Category Archives: rules

game 1 Opening Night

Major League baseball, ever on the prowl for more income, has now sliced Opening Day into so many slivers it’s unrecognizable. The first day of baseball season was always a peak moment of spring for me, but with MLB trying to rub its little head over and over, they’ve ground it down into nothing.

The baseball season began with two games just about no one saw, with Seattle and Oakland playing in Japan. I am told they split the series, but as far as most fans are concerned, these games were conducted as Playstation simulations.

Tonight, we have the season’s first night game in North America. Yes, all those adjectives are necessary to distinguish it from tomorrow’s wave, in which day baseball begins, and with multiple teams taking the field. Tonight, MLB guaranteed the Marlins a sellout in their new ballpark by scheduling it as a standalone game.

Even when MLB lets multiple teams out of the gate tomorrow, they still dole them out grudgingly, painstakingly focusing our attention on seven games. We don’t have a full slate until Saturday. Remind me: what constitutes the first pitch of the season in all this throat clearing?

The old rules were gloriously simple: the Cincinnati Reds, ever honored as the oldest team in baseball, got to throw out the first pitch at 1:05 pm in their home field, followed in a thrilling fusillade when all the other teams launched themselves throughout the afternoon and deep into the evening.

It was too much baseball, sure, but only a ritual soaking in the game could set me up for the monumental march through a 162-game season. And after six months wandering in a baseball-free desert, I want that firehose.

Tonight I must be content with a single game, played against a tangy lime green backdrop no less. The new Miami Marlins ballpark is probably a wonderful place to watch a game, but what ESPN nudged me to notice first were the gimmicks: fish tanks, a still-silent home run celebration feature, and a tropical look that seems to integrate the place nicely with its Little Havana environs.

The place was packed tonight, but even the Expos used to sell out their home openers. We need a full season to answer the two big questions: will the ball carry with the roof open, and can the Marlins solve the problem of attracting fans in Florida?

They made bold gambles to do so, and it’s not clear which will be the more attention-getting, the color scheme or non-stop-loudmouth Ozzie Guillen as manager. And they brought in some serious, and costly, talent to compliment a nucleus that was already bursting with potential. Well, did the 37,000 people in the stands see some good omens?

Because an Opening Day always teases us into thinking we’re in on the ground floor, already detecting a direction. Baseball is so absurdly cumulative—a team’s season accretes like barnacles—that no single game holds a clue, but we look anyway.

Marlins fans won’t have liked what they saw. The Cardinals won smoothly, 4-1, with last year’s postseason hero David Freese picking up so literally where he left off it was nearly magical. (It wasn’t just two RBI, it was on a two-strike count with two outs. Again!)

As a box score, the game will look lopsided, even dispiriting to a Marlins fan. But I saw several positive signs. First, Josh Johnson’s return from an injury-shortened 2011 began with a sloppy first inning and a walk-sac-single run scored in the second. After that, Johnson settled in, collecting four strikeouts over 6 innings. It wasn’t a sparkling performance, but Johnson could still be capable of building on his 2010 Cy Young season and continue to whittle his WHIP into persistent All-Star territory.

New centerpiece Jose Reyes was the only bright light of the Marlins’ night. The rest of the lineup couldn’t capitalize on his two leadoff hits, but Reyes was doing the job they asked him to do. However, the new infield that slides Hanley Ramrirez to third base to make room for Reyes did a lot of staring at a Carlos Beltran single trickling between them in the second. Eeek.

If the Marlins must content themselves with tomorrow-is-another-day, the Cardinals have retained some sweet World Series swagger to start the season. Subbing for an injured Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, who is no one’s idea of an Opening Day ace, kept the Marlins hitless through six innings. It was an ace performance, with single earned run, two hits, and three Ks. Lohse didn’t labor to achieve the win; he was neatly in control all night, locating pitches and baiting nearly every batter with a first pitch strike.

And that earned run that blots his record? Oh, the cruelties of baseball scoring. Let’s break it down as an object lesson in what can make a player, or a fan, mutter. Logan Morrison led off the eighth with a single. We might suspect Lohse is tiring, or running out of shtick on the third trip through the order, but he turns around to strike out Gaby Sanchez. Brand new manager Mike Matheny makes his first pitching change, playing by the book to bring in Fernando Salas. It’s now one out, 4-0 Cardinals.

Salas’s first pitch is a double play ball to Omar Infante. Except the umpire couldn’t quite agree that first baseman Lance Berkman leaned, scooped, caught, and raised his glove holding the ball all before Infante touched first. This wasn’t one of those nanosecond plays, this was a first baseman with his hand raised in success who took about five strides toward the dugout before the umpire’s “safe” call registered.

Well, this appears like nothing more than a mild delay in the end of inning proceedings and the stately glide to a shutout. But I paused to wonder: would it matter?

