- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NEW YORK | Had Gary Sheffield’s three-run homer in the sixth inning Monday night been taken off the board - the outcome the Washington Nationals would have preferred - the New York Mets still would have taken the lead and perhaps gone on to win.

There’s no way, of course, to know that for sure. So forgive the Nationals if they feel like they came to the Big Apple and got mugged during a 5-2 loss that turned on a most controversial play.

As far as the Nationals were concerned, Sheffield’s tiebreaking homer should have been a double - which would have put the Mets ahead by only one run. Instead, the deficit was suddenly three, and that was too much for Washington to overcome en route to its 13th loss in 16 games.

“I knew it was going to be close,” said left fielder Adam Dunn, the man closest to the play. “If the call went in our favor… I mean, that’s a three-run homer - not a solo [run if [JUMP]the call had been reversed]. That was a big blow for us.”

There was plenty else at play on Memorial Day at Citi Field, from the Nationals’ continued (and surprising) offensive struggles to Daniel Cabrera’s continued (and not surprising) struggles finding the strike zone to Austin Kearns’ continued struggles driving in runs.

But the key moment was Sheffield’s questionable homer, which came with two men on, the score tied at 1-1 and starter John Lannan beginning to show signs of faltering. Sheffield seized the opportunity by crushing the lefty’s first pitch to deep left field. Dunn retreated to the wall and watched as the ball bounced off a fan’s hands and back into the field of play.

Third-base umpire Adrian Johnson immediately ruled it a home run. But within seconds, Nationals manager Manny Acta emerged from the dugout to argue. After a brief conference, three of the four umpires retreated under the stands to watch a replay.

“From the dugout, I didn’t think that the ball went out,” Acta said. “We have all those rules and the replays, and we have to abide by it. But I just think with the trajectory of the ball, if you have to reach over that railing… I don’t think the ball would have gone out of the ballpark. But I’ve been wrong plenty of times before.”

For six minutes, everyone waited for the three men to return to the field. The lengthy delay might have been because the only angle caught by the Mets’ SNY television crew did not have a close-up view of the play. If the umpires couldn’t get a conclusive look at the play, they had to stick with their original call.

Viewers in the D.C. area watching on MASN saw a better shot of the play, in which it appeared more obvious that the fan reached over the fence and interfered with the ball. The umpiring crew, according to people familiar with the process, only had access to the local feed.

“Once they went to go check it out, I realized that they weren’t going to give it to us,” Lannan said. “They had to have 100 percent [certainty] - I guess that’s the rule - to turn it.”

Crew chief Larry Vanover, through an umpires attendant, told pool reporters that he would not discuss the call and that the commissioner’s office would have to issue a statement.

After that, everything came spiraling down for Washington. Lannan walked the next batter and was pulled. The Mets scored again to make it 5-1. And the Nationals were left to try to rally from a deficit far greater than they believed should have been on the scoreboard.

They had multiple chances to pull it off, putting runners in scoring position with less than two outs in the seventh, eighth and ninth. But in the seventh Dunn flied out, and Kearns grounded out. Wil Nieves, Josh Willingham and Cristian Guzman were retired in the eighth. Kearns struck out and Willie Harris popped out in the ninth to seal another demoralizing loss.

“We had a couple of opportunities with runners on third and less than two outs, and we couldn’t do anything,” Acta said.