Among the ways the 2020 MLB season is unique within its cohort is the new rules for extra innings. Games that go beyond the ninth inning begin with a runner on second base in each half inning. This, of course, makes it much more likely that a team will score and thus more likely that games won't last as long once they reach extra innings. The structural wrinkle has been tested in the minors, and even though it's in response to the compressed 60-game season it wouldn't be surprising to see it become permanent in the majors at some point.
Such a decision surely won't be popular with all those within and around the game. You can count Cleveland right-hander Mike Clevinger among those discontents. Clevinger started for Cleveland on Saturday against the Royals and, despite allowing back-to-back home runs in the first, wound up twirling seven strong innings. Across the way, Royals prospect Brady Singer was similarly strong in his big league debut, so the game proceeded to extras with the score tied 2-2.
Now for those new rules. In extras, the team batting gets to start the frame with a runner on second base. With a runner in scoring position and no outs and the value of a single run heightened, you can see how this abets small-ball strategy. Indeed, that's how Royals manager Mike Matheny played it:
So that's an automatic runner on second followed by a sac bunt followed by a sac fly. After all that, Nicky Lopez drew a walk and was then cut down trying to steal second base for the final out of the frame. That brings us to this:
Yes, the top of the 10th yielded one run, three outs, and zero official at-bats. That run turned out to be the game-winner, as Cleveland was unable to cash in its runner in the home half and the Royals prevailed 3-2 (box score).
As for Clevinger, he wasn't having it afterward. "This isn't travel ball," he said post-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."
Then later he repeated himself on media sociale and spiced things up for the younger demographic:
"This new extra inning rule is the whackest s*** I've ever seen, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a runner to second off the back end of a bullpen?!!! #ThisIsntTravelBall #MakeThemEarnIt @MLB"
This opinion should have plenty of fellow travelers, as baseball fans as a species tend to be traditionalist to some extent. Contrarians will point out that Cleveland had the same opportunity and was unable to make the most of it. Clevinger, though, is here to talk and converse, which is understandable given the frustrations of the moment.
As for Matheny, who notched his first win as Royals manager in part because of that rule, he was feeling measurably less hidebound about the whole thing. "I love it. I hope we do it tomorrow," Matheny said after the game. "Though actually that's not true. I hope we have a bigger lead. I know I have been a proponent for it, and I know baseball traditionalists are rolling over right now."
We already saw the Angels and A's debut the new rules in their overtime affair on Friday night, and now the Royals have taken it to logical extremes. That won't be the last time we see the rule used in such a way, and just as surely it won't be last time someone gets hackles raised about it.