Astros Win 1st World Series Crown, Top Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7

By Ben Walker, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES --- George Springer and the Houston Astros rocketed to the top of the baseball galaxy Wednesday night, November 2, winning the first World Series championship in franchise history by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7.

Astros celebrate

Playing for a city still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and wearing an H Strong logo on their jerseys, the Astros, pictured here celebrating, brought home the prize that had eluded them since they started out in 1962 as the Colt .45s.

"I always believed that we could make it," All-Star slugger Jose Altuve said. "We did this for them."

Altuve was in perfect position for the final out, a grounder by Corey Seager to the 5-foot-6 second baseman.

For a Series that was shaping up as an October classic, Game 7 quickly became a November clunker as Houston scored five runs in the first two innings off Yu Darvish. Hardly the excitement fans felt during the Cubs' 10-inning thriller in Cleveland last fall.

Back in Houston, a huge crowd filled Minute Maid Park to cheer as fans watched on the big video board, and the train whistle wailed when it was over.

"We're coming home a champion, Houston," Springer said after accepting the World Series MVP trophy named this year for Willie Mays.

George Springer

World Series logo

The Houston Astros have won the World Series, after beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in a decisive game 7 in Los Angeles.

Altuve, one of four holdovers from a club that lost 111 times in 2013 after switching from the National League to the American League, and this collection of young stars silenced Dodger Stadium from the get-go, taking a 5-0 lead in the second inning.

"I caught the last out for the Houston Astros to become a world champion," said Altuve. "It was a groundball to me, I threw to first, and I think it was the happiest moment of my life in baseball."

The Astros streamed from the dugout and bullpen to go wild, tossing their gloves in the air. A thousand or so fans crowded behind the first base dugout, chanting "Hou-ston! Hous-ston!"

Later, some little Astros kids ran around the outfield grass dressed in Halloween outfits. Their dads, meanwhile, were putting on championship hats and shirts.

At last, the Astros had completed the ascent some predicted after a rebuilding club purged payroll and stripped down to bare bones a few years back.

Famously, now, there was the Sports Illustrated cover in 2014 --- after Houston had lost more than 100 games for three straight seasons --- that proclaimed: "Your 2017 World Series Champs" and featured a picture of Springer in a bright Astros jersey.

On the other side, ace Clayton Kershaw and several Dodgers leaned against the dugout railing, watching the Astros celebrate. Los Angeles led the majors with 104 wins and a $240 million payroll, and rallied to win Game 6, yet it didn't pay off for part-owner Magic Johnson and his team.

George Springer

"Obviously, this one hurts," manager Dave Roberts said. "And like I told the guys, when you put everything, every ounce of your being into something and you come up short, it hurts. And it's supposed to hurt."

Normally a starter, Charlie Morton finished up with four stellar innings of relief for the win.

"We held down a really tough lineup," Morton said. "For my teammates, for the city of Houston, it's just unbelievable."

Springer, pictured here, led off the evening with a double against Darvish, and soon it was 2-0.

Springer hit his fifth homer --- tying the World Series mark set by Reggie Jackson (1977) and matched by Chase Utley (2009) --- when he connected for a record fourth game in a row, making it a five-run lead.

Throughout the postseason, Hinch and the unconventional Astros overcame a shaky bullpen by using starters in relief.

"I knew yesterday I didn't have much," said McCullers, the Game 3 winner. "I knew I didn't have much to give other than to gut it out as long as I could."

In a dramatic Series marked by blown leads and late rallies, when Houston twice outlasted the Dodgers in extra innings, McCullers did enough. Forever known for their space-age Astrodome, outlandish rainbow jersey and a handful of heartbreaking playoff losses for stars like Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, these Astros will be remembered as champions, finally, in their 56th season.

The club that wears a star on its hat also filled out the Texas trophy case. Teams from the Lone Star State had won most every major crown --- the Super Bowl, NBA and NHL titles, championships in college football, and men's and women's basketball --- except the World Series.

Trophy

Built on the skills of homegrown All-Stars Dallas Keuchel and more, helped by veteran offseason acquisitions such as Brian McCann and 40-year-old Carlos Beltran, who won his first ring, and boosted by the slick trade for ace Justin Verlander, general manager Jeff Luhnow oversaw the team's resurgence.

Houston won 101 times this year to take the American League West, then won Games 6 and 7 at home in the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. The Astros joined the 1985 Royals as the only clubs to win a pair of Game 7s in the same year.

