Did Crawford make the wrong decision? Yes
It's one of baseball's unwritten rules: Never make the first or third out at third base. But the Tampa Bay Rays under Joe Maddon have never been a team to play by baseball's so-called rules. Led by Maddon, the Rays' unconventional thinking is probably partly responsible for the team's success that past three seasons. Which makes the ending of last night's Rays-Yankees game more gray than black-and-white.
The game ended when Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford was thrown out at third base trying to tag up from second on a shallow fly to right. Hindsight being 20-20, it's easy to say now that Crawford should not have gone.
Maddon, who said he had no problem with Crawford's decision, pointed out that it took a perfect throw from rookie Greg Golson and a brilliant pick and tag from the third baseman Alex Rodriguez to get Crawford out. Maddon also pointed out that the ball could have skipped past A-Rod or hit Crawford in the leg or back and bounced to the fence. In that case, Crawford would have scored and it would have seemed like a brilliant decision, especially because hits are so hard to get against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, probably the best reliever in baseball history. All of those things are true.
So ... in the end, was it the right play? Absolutely not. Why? Because you never make the third out at third base, especially the last out of a one-run game. With his speed, Crawford is easily going to score from second base on a hit to the outfield, particularly with two outs when he would be running on contact.
Getting to third does allow Crawford to score on a few type of plays he would not have been able to score on from second: wild pitch, passed ball, infield hit, infield error, a balk. But here's the problem: Crawford never got to third. He was thrown out before he got there. One night earlier, New York's Brett Gardner tried to steal third with two outs in the 10th inning of a tied game and was cut down. Just like last night, Gardner was thrown out on a bang-bang play that took perfect defense. But, in both cases, the runners were wrong even though it took perfect plays to get them. The margin of error has to be none; even a perfect play should not be able to get you.
In the end, here's what you have to weigh: By going, what's the best thing that can happen and what's the worst thing that can happen? The best that could reasonably be expected was Crawford was on third with his chances of scoring improved only slightly from him being on second. We saw the worst thing: he was thrown out and the game ended. The risk was greater than the reward.
One final thought: You saw exactly why players love playing for Joe Maddon. When the dust settled last night and most agreed that Crawford made a bad call, Maddon was there to fully support his player. Maddon had Crawford's back. Don't think the players and, especially, Crawford didn't notice that.