Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Seconds from Disaster - Protest Upheld as Umpires Reverse Strike 3 Call

Saturday's Mercyhurst University Lakers vs Seton Hill Griffins NCAA baseball game was wiped off the books following a protest after umpires reversed a strike three and batter's interference call to a ball four call, in contravention of NCAA rules, and extending SMU's second inning, leading to the tying and go-ahead runs being scored in a most severe instance of a teachable moment.

To borrow from National Geographic's Seconds from Disaster, disasters don't just happen. They're triggered by a chain of critical events. Unravel the fatal decisions on those final seconds from disaster.

For our Seconds from Disaster analysis of Saturday's game—which, thanks to the upheld protest by the PSAC, was literally removed from the two school's websites—we begin with the play itself.

With one out and one on (R1) in the bottom of the 2nd inning of the MU-SMU game, with MU leading by one run, SMU batter Tyler Peterson took a 3-2 pitch from MU starter Brett Whiteman, called strike three by the home plate umpire as the runner from first base attempted to steal second. The batter appeared to step in front of the catcher as he threw in an attempt to retire the runner and the plate umpire called the batter out for interference, which results in a double play in accordance with NCAA Rule 6-3-b ("The batter interferes with the catcher’s fielding or throwing by stepping out of the batter's box or making any other movement that hinders the catcher's play at home base...Penalty: If the batter strikes out, the runner is also out").

The following contributed to these Seconds from Disaster. Whether or not the umpires had a reasonable opportunity to control these events—through conscious decision-making as opposed to spur of the moment reaction—is indicated as well.

Event 1) According to the aggrieved coach, the plate umpire purportedly blinked and missed the ball/strike call. Not a controllable decision.

Event 2) After the play, perhaps swayed by the 3B Coach's objection to the calls made, the umpires convened and took the unusual step of reversing not just the interference call, but the strike three call as well: the outcome of the crew consultation was to reverse strike three to ball four and place runners at first and second base with one out, instead of ending the inning. Controllable decision.

Reversing ball/strike calls is prohibited by NCAA Appendix E-1-f: "Judgment calls, which have traditionally not been subject to reversal, include steal and other tag plays (except if the ball is dropped without the umpire’s knowledge, as discussed above); force plays (when the ball is not dropped and foot is not pulled); balls and strikes (other than check swings). This practice shall continue. Also, some calls cannot be reversed without creating larger problems."

Event 3) In explaining their ruling to MU's head coach, the field umpire engaged with the dugout as opposed to sticking to the head coach for assistance in managing the team's conduct. Controllable decision.

Event 4) Inning drags on thanks to wild pitch, sacrifice fly (scores tying run), and double (scores go-ahead run). Not a controllable decision.

Event 5) MU fielder engages in verbal misconduct with the field umpire, resulting in ejection. Controllable decision.

Event 6) Field umpire ejects then looks back at player, then turns to MU dugout. Controllable decision.

Event 7) Field umpire approaches MU dugout, has further interaction with team personnel. Controllable decision.

Event 8) After inning ends, field umpire picks up plate umpire to approach MU dugout. Controllable decision.

Event 9) Umpires interact with SMU coach instead of proceeding to MU dugout. Controllable decision.

Event 10) SMU pitcher wants to warm up... Not a controllable decision.

Event 11) ...umpires move toward MU dugout and again engage with MU personnel. Controllable decision.

Event 10) SMU wins the game (thus protest is entertained). Not a controllable decision.

As one can see, a handful of events—some controllable and handled properly decisions (green), some handled improperly (red), and some uncontrollable events (neutral, yellow)—contributed to the PSAC's decision to uphold MU's protest and rule that the results of the game will not count. If the teams are able to resume play, the resumed game will begin in the top of the third inning with a 2-1 score (MU leading), as if the umpire's original strike three/batter's interference call had prevailed and NCAA Appendix E-1-f had been properly applied.


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