CHICAGO (AP) – Ah, an off day in the AL championship series, a chance for the Angels and White Sox to take a little break out West.

But everyone else in baseball was still buzzing – not about a long home run or splendid pitching performance. Instead, all the chatter centered on the confusing call Wednesday night that helped decide Game 2 in Chicago.

Strike three on A.J. Pierzynski in the bottom of the ninth inning has already been replayed over and over. And it’ll be scrutinized, dissected and debated for years to come – especially if the White Sox get past the Angels and reach the World Series for the first time since 1959.

“One of the most bizarre plays I’ve ever been a part of,” said Pierzynski, who caused all the chaos by simply hustling to first base.

So, in a morning-after routine that, in October, becomes as customary as coffee and doughnuts, fans all across the country headed for the water coolers at work Thursday to argue over a wild finish. And this one was a doozy.

“Did you see what happened?”

“Did the ball really bounce?”

“Did the ump call him out?”

Given a second chance when plate umpire Doug Eddings called strike three – but not the third out, ruling third-string catcher Josh Paul had not caught the ball cleanly – the White Sox beat Los Angeles 2-1 on Joe Crede’s two-out double in the ninth to even the best-of-seven ALCS at a game apiece.

On Thursday, the White Sox were watching the play over and over again in their clubhouse before working out at Angel Stadium. Pierzynski, meanwhile, played down his role and tried to steer the attention toward Crede and winning pitcher Mark Buehrle.

“I feel sorry for the ump. I feel sorry for Josh. I feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for Crede. I feel sorry for everybody,” Pierzynski said.

“I feel sorry that it happened. And I feel sorry that it’s turned into such a national story, because there are so many other good things that came out of the game last night that people should be talking about. Instead they’re talking about a weird play that never happens.”

Major League Baseball spent part of the day talking about it, too. The conclusion by vice president of umpiring Mike Port: “Doug Eddings, all things considered, did nothing wrong.”

Moments before Crede’s hit, Paul and his Angels teammates ran off the field, certain they were headed to extra innings.

But hey, things aren’t always what they seem in Chicago -home of the Black Sox scandal, Al Capone and at least one or two shady elections.

What’s one more controversy to the Second City?

In a sequence as strange as any seen on a baseball field, Pierzynski swung at and missed a low pitch from Los Angeles reliever Kelvim Escobar, appearing to end the ninth inning with the score tied at 1.

The ball was gloved by Paul – replays appeared to show he caught it cleanly just before it would have hit the dirt. And behind him, Eddings clearly raised his right arm and closed his fist, signaling strike three.

Still, Pierzynski whirled around and ran to first – just in case. Positive the inning was over, Paul rolled the ball out to the mound with the Angels already coming off the field, so Pierzynski was easily safe.

“He called him out, and that’s what’s disappointing,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who certainly has a justifiable gripe. “When he rings him up with a fist, he’s out.”

Not this time.

Scioscia argued, the umpires conferred – twice – and the call stood after a delay of about five minutes.

And, as if it were destined to end this way, pinch-runner Pablo Ozuna quickly stole second before Crede lined an 0-2 pitch into the left-field corner for a game-winning double.

That left the umpires right where they don’t want to be – in the middle of a postseason dispute. Eddings said all the right things after the game, he just didn’t sound so sure of himself.

“I didn’t have him catching the ball,” said Eddings, a major league ump since 1999 who is working his third postseason assignment.

That said, plate umpires are trained to shout “no catch!” or give an indication that the ball is in play. Eddings was silent.

“There is no regulation or requirement that they say something,” Port said. “Some of them do, but he’s not wrong if he doesn’t use it.”

Port spoke to Eddings in the morning, running over how the umpire signaled his call. Port said he saw no conclusive proof that the third strike was caught on the fly, and allowed how “hypothetically, there may have been” some benefit had the six-man crew huddled up to discuss the dispute.

Maybe instant replay could have helped. Baseball took a look at going high-tech last November, but put aside the topic after general managers split a 15-15 vote on whether to keep exploring the subject.

The NFL, NBA, NHL and now nearly every major college football conference all use some form of replay. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has said he is against it and can veto any proposal by anyone to give it a try.

Even the upsetting loss Wednesday night didn’t change Scioscia’s mind.

“I’m not in favor of replay at all,” he said.

And because it was a judgment call, there was nothing Scioscia could’ve done at the time, either.

“No, it’s not protestable. He’s saying he didn’t call him out,” the manager said.

Game 3 is Friday in Anaheim, with John Lackey scheduled to pitch against Chicago’s Jon Garland. Tired from all their overnight travel lately, the Angels planned to skip the conventional off-day workout Thursday in their own ballpark, choosing instead to let their players rest.

Eddings probably won’t have a quiet time the next time out. He’s scheduled to work the right-field line in Game 3 – with the low-slung wall in Anaheim, he’s sure to hear it from the Angels fans.

In the meantime, baseball has another October argument on its hands – reminiscent of Reggie Jackson not budging in the baseline during the 1978 World Series, Don Denkinger blowing a big call that cost the Cardinals in 85, Kent Hrbek lifting Ron Gant off first base in 91 and 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reaching over the right-field wall in the 1996 ALCS.

And these playoffs, now missing the Yankees, Red Sox, Barry Bonds or any famous “curses,” suddenly offer plenty to talk about.

On Sunday, the Braves and Astros played 18 innings in Houston for the longest postseason game ever, highlighted by 43-year-old Roger Clemens coming out of the bullpen to rescue the Astros.

Now this.

What’s next?

AP-ES-10-13-05 2000EDT


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