Triple-round playoffs have all sorts of symptoms, but mostly they're a matter of scale. With so many more playoff games played in the wild-card era, every season and season after season, hardly a game goes by when one Yankee or another isn't setting some sort of record for most post-season hits or runs or full counts. It's all well and good, an act of vengeance on the record books where the present gets to blot out the feats of Octobers past, against leagues with their own historical handicaps.

But one of the other unavoidable symptoms of the simple fact of there being more post-season baseball every October is that you end up raising the odds of more Denkinger moments. Worse yet, there ends up being that much more at stake when Eric Gregg puts too much sugar on his corn flakes. The imperfect necessity of umpiring has long depended on the same basic assumption that Churchill asserted that democracy rests upon—it may well be the worst form of officiating ballgames, but for the alternatives.

That was an easy enough assertion during Churchill's lifetime. Unfortunately for the men in black in the present, mistakes don't just get made, they get catalogued and dissected. Calls for replay, however haphazardly they get dismissed by Bud Selig as a minor dissatisfaction, get better and better support for their arguments every October, because that's when the magnification on the inevitable human errors gets ratcheted up from the irked and perhaps indulgent to the understandably outraged. Perhaps worse still—for umpires, obviously, but perhaps for the game as well—the same comfortable, ready faith in technological perfectability that delivers a dubious certitude about Gamecast and PITCHf/x data informs arguments that the time for technological solutions is now.

If you want to stick up for umpires and the art of umpiring, you have to imbibe all of that. It doesn't make swallowing days like Thursday any easier, though.

The day started with the spectacle of the twinned ejections of Joe Maddon and Ron Gardenhire in their losing causes, which had everything to do with understandable frustration with umpires and umpiring. Where Maddon was livid over no call—even on appeal—in his club's favor on Michael Young's check swing before homering to put away the Rays, Gardenhire was simmering over a strike zone only Jackson Pollock could love. It doesn't matter that many proposals for replay wouldn't have done much, if anything, to address either man's complaint—at a point in time when you don't want umps at the center of any story, there they were, striving and failing, flawed and human. That's supposed to be part of the game's narrative—between the people playing it.

Those initial diamond dramas set up the last, ugliest, most correctable failure, a blown call on Buster Posey's stolen-base attempt, a ruling which set up the Giants' only run. The simple fact that Posey was out, and not by a little, reduced defenders of the men in black to pedantry like noting the job is hard, or obvious observations, like the fact that the tag was screened. After the game, the studio host politely danced away from decisiveness on the subject, but Cal Ripken had the appropriate gravitas to go so far as to suggest that umpire positioning around the keystone could be better.

Which is swell, but on a day when you wind up with the first two manager ejections in the postseason in five years, a day where you wind up with 35,000 people chanting “Replay!” on national television, the issue has done more than insinuate itself into yet another post-season narrative. Instead, it has shouldered its way in among the greatness of Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum, of Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson. In the big picture, it doesn't spoil those feats, not for most. But if you're a Rays fan, or a Twins fan, or a Braves fan, these are not the notes you want to go out on.

To their credit, the players generally directed attention back to the diamond, aside from a Posey smirk or an Orlando Cabrera tirade. It's easy to understand why—we were once again treated to some exceptional pitching performances. Starting with the Rays/Rangers game, Wilson responded to the doubt over whether he could really be this good. Surely the Rays would grind him down, the way an AL East team is supposed to? Instead, Wilson zipped through his game, taking a shutout into the seventh after not letting anyone get further than first base in the front six frames.

Instead, the Rays were the team left wondering about the meaning of reputations and accomplishments. Having placed James Shields in this spot after a season in which he'd done so much to disqualify himself from it, they had to watch him do the things they've come to know and regret. He won't knock Matt Young out of the record books for fielding follies just yet, but he plated the Rangers' first run on a broken pickoff attempt. Location was an issue—hitting Matt Treanor twice?—and the man's a Marxist when it comes to the liberal redistribution of cookies. With the heart of the Rangers order up, two men on, and the only out recorded in the fifth coming on the one Ron Washington ordered made, you can understand why Shields was hooked—but if that's the standard, you need to ask again why he was even starting.

Matters only got worse from there, thanks to another problem with assignment selection—of all the relievers on the team to turn to in this situation, down by two, and with Wilson cruising, they went to Chad Qualls. Admirable bit of retreading or not, is Qualls really the guy you want in this situation? He did have the best rate for generating grounders among the righties in the pen, and the double play was in order, and Young has been known to ground into his share of twin killings… but Qualls?

