Blaming the umpires is a lazy excuse, especially in the playoffs. As with everything, though, there can be exceptions.
The New York Yankees lost Game 2 of the American League Division Series 7-5 because the Tampa Bay Rays pitched and hit better. Nonetheless, they have a legitimate gripe with the balls and strikes judgement from CB Bucknor behind home plate.
Bucknor essentially extended the strike zone an extra inch or two or three off the outside corner for right-handed hitters. Did a strike call here or there affect the outcome of the game? The answer is likely no. And to be fair, the misses went both ways, although the missed calls were amplified as the Yankees trailed in the late innings and mounted a comeback.
But if Major League Baseball expects the highest performance from its players come playoff time, the umpires need to be held to the same standard.
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Here’s the proof of a few blown calls by Bucknor on Tuesday (thanks to Baseball Savant for the data):
The first inning set the tone, and credit Bucknor for his consistency throughout the game.
► Pitch No. 5, an 81.5-mph changeup, looks like it may have caught the corner, but is borderline at best. Yankees starter Deivi Garcia gets the call to make the count full, although “Ball Four” may have been a blessing in disguise — Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena sent the young right-hander’s next offering over the right-field fence to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.
► Tyler Glasnow has emerged as one of baseball’s top-end starters. And this won’t be the last time Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres is on the wrong end of a Bucknor call. Pitch No. 3, a 98.6-mph fastball, should be a ball. Torres struck out swinging.
► This is where it gets interesting — or frustrating, depending on one’s point of view. Nick Anderson dominated this season, but even he benefited from Bucknor’s large zone.
DJ LeMahieu is one of the best contact hitters in the game because of his zone control. With two men on base, and the Yankees down three runs, this is a high-leverage situation. LeMahieu knows pitch No. 3 is off the plate, so he doesn’t swing. Bucknor doesn’t see it that way, and now there’s two outs in the inning.
► Perhaps Bucknor’s most egregious miss of the night, at least in hindsight. This is way off the plate to make the count 0-2 instead of 1-1, and Voit whiffs on the next pitch for Anderson’s fourth strikeout on his way to retiring all six batters he faced.
The ninth inning
Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks could not find the zone as he tried to close out Game 2. Gio Urshela and Torres drew walks to open the ninth inning. The three-batter-minimum rule, however, left the Rays exposed — until Bucknor helped bail him out.
► (First of all, Torres should have walked one or two pitches earlier. He had to hold a check-swing on the elevated seventh pitch to take his base.)
► Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez is hardly hitting at all right now, but hitters at this point in the game know they have to swing at anything close. Whether he would have laid off the second pitch anyway is unknown, but Bucknor’s calls certainly affected his approach. Sanchez strikes out for the third time in the game.
► LeMahieu’s RBI single made it 7-5, and Aaron Judge grounded out to end the game while representing the go-ahead run. But not before Bucknor could call one final ball (pitch No. 1) a strike.
An ESPN players survey from 2010 rated Bucknor as the worst umpire in the league — ahead of Joe West.
Yankees players would probably agree with that assessment 10 years later, and Yankees fans woke up ready for robot umps.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.