Breaking the Curse de Lance

That late Hall of Fame Umpire Jocko Conlan occasionally told a story about the difficulty of making the right call on the field.

According to the wise tale, his story went something like this:

“The count was one ball and one strike on the batter. The next pitch comes in, appears to shave the corner of the plate, and the umpire shouts ‘Two!’ The batter says, ‘Two, what?’

“The umpire says, ‘Too close to call.'”

It isn’t breaking news when umpires miss calls. It is an exercise in the human element of baseball–for better or worse. Umpires are human and they can’t help it that they are perfectly imperfect.

Most of the time, the erred call is forgotten just as quickly as the game but it is tough to forget the beginning of the “The Curse de Lance.” On Tuesday, June 1 Lance Berkman (then a member of the Houston Astros) checked his swing on a 2-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Nats, but it was called a ball. Berkman got another shot–in a way he hit the Nats right in the heart on the proceeding pitch. He laced a single to left that drove in two runs to give the Astros an 8-7 victory over the Nats. A check swing isn’t an exact science, but video replay clearly revealed that it was a strike.

“For me, a check swing is one of those calls in the game that there’s very little consistency on it,” Manager Jim Riggleman said at the time. “Nobody really knows what it is, what it isn’t. If you check swing, to me, that means the pitcher beat the hitter. You know? If there’s a gray, it should be a strike. There’s a way to take a strike, and it’s not in the form of a check swing. It works that way for both clubs.”

The Astros’ victory–which should have been a loss–was the turning point in their season and for the Nats, it was the end of the season. The Astros are 56-45 since June 1 and they were 17-34 before they were given an early Christmas present, courtesy of Umpire Gary Darling-Claus.

We don’t know what the future would have brought had the check swing been a called third strike but we like to think it would be completely different based off of nothing more than a gut feeling–the same process which was used in determining that Berkman didn’t fully swing. We know what happened when it was called a ball though and it wasn’t pretty.

On June 1, the Nats were in the midst of a 10 game road trip and the victory would have given them a 27-26 record with two games left in Houston. But they lost and then lost the last two games in Houston to fall to 3-7 on the road trip. It was impossible to know at the time but, in retrospect, their season was unofficially over–no thanks to Sir Lance Berkman. Since June 1, the Nats are 38-62.

But there is hope. The curse could have possibly been reversed. The same team that cursed the Nats came to the Nation’s Capital  for a four-game set on Monday and the tides turned on Tuesday when Pudge Rodriguez hit a game-tying two-run homer to spark a seven-run 8th inning to send the Nats to a 8-4 win over the Astros.

The Nats scored seven runs in the 8th, all with two outs–an impressive feat for a team that is batting .235 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Washington’s seven-run 8th inning matched its largest single-inning output in a home game since the Nationals came to town in 2005. The Nationals had another come-from-behind victory last night when Danny Espinosa hit a two run please-please-get-over-the-fence home run to win 4-3 in the seventh. He also broke out of his 5-for-51 slump. A win today and a series victory would officially end the curse.

It might seem counterintuitive to blame Mr. Berkman for the Nats woes–it would seem most logical to blame the Nats themselves–but as long as the Cubs blame Steve Bartman, we will continue to blame Berkman.

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