Allegany Communications Sports
It was all too much for Maryland baseball to overcome for its dream season to continue into the NCAA super regionals – its battered pitching staff, its quaint but tiny home ballpark, a hot UConn offense and a questionable judgment call made by the umpire SEC baseball fans refer to as the Angel Hernandez of college baseball.
For those of you who don’t quite understand, in baseball vernacular, an umpire being referred to as Angel Hernandez to any degree is akin to his being known as the angel of death.
But first things first. True to form, the Terps battled to the end, twice nearly overcoming an early eight-run deficit in Monday’s winner-take-all regional showdown with Connecticut in an attempt to reach their first super regional since 2015.
Maryland (48-14) and head coach Rob Vaughn established nearly every school record this season sailing to the Big Ten championship and its second straight NCAA tournament berth and fifth since 2014, and hosted an NCAA regional for the first time in school history to the delight of their raucous fans, who packed their bandbox ballpark that had to undergo some additions and cosmetics to meet NCAA specs.
Making these changes permanent and further upgrading Shipley Field at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium as well as the complete baseball facility, thus making it easier for Vaughn to be happy to stay in College Park, should be high on Maryland athletic director Damon Evans’ summer to-do list. But that’s another topic for another time.
After a leadoff home run by Luke Shliger put the Terps up 1-0, UConn unleashed and raced to a 9-1 lead after four, but Maryland remained unfazed as it had all season and used its powerful offense to rally, bringing the tie run to the plate in the seventh after Chris Alleyne’s two-run homer made it 10-7.
The Terps had it down to 10-8 in the eighth and were rallying with a runner on third with one out when Alleyne chopped a grounder up the first-base line. The throw from the pitcher in foul territory was wide and a collision ensued at first with Alleyne being called safe with the runner scoring from third to make it 10-9 with still one out.
But home plate umpire Jeff Head (see Angel Hernandez) ran up the line and called Alleyne out for being in the running lane as he slammed into the first baseman, sending the runner who had scored back to third base.
The call was reviewed and upheld and Maryland would get no closer.
College Park, naturally, went absolutely bonkers, and even the ESPN analyst said he had never seen that call made. Yet Orioles fans have, both in the 1969 World Series and the 1996 Divisional Playoffs, but in neither instance was it anywhere near as iffy as this one was.
Matter of fact, Cal Ripken Jr. made a career running to first base well into the infield grass on the inside of the line. Alleyne, while slightly inside the line, ran the entire way in the dirt portion of the field mainly on the line.
As Peter Schmuck, who made a career of covering baseball for the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, tweeted on Monday, “Sad ending for Maryland baseball. Covered Major League Baseball for 40+ years and did not once see that call made if the runner was not on the grass at some point. Call might have been technically correct — might — but shouldn’t have impacted a close postseason game IMO.”
I personally thought the call was rinky-dink, but understood what Head was calling. For those of us who had never heard of Head until Monday night, however, what stood out was the manner in which he made himself the story of the game almost from the beginning, as he pounced from behind the plate to charge Shliger to run rather than to admire his home run.
Head bullied both teams on Monday night, including the UConn pitchers, showing up both teams on several occasions; and he has a history to match this behavior, twice being disciplined by the SEC for “misapplied rules of the game.”
One of the reasons so many people claim they dislike umpires is because of the classic Little Man behavior we saw from Jeff Head on Monday night.
To be certain, Head’s call did not cost Maryland the game or the regional title, yet umpires such as Head who have clear authority and power issues have no place in baseball, particularly not in NCAA regional finals.
As Schmuck, who has pretty much seen it all in baseball for over 40 years, alluded to, it is the insecurity of a handful of umpires such as this guy that is too often the deciding factor of a very important moment.
We have no games without umpires. Yet in the history of baseball, no fan has ever bought a ticket to watch an umpire.
Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT