If the Rays had gone on to win Wednesday's Game 1 of this American League Division Series, the mystery of what exactly happened on a 2-1 pitch to Carlos Pena in the bottom of the first would have been just a small footnote. But the fact they lost, 5-1, to the Rangers and squandered their best opportunity of the day made it a big story in Tampa Bay's clubhouse.
Jason Bartlett started the Rays' first by dropping in a single to right. Carl Crawford punched one up the middle and Evan Longoria drilled a single through the hole and into the left. The bases were loaded with one out, and Pena braced for Lee's 2-1 pitch.
To the casual viewer, and even to Longoria at first base, the 93-mph pitch from Lee simply looked high and inside for ball three. But Pena felt the ball grazed his hand, so he let veteran home-plate umpire Tim Welke know as much. But instead of sending Pena to first, Welke immediately ruled it as a foul ball.
Instead of a hit batsman to force in a run, or an advantageous 3-1 count, it was now 2-2. Pena would work it to 3-2, but wound up striking out looking. Rocco Baldelli also struck out, and Lee (seven innings, one run, no walks, 10 strikeouts) would hardly break a sweat for the rest of the day.
"Well, the ball nicked my hand," Pena said. "It actually hit me on the hand. It didn't crush me in the hand. It's not like I'm going to start hopping up and down and acting like it did. But it did get me on the hand, and I turned around and immediately told him, 'This ball hit me on the hand.' And he immediately said, 'Foul ball.' It's one of those things, it actually worked against us. If I wouldn't have said anything, he would have just called it a straight ball and it would have been a 3-1 count. Knowing the ball hit me on the hand, I tried to make sure I let him know."
Even by watching the television replay, it was impossible to see the ball hit Pena's hand or the bat. But there was a sound that everyone seemed to hear.
"We heard something," said Rays right fielder Ben Zobrist. "Rocco was on deck, and I was right there next to the dugout waiting to go on deck. We thought we heard something, but we couldn't see any better than anybody else could. The way that Carlos reacted to it, we thought it must have hit his hand, because he's not usually an actor when it comes to that stuff."
Pena and Rays manager Joe Maddon both made vehement arguments. But the call stood.
"Well, he got hit by the pitch, but they called it otherwise," Maddon said. "I went out there to argue and it was kind of a delayed call. That's what I said to Timmy, and he said he was waiting for [Pena's reaction.] I said, 'Well, his reaction was that he got hit.' But he had chosen to say that the ball hit the bat. That's pretty much it."
Pena surmised if the ball had hit his bat, it would have hit the ground.
"[Rangers catcher Bengie] Molina actually caught that ball," Pena said. "He actually caught it. It just nicked my hand. I heard it. I felt it. Molina heard it. It's just one of those things."
What did Molina see? Like most people, nothing conclusive.
"To tell you the truth, I couldn't tell," Molina said. "I know it hit something. I wasn't sure if it hit him or it hit the bat. The guys went in and said that it hit the bat in the replay, but I was sure that it hit something."
In a Yankees-Rays game on Sept. 16, Derek Jeter demonstratively sold to the umpire that he was hit by a pitch, only for replays to show otherwise. Maddon was so incensed that he was ejected from that game.
"I think everyone in the park would have thought I was an idiot if I started hopping up and down like the ball killed my hand when the reality was that it nicked it," said Pena.
Though Pena wishes the call had gone his way on Wednesday, he could understand how tough it was for Welke to see exactly what happened.
"Plays like that, we've seen that happen over and over again where a close play like that, it's tough to tell for an umpire -- no doubt about it. But the ball hit my hand," said Pena. "It was the wrong call."
Just like it was nearly impossible to prove if the ball actually did graze Pena's hand, one will never know how the game would have transpired if he was awarded first base or given ball three.
"It's tough," said Longoria. "The environment of the postseason is pressure-packed in itself. When you can get a run or two early, especially against a guy like Cliff, it's different. But I don't think anybody is making any excuses. I thought we had pretty good at-bats against Cliff. We hit a lot of balls hard right at guys. You know, there's nothing you can do about it. Just turn the page and move on to the next day."