BRADENTON, Fla. — Everyone was on the field for the bottom of the ninth inning.
That is, everyone except the four umpires, a crew led by Chad Fairchild.
The Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates finished their spring training game Tuesday without umpires on the field when the clubs agreed to continue playing even though Baltimore had already lost. Normally, the game ends if the visiting team is trailing and fails to tie the score in the top of the ninth during its at-bats.
Manager Brandon Hyde said Major League Baseball informed clubs they could opt to continue games through the bottom of the ninth so another pitcher can face live batters. In this case, it was right-hander Ofreidy Gómez who took the mound to get spring training work in a simulated setting.
But the umpires left.
“We were told by the league we could clear it by the umpires and pitch the bottom half of the ninth inning, and I guess Chad Fairchild felt like we couldn’t,” Hyde said.
A spokesperson for Major League Baseball didn’t immediately return a request for comment. The umpires, however, were not obligated to remain on the field, considering the contest had reached its natural completion. Umpires aren’t required to allow the additional half inning to be played, either.
Gómez threw to catcher Maverick Handley, who also served as the makeshift umpire. “A little backfield action,” Hyde said, referencing the simulated spring training games played on a practice field.
Handley gave himself a borderline strike call after a strong framing job on a slider. He figured it would’ve been a called strike about 85% of the time, and he explained that to shortstop Andres Alvarez, the recipient of the call.
“I caught it, told him, ‘Hey, that’s a really good pitch, I got that on the zone,’” Handley recounted. “He was like, ‘I agree with ya.’”
He was glad the slider came during an early count, so he didn’t feel too badly calling a strike. But if it came on a two-strike count, with that strong frame job?
“Oh, I’m wringing him up,” Handley said with a laugh. “No laugh about it.”
Before the inning began, Handley received a few friendly jeers from the Pirates dugout, players he got to know well during his time in Double-A last season.
“Luckily, there weren’t really any that borderline pitches that were taken; they were all swung at,” Handley said, making his umpire decision making easier. “Props to those guys for not making me make those decisions.”
In that simulated inning without umpires, Gómez allowed one hit in an otherwise clean inning. Pirates manager Derek Shelton told reporters that Hyde ran the idea past him in the eighth inning and he agreed.
It was a footnote in a 7-4 loss to the Pirates, but it created a unique final half-inning experience.