ST. CHARLES – Most of the time, an umpire’s call is hardly the big deal it’s made out to be. Out at home instead of safe? Strike three instead of ball four? Those things are easily negated elsewhere over the course of a lengthy baseball game.
But sometimes they change everything. And that’s what happened Tuesday afternoon in the first of a three-game set between crosstown rivals St. Charles East and St. Charles North, a 5-3 victory for the Saints. But the final score might have been a lot different if not for the game’s most confusing – and most crucial – play.
East jumped to a 4-0 lead, scoring three times in the first and picking up another run in the third. But North started to get to East starting pitcher Austin Regelbrugge in the fifth inning, with four of the inning’s first five hitters getting hits to account for a pair of runs and cut the lead in half.
With one out and runners at second and third, Regelbrugge exited, yielding to reliever Mick Vyzral. With North designated hitter Joe Kuczek at the plate, things became rather eventful.
Kuczek struck out, but strike three got past East catcher Adam Rojas. The 6-foot-4 Kuczek took off for first base, but instead of instantly throwing down for the out, Rojas faked several times, hoping to keep the runners at their respective bases. When he finally did throw to first, the throw went whizzing by first baseman Ben Smith and rolled all the way to the outfield wall in the right-field corner.
The North Stars baserunners started sprinting home, including Kuczek, who made it all the way in and scored when a throw home went past Rojas.
It appeared the North Stars took a 5-4 lead. They soon learned they did not.
Umpires had ruled that Rojas’ initial throw to first base hit the helmet of Kuczek, who was ruled to be illegally running inside the baseline, preventing the catcher and first baseman from connecting on the throw. Obstruction was called, Kuczek was out, the runs came off the board and the runners returned to their bases. Shortly thereafter, North coach Todd Genke was ejected from the game for arguing.
Genke and North’s frustration stemmed from the delay in the call. Play continued on for some time following the initial throw and supposed act of obstruction, which Rojas said he saw the umpire call when it happened, the reason he wasn’t focused on the eventual throw home. But the call wasn’t made clear enough for everyone to see when it happened, leading to the confusion and, ultimately, Genke’s ejection.
“I’m very upset about how the call was administered,” Genke explained after the game. “If the call was a dead ball, everything should have ceased, the runners should have stopped, play should have stopped. … But when I saw the home-plate umpire waiting at home plate for a potential play at the plate, how is he telling me that it was a dead-ball call?”
“I think the confusion was that they scored three runs on that, on a dropped-third-strike out, as we didn’t do a very good job afterwards as the circus was going on,” East coach Len Asquini said. “But the explanation was real simple: It hit him [as he was running to first], it’s obstruction, he’s out, everything else is dead.”
Both sides agreed on one thing: It was the game’s most important play. Genke said it “completely changed the [complexion] of the outcome,” and Asquini called it “a momentum change for both groups.” North’s fifth-inning rally was brought to a screeching halt. The teams each scored once more the rest of the way, but with the North Stars’ supply of momentum shut off, the game ended up going to East.
Right-hander Frankie Farry took the loss for the North Stars (16-5, 10-3 UEC River).
The Saints (15-8, 11-6 UEC River) can go for a series-clinching win tonight at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark as North seeks to move on from Tuesday’s frustrating series opener.
“One game doesn’t make a series,” Genke said. “We certainly will be ready to come back [tonight] and play very good baseball. And we look forward to it.”