Braves fall victim to pitch clock as charged strike ends spring game vs. Red Sox

NORTH PORT, Fla. — On the final pitch of the Braves’ Grapefruit League opener versus the Red Sox, the Braves fell victim to the new pitch timer.

With the score tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Cal Conley was up to bat with a full count, two outs and the bases loaded. The Braves had scored three runs in the frame to pull even.

The pitch clock, which is making its debut in the majors this year, ticked down: 10, 9, 8 … Boston catcher Elih Marrero was standing up – not ready for a pitch – and looking at his wristband (perhaps readying to call a pitch).

Home-plate umpire John Libka made a ruling, and Conley began running to first after what he believed was a walk-off walk.

Libka called out to Conley, who turned around. Conley pointed at himself, as if to ask, “Me?”

Libka had actually charged Conley with the game’s final strike. In the most dramatic moment possible for an exhibition contest, the pitch timer took center stage. Instead of winning the game, the Braves settled for the tie Saturday at CoolToday Park.

“The umpire said I was looking down,” Conley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the game. “I was looking down at the catcher as he was standing up. Not really sure if the pitcher was ready to go, (and the) catcher definitely wasn’t. I was just trying to go with the rhythm of them, kind of wasn’t looking at the clock. Next time, should’ve called time in that situation, I guess, is what the umpire said. I guess learn from it and move on.”

On MLB’s website, the explanation of the pitch-timer rule states that batters “must be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark or else be charged with an automatic strike.”

The key words: “To the pitcher.” Libka assessed the automatic strike on Conley – sealing the strikeout – because he was not attentive to the pitcher and ready to hit.

But Conley had seen only the catcher. That’s why he began running to first once Libka barked out something.

“Because the pitcher and catcher were ready to go, so I thought it was ball four, we won the game,” Conley said. “Then it turned out it was the opposite, which sucked, but you can’t do anything about it now.”

Added Braves manager Brian Snitker: “It doesn’t say anything about the catcher, it’s about the hitter being aware of the pitcher at eight seconds. It doesn’t have anything in the rules about the catcher, what he has to be doing. He doesn’t have to be doing anything.”

After the game, Boston manager Alex Cora told reporters this: “We were looking at the clock, and it’s like, ‘Oh, something’s gonna happen here, actually, because Elih (Marrero, the catcher) comes out. And that’s the thing – is the timing of the whole thing. Because Elih goes out – 3-2, two outs – and he tells the infielders, ‘Go to first.’ It’s two outs. Runners going. So that’s good (thinking) at first. But then he needs to get back in his position before nine seconds (to go on the clock).”

MLB implemented the pitch clock to speed the pace of play. It will result in quicker games. And most of the infractions will not occur on the game’s final pitch. But the umpires are expected to strictly enforce the rules, as Libka did Saturday.

But the ruling creates questions: In what other ways can pitchers and catchers fool hitters? Will other cat-and-mouse tactics come from this?

Teams certainly are going to try to find any edge this spring, which clubs will consider a trial run for these new rules. Teams will attempt to find different loopholes.

“They’re going to (try to find them) the whole time,” Snitker said. “Some of them may not break it out in spring training.”

Added Conley, when asked if teams will consistently try to find new advantages: “It depends. It’s kind of hard to do stuff like that. But I’m sure if there’s a way to do it, people will figure that out.”

Neither Conley nor Snitker believed the Red Sox tried to deke Conley. In fact, Cora told The Athletic’s Jayson Stark after the game that Boston’s bench thought Libka called the violation on their team and not the Braves.

Conley, an infielder drafted by the Braves in the fourth round in 2021, used the pitch clock in the minors and in the Arizona Fall League last year. He said he never had trouble with it, and that most guys seemed to adjust.

“At first, it takes a couple weeks to get used to it,” Conley said. “But it speeds up the game in a good way.”

Saturday proved something else: As much as the timer affects pitchers, hitters also must become accustomed to it, which may take time.

“In between pitches, some hitters take longer than others, and some pitchers take longer than others,” Conley said. “I think, overall, it’s just speeding up the game a little bit and making it better.”

Once fans here realized that Libka had charged Conley with the third strike, thus ending the game, they booed about as loud as you’ll hear fans voice their displeasure during a spring game. As they walked back to the clubhouse, multiple Braves coaches remarked about the oddity that had occurred.

You couldn’t have scripted the clock affecting a more important situation in a baseball game. It was going to happen eventually.

Of the ending – with the catcher inadvertently causing the batter to lose focus – Snitker said “that can be a real problem there” and added that he didn’t believe the pitch clock was meant for situations like that.

Overall, he enjoyed his team’s first game using it.

“I think it was good,” he said. “I think guys adhered to it. It was good, (the game) moved. I thought everything else was really good, even the hitters getting into the box, being ready and all that stuff.”

Here are other notes from the first game with the new rules:

‘They were really quick today’

As the seconds ticked off the clock, Braves starting pitcher Kolby Allard watched them. Once the clock hit eight seconds, the umpire stopped the game.

Strike one.

This happened twice in Allard’s favor – once in the first inning, another in the second.

“They were really quick today, honestly,” Allard said. “Really quick. Quicker than they were, honestly, in my minor-league starts last year.”

Allard said it seemed like the umpires were paying close attention, perhaps as a way of setting the tone with the new rule making its debut in the major leagues.

As much as the pitch clock will be an adjustment for pitchers, hitters might fall victim to it here and there. Batters must be in the box and ready for the pitch by the eight-second mark. They’re charged with an automatic strike if they aren’t. Batters have one timeout per plate appearance.

Olson’s single

In the bottom of the first inning, with the bases empty, Matt Olson singled on a ground ball through the right side and into right field.

That’s something that probably hadn’t happened much in his career. Before the rule changes, the shift would’ve eaten up this grounder for an easy out.

“He had the first shift-beater right there,” Snitker said. “He was probably thinking, ‘God, is this gonna be a fun game to play again.’”

MLB placed restrictions on the shift. A team’s four infielders must all be on the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. Infielders cannot switch sides of second base, and teams must have at least two infielders completely on either side of second.

Teams can no longer place an infielder in shallow right field to scoop up grounders from left-handed hitters such as Olson.

Olson went 2-for-2 with the single and a two-run homer to open the exhibition season.

Allard on the pitch clock

Before throwing his final pitch of the afternoon, Allard quickly hopped on the rubber and hurled the ball. The clock sped up on him. Other than this, he said, he didn’t have trouble with it.

“The game up here, you’ve always kind of been taught when the game speeds up on you, to slow it down the most you can, and now that’s something that’s kind of different than what we’ve been taught,” Allard said. “You’re prepared going into it – you kind of know everything that’s going to happen and go on because of it.”

Allard has pitched in the majors during parts of the past five seasons, but also made 20 starts at Triple-A last season in Texas’ organization. There, he became accustomed to the pitch clock. He said it took pitchers “a good few starts” to get used to it.

“I think spring training is going to be a good test for everybody to get through it, but sometimes guys only get on the mound two or three times in an actual game,” Allard. “I think it’ll take a little bit of getting used to, but at the same time, it does speed up the game a little bit.”