Controversial third strike call dooms Dodgers’ comeback bid in loss to Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras, left, celebrates as Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts reacts.

Mookie Betts didn’t have time to toss his bat, unstrap his shin guard or take even a half-step toward first base.

After laying off what should have been a pivotal ball four with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game Saturday night, the Dodgers star was instead rung up instantly — and, in a controversial moment that rankled everyone on the visiting side, incorrectly — by home plate umpire Paul Emmel for a game-ending third strike.

“He called it,” Betts said. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Added Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “It’s unfortunate that a missed call determined the finality of that game.”

Indeed, moments before Betts’ strikeout sealed a 6-5 win for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers were on the verge of completing an unlikely comeback.

After trailing by three runs early, then falling behind again when Nolan Gorman belted a tiebreaking three-run blast in the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers had come to life in the top of the ninth.

The Cardinals' Nolan Gorman celebrates after he hit a three-run home run during the eighth inning.

The Cardinals’ Nolan Gorman celebrates after he hit a three-run home run during the eighth inning. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Dodgers reliever Victor González watches a three-run home run hit by the Cardinals' Nolan Gorman on May 20, 2023.

Dodgers reliever Victor González watches the blast hit by the Cardinals’ Nolan Gorman. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Miguel Vargas hit a leadoff double. David Peralta followed with a single to bring the tying run to the plate.

Jason Heyward then drove in one run with an RBI double, making it 6-4. Will Smith chipped away further with a sacrifice fly that cut the Cardinals‘ lead to 6-5. With two outs, there still was a runner on second base.

“We were there,” Roberts said. “We stressed them.”

By that point, however, Emmel’s wide strike zone already had taken shape.

During Smith’s at-bat, Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos threw a 3-and-1 fastball that appeared to miss the zone — only for Emmel to call it a strike.

Roberts disagreed after reviewing the film following the game but acknowledged that call at least was in the umpire’s “buffer zone.”

The one against Betts moments later, on the other hand, didn’t appear to come close to clipping the plate.

After falling behind with two quick strikes, Betts had battled back and worked the count full, content to draw a walk and pass the baton to Freddie Freeman if he didn’t get a pitch he liked.

Gallegos’ payoff offering certainly didn’t apply — an outside fastball that, despite being framed decently by catcher Willson Contreras, seemed to be clearly several inches wide.

“Mookie’s really good at not swinging at balls,” teammate J.D. Martinez said.

Only, without hesitation, Emmel clenched his fists, gestured his hands and called it a strike.

Inning over. Game finished. Comeback incomplete.

Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras and reliever Giovanny Gallegos celebrate after a win May 20, 2023.
Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras and reliever Giovanny Gallegos celebrate after a controversial called third strike sealed St. Louis‘ 6-5 victory over the Dodgers. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

“It sucks when a game ends like that,” Martinez said. “In that situation, it’s one of those things you don’t want to see happen.”

Though Betts was clearly frustrated in the moment, raising his hands in disbelief before trudging away from the plate, he recounted the sequence cautiously after the game.

“It was a good at-bat. There was nothing else I could have done,” he said. “At that point, it’s out of my hands and in his. … I wish it would have turned out differently, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Roberts and Martinez weren’t so understated.

“He missed it,” Roberts said. “Just seeing Mookie’s reaction, and then you go back and look how far off it was, it doesn’t give the hitter a chance. That’s what’s disappointing.”

Added Martinez, only barely biting his tongue: “You go back and look at it — I don’t want to get myself in trouble.”

Martinez had helped sparked the comeback several innings earlier, smashing a three-run homer in the sixth off St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas that erased the Cardinals’ early 3-0 lead.

The Dodgers' J.D. Martinez connects on a three-run home run during the sixth inning to tie the score.

The Dodgers’ J.D. Martinez connects on a three-run home run during the sixth inning to tie the score. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

“I just battled him out,” said Martinez, who has six home runs and an .805 on-base-plus-slugging percentage on the season. “Luckily, I got a pitch up.”

Dodgers starter Noah Syndergaard also settled down after a choppy start to the night, finishing his five-inning, three-run start with three straight scoreless innings — his most consecutive zeros in a game since April 19.

“First two innings, I was like, here we go again, another crappy outing,” said Syndergaard, who had been dogged by a finger blister and mental hurdles in recent weeks. “Felt like I finally found my groove those last three innings.”

The Dodgers’ bullpen kept the score tied until Gorman’s blast off Victor González in the eighth inning, the first runs the left-handed reliever had given up all season.

Yet the Dodgers still were in position to extend — if not win — the game in the ninth until Emmel extinguished their rally with his dubious called strike.

“We felt good where we were at,” Roberts said with a sigh. “You just hate to see the game determined by someone who’s not wearing a player’s uniform.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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