It did. John Buck chipped a few fouls before hitting a sound double to center that scored Infante. And Lohse is assigned the run, since Morrison was out in what became a fielder’s choice when the botched call granted Infante first. Infante becomes an inherited runner. Dang.

In the span of a season, absolutely none of this will be material. The pesky earned run Lohse must lug around, the crummy first inning Johnson must put behind him, the lost and lonely leadoff hits Reyes tossed into the wind, even Freese’s 3-for-5, 2 RBI resumption of last year’s momentum—these aren’t omens, but they are the way a season starts. One game at a time, some of them distinguished by coral and lime green accents.


[Game 26] Safety Versus Suicide Squeeze

In the course of a season, a full constellation of baseball plays will march across the sky but without, of course, any astronomical predictability. We will see pickoffs, baserunning oddities, and maybe a triple play, but they’ll all arrive without warning. Tonight as the Twins visit the Tigers, we get the safety squeeze.

As events will play out, the suicide squeeze would have been the better choice in the game itself, and it’s more interesting to write about anyway.

The suicide squeeze is as do-or-die as the name suggests, but the truth is, it’s a pretty high percentage play. Batter and runner must have their skills in hand, but there’s little the defense can do to foil them. If it doesn’t work, the players have only themselves to blame.

The ingredients are: a man on third, a batter capable of bunting, and less than two outs. It’s a plain squeeze play if the batter bunts and the runner sizes things up and heads for home. To qualify as a suicide squeeze, the runner takes off as the pitcher releases the ball.

Therein lies the risk. Leaving immediately means that even a shoddy bunt will probably still be enough, as the runner has such a good head start. But if the batter fails to make contact or misses the sign that the play is on, the runner is, as we say of chickens, broasted.

A high percentage play, but risks remain. The bunt doesn’t have to make the hall of fame, but it does have to rattle about long enough to get that runner home. And the dreaded popup will disgrace the batter and end the inning with a double play.

Speaking of which, outs have an effect on the suicide squeeze. You generally wouldn’t try it with no outs since the odds of scoring the runner on third with conventional hitting are higher. And it’s out of the question with two outs, as the batter is safe only under unusual circumstances.

Aside from guessing right and pitching out, there’s little the infielders can do about the squeeze even if they know it’s coming. The defense is reduced to scrabbling for the rolling bunt and making the best decision about throwing home or accepting the sacrifice and nailing the batter at first.

I have never seen it happen, but research reveals that a pitcher can do one thing to negate the scheme. If the runner breaks so soon that the pitcher sees the play is on, he might have the presence of mind to intentionally hit the batter. That makes it a dead ball which returns the runner to third. Now, baseball is rich in tradeoffs—there are sacrifices, defensive shifts, and pitchouts in which one side gives up something in hopes that something worse is averted. But hitting a batter to avoid a squeeze? It sounds like a mere academic possibility.

Tonight, the Twins have Michael Cuddyer on third and Nick Punto at the plate. If Jim Leyland, the Detroit skipper, has even glanced at Punto’s stats, he’ll know that Punto is made for squeeze bunting, not least because he isn’t made for many other hitting categories. The Twins have no outs, so they’re letting Punto’s buntability outweigh the conventional big inning. The only question is which pitch, and whether to send Cuddyer in suicide mode or not.

Punto is an excellent bunter, and Cuddyer has reasonable speed. The Twins have already blown the game wide open on Cuddyer’s 2-run triple and now lead 4-1. Conditions are perfect. Which pitch? Why, the very first one.

Punto’s bunt is decent, but Cuddyer is held until contact. The Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera has enough time to field the ball and wing it home, where sturdy Gerald Laird is planted to receive the ball before he receives the runner. Cuddyer slams into him, but the ball stays in the glove. Punto’s on first with the worst consolation prize; Cuddyer is out.

What’s special tonight is the failure of the play. The suicide squeeze would almost certainly have worked. I only got one replay to watch the thing fall apart, and the camera never showed me Cuddyer’s jump off third. I draw my conclusion not from direct evidence but from the percentages on the play.

The outcome, in this particular game, is that sacrificing Cuddyer for Punto didn’t end the Twins’ scoring program. Alexi Casilla would drive Punto in, along with Delmon Young on base after being hit by a pitch. The Twins score 5 runs in the inning.

Francisco Liriano got his first win of the year, and his route there was direct: pitch well, get run support. The Twins scored so little in Liriano’s previous four starts that he should not be carrying the burden of a 1-4 record all by himself.

Facing Edwin Jackson, the Twins score 1 run in the second and seem about to make their usual meager offering on behalf of Liriano. But in the seventh inning they come alive with five runs, and then tack on another in the ninth.

Liriano gives up a solo homer to Cabrera, and Matt Guerrier in relief allows a sacrifice RBI to Magglio Ordonez. That wraps up the Tigers’ assault. And a strong 7-2 win sets up the Twins for the final game of two in Detroit.