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Nightengale: Will Controversial Call Cost Astros a Trip to World Series?

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Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts battles fans in the right field seats for a ball hit by the Astros' Jose Altuve. Umpires ruled the fans interfered with Betts and Altuve was called out. Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports

By Bob Nightengale |

He won’t hide in anonymity like Steve Bartman, or be famous like Jeffrey Maier, but Troy Caldwell certainly will be forever known in Houston if the Astros don’t reach the World Series.

The Boston Red Sox made Caldwell infamous overnight Wednesday by knocking off the Astros, 8-6, and taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the American League Championship Series, with a replay review that may be debated forever in Texas.

Caldwell was just an anonymous Astros fan sitting in the first row of Section 152 in the right-field seats at Minute Maid Park. Jose Altuve hit a drive deep to right field. Caldwell jumped up and stuck out his hand, hoping to catch the ball. Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts jumped high, trying to catch it himself. Caldwell’s hand knocked against Betts’ glove. No one caught the ball.

The sellout crowd of 43,277 went wild, believing it was a homer, and Caldwell started cheering himself.

Only for the stadium to watch in disbelief as right-field umpire Joe West shot his arm up in the air.

Out!

Caldwell stood in horror, screaming along with everyone else as they waited 3 minutes, 13 seconds – which seemed like an eternity – for the replay review.

The decision came. The call was confirmed: Spectator interference. Out.

Replay after replay was shown on the huge scoreboard, and on TV sets across America, but it was virtually impossible to tell if the ball was over the fence or just short.

There was no conclusive evidence. The call stood, and the sellout crowd went berserk.

“After viewing all relevant angles,’’ MLB said in a statement, “the replay official could not definitely determine that the spectator failed to reach out of the stands and over the playing field, clearly preventing the fielder from catching the ball.

“The call stands, the batter is out.’’

The Astros were livid, with George Springer, who had been standing on first base, slamming his helmet to the ground.

“I’m not sure if Mookie makes that catch,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said during an in-game interview on TBS. “He’s a great athlete, but how it’s an assumed out is unbelievable. …

“Jose paid kind of (the) ultimate price for something out of his control.’’

Caldwell, who did round after round of interviews for the next few innings, spent the rest of the game praying.

“I’ll need security to escort me out of here,’’ Caldwell told reporters, “if the Astros don’t come back to win this. … I promise you I didn’t do anything wrong.’’

Then again, neither did Bartman, who simply was trying to catch a foul ball in the stands in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS between the Cubs and Marlins, only to keep left fielder Moises Alou from catching the ball. The Cubs blew the lead, lost the game, and the series. Bartman, who was escorted from Wrigley Field and received death threats, was never again seen publicly, living his life in anonymity.

Maier, just a 12-year-old in 1996, reached over the wall in right field at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the ALCS. He snared Derek Jeter’s fly ball just as Baltimore Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco waited at the wall to catch it.

There was no replay then, and right-field umpire Richie Garcia called it a homer. The Yankees won the game, the ALCS, and the World Series.

It was the start of a Yankees dynasty, and Maier became a hero in the Bronx.

The Astros did everything possible to make sure that Caldwell was neither hero nor goat in their zany back-and-forth game. The teams scored in every inning, and three times in the same inning, trading jabs like pugilists in a prize fight, with five different lead changes and ties.

The Red Sox know they will be facing Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander on Thursday for Game 5, while the Red Sox have no idea who they’ll be starting. They were scheduled to start ace Chris Sale, but he’s still weak, having lost weight after being hospitalized with stomach problems.

“He’s feeling better compared to [Tuesday],’’ manager Alex Cora said, “but physically he’s not there yet. So I think if necessary, he’ll pitch Game 6. He feels that he’ll be ready for that one.’’

And for Game 5?

“I’m learning very, very quick that in the playoffs,’’ Cora said, “you live for today.’’

Then again, the Red Sox may not even need Sale to pitch again until Tuesday, Oct. 23: Game 1 of the World Series, at Fenway Park, against the National League champions.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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