When it was over, Bagwell and Biggio, pictured here with their Astros teammates, posed for pictures together with the World Series trophy. For the Dodgers, the quest to win a World Series for the first time since 1988 fell short.

Kershaw provided four shutout innings of relief for Los Angeles, but it was too late. What the Dodgers really needed was a better starter than Darvish, someone more like the lefty who tossed out a ceremonial first ball: the great Sandy Koufax.

Acquired from Texas on July 31 for these big games, Darvish lasted 1 2/3 innings in both his World Series starts --- the two shortest of his career. "This pain is going to stay in me for a while," said the four-time All-Star through a translator.

Verlander

After Springer lined a leadoff double, Alex Bregman hit a bouncer that first baseman Cody Bellinger threw past Darvish for an error, allowing a run to score. Bregman aggressively stole third and scored on Altuve's grounder, and it was 2-0 after eight pitches.

A double by Marvin Gonzalez helped set up perhaps McCullers' biggest contribution, a slow grounder for his first pro RBI. Springer followed with a no-doubt, two-run drive into the left-center field bleachers.

That was the Series-most 25th homer in a Major League Baseball season that set a record for home runs. It was easily enough for the Astros to offset pinch-hitter Andre Ethier's RBI single in the Los Angeles sixth inning.

Astros pitcher Justin Verlander is pictured here holding the Commissioner's Trophy after defeating the Dodgers 5-1 in Game to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1 in Los Angeles.

Only once have the Dodgers clinched a crown at home, that coming in 1963 when Koufax outpitched Yankees star Whitey Ford to finish a sweep. They had never won Game 7 of the Fall Classic at their own park, dating back more than a century ago to their days on the streets of Brooklyn as the Trolley Dodgers.

As pockets of Houston fans got louder and louder in the later innings, the crowd at Dodger Stadium was left to repeat the sad, but hopeful cry that used to echo in Brooklyn. Wait till next year.

Just 106 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Photographs by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports; Mike Nelson, EPA-EFE; The Associated Press; David J. Phillip, AP; Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports; and Ezra Shaw, Getty Images.




Astros' George Springer Wins World Series MVP 2017

By Ben Walker, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES --- George Springer hit so many clutch home runs, he was a clear pick for World Series MVP. He often was the Most Vocal Person, too --- and that might be the most remarkable part of his story.

Alex Bregman

The Houston leadoff man hammered his way to the award, homering and doubling Wednesday night, November 2, to boost the Astros to their first championship with a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7.

Springer launched a Series record-tying five homers, including shots in each of the final four games and celebrated those Springer Dingers by hollering around the bases.

Many years ago, that type of trip would have been hard to believe. Impossible, really.

As a kid, Springer stuttered so severely that he frequently fell silent, unless he was around his family or close friends. Over time, he has improved so much that he graciously grants interviews, even on national television, and never seems to shy away from the spotlight. He even wore a live microphone in center field during the All-Star Game in July.

Watch closely and you can see Springer, just for a moment, still begins to stumble over words sometimes. So he will calmly slow himself down, or pause for a second, before gathering himself and continuing on eloquently.

At 28, the All-Star center fielder has taken every chance he got this postseason to talk about Camp SAY --- that's the Stuttering Association for the Young.

Springer is a spokesman for the two-week summer camp that benefits kids and teens who stutter. He also runs a charity bowling event, raising money to help people attend the program.

"I hope there's somebody somewhere out there that is impacted and can learn to just go be who you are and not let any stage or any place stop you," said Springer.

On baseball's big stage, the Dodgers couldn't stop him.

Springer tied Reggie Jackson (1977) and Chase Utley (2009) for the most home runs in a Series. The U Conn product became the first hitter to homer four games in a row during a single Series, and also set the mark with eight extra-base hits.

"This is a dream come true," said Springer.

He bounced back fast from a tough start, when he struck out all four at-bats in the opener, extending his slump to 3 for 30. He looked lost at the plate facing Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, but manager A.J. Hinch firmly said Springer would stay atop the lineup.

Good move. Springer went 11 for 25 the test of the way.

He hit a tiebreaking, two-run homer in the 11th inning of a Game 2 win at Dodger Stadium. He doubled during a victory in Game 3, and homered again in a Game 4 loss.

George Springer

Springer connected for a huge homer in Game 5, moments after an ill-advised dive for a sinking liner that skipped past him. He later drew a two-out walk in the 10th inning that set up the winning run at Minute Maid Park.

He hit a solo home run in Game 6 that put the Astros ahead in a game they eventually lost 3-1.

