Batters in the Atlantic League will get the chance to steal first base in a new series of experimental rules announced Thursday.
As the independent minor league prepares to expand the use of “robot umpires” leaguewide, Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League added four more rules to the second half of the season.
Batters may try to steal first base on any pitch that was not caught in flight. It expands the traditional dropped third strike rule to all pitches, and batters can be thrown out if they try to run.
Other rules being added:
One foul bunt is allowed with two strikes before it becomes a strikeout.
Pitchers are required to step off the rubber to try a pickoff.
A relaxation on check swings to be more batter-friendly.
In February, the Atlantic League and MLB announced a three-year partnership that allowed the league to serve as a testing ground for experimental playing rules and equipment. In March, they announced the first set of rules, including the TrackMan radar system for calling balls and strikes, the ban of the shift and a three-batter minimum for pitchers.
“We have seen a tremendous amount of interest in these initiatives from our players, coaches and fans throughout the first half of the season,” Atlantic League president Rick White said in a statement. “We look forward to working further with Major League Baseball and observing these additional rule changes in action throughout the remainder of the year.”
The TrackMan system was used for the first time in the Atlantic League all-star game Wednesday. Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.
White said the system will be implemented leaguewide over the next few weeks.
Umpires have the ability to override the computer decision.
Stephen Strasburg keeps Nationals’ rotation on a serious roll
WASHINGTON — Gerardo Parra wrapped both arms around Stephen Strasburg and wouldn’t let go. Their embrace has morphed into something of a tradition. It began late in the season and spilled into the playoffs, partly because this Washington Nationals team has grown so close and partly because Strasburg detests these hugs.
For this one, in the late stages of a victorious night in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Parra held on long enough that a nearby Anibal Sanchez could get in on the action. Max Scherzer then spotted them from the end of the dugout, walked over, spread his long limbs out wide and enveloped them all, suffocating Strasburg with affection.
“Why not,” Scherzer said. “He deserved it.”
Strasburg, pitching three nights after Sanchez and two nights after Scherzer, had just held the St. Louis Cardinals to one unearned run in seven innings on Monday night, leading the Nationals to an 8-1 victory that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
In Game 1, it was Sanchez, expertly mixing a variety of pitches, who came within four outs of a no-hitter.
In Game 2, it was Scherzer, playing his fastball off his changeup, who gave up zero hits and struck out 10 through the first six innings.
In Game 3, it was Strasburg, armed with untouchable off-speed pitches, who struck out 12, walked none and added to what is becoming an illustrious postseason resume.
In Game 4, it will be Patrick Corbin — every bit as capable, every bit as imposing — looking to pitch the Nationals into their first World Series.
“They’re the heart and soul of our team,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said of the team’s starting pitchers. “It’s fitting that they’re the reason we’re in this position.”
If not for Michael Taylor misreading a line drive on Saturday and Juan Soto slipping in the middle of a throw on Monday, the Cardinals would probably be shut out for 27 innings in this series. Sanchez, Scherzer and Strasburg have combined for one unearned run allowed, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 21⅔ innings. The Nationals’ starters boast a 1.59 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and a .164 opponents’ batting average in 56⅔ innings this month, numbers that don’t even include their contributions out of the bullpen.
Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only the 2012 Detroit Tigers, the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers and the 1995 Cleveland Indians have had a starters ERA better than that of the current Nationals through their first nine postseason games, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Brewers, however, relied on openers, skewing the numbers. This postseason has been marked by the rebirth of traditional starting-pitcher usage, and the Nationals — not the Houston Astros — stand as the prime example.
Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon called the team’s starters “nothing short of amazing.”
“They’re feeding off each other — they really are,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s fun to watch.”
Strasburg has compiled 57 strikeouts and five walks in 41 career postseason innings. His 1.10 ERA trails only Sandy Koufax’s 0.95 among pitchers with at least five playoff starts. Strasburg has 10-plus strikeouts in four of his first seven postseason starts, a feat only Bob Gibson and Cliff Lee have matched. And the only pitcher with zero walks and more strikeouts than the 12 Strasburg had Monday in a postseason start was Tom Seaver, pitching in an NLCS that took place 46 years ago.
