Encouraged to work fast by new pace-of-play rules, the Tacoma Rainiers slogged through a baseball game Monday no rules could salvage
Before an Cheney Stadium audience that seemed to include every child in Pierce County enjoying an end-of-school-year field trip, it was the Rainiers who tripped their way to a 14-3 defeat against the Round Rock Express.
During a fourth inning that suggested the best change of all might be a 10-run mercy rule, Tacoma pitchers plunked two batters with the bases loaded and allowed another run to score on a bases-loaded walk.
In the top of the ninth inning, Rainiers manager Pat Listach turned the ball over to infielder Leury Bonilla, who provided Round Rock with some batting practice it didn’t need.
The three runs Bonilla allowed put his season ERA at 9.00, not good but still better than that of starting pitcher Stephen Landazuri, who began the day with an 8.53 ERA and finished it at 10.34.
Not surprisingly, 3 hours and 8 minutes were required to play a game so long that the youngest school kids in attendance returned to their buses as college-bound teenagers.
“Speeding the game up is gonna go with the pace the game goes at,” Listach said afterward. “If the pitcher is throwing strikes, you’ll have a fast game. If the pitchers are walking people and the defense is making errors, you’ll have a longer game.”
Listach added that he has no idea if the pitch-clock rule — implemented this season throughout Double-A and Triple-A — has helped pick up the pace.
But there’s evidence it’s working.
The debacle Monday was the Rainiers’ eighth game of the season timed at three hours or more.
In 2014, Tacoma played its eighth three-hour game on April 16. At the same juncture a year ago — game No. 52 —- the Rainiers had played 23 three-hour games.
Some worried about the new rules robbing baseball of an essential charm as it’s among the few sports that never recognized clocks without hands, but the pitch clocks at Cheney Stadium, installed next to the dugouts, are inconspicuous to fans and all but unnoticed by players.
“Most pitchers work within the time the clock allows,” said Rainiers starter Sam Gaviglio, referring to the 20 seconds a pitcher is allowed to get in the set position of his windup. “I kind of felt baseball is not a game based on a time clock, but I haven’t run into any problems at all.
“From what I’ve noticed, the biggest difference is between innings. If the catcher is out on the bases, he’s got to come back and throw his gear on and the backup catcher has to be brought in from the bullpen for warmup pitches.
“That’s a lot of catching for a day and it puts a team in a little bit of a bind. But that’s something you just have to adjust to.”
While he’s indifferent about the clock, Listach is displeased by the idea of a ball called on a pitch yet to be thrown, or a strike called on a batter with two feet in the box.
Rainiers outfielder James Jones found himself working on an 0-1 count Saturday night when the home-plate umpire ruled he wasn’t looking at the pitcher and, thus, wasn’t ready.
“Strikes called on batters and balls called on pitchers, I don’t think that’s the intent of the pitch clock,” said Listach, who didn’t see the strike called on Jones because he was out of town for a graduation ceremony.
But he heard about it.
“To put a guy in an 0-1 hole before a pitch is thrown — especially if he’s in the box —and they still call a strike on him? I don’t like that,” Listach continued. “This is what he does for a living, what he gets paid to do. To put him in a hole, that’s not the intent.”
Exercising flexibility might be necessary for umpires. A simple “heads-up kid, get ready for the pitch,” is preferable to calling a strike on a pitch that hasn’t been thrown.
Still, in order for any rule to work, it must have some teeth.
(Take basketball. Once NBA officials stopped calling traveling violations on superstars driving the lane for a video-highlight jam, superstars have been free to take as many steps as they want before their video-highlight jam.)
As for baseball’s pitch clock, it’s not only here to stay, it almost certainly will be extended to the major leagues within a year or two.
The mere presence of a clock compels pitchers and batters to refrain from dawdling, and the concept of nine alert players ready to return to their defensive positions between innings is all good.
Still, as Listach pointed out, a pitch clock can’t speed up a game doomed to eternity by ball-four pitches thrown with the bases loaded.
The most reliable way to pick up the pace of play is for pitchers to honor the T-shirt mantra:
Babe Ruth is dead. Throw strikes.