His final World Series liner: a .379 batting average, seven RBIs and a 1,000 slugging percentage.

Springer rallied from a rugged showing in the American League Championship Series, when he batted just .115 (3 for 26) without an extra-base hit or RBI in seven games against the Yankees.

That came after his fourth and most productive season in the majors, when he set career highs by hitting .283 with 34 home runs and 85 RBIs. His production follows his pedigree.

Drafted 11th overall by the Astros out of Connecticut in 2011, George Chelston Springer III comes from a family of athletes. His dad pitched in the Little League World Series, his mom was an accomplished gymnast, and his two sisters played softball in college.

In fact, Springer wears No. 4 to represent the four members of his immediate family. Engaged to be married in January, Springer won't be able to bump up to No. 5 --- the Astros retired that jersey for Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.

Associated Press Sports Writer Kristie Ricken contributed to this story. Photographs by Eugene Garcia, European Press Photo Agency; and Harry How, Getty Images




Jose Altuve Named Player of the Year by Fellow MLB Players

By Kevin Spain, USA TODAY Sports

Jose Altuve, who led the major leagues in batting with a .346 average and then hit .310 in the playoffs to lead the Houston Astros to the World Series title, was named the MLB Players Choice Awards Player of the Year and the American League's Outstanding Player.

Jose Altuve

Altuve was named to the All-Star team for the seventh time this season. He has 1,250 career hits and trails only Ty Cobb, Pete Rose and Hank Aaron for the most hits by age 27.

Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins earned the National League Outstanding Player award. Stanton led the majors with 59 home runs and 132 RBI this season.

Stanton set Marlins single-season records for home runs --- and became the sixth player in history to reach 59 --- and RBI. He had a .631 slugging percentage and earned his fourth All-Star berth.

Max Scherzer was named Outstanding Pitcher in the National League. He was 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA for the Washington Nationals. He led the NL with 268 strikeouts and a 0.90 WHIP.

It is the second time Scherzer has won an Outstanding Pitcher award after he won in the American League award in 2014 with the Detroit Tigers. Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are expected to finish 1-2 in National League Cy Young Award voting when those results are announced on November 15.

Corey Kluber, who tied for the AL lead in wins with an 18-4 record and led the majors with a 2.25 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings, was named the American League Outstanding Pitcher.

The Cleveland Indians ace led the AL in WHIP (0.869), complete games (5) and shutouts (3).

Aaron Judge, who hit 52 home runs for the New York Yankees, was named American League Rookie of the Year, and the Los Angeles Dodgers Cody Bellinger, whose 39 home runs set a new NL record for rookies, won National League Rookie of the Year.

Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals and Mike Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals won Comeback Player in the NL and AL, respectively.

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo won the Marvin Miller Award, given to a player who "inspires his fellow players through his on-field performances and contributions to his community." Rizzo also won the Roberto Clemente Award, presented by Major League Baseball to the player who "best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions."

Photograph by Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports




Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, Astros' Jose Altuve Win MVP Honors

By Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post

Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton and Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve were named the Most Valuable Players of the National and American Leagues, respectively, on Thursday night, November 16, in votes that were equally divergent in terms of their competitiveness.

Giancarlo Stanton

Stanton, the towering slugger whose 59 homers were the most in 16 years, prevailed over Cincinnati's Joey Votto in the fourth-closest MVP vote in history. Both players received 10 of a possible 30 first-place votes, but Stanton received one additional second-place vote and one more third-place vote than Votto to win by two total points.

"You remember the thoughts you had as a kid, when times were good and bad in the minors and everything building up," Stanton said during a conference call Thursday night of his journey to this point, "and you finally sit and give thanks for that."

Six players received first-place votes in the National League --- the others were Paul Goldschmidt (four), Charlie Blackmon (three), Nolan Arenado (two) and Kris Bryant (one) --- the most since 1979, when Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell ended up tying for MVP.

In the American League, Altuve , the diminutive hit machine who helped the Astros claim the franchise's first World Series title, won in a rout, taking 27 of the possible 30 first-place votes in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, to easily outpace New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge.

Listed as 5-foot-6, Altuve tied Phil Rizzuto (1950) and Bobby Shantz (1952) as the shortest MVP in history. The Astros signed him at 16 out of Venezuela for just $15,000 in 2007. He already had failed one tryout, but his father persuaded the team to give him a second chance. "I always dreamed to be a big leaguer. I always dreamed to be a World Series champion," Altuve said on MLB Network. "But I'm not sure if in my dreams I would be an MVP."

The National League vote was marked by a shift away from traditional thinking that equated "value" with carrying a winning team to the playoffs and that rarely awarded players from losing teams. Stanton's marlins and Votto's Reds finished below .500 and were a combined 44 games out of first place, but few voters appeared to penalize them for that.

Stanton, whose homer total was the most since Barry Bonds hit a record 73 and Sammy Sosa blasted 64 in 2001, became just the third player from a losing team to win the National League award, joining Andre Dawson and Ernie Banks (twice).

Three Washington Nationals finished in the top of NL balloting, led by third baseman Anthony Rendon, who finished sixth. Ace Max Scherzer, who was named the NL's Cy Young Award winner on Wednesday, finished 10th, and right-fielder Bryce Harper was 12th. Second baseman Daniel Murphy received one ninth-place and one 10th-place vote, while first baseman Ryan Zimmer4man received a single 10th-place vote.

The AL vote pitted Judge's raw power --- his 52 homers this season smashed the rookie record and lifted him to a unanimous victory for AL rookie of the year --- against Altuve's all-around brilliance. Altuve won his third AL batting title, hitting a career-high .346, but also boosted his on-base percentage (.410) and slugging percentage (.547) to career highs and stole 32 bases in 38 attempts.

Jose Altuve

The respective candidates of Judge and Altuve seemed difficult to distinguish given their divergent skill sets, and even the two wins-above-replacement metrics --- the catchall statistic designed to measure a player's overall value --- disagreed on who was better, with the FanGraphs.com version favoring Judge and the Baseball-Reference.com version preferring Altuve. In the end, however, Altuve was the overwhelming winner, with Judge (two) and Cleveland's Jose Ramirez (one) the only other players receiving first-place votes.

While Altuve is spending his days basking in the post-World Series glow, Stanton is dealing with a professional crisis of sorts. The Marlins' new ownership group led by Derek Jeter is in the process of trying to trade him to get from the remaining 10 years and $295 million on his contract. Stanton's contract also grants him full no-trade privileges, meaning he would have to approve any deal.

"It's an interesting feeling and situation for me," Stanton said. "This is the only (organization) I've known, but I also understand the business part of it and the direction new ownership wants to go. Stanton's feeling (the market) out, and we're going to try to feel out a play here."

Asked whether he might be interested in staying with the Marlins if the team addresses its pitching needs, he said, "It needs to be thoroughly addressed, not just somewhat addressed. There needs to be a big push now."

Photographs by insideSTL; and Sports Illustrated



Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger Named Top MLB Rookies

By Noah Trister, Associated Press Sports Writer

Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger are baseball’s Rookies of the Year, after their record-setting home run binges left no need for any dissenting opinions. Judge led the American League with 52 homers, the most ever by a rookie. Bellinger hit 39 and had to settle for the National League’s rookie record.

Aaron Judge

Judge and Bellinger received every first-place vote available from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Judge became the first New York Yankees player to receive this award since Derek Jeter in 1996. Bellinger gave the Dodgers a record 18th Rookie of the Year winner.

“Watching him from the West Coast, what he did on the East Coast, was awesome,” Bellinger said. “I was a big fan of his, and met him during the All-Star game, and he’s a humble dude. I think we’re both reflecting, now that the season’s over, on the kind of seasons that we’ve had.” This was the first time both Rookie of the Year awards were unanimous since 1997, when Nomar Garciaparra of Boston and Scott Rolen of Philadelphia won.

This season’s votes were announced Monday night. Boston outfielder Andrew Benintendi finished second in the AL, followed by Baltimore slugger Trey Mancini. St. Louis infielder Paul DeJong was the NL runner-up, with Pittsburgh first baseman Josh Bell finishing third.

Judge is also an MVP finalist.

“Obviously it was an amazing, remarkable year that no one would have predicted,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “When you drop 52 — I think he really should have had 53, one that instant replay didn’t protect. ... It should be a higher number. It was just an incredible year.”

Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 and Fred Lynn in 1975 are the only players to win the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in the same year.

The Yankees entered this season with marginal expectations by their standards, but the prodigious power of Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez transformed them almost overnight into an exciting young team with tremendous potential. They made the postseason as a wild card.

“It’s exciting times right now to be wearing pinstripes,” Judge said. “To come up through the minor leagues with a lot of these guys, watch them develop, and now to see what they’re doing at the major league level is really impressive.”

