- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- Compared to what happened at U.S. Cellular Theatre earlier in the week, this National League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals is more boring than a PBS special on coat buttons.
We haven't had a confusing third-strike "mechanic," an A.J. Pacino acting job, or a postgame news conference featuring a grim-faced supervisor of umpires. But that doesn't mean Thursday's NLCS get-together was the Game 2 That Controversy Forgot. In its own understated way, the Astros' series-tying 4-1 victory raises the same question that was asked after the bizarre Chicago White Sox win:
Is it time for instant replay in baseball?
The answer is no, and should always be no unless hell freezes over, Bud Selig wears a thong, and artificial turf is installed at Fenway Park. Otherwise, keep the TiVo's where they belong -- in the family den, not in a baseball stadium.
Mixed in like cucumbers in a salad were pivotal umpiring calls that helped shape the Astros' win. Don't get me wrong; Houston starter Roy Oswalt pitched his Mississippi twang off. Then again, he owed the Astros one, especially after nailing Wednesday starter Andy Pettitte in the knee with a batting-practice line drive.
But Oswalt and the Astros received an umpiring gift or two. It wasn't anything like the Christmas present the White Sox got from ump Doug Eddings (memo to Doug: HE CAUGHT THE BALL!), but the close plays made a difference.
Top of the second inning: With one out, Astros left fielder Chris Burke is called safe at third on a "triple," even though TV replays show Mark Grudzielanek's relay throw to Abraham Nunez beat Burke by, oh, the length of a Rawlings bat. Burke scores later on a passed ball, giving Houston a 1-0 lead.
Nunez throws a small fit. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa joins the discussion. But umpire Greg Gibson (the plate umpire who had moved to cover third base on the play) saw what he saw, even though what he saw was wrong.
Bottom of the second inning: Grudzielanek begins the inning by grounding out to Oswalt. Problem is, he actually fouled the ball off his front foot. Home plate umpire Gibson doesn't see the ball carom off his foot, nor does third-base umpire Larry Poncino or first base umpire Wally Bell. But the TV replays show otherwise.
Grudzielanek throws a small fit. La Russa joins the discussion.
"The explanation was [Gibson] didn't see it," La Russa said later.
Was it a game-breaker moment? Probably not. But if Grudzielanek gets on ...
Bottom of the fifth inning: With two outs, Houston up 2-0, and Cardinals on first and second, Jim Edmonds is called out on a third-strike, Gillette-close pitch by Oswalt. End of threat.
"There were some close pitches in there," said Astros manager Phil Garner. "I can't tell where the pitches are [from the dugout], but where [catcher] Brad [Ausmus] catches the ball they're close."
In all, two umpiring mistakes -- or, at the very least, two very questionable calls -- and one very tough strikeout call. Combine that with what happened in Chicago, and you've got an instant debate on instant replay.
This isn't the first time someone has suggested instant replay for the big leagues. In fact, baseball urban legend has it that instant replay was clandestinely in place for the 2004 ALCS between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Fat chance, but the conspiracy theories (remember those reversed home run calls?) persist.
There are a thousand reasons why baseball is worth holding hands with. One of those reasons is the presence of umpires. Their imperfections are what help make the game so, well, perfect. They add a layer of intrigue to the game. They are not only part of the game, they're of the game. You can't say that about an NFL back judge.
Even though he was on the wrong end of several botched umpiring decisions Thursday evening, La Russa would rather eat green flies than endorse instant replay.
"That's not even a close call," he said.
For starters, it would slow a sometimes-ponderous game down to a crawl. (Can you imagine how long it would have taken the replay booth to sort out Wednesday night's mess at the ALCS?). And anyway, he said, the umpires generally do a wonderful job. Seconding the motion is Garner.
"I'd just as soon do what we do,'' Garner said. "I realize there's a certain amount of human element. I can get upset with the umpires as anybody, but on balance, they do a terrific job."
Something will happen in this series -- and the one between the White Sox and Los Angeles Angels -- to test that faith. A strike will be missed. A tag will go unseen. But baseball needs instant replay like it needs another Congressional hearing.
Managers screw up. Ballplayers screw up. And, on occasion, so do umpires -- even when you have a crew of six working a postseason series.
But TiVo is meant to overturn a fumble call or record Rome, not reverse a 6-4-3. Not now. Not ever.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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