Karinchak struggles facing high-pressure pitch timer

March 31st, 2023

SEATTLE -- Guardians reliever didn’t look comfortable on the mound at T-Mobile Park on Thursday night.

The Guardians had been hanging on. Shane Bieber navigated six innings of traffic but never allowed a run, while his offense couldn’t muster any steam against Seattle starter Luis Castillo. So, like many times last season, Cleveland needed its bullpen to be perfect to keep the club in it.

This time, that resulted in a 3-0 loss to the Mariners due to an inning that deteriorated quickly.

Karinchak picked up two quick strikes against J.P. Crawford leading off the eighth, but before he could release his next offering, the pitch timer expired, resulting in an automatic ball -- a rule change with which many had speculated that Karinchak might struggle.

Karinchak is notorious for his lengthy routine. In the past, he rotated between flipping the ball in his hand, grabbing the rosin bag behind the mound and messing with his hat and hair -- a sequence that can’t possibly fit into a 15-second time frame. So all eyes were on Karinchak in Spring Training as the pitch timer was incorporated. For the most part, he seamlessly handled the rule with few infractions. But on Thursday, he didn’t appear as adaptable.

“We've seen Karinchak a lot in the past,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He has a routine, a very lengthy routine. He's had to try to make adjustments with that -- the things he does with the ball, flipping it and everything else in it -- he was a little bit out of whack.”

After an automatic ball was charged to Karinchak, he airmailed his next pitch into the backstop, causing the 45,000-plus fans at T-Mobile Park to roar. As the noise grew louder, Karinchak struggled to hear the pitch calls that catcher Mike Zunino was relaying via PitchCom. As the pitch timer continued to tick away, Zunino called for time to avoid another violation.

“I don’t know if it’s the clock or the situation,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “It was noisy, and the atmosphere really got more live in that inning.”

“It was a big learning lesson there,” Zunino said. “It’s going to come down to trying to find quiet times to relay, if we have to go back to traditional [signs], we’re going to have to max those out.”

Four pitches later, Karinchak got Crawford to check his swing at a high heater out of the zone on a 3-2 count. The Guardians thought that Crawford had tipped the ball, which popped out of Zunino’s glove. But home plate umpire Mark Carlson said there hadn’t been a tip, and awarded Crawford a free pass to first base.

“I had it as a foul tip,” Zunino said. “It came off more toward the heel of my glove and popped out. He said he didn’t hear it. It was loud at that time. It sucks that you can’t challenge that play.”

“You hope that that doesn’t spur on more, but James had a tough inning to boot,” Francona said. “That made it for a tougher inning.”

That’s when the wheels fell off the cart. A hit-by-pitch two batters later prompted a mound visit from pitching coach Carl Willis, but Karinchak gave up the deciding three-run blast to Ty France in the next at-bat.

“He was a little erratic, but I was just trying to get something good to swing at,” France said.

“It was high and away,” Karinchak said. “He got it. Put a good swing on it. That’s it.”

An Opening Day loss isn’t season-defining. But the Guardians need to use these early weeks to try to figure out their identity. If they’re a scrappy team like last year, there will once again be pressure on the bullpen to be lights-out.

Cleveland entered the season with Emmanuel Clase, Karinchak and Trevor Stephan as its late-inning relievers. Karinchak has had a rollercoaster of a journey in the big leagues, going from impressive to wild to reliable over the last three years. If offense is sparse again in ‘23, the Guardians will need to know their back-end hurlers are dependable.

It’s too early in the year for these answers to be known, and Karinchak’s ship may quickly be righted. But Cleveland will need to keep an eye on whether he struggles to settle back in on the rubber.

For now, it’ll keep its focus on getting in the win column for the first time in ‘23.

“It’s always good to face adversity right away,” Zunino said. “We’ll go tomorrow.”