Cody Bellinger

Judge’s 495-foot shot on June 11 was the longest home run in the major leagues this season, according to Statcast. Although he struck out 208 times in the regular season and 27 more in the postseason, the 25-year-old outfielder is one of a handful of reasons why the Yankees suddenly seem to have one of the brightest futures of any team in baseball.

New York came within a victory of the World Series this year, losing to Houston in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. Bellinger’s team made it to that final step, but Los Angeles fell to the Astros in a seven-game World Series.

Bellinger is the second consecutive Dodgers player to win Rookie of the Year. Shortstop Corey Seager did it last year.

“The future is bright in L.A.,” Bellinger said. “I know that I’m excited, as well as the other teammates. Obviously, we didn’t have the end goal this year, but we’re going to try and take it to the next level next year.”

Bellinger made his big league debut in late April. By the time he turned 22 on July 13, he had 25 home runs. The 6-foot-4 first baseman is an appropriate counterpart to the powerful Judge. They even hit from opposite sides of the plate: Judge is a righty and Bellinger swings left-handed.

“He’s not just a guy that went up there and hit home runs,” Judge said. “He was a guy that played high-caliber first base for them. He could go out there and roam center field, left field, right field, wherever they needed him. To have that type of versatility and produce the numbers he did is something that you don’t find too often.”

Photographs by FanRag Sports; and Sports Illustrated




Baseball Owners Look at Rule Changes to Speed Up the Game

By Steven Wine, The Associated Press

PALM BEACH, Fla. --- For those rooting for baseball to speed up the game, Commissioner Rob Manfred says: have patience.

Owners and players ratified a new collective bargaining agreement in December, but they're still negotiating innovations designed to improve the pace of play. Owners discussed the issue during two days of meetings that concluded Friday, February 3.

Rob Manfred

"We did review some rule changes largely related to pace of game that are being discussed with the players' association," said Manfred, pictured here following the meeting. "More to follow when those negotiations are complete."

Manfred has pushed for faster games since he became commissioner two years ago. But the average time of a nine-inning game last season was 3 hours, a 4-minute increase over 2015. One playoff game took more than 4 1/2 hours.

The new CBA, which extends labor peace to 26 years through 2021, addresses issues such as smokeless tobacco and World Series home-field advantage but not on-field rules.

"Given the really serious big economic issues on the table, I think it's unrealistic to think that you're going to get an agreement (regarding pace of play) when you're doing the overall agreement," Manfred said. "As is the usual course in the offseason, we're turning to the playing rule issues now."

Management would like to tighten restrictions on trips to the mound and introduce a pitch clock, which has been used in Triple-A and Double-A the past two seasons. Players generally have resisted such changes, and many say there's no problem with the length of games. Manfred disagrees.

"Pace of play is an issue that 'we' need to be focused on," he said. "The 'we' there is players, owners, umpires, everyone who is invested in this game."

"I don't think there's a magic bullet that is going to come one year to be the solution to pace of play. It's going to be an ongoing effort to make sure our game moves along in a way that is most attractive to our fans."

Miami Marlins president David Samson said Major League Baseball is aware that despite much talk about the need to speed up games in recent years, the problem has gotten worse.

"Pace of game is critical," Samson said. "We know that from our fans ad TV partners. We have to recognize the reality of life today, which is that attention spans are going down and choices are going up. Whatever business you're in, you have to adjust."

Among other issues Manfred discussed following the meetings:

--- Major League Baseball is "monitoring the developments" regarding recent changes in U.S. immigration policy by President Donald Trump, Manfred said: "Obviously our foremost concern is that players that are under contract with our organizations be able to come and go," Manfred said. "As of right now the countries that have been mostly affected are not places where we have players."

--- The new CBA eliminates the provision that gave World Series home-field advantage to the All-Star winner, but Manfred said players will still be motivated to win the All-Star Game. "I am a believer that when our players go out on the field they want to win, whether it's in the All-Star Game or any other game," he said.

--- The quality of players taking part in the World Baseball Classic will be high, Manfred said, even though the event takes place during spring training. "I am pleased with the level of cooperation we've had from the teams," he said.

Photograph by ESPN.com




MLB to Push Forward with Process for Rule Changes

By Janie McCauley, The Associated Press

PHOENIX --- Major League Baseball intends to push forward with the process that could lead to possible rule changes involving the strike zone, installation of pitch clocks and limits on trips to the pitcher's mound.

