CHAMPAIGN — In the ninth inning of Friday’s game, the crowd of 1,600 was growing increasingly louder as Illinois pitcher Jake Toohey looked to his catcher for the sign. Michigan freshman Doug Pickens represented the tying run at third. Senior first baseman Kyle Bohm was at the plate with a 2-2 count.
As the crowd clapped in unison and the situation grew tenser by the second, Toohey set and delivered. What ensued will go down as one of the stranger endings of a baseball game in a season that has been anything but normal for the Wolverines.
Bohm thought he had ball three when he checked his swing. Home plate umpire Dave Smith began pointing toward first base for an appeal but then quickly changed his mind and made the call himself. Bohm had swung, and the Wolverines lost another heart breaker, 4-3.
The final play of the game set off an uproar from Michigan players and fans alike. Led by Bohm, the Wolverines walked up the rightfield line into the outfield for their usual postgame meeting. But this time, the players and coaches took out their frustrations of the game and the season on the home plate umpire, screaming and yelling until their faces turned blue.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “It’s been amazing.”
Though it seemed to be the most important, the final call was just one in a series of questionable calls that went against the Wolverines.
To lead off the seventh inning, sophomore Eric Rose seemed to have a walk to first base after being hit by the pitch. But the home plate umpire called strike three, claiming that the ball hit the handle of the bat, rather than Rose, before being caught by the catcher. Rose went ballistic, and Maloney barely showed restraint when discussing the matter with the official. Things seemed to cool off until later in the inning.
Senior Matt Butler hit a weak ground ball up the middle. Knowing he couldn’t force junior Chris Getz out at second, Illinois shortstop Toby Gardenhire made a desperation throw to first base. In a bang-bang play that seemed to favor Butler, umpire Mark Winter called him out to the surprise of almost everyone in the stadium, including Butler, who jumped up and down in disbelief after the play ended.
The usually mild-mannered Maloney sprinted from his spot on the third base side across the diamond to first base so that he could kindly give the umpire his opinion. In an unusual show of raw emotion, Maloney berated the official, who showed restraint by not tossing the third-year coach. If both calls had gone Michigan’s way, the bases would have been loaded with nobody out.
“I just don’t understand why — it seems like everything’s going against us,” Maloney said. “Every call is going against us. It’s just strange. All I can say is that our kids played hard. And we’re inches away, but those inches are miles right now.”