The beginning of October saw the start of the postseason in Major League Baseball and we are now at the finals stage in both the National and American League competitions.

In the American League, the LA Dodgers lead the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2 in the best of 7 series, whilst last night the Boston Red Sox sealed a 8-6 victory over the Houston Astros, to take a 3-1 lead in the series.

However, last night’s game was not without controversy as a two-run home run was cancelled as a result of the umpires’ finding that an Astro’s fan had interfered with the play.

What happened?

At the bottom of the first innings, and with George Springer on first base, Houston’s designated hitter Jose Altuve, smashed a fly ball to the right-hand side of the field in what looked like it would be a home run.

Red Sox right-fielder, Mookie Betts, launched himself backwards in an attempt to make the catch but in the process closed his glove too early, meaning the ball dropped back into the field of play, with both batsmen making it home safely.

However, following the play, the right-field umpire ruled that Altuve was out as a result of “spectator interference”. Protests ensued from the Astro’s bench before, having taking their time to consider the replays in more detail, the Umpires upheld the original decision with Altuve out and Springer having to return to first base.

A video of the incident can be viewed on the MLB twitter account here.

What are the rules?

The Official Baseball Rules state:

“3.16 – When there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his opinion will nullify the act of interference.

APPROVED RULING: If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out.” 

The commentary to Rule 3.16 goes on to state: 

“There is a difference between a ball which has been thrown or batted into the stands, touching a spectator thereby being out of play even though it rebounds onto the field and a spectator going onto the field or reaching over, under or through a barrier and touching a ball in play or touching or otherwise interfering with a player. In the latter case it is clearly intentional and shall be dealt with as intentional interference as in Rule 3.15. Batter and runners shall be placed where in the umpire’s judgment they would have been had the interference not occurred.

No interference shall be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk. However, should a spectator reach out on the playing field side of such fence, railing or rope, and plainly prevent the fielder from catching the ball, then the batsman should be called out for the spectator’s interference.”

It is clear from the rules that the distinction, when it comes to interference, is in a catch being made by a spectator when the ball is over the “fence, railing or rope” and one in which the spectator has reached into the field of play. The former being acceptable and any attempt by the player being “at his own risk” and the latter not being so.

In this instance, the fans in question claim the ball was over the fence and that they did not reach into the field of play to make the catch. However, the Umpires who had the benefit of watching the slow-motion replay considered otherwise.

Further, and importantly, the Umpires must also have decided that the fans in question did “plainly prevent” the catch from being made, despite Betts’s glove appearing to close before the ball reached him. Betts himself said this was a result of contact with the fans.

Did this decision really affect the outcome of the match? 

Astro’s manager AJ Hinch said:

“It’s convenient to think about it that way. But there’s a lot of game left. There’s 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. But that’s not the difference. That’s not how the game plays.”

Whilst the incident occurred at the bottom of the first innings with a long way to go for both teams we do know that the Astros went on to lose 8-6 and so the two-run homer was clearly costly and gave the Red Sox a valuable second victory on the road.

What next?

Will this event lead teams to instruct their fans to try not to catch fly balls, an integral part of the fan experience, at the risk of a hitter being ruled out?

What if this happened in the 9th innings of the World Series final? Could a player/team look to sue the fan in question for lost bonuses etc?

Only time will tell.

In terms of the post season, the Astro’s host the Red Sox again this evening, for game 5.

Another victory in tonight’s final game in Houston would be enough to see the Red Sox into the World Series, five years after their last (successful) visit in 2013.