As soon as Shohei Ohtani jogged out to second base Friday night, I was hooked on the new extra-innings format. Sure, it’s not baseball in its purest form. But it's a perfectly acceptable wrinkle to an experimental season.
The first at-bat in extra innings did not go as anyone expected. Angels infielder Jared Walsh grounded to A's first baseman Matt Olson, who instead of stepping on the bag and allowing Ohtani to advance, fired across the diamond to retire the lead runner heading for third. The A’s then allowed two more runners to reach but the Angels left the bases loaded. In the bottom of the inning, as the A's got their shot with a runner on second and no outs, Olson ended the night with a walk-off grand slam.
This was the first of four extra-innings games this weekend. Each one of them felt like something worth experiencing.
This new format keeps what I love most about extra innings: that there is no time limit. Both teams are still playing by the same rules, but they start each inning with a runner on second instead of with nobody on. Naturally, this format creates more action, and we won't have to put all our hopes in a home run to settle the score. A bunt, error, wild pitch, hit or plenty of other outcomes—two balks!—could be all it takes to win a game. Here's what we've already seen:
On Saturday the Braves beat the Mets, 5-3, in extras, with four of their eight combined runs coming in the 10th inning. Down to his last strike with two outs in the ninth, Marcell Ozuna ripped a game-tying homer off Mets closer Edwin Díaz. Atlanta wasted no time in the 10th, scoring their free runner in scoring position immediately with a Dansby Swanson leadoff single. The Mets loaded the bases with nobody out in the home half but scored just once.
The Royals became the first team to sacrifice bunt the automatic runner from second to third, a move that paid off when Maikel Franco’s sac fly gave them a 3-2 lead over Cleveland in the top of the 10th. In the bottom of the inning, Kansas City closer Greg Holland hit the leadoff man to put the winning run on first before striking out the side to win it.
The wildest of the four extra-innings games came Sunday in the Rays’ 6-5 win over the Blue Jays. Toronto pinch runner Santiago Espinal was caught stealing third with one out but was ruled safe after a replay review. He then scored on a sac fly to give the Blue Jays the lead. The Rays responded after a leadoff walk put two runners on and Kevin Kiermaier ripped a walk-off two-run double.
It’s too early to tell what all this means. We don’t yet know which strategy works best in extras or what teams are better suited for outlasting others when the innings begin with a runner on second. The teams that won each of these four games did so differently: a great defensive play and a walk-off slam; a few clutch singles and Mets' bullpen woes; some small ball in KC; a two-run comeback after falling behind in the top of the 10th.
Regardless of how teams get it done, extra innings are going to be thrilling (and shorter!).
The Astros Without Verlander
The Astros are down two aces. Gerrit Cole joined the Yankees in the offseason and now Justin Verlander is out at least two weeks (possibly much longer) with a forearm strain. So where does Houston go from here?
Zack Greinke, 36, allowed three runs over just 3 1/3 innings in Sunday’s loss. Lance McCullers Jr. looked sharp Saturday in his first start after missing all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. The rotation after those two is rather thin. Right-hander Josh James has a plus-fastball with two good secondary pitches, but he is unproven as a major league starter. Lefty Framber Valdéz has fared much better in relief (3.78 ERA) than as a starter (5.25 ERA) in his first two seasons. Houston has not yet said who will replace Verlander in the rotation. The Astros could use an opener every fifth day, but that could overextend their bullpen, even in a shorter season, if James and Valdéz can’t pitch deep into games.
• My favorite moment of the weekend came when Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi blasted a solo homer in the sixth inning off Blue Jays pitcher Anthony Kay to record his first hit as a right-handed batter. Choi spent the first four years of his MLB career as a lefty after he was told to abandon switch-hitting by the Angels in 2016. Now in his second full season with the Rays, he has started to switch-hit again to avoid being used as strictly a platoon player. So far, so good. His homer was the first Rays run in their eventual 6-5 win in extra innings.
• Yoenis Cépedes’s solo homer on Friday gave the Mets a 1-0 win over the Braves. It extended his streak of games with home runs to three games, over a span of 803 days. Alas, he did not go yard in Saturday’s loss to Atlanta.
• Yadier Molina's still got it. In Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Pirates, the veteran Cardinals catcher back-picked Adam Frazier in the first inning and then an inning later caught Phillip Evans stealing second on a failed hit-and-run attempt. St. Louis won the first two games of the series behind great pitching performances from Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright.