HOUSTON -- The Blue Jays no longer hold top spot in the Phil Cuzzi admiration society.
That would be the ever-growing club for teams -- and players -- who wish Cuzzi had taken a FedEx job, worked at Home Depot or pumped gas for a living, rather than becoming an umpire.
In a span of seven hitters, the St. Louis Cardinals lost their composure, their manager and their No. 2 hitter on their way to losing a 2-1 decision to the Houston Astros yesterday.
It was as if the Cards were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their Game 6 World Series meltdown after a missed call by Don Denkinger against the Kansas City Royals in 1985.
Now St. Louis trails Houston 3-1 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, with Game to be played 5 tonight.
For much of the day Cuzzi's strike zone looked like one of those shots of tropical storms on the weather network ... constantly moving. And on one checked swing after another Cuzzi made the call, almost as emphatically as Leslie Neilson, rather than checking with the base ump.
His zone really moved on a 3-0 pitch to Lance Berkman with one out in the seventh, causing manager Tony La Russa to bark at Cuzzi from the third-base dugout. like a scalded dog, Cuzzi turned and gave La Russa the mighty heave-ho. Gonzo.
La Russa then argued for five minutes with Jason Marquis standing on the mound in a 1-1 tie, waiting to face Astros' clean-up hitter, Morgan Ensberg.
Ensberg hit a fly ball to centre and Willy Taveras scored the tie-breaking run.
With two out in the eighth and the tying run on base, Cuzzi called a high pitch a strike to Jim Edmonds. Edmonds started to first, then retreated and confronted Cuzzi. Gonzo.
"I wasn't trying to show him up, I wasn't loud, I was trying to be professional," Edmonds said later in the clubhouse. "All I asked was, 'Where was that pitch? Did you call that pitch a strike?'
"Then Cuzzi said, 'Don't you (expletive) come back here and question me.' "
Obviously Cuzzi, of Nutley, N.J., didn't see the Atlanta Braves-Astros 18-inning game a week ago when Julio Franco tossed his bat and acted like a petulant three-year-old rather than a 47-year-old. Plate ump Gary Cedarstrom didn't eject Franco.
The Jays found their dislike for Cuzzi on September 22, 2003, when he ejected Roy Halladay in a late September start against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for throwing a pitch high and inside. Now they have company.
Neither Cuzzi nor crew chief Tim McClelland, who was like Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz offering pass protection for his quarterback, were talking after the game, since both ejections were on ball/strike calls and it is against the rules to argue whether a pitch is a ball or a strike.
"It was an intense game," St. Louis starter Jeff Suppan said. "I didn't get the feeling we were unravelling."
Still, despite the implosion, the St. Louis Unravellers had a chance to tie against Brad Lidge in the ninth. Albert Pujols singled and went to third on a Larry Walker single with none out. Reggie Sanders bounced to third and Ensberg threw home erasing Pujols.
"Jose Oquendo (third base coach) told me to stay, but I read the ball a slow roller and thought I could make it," Pujols said. "As it turned out, Walker made a great play and it didn't matter."
St. Louis wound up with a runner at third an one out because after Brad Ausmus tagged Pujols, he handed the ball to Lidge, who had his head down. Walker raced to third.
"Craig Biggio was screaming, but with the crowd noise no one could hear him," Walker said.
"It turned out OK, but it could have been a real dumb play too."
John Mabry then hit a roller to second, which Eric Bruntlett turned into an inning-ending double play. The Cards get two hits and don't score in the ninth, while the Astros win with a run in the seventh on zero hits -- two walks and a fielding error by Marquis.
Funny game. Not so funny umpiring.
"Maybe Phil should have asked for help a few times (on checked swings)," Walker said.
"They're human, umpires make mistakes. They didn't lose the game, we did. We should have scored more runs."
Maybe the Jays have lost sole claim to Cuzzi and will have to take solace in Joe Brinkman atop their "all-time fave" list.