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At youth tourney, unique rules transform game

MLB, Perfect Game address pace of play with new measures
Special to MLB.com

EMERSON, Ga. -- Over the weekend, 16 teams gathered at Perfect Game Park South-LakePoint for a tournament that pitted some of the top travel teams from across the country against one another.

From the outside, it looked like a normal tournament, but it was far from it. Take the fifth inning of the semifinal game between Canes National and the Upstate Mavericks. With two outs in the top of the fifth, Mavericks outfielder Austin Hunter saw a no-strike, backdoor curveball that caught the edge of the plate. His knees locked, and as the umpire signaled strike, the Canes left the field and Hunter feigned a swing. The swing, coming several seconds late, drew laughs from the crowd and even the home-plate umpire. The inning ended on that pitch, a strike-one curveball.

EMERSON, Ga. -- Over the weekend, 16 teams gathered at Perfect Game Park South-LakePoint for a tournament that pitted some of the top travel teams from across the country against one another.

From the outside, it looked like a normal tournament, but it was far from it. Take the fifth inning of the semifinal game between Canes National and the Upstate Mavericks. With two outs in the top of the fifth, Mavericks outfielder Austin Hunter saw a no-strike, backdoor curveball that caught the edge of the plate. His knees locked, and as the umpire signaled strike, the Canes left the field and Hunter feigned a swing. The swing, coming several seconds late, drew laughs from the crowd and even the home-plate umpire. The inning ended on that pitch, a strike-one curveball.

This is because this 16-team tournament, the Ways to Play tournament powered by Perfect Game and Major League Baseball, featured a rule that deemed a batter out if he took a strike, no matter the count. In fact, this tournament of nine-inning games featured seven unique rules designed by MLB to address growing concerns about the slowed pace of play in baseball.

The other rule changes included:
• Three balls result in a walk.
• No straight or delayed steals.
• A batter must keep a foot in the batter's box at all times.
• No throwing the ball around between batters.
• If a game is tied after nine innings, a runner will be placed on second with one out.
• If a game is tied after 10 innings, bases will be loaded with one out.

While the rules may seem drastic, they've already provided some strong results.

"We've seen quicker games," said Del Matthews, MLB senior director of baseball development. "We've played nine-inning games in an hour and 35, 45 minutes. It's aggressive, but at the end of the day this is a great environment for us to experiment with it."

Aggressive, not drastic, has been the key word for MLB's representatives at the event, including Tony Reagins, senior vice president of youth programs. Reagins also emphasized that this experiment was about improving pace of play and not necessarily about making game times shorter, although that can be a byproduct.

"From our sport's standpoint, this is a test," Reagins said. "Some of these rules may be implemented long term, none of them may be implemented long term. I think it was important for us to get out here and see what the appetite might be for pace of game and time of game. Those two things are very different, pace and time. So we're just trying to get ahead and provide information so you can make smart decisions as you go forward."

The relationship between MLB and Perfect Game was a natural one as Commissioner Rob Manfred put youth baseball on the forefront of his priority list. When MLB approached Perfect Game about the unique tournament idea, president Jerry Ford was intrigued.

"Just the fact that you don't necessarily have to throw a strike but hitters have to protect more, it's different," Ford said. "It definitely hurries the game. I don't even think it ruins the game. I don't think anybody will ever end up doing this. It's just too drastic of a move, but it definitely makes the game more interesting."

Ford and Perfect Game rounded up the participants for the tournament, and even with the unique set of rules, there were more teams that desired to participate than Perfect Game could fit.

From the teams that did participate, reviews have been mixed, although the criticism has been constructive.

"I think the first game it was a little bit of an adjustment for the guys, and they didn't like it at first," said Marquis Grissom, a 17-year Major League veteran and coach of the MLB Breakthrough Series team. "The one I don't like is definitely no stealing. You've got to be able to steal, that's a big part of the game. The part I do like is go up there and swing the bat. … As a coach I like it because it teaches you to go up there and work on that two-strike approach."

East Cobb Yankees come out on top

The East Cobb Yankees, based out of Marietta, Ga., completed back-to-back comebacks on Sunday to capture the Ways to Play championship, beating the Canes, 5-4, in the championship.

The Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the fifth, but immediately surrendered that by allowing three runs in the bottom half of the inning. The Yankees surged in the sixth for three runs of their own, though, thanks to catcher Nicholas Watson-Garcia and shortstop Ryan Bliss, who each had two RBIs.

Tweet from @PerfectGameUSA: Ryan Getz from the East Cobb Yankees is our Most Valuable Pitcher! #WaysToPlay pic.twitter.com/FPuowqP72q

This came after the Yankees went down 4-0 in the first two innings to the East Cobb Astros in the semifinal. In that game, the Yankees tied things up in the sixth and then added the go-ahead run in the seventh. After the Astros tied the game in the top of the ninth, the Yankees walked off in the bottom of the ninth to advance to the championship.

Ryan Getz, a right-handed pitcher from Marietta, was named the team's MVP after throwing seven innings of one-run baseball with a 0.714 WHIP in the tournament.

Cody Pace is contributor to MLB.com based in Atlanta.