New extra-innings rule brings varied wrinkles on first weekend of play

Like it or not, baseball's experiment with an automatic runner affected four games of the first weekend of the 60-game 2020 season. And there were varied wrinkles.

The first free runner in major league history was given second base in extra innings was the Angels' Shohei Ohtani, who made the last out of the ninth inning against the Athletics on Friday. But it didn't work out well.

The Angels' Jared Walsh hit a grounder to Oakland first baseman Matt Olson, but Ohtani had was slow to break off second base and was out after being caught in a rundown between second and third.

Olson won the game for Oakland with a grand slam in the last of the 10th inning.

Commissioner Rob Manfred's new rule is beneficial to player safety for this season and it saves pitching arms, but will it catch on and become a fixture?

The Braves' Dansby Swanson had an RBI single to score free runner Adam Duvall in an extra-inning 5-3 win against the Mets on Saturday.

"It might be one of those changes we wind up liking,'' Braves manager Brian Snitker said via a Zoom interview. "It makes things interesting.''

The Royals' Erick Mejia bunted their free runner, Brett Phillips, from second base to third and that runner scored on a sacrifice fly to center field by Maikel Franco in a 3-2, 10-inning win against Cleveland on Saturday. In the last of the 10th inning, the Royals' Greg Holland hit the leadoff man putting runners on first and second, but then struck out the side to end Cleveland's threat.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday, the Blue Jays' Santiago Espinal, pinch-running for the free runner, was caught stealing third with one out. However, he was ruled safe after a replay review. He scored on a sacrifice fly. The Rays, though, won the game in the bottom of the 10th after a walk put two runners on base and Kevin Kiermaier ended the game with a two-run double.

Home at last: The displaced Blue Jays will play four games in Washington this week, but at least they found a ballpark they can call home.

Two of the games versus the Nationals were supposed to be in Toronto, but Canadian health officials wouldn't allow the team to play in Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays will play most of their 30 home games in Buffalo, home of their Triple-A affiliate.

The Blue Jays spent last week searching for a home, including checking out Camden Yards in Baltimore and PNC Park in Pittsburgh. They also thought about their spring training site in Dunedin, Fla., but that location is in the center of a coronavirus hot spot.

Buffalo's Sahlen Field opened as Pilot Field in 1988 and the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who played in Buffalo as a prospect, told reporters the field favors pitchers because it is more spacious than Rogers Centre.

The Blue Jays' first home games were supposed be this week against the Nationals, but those two games will be played in Washington. The first home game in Buffalo will be Aug. 11, after extra clubhouse space can be built, more lighting installed and COVID-19 standards met.

Buffalo was one of the finalists for baseball expansion that lost to the Marlins and Rockies, teams that played in the National League for the first time in 1993.

The Blue Jays in Buffalo also gives New York three teams for the first time since 1957.

Expanded playoff question: MLB and the players' union expanded the playoff format from 10 to 16 teams, meaning a team with a non-winning record has a chance to make it into the World Series. It also throws another variable into the unpredictability of the market of the Aug. 31 trade deadline. There will be eight teams from each league in the postseason, including the first- and second-place teams in each division. After those six, teams with the two best records qualify for the No. 7 and No. 8 spots.

Bard returns: The weekend's best story was Rockies relief pitcher Dan Bard, 35, who picked up a win against the Rangers. It was his first big league game since April 27, 2013 when he pitched for the Red Sox and his first big league win since May 29, 2012. He left baseball because of the yips, a condition that wouldn't allow him to throw a strike. Last season, he was the mental skills coach for Arizona and, after playing catch with Diamondback players, decided to make a comeback.

Biggest bats: The Twins, a favorite to win the American League Central, hit seven home runs in their first three games in Chicago, but the White Sox answered with seven of their own in the three games.

Biggest injury news: Houston's Justin Verlander is out with a right forearm strain and the Astros aren't sure when he's going to return to the mound. With Gerrit Cole pitching for the Yankees, the Astros rotation doesn't have the same dominance.

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