In MLB playoffs, you have to squint to see the offense

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 17, 2013

On Wednesday afternoon, in bright sunlight at Dodger Stadium and later that night at Comerica Park in Detroit, a strange sight was on view in the National and American League Championship Series: Actual baseball games, with normal run-scoring, long home runs and plenty of excitement suddenly broke out. The Tigers won, 7-3, with five runs in one inning. The Dodgers won, 6-4, with four homers. Cheers were heard, at least from me.

Why have entertaining playoff games, conducted in fair conditions, become so precious? Baseball should be played in the day or at night. Either is fine. But twilight stinks. And twilight games continue to contaminate the sport again this October. Thirteen of 30 postseason games this year started between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. local time with two others at 6:30.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

For a century the average baseball game has averaged nine runs. When the sport gets fewer than eight runs a game, rules change. Fewer than seven is almost unheard of and a calamity. Those 15 twilight games so far this October have averaged 6.6 runs. So far in both LCS series, the games that decide the pennants, twilight games have averaged 2.75 runs. You read right.

Thank goodness the World Series comes next week. At least all games will be at night so a semblance of a valid champ can emerge. Games may get chilly, and some end after the kids’ bedtimes. But at least it’s baseball.

Oh, sorry. Maybe they’ll all be played at night. If the Dodgers come from what was a three-games-to-one deficit to reach the Series, Games 3-4-5 will all be in twilight. If the Dodgers and Oakland A’s had met in the Series, every game might have started at exactly the worst possible time: prime time on the East Coast, for the best TV audiences, but three hours earlier, at twilight, in the West.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses why Cal Ripken Jr. should be the next Nationals manager even though he is not among the top candidates. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Good pitching always stops blind hitting.

On Tuesday, in twilight, the Red Sox beat the Tigers, 1-0. That was the seventh shutout already in this postseason. Nine times a team has been held to one run. Maybe that’s not actually so thrilling. Every time you turn on a game, it’s 0-0 in the fifth inning and a pitcher is working on a no-hitter, unless both pitchers are working on no-hitters.

The last thing baseball needs in October is a run drought coupled with the incredibly slow pace of October games: 3:23, 25 minutes longer than the lugubrious regular season.

Many things can throw hitters into slumps. Leading causes include elite pitchers, off days that erode batters’ timing and playing when you can’t see the ball well as it moves in and out of shadows or appears to be coming out of a sun-bleached background.

In October, all of these factors coincide. With so many off days — Boston played just eight games in the first 16 days of the month — only the best pitchers are used. No fifth starter and few fourth starters ever find the mound. Mop-up men shouldn’t even bother coming to the ballpark.

Playing roughly half of all games in twilight conditions is just the final straw to demoralize hitters. If you feel like you face a Kershaw, Verlander or Wainwright every day while squinting at anyone who happens to be on the hill, the cumulative effect has a carryover impact on future games: the Big Slump.

Autumn baseball has always contended with shadows and poor light, like high-decked Yankee Stadium in the era when all Series games were played in the day. The sun goes down sooner: bad for baseball. But the more twilight games you play, the more you make a bad situation worse. The final result: hitters on every team such as the Tigers’ Austin Jackson, dropped from leadoff to batting eighth after 18 strikeouts in 35 October at-bats.

Did I mention the strikeouts? October baseball isn’t just low in scoring; it is low in action plays, too. At least defense provides some thrills, like Torii Hunter flipping over the right field bullpen fence at Fenway trying to snag David Ortiz’s grand slam in Game 2 of the ALCS on Sunday — a normal night game with a 6-5 final score.

I’d give you all the statistics, but it’s dull enough watching the games without having my favorite incriminating decimal points inflicted on your eyes, too. Okay, if you insist, just a couple: The combined batting average of all players in both LCS through Wednesday was .210. Usually, only the top-stuff pitchers have more strikeouts than hits allowed. In both LCS, whiffs outnumbered hits 167 to 125, with the Red Sox fanning 53 times to just 24 hits. In other words, all the pitchers in these LCS combined have the same K/H ratio as Sandy Koufax.

Sometimes problems sneak up on a sport, then combine forces. For decades, baseball’s pace of play issue has never been fixed. Twilight postseason starts have been a baseball blight for years, especially since the arrival of expanded playoffs in ’95. But the (artificial) era of offense masked the problem until recently. Finally, baseball has seen an invasion of gifted power pitchers such as the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha, the A’s Sonny Gray, the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole and entire bullpens in which 97-mph fastballs seem normal.

Put it all together and you get an ALCS Game 1 that takes 3:56 for a 1-0 final score and the Red Sox held without a hit until the ninth inning. It would indeed be a classic — except three such games arrived within four days. Then, maybe, it’s a problem.

The Cardinals and Dodgers have already played three twilight games at 4, 5 and 5 p.m. local time in their series. At least their remaining games will be at night.

But the Tigers and Red Sox may not be as lucky. If the NLCS goes seven games, then Game 6 of the ALCS also will fall Saturday. Since baseball has promised to provide nothing but “doubleheaders” for its TV dollars, with no games overlapping, then ALCS Game 6, with somebody facing elimination, will be decided in . . . the Twilight Zone.

It looks like baseball. The production values and that HD picture on your big screen will look fabulous. But it’s not baseball, not quite. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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