The home plate umpire in Thursday night’s Central-Smiths Station thriller, in which the Panthers won 3-2 in extra innings to keep their postseason dreams alive, made a critical judgment call.
On a play at the plate, he ruled that Central’s Dakota Pittman, who was coming home for the game-winning run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, had maliciously contacted Smiths Station catcher Cody Harrison. Instead of scoring the winning run, Pittman was called out and ejected from the game.
Over the course of a few hours Thursday night and Friday morning, I looked at pictures of the play, watched and re-watched live video of the play, looked up rules, talked to neutral coaches and umpires, and I have reached my own judgment call. The umpire was wrong.
The point of contact between the runner and the catcher was made five or six feet up the baseline from the plate prior to the catcher possessing the baseball, too far for Pittman to slide into the catcher — which, of course, would have presented its own set of dangers.
In this situation, if the fielder does not possess the ball or is not making a play on the ball, then the runner has a right to the base path or defensive obstruction may be called.
Here’s where the umpire’s judgment comes into play.
If the contact by the base runner is deemed to be malicious in nature, that supersedes defensive obstruction. It is a point of emphasis among officials as high as the professional level in an effort to protect catchers in high-impact situations.
But this play wasn’t malicious. According to the National Federation of High Schools interpretation of the rule, contact is considered to be malicious if it is the result of intentional excessive force or if the contact occurs close to the bag or home plate above the waist of the receiving player.
Videos and pictures of the play show Pittman attempting to sidestep Harrison, who is blocking the baseline. And while contact is made above the waist, it appears to be too far up the line to be considered “close to home plate.”
I described the play to Donald Brown, the director of Columbus baseball officials, over the phone on Friday, and he was of the same mind.
“I hope it wasn’t one of my guys,” he said after hearing the description of the play. After being told it wasn’t, he added: “I don’t think we would have called it that way.”
None of this is to say Smiths Station did anything wrong.
With playoff hopes on the line and the game-winning run about to cross the plate, Harrison made the play a catcher is supposed to make. He prevented that run from crossing the plate cleanly and, as a result, gave his team the chance it needed in extra innings.
Even Central coach Roy Dixon commended Harrison on the play after Thursday’s game. It’s the play coaches expect their players to make in that situation.
Smiths Station played a heck of a baseball game and followed it up with another great win on Friday to clinch a playoff berth thanks to Opelika losing twice to Auburn.
It’s unfortunate, though, that the call was made in such a high-stakes situation with playoff berths on the line.
David Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ledgerenquirersports.