In some ways, Qualls is a lot like Shields as performance quandaries go, a pitcher whose performance record suggests he ought to be doing better than he has, what with a SIERA 3.5 runs lower than his full-season ERA. It's cute and clever to recoup that value after the Snakes shed him out of despair; it's also too clever by half to put your season in that guy's hands when you have Joaquin Benoit or Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler all hanging around, especially if you lose right there, then you're probably lost. From that trio, only Balfour had pitched the night before—as Qualls had. Even if Qualls was only being asked to face a single batter, it was a risk upon which the season hinged. Blaming the ump for not giving Qualls his check-swing strikeout doesn't mask the stakes being played with a self-selected bad hand.

In contrast, Washington didn't get overly clever or push his luck. After Wilson got Kelly Shoppach out on strikes, inspiring another Tampa tantrum, he hooked his hurler; when situational side-armer Darren O'Day had to face lefty bopper Matt Joyce with two runners in scoring position, he didn't rush in Darren Oliver or call for an intentional walk, he took his chance on a six-run lead and let it ride. Joyce waved through a rising fastball, at which point Oliver then entered the game, returning the Rays to their futile flapping after lefty offerings. Game over, homestand over, and here's your box of Rice-a-Roni, just in case you don't make it back home.

To skip ahead to the other act of sublime mastery on the day in the Giants/Braves series opener, Lincecum's slider set up a dozen swinging third strikes Thursday night, which was enough to help put him in august company as far as big-K Octobers, a notch behind Livan's Gregg-enabled greatness, and tied with Mike Scott. Lincecum didn't do it with pure gun readings, or with a complete buyer-beware sale of his changeup, or with the benefit of a full-game Enrico Palazzo experience. No Brave was reduced to pathetic, empty rage, a la Gary Carter in '86 (or Cabrera just now). Instead, the Freak managed it with movement on his heat and his vicious-breaking slider, providing an easy reminder that dominant dealing comes in multiple flavors. That the Giants plated their one run through an act of judicial activism might obscure the sense that, had Posey not scored, Lincecum looked good enough to still be pitching as I type this, still mowing down whatever Braves Bobby Cox sent up against him. At some point the Giants would have eventually gotten their cuts against Kyle Farnsworth or Christhian Martinez; Cox had already run through all of his good non-Wagners in the pen.

Which left the Yankees/Twins game in the less-sexy sandwich slot, coming up behind an upset up front and a gem at the end, and perhaps predictably, the two teams gave us one more game like so many of their others. Just as he had last year, Carl Pavano spun a pretty nice little ballgame against the Yankees, surrendering just two runs through six. But yet again, Andy Pettitte produced one of those quiet, understated assassinations of some other team's dreams, as politely and professionally as if he were Max von Sydow's hit man from Three Days of the Condor.

Meanwhile, the men armed with much more blunt weapons did unto Pavano as they do to so many starters, deflecting strikes and pounding away until they get their opening, and then cracking the man like an oyster and eating him whole, splashing the scoreboard with a two-spot. Admittedly, they did so while exploiting/exposing an overworn/undertrue October trope: yet again, the “good fundamentals Twins” weren't, but at least this time it didn't involve Delmon Young by himself. In its broadcast, TBS did a nice job of capturing the fact that third baseman Danny Valencia came running in on Curtis Granderson's poorly executed seventh-inning bunt, leaving his bag uncovered. That the Twins got away allowing just the two runs in the seventh wasn't something exploited, at least not by them. The Yankees just kept banging away, adding a third run to their lead in the ninth while throttling the life out of a mostly lifeless offense with another Kerry Wood-to-Mariano handoff. In an evening echoing with calls for machine-like efficiency, the Yankees gave us exactly that.

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its hard to imagine someone can be this good at writing about baseball.
Christina .... if you ever leave BP .... I'll .... I'll ... (sigh)
Bring on RoboUmp.
The strike zone for the Yanks/Twins game was just plain bad. Pavano got tons of calls on outside pitches, and the ump missed several pitches for both guys that were clearly strikes, but called balls. The 2-2 to Berkman has caused a lot of angst, but the ump missed two pitches in that AB (strike one was, what, 6 inches outside?).

I didn't see the Posey SB call, but having witnessed the old Willie Bloomquist-was-out-by-five-feet-but-called-safe thing during the regular season in 2008, I'm not surprised.

