Balk in wild 8th inning caps Dodgers' improbable comeback

June 25th, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Dodger Stadium was rocking. The packed home crowd went into a frenzy when James Outman tied the game with a ground-rule double off Bryan Abreu in the eighth inning.

A handful of pitches later, the noise only intensified when second-base umpire Junior Valentine called a balk on Astros right-hander Ryne Stanek, allowing Jonny Deluca to score the go-ahead run for the Dodgers.

Stanek and manager Dusty Baker were both ejected at the end of the inning. But despite their arguments, in the end that was the deciding play in the Dodgers’ 8-7 win over the Astros on Saturday.

“I don't think I've been called for a balk maybe ever, like college, Minor Leagues, ever,” said Stanek. “So yeah, I thought that was pretty wild to have that happen.”

Baker said that he was frustrated by a lack of explanation from Valentine, while Stanek insisted that, with the crowd noise too loud to hear his PitchCom device and the pitch timer winding down, he was using one of his two allotted disengagements to give himself a moment to regroup. In his view, the balk call was incorrect.

“[Valentine] said I moved my knee, which, I mean, as you're standing, you have to move your knee to step off the rubber,” said Stanek. “So I thought that was an interesting reason to give, especially in a situation like that where the balk is intentionally trying to deceive a runner -- which, at what point was I trying to deceive a runner? I hadn't even come set yet. I was literally not even in that process of coming set. I literally was just stepping backwards. So yeah, I just don't see how you can make that a call right there.”

The Dodgers, on the other hand, felt like the right call was made on the field. Miguel Rojas, who was in the batter’s box on the play, said he initially heard the home-plate umpire, Manny Gonzalez, say a timeout was called. But Rojas quickly turned around and told Gonzalez that it was a balk call and not a timeout. From Rojas’ vantage point, Stanek balked.

“From our side,” Rojas said. “It’s a good break for us right there.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts agreed with Rojas, saying postgame that he believes it’s a clear balk on Stanek because of the motion with his left knee. The Dodgers had a similar play called against them earlier this season when Phil Bickford was called for a balk after a slight twitch with his knee.

“He got it right,” Roberts said. “Obviously in a game like that, you don’t want it to be the deciding run in that situation. But they got the call right. And I think Stanek was looking at the pitch clock maybe, maybe trying to step off, call time out, and then his cleat got stuck. But it was a balk by the letter of the law. We’ll take it.”

Regardless of what each side believes was the right call, this was a tough loss for the Astros after they out-hit the Dodgers, 13-5. After falling behind, 3-1, in the first inning when starter Ronel Blanco gave up home runs to Will Smith and Jason Heyward, the Astros bounced back with a five-run fifth inning, highlighted by Alex Bregman's grand slam off Dodgers starter Bobby Miller.

On the other side of the ledger, it was one of the Dodgers' best wins of the season, continuing this week’s resurgence with their fourth consecutive victory. 

Though the balk call was the most controversial play of the inning, Los Angeles put together quite the eighth-inning rally against Abreu, the Astros’ top reliever. 

He walked Freddie Freeman, Smith and J.D. Martinez to start the inning. Heyward cut the deficit to one run with a sacrifice fly. Outman, who was in the midst of his longest slump as a big leaguer until Friday’s 3-for-4 game, followed with a clutch RBI double to tie the game. Adding to the weird goings-on in the inning, Outman’s double initially looked like a three-run homer, but the ball got stuck on the right-field fence and it was determined to be a ground-rule double.

“This tells you guys what kind of team we are,” said Dodgers outfielder David Peralta, who started the comeback with a two-run homer in the seventh. “We’re fighting all the way to the end. We never give up.”

For the Astros, their big 10-game road trip has gotten off to a disappointing start. They’ve now dropped seven of their last nine games. At 41-36, they are in third place in the American League West, a half-game behind the second-place Angels and 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Rangers. For a club that’s spent the better part of the past seven years dominating its division, it’s an unusual spot to be in nearly halfway through the season. And losses like Saturday’s only make the situation more frustrating.

“This was real tough,” said Baker. “I mean, we've had some tough losses this year. Hopefully, this is the last of it, and it’s probably not, but we don’t need another tough loss for a long time.”