Olympic game similar, but not identical
Tournament has extra-inning and mercy rules, other differences
BEIJING -- Baseball at the Summer Olympics begins Wednesday at the Wukesong Sports Complex with Chinese Taipei facing Netherlands at 10:30 a.m. local time (10:30 p.m. ET) on Field 2, followed by China vs. Canada at 11:30 (Field 1), Korea vs. United States at 6 p.m. (Field 2) and Cuba vs. Japan at 7 p.m. (Field 1).
There is a lot to know about how the baseball competition works. There are three fields at Wukesong, and two of them will be host to all of the games through the gold medal contest on Aug. 23. Here are the details:
Recently introduced by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), the Extra-Innings Rule will be a first for an American team if necessitated. It comes into effect if the score is still tied after 10 completed innings. If the score is tied after nine, one inning of "normal" extra-innings play is conducted until the Extra Innings Rule comes into play.
From the top of the 11th inning on, each batting team will "re-start" its hitting order by beginning the inning with placement of base runners on first and second with no outs. These must be consecutive batters in the order, and it is up to the manager to decide who those runners will be.
For instance: U.S. manager Davey Johnson chooses leadoff man Dexter Fowler from the Rockies organization to assume second base and the No. 2 batter to occupy first. The first batter of the inning would be the No. 3 hitter.
If Johnson decided that Fowler should hit first that inning, then the No. 8 hitter in the order would have to occupy second and the No. 9 hitter would be on first.
"You don't re-start the order every inning, only for the 11th," said Paul Siler, executive director of USA Baseball. "But the first two scheduled batters of each subsequent inning would be placed on second and first, respectively. So at that point if the No. 5 hitter had made the last out of the previous inning, then the No. 6 hitter would lead off the next inning and the No. 4 hitter would start on second base and the No. 5 hitter would start on first."
Among the intriguing possibilities of that arrangement: A player could hit a home run, the next batter could make the last out of an inning, and then the guy who hit the home run could lead off the next inning by standing on second base and being driven in with the winning run.
"It's not that you have to 'deal' with it -- we're the one sport in the Olympic program that doesn't have a definitive ending," Siler said. "We're introducing an opportunity to speed up the game. It's increasing the opportunity for offense. It's different. From a fan's perspective, it might be exciting. At the end of the day, if baseball wants to return to the Olympic program, we have to show we're willing to change as needed."
While it might seem logical to choose the top of the order to bat in that situation, expect many variables to come into the manager's thinking. You might want your best bunter leading off that inning, so that he can immediately move over two runners. It could be based on who's hot at that point in the game. If your No. 7 hitter is 4-for-4, for example, you might want him batting first. It could be situational, lefty vs. righty.
Johnson was asked at the introductory press conference last Thursday what he thinks of possibly being put into that situation.
"Hopefully, there won't be any ties going into the (11th) inning," he said. "It's a format to try to shorten the games, and I understand that. As far as, how we are going to play that, we haven't had any simulation of that yet. ... Are we going to play for one run, or are we going to play for a bunch of runs? A lot of that will depend on what we hear from the scouts on run-producing abilities of the other clubs."
Wood bats are used in the Olympics, consistent with what players in this tournament are accustomed to swinging. Indeed, the occasional broken bat already has littered the infield during batting practices and exhibitions in the days prior to the first tournament game. The two key equipment differences for Americans will be literally felt on the mound, and they are such nuances that no fan could notice.
The official Olympics baseball is Mizuno, and although the same measurements as your average Rawlings in America's pros, it features higher stitches. That has been a topic of discussion among some of the U.S. pitchers this week.
"You might notice that as you get deeper into your pitch count," Jeremy Cummings said. "For some guys, it will probably mean callusing in different places on your hand."
"We had one day in Santa Clara (Calif.) two weeks ago, when the team got together on a field for the first time, and we worked out with a collegiate ball that had laces higher and wider," U.S. pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said. "These aren't as wide, but are they lifted up higher. You will get different calluses. Mostly on the bottom thumb. You could get that little blood blister on the fingertips."
The resin bag is one of those things fans might not think about much at a ballpark, but it is also of concern to U.S. pitchers. That's because it's not "resin" here.
"It's baby powder here, compared to resin in the States," Cummings said. "Our normal resin bag gets your hands sticky. This gets your hands pasty. You'll see Asian players touching the resin bag after every pitch. It slows the games down. When I was playing in Taiwan (earlier this season), games were 3 1/2 hours on average. Then they'd have a break after five innings, a smoke break."
No smoke breaks here. But they have to deal with that baby powder.
"We're going to try to just take our own resin bags out there," Cummings said. "I don't think anyone will care. I don't like that pasty feeling on my hand."
If a team is ahead by 10 runs or more after seven completed innings, the Mercy Rule is invoked where the home plate umpire calls "time and game," with victory credited to the team that has a lead of 10 or more runs.
They call it "knockout baseball." It's the buzzphrase of these games.
"There's no such thing as 'running up the score' in this competition. Just beat the crap out of 'em," Cummings said. "You have to score as many runs as you can."
"We want to play knockout ball as much as we can," said hitting coach and former Dodgers star Reggie Smith. "With the run differential having a possible effect on your seeding, we're going to score as many runs as we can."
"You might see a nine-run game and a team is still stealing bases. You're equating that to saving your pitching," Siler said. "If a team is beating another team badly, is it being unsportsmanlike? No, it's maximizing a rule. We went over that in the technical meeting. You have to take advantage of that opportunity."
It is a round-robin tournament of eight teams, and it begins with four games each day for four consecutive days. Then there is a rest day. Then there are three days with four games each. Then there is a rest day. At that point, all eight teams will have played each other once, and the top four teams will move on.
The reason knockout baseball is so important is the tiebreaker that could come into play for reducing the field. First they take the four teams with the best won-loss records. If a tiebreaker is needed in that process, head-to-head record is always the first criteria.
If there is a three-way tie, then there are a number of criteria that would be used. The first would be runs allowed in the games played among the three teams. That formula is runs allowed divided by defensive innings, or what Smith called "run differential." Again, that's where knockout ball becomes so huge.
The semifinals are on Aug. 22, and the top-ranked team will play the No. 4 seed in one game. The other two teams meet in the other semifinal. On Aug. 23, the two losers of the semifinals meet to determine the bronze medalist, and the two winners play for gold and silver. The Closing Ceremony is the following day. Every team plays at least seven games at the Olympics, and the medalists play nine.
Beijing is 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Time zone. The U.S. team's first two games are at 6 p.m. local time in Beijing on Wednesday and then 10:30 a.m. local time on Thursday. Both are viewed on a Wednesday in the U.S.
Baseball is one of the latest starters among the sports in Beijing.
American League fans especially can relate to the Olympics. They use the DH here. Evidently that is a big deal here, because it is listed No. 1 on the "Rule differences for Olympic Baseball" sheet handed out to media.
No country is affected in terms of pitch counts like the U.S. team. It's not even close. With the exception of San Diego State incoming junior Steven Strasburg, the dozen-man pitching staff all belongs to an MLB organization and all have regimented pitch counts at this point in a summer.
While the U.S. has an advantage by being able to put top Major League prospects on its pitching staff, there is certainly potential to be at a disadvantage in any given game. If you have two starters throwing masterpieces, there is a real possibility of one being able to complete a game and control his own destiny and the other having to come out and a reliever giving up runs.
"What we have is an understanding with the (Major League) clubs that we'll take care of their players," Siler said. "There are others in the tournament who will have pitch counts. It may benefit us that we have 12 strong pitchers. It is what it is."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.