The Cleveland Guardians’ Opening Day was going fairly on schedule up until the eighth inning. Cleveland, who have scored just 18 runs over the last nine season openers and were 4-5 during that stretch, were locked in a late-night pitching duel as Luis Castillo ripped through the Guardians lineup and Shane Bieber returned fire with a solid outing of his own. After allowing six hits and striking out three while holding the Seattle Mariners to 0-for-8 on at bats with runners in scoring position, Bieber turned the ball over to Trevor Stephan.
Fresh off a four-year contract extension, Stephan made quick work of his batters and struck out one in a quiet bottom of the seventh. The Guardians’ six, seven, and eight hitters went down quickly as well, and manager Terry Francona signaled for James Karinchak, who’s solidified himself as the setup man, to take care of the eighth. And all hell broke loose.
Opening Day took forever to come for the Guardians, who were the last team to open their season yesterday with a 7:10 p.m. Pacific Time first pitch. Cleveland fans back home had to patiently wait until 10 p.m., and some probably opted to catch some Z’s and the recap the next day. But the pomp and circumstance, the expectations, the two extensions and signing of Josh Bell, everything that had built up this offseason to its glorious beginning came crashing down in a matter of minutes.
Karinchak, who had no issue with the pitch clock throughout Spring Training and had experience with it in Columbus in 2022, suddenly forgot to keep an eye on one of the most important MLB rule changes implemented prior to this season. He had 15 seconds — the time allotted between pitches when no runner is on base — to throw another pitch. He didn’t, and for the first time, a Cleveland pitcher was penalized for what counts as an “on-field delay.” The sold out crowd at T-Mobile Park, relatively subdued by a scoreless affair, began to perk up. The clock that had been an afterthought for the entirety of the game, became the focal point.
Karinchak seemed flustered when he stepped back on the mound and proceeded to sail a pitch juuuust a bit outside and to the backstop. Bob Uecker would be livid, but the real Wild Thing might be proud. Mariners fans went bonkers, prompting a timeout and mound visit from Mike Zunino, a good move by the veteran catcher. Now, at this point Francona probably should have gotten a pitcher up and slow-played Karinchak’s outing for the next two batters. He didn’t, trusting the 27-year old flamethrower like Francona tends to do. Fine, maybe it works out in a different game.
But Karinchak went on to walk J.P. Crawford on a 3-2 pitch Cleveland, and the replays, thought it was a foul ball. It’s not a reviewable play, so Karinchak, now steaming, moved on to get Julio Rodriguez to line out to center before drilling Kolten Wong. In a perfect world, that’s the end of Karinchak’s night. He’s reached the three-batter minimum and is clearly not calming down enough to continue. But Francona left him out there and watched as Karinchak proceeded to give up a three-run home run to Ty France, the dagger Thursday night to the Guardians.
Blame Francona for leaving him in, the umpires for not catching the foul ball, baseball for instituting the pitch clock, Tik Tok for shortening America’s attention spans to that of a goldfish. But Thursday night felt like par for the course for someone who’s had a polarizing career thus far. Karinchak’s antics, especially not following the pitch clock that he should have adjusted to during Spring Training, have persisted throughout his time in Cleveland, and if the Guardians are going to trust him in the back of the bullpen long-term, they need to stop immediately.
Look, I’m a fan of Karinchak and have been since he started gaining organizational recognition as a strikeout machine in Double-A. I love his Wild Thing persona, his bullpen entrance, the high-90s fastball and electric 12-to-6 curveball, the lunatic style on the mound. But all of that comes with the territory of being someone who’s supposed to be a reliable pitcher in the back of the bullpen. He’s already lost the closing job and was sent down to Triple-A as recently as last year because of command issues.
Then he came back and pitched the 38 best games of his career, finishing the season with a 2.08 ERA, 62 strikeouts and a 1.10 WHIP through 39 innings. Karinchak is one of the many pitchers that boast a notoriously long routine between pitches, and he wasn’t the only guy to get popped for a violation yesterday. Mistakes happen, and violations are likely to occur throughout the season. You just hope they don’t lead to a complete derailment of a pitcher’s composure. It was like watching a kid get told no once and having a complete meltdown in public.
“He has a long routine with flipping the ball and stuff, and he’s had to adjust to that. He was a bit out of whack,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said after the game.
The rosin bag tossing, flipping the ball, screwing around with his hat and wavy hair takes a long time, and it’s exactly what MLB is trying to eliminate with the pitch clock. If Karinchak doesn’t change his ways and mature enough to be trusted, he too will be quickly eliminated from Cleveland.