How the 268th pitch became the defining moment of ALCS Game 4

BOSTON -- The 268th pitch in Game 4 was not particularly notable based on its numbers. It reached Nathan Eovaldi's hands at 80.4 mph, and then descended over 4 feet to Christian Vazquez. It spun slower than Eovaldi’s average curveball. It moved very little side to side. It would have been just another pitch if he had thrown it at any point in the game to any batter in any situation.
The pitch was a strike in an alternate universe. This would have stopped the ninth inning and given the Boston Red Sox, who are the owners of two walk-off wins this postseason, the chance to make a third. The pitch was a ball in the real world. It kept Jason Castro at the plate. This pitch preceded the 269th pitch, which Castro fouled off.

This pitch was a pitch that was lamented in the park and in text chain connecting Red Sox fans who wanted a commanding lead, but ended up with a series tied and home field advantage lost. Eovaldi believed that pitch number 268 was a strike and skipped the mound. He was trying to convince Laz Diaz, the home-plate umpire to give Castro a punch because Castro, as everyone else, knew pitch number 2. 268 was at the edge of the strike area, which is not a zone but a concept that is subject to execution by the man who enforces it. If Game 4 ends up being the detour that sent the series sideways for Red Sox, this pitch will be as infamous in these parts as the strike was.

Alex Cora, Red Sox manager, stated that if there is a strike, it would change the entire thing.

Yes. Game 4 can be described as one that was won or lost by pitch number. 268 does not include the 267 before it -- those that could have been anything else, including a hit on any one of the eight at-bats with runners in scoring positions for Boston -- or the innumerable after it in the sliding door version of this game. The Red Sox won the ninth, but it was not certain that they would hold the Astros' dangerous lineup scoreless into the 10th.

According to @ESPNStatsInfo, Laz Diaz, home-plate umpire, has missed 21 call-outs tonight. This is the highest number of umpires this postseason. The Eovaldi curveball, visible in the upper RH corner, is the green dot. It would have been the top of the ninth with a score of 2-2.

It is now 9-2. Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 20, 2021

Yet, Diaz called an objectively doubtable zone -- strikes to balls, strikes for balls and balls for strikes -- and it left the 268th pitch as a natural conclusion to a night. Boston is treating lazdiaz like its latest curse word. Even an extremely well-tuned human eye can have difficulty tracking balls traveling at 80 mph or breaking 4+ feet. Or, dropping 5 feet and covering nearly 2 feet in width, pitch No. 193 did that. Or sizzling at 94.6mph and winding up outside as pitch No. J.D. 109 called it strike three. Martinez was the one that made Cora mad.

Cora stated, "It's hard work." "I get that. It's hard work.

Cora was using his postgame approach on three levels. First, he knows Diaz. He has known Diaz since he was a student at the University of Miami. Diaz also umpired his games. Next: He doesn’t want to be fined for criticizing umpires because he’s smart and loves money. The most important thing is that blaming umpires for one pitch is a lose-lose mentality. Cora expects a lot of accountability from the Red Sox players. He expects the same from himself, and he lived up to it in the aftermath of Saturday's game. At that point, he was criticized for using Eovaldi in Game 2, which was played in the ninth inning of a tied game.

Cora will still be watching replay of pitch No. Here is what Cora will see when he watches replay of pitch No. 268, Castro waggling his bat, Eovaldi perched as a crane before reaching more than 6 feet above the rubber and releasing the pitch. Castro buckling, Eovaldi jumping-skipping, Diaz rising from his crouch with both his hands on his hips.

The pitch tracker on Fox was colored in to indicate that the ball landed on the edge of the zone -- a strike. MLB's website stated that the pitch hit the edge of the zone, which is a strike. These matters are irrelevant. Diaz's brain was the only thing that really mattered -- it processed the pitch like a ball.

Diaz was not aware that only seven of Eovaldi’s 48 strikeouts with a curveball this season had been looking. None of them were in the postseason. Nobody has a more filthy repertoire than Diaz -- a 100-mph fastball and a biting slider. A tempestuous cutter is also available. Few pitchers are more difficult to umpire. Before pitch No. It was pitch No. 268 that set the scene before anyone else realized it.

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It will be remembered in Red Sox history based on what happens next. Just as it was recorded in this game, so too will how it is remembered in Red Sox lore. Castro would have rolled the fastball over instead of fouling it. Castro would have thrown the splitter over instead of lacing it up to the middle. If one of these had occurred, pitch No. 268 is pitch No. 268 is pitch No.

It's unlikely that it will be more than a temporary impediment to the Red Sox making their fifth World Series appearance in 18-years. But if the alternate outcome comes to fruition -- if the Astros avenge their loss to Boston in 2018 -- the 268th pitch of Game 4 of the 2021 ALCS will join the phantom tag of the '99 ALCS and Ed Armbrister's interference in the 1975 World Series in the pantheon of Red Sox postseason umpiring what-should've-beens.

This is not the type of third strike Boston was looking.