Rob Manfred

While baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope the ongoing process would lead to an agreement, he said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract. Pictured here, Manfred answers questions at a news conference on February 21 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Union head Tony Clark said in February he did not foresee players agreeing to proposed changes for 2017. Under baseball's collective bargaining agreement, management can alter playing rules only with agreement from the union --- unless it gives one year notice. With the one year of notice, management can make changes on its own.

Manfred said, "Unfortunately it now appears that there really won't be any meaningful change for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA. I've tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, that it does not need to be fixed as some people have suggested, and I think last season was the kind of demonstration of the potential of our league to captivate the nation and of the game's unique place in American culture."

Yet, Manfred also added: "I believe it's a mistake to stick our head in the sand and ignore the fact that our game has changed and continues to change."

While he prefers an agreement, Manfred said, "I'm also not willing to walk away." He said he will send a letter to the union in the coming days and plans to continue dialogue with Clark and others in hopes of reaching agreement.

Tony Clark

"I have great respect for the labor relations process, and I have a pretty good track record for getting things done with the MLBPA," Manfred said. "I have to admit, however, that I am disappointed that we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to modest rule changes like limits on trips to the mound that have little effect on the competitive character of the game."

Clark saw talks differently.

"Unless your definition of 'cooperation' is blanket approval, I don't agree that we've failed to cooperate with the commissioner's office on these issues," Clark wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "Two years ago we negotiated pace of play protocols that had an immediate and positive impact. Last year we took a step backward in some ways, and this offseason we've been in regular contact with MLB and with our members to get a better handle on why that happened. I would be surprised if those discussions with MLB don't continue, notwithstanding today's comments about implementation. As I've said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open."

Clark, pictured here answering a question at a news conference on February 19, added: "My understanding is that MLB wants to continue with the replay changes (2-minute limit) and the no-pitch intentional walks and the pace of game warning/fine adjustments."

Manfred said he didn't want to share specifics of his priorities for alterations.

"There's a variety of changes that can be undertaken," Manfred said. "I'm committed to the idea that we have a set of proposals out there and we continue to discuss those proposals in private."

MLB has studies whether to restore the lower edge of the strike zone from just beneath the kneecap to its pre-1996 level --- at the top of the kneecap. Management would like to install 20-second pitch clocks in an attempt to speed the pace of play --- they have been used at Triple-A and Double-A for the past two seasons.

Pitch clock

Mike McCarthy of the Portland Sea Dogs is pictured here preparing to pitch as the clock winds down at Hadlock Field. Eastern League umpires began penalizing batters and pitchers for pace-of-play violations, with batters being issued strikes and pitchers having balls added to the count.

Players also have been against limiting mound meetings. The least controversial change appears to be allowing a team to call for an intentional walk without the pitcher having to throw pitches. In addition, MLB likely can alter some video review rules without the union's agreement, such as shortening the time a manager has to call for a review.

"Most of this stuff that they were talking about I don't think it would have been a major adjustment for us," said Royals manager Ned Yost. Manfred said starting runners on second base in extra innings sounds unlikely to be implemented in the majors. The change will be experimented with during the World Baseball Classic and perhaps at some short-season Class A leagues. Manfred said it was a special-purpose rule "beneficial in developmental leagues."

Manfred also said that a renovated Wrigley Field would be a great choice to host an All-Star Game and Las Vegas could be a "viable market for us."

"I don't think that the presence of legalized gambling in Las Vegas should necessarily disqualify that market as a potential major league city," Manfred said.

AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports Writer Bob Baum contributed to this report.
Photographs by Morry Gash, The Associated Press; and Shawn Patrick Ouellette, Portland Press Herald



In Testing Drastic New Extra-innings Rule, MLB Grapples with Pace, Tradition

By Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY Sports

The purists are reaching out for their pitchforks.

The notion of starting an inning with a runner on second base is as repugnant to diehard baseball fans as adding a clock to the game, which also happens to be on the table.

These are just two of the possible changes under discussion as baseball seeks to address its ongoing issues with pace of play and length of games. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made the topic a central part of his two-year-old tenure, and for good reason.

Seattle Mariners

Several studies have shown baseball's audience skews older, with the average age of its TV viewers over 50. MLB officials reason that to attract younger fans in the digital age, the game needs to provide more action and fewer lulls.

But achieving that without alienating the core of the fan base -- those mature folks who represent a sizeable percentage of the 73.2 million in attendance last year -- represents a huge challenge, especially considering MLB can't implement changes in the big leagues without consulting first with the players union.

