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Razorbacks foiled by floating strike zone



It is hard-boiled fact that Arkansas fans have one of the great inferiority complexes in American sport.

The Hogs win enough to push the athletic program to the brink of great global relevance, and we are emboldened by the feeling that we may overcome our long adolescent distress and finally get a date with the prom queen. Then right when we arrive at the doorstep, giddy as hell, some hoodlum springs out of the dark and shoves us into the holly bushes near the porch.

A man named Perry Costello played this role Friday night, calling balls and strikes in a grossly haphazard manner from the outset. Arkansas's exceptional pitching staff issued a season-high nine walks, two of which were of the bases-loaded variety and helped South Carolina eke out a 3-2 victory that moved the Gamecocks ever closer to a third straight national title (Arizona ultimately spoiled the trifecta bid with an emphatic two-game sweep of the Cocks for the crown).

The Hogs' long, beautiful and improbably good postseason wrapped, with Coach Dave Van Horn paying cursory tribute to each team's effort while pinching his tongue firmly when asked about Costello's performance. The Gamecocks issued only two walks all night despite dancing around, if not completely adrift from, the edges of the plate just as the Hog pitchers did.

The disparity became comically obvious when ESPN would overlay its K-Zone technology on pitch replays. A cutting fastball from Carolina lefty Tyler Webb would settle several inches outside and be called a strike. Hog starter DJ Baxendale, pitching masterfully over the first four innings, would find his on-target pitches being denied by Costello's right arm in the fifth. Baxendale, an exceedingly respected and stoic young man throughout three fine years here, walked off the mound casting hard glares toward Costello. The Hogs' plight only worsened afterward, as relievers Colby Suggs and Barrett Astin simply could not get a bead on Costello's floating zone, and Astin eventually took the hard-luck loss when one more agonizing ball four put the winning tally across in the eighth inning.

In fairness, Arkansas was certainly felled by its own ineptitude with the bats. After opening play in Omaha with an eight-run showing against Kent State that qualified as a downpour of offense, the Hogs scored four runs over three games against the Gamecocks, and truly put themselves in peril by giving a listless performance in Thursday night's clinching opportunity. South Carolina lefty Jordan Montgomery was crafty over eight shutout innings, and when Arkansas dared to mount a threat, baserunning gaffes torpedoed that almost instantly.

The Hogs made their own luck in Houston and Waco, squeezing through every possible breach in the opponent's defenses to get to the College World Series. Errors and hit batsmen, not ringing line drives strung together, carried them past Rice and Baylor. You could certainly argue that the team's petering out was simply overdue.

But why, oh why, does a guy like Costello have to come along and infect the discussion? Can we just win or lose on the merits? Certainly, South Carolina would like to draw a sense of earnest achievement from a big win rather than have to face media questions about the balls and strikes. Trash officiating affects winner and loser alike, to say nothing of what damages it may rend unto the credibility of the sport itself.

Razorback fans such as this one can identify numerous officials by name and associate them with crippling decisions: Larry Leatherwood, Marc Curles, Tom Eades, Penn Wagers, Andre Patillo — the list is extensive and torturous. Costello himself had etched his name on that roll of dishonor only two years ago when his phantom strike zone, as well as a couple of catcher's interference calls, frustrated the Razorbacks' opportunity to reach Omaha out of the Tempe Super Regional. So for this maligned ump, he was just delivering an encore screwing.

Curles' crew was memorably suspended by the SEC in 2009 after it made a slew of awful fourth-quarter calls or no-calls in the Hogs' 23-20 football loss at No. 1 Florida. Instead of that discipline being gratifying, it came off as insulting. Instead of administering token penalties to these buffoons whose integrity and observation withers in the middle of the maelstrom, why not just fire them and never give them the opportunity to spoil it again? It's hardly Costello's fault that he got yet another shot to showcase his own glaring deficiencies in a game of significance again.

Human error is anticipated, but not to be excused. In baseball especially, the hand signals of a single man can have a sweeping effect on the game. If the NCAA demonstrated some level of care and concern here, all that would be left to address is Mike Patrick's childlike obsession with Tanner English's foot speed.

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