So you’re still not thrilled about those new rules this year about the free runner on second to open the extra inning or the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? You’re not alone. Cleveland Indians righthander Mike Clevinger is on your side. (And mine.)
You could say Clevinger has solid reason. In the Indians’ second game of the new truncated season, after his rotation mate Shane Beiber came up one short of the Opening Day strikeout record, Clevinger saw his seven-inning Saturday start (ruined only by a pair of Kansas City Royals homers back to back in the first) laid waste by the cookie on second.
He also got to see the Royals’ new manager Mike Matheny roll serious dice and come up boxcars. The Royals got what proved the game-winning run without a single official at-bat on the ledger. We tried to warn you this kind of mischief was possible.
It went like this: Since the free cookie on second is the guy who batted last for the team, Kansas City veteran Alex Gordon opened the top of the tenth on second. Until he didn’t; Matheny sent reserve outfielder Brett Phillips to run for him to open. He ordered Erick Mejia to bunt Phillips to third, before Matt Franco sent Phillips home with a sacrifice fly to break the two-all tie.
After Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez walked, he got thrown out stealing with center fielder Bubba Starling at the plate. Then Greg Holland—the prodigal Royals reliever, far enough removed from the days he anchored their once-feared H-D-H bullpen (Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvim Herrera)—shook off plunking Indians center fielder Bradley Zimmer leading off and struck out the side in the bottom of the tenth.
Clevinger thought it was all about as amusing as a boom box aboard a hearse.
“This isn’t travel ball,” he told reporters after the game. “You know how hard it is to get a runner on second base off the back end of any bullpen, how incredibly hard that is? I’m not happy about it. I’m sure when other teams face the situation and this happens to them, you’re going to get similar reactions.”
Calling the New York Mets. They got burned but good Saturday afternoon. It was bad enough that closer Edwin Diaz followed an excellent save on Opening Day with having the Atlanta Braves down to their final strike—after he fell behind 3-0 on Marcell Ozuna—only to have Ozuna send one over the right field fence to send the game to the tenth tied likewise at two.
Then Mets manager Luis Rojas, knowing the three-batter minimum, sent Hunter Strickland (erstwhile Giant and National) out to pitch the tenth. This was something like naming Mrs. O’Leary’s cow the official mascot of the Chicago Fire Department.
The good news was that, unlike on outings past, Strickland didn’t have long balls to serve, a la carte or otherwise. The bad news was that, since the Braves didn’t exactly have bunts on their minds, Rojas didn’t think to order Strickland to put the inning’s leadoff hitter, Dansby Swanson, aboard—with Adam Duvall, the last Brave to bat in the ninth, as the free cookie on second—to set up a prompt double play.
Instead, Rojas let Strickland pitch to Swanson and the Braves’ shorstop lined a Strickland slider just above the middle floor of the strike zone into center field, sending Duvall home promptly with the tiebreaking run. Johan Comargo, the Braves’ lesser-hitting third baseman, bounced one up the middle that Mets late-insertion second baseman Andres Gimenez couldn’t spear to send Swanson to third.
If Rojas ordered Swanson a free pass to open the inning, Gimenez might instead have speared that bouncer for either a step-and-throw double play or a quick flip to shortstop Amed Rosario to dial Area Code 4-6-3. Leaving the Braves no recourse but a base hit to get Duvall home.
And the inning would have gone 3-2 to the bottom of the tenth, and the Mets’ run would have tied the game. Sending it to the eleventh and . . . oops. Free cookies on second and three-batter relief minimums to open each half inning there, too, if each skipper reached for a fresh bullpen bull.
Stuck now with Strickland having to face a third batter at minimum by current law, Rojas could only watch helplessly when Strickland got the Braves’ late-insertion center fielder Endier Inciarte to bounce one right back to the box but bobbled the ball before having to take the sure out at first. Now it was 4-2, Braves, and Rojas had all the legal room on earth to get Strickland out of there before playing with another match.
Even with Drew Smith up and ready in the Mets’ bullpen, Rojas stuck with Strickland. And Strickland played with another match. William Contreras, the younger brother of Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, smashed a first-pitch slider to the back of right center for an RBI double.
Then Rojas brought in Smith. And Smith promptly got Ronald Acuna, Jr. to look at strike three before Ozzie Albies grounded out to first base for the side but a 5-3 deficit the Mets couldn’t overthrow in the bottom of the tenth. Not even with free cookie Jeff McNeil on second to open and Jake Marisnick (erstwhile Houston Astro) and Pete Alonso singling up the pipe to load the pads for pinch hitter Dominic Smith.
That was last year: Smith returning from the injured list for the Mets’ final regular season game, pinch-hitting with two on in the bottom of the eleventh, and hitting a game-winning three-run homer. This was Saturday afternoon: The best Smith could get this time was a measly sacrifice fly. Not enough. Mets catcher Wilson Ramos grounded to short to force Alonso at second for the game.
It only takes one game to make a manager go from resembling a genius, which Rojas resembled when the Mets beat the Braves on Opening Day, to a nut, which Rojas resembled trusting the top of the tenth—after his closer blew the ninth in the first place—to a once-decent relief pitcher whom the eventual world champion Washington Nationals practically ordered held hostage out of sight after he surrendered three homers in last year’s division series.
But if Braves manager Brian Snitker thinks he’s liking the extra-inning free runner and the three-batter relief minimum now, wait until his Braves get burned likewise by it in a game. He may have something different to say about it then.
I have something to say about it now: if commissioner Rob Manfred is still foolish enough to insist on using the free cookies on second to start the extra innings this season, then he should declare the three-batter-minimum for relief pitchers void for those innings. No questions asked.
At least there was one amusement for both sides before the game ended. Duvall smacked a home run off Mets starter Steven Matz in the top of the second. With Citi Field empty beyond a smattering of cardboard cutouts in the seats, Duvall’s blast sailed into the right field seats . . . where it smacked the cardboard cutout of one of McNeil’s dogs, an Alaskan Malamute puppy named Willow, sitting next to cutouts of outfielder Michael Conforto’s dogs, Griffey and Kali.
Right in the snoot.
If you’ll pardon the expression, the wags said it was the easiest game of fetch Willow played all year so far. The game result, however, had some thinking the poochie took such postgame requests as “Willow Weep for Me.”
The A’s and Angels were the first teams to go into extras and neither team (shockingly) bunted the guy over.
If only Shohei Ohtani hadn’t gotten nailed in that rundown after starting the inning as the free cookie on second. (Note: It looks like the last batter of the ninth becomes the free runner on second to start the tenth, the last batter in the tenth would be the free cookie to start the eleventh, etc. etc. Makes you wonder why nobody can find a bench guy with some speed afoot to pinch-run for the cookie.)