head-scratcher in wacky Tigers game

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Detroit — It should’ve ended before it did.

The game, that is. Not the season, though at this rate, it’s already shaping up to be the longest season in Tigers history.

One down, 161 to go? This felt like more than that, quite honestly. And for a rebuilding team that figures to be short on exhilarating moments in 2018, this felt like highway robbery.

The home opener — already delayed a day by rain — began Friday under overcast skies before a sellout crowd of 42,516 at Comerica Park. It ended nearly 5 1/2 hours after it started in the fading sunlight, with the final result — a 13-10 loss in 13 innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates — overshadowed by controversy, as Major League Baseball’s erratic replay system again reared its ugly, head-shaking version of justice.

And if the game itself wasn’t already enough of a circus — the 23 runs and 31 hits, the 15 pitchers and 466 pitches, the dueling four-run rallies in the ninth inning alone — the verdict sure sealed it.

How can you tell when a win is not a win, after all?

Well, the first clue might be when the manager of the home team is on the field arguing with the umpire who ruled his player safe at home plate with the apparent winning run in extra innings. Another hint is when the replay review that follows — “I thought it was a courtesy review,” said Nick Castellanos, the runner who’d scored from second, then was mobbed by his teammates — drags on for nearly 4 minutes, and the replays shown in the stadium are inconclusive, at best.

More: Tigers’ Opening Day loss included a bit of everything

But probably the best way to tell is to hear the guy who thought he’d scored the winning run talk about his conversation with the catcher who’d tried to apply the lunging tag at the plate. This was Castellanos describing a brief exchange he had with the Pirates Francisco Cervelli after the stunning final decision was handed down.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, I can’t believe they overturned that,’” Castellanos said. “He looked right back and was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe they overturned that, either.’ He’s the catcher. I didn’t feel a tag. And Cervelli says, ‘I can’t believe they overturned that.’ So two people involved in the play were shocked.”

They certainly weren’t alone, although Cervelli, for his part, recalled that chat a bit differently, saying his surprise was due more to the timing and significance of the call, rather than the play itself or the merits of the review.

“I couldn’t believe because the extra innings,” Cervelli said. “But he was out. I thought they were gonna leave it that way.”

On that count, at least, everyone seemed to agree. Especially the hardy fans who stuck around at Comerica Park on a day where the first-pitch temperature was 39 degrees at 1:11 p.m. and the last pitch didn’t come until dinnertime.

After a few replay angles were shown on the giant scoreboard in left field, the crowd cheered, and the Pirates players headed to the dugout, looking dejected.

Still, as bench coach Steve Liddle noted, the longer the replay review went on, the more he worried. At one point, he said, he turned to hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and said, “That’s not good.”

Moments later, home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo — filling in for an injured Mike Everitt — proved him right — and wrong — all at once, taking off his headset and giving the “out” signal. Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was understandably incensed, stalking out from the dugout to make his voice heard.

That’s not allowed, of course. Arguing a replay ruling prompts an automatic ejection. But after first-base umpire Bill Welke heard him out, then tossed him, he kept going. That prompted Randazzo to do the same as Gardenhire — managing his 2,108th major-league game, but his first wearing the Olde English ‘D’— began kicking dirt. So Gardenhire’s 74th career ejection was really a 2-for-1 deal, a lot like this game, which felt like it last an eternity.

When it was finally over, Gardenhire was still fuming. He spoke briefly to his team in the clubhouse afterward, but it was Liddle who stepped to the postgame podium to meet with the media, smiling as he began, “Well, I’m not Gardy …”

Liddle also brought a copy of MLB’s replay rule with him, making sure he got the wording right as he expressed his own disbelief at what he’d seen — and then unseen.

“I know what the rule says, and I know the rule says ‘clear and convincing’ evidence,” Liddle said.

“And I called immediately to our video guy and he said, ‘Steve, there’s no clear-cut reason why’(they would overturn it.) … Because you could not tell. You could not tell from the angles that were provided.”

Liddle said this game — with all its wild twists and turns — reminded him of that infamous Game 163 between the Tigers and Twins back in 2009, when Gardenhire and Liddle were both in the other dugout at the Metrodome. The game where the ump missed Brandon Inge getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the 12th inning, among other things.

The stakes weren’t as high this time, obviously. And maybe this was the right call, ultimately. But in the moment, it still felt wrong.

“How they came up with that, I don’t know,” Liddle said, shaking his head. “I just don’t know.”

No one did, really. And that’s a problem — clearly — if the goal of replay is to remove any doubt, or at least clear up some of the gray areas in a game that never as black-and-white as it seems. Fair or foul? Ball or strike? Safe or out?

That last one sure didn’t sit well with the Tigers, a team that few, if any, in baseball are giving the benefit of the doubt to start this season.

Friday, they scratched and clawed and even brought the tying run to the play in the bottom of the 13th again. So give them credit for that, certainly.

And, frankly, that’s a big part of the reason Gardenhire is here, to instill some of that scrap into a roster that’s not exactly heaping with veteran talent. It’s also why he wasn’t there in the end, along with many thousands of fans who’d left early, before that ninth-inning rally.

Or that 10th-inning kick in the stomach.

“I think with this team, you might want to stick around,” Liddle said. “We’ve been working hard all spring and Gardy’s been trying to get our guys to play hard all nine (innings), or until they say it’s over. And that’s what the guys did today.”

Only one problem with that. Some days, it ain’t over until they say it twice.

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