No-hitters a pressure cooker for umpires

No-hitters a pressure cooker for umpires

No-hitters a pressure cooker for umpires
Brian Runge walked off the diamond and retreated to the clubhouse at Safeco Field. Moments earlier, Runge, the home-plate umpire on that crisp June evening, had finished calling a no-hitter.

He had no idea.

"We get locked in back there," said Ted Barrett, the first-base umpire that night. "Sometimes we know and sometimes we don't."

Runge and Barrett comprise half of a crew that has worked three of this season's five no-hitters, including two perfect games: Philip Humber's on April 21 for the White Sox in Seattle and Matt Cain's for the Giants against the Astros in San Francisco on June 13.

The other was a no-hitter accomplished by six Seattle pitchers in a 1-0 win over the Dodgers at Safeco on June 8.

"[Humber's] perfect game, I was a wreck, but I gave up on this one when Millwood went out," Runge said, referring to Kevin Millwood, the Mariners starter who was forced out of the June 8 game after six innings because of a groin strain.

"I was just umpiring the game, in a zone. I didn't realize it until we got in [the clubhouse] and started talking about it."

For an umpire, that might be a blessing in disguise. The players aren't the only ones who feel pressure during a no-hitter. So do the umpires, especially the one working behind the catcher.

Barrett can recall working the plate for David Cone's perfect game in 1999. His heart beat more rapidly. The pressure to be just as perfect as the hurler seized control of his mind. He started to anticipate what would happen next rather than let it play out on its own.

"I think it's better if you don't know," Barrett said. "It's just one more thing that you're thinking about."

By the time he called balls and strikes for Cain's perfect game, Barrett was a seasoned veteran working his fifth no-hitter. He had also been a part of four League Championship Series and two World Series crews. That eased the burden on his padded shoulders that night in San Francisco.

"I always tell myself to take one pitch at a time and relax a little bit," Barrett said. "If you get tense or do things too quickly, you'll make a mistake. We just try to take a deep breath and slow down. We don't have to hit a 100-mph fastball, we just have to watch it all the way to the catcher's glove and determine if it passed through the strike zone."

Sometimes, a pitcher's early repertoire can tip off an umpire. Other times, the potential history can elude the ump's radar.

"You'll hear the crowd respond with a little more intensity than normal for a groundout in the sixth inning," said Dan Iassogna, who has been on the field for both of Justin Verlander's no-hitters. "Then you look up and say, 'Wait, what's going on here?'"

Iassogna patrolled third base for Verlander's first career no-no on June 12, 2007. Once he recognized what was unfolding, he talked his way through the remaining frames.

"You're so intensely concentrating on what your job is," he said. "I was just thinking, 'Watch for checked swings. Watch for checked swings. Watch for checked swings.'"

The institution of instant replay has provided a safeguard on certain plays in the event that a call is under debate. Still, umpires have enough involvement to leave their prints on a game.

Athletics southpaw Brett Anderson set down the first 13 Indians hitters he faced on Aug. 27. Cleveland center fielder Michael Brantley then rolled a weak grounder to first, where umpire Jerry Meals ruled he beat the throw. TV replays suggested otherwise.

"There were four people at the bag and a cloud of dust," Anderson said. "Too many people, too many bodies, but it would've been interesting to see how it played out had I not given up a hit or a walk after that. But I can't really dwell on that too much now."

Anderson admitted he was a little relieved to surrender a double to Brent Lillibridge an inning later, thus avoiding potential controversy.

"You never like to give up hits," Anderson said, "but it kind of put all that out the window after that."

The infamous Armando Galarraga-Jim Joyce situation materialized with two out in the ninth inning on June 2, 2010. With the Tigers right-hander one out away from spinning a perfect game, Indians infielder Jason Donald hit a grounder that was scooped up by first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera made a routine throw to Galarraga, who was covering first base, but Joyce called Donald safe, a ruling deemed incorrect by ensuing replays.

"Jim's situation was an absolute umpire's nightmare," said Dale Scott, a Major League umpire since 1986. "It's like going to a Hollywood producer and saying, 'On the last play, he misses a play at first and loses the perfect game.' And they go, 'Oh, that couldn't happen.'"

Joyce, an MLB umpire since 1987, labeled it "the biggest call" of his career and admitted he got it wrong. Following the game -- which appears in the annals of baseball as a one-hitter -- Joyce met with Galarraga and apologized.

"I have a lot of respect for Jim Joyce for that call because he didn't just assume," Donald said. "He was still putting his best effort forward. I feel like so many times umpires, on anything that's close, it's going to go in the direction of the guy that's throwing the perfect game or no-hitter.

"That took a lot of guts for him to do that. He believed and felt like I was safe. I think that takes a lot of integrity and a lot of conviction in his ability as an umpire to make that call. He didn't think, 'It was close enough; he might be out, he might be safe. I'm just going to call him out, just so I don't have to deal with any kind of backlash.'"

Therein lies the conundrum that umpires face.

Incorrect calls are bound to happen. Human error is a part of the game. All an umpire can do is trust his instincts and avoid being influenced by the situation.

"I've talked to a lot of people in high-pressure jobs -- emergency-room people, police, people in the military," Barrett said. "I'm not comparing our job to that, because they're life and death. But we are in split-second-decision jobs and it's at those times when you just have to sit back and relax and let your training take over."

It's not an enviable position.

"You're not in a win-win. You're in a lose-lose," Scott said. "You're expected to get plays right. When you get them right, quite frankly, no one really reacts. They don't say, 'This guy had a no-hitter, and what a great call at the end of the game.' We don't want to be the story. But when you miss a call, you're the story. Now it's the 'What if?' You're thrilled when they're over and nothing has happened, and it's now done and you're not part of the story.

"When it's happening, all you can do is stay as focused as possible and be ready for anything and just hope that you get it right. Even if it means that the no-hitter or perfect game is gone because of your call, if you got the call right, that's what you're supposed to do."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.