It appears that we might be without one of the charms of Grapefruit League games in 2021. In early spring training games, if the two managers agree, games may be reduced to five or seven innings. In the final two weeks of exhibition games, it may be seven innings.
That’s to reduce the number of players needed and help with social distancing.
Normally, early home games at Ed Smith Stadium feature crowded dugouts and bullpens. Major League Baseball wants to keep the numbers down and the players apart.
But that means the end of the extra players invited from minor league camp, the guys former manager Buck Showalter called the “JICs” — just in case.
In case a pitcher exhausted his pitch count, and the manager wants to make sure his next scheduled pitcher doesn’t have to enter in the middle of an inning, he’ll call on a just-in-case player.
Before each game, there’s a list of players brought over from minor league camp. Not only are the players happy to get a chance to show off in front of the big-league staff, but they get major league per diem, which is a big deal for most minor leaguers.
Many of the players don’t see action, but it’s not unusual for two pitchers to throw more than their allotment, and a player wearing No. 96 with no name on the back is summoned.
Pitchers get the call more often than position players but an injury can provide a minor leaguer a chance to impress.
Three times in recent years, a just-in-case player has made such a good impression it’s earned him some time with the Orioles.
In 2012, Stu Pomeranz, a one-time top prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals, pitched emergency innings in Grapefruit League games and by May had gotten his only three major league appearances.
Five years later, Stefan Crichton, who had been drafted in the 23rd round in 2013, was repeatedly called into games to help out Showalter’s staff. Showalter decided to give Crichton a scheduled appearance instead of an unexpected one, and he joined the Orioles for the first time by mid-April. Crichton got eight appearances in 2017 and moved on to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Crichton had a slow start with Arizona, but last year he had a 2.42 ERA and five saves in 26 games.
Last year brought us the entertaining César Valdez, who had signed a minor league contract in January 2020 but didn’t receive an invitation to major league camp. Valdez showed that he could pitch multiple innings with some pitches that batters hadn’t seen much of, and he earned an invitation to summer camp in July. Later, he had a successful final month of the 2020 season at age 35.
With shorter games, innings will be precious for those trying to make an impression, and there will be fewer calls for just-in-case players. Minor leaguers expected to start no higher than Double-A aren’t likely to be there at the start of spring training nor for the first few weeks.
Game times announced: Last season, the Orioles were supposed to play Monday-Thursday night games at 6:35 p.m. before Memorial Day and after Labor Day.
The pandemic changed that, and night games began at 7:35. It was hoped that television ratings would be higher for games that began at 7:35, but that didn’t happen.
Now, the Orioles will begin April, May and September weeknight games at 6:35. Friday and Saturday games will begin at 7:05 throughout the season as will weeknight games in June, July and August.
Because of FOX television commitments, three Saturday games — June 5, 19 and July 10 — will begin at 4:05 p.m. Sunday games will start at 1:05
Besides the April 8 home opener against Boston that begins at 3:05 p.m., the Orioles will have several weekday afternoon games with different start times.
April 15 (Seattle) and April 29 (New York Yankees) will begin at 1:05; May 20 (Tampa Bay) will be a 12: 35 start; August 12 (Detroit) will start at 4:05; August 26 (Los Angeles) will begin at 1:05; and September 16 (Yankees) will start at 5:05.
The Orioles will be at home for two holidays — Memorial Day (May 31, Minnesota) and Labor Day (September 6, Kansas City) — both at 1:05.