Hernandez Strikes Down Atlanta Taking Advantage Of A Giant Strike Zone, He Fanned 15 Braves To Give Florida A Three-games-to-two Lead.

Posted: October 13, 1997

MIAMI — If Florida Marlins righthander Livan Hernandez was the most popular man in South Florida yesterday, umpire Eric Gregg was a close second.

Benefiting from Gregg's liberal strike zone, the 22-year-old Cuban defector pitched the game of his life in shackling the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, in Game 5 of the National League championship series at roaring Pro Player Stadium.

Hernandez, who outpitched four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux, went the distance on three hits and struck out an NLCS-record 15 to move the Marlins within one win of the World Series. They lead this series, three games to two, as it heads back to Atlanta for a must-see Game 6 tomorrow night.

Hernandez was actually supposed to work out of the bullpen in this series. He was forced into the rotation when Alex Fernandez suffered a torn rotator cuff in Game 2. With Fernandez out, Hernandez was assigned the Game 6 start. He moved up a game when Marlins ace Kevin Brown was slow recovering from the flu.

After the game, Hernandez was swarmed by teammates on the mound. Before ducking into the dugout, he stopped at the top step to salute the delirious crowd of 51,982, many of whom share his Latino heritage.

But there was one guy Hernandez forgot to tip his hat to - Gregg.

The big umpire from West Philadelphia had a strike zone so wide he could have slept in it. It left many Braves privately infuriated, and at least one publicly steamed.

``I'm so damn mad I can't even see right now,'' Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. ``I know I swung at a couple of pitches that were a foot outside. I asked Eric if they were strikes, and he said yes. I couldn't help but chuckle.

``Some people work all their lives to get into [a postseason] situation. It's frustrating when you're not allowed to do your job.''

A couple of Gregg's called third strikes really stood out. In the top of the first, the Braves had men on the corners and no outs. Hernandez fought back with three strikeouts.

The final K of the inning was a called third strike on Ryan Klesko. Replays showed the pitch to be six inches off the 17-inch-wide plate.

Perhaps fittingly, the day ended with Gregg ringing up Fred McGriff on a pitch that appeared to be eight inches off the plate.

McGriff shook his head in disgust as Gregg whipped off his mask and headed for the umpires' dressing room.

``It was a little big,'' the mild-mannered McGriff said of Gregg's strike zone. ``You couldn't even hit some of those pitches.''

The irony in all this, of course, is that no staff in baseball gets wide strike zones more often than the Braves. It's a reputation thing. And Gregg did appear to use the same wide zone for both teams.

A perturbed manager Bobby Cox did his best to bite his tongue about Gregg's work.

``It's tough for me to see from my angle, but our guys were coming back to the dugout saying the pitches were so far outside they couldn't swing at them,'' Cox said. ``We had first and third in the first inning, but it was almost like we had no chance. Some of those pitches were 6, 10, 12 inches outside.''

Cox was frustrated that a power hitter like McGriff was rung up on such a questionable pitch in the ninth inning of a one-run game.

``It was that much outside,'' Cox said, holding his hands shoulder width apart.

``The kid [Hernandez] did a good job. He knew what the umpire was calling and kept his ball right there. If you're going to get a pitch 15 inches outside, . . . keep doing it.''

With nearly all of the baseball people in the stadium rolling their eyes at Gregg's performance, the veteran umpire was given a chance to stand up for himself in a terse and sometimes comical postgame news conference.

``My strike zone has been the same for 25 years. I don't have any problem with it. Next question,'' Gregg said.

Gregg, one of the most pleasant and well-liked men in baseball, said he was surprised and disappointed that so many people questioned his work. He finished every brief answer with ``Next question,'' and ended the conference by saying, ``It's been fun being here.''

Balls and strikes weren't the only calls on which the Braves questioned Gregg.

In the bottom of the first, Marlins leadoff man Devon White clearly leaned his front leg into a Maddux pitch. White stole second and scored on Bobby Bonilla's single.

As soon as the ball plunked White, Maddux protested. The pitcher asked Gregg to consult the third-base umpire, who had a clear view, but Gregg refused to do so.

``That run in the first inning . . . come on,'' Maddux said sarcastically. ``I just thought [White] made more of an effort to lean into the pitch than get out of the way of it.''

The Marlins' second and decisive run was also speckled with question marks. With the score tied, 1-1, Bonilla lined a 1-2 Maddux pitch to right. Michael Tucker made a snow-cone grab, but the ball jarred loose when he hit the wall.

A delay followed as Tucker looked for a contact lens that was knocked loose. The stoppage might have hurt Maddux. When play resumed, Jeff Conine lashed a first-pitch single up the middle to score the run.

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