Puerto Rico is headed to the finals of the World Baseball Classic after walking off 4-3 winners in 11 innings of captivating baseball that started on Tuesday night and ended early Wednesday morning in the Eastern time zone. Well, the first 10 innings were captivating, the 11th and final inning was not.
WBC rules stipulate that, in extra innings starting with the 11th, each team will start its inning with runners on first and second base. The rule is meant to speed the game along because, after all, it is an exhibition game and these players have commitments to professional teams. Managers can’t get two innings out of relievers because of the risk of injury. That was the case in the ninth for Netherlands as Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect inning on nine pitches but did not return for the 10th, as the Dodgers had an agreement in place. One can understand that aspect of the rule, as unfortunate as it is for fans.
The rule is also designed to try to make games more interesting. Fans don’t like 18-inning games, we’re told, so this rule is designed to make sure games end in the 11th or 12th innings, if possible. The result, though, is a predictable and boring affair.
Here’s how things went for Netherlands in the top of the 11th: Three bunt attempts, the last of which was successful in advancing both runners. Intentional walk. Ground ball double play.
Here’s how things went for Puerto Rico in the bottom of the 11th: Successful bunt on the first try. Intentional walk. Sacrifice fly.
Wow. Exciting. Puerto Rico fans were understandably ecstatic that their team had advanced into the finals. Other baseball fans were snoring and not because it was 1:30 AM. The game was otherwise exciting. Both teams traded homers to open the first inning. There were several outstanding defensive plays by both sides. The 10th inning had some benches-emptying drama.
Unfortunately, the extra-innings rule cheapened Puerto Rico’s victory over Netherlands. Part of the beauty of baseball is strategy. By giving both teams runners on first and second to start their offensive half of the inning, the strategy has already been decided. When the Dominican Republic and Colombia went 11 innings on March 12, the D.R. also elected to bunt to lead off the 11th. Colombia didn’t because the D.R. went on to score seven runs, but it would have had the deficit only been one or zero runs. Also on March 12, Japan led off the top of the 11th with a bunt. Because Japan scored twice, Netherlands did not bunt to lead off its inning. Four out of four teams in a classic position to bunt elected to do so. Three of those four teams saw their next hitter intentionally walked.
Bunting is not fun to watch. With fields that usually stretch about 330 feet down each foul line, seeing a player intentionally hit the ball into the ground 10 feet in front of home plate feels like a waste. Doing it as a predetermined strategy only makes it more boring.
Fans also watch the game because they want to see the talent of the players. How can they see that if two of the players are put on base for free, then the outcomes of the next two at-bats are almost 100 percent predictable? (Bunt, intentional walk.) If I were a fan of a team in the WBC, especially one with players not commonly on an international stage, I’d feel robbed by this rule.
Fortunately, the extra-innings rule isn’t coming to Major League Baseball anytime soon. Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested the rule, but it was broadly panned, and he retracted any enthusiasm for the idea. It will be implemented in the minors, but it has more practical application there since games don’t carry nearly the same weight of importance.
The extra-innings rule, though, is just a symptom of an underlying problem: timing. Having WBC games in March clashes with the Major League Baseball schedule as it coincides with spring training. Players on MLB teams are therefore caught in a bind: Do they participate and show pride for their countries? Or do they consider their futures with their MLB teams — which provide them their livelihood — choosing to either not participate or, in Jansen’s case, participate in a limited capacity? As mentioned, part of the intent of the extra-innings rule is to make it so teams don’t need to rely on any particular reliever for six innings of work because the game went 18 innings and the team had run out of pitchers. If the WBC were held, for example, in the winter (hosted, obviously, in more tropical climates), players and teams on their behalf might be more willing to go a little longer.
Maybe with some more scheduling creativity, we might see an 11th-inning walk-off sequence that goes triple-single or double-double rather than bunt-intentional walk-sacrifice fly. That would leave us all with a better taste in our mouths.