Sportswriters by instinct are armchair or Monday morning quarterbacks – albeit not as critical as the ladies in the ESPN broadcast booth – who regale the listening audience with comment on how they would have made different decisions than the coaches on the field, or, how they performed in certain situations as players.
However, print or broadcast, we all seem agreed that the umpires, up to this point, have taken over the game, especially through their calls of illegal pitches – notably, against two of the game’s top performers, Stephanie Brombacher and Kenzie Fowler. The official record shows only one other IP, against Hawaii relieve Kaia Parnaby.
Brombacher and reliever Ensley Gammel were called for four and two IPs in Florida’s first, losing game. Yet, in the Gators last game, the loss to Georgia, no IPs were called, a surprise which caused SPY to ask if NCAA officials had told the officiating crew to “cool it.” The verbal answer was no – and the effective “no” was rendered in the next Arizona game when the crew was again calling IPs on Fowler.
Illegal pitches do not appear in box scores and summaries, but do appear in play by play summaries – IF the IP caused a player to advance – a game changer as some call it. Eg, a number of IPs were called on Fowler in the win over Hawaii, elevating the ball/strike count, but only three are shown in the play by play, because those calls resulted in player advances.
Do the umpires change the game through IPs? Absolutely. Both Brombacher and Fowler, and their teams, were thrown off stride in their first games – both losses. Not all game changers lead to a loss. Against Washington, Arizona was ahead 2-0 going into the bottom of the 4th; pinch runner Wagner advanced to 2nd on an IP by Fowler, and was thus in scoring position when Williams singled. The Wildcats won 4-3.
But, in the 9-0 loss to Tennessee, the IPs were even more prominent as game changers. The Vols scored four runs on just one hit. Grieve advanced to 3rd on an IP, and scored on another IP. In the same inning, Webb scored on an IP.
Yet, when Arizona won the first game yesterday 8-0, no IPs were called. Only one IP was called against Fowler in the penultimate 5-2 win over Tennessee last night.
In Florida’s loss to UCLA, the officiating crew was Bish, Thomas and Stoodley. The crew in Georgia’s 3-2 win over Florida, in which no IPs were called, was Bartling, Stoodley and Bish. When Tennessee routed Arizona 9-0 on opening day, when eight IPs were called against Fowler, the crew was Bartling, Tidwell and Kumat. In Arizona’s 8-0 win over Tennessee, the crew was Bish, Tidwell and Thomas. In the final 5-2 Arizona win, the crew was Tidwell, Thomas and Bartling. In Arizona’s 4-3 win over Washington, in which a run scored on an IP, the crew was Thomas, Bish and Stoodley. In Hawaii’s 3-2 win over Missouri, in which no IPs were called, the crew was Kumat, Bartling and Tidwell. In Tennessee’s 7-5 win over Georgia, no IPs were called, Tidwell, Kumat and Thomas officiated. Since NCAA does not make public a record which shows which IP was called by which umpire, we find it difficult to detect a pattern here.
We resist the notion that Brombacher and Fowler are the most grievous offenders, and the notion that all other pitchers are performing in exact accordance with the rule. We also reject the equally unpalpable notion that these umpires targeted two pitchers. Yet, we find some attraction to the suggestion that umpires are somehow aware that these pitchers have a “reputation” for drawing illegal pitch calls, and, however sublimely, umpires are “looking” for infractions by Brombacher and Fowler.
We also think the umpires, with or without guidance from NCAA, became aware they were changing games, and, were giving pitchers in later games the “benefit of the doubt” which is what NCAA’s rules committee asked them to do after the Garman debacle.
It must also be noted that Brombacher and Fowler are very talented and determined pitchers, with quite capable coaches, and that both worked on refining their delivery after the shattering experience of the games on opening day.
We think NCAA should meet with a group of coaches to reconsider the rule – with a very important question up front: do the pitchers gain any advantage? Many observers contend they do not – and should not be considered illegal. We agree with coaches here and elsewhere that NCAA, when making rules which change the game, should announce those rules in the fall, with adequate guidance, including videos. We think NCAA should confer with ASA and the national highschool association to reach agreements on pitching procedures which can be eliminated or refined early in a pitcher’s career.
At minimum, NCAA should address the issue of consistency. While some pitchers may strive more consciously to adhere to the rule, especially after being called, the fact is that the rules are not enforced uniformly. Pitchers don’t change that much, yet they will be called ad infinitum by one crew, and not by another.
Illegal pitch calls should become part of the record produced by Automated Scoreboard and similar gametracking devices – and the summary should show how many IP calls were made by individual umpires.
Unfortunately, the umpiring crews missed some other calls: fielders not in contact with home plate or the base when taking throws for force outs; slappers out of the box when making contact; etc. At the Garman, I offered to loan my handheld GPS to the UIC to help his umpires find their strike zones. Could have been useful in OKC.
Bottom line: the questions are pertinent. Do we have the best umpires here? Have the rules been applied uniformly and consistently? The NCAA rules committee is meeting here this week and should consider such questions on rules, as well as composite bats.
NCAA should change the postgame format. Let the coach of the losing team meet with the press, but not the players. Who gains from watching young girls cry? One player, asked about a mistake, told me afterward no one needs to remind a player who makes a mistake; they live with it long after the game is over. I have opposed putting players through this grinder since 2002 when Jennie Finch, who defined stoicism, had to defend losing the title game to California. Congress may demand to know why a certain ship slipped beneath the waves (I wouldn’t tell them) but softball is not life and death. Let the coach take the heat.
There is something of a disconnect between what the “experts” in the ESPN booth think are the critical issues, ie, the issues on which they continuously criticize the coaches, and the view of the print media.
The print media did not bore in on Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly about the double play which killed a rally, when a runner at 2nd apparently missed a call on an infield fly rule and went to 3rd. The coach’s job is to wave off runners, and Weekly could be seen gesticulating with his arms, but the 19-yr old runner apparently didn’t see it.
Nor did the print media zone in on Arizona coach Candrea when he could have sent Lastrapes home from 2nd and forced a run-rule situation on Tennessee earlier in the 8-0 game. The explanation, as we understand it, was that the Wildcats were having a successful series of two-out rallies, and some of the most dependable hitters when runners are in scoring position were still coming up – and they came through. Why did Candrea have Chambers, known for her home runs, lay down a bunt? Stacie had already jacked a massive homer, but she had been inconsistent of late; a bunt was needed and she was the next batter up.
There was more surprise on press row when Florida coach Tim Walton, having just fallen behind Georgia 3-2, had Bruder and Schutte on base with singles to open the top of the 6th, no out, and had his home run leader, Francesca Enea, sacrifice the runners to 2nd and 3rd, where they were stranded. True, Enea had been in something of a slump, but the next two batters had one hit in six at-bats. As it happened, the next five Gators in the game all struck out. The sacrifice made strategic sense; still we would like to have seen Enea take her cuts one last time.
As long as we’re being critical, let’s talk about the food – which the press receives in boxes through the concession stand window. The method is not the matter. The dinner fare last night was pizza. Frankly, they serve better pizza in the Oklahoma County jail.