Juan Soto went 0-for-4 without reaching base Tuesday night, and that still didn’t qualify as the most surprising fact about the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to the Rockies.
No, that honor went not to any one individual but to the clock at Coors Field. The game started at 6:40 p.m. local time, and it ended at 9:40 p.m. local time. Yes, a three-hour ballgame. At the best hitter’s park in baseball, with two of the worst pitching staffs in baseball competing against each other.
For the Nats, this was an especially strange development in the final week of a season that has felt exceptionally long. Because it literally has been.
The Nationals’ average time of game in 2021 has been 3 hours, 12 minutes, which matches their 2019 time for longest in club history. But it’s only gotten worse as the season played out. The average time of their last 29 games is an astounding 3 hours, 26 minutes.
The Nats have played 23 games this season that lasted at least 3 hours, 45 minutes. They’ve played 39 games (a full quarter of their schedule) that lasted at least 3 hours, 30 minutes.
Who’s to blame for this? There’s no one underlying reason. It’s not quite that simple. But one decent starting point to have this discussion is in their bullpen, which has often taken over a game cruising along at a decent pace and then brought the proceedings to a screeching halt.
The Nationals have a severely inexperienced relief corps these days, and it’s perhaps not surprising that some of those young pitchers take a lot of time between pitches when they’re on the mound in the latter stages of competitive ballgames.
“Every pitcher is different,” manager Davey Martinez said in Tuesday’s pregame Zoom session with reporters. “For me, I would love to see the tempo pick up a little bit. But we’ve still got a lot of guys out there that are relatively young, and they’re trying to get through and trying to get to the next pitch. So for me watching them, I’m not going to press the issue on them just getting the ball and throwing.
“These are all young guys, and obviously they’re taking a little bit more time than normal.”
The coaching staff has brought pace of play up with a few members of the bullpen, including late-inning specialist Kyle Finnegan, who can get a bit too deliberate at times when he’s on the mound.
“One guy that we talk to a lot is Finnegan, about picking up his tempo,” Martinez said. “He gets the ball, he walks around the mound. But that’s something that he’s always done and he’s used to that. That’s part of his routine before he pitches.”
Everyone has his own routine, but it’s safe to say his fielders almost always prefer a faster pace.
“It’s better for our defense when these guys get the ball, get on the mound and go,” Martinez said. “It keeps our defense engaged.”
There is, of course, the matter of a pitch clock, which Major League Baseball has tried to push to institute only to be met with resistance from the MLB Players Association. But as more and more minor leaguers come up having dealt with a pitch clock, the more widespread its acceptance might be at the major league level.
Until then, we’ll just have to hope pitchers can maintain a more up-tempo internal clock and help keep games moving at a brisker pace. Which hopefully will be three-hour games at Coors Field the norm, not the exception.
And allow everyone to get back to worrying what caused Soto to go 0-for-4 the previous night.