The latest and most drastic alteration, as reported by Yahoo Sports, comes in the form of a rule that will be tested this summer in two rookie-level leagues, where every extra inning will begin with a runner on second. This spring's World Baseball Classic will employ that same rule, but starting in the 11th inning.

There would be some clear benefits to this artificial way of generating offense, chief among them the quicker ending of games that go past regulation, thereby saving pitchers' arms and reducing the added stress on players already taxed by a grueling season.

Joe Torre

"Let's see what it looks like," Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, now MLB's Chief Baseball Officer, told Yahoo Sports. "It's not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch."

"It's baseball," said Torre. "I'm just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch."

The irony here, of course, if that baseball's TV ratings typically pick up when games go into extra innings, both in the regular season and playoffs.

Regardless, there are valid reasons for MLB to explore ways to keep the games moving. After trimming six minutes of idle time following the implementation of pace-of-game rules in 2015, baseball regressed again last season, going from an average time of 2:56:15 to 3.00.42.

The difference wasn't huge, but it went in the wrong direction. And playoff games -- which have longer commercial breaks -- lasted 24 minutes more on the average than regular-season ones.

There has been no scarcity of suggestions for how to speed up games, from limiting mound visits to doing away with warm-up pitches for incoming relievers. Current proposals include faster replay review, intentional walks with no pitches thrown and raising the lower part of the strike zone, which in theory would lead to fewer strikeouts and more balls put in play.

Manfred has acknowledged that last proposal may be at odds with the desire to shorten the time of games, but it's likely to increase the action.

Extra innings action

He's also a strong proponent of implementing a pitch clock, as was done two years ago at the Class AA and AAA levels, resulting in games lasting 12 fewer minutes, down to 2.42. In the International League, time of games shrank by 16 minutes.

But at the big league level, those kind of modifications would have to be approved by the players association, which takes a very cautious approach to any changes that might impact work conditions.

Union executive director Tony Clark, who played 15 years in the majors, has pointed out that what works in the minors doesn't necessarily translate to the game's highest level, where the stakes are higher and the scrutiny much more intense.

The topic of pitch clocks, for example, has been a non-starter with the union, and the idea of raising the strike zone is likely to result in a split vote between pitchers (against) and position players (in favor), although more will be known when players are canvassed in the spring.

So, except for perhaps quicker replay reviews, don't expect any immediate changes in a game that has long moved at a languid pace. That may not please those hoping baseball will get going, but it should at least keep the pitchforks in the shed.

Photograph by Elaine Thompson, The Associated Press




Tinker With Extra-Inning Rules? Cue the Purists' Outrage

By Victor Mather, The New York Times

It's a tie game after nine innings, folks, and we're heading to the top of the 10th. First man up is Mike Trout, and, as always, there's a man on second.

Wait, what?

In an effort to shorten extra-inning games, baseball plans to experiment this summer with giving teams a runner on second at the start of every inning from the 10th, Yahoo Sports reported. The trial will take place in two rookie leagues, and the rule will also be used this spring in the World Baseball Classic. Should the rule prove popular and effective, it could someday move to the major leagues.

Scoreboard

Putting a runner on second for extra innings has been used in some softball leagues, including in international play. Typically, the runner is whoever made the last out in the previous inning. But the rule would be a sharp departure for baseball, which tends to change only incrementally and slowly.

Baseball purists, and there are many of them, were predictably outraged, while others saw an opportunity for mirth.

The change should be effective in increasing scoring in extra innings. Statisticians have shown that teams score about half a run per inning. But when there's a runner on second and no one out, that increases to 1.1 runs. In all, teams score in about 27 percent of innings, but they do so 61 percent of the time when there's a runner on second and no one out.

"Let's see what it looks like," Joe Torre, the majors' chief baseball officer, told Yahoo. "It's not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it's nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time."

Speeding up the pace of play has been a preoccupation of baseball in recent years as games have crept longer and longer. A nine-inning playoff game between the Dodgers and the Nationals lasted 4 hours, 32 minutes last fall. Baseball has tinkered with rules about leaving the batter's box and has also been experimenting with time limits on pitchers in the minor leagues.

Still, extra-inning games are not always the cause. About 8 percent of games go into extra innings, and most of those do not stretch deep into the night. Last season, 43 percent of extra-inning games were over after the 10th, and only 16 percent of them went 13 or more. The 18-inning games that Torre spoke of are even rarer. Of 12,147 regular season games over the last five seasons, only 22 went 18 or more.

Traditionally, overtimes in sports have had the same rules as regulation time. But in 2015, the National Hockey League started playing overtime with three skaters on a side instead of five, and college football has for two decades started teams close to the end zone for overtime play.

