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Imperfect ending

Third perfect game? Joyce’s botched call in ninth denies Tigers’ Galarraga

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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Hard to tell whether Armando Galarraga will ever pass this way again. But if he does, he sure hopes umpire Jim Joyce isn’t in his path.

Imagine losing a perfect game on a botched call at first base. Welcome to Galarraga’s world.

The Tigers’ No. 5 starter, who spent the early part of the season at Triple A Toledo, had a perfect game with two outs in the ninth last night against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park in Detroit. There had already been two perfect games this season — by the A’s’ Dallas Braden and the Phillies’ Roy Halladay. Ubaldo Jimenez also pitched a no-hitter for the Rockies against the Braves April 17.

A third perfect game in the same season? Galarraga should have had it.

Jason Donald came to the plate and Galarraga induced a ground ball on which first baseman Miguel Cabrera made a nice backhanded stop. His feed to Galarraga was perfect. Replays showed Galarraga caught the ball, stepped on the bag, then Donald crossed it. But Joyce, a veteran who is considered one of the better umpires in baseball, didn’t see it that way. Cabrera was pumping his fist in celebration. The Tigers’ bench was ready to empty. Well, it did, for the players to give Joyce a piece of their mind. As did manager Jim Leyland.

One replay showed Donald putting his hand over his helmet, appearing disappointed he was safe. Joyce’s crew also umpired Braden’s perfect game.

“I feel sad,’’ Galarraga said. “I just watched the replay 20 times and there’s no way you can call him safe. I wish I could talk to the guy that took a perfect game from me.’’

According to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Joyce apologized to the Tigers after the game.

It was a dark moment for umpiring, and one that will spark debate for instant replay on close calls at bases. Now, only border calls on home runs can be replayed. It cost Galarraga a defining moment.

Galarraga, 28, had been saved by a spectacular catch by center fielder Austin Jackson, who robbed Mark Grudzielanek of extra bases to lead off the ninth. After Indians catcher Mike Redmond grounded out, Donald came up. The 17,738 on hand were on their feet applauding. After the call, there was almost stunned silence. Galarraga remained composed and retired Trevor Crowe to preserve the one-hitter in a 3-0 victory.

Umpires have been under fire since last season’s playoffs, when several calls were botched. This year hasn’t been any smoother, with Joe West making headlines first for ripping the pace of Red Sox-Yankees games, then for calling two balks on White Sox starter Mark Buehrle and getting fined by the league. It’s harder to be an umpire now, with every performance under a microscope and with every game evaluated. Major League Baseball fired some umpire supervisors after last postseason, but that hasn’t cleaned things up.

Galarraga struck out three and threw just 88 pitches in by far his best performance since being recalled from Toledo May 16. He had pitched so poorly in spring training that even Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson beat him out for spots in the starting rotation. Willis was designated for assignment last Saturday, and traded Tuesday to Arizona for reliever Billy Buckner.

Galarraga, who went 13-7 in 2008, went to a three-ball count only once last night — on Travis Hafner leading off the fifth inning. Hafner fouled a ball to left field to bring it to a full count, before he was retired.

Cabrera, who made what should have been the final play, homered off Fausto Carmona in the second, and the Tigers added two more runs in the eighth.

It would have been the Tigers’ first perfect game. The franchise has six no-hitters, the most recent thrown by Justin Verlander June 12, 2007.

So much for that.

“I think what should be focused on was the act that Jim Joyce made afterward, and that being the utmost respect that you can ever give,’’ said Braden. “He improved the integrity of the game by doing what he did in my opinion.’’

What’s odd about Joyce’s call is that on a close play like that, don’t you just call him out? If there’s any question, don’t you just err on the side of, “I made the wrong call but the guy got his perfect game’’?

Joyce apparently was certain that he had made the right call. But after watching replays, he knew he had made a mistake.

“I just cost that kid a perfect game,’’ Joyce said. “I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.’’

Galarraga later shrugged it by saying, appropriately, “Nobody’s perfect.’’

You feel bad for Joyce in that it will be the play he will be remembered for. That’s tough after a long career to be known as the guy who cost an unlikely guy like Galarraga a perfect game. Braden is also an unlikely guy, yet he got his with Joyce’s crew.

There will be a lot of cries to use instant replay on close calls like this with so much on the line. It’ll be hard to vote against that one after this fiasco.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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