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’Jackets lose control on phantom homer Umpire’s call hands first place in ACCAL to El Cerrito with one game to play

By Jared GreenDaily Planet Staff
Thursday May 16, 2002

It’s rare that a high school coach blames a loss on the officiating. Coaches usually choose to gloss over blown calls, concentrating on their team’s mistakes that made a difference. But on Wednesday, there was little doubt about what decided the Berkeley-El Cerrito baseball game and perhaps the ACCAL championship. 

“(The umpires) certainly did cost us this game,” Berkeley High head coach Tim Moellering said after his team’s 4-3 loss at San Pablo Park. “The calls they made speak for themselves.” 

Moellering had two crucial calls in mind. In the bottom of the first, Berkeley’s Lee Franklin was caught in a rundown between third base and home plate after a missed squeeze bunt by Clinton Calhoun. Franklin evaded the tag long enough to take a throw in the back, then bump into El Cerrito pitcher Kenny Salyer within the baseline. While everyone expected an interference call on Salyer that would have scored Franklin automatically, the umpires called Franklin out, saying he intentionally blocked the throw that hit him between the numbers even though he never left the baseline. 

The second controversial call that changed the game came in the top of the sixth. With the Gauchos up 3-2, designated hitter Kevin Stewart hit a Sean Souders pitch deep to leftfield. The ball went over Jon Smith’s head and certainly appeared to bounce over the fence for a ground-rule double. But the umpires looked at each other, then signalled a home run for Stewart, bringing Moellering charging onto the field for the second time. 

“As far as I could tell, the only two people out here who didn’t see the ball bounce over the fence happened to be the guys in blue,” Moellering said. 

Smith said the ball landed at least 15 feet in front of the fence before bouncing over. 

Even El Cerrito head coach Brian Nichols, who was farther away from the play than either official, admitted to seeing the ball bounce over the fence, but he certainly wasn’t about to point out the mistake to the umpires. 

“It was a tough call, but from my angle I could see it bounce over,” Nichols said. “But sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don’t.” 

When Moellering’s arguing came to an end, the Gauchos were up 4-2. The phantom round-tripper took on an even greater importance when Berkeley scored a run in the bottom of the inning on one of El Cerrito’s six errors to get within a run. 

The ’Jackets had an excellent shot at tying or winning the game in their final at-bat. Franklin got a second life when El Cerrito catcher Ryan DeLaRosa dropped a foul popup, and took advantage with a double down the rightfield line. Salyer, who was past 100 pitch by then, walked DeAndre Miller on four pitches to put men on first and second, but Calhoun again couldn’t get a sacrifice bunt down and ended up striking out. Matt Toma flew out to shallow center and Benny Goldenberg hit into a fielder’s choice to end the game. 

“That’s the hard part,” Franklin said of the aborted rally. “When we’ve got first and second with no outs, we have to tie or win the game. We just didn’t execute.” 

To make the pain of a one-run loss with the umpires taking away a Berkeley run and handing a run to their opposition even worse, Wednesday’s game was a chance for the ’Jackets (17-6 overall, 10-3 ACCAL) to clinch the league title. Instead, they must now hope third-place Encinal (10-3 ACCAL) can beat the Gauchos (17-6, 10-3) on Friday while Berkeley must beat De Anza, a team that has already beaten the ’Jackets once this season. If El Cerrito wins on Friday, they will be the champions due to a tiebreaker determined before the season began. If Encinal wins and Berkeley loses on Friday, the Jets will take the league title. 

The ’Jackets are in a painfully familiar spot. They had a two-game lead with four to play last season and lost all four along with the league title. This year, they had a two-game lead with three to play, and have lost two in a row to drop into a three-way tie and no longer control their own fate. Although the ’Jackets are almost assured of a North Coast Section playoff spot even without the automatic bid an ACCAL championship would bring, things aren’t resting easy in the Berkeley dugout. 

“We just had to take what the umps gave us today,” Franklin said. “I’ve played three sports this year, and in each sport you get some bad calls. You hate to see it come down to that, but we can’t do anything about it.” 

Moellering said this year’s late-season slide has a better feel to it than last year’s, however, and expects his team to bounce back. 

“We’re playing much better than we were last year at this time,” he said. “We just need to win Friday and we’ll end up tied with somebody at the top.”