“It’s so impressive to me that when the crowd is the loudest, and in the biggest moments, is when he looks like he’s his calmest,” Doolittle said. “And you have to be able to stay calm if you’re gonna execute your off-speed pitches in the zone the way that he was all night long.”
Strasburg recorded all 12 of his strikeouts on off-speed pitches, the most in any start of his career. He allowed a leadoff double in the second, then fielded a comebacker and caught Marcell Ozuna between second and third base. He gave up back-to-back singles in the fourth, then got Yadier Molina to line out and end the threat. Paul DeJong laced a sharp single in the fifth, then Strasburg retired the next five hitters, three of them on strikeouts.
Stephen Strasburg brings the heat, as he records 12 strikeouts from the bump in seven innings as the Nationals take down the Cardinals 8-1 in Game 3 of the NLCS.
When his pitch count was escalating and he needed a quick inning, Strasburg exerted only 10 pitches to get through the sixth.
When trouble brewed in the seventh — on three singles, one of which scored a run after Soto’s back foot slipped on an attempted throw home — Strasburg became defiant.
Martinez paid a visit, with two on, one out, a run across and Strasburg’s pitch count at 109. The manager saw Strasburg grab his hamstring and thought about removing him. It was merely a cramp, Strasburg told Martinez. Happens all the time.
“I’m staying in the game,” Strasburg said. “I want to finish this inning.”
“You sure you’re all right?” Martinez asked.
“I’m in the game!”
Kurt Suzuki chimed in, told Martinez to let him finish, and the two retreated. Strasburg proceeded to strike out Matt Wieters and Dexter Fowler on nasty changeups that darted below the zone. Opposing hitters have slugged just .218 on that pitch all year, 175 points below the major league average on changeups.
“It looks pretty much like a fastball, just 10 to 12 miles an hour slower and a lot of depth at the end,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “It looks like a fastball until it gets to the cut of the dirt, and then it starts to sink or run. It kind of takes on both.”
After the inning, as Strasburg was approaching his preferred dugout seat, he was met by Parra, the affable, veteran outfielder who joined the team in May. Parra has been among those who have worked diligently to soften Strasburg, who can be about as tightly wound as they come. Sanchez has tried to help.
“They’re just trying to make Stras as uncomfortable as possible,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “It’s great, and when Stras is uncomfortable, good things happen.”
Strasburg — the former prodigy with impossibly high expectations, who sat out two prior Octobers but is maximizing what could be his final postseason run with the Nationals — provided a few light pats on the back. He tried to push away, but Parra pulled him back in. Strasburg laughed, swayed side to side and had the look of someone who was trying to savor the moment but didn’t quite know how.
“I’m not much of a hugger,” Strasburg said. “They kind of just surround me, so I just have to take it.”
The Nationals need to capture only one more win, in as many as four tries, to give Washington D.C. its first World Series team since 1933.
More hugs are coming.
Howie Kendrick continues to play unlikely hero for Nationals
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Howie Kendrick might not be the likeliest of heroes for the Washington Nationals, but neither is the 36-year-old vet the unlikeliest. After all, he has hit .325 over the past three seasons — the highest batting average in the majors.
Kendrick went 3-for-4 with three doubles and three RBIs in the Nationals’ 8-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night. The Nationals are now one win away from their first World Series appearance in franchise history.
Kendrick became just the fourth player to hit three doubles in an LCS game, matching Ben Zobrist, Albert Pujols and Fred McGriff. He also hit the grand slam to beat the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS and is hitting .314 in the postseason with nine RBIs in nine games.
“He’s the greatest ever,” teammate Anthony Rendon said after the game. “I mean, you see the man. He’s, what, 36 years old, and he’s still doing it. He’s built like a frickin’ cinderblock. He’s huge. Man, he stays short. He’s strong. So if he puts that barrel to it and stays behind the ball, you see it. He does damage. So he knows how to hit. That’s what he does.”
Kendrick is a lifetime .294 hitter, but hit a career-high .344 in 334 at-bats in 2019.
