When the San Francisco Giants' Gregor Blanco struck out looking on the team's last chance to make some noise during Game 1 of the NLDS, Giants fans directed their ire immediately at home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.
Despite the fact that from Little League forward, hitters are taught to protect the strike zone with two strikes, fans took to Twitter in a barrage of animosity directed towards Cuzzi instead of wondering why Blanco stood with the bat on his shoulders and the tying runs on base.
The at-bat in general was a microcosm of the uphill battle Cuzzi faces every time he has to make a borderline call one way or another.
One half of the fans will be pleased while the other half will immediately ring it up as another missed call by someone who makes a habit of it, and that's a shame.
Taking a closer look at Blanco's entire at bat, Cuzzi did not miss a single pitch.
The borderline strike-three pitch looked low and outside as it landed in the catcher's glove in live action, but strikes are called as they cross home plate, not where they land.
Taking a look at the TBS pitch tracker, the pitch, which had obvious sinking movement, clipped the low outside corner as it crossed through the zone. TBS analyst Ron Darling, one of the most well-respected pitching analysts in the game, pointed out that the pitch was indeed a strike.
However, Darling also correctly pointed out it was a tough at-bat for Blanco, as two other borderline pitches went Broxton's way.
Everyone asks for consistency from umpires. During Blanco's at-bat, three pitches were in the defined strike zone by less than an inch, and each was called a strike. That's impressively precise umpiring.
Instead of vilifying Cuzzi for calling borderline pitches strikes, as he usually does, Giants fans should direct their vitriol at Blanco, who took a passive approach in his at-bat with the game on the line.
In the ninth, the Reds then had a minor bump in the road with Cuzzi too. As with Blacno's at-bat, the TBS pitch tracker sided with Cuzzi again.
TBS play-by-play man Brian Anderson pointed out that Aroldis Chapman was bothered by earlier borderline calls by Cuzzi.
The pitch in question showed up inside by about two inches on the TBS pitch tracker. Chapman made a gesture with his head, rolled his eyes and smiled as he got the ball back from Ryan Hanigan. Probably not the body language a young pitcher should be displaying if he expects to get further calls.
Of course, San Francisco sports reporter Ray Ratto took the opportunity to fan the flames regarding Blanco's at bat.
Baker goes out to tell Chapman, "Phil Cuzzi's strike zone is the size of Uruguay. How could you miss?"
— Ray Ratto (@RattoCSN) October 7, 2012
Cuzzi's strike zone was generous tonight to be certain; it always is. It is up to the players to adjust to that, especially when an umpire is so consistently generous with his zone.
CBS reporter Scott Miller, another California-based reporter also took Cuzzi to task.
So we've got Belt flipping over fence to make catch, Cueto hurt, Phil Cuzzi crazy strike zone ... it is nuts here in SF
— Scott Miller (@ScottMCBS) October 7, 2012
In the 33 games Cuzzi umpired behind the plate this season, pitchers on both sides combined for double-digit strikeouts in 32 of them.
Cuzzi was making his postseason baseball return for the first time since 2009, when a missed call on a potential Joe Mauer double to right provided a big break to the Yankees in Game 2 of that year's American League Division Series.
The scenario was a nightmare perfect storm for a big league umpire. If called properly, Mauer would have been standing on second base with the go-ahead run in the top of the 11th inning. Instead, Mauer was called back to the plate and ultimately reached base on a single.
Jason Kubel followed with a single of his own, but the Twins couldn't push Mauer across with the go-ahead run. The Yankees ended up winning the game 4-3.
Because of the enhanced microscope of the MLB playoffs, Cuzzi's call drew widespread criticism and spurred an increase in the outcry for instant replay in Major League Baseball.
The call also had an ancillary personal effect on the veteran umpire.
Although Cuzzi wasn't available for comment himself, crew chief Tim Tschida did comment on the call.
"There's a guy who's sitting over in the umpire's dressing room right now that feels horrible," said Tschida. "No one feels it worse than the umpire, and whether there's anything that comes further from that, I don't think it serves the purpose."
Four years earlier, Cuzzi also drew criticism for ejecting Jim Edmonds and Tony LaRussa in an important Game 4 during the National League Championship Season. The Cardinals ultimately fell to the Astros 2-1 without their manager and one of their star players to fall behind three games to one.
After the 2009 ALDS, Cuzzi did not umpire during the 2010 or 2011 postseasons.
Despite the high-profile missed calls and what angry reporters and internet commenters would have you believe, Cuzzi is actually a very good baseball umpire.
Umpires are assigned to the postseason on a merit system, and Cuzzi has been awarded frequently in his career. Umpires' positions in the rotation are also determined by their performance, so you can bet that an umpire would not get home plate in Game 1 if he did not grade as one of the best in the game.
This year marks the fourth time Cuzzi was chosen to work a divisional playoff series in addition to the 2005 NLCS.
Cuzzi was also selected to work the 2008 MLB All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.
Being assigned home plate in an opening game of a playoff series is one of the most pressure-packed assignments an umpire can get.
If this was just any game in the middle of the season, nobody would think twice of Cuzzi's performance. However, because of the magnitude of the game and because of Cuzzi's reputation, if he is off by an inch, cries of "same old Phil Cuzzi" will rain down from all angles of the baseball world.
However, when taking emotion and predetermined feelings towards Cuzzi out of the equation, the home plate umpire made the right calls during the pressure situations of the late innings.
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