This ugly MLB opening day affair was made tolerable by baseball's new pitch clock

WASHINGTON – There’s a new game within the game at your local ballpark, and doggone if it isn’t pretty compelling.

Pitch Clock vs. Random Acts of Baseball stared each other down for more than three hours Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park, a worthy undercard to Braves-Nationals on this opening day.

On a frigid day where bright sunshine belied the miserable baseball conditions, a trio of timers positioned around the field at Nationals Park provided historic accompaniment to an artless struggle. And goodness, was it a struggle: Sun balls produced cheap singles, an ace exited the game when his hamstring twinged in the chill and the worst pitcher in the major leagues one season ago got a quick start on defending his title.

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Yet through the five mid-inning pitching changes, the five combined errors and 10 walks, the game stayed on track.

The final score was Braves 7, Nationals 2. And in this battle of Rob Manfred vs. Your Decaying Attention Span, well, score one for baseball’s commissioner.

When Patrick Corbin delivered a slider that Ronald Acuña Jr. swung through at 1:06 p.m. Thursday, Major League Baseball’s unprecedented effort to cut down on time of game – putting the timeless pastime on the clock – was underway. And it played no small role in making an ugly game tolerable on a 45-degree afternoon.

OK, so it didn’t hit all the goals Manfred laid out. Time of game: 3 hours, 7 minutes, a decent chunk longer than the glorious 2:35 that spring training games averaged in the run-up to the openers.

It slightly exceeded the 3:03 average game time for nine-inning games a season ago and was a far cry from the am-I-dreaming 2:33 it took to play Giants-Yankees, which started almost concurrently a few hours north.

A.J. Minter and Ronald Acuña Jr. celebrate the opening day win against the Nationals.
A.J. Minter and Ronald Acuña Jr. celebrate the opening day win against the Nationals.

Yet the greatest stress test for the pitch clock may not be a battle of aces, like Gerrit Cole vs. Logan Webb in New York, nor a hot summer night where the ball is flying out of the park with ease. You want to make sure your audience doesn’t flee?

Have them sit, in 45-degree temperatures, through a game started by Corbin, whose 210 hits and 107 earned runs given up in 2022 were most in the majors. Have them watch a pair of balls lost in the high sky by Braves outfielders. Or see Atlanta ace Max Fried exit the game in the fourth inning, that chill likely contributing to a bark in his hamstring as he covered first base, a 3-1 putout that will almost certainly send him to the injured list.

Through all that, the crowd was largely still on hand at game’s end. If you were watching from home, the broadcast window barely infringed upon the postgame show. And perhaps most important, even if the game stretched a bit long, by the middle innings, one thing was abundantly clear.

The end was in sight.

See, it’s not the 12-11 games that caused MLB to move quickly toward a pitch clock. It’s the 3-1 games where nothing happens yet it still takes three and a half hours to contest. And on this day, the clock effect was palpable from the get-go.

Corbin kicked off his 2023 campaign by allowing five of the first eight batters he faced to reach base. By the second inning, the bases were loaded and the pitching coach at the mound. Shortstop CJ Abrams committed the first of his two errors. Yet Corbin’s struggles were balanced by Fried needing less than five minutes to work a scoreless first (thank you, double play) and six minutes to negotiate a five-batter second inning. It took just 1 hour, 2 minutes to play three innings, which veteran ball watchers know is a solid pace to get underway, especially with tons of traffic.

Was it just the timer, which sets at 15 seconds between pitches, 20 seconds with runners on? Not entirely. As you watch the clock, don’t forget to train your ears on the speakers.

See, part of this exhaustive effort includes cutting down on walk-up music, which might have felt abrupt at times for Nationals fans with a penchant for country music. Once again, leadoff man Lane Thomas has opted for Jon Pardi’s “Dirt On My Boots” as his intro song, a twangy screed in which Pardi tells us he’s going to have a little mud on his wheels but, undaunted, is going hit the club, and going to cut a rug.

In 2023, however, Pardi is abruptly cut off. We are left to assume he completed his appointed rounds on the dance floor.

Oh, there’s certainly ways around the clock. When things got hot for Corbin, and the bases were loaded and it was clear he’d commit a clock violation, he simply stepped off the rubber, knowing he wouldn’t need to use any of his two legal disengagements to throw to a base when they were juiced. Batters more than once used their allotted timeout per at-bat. Mound visits were burned by both catchers, though they had more to use by game’s end.

And yet the game rumbled on. Nationals reliever Mason Thompson might find an Employee of the Month certificate from Manfred in his mailbox soon: He threw the first pitch of the sixth inning at 2:59.

At 3:01, he was headed back to the dugout, a strikeout, a pop-up and a flyout recorded faster than you could grab a beverage from your fridge. Thompson gave up a walk and single in the seventh but still got it done in five minutes.

So when things got ugly in the last two innings, the Braves tacking on three ninth-inning runs, the brevity that preceded it made the game tolerable. As the season proceeds, the lights come on and the nights grow long, it’s those little corner-cuttings that might keep you engaged longer – say, to game’s end.

What a concept. And on this otherwise forgettable opening day, the Clock Era showed that a miserable day at the yard is suddenly a lot more tolerable.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB pitch clock makes ugly Braves-Nats affair tolerable on opening day