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Quicker Pace at SEC Baseball Tourny: It Wasn’t Just the Clock

Realizing full-well that UK basketball recruiting, the NCAA and Eric Bledsoe are by FAR the most pertinent topics out there right now, let’s take time to talk about just that – time. The clock.

The pitch clock, that is.

During its post-season tournament, which concluded Sunday in Hoover, Alabama, the Southeastern Conference experimented with a digital clock, perched beyond the wall in right-centerfield, which counted down from 20 seconds between pitches ONLY with no runners on base, and from 108 seconds between innings.

At first blush, it appears to have been a success. The SEC reported that game times had been reduced by an average of 15 minutes. Other conferences, as well as Major League Baseball, kept a close eye on the SEC Tournament. But before other leagues follow suit, they need to study the entire story from Hoover, where I spent the week broadcasting games for the SEC Network on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio.

During a rain-delay interview, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and I talked about the clock. The commissioner said he and his staff told the coaches, Something is going to change. All too often, teams were finishing the last game of the day at times that approached 3 a.m. Eastern. The schedule had the first of four games beginning at 11 a.m.; they would finish incredibly late MINUS extra-inning games or rain delays.

The coaches agreed. What Slive and his crew told them was this: How do YOU want to change the event?

Surprisingly, the coaches agreed to the pitch clock, to locking in time between innings (giving TV enough time for commercials and pitchers enough time for their eight warmup tosses) and to starting the action a half hour earlier, on days that included (or potentially included, in the double-elimination format) four games.

What surprised me most was that the coaches all agreed to do away with between-game infield practice. Each tournament team is given the same amount of time to practice at Regions Park in Hoover, the site of the tourney, on Tuesday. They learn the intricacies of the bigger ballpark and the faster infield. Skipping between-game practice would mean the ground crew could prepare the field for the next game as soon as the final inning of the previous game was in the books.

All of this helped the tournament clip right along. As for the quicker games, there was another factor in play that hasn’t received enough mention: Excellent starting pitching.

Alabama, which made the championship game, got a complete game from ace Jimmy Nelson in its first-round upset of Auburn and eight-plus innings in its next victory from starter Nathan Kilcrease. Fireballing starter Sonny Gray pitched Vanderbilt into the 8th inning in a win over Arkansas. So did Mississippi’s Drew Pomerantz, in a victory over South Carolina.

And eventual champ LSU saw righthander Anthony Renaudo pitch into the eighth inning in a first-round upset of top-seeded Florida in the first round. Starter Austin Ross went eight innings in an upset of Vanderbilt in the second round. And Ben Alsup threw a complete-game one-hitter (in seven innings, because of impending thunderstorms) in a win over Ole Miss in the semifinals.

Strong performances by starters meant fewer interminable mound visits by coaches, fewer pitching changes and thus, fewer stoppages in the action.

Also take into account the fact that the clock does not operate with runners on base. With nobody on, hitters have to take their place in the batter’s box and pitchers have to be ready within 20 seconds. No time to take a trip around the mound, visit the resin bag, step out of the box and adjust every piece of equipment you’re wearing. Play ball.

I must confess I failed to ask the commissioner about this, and I can’t prove it either way, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the umpires expanded their strike zones a tad, as well. Nothing bogs a game down more than an ump who squeezes that confined space a pitcher has to find success. At the SEC Tournament, the umpires were fairly consistent, and consistently fair.

Mind you, I’m all in favor of the clock. I’m one of the guys who had been leaving the ballpark at 3 a.m. And it should be noted, there was not a single incident involving the clock, either between pitches or innings. Not even close. The presence of the clock, and the awareness among the players and coaches, no doubt stimulated the pace. And that’s all they needed – or so it seemed.

Other leagues have to be aware of all of this. Coaches and players have to be willing participants in games that might be governed by clock. But, and this is vital, the pace of a baseball game is best served by one thing: pitchers throwing strikes.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 21-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)


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