“I’m just trying to get smarter,” Kendrick said about his big season and being locked in at the moment. “Making adjustments, I would say, is the biggest thing. Trying to be more efficient with my body and my swing. Kevin Long is a big part of that. Kevin lives out in Phoenix, and I live in Phoenix. It’s funny because the first time we met, I said to him, ‘Hey, what can I do to get better?’ He had a list, like he had wrote down on a pad of paper. I wasn’t expecting it. This was the first time I had ever hit with him. He had this sheet of paper. He goes, ‘All right. This is what I know about you. This is what you hit with this, this, and this.'”
Long became the Nationals’ hitting coach in 2018. Kendrick hit .303 last season, but suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on May 19. His work with Long has paid big dividends this season.
His big hit on Monday came against Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty and capped the Nationals’ four-run inning — all four of which came with two outs. Kendrick lined a 2-1 fastball into the gap in right-center at 105.5 mph, capping the rally with a two-run double. It was the one hard-hit ball in the inning off Flaherty.
“I didn’t execute the one to Kendrick,” Flaherty said. “That’s the one pitch I want back.”
Kendrick first joined the Nationals in a trade with the Phillies in 2017 and then remained as a free agent.
“I love the team, and I re-signed for two years,” he said. “Last year was bittersweet because I got off to a good start and ruptured my Achilles. Having the ability to come back this year and be a part of this team and to be with the guys in the locker room, that was huge. Me and Kevin and Joe Dillon, we got to continue the process that we’d already started with my hitting, and I just trusted them and stuck with it. They just helped me get better at a time when I really needed to.”
Now, in his 14th season in the majors, Kendrick is one win away from his first trip to the World Series. Rendon was asked what he’ll be doing at 36.
“Hopefully not playing baseball,” he said. “Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids. [Kendrick’s] probably going to play another 20 years.”
St. Louis Cardinals’ season pretty much ended with one disastrous inning
WASHINGTON — The St. Louis Cardinals threw 23,884 pitches in the regular season. They threw 756 more in eliminating the Braves in the division series. It took just 33 pitches in the third inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for their season to unravel, however, sending the Cardinals to the brink of elimination against the Washington Nationals.
Here’s how one frustrating inning, full of some bad luck and some ground balls with eyes, unfolded:
Pitch No. 4: Down two games in the series, but with ace Jack Flaherty on the mound, the Cardinals were feeling confident about their chances behind a pitcher who owned a 1.12 ERA since the All-Star break. Flaherty gets ahead of No. 8 hitter Victor Robles 1-2, but Robles fouls off a 96 mph fastball.
Pitch No. 5: Robles fouls off another 96 mph heater. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt goes over to the railing, but the pop-up falls harmlessly into the first row of seats. There is a ramp between the railing and seats, so he can’t reach into the stands to make the catch.
Pitch No. 6: Flaherty throws a slider. Right-handed batters had hit .111 against his slider in the second half. It’s become one of the best, most devastating sliders in the game, one that racks up both strikeouts and worm burners. Robles hits it up the middle — not hard, just 76.5 mph, a ball with an expected batting average, according to Statcast data, of .220. But the ball scoots past a diving Paul DeJong for a leadoff single.
“I didn’t really execute that slider to Robles,” Flaherty said. “He put a good at-bat together. He put the ball in play. Sometimes you find a hole, so he found a hole there.”
Pitch No. 8: Stephen Strasburg lays down a perfect bunt down the first-base line, right on the dirt between the grass and the chalk. The Cards have no chance to get the speedy Robles at second base as Strasburg execute the sacrifice.
Pitch No. 13: After getting ahead of Trea Turner 0-2 with two two-seamers just off the plate, Flaherty fires a 96 mph four-seamer past Turner for a foul tip and strike three for the second out. At this point, it looks good for Flaherty and the Cards. He’s at 44 pitches in the game, he’s recorded three strikeouts and he’s one out away from keeping the game tied at zero after three.
Pitch No. 14: Leadoff man Adam Eaton swings at the first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, and sends a two-hopper to the left of second base. The exit velocity registered at 105.5 mph, but because the first bounce came in front of home plate, it wasn’t exactly a rocket up the middle. The expected batting average was just .240. Eaton is a spray hitter, so there’s no shift in play here, and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was shaded toward the bag. The ball bounces into center field and Robles jogs home with the first run of the game.
