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Nathan Eovaldi, Boston Red Sox take issue with pivotal ball-strike call in loss to Houston Astros

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BOSTON — Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi took two steps toward the dugout when his 1-2 curveball against Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro landed in the glove of catcher Christian Vazquez close to the top-right corner of the strike zone. With two outs already in the ninth inning, Eovaldi momentarily believed he had stranded Astros shortstop Carlos Correa on second base and first baseman Yuli Gurriel on first, but plate umpire Laz Diaz never signaled the punchout that would have left the score tied at 2 heading into the home half of the inning.

Instead, the at-bat continued, with Castro eventually singling to center field, scoring Correa to give Houston a 3-2 lead in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Soon, the wheels fell off for Boston, which gave up seven runs in Tuesday’s final frame as the Astros won 9-2 to tie the series at two wins apiece and push it to at least a Game 6, which will be back in Houston.

“I thought it was a strike, but again, I’m in the moment. I’m trying to make my pitches,” Eovaldi said after the game. “I’m attacking the zone.”

While Boston took issue with the call, the chance of Eovaldi’s curveball being called a strike was 23%, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

The borderline call characterized an evening marked by complaints about the strike zone. Diaz ended the evening with 23 missed ball-strike calls, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with 12 coming on balls thrown by Red Sox pitchers and 11 from Houston’s hurlers. Diaz’s night behind the plate marked the most missed ball-strike calls of any umpire this postseason.

Castro said that with the velocity and quality of Eovaldi’s arsenal, he was looking for a pitch that wasn’t at the top of the strike zone, where the 1-2 curveball ended up.

“Where that pitch started, I didn’t think it was one I could pull the trigger on,” Castro said. “It was a ball, then I was able to move on to the next pitch.”

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he had not watched video of Diaz’s call before speaking with the media.

“It’s a tough job,” Cora said. “I know Laz since our days in Miami, you know? He used to cover our games when I played at the University of Miami. Every Friday, he was the man in those games, so it’s a hard job. I understand that. It’s a hard job.”

Cora took stronger exception to a strike three called on designated hitter J.D. Martinez in the third inning on a 94.6 mph fastball thrown by Houston reliever Cristian Javier in a 3-2 count with Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo standing on first. Cora ran out of the dugout to prevent Martinez — who infrequently argues with umpires — from getting ejected before confronting Diaz and needing to be restrained by third-base coach Carlos Febles.

“I’m not going to get thrown out of this game, but we thought that pitch was a strike and he disagreed with us, but that’s a tough job,” Cora said. “I don’t think — yeah, it changes — if it’s a strike, it changes the whole thing, right, but I think we had chances early on.”

Boston went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, leaving 11 men on base.

Red Sox starter Nick Pivetta came up short on words when asked about Diaz’s strike zone.

“I’m not going to say anything,” Pivetta said.

Eovaldi said the strike zone had an impact on the game’s outcome.

“There’s going to be those at-bats where I felt like our batters were being very selective up there,” Eovaldi said. “They were having quality at-bats, and a 1-0 count that turns into a 1-1 or a 2-0 count, it changes the at-bat a lot.”

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MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting

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The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.

Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.

The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.

Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.

Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.

The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.

News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press

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Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball

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NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.

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Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays‘ proposed plan to split the season between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the news on Thursday.

“Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said.

The idea of playing in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal has been discussed over the past several years after attempts to build a new full-time ballpark locally failed.

Montreal had a big league team from 1969, when the expansion Expos began play, through 2004. The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team has played since its inaugural season in 1998, expires after the 2027 season.

Since Sternberg took control in October 2005, the once-struggling franchise has been a success on the field but not at the box office.

Despite reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020, the Rays have annually ranked near the bottom in attendance. The Rays averaged about 9,500 for home games last season, 28th in the majors and ahead of only Miami and Oakland.

St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch feels a new stadium in his city remains a possibility. Governmental officials have been working on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site.

“We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” Welch said in a statement. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Sternberg said the team will definitely explore options in the Tampa Bay area.

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