NEW YORK -- It's human nature to reflect on hypotheticals when things don't go according to plan. A "what if" is exactly that, but if one single play could have changed the outcome of Baltimore's 3-1 loss to the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, it might have happened in the sixth inning.
With his team trailing 1-0, O's left fielder Nate McLouth sent a high fly ball down the right-field line that right-field umpire Fieldin Culbreth ruled foul. Orioles manager Buck Showalter immediately ran out of the dugout for an explanation on what Culbreth saw -- players in the O's dugout initially reacted as if it were fair -- and the play went under review.
A close replay indicated that the ball may have nicked the foul pole, but any change in direction was too slight to determine whether it actually did. After review, crew chief Brian Gorman determined that the ruling on the field -- a foul ball -- would be upheld, and McLouth struck out to end the inning on the very next pitch.
"I saw it go to the right of the pole," Culbreth said. "There is netting there and it didn't touch the netting. It did not change direction [indicating it grazed the pole]."
At the time, nobody in the stadium seemed sure whether it was a game-tying home run or just a long foul ball -- even the hometown fans were unsure at first, but eventually began pointing toward foul territory. The best indication that it may not have been a home run was McLouth's reaction: a slow, unsure walk down the first-base line.
"I thought it was foul," McLouth said of his initial reaction. "In game speed when I was running down the line I slowed down to get a little better look at it. He was in great position down the line, and they checked it on replay and determined it was foul."
"The big reaction was watching McLouth," said Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson, who said at first he was unsure whether Culbreth had made the correct call. "As a hitter when you see him not do it then you can kind of get a sense of whether it's fair or foul, and the fact that he didn't start off gave me a little more confidence."
Players in the Orioles dugout were visibly in disagreement when Culbreth made his initial ruling -- specifically catcher Matt Wieters, who was on the top step of the dugout yelling that it was a fair ball and a home run.
"From the dugout it looked like it went right over the top," Wieters said. "They got replay and we took a look at the replay and it was still really close, so who knows."
That thought was echoed in the Orioles clubhouse after the game. At the time, Mark Reynolds and Adam Jones also thought the ball went directly over the pole, and both saw the replay after the game and were still unsure.
"I'm not an umpire I didn't make the call," Jones said. "I've seen a couple replays and it was a close call. It would have changed the game a little bit, but that's baseball. It's a game of inches and that proved it right there."
Nick Swisher was manning right field for the Yankees, and said he knew right away that it was foul. Swisher said that if the ball had indeed deflected off the pole, he would have heard a noise or seen a change in direction, neither of which happened.
Looking back, it's impossible to tell if a game-tying home run would have ultimately changed the outcome of the game, but O's players admitted that it certainly couldn't have hurt.
"I really do think it was a big momentum changer," McLouth said. "They had just scored the half-inning before and that would have tied it. But in the end, our downfall was we just weren't able to get the big hit this series like we had so often."