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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Extra-inning baseball in 2021 certainly is a strange affair

Yankees' DJ LeMahieu scores the winning run on

Yankees' DJ LeMahieu scores the winning run on an infield single by Gleyber Torres as Washington Nationals catcher Yan Gomes (10) walks away in the 11th inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Yankee Stadium. Credit: AP/Bill Kostroun

Maybe you missed this, but the Spokane, Washington-based Pioneer League announced on April 27 that it was going to settle tie games this season with a Home Run Derby.

No extra innings. Just a couple of guys trying to hit home runs in the MLB partner minor league.

It’s called experimentation, and fans in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Colorado will get to experience it this summer.

How many years before it comes to the Bronx and Queens?

That’s the thought we had during the final two innings of the Yankees’ 4-3, 11-inning victory over the Nationals on Saturday.

It’s Year Two of the ghost runner rule in MLB — or, as Michael Kay derisively calls it on YES, "carnival baseball," with each half-inning after the ninth starting with a runner on second.

The rule was instituted as an anti-pandemic measure, the idea being that shorter extra-inning games will lead to less time for everyone at the ballpark.

But now, as we begin to emerge (hopefully for good) from COVID-19, is it possible the rule is here to stay?

Because it doesn’t seem to be about shortening games in 2021, as it was in 2020. If the idea is to lessen time at the ballpark, why did Saturday’s game start after a rain delay of 2 hours and 25 minutes? Innings 10 and beyond are a public health hazard, but idling in the ballpark for as long as it takes to fly from New York to Chicago is OK?

Anyway, the 10th and 11th innings were exciting, for sure, as the Nationals and Yankees both scored in the 10th and the Yankees won it in the 11th on Gleyber Torres’ bases-loaded dribbler.

One of the complaints about extra-inning games in previous seasons that went on and on and on was that every batter tried to hit the go-ahead or walk-off home run.

The saddest truth about the ghost runner inning is it forces hitters to try to re-learn situational hitting. After nine innings of everyone swinging from their heels, there is actual strategy when it gets to ghost runner innings.

The bunt — or at least the idea of the bunt — is back. So is shortening up and trying to advance a runner. A sacrifice fly is a thing of significance, not a reason to hang your head because the ball didn’t go over the wall.

After nine innings of 2021 baseball filled with home runs and strikeouts, the ghost innings feel like something out of the past. Every pitch matters.

Justin Wilson was the only reliever on Saturday who beat the rule. He held the Nationals scoreless in the 11th and picked up the victory when Torres beat a five-man infield with his dribbler to the third-base side of the mound that pitcher Tanner Rainey tried and failed to grab with his bare hand.

That’s right, a five-man infield. Nationals manager Dave Martinez employed that strategy after the Yankees loaded the bases with none out on the ghost runner and walks to Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge.

Martinez, by the way, couldn’t take out the wild Rainey because of the three-batter rule (another experiment, designed to shorten game times, that hasn’t accomplished that at all).

An inning earlier, with the Nationals ahead by a run, Yankees manager Aaron Boone dusted off the sacrifice bunt — or at least tried to with lefty-swinging Mike Ford leading off with the ghost runner on second against lefty Brad Hand.

Boone chose not to use Gary Sanchez as a pinch hitter, opting to let Ford try to put down a sacrifice bunt for the first time in his professional career. From the look of Ford’s first stabbing attempt (a foul), it was fortunate for the Yankees that Hand fell behind 3-and-1.

Boone took off the bunt and Ford lined a shot past the empty shortstop spot and into leftfield for the tying single.

Why was the shortstop spot empty? The shift, of course! That's another experiment that might have seemed radical when it was first introduced but now is a staple of 2021 baseball.

So maybe it’s time to embrace the ghost runner rule.

At least until it’s replaced by the Home Run Derby sponsored by Your Company Here. Stanton and Judge vs. Juan Soto and Kyle Schwarber! Who’s in?

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