It's obvious they need an eye in the sky ump to quickly reverse clearly blown calls. Balls/strikes is harder unless we're confident enough in the tech to simply hand that off to PitchFX.
I almost wish TBS wasn't using the "Pitchtrak"(sp?), as it makes those of us watching at home, question the umpire's consistency. In both Rangers/Rays games, it seemed that both Crawford, and Wolf, were virtually ignoring the bottom third of the strike zone. And, Crawford, in particular, was calling a much wider zone, in game one.
Yeah, there are uses for replay, but for balls & strikes, it doesn't really seem to help, if you have to pause to check the replay, to be sure. The game takes long enough, as it is.
I thought the strike zone was pretty consistent (but off) all night. Pitches off the plate outside were getting called strikes and pitches inside but over the plate were getting called balls. This especially applied to lefties, but after the first 8-10 bad calls, I was fine with the consistency.
They could allow teams to remove umpires before a series like lawyers can remove jurors before trial.
I watched the Posey replays multiple times before concluding that the wrong call had been made. And then, only with the help of slow motion. Would replay have helped? Yes. But the ump had a tough call and the same call would have been made by many others. That doesn't take away from the point, but we are very quick to jump on the umpires for mistakes that we only catch because we get to see the play dozens of times again, and in slow motion.
You're right, there's no point in criticizing the umps for being fallible. Calling for replay isn't jumping on the umps, though. It's really just giving the umps another tool to help them do their jobs better. Everyone knows they have a tough job on calls like the Posey play, and if there weren't quick, painless alternatives available most people would just accept that umps are human and will occasionally make mistakes. But putting an umpire in a booth with a set of monitors and DVRs is a quick, painless alternative that would have ensured that the Golson and Posey calls would have been swiftly and easily corrected. For the life of me, I'll never understand why anyone would be against that.
It seems like Major League umpires are a nacissitic bunch. Obviously that is a blanket statement, but because there are so few of them, umpires tend to believe that they are the best, and no one has the right question their judgement. In essence, umpires think they are infallible, and to have instant replay on any questionalbe call would damage their reputation.

Hopefully, sometime in the near future, the calls for instant replay will be loud enough for the commissioner and owners to ignore the feelings of the umpires. At that point, we will know that getting the call correct is more important than protecting umpires.

Furthermore, A replay system would, to an extent, quantify how accurate umpires are when they aren't behind the plate. That could be very important in determining whether some of the men in black should be in the major leagues, or at my nephew's little league game.
I think the easy assumption to make is that Posey was called safe because McCann's throw wasn't 'on target'. It was well to the right of the bag, so it was easy to lean towards calling Posey safe. Catchers can't usually miss their targets that badly and still make an out.

And just to avoid the impression that everyone agrees that it was a 'too close to see in real time' call, he looked out to me in real time.
The call for Qualls came in order to try and get the double play. The righties in the Rays pen are not THAT much different in terms of chances of generating outs. Going with the guy that might get you two outs? That's not a bad call.

If Qualls gets the check-swing call, 1/3 of this article disappears.
I think the point was that Qualls is not pitching well, groundballer or not, so why is his name even on the short list in that situation? It's not like moving over to Tampa Bay miraculously revived his season. Guy had a 7+ ERA in September.

I'm exaggerating (slightly?), but it's like trying to say that bringing in Ollie Perez would be defensible if it was for a lefty lefty matchup. The more germane consideration for a manager would be that OP isn't any good.
I don't know about the equal chances of getting outs, as Joaquin Benoit led the league in whip (0.68), and Grant Balfour was very solid at 1.08, while Qualls was at 1.43.

Over September/October, Benoit was at 0.67, Benoit at 1.08, and Qualls at 1.55.

