By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
BOSTON, Oct. 23 -- In the early morning of Oct. 14, Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis dug into the batter's box. Bottom of the ninth, tie game, two outs, runner on first, a chance to win Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The clock at Fenway Park read 12:33 a.m., more than four hours after the game began.
Youkilis stared out at Rafael Betancourt, the fearsome reliever of the Cleveland Indians. A battle ensued. It involved Betancourt throwing to first, Youkilis stepping out of the box, a stolen base, a fake to second, a check swing, step-offs, step-outs, and six two-strike pitches fouled away. On Betancourt's 11th pitch, Youkilis lined out to center. The clock read 12:44 a.m. The at-bat was over, albeit 10 minutes 35 seconds after it began. The game continued -- for two more innings that took 53 additional minutes.
The pressure of postseason baseball means more pacing, more fidgeting, more exhaling long, pulse-slowing breaths. It also means more baseball, whether fans or players want it. Nine-inning regular season games in the 2007 season lasted an average of 2 hours 51 minutes. With Game 1 of the World Series on tap for Wednesday here, buckle up, because the average for the 24 postseason games thus far is 3:32.
"The length of the games is a major concern," said Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer. "It's a problem, and it's one we have to address."
During this postseason, MLB officials have received criticism for several late starting times, beginning with a first pitch after 10 p.m. and finishing later than 1 a.m. on the East Coast. But the sport's top officials defend those decisions, arguing that fans in western cities such as Phoenix and Denver were better served. In many cases, the television ratings have risen as the games have worn on, sometimes peaking after midnight.
Yet do games that start before 8:30 p.m. really have to regularly go beyond midnight? History shows they will. In the past 10 seasons, according to data accumulated by MLB, World Series games have been an average of 37 minutes longer than an average nine-inning regular season game.
The reasons have to do with the nature of the two most essential parts of October -- competition and television. They don't go unnoticed by the participants.
"We have to wait a little bit for some in-between-inning commercials and things like that," said Colorado Manager Clint Hurdle, whose Rockies will face the Boston Red Sox in the Series. "That kind of slows you down every now and then."
So start there. A break between half-innings during the regular season is typically timed at 2 minutes 25 seconds. In the postseason, they extend to 2:50 so the networks that carry the games -- this year, Fox and TBS -- can sell more advertisements.
Television is an easy target when assigning blame. But as DuPuy points out, "That's only 10 minutes a game" of additional time. In fact, in a nine-inning game, the longer television breaks would amount to slightly more than seven minutes of additional time. And the pace of games even puts pressure on the broadcasters to keep audiences riveted. During Youkilis's at-bat, for instance, the Fox broadcast once showed 10 shots -- including close-ups of each member of the Cleveland infield -- between two pitches.
"We try to paint the picture and think, 'What would you be looking at if you were at the stadium?' " said Pete Macheska, the lead producer for Fox's baseball broadcasts, including the World Series. "It gives you plenty of time to build that tension. . . . For us, it's sort of like a challenge to keep you interested."
That's because the players have their own stall tactics. With average game times on the rise -- reaching 2 hours 58 minutes for a regular season nine-inning game in 2000 -- MLB has put the onus on umpires to expand their strike zones, calling the high strike, and to force hitters to get into the batter's box more quickly. In two recent seasons, regular season games took 2:46 -- a minute off MLB's target. This year, for the first time, the sport instituted a written regulation -- Rule 8.04, which allows a pitcher just 12 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty (though doesn't offer a regulation when there are runners on). If he doesn't comply, a ball should be called.
The postseason, though, is fundamentally different. Players say pressure and expectations take over, and they find themselves with the opposite problem. "It seems like the games are about 45 minutes long," said Dustin Pedroia, Boston's rookie second baseman. "They're flying by."
Thus, players make a specific point to, as they say, "slow the game down." Thus, pitchers appear ready to throw, but step off the rubber and take another breath. Batters get sick of waiting for the pitcher, so they step out of the box. As Hurdle said, "Usually, urgency isn't your friend."
"For teams that haven't necessarily been in this situation, the game seems to speed up a lot faster," Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli said. "The players that can really take their time and really focus on what they're trying to accomplish and slow the game down in their minds have a better chance to succeed in these situations. But every pitch, every situation seems to be going a thousand miles per hour if you let it.
"You're already jacked up. You're excited. You got the fans going crazy. All this can add up to anxiety and pressure if you don't take a time out and gather yourself."
Some officials from MLB and its teams believe, though, that the better the pace-of-game guidelines are enforced during the regular season, the more natural they'll seem in the playoffs. Officials have tried instituting guidelines in the minor leagues that hitters are only allowed to remove one foot from the batter's box.
But after this postseason of 30-minute innings and pitching changes after midnight, DuPuy said the sport's hierarchy will address the issue, beginning with the general managers' meetings early next month.
"You can tell the pitcher to pitch, whether the batter's ready or not," DuPuy said. "There are things you can do to move the game along. This is going to be a priority of the commissioner's office in the offseason."