Obscured during the Seahawks’ heist of the news cycle last week were some developments regarding baseball and its never-ending battle for a quicker pace of play.
Among the revisions announced Wednesday by Minor League Baseball is a new rule applying to extra innings games. I find the rule intriguing, though I understand why many baseball fans, as is their nature, already are howling about fixes made to a sport that doesn’t need fixing. In any case, the rule will implemented this season, at a Pacific Coast League ballpark near you.
Here’s how it works: If the game is tied after the ninth inning, the 10th inning — and whatever extra innings that follow — will begin with a man on second base. Should he end up crossing the plate, stats will apply as if the runner reached on a two-base error. He’ll get credit for a scored run, but the pitcher won’t be charged with an earned run. Whew.
The runner will be assigned from the batting-order slot previous to the hitter leading off the inning. Cleanup hitters scheduled as such won’t be denied their chance for an RBI. Once more, with feeling: Whew.
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While old-school fans in the stands might never be keen about beginning an extra inning on the pretense of a two-base error that didn’t occur, games that dawdle into the 14th inning rarely are seen by old-school fans — or anybody else not required to hang around.
Who enjoys the occasional five-hour marathon? The players don’t. The manager and coaches don’t. The umpires don’t. The grounds crew and office staffers and ushers and clubhouse attendants and broadcasters don’t.
But the impetus for the runner-on-second rule isn’t to alleviate inconvenience. It’s to minimize the strain a game with multiple extra innings puts on the athletes.
As Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner explained the other day: “Player safety has been an area of growing concern for our partners at the Major League level. The impact lengthy extra innings games has on a pitching staff, position players and an entire organization was something that needed to be addressed.”
A 14-inning game can wipe out a bullpen for two or three days. The Mariners have the benefit of bringing in temporary reinforcements from Tacoma, a move requiring the Rainiers to supplement their pitching staff with kids from Double-A and sometimes even Single-A.
The conventional determination of a prolonged extra inning game is not worth the hassle, and you can guess where this new rule could be headed. If putting a runner on second is seen as a swift, exciting method of abbreviating all-night games in the minors, its next destination is Major League Baseball.
The end of the world as we know it? To the contrary. In an era distinguished by a historic spike in both home runs and strikeouts, small-ball strategy might regain relevance.
With a runner on second and nobody out in the top of the 10th inning, for instance, managers will be tempted to call for the bunt that sets up a run-scoring sacrifice fly. Seems like an easy decision, except little about baseball is easy.
Take the sacrifice bunt, which has fallen out of favor not just because metrics point to its dubious upside as a tactic, but because most hitters aren’t adept at squaring up in front of the plate with their bat held at a horizontal angle.
And yet, the mere possibility of a bunt will enhance the flavor of extra-inning games, much the way overtime has enhanced the flavor of football games once destined to conclude with a tie score. The NFL introduced overtime in 1974, and 21 years later, the NCAA finally embraced overtime with a different formula.
Neither process is perfect, but as a whole, the sport is better off for rules changes that bordered on radical. Same with college basketball. After North Carolina used a four-corners stall to nurse a small lead during the last seven minutes of its 1982 ACC championship game against Virginia — the Tar Heels won, 47-45 — the conference determined how a shot clock could have transformed seven minutes of inaction into seven minutes of action.
The ACC also drew up a three-point arc, now universal, for the kind of long-distance shots that gave Maryland-Baltimore County a chance for its epic Friday night upset of No. 1 overall tournament seed Virginia.
Sports rule books aren’t etched in stone. They’re flexible texts meant to mesh with the times. Football got it. Basketball got it.
Baseball has been slower to get it, but obvious headaches demand obvious remedies. The march-to-midnight slog that turns into a bullpen endurance contest is an obvious headache.
Runner on second, nobody out, game tied in the top of the 10th? I’m staying to watch, and I’m staying to watch the home team’s counter punch in the bottom of the 10th.
A well-placed sacrifice bunt, preceding a sacrifice fly hit long enough to drive in a runner from third on a close play at the plate, these are a few of my favorite things.