BABIP - Benoit .201, Balfour .286, Qualls .332

LOB% - Benoit 95.1, Balfour 78.9, Qualls 56.7

HR/FB% - Balfour 4.1%, Qualls 9.1%, Benoit 9.4%

FB% - Qualls 31.9%, Benoit 48.9%, Balfour 49.7%

K/9 - Benoit 11.19, Balfour 9.11, Qualls 7.47

IFFB% - Benoit 17.2%, Balfour 9.6%, Qualls 1.8%

Still, even if you get a pop up or strikeout, you still need another out and in GB%, Qualls dominates at 55.1, with Benoit's 38.9 and Balfour's 30.6 far back (all FanGraphs data), so the odds were not as high for a fly ball home run as they were for Benoit, at least.
Once O'Day was brought into the game, he had to face 1 batter -- Washington couldn't have brought Oliver in to face Joyce once Joyce was announced as the PH, because O'Day hadn't faced a batter yet.
Obviously. But I like that Wash didn't freak out and call for an intentional walk, or pull O'Day mid-count. With a six-run lead, he let it ride; that O'Day responded by striking out Joyce just made it look all the better.
The Posey call in real-time was bang-bang, but the best position for the ump to be in on that throw and that tag was in the line of fire from the catcher. Since he couldn't be standing there, one can imagine how it'd look safe from a suboptimal angle.

But -- the Braves pitching was also phenomenal in Game 1. They didn't generate as many Ks as Lincecum, but in the important stat, runs allowed, they were one bad call away from shutting out the Giants as well. They played the matchup game and won, mixing and matching to keep it a 1-0 game, and Cox did it without using Wagner by using his two future closer candidates, Venters and Kimbrel.

It was a phenomenal game won by a phenomenal pitcher, there's no doubting that. I yelled at the TV PLENTY of times for Braves to not swing at the impending slider that died in midair like a shot duck. They didn't listen. Let's see how they rebound tonight.
I'm a Braves fan, admittedly, but I thought Posey was out as soon as I saw the play. I didn't get all that upset because the Braves second baseman didn't argue but, in retrospect, I don't think it was that difficult a call. That's what bothers me about the umpires; it's unreasonable to expect a man to correctly call pitches every time when the difference is often so small. And, some calls on the bases are so close that you can't reasonably complain. But when they miss obvious calls on the bases, it's pretty frustrating. I'm not blaming the loss on the blown call because Omar Infante should have had the following ground ball that plated the run, but umpires shouldn't be playing this big a role. If baseball expects fans to invest their emotions in the games, they need to try to get the calls right.
If Brooks Conrad had kept the tag on Buster Posey, instead of swept his glove upward, he might have gotten the call, as Buster elevated off the base on his awkward slide. I'm surprised he didn't hurt himself the way he banged over the base.
I think you could write a stand alone piece just on Joe Maddon's decisionmaking. Qualls is a big piece, but what in the world is Desmond Jennings doing starting in a must win playoff game? Sure, the benefits of playoff experience might be overrated, but what about ANY experience?
I don't think you can blame Maddon alone for the Rays' failure to do something about their DH slot. Start off by punting Burrell, only to flit from one bad idea to another: Aybar to Blalock to Aybar to Johnson to Aybar to Hawpe to Aybar to Baldelli to Aybar too... omigods, 62 DH starts for Willy Aybar?

It makes me wonder if a good chunk of the "year of the pitcher" might have no more to do with great pitching or tenuous arguments about the mass importation of great fielders from planet Mizuno than it does with some decisively stupid selections for starters at DH and left field. Of course, as long as there are people arguing that Nyjer Morgan is a 10-win player, it isn't like the sabermetrics community is any more innocent of this, relative to the operators on the inside.
That's pretty low and not befitting of a BP writer.
One of my objections to most criticisms of managerial decisions is that they are so uncompromising. With rare exceptions, a manager's decisions are a choice among several reasonable options, not right or wrong. For example, there are many reasons Maddon might have selected Qualls in that situation rather than someone else. Analysis should establish the variety of possibilities and the pros and cons of each, and even then ought to be modest enough to recognize there might yet be other factors the analyst is not privy to.

The same goes for his decision to start and then pull Shields or to start Jennings. Each is easily defensible, and while it is fine to speculate about why another decision might have had benefits, it is foolish to assert that the manager's choice was simply wrong.
In general I would agree - I think back to Lou Piniella's decision to pull Carlos Zambrano after 6 innings in the playoffs a few years ago, for which he was crucified but which I think was not only defensible, but was the right decision - but sometimes managers overthink. All one needs to know is that James Shields and Chad Qualls both sucked this year. That tells you that Shields shouldn't have started a playoff game with his team down 1 game to 0, and Qualls shouldn't have been brought in at a critical point in the game, when better alternatives were available.
no mention of pitching to Ross with two outs, lincecum on deck? but infante sure did the olé with that grounder.
Yeah, that's immediately what I said when watching the replay. I still have no idea what he thought the ball was going to do, the bounce seemed pretty normal.