Pitch No. 18: With Flaherty ahead in the count 1-2, Anthony Rendon grounds a 96 mph fastball foul past the third-base bag. In Rendon’s first at-bat, Flaherty got ahead with two quick strikes, then missed on four straight sliders low and away. After the hard foul ball, the next pitch will be …
Pitch No. 19: … a slider, low and away, bottom of the strike zone. Good pitch, good location. Rendon basically throws his bat at the ball and lofts a weak fly ball to medium-shallow left field, toward the line. Marcell Ozuna, a Gold Glove winner in 2017, hustles after it and slides feet first. He’s in position to make the catch, but the ball falls out of his glove. Eaton sprints home from first. It wasn’t a routine play, but Rendon’s fly ball had a hit probability of just .180. It is generously ruled a double and the Nationals lead 2-0.
“Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” Flaherty lamented, “but that’s what he does, that’s why he is what he is.”
Still, Ozuna had it … and then didn’t. “A tough play, tough play,” Wong said. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play, as soon as you hit the ground there’s going to be some kind of movement and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove. The breaks haven’t been going our way.”
The Cardinals’ defense has been rock solid all year — a key reason they made the playoffs after a three-season drought. Ozuna’s metrics in left are very good: plus-8 defensive runs saved. “It’s a play that he’s clearly capable of making, but it’s not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make,” manager Mike Shildt said.
The inning continues.
Pitch No. 23: Juan Soto takes a slider on the inside corner for a strike. The count is 2-2.
Pitch No. 24: Soto fights off a curveball at the knees to stay alive. When you post a 0.91 ERA in the second half of the season, you’re getting everybody out: righties, lefties, superstars, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. It doesn’t really matter much. Left-handed batters hit .147 against Flaherty in the second half, including just .118 against his curveball. It was a good pitch, credit Soto for the foul ball.
Pitch No. 25: Soto fouls off a slider.
Pitch No. 26: Fastball up in the zone. Ball three.
Pitch No. 27: Curveball below the knees. Good, patient at-bat here by Soto, although with Rendon on second base, a walk to Soto isn’t necessarily the worse thing for St. Louis, setting up the righty-righty matchup against Howie Kendrick. On the other hand, Soto’s eight-pitch plate appearance also runs up Flaherty’s pitch count for the inning.
Pitch No. 30: Flaherty chunks a 1-1 fastball to Kendrick in the dirt and the ball glances off Yadier Molina‘s glove for a wild pitch. It was in the dirt, so it was scored a wild pitch, but Molina didn’t do a good job of getting down to block the ball. The runners move up to second and third.
Pitch No. 31: The next pitch is a 93.5 mph two-seamer running away from Kendrick. He lines a 105.5 mph laser into the gap in right-center and the ball goes all the way to the wall, with both runners scoring easily to make it 4-0. While the first three hits included some bad luck, this one had a hit probability of .690 — and I’d like to see the 31% that aren’t hits.
“I didn’t execute the one to Kendrick,” Flaherty said. “That’s the one pitch I want back.”
The Cardinals are hitting a woeful .121 in the series, leaving the pitching staff no margin for error. While the Cardinals are hitting .161 with two outs, the Nationals are hitting .350. A two-run inning becomes a four-run inning with Kendrick’s hit.
The wild pitch did leave a base open and Shildt has been generous with intentional walks in the postseason. “We could have put Kendrick on right there, but you get a guy like [Ryan] Zimmerman swinging the bat well right behind him,” Shildt said. “Didn’t make a pitch right there. That was probably the biggest part of that — was that pitch at that moment.”
Pitch No. 33: Zimmerman finally grounds out to end the inning.
Flaherty has had nine 30-pitch innings this season, including a 33-pitch seventh inning in Game 2 of the NLDS against Atlanta. This inning, however, was much more of a slow burn, a testament to how tough the top of the Nationals lineup is, a testament to the importance of not giving an inch to the other team, a testament to how an inning can fall apart with two outs. Rendon put a ball in play. Ozuna couldn’t quite make the catch, and that opened up the door for the big four-run rally — a rally that may have slammed the door on the Cardinals’ season.
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