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April 11, 2016

Phillies fall in home opener as bizarre infield fly ruling kills rally

Come for the annual pinstriped-player walk from Ashburn Alley onto the field, the patriotic songs, the memorable ceremonial first pitches, the festive bunting adorned to the ballpark’s facade. Stay for the infield fly rule in the outfield and the… bunting?

It was a pleasant home opener in South Philadelphia on Monday, when the Phillies returned from a successful weekend in New York to open the home half of their schedule against the San Diego Padres. The sun was out and a sell-out crowd of 45,229 made its way through the gates.

But all hell broke loose in the 20 minutes or so that spanned the bottom of the six and top of the seventh innings. And that’s putting it kindly.

Gallery: Outta the park at the Phillies home opener

The Phillies hopes of running a win streak to three straight ended when they dropped a 4-3 defeat to the Padres.

But it wasn’t the fault of the bullpen. Or the starting pitching, or the offense or defense, really.

San Diego scored the game-winning run in the top of the seventh when Derek Norris scampered to the plate from third base when Alexi Amarista laid down a successful suicide squeeze bunt. The play came one batter after Maikel Franco made a remarkable diving stab and throw to record the inning’s second out … only to see the out erased after the Padres challenged and replay revealed that the throw took first baseman Darin Ruf off the first base bag.

Ruf was only in the game because, in the previous half inning, the Phillies put each of their first three hitters on base against San Diego starter Andrew Cashner. Padres manager Andy Green figured it was an ideal time as any to pull his starter and opt for left-hander Brad Hand with Ryan Howard due up, and, Pete Mackanin kept to his word and pinch hit Ruf for Howard.

And then it got weird, on a play that may have been best summed up by the first year San Diego manager.

“I don’t know if anybody knew what was going on,” Green said. “We might have gotten a break there.”

On Hand’s first offering, a 92-MPH fastball right down the middle, Ruf popped it up. But as San Diego shortstop Alexei Ramirez began to camp under it, the ball kept carrying, and carrying, and carrying, and, for some reason, his left fielder, Will Myers, hung him out to dry.

Ramirez dropped the ball. Cesar Hernandez scored the game-tying run.

But San Diego was saved by third base umpire Will Little.

When the ball was hit skyward, and before Ramirez ended up in beyond-shallow left field, Little had signaled an out, courtesy of the infield fly rule. The Padres recorded second out on the play by getting Odubel Herrera out upon late arrival to third base.

“You’re kind of stuck … I can’t be too critical of that because it was an unusual play,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Herrera not staying put on second.

The Phillies scored a run, to tie the game, but a potential game-changing rally went up in smoke thanks to an infield fly rule called in the outfield that brought about a double play. Needless to say, Mackanin was none too pleased and let the umpire crew aware of it immediately afterward.

“Let’s put it this way, I didn’t like the call, but we have to live with it, we just have to get past it,” he said. “We had opportunities after that. That was a big play obviously. Although, like I said, I didn’t like the call. It’s their judgment.”

The crew chief of the umpiring crew, Ted Barrett, kindly explained exactly what happened after the game.

“The criteria for an infield fly is a batted ball in the air that a fielder can field with ordinary effort. And that’s what the third base umpire (Will Little) ruled, the infield fly on that,” Barrett said. “Of course, the confusion a lot of times is people think that the depth of the fly ball into the outfield comes into play. And that’s not a factor. It’s actually (whether it can be) easily caught by an infielder, with ordinary effort.”

Of course, the definition of “ordinary” seems arbitrary.

It was a call unlike Mackanin, and most people in the ballpark, had ever seen. It was reminiscent of the call that helped bounce the Atlanta Braves from the postseason in a Wild Card game against the St. Louis Cardinals four years ago.

“You don’t see that too often, where the guy is backpedaling,” Howard said. “But as the umpire, he’s got to make kind of a split-second decision and try to figure it out. It was an interesting play. I think we all learned something today. … It didn’t work out for us, it didn’t work out in our favor.”

Maikel Franco (3-for-4) tried to rally the home team in the bottom of the ninth, when he led off with a single. But Ruf followed by hitting into another double play – this one a little more routine on a ground ball to shortstop – and the game was over one batter later.

“(Aaron) Nola was pretty good – he struck out nine,” Mackanin said after his team fell to 2-5 on the young season. “Freddy (Galvis) made some great plays, some acrobatic plays out there. (Peter) Bourjos made a nice running catch. (Odubel) Herrera made a nice catch against the wall. We had chances to win. (Howard) hit that line drive to the first baseman, that could have led to a big inning.

“We got pretty good pitching. (Dalier) Hinojosa did a good job. (James) Russell got through it. Those were the positives. The negative is we lost the game. From the start of the season we’re in every game we’ve played except for one. I’m pretty pleased with that at this point.”

The other interesting side note about the weird play that defined the first regular season game at Citizens Bank Park in 2016: Mackanin did in fact pinch hit for Howard with a left-handed pitcher coming into the game.

It’s not surprising because Mackanin said he would do it. It just felt a little jarring as it was happening, with the bases loaded, no one out, and the game still in the sixth inning.

“Well, I said I was going to do it and I did it,” Mackanin said. “I thought that was a big part of the game, with the lefthander and the opportunity with the bases loaded and nobody out for Ruf, I thought it was the perfect time to do it, blow the game wide open.”

Howard handled it with class, knowing it wasn’t exactly a shock to be pulled back with the left-handed Hand coming in from the ‘pen.

“Pete said what he’s going to do,” Howard said. “I mean, it’s about winning games.”

Despite the manager’s best intentions, that didn’t happen on Monday in South Philly.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21