State of the Hogs: Umpires

The Arkansas baseball team is done after losing to Oklahoma State 7-6 Sunday night. The key game in the regional came Saturday night when the Hogs were pounded in the winner's bracket final.

When you are talking about umpires, it means the other team was better. Umpires don't determine games. I believe that.

They do affect games. They force players to make adjustments to their mistakes. In my mind, the best players make those adjustments and they win more because of it. Those who let umpire mistakes get themselves out of rhythm are destined to struggle.

Give Oklahoma State credit for adjusting to the umpires on Saturday night. The Cowboys took advantage of the way the four-man crew called the game. Arkansas didn't and lost big because of it.

I know you are thinking you are about to read about the controversial call the Hogs didn't get when a batted ball hit crew chief Jim Garman early in Saturday night's winner's bracket final. The ball bounced to UA shortstop Tim Smalling and appeared to lead to an inning-ending double play.

Believe it or not, Garman got that one right. Baseball is not like basketball where the refs are in play. You've seen balls bounce off of refs in hoops and the players just scoop them up and go. It's a dead ball in baseball.

And, the umps got it right on Sunday afternoon when Logan Forsythe's fly ball hit the top of the fence in right center and bounced back on the field. The yellow stripe across the top of the fence is in play, despite what some might think.

Danny Hamblin's blast (for a homer) that hit the yellow stripe earlier this season was a missed call. The ump that day thought it hit the yellow, then the green batter's eye beyond the fence before coming back on the field.

No, I want to go back to the ball-strike calls from Saturday night. Home plate umpire Don Novak had a different strike zone than what Jess Todd saw late in the season and in the SEC tournament last week when he struck out 17 South Carolina batters. Novak's strike zone was typical of what happens in the NCAA tournament, especially when national television crews are on the scene with lots of replays. NCAA umps tighten their zone.

Those familiar with NCAA tournament play call it the "TV zone" and that's what Novak had. The umpires don't like to look bad on TV and tighten up their zone. They all do it. They squeeze those liberal strike zones that the college game has been known for since the arrival of aluminum bats.

I don't know if Novak was the man responsible for checking the OSU bats. The Hogs got word that an illegal bat was used for a home run in the Saturday night game and asked the Sunday night home plate ump, Steve Mattingly, to check it in that game. It was thrown out as illegal. Either Novak didn't check the bats Saturday, or the Cowboys added it to the bat rack after the umpires went over them earlier in the series.

Give Bruce Raven credit on Sunday for his zone. The home plate ump in Arkansas' 6-0 victory over Creighton in the first game of the day, Raven was much more consistent to what college baseball has been all season.

However, on Saturday night, Nowak baffled Todd in the first two innings. Novak appeared to call his pitches based on where it hit the catcher's mitt, not where it crossed the front half of the plate as most umps judge. That meant Todd's diving pitches that were caught low by the catcher were all balls and not the strikes he's been throwing.

CSTV announcers handling the game Saturday night noted Novak's small zone and how it played into several situations during OSU's 14-3 victory, the key game in the tournament.

Give OSU hitters credit. They stayed away from those unhittable Todd deliveries and waited for him to bring them up. At best, Novak started his strike zone at the top of the knee cap, not at the bottom where most college and pro umps begin the zone. He didn't give the pitcher the strike on the outside of the plate that college fans see all year.

Maybe we should just give Nowak the benefit of the doubt. He wouldn't be calling a regional game if he wasn't a good umpire. Perhaps he was like the Hogs, just having a bad night.

The Cowboys took advantage of that tight strike zone. The Razorbacks did not. They chased bad balls, especially early in the game. I didn't see too many OSU hitters swing at one-hop pitches like Danny Hamblin did early in the game. Basically, the OSU hitters, the best in this regional, were patient. They seemed to adjust to Novak's tight zone.

There were other factors in the Hogs' lopsided loss to the Cowboys. I call it trying too hard. These Arkansas players play hard anyway. But when the Baum Stadium is packed with nearly 10,000, they sometimes get too emotional and push themselves to a place that isn't productive.

That leads pitchers to over throw. I thought Todd did that. So did Chris Rhoads when he entered the game in the fourth inning. I thought the Razorbacks tried too hard at the plate. They were over anxious. I've seen that before when the fans have come to Baum in big, big numbers the last few years.

That's why I've thought the Hogs have sometimes played better on the road than at home over the last couple of seasons. They are always going to play hard for Dave Van Horn and his coaching staff. They seem to calm down on the road.

Don't read between the lines and think the Hogs would have been better off going on the road in a regional. I don't believe that. For one, they gain a lot in national publicity that comes into play during recruiting when they fill up the stadium for regionals.

All of this is to infer that it's not always as easy as saying they'll host a regional and a super and coast into Omaha for the College World Series. It's not that simple.

So what needs to happen? Continue to get better players. Mark it down that it's not an easy road to Rosenblatt. There are other good programs. There are other good teams.

Van Horn and his coaches are on the right track. They had a great season. They did a lot of things right. Winning 43 games is quite an accomplishment. Winning the SEC West and making the finals of the conference tournament is a major deal, too.

And, in case you wondered, I thought some of the umpires at the regional this weekend stunk.

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