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How seven-inning doubleheaders will impact the MLB postseason

And the closing stretch of season will proceed as it always has: with a mad, chaotic dash to the finish line, the playoff contenders sorting themselves out on the field, nine innings at a time.

Except when they are sorting themselves out seven innings at a time.

To the list of previously unfathomable innovations altering the dynamics of the stretch run in this season of on-the-fly adjustments, add this one: the postseason field, expanded from 10 to 16 teams this year, will be heavily influenced by the outcomes of a slew of seven-inning doubleheaders, which MLB implemented this year to mitigate the effect of dozens of makeup games.

The final 15 days of the regular season, beginning Sunday, will feature a total of at least 14 doubleheaders, with all 28 of those games scheduled for seven innings. Fifteen teams, the majority of them playoff contenders, will play at least one doubleheader over that span, and eight teams will play at least two.

All told, the Cardinals — who, if the season ended today, would qualify for the postseason as the second-place finisher in the National League Central — could wind up playing as many as 12 doubleheaders in 2020, all of them within a period of about six weeks.

In early August, when it appeared the still-sidelined Cardinals might not be able to squeeze in 60 games, many in the sport were worried about the potential ramifications of such a team qualifying for the playoffs — using winning percentage as the deciding factor — over a team that may have notched more overall wins.

However, all the seven-inning doubleheaders create another inequity (or perhaps a different version of the same one): if the Cardinals play 12 doubleheaders, to get to a full 60 games, they still will have played 48 fewer innings (not counting rain-shortened or extra-inning games) than some of their competitors — the equivalent of more than five full-length games.

Within the industry, most view the seven-inning doubleheader as a necessary adaptation for the singular demands of the 2020 season — which has also seen expanded rosters, a universal designated hitter and extra innings that begin with a runner on second base, all of them instituted for the sake of expediency, efficiency or safety. If all the doubleheaders were played at the traditional nine innings, the affected teams — some of which, for example, have occasionally faced five games in a three-day span — would have seen their pitching staffs compromised to an alarming degree.

“It would’ve been very challenging to play all these makeup games, all these doubleheaders, at nine innings,” Minnesota Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli, whose team just finished a stretch of three doubleheaders in 11 days, said in a video interview with reporters. “I think the players would’ve taken the true brunt of that. And I don’t think that was fair or even possible to get through.”

But when it comes to the aesthetics of the shortened games — which have been popular at amateur levels and were implemented throughout the minor leagues in recent years — opinions are decidedly mixed.

“I like the two sevens,” Chicago Cubs Manager David Ross said. “… There’s a sense of excitement and the urgency of how quickly things [happen].”

“Seven innings,” Miami Marlins Manager Don Mattingly countered, “doesn’t feel like a full game to me.”

Nine innings has been the norm in baseball since 1856, but MLB and the players’ union agreed to the seven-inning doubleheader rule in late July, when it became clear the outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and the Cardinals would necessitate frequent doubleheaders to make up games. It became official as of Aug. 1.

“Given the frequency of doubleheaders, the effects of doubleheaders on rosters and the need to reschedule games due to dynamic circumstances,” MLB and union said in a joint statement at the time, “both the clubs and the players have determined that this step promotes player health and safety.”

Now, after weeks of mostly positive reviews, there is a growing sense that MLB could seek to retain the seven-inning doubleheaders as a permanent rule change, beginning as soon as 2021 — the way it is expected to do with some of the other, ostensibly temporary rule changes for 2020: the universal DH, the expanded postseason and perhaps the extra-inning rule.

“I definitely would think they’re looking into carrying it on,” Ross said of the seven-inning doubleheaders rule. “I’ve heard good feedback around the league.”

If that happens — and there has been no evidence MLB is moving in that direction, despite the speculation — the shortened games could apply not only to doubleheaders made necessary by postponements, but perhaps to regularly scheduled ones as well. Some across the game view regularly scheduled doubleheaders — a fixture of baseball schedules in earlier decades, but one that has gone extinct in recent ones — as a way to condense the regular-season schedule, or even lengthen it, while leaving room on the calendar for an expanded, 16-team postseason.

And most players would be more willing to embrace doubleheaders, whether regularly scheduled or necessitated by postponements, if the games were seven innings each. It is noteworthy that when players were prepared to vote earlier this summer on the league’s proposal for seven-inning doubleheaders, their union’s leadership endorsed the concept.

“I really hope at the end of the season, Major League Baseball thinks about [keeping] it,” San Francisco Giants pitcher Kevin Gausman said. “I just think it’s more exciting [and] it speeds up the whole process of having two games in a day.”

Indeed, the time element is a major factor in MLB’s growing embrace of seven-inning doubleheaders. It’s no secret that Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it a priority to speed up games — something he has nonetheless failed to accomplish thus far by other measures, including limiting mound visits and instituting a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. This year, the average time of a nine-inning game is at an all-time high: 3 hours 8 minutes, or three minutes longer than 2019 (3:05) and 22 minutes longer than 2005 (2:46).

One way to reduce the time of game, of course, is to lop off innings. In 35 doubleheaders through Thursday, 65 of the 70 games ended in seven innings (the others went to extras), and those 65 games lasted an average of 2 hours 34 minutes. Sixty of the games were finished in under three hours, and 26 were wrapped up in two and a half or less.

A New York Mets-Atlanta Braves doubleheader on Aug. 26 lasted a total of 4 hours 3 minutes; by comparison, the Boston Red Sox have already played three nine-inning games of at least that length this season.

Some baseball officials also like that the seven-inning format emphasizes starting pitchers — since, at least theoretically, starters would pitch a higher overall percentage of innings. But relievers are understandably nervous about that prospect, with New York Yankees veteran Adam Ottavino saying, “I don’t want to be marginalized out of the game.”

While there is no discernible movement toward making seven innings the new standard for all games, it is easy to see how a sport often criticized for bloated games with ever-longer periods of inaction — in an era of shorter attention spans and greater demands on people’s time — could grow enamored of two-and-a-half-hour contests.

Never mind that the reduction in innings treats only the symptom (longer games) of baseball’s fundamental disease, and not the underlying causes — most significantly, an emphasis on higher fastball velocities and designer breaking pitches that lead to more overall pitches, and more walks, strikeouts and home runs, but fewer balls in play. This season, 35.8 percent of all plate appearances — an all-time high — have ended in a walk, strikeout or homer, while the league-wide batting average of .246 is the lowest since 1972.

Seven-inning doubleheaders won’t do anything to solve those problems. But they can spare a team’s pitching staff from the rigors of an unforgiving schedule. They can make starting pitchers matter again. And they can get fans back home — in some future season where fans are allowed to attend games again — at a decent hour.

So as baseball’s stretch run plays out over the next two weeks, remember the many doubleheaders dotting the schedule are more than a novelty, and more than an innovative mechanism to get teams safely and expediently to 60 games in a unique season. Like many if not all of baseball’s 2020 rule changes, they are also a test run.

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