Nats, pitch clock debut tonight in Grapefruit League opener

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It’s been a long, hard winter in Washington, especially for anyone associated with a Nationals club that has eagerly been waiting to put last season’s disappointment behind them and start over fresh in 2019.

Well, there’s some good news to share: The Nationals are playing a ballgame tonight. Against another major league team. With a 20-second pitch clock making its debut.

More on that pitch clock in just a moment, but we’ll begin with the Grapefruit League opener against the Astros (6:30 p.m. on MASN, if you haven’t heard). No, the game doesn’t count. And, no, all of the Nats regulars will not be in the starting lineup.

But Max Scherzer will be on the mound, and that counts for something, right? The staff ace has been throwing since shortly after the 2018 season ended, ramping things up in early January and already having pitched two simulated innings against live hitters on Tuesday.

Scherzer is slated for two or three innings tonight in his first opportunity to face opposing hitters and start trying out some tweaks he has been working on since last season ended.

Thumbnail image for Michael A. Taylor walk off blue.jpgWe don’t know yet how the entire Nationals lineup will shake out, but we do know Yan Gomes is scheduled to be behind the plate and catch Scherzer for the first time in a game. And we do know Howie Kendrick is scheduled to start at second base in his first game action since rupturing his right Achilles tendon last May. And we do know Michael A. Taylor is scheduled to start in center field after having his winter ball excursion to the Dominican Republic cut short by injuries after only seven games.

Now, about that pitch clock. Commissioner Rob Manfred spilled the beans earlier this week that it was coming. On Friday, Major League Baseball made the official announcement, with more details.

Here’s how it works ...

* The 20-second clock will debut tonight. It will begin ticking down once the pitcher receives the ball back from the catcher following the first pitch of an at-bat. (It will never be used prior to that first pitch.)

* There will be no repercussions yet for batters who aren’t in the box and ready to go with at least five seconds remaining, or for pitchers who haven’t either begun their windup or come to a full set position before the clock strikes zero.

* Early next week, umpires will issue reminders to both pitchers and batters who violate the rule, but no penalties will be assessed. Between innings, umpires are expected to inform a team’s manager, pitching coach or hitting coach of any violations.

* Later in spring training - and depending on the status of negotiations with the players’ union - umpires will be instructed to begin assessing ball-strike penalties for violations.

* No decision has been made yet about whether the clock will be used in regular season games. MLB has the authority to institute the rule change unilaterally, but prefers to work out an agreement with the union before resorting to that tactic.

My take on all this: As much as we’ve always loved the notion that there are no clocks in baseball, we have to acknowledge that times are changing (pun intended) and there is too much dead time between pitches. This will force both pitchers and batters to keep the pace moving at a better clip. Besides, it’s already in the rule book; umpires just never enforce it.

Younger players who have been in Double-A and Triple-A the last few seasons have already played with a pitch clock, so they should be used to it. And veteran big leaguers will figure it out, probably quickly.

My guess: Within a few weeks, we’ll all forget it even exists and hopefully enjoy a faster pace of play.

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