There may be unintended consequences from baseball's new experiment. Strategically, with a man on second and no one out, some managers may be tempted to have their first hitter bunt, then hope for a sacrifice fly. More bunting may not be what baseball had in mind for the new rule.

Joe Ward contributed reporting. Photograph by Ted S. Warren, The Associated Press




MLB Owners, Players Ratify Labor Deal Through 2021

By Ronald Blum, The Associated Press

NEW YORK --- Baseball owners and players have ratified the sport's new five-year collective bargaining agreement, extending their labor peace to 26 years through 2021.

The sides announced their approvals on December 14, a day after holding votes in separate telephone meetings.

Rob Manfred

"This agreement allows us to build on the positive momentum from last season and promote a generation of young players," said Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement.

After eight work stoppages from 1972-95, the sides have negotiated deals without a strike or lockout in 2002, 2006, 2011 and this year. The new deal expires December 1, 2021.

Teams voted 29-1 to approve, and Tampa Bay Rays managing general partner Stuart Sternberg was the lone dissenting vote, a person familiar with that meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the vote breakdown was not announced. While Sternberg declined to comment on the vote, he did express his views on the deal.

The union said its executive board unanimously ratified the Basic Agreement, Benefit Plan Agreement, Joint Drug Agreement and Joint Policy on Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse.

Former All-Star first baseman Tony Clark led the union's negotiations for the first time. He took over as executive director following the death of Michael Weiner in November 2013.

"The players' involvement during negotiations was both essential and unprecedented, and today's unanimous vote was the culmination of those efforts," Clark said in a statement. "This was a team effort from beginning to end."

Negotiators reached an agreement November 30 in Irving, Texas, about 3 1/2 hours before the expiration of the previous contract.

The deal raises the luxury tax thresholds, increases some of the tax rates, imposes a hard cap on signing bonuses for international amateurs and bans smokeless tobacco for players who do not already have a major league service.

It also eliminates the provision that gave World Series home-field advantage to the All-Star winner and bans rookie hazing that includes costumes as women.

Photograph by The Associated Press/Crowding the Plate




Intentional Walks Without Pitches Coming

By Tyler Kepner, The New York Times

MESA, Ariz. --- As Major League Baseball seeks to speed up games, one item on its wish list is expected to be in place this 2017 season after all. Managers can now signal from the dugout for an intentional walk without the pitcher needing to throw the pitches.

Danny Duffy

Commissioner Rob Manfred had expressed frustration over the players' union's refusal to accept changes to quicken the pace of games, reminding reporters that he could unilaterally impose such changes in 2018. Baseball would still like to add a pitch clock, raise the strike zone and limit mound visits, and it views the intentional walk rule as mostly a symbolic gesture.

Teams issued 932 intentional walks last season, or roughly one every two and a half games. While oddities have occurred during intentional walks --- such as hits, wild pitches and the fake-intentional-walk-turned-strikeout in the 1972 World Series --- the practice is generally considered tedious. The Nationals' Bryce Harper is pictured here being intentionally walked.

"It will be a new normal in a relatively short period of time," said Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon. "Right now it's going to elicit a lot of discussion, and I get it. But to me that's one of those things I wouldn't really want to battle about, because I don't think it's that significant."

Wade Davis, the Cubs' closer, said he was fine with the change.

"It's like a decrease in athletic movement when you ask somebody to throw the ball slower to the catcher four times," Davis said. "It's not like an entertaining part when someone is throwing pitchouts --- except when they throw it away, then it's entertaining to some people."

Davis added: "I've played with guys that couldn't do it, so they move the catcher two feet off the dish and they just pump strikes off home plate. So they're still doing it, but in that case you're wasting a pitcher's bullets. As a team, you'd probably rather have your guy not focusing on throwing balls."

The Yankees' Gary Sanchez hit a sacrifice fly last season during an intentional-walk attempt, and Miguel Cabrera hit a run-scoring single in the same situation for the Marlins in 2006.

Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, who was Cabrera's manager in 2006, told reporters in Tampa, Florida, that he had no problem with the rule, because it would not affect strategy and would simply move the game along.

"Yes, there's rare chance that it could lead to something big for you and your club," said Girardi. "But there's also the thought process. You don't like to get pitchers out of their rhythm, and when you do the intentional walk, I think you can take a pitcher out of his rhythm." Billy Witz contributed in the reporting.

Photograph by Alex Brandon, The Associated Press



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