As a New York Met fan, I’m a proponent of National League baseball. I enjoy the situational scenarios, the increased strategy, and of course, baseball without the Designated Hitter. The adherence to baseball traditions is probably why I’m so skeptical about all these new ‘speed-up-the-game’ solutions currently under review in baseball.
Last Saturday, I got my first taste of the new minor league baseball rule that places a runner on second base to start every half inning should a game stretch into extra innings. I’m a season ticket holder for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, but had not been treated to an extra inning affair in any of the games I had attended over the course of the 2018 season.
It’s not surprising that I was openly skeptical about a runner placed at second base to begin the extra innings. “This isn’t baseball,” I found myself muttering to the guy sitting in the seat alongside mine. He agreed.
But, something crazy happened in those extra innings as the Rumble Ponies and the Portland Sea Dogs battled to break the 5-5 tie. For starters, every at-bat, every pitch was instantly magnified and critical. Placing a runner at second base to begin an added frame of a baseball game seemed to emphasize some of the small ball aspects of baseball that I love, something that seems to be dying a slow death the way the game is played today.
Instantaneously, an out was no longer just an out in this revamped extra-inning scenario. The value of the bunt or the ability to hit behind a runner and advance him to third base was so much more important now. There was more electricity, more energy, more excitement in those two extra-innings than in the previous nine logged during regulation play. We saw two bunts, one not handled cleanly, that put Rumble Pony runners on first and third in the bottom of the tenth with no men out. An infield ground ball that failed to score the winning run, then a second infield grounder with the runner thrown out at the plate, only added to the tension and the drama.
Portland executed a sacrifice bunt perfectly to advance the free runner to third base at the start of the 11th inning. A ground ball to the pitcher Matt Pobereyko kept the leading run stranded at first base giving the Ponies the second out of the inning. But when Portland’s Danny Mars lofted a soft bloop that dropped to the ground between shortstop and left field, Portland took the 6-5 lead and it looked as if Pobereyko might become the losing pitcher without allowing an earned run. Free runners who score are not charged as a earned run to the pitcher.
“That’s okay, we still get our at bat,” my wise neighbor informed when Portland went down without adding another run. Will Toffey, the last batter in the bottom of the tenth inning, was placed at second to start the 11th for Binghamton. Patrick Mazeika, a left-handed batter, proved one out can be more productive than another when he hit a sharp ground ball to second base into the shift to advance Toffey to third base in the first at-bat of the inning. A sizzling hot Jhoan Urena then ignited the local faithful by lining a hit to the right of the first baseman and into right field plating Toffey with the tying run. It was Urena’s fifth hit of the game, a gift to himself on his birthday. Urena slammed three home runs, two of the grand slam variety, and set a club record with nine RBI’s in a game played in Hartford earlier in the week. That’s quite a birthday week for the young Rumble Pony outfielder.
The Ponies weren’t satisfied simply tying the game. They intended to win it. Andres Gimenez was hit by a pitch putting Urena, the winning run at second base with one out. The tension only mounted when Gene Cole skied out to left field. That brought the number nine hitter, Oliver Pascual to the plate. The night turned memorable for Pascual, playing in just his fifth game for Binghamton, when the second baseman drove a game winning double to right-center field. It was a nice win for the home team.
Admittedly, all that extra-inning excitement hasn’t totally convinced me this experimental rule is good for baseball. But, I can’t deny the sustainable drama placing a runner at second base to start the extra frame created. And, it was heartening to see the importance of the bunt or the value of putting the ball in play – rather than simply swinging for the fences.
As a guy who one time pitched, I once guffawed when the minor leagues installed a pitch clock a few years back. I now scoff to hear the naysayers refer to that clock as debasing the integrity of baseball. It’s a great rule that only adds value to a great game, speeding up play, eliminating dead time and keeping defenses more crisp, sharp and focused. Change isn’t always bad.