Pirates come up short in 9th after tight play at plate

May 18th, 2024

CHICAGO -- In a game of dueling, dealing southpaws, it seemed almost destined that the matchup between the Pirates and Cubs at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon was going to come down to one big hit or defensive play.

The Pirates thought they had the latter in the bottom of the ninth, but a bang-bang play at home was ruled in the Cubs’ favor, giving them a 1-0 win.

With Cody Bellinger on second base and one out, Christopher Morel lined a base hit to center that looked like a winner off the bat, but Michael A. Taylor uncorked a strong throw home to make it close. Catcher Joey Bart cleanly caught the ball up the first-base line and appeared to make the tag on Bellinger’s leg before he reached home, but the ball was jarred free by Bellinger’s hand late in the slide and he was ruled safe.

The Pirates challenged, arguing that Bart only lost the ball as he was presenting it to home-plate umpire Chris Conroy. The call was eventually confirmed rather than upheld, which would have meant there was not enough definitive proof to overturn the call. The replay crew determined that Bart failed to maintain firm and secure possession of the ball throughout the tag.

“My interpretation is Joey presented the ball,” manager Derek Shelton said. “There's another runner on base, so he's presenting the ball to show the umpire that he's out. So you see him secure, and you see tag and you see him take the ball out, and there's contact with Bellinger. The way I see it, that's voluntary that he's taking the ball out and that it's a tag."

“The tag was made in front of the plate,” said a somber Bart. “Swept all the way around the back of the plate, pulling the ball out of my glove, show the umpire and he knocks it out of my hand. That's basically what happened. It wasn't like he knocked it out of my hand and I was making a tag. I had full possession of that baseball. Like I said, they went and made the call and it is what it is."

Taylor’s throw was clocked at 101.3 mph, the strongest of any fielder this year and the third-strongest by Taylor ever tracked by Statcast (since 2015). The Pirates signed him this spring in large part due to his defense, and had Bart hung onto the ball, it could have theoretically been his most impactful defensive play with his new team.

"I don't think [Bellinger] did it intentionally, but you can see [Bart] had a firm grip of the ball until Bellinger made contact,” Taylor said. “In my eyes, he was out right there."

"It was tough to see,” Bellinger said of the play. “I knew it was close. I was extremely happy when they said that it was confirmed."

Of course, it’s impossible to win without scoring a run. Bailey Falter and Shota Imanaga traded punches all afternoon, with Falter recording a career-high 7 2/3 innings. He worked around three singles and two walks on 83 pitches before handing the ball over to Colin Holderman, who stranded the two runners he inherited.

The Pirates have enjoyed great starting pitching this season, and Falter exceeding expectations is a big reason why. After a shaky spring, he’s lowered his ERA to 3.53 and is matching some of the big arms in the Pirates’ rotation pitch for pitch of late.

Talking postgame, Falter credited his battery mate for his success.

“I think just Joey calling a phenomenal game,” Falter said. “We got together before just because I faced these guys last time, so we just sharpened our tools a little bit, remembered what we did last time and just tried to attack these guys as much as possible. Joey called a great game and the defense played awesome behind me, so wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

But for Bart, it’s the last play that stuck with him afterwards.

“It was the bottom of the ninth inning,” Bart said. “It's a play at home. That's what you dream of as a catcher. You [have] got to make that play, felt like I made the play. I'm not a guy that lives for excuses ever, but if I was in the wrong there, I'd stand right here and tell you, you know what I mean? But I felt like I did the best I could to make that play. Michael made a hell of a throw and we just didn't get the benefit of the doubt."