When fans get to know the name and face of an umpire, it’s probably not because said umpire turned in a good day of work.
Such was the case on Sunday evening in southern California when home plate umpire Perry Costello earned his place as Public Enemy No. 1 for his inconsistent strike zone as the Texas Longhorns fell 4-3 in a close game to the Long Beach State Dirtbags.
Costello’s strike zone varied wildly from half inning to half inning, often favoring the hometown team — Texas struck out 10 times and walked only twice, compared to six strikeouts and four walks for Long Beach State.
This particular call was among the many seemingly egregious mistakes by Costello on the evening and it came at a critical time.
That’s first baseman Kacy Clemens at the plate. The Texas slugger was visibly frustrated during that at-bat after Costello called another strike against him that Clemens believed was out of the zone.
Keep in mind that Clemens has walked 114 times in his college career — he commands the strike zone as well as any Longhorn hitter in recent memory.
Clemens ultimately grounded into a double play on a 1-2 pitch that should have been a 3-0 pitch.
And taking the bat out of the hands of Clemens late in the game was not even the worst mistake by Costello on the evening.
An inning earlier, left fielder Patrick Mathis had nearly squared up the first two pitches after barely missing a home run in his previous at bat. With the Long Beach State pitcher clearly unwilling to throw a ball on the white of the plate, Mathis was rung up by Costello on a pitch that appeared similar to the one in the screenshot above.
Clemens wasn’t the only Texas player to express frustration with Costello during the game, either.
An already-flummoxed Michael Cantu teetered on the edge of a complete breakdown during the game. After he was called out at home when he slid wide to avoid a potential tag from the Long Beach State catcher, Cantu was pulled away from Costello by a teammate as head coach David Pierce took up his argument.
Cantu then continued his struggles behind the plate, even going so far as to blatantly buy a batter’s interference on one steal, a disappointingly bush league attempt for normally-steady defensive catcher.
The junior eventually struck out to end the game.
Such was the impact that Costello had on the Longhorns.
And such was the impact that Costello had on the burnt orange fan base that conspiracy theories quickly spread about the umpire and his mustache that bore a striking resemblance to the facial hair of many Dirtbag players.
Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the first time that Costello drew the ire of fans for his inconsistent strike zone. Years ago, a poster claiming to be a former scout lit into the one-time minor league umpire:
Game 1 was the worst umpired game I've ever seen by a home plate ump! Reference, I was a Major League scout for 7 yrs. and oversea scout for 11 more. The Red team had 4 dead straight center 3rd strikes not called. And the middle relief had to throw 40-60 pitches more due to the strike zone being as big as a tomato can. I'm glad the tv commentators called him out (most of the time they sugarcoat it). Perry Costello was removed from the minor leagues for that reason, inconsistent strike zone. He should be ashamed. Sun Devils did good job at taking so many pitches. If I was them I wouldn't have a swung at a single pitch.
Costello subsequently frustrated Arkansas fans in 2012 by calling yet another lopsided game.
After the game, senior center fielder Zane Gurwitz, a team leader who gamely battled through a hamstring injury all season to hit a key home run in the first game against the Dirtbags, said he wasn’t willing to let his Longhorns career end on Monday:
And therein lies the challenge for the ‘Horns — achieving a level of focus that at times escaped a team that clearly got caught up in the moving strike zone.
The team has been up and down all season, but has appeared to peak at just the right time, using strong starting pitching, good defense, and just enough clutch hitting to pull out two close games against the UCLA and Long Beach State aces to start the tournament.
With the Texas pitching staff in much better shape than a Long Beach State group that has had to work significantly harder to reach the regional final, the ‘Horns have a clear advantage heading into Monday evening, even though the game will be in front of Dirtbag fans.
The bad news is that the strike zone will probably be inconsistent once again. Texas will have to adjust by swinging more often at close two-strike pitches or simply shut out those frustrations mentally.
The reality is that this team is good, just not good enough to consistently overcome the types of mistakes that Cantu made behind the plate all weekend and awful umpires occupying a great deal of real estate in the heads of Texas hitters.
Time to see if this team is made of strong enough material to make a run to Omaha.
So tune in late Monday evening to see if any new Longhorn legends are born. Longhorn Network has you covered when you show up late for work on Tuesday morning.