Max Scherzer said during spring training he believes the pitch clock gives power to the pitchers. Jarred Kelenic disagreed with this assessment, pointing out the new rules were designed to spark more offense and create action, indicating he believes the pitch clock favors hitters. But what if the pitch clock empowers a secret, third thing: the fans?
Last night James Karinchak had the worst time in Seattle since someone accidentally knocked over a pot of glue in 1889. Entering the eighth, Karinchak actually got off to a solid start, throwing two tough fastballs to J.P. Crawford: 95 with some sink that J.P. took for a strike, and then 95 again at the top of the zone, which J.P. fouled off, putting him in an 0-2 hole to lead off the inning.
If you don’t know much about Karinchak, first a few facts: Drafted by Cleveland in 2017, he wears number 99, like famous fictional Cleveland reliever Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from the movie Major League. He wears his pants so tightly they look vacuum-sealed to his legs. And some people cite his lengthy pre-pitch routine as one of the driving forces behind the institution of the pitch clock, as he formerly had a routine that involved flipping the ball, adjusting his jersey, smoothing his hair, tugging on his cap, repeated ad nauseum and leading to suspicions he was using that routine as a cover to put sticky stuff on the ball. That belief was seemingly vindicated when MLB cracked down on sticky stuff in 2021, which just happened to coincide with Karinchak’s worst season as a pro. (Karinchak’s name also might be familiar from when he made headlines in 2021 for a controversial social media post where he compared vaccines to the spread of Nazism, which he later deleted.)
After going to 0-2 on Crawford, the now closely-shorn Karinchak—last season he was subjected to a lengthy check of his hair after Rocco Baldelli of the Twins requested it, leading to this oddly sensual exchange—decided he didn’t like the ball he’d been given, and asked for a new one, another of Karinchak’s deflection methods, but one that goes unpunished as long as the pitcher asks for a new ball with eight seconds remaining on the clock. The attentive and informed fans of T-Mobile Park were not fooled, however; as Karinchak got the new ball, and proceeded to flip it around and run down the clock, the crowd, counting along with the pitch timer, began to jeer. By the time home plate umpire Mark Carlson signaled for the pitch clock violation against Karinchak, the crowd had already called it, and erupted into even louder cheers.
Karinchak’s next pitch missed everything, suddenly obliterating his 0-2 lead in the count, and pushing the crowd to a fever pitch.
At this point, every person in the 45,000-strong crowd smelled blood in the water. The noise level rose, fans behind home plate stood up. Catcher Mike Zunino was forced to burn a mound visit to go out and talk to his pitcher. “Crowd all over Karinchak,” noted Dave Sims. “This is the roar we know and love from Seattle fans in the playoffs,” he said gleefully over a shot of fans in the ballpark rising to their feet, sensing an opportunity.
Karinchak made a good pitch next, putting 96 at the top of the zone for J.P. to foul off. It was a good pitch, but Karinchak was both literally and metaphorically sweating.
Karinchak’s next pitch was inside, pushing the count full. “This crowd sounds like a train coming down the tracks...downhill,” said Sims. J.P., putting up the kind of at-bat J.P. is so good at, kept battling, fouling off another pitch and then, in a stroke of luck, the umpires missed what appeared to be a foul tip, much to the bemusement of former Mariner Mike Zunino, who would be forgiven for believing he left this kind of thing behind in Seattle:
An underrated part of last night was Mike Zunino's reaction to the sequence of events after the no-foul-tip call. Just a full spectrum of emotions here. pic.twitter.com/Cf7qt7Rzx7— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 31, 2023
Look, there will be some arguments about how this call might have changed the course of the inning, but it’s pretty clear that Karinchak was already in meltdown mode, hastened over the cliffs of insanity by a raucous, merciless crowd with the hot rush of bloodlust pumping through their veins like sugar on a child’s Halloween.
Karinchak got through his battle with Julio, getting him to fly out easily despite falling behind 3-1, but by this point the crowd was counting down the pitch clock for Karinchak in a cacophony of voices, like what you might see at a college hoops game. Karinchak demanded another new ball before beginning the at-bat against Kolten Wong. Without Ju-li-o to chant, the majority of the crowd dug in hard on the pitch clock countdown.
Ball one missed up. Wong fouled off the second pitch. Karinchak demanded yet another new ball, then missed up again. The crowd took this momentary break in the action to get on time with the pitch clock countdown, counting down in one voice.
For people who wanted to hear the crowd counting Karinchak, I think it might be audible in this clip: pic.twitter.com/oNX8qYVWms— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 31, 2023
Wong battled, fouling off pitches and working a full count, with the crowd gleefully counting down Karinchak like a Greek chorus each time. Karinchak made his maximum of two throws over the first, almost throwing the ball away the second time; each throw was heavily booed, of course, and after the second, drolly noted on Mariners Vision as “pitcher pickoff moves remaining: (0).” Karinchak then tried to go inside on Wong, hitting him on the elbow guard with 94 and prompting a visit from Guardians pitching coach Carl Willis, giving the rabid crowd a chance to refuel from their cups and return to absolutely working him over.
Karinchak’s first pitch to Ty France came zooming in at 95 uncomfortably up and in on the Mariners’ oft-beanballed first baseman, and boos rumbled through the stadium like the freight trains that run alongside T-Mobile. The sheer hatred of the crowd towards Karinchak was a tangible object, a shroud that descended over Cleveland’s pitcher as he stared down France.
And still, every time, the a funhouse mirror of countdowns, each section shouting different numbers at Karinchak. Karinchak kept trying to work the top of the zone with his fastball against Ty, putting it more towards the middle of the top of the zone rather than coming in on France again and risking being boiled in oil by the villagers of T-Mobile. France made a good rip at 94, fouling it back. Then Karinchak did something very stupid, something even the most feckless Mariners pitcher of the past decade could tell you not to do: he shook off Mike Zunino.
Instead of whatever Zunino called for, Karinchak, having had his senses pried away by the crowd at T-Mobile and deposited in the Salish Sea, opted to go for another high fastball, and Ty France was ready for it:
This victory belongs to Ty France, of course, and the Mariners batters as a whole for applying continuous pressure to Karinchak, but it would be remiss to say the fans didn’t play a part in it. Scott Servais said as much postgame:
“It did affect the game. We’ve seen Karinchak a lot in the past. He has a routine, a very lengthy routine, and he’s had to try to make adjustments with that, all the things he does with the ball-flipping and all of that, and he was a little out of whack. But credit to our crowd; they got loud, they made it hard for him to focus and concentrate, and that’s truly the difference home field advantage can make. Again, hats off; it made a huge difference in the ballgame tonight.”
But the crowd’s effect wasn’t confined to pitch clock shenanigans alone. As a smirking Scott Servais noted, “when it got louder in the ballpark, stuff started to happen. And it’s a tribute to the fans who were in the ballpark tonight.”
Seattle sports fans have already shown they’re capable of impacting the game across the street at Lumen Field, where the infamous “12th Man” causes a spate of false start penalties with their sheer wall of noise. Now baseball fans in the Emerald City will also have a chance to lend their voices to their team in a way that can immediately, tangibly affect on-field action. It was truly exciting to witness. Keep it up, Seattle.