- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Baseball doesn't need instant replay. Baseball needs the umpires to get their calls right in the first place.
First, the umps miscalled a 3-2 checked swing in the Texas Rangers-Tampa Bay Rays game Thursday afternoon, extending the at-bat for a game-icing, three-run home run and quick managerial ejection. At least that was a close call, but almost the same thing happened Thursday evening in the New York Yankees' 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins. Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt blew his call on a 1-2 pitch from Carl Pavano to Lance Berkman, turning what should have been a strikeout into a 2-2 count, immediately followed by a run-scoring, go-ahead double and a quick managerial ejection of Ron Gardenhire.
Let me be perfectly clear. That single 1-2 pitch did not cost the Twins the game. The 88 pitches and seven solid innings Andy Pettitte threw in just his fifth start since the All-Star break were far more important. So were the pitches Berkman hit for a double in that disputatious seventh inning and for a home run in the fourth. Even Pavano, who jerked his head in disbelief over the call, would agree. "If I thought about every ball that I thought should have been called a strike, I wouldn't be able to pitch,'' he said. "I don't think it does you or your teammates any justice when you lose your emotions over maybe a missed call or not a missed call.''
And given the way the Twins play against the Yankees -- eight consecutive postseason losses against them despite leading in all eight -- Minnesota would have found a way to lose anyway. The Twins are just the second team in postseason history to lose four consecutive games in which the opponent scored the winning run in the seventh inning or later. They are 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position this series.
The umpires blew a call against the Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 1. And they blew two important ball-strike calls on Thursday. As I write this, they blew a call in the Giants game. They blew several obvious calls last postseason, including the infamous Phil Cuzzi call against the Twins. Is it too much to expect supposedly the best umpires in the business to perform a little better in the postseason? Or to have a little thicker skin when they don't?
Gardenhire went to the mound to talk to Pavano after Berkman's double and stayed there long enough for Wendelstedt to walk out to hurry them along. When Gardenhire finished up, he walked back toward the plate with Wendelstedt, snapping at him. The umpire listened for maybe 10 seconds before ejecting Gardenhire.
It seemed like a quick thumb until you realize these two have been sniping and screaming at each other for so long they should be political analysts on a cable news network or guests on "Around the Horn.'' After Wendelstedt ejected Gardenhire in a game five years ago, the Twins manager told reporters, "What he ought to do is get knocked on his [rear]. And you can print that one, too.'' Wendelstedt has ejected him in at least two other regular-season games since.
Although still very emotional, Gardenhire took the high road after Thursday's game. Asked what he said to Wendelstedt, he replied, "Let's just talk about baseball here, all right.'' When another reporter brought up the manager's history with Wendelstedt, Gardenhire didn't even let him finish the question. "It has nothing to do with it. Hunter and I talked and we kind of straightened all our stuff away. Hunter and I, it has nothing to do with that. We cleared that stuff behind us. We get along just fine, all right.''
Umpires are human and they will make mistakes. The problem is some still act like God when they make mistakes. You would think they would have learned from Jim Joyce's mea culpa after the Armando Galarraga gaffe that a little humility goes a long way. Instead, Wendelstedt didn't bother explaining himself to the media after the game. Crew chief Jerry Crawford, speaking for him, was no more helpful. Here's the exchange he had with the pool reporter:
Reporter: What did Gardenhire say?
Crawford: Balls and strikes. That simple.
Reporter: Was there anything said regarding the history between Hunter and Ron that's been public?
Reporter: Did Hunter say anything about the pitch to Berkman?
Whoah, Jerry. Too much information!
Anyway, the series now heads to New York, with the Twins one defeat from becoming the first team to lose six consecutive postseason series (the Atlanta Braves have a five-series slide of their own right now). They are the second team to lose four straight postseason games in which the opponent scored the game-winner in the seventh inning or later each time (the Red Sox had a four-game streak from the final two games of the 1986 World Series to the first two games of the 1988 ALDS). Minnesota has lost 11 consecutive postseason games overall. Only the Red Sox lost more in a row (13 from 1986 to 1995). The Twins are 2-11 against the Yankees in the postseason since 2003.
"It's like they've got our number,'' right fielder Jason Kubel said. "We keep saying, 'Hopefully we'll turn it around next game.' And hopefully we'll turn it around next game.''
Twins fans hope lefty Brian Duensing can do that Saturday. Yankees fans hope Phil Hughes can clinch it for them. Either way, baseball fans hope the umpires aren't a factor. Or at the very least, they perform better than the Twins have.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.