Cano's Home Run in 10th Gives American League 2-1 All-Star Win

By The Associated Press

MIAMI --- Seattle's Robinson Cano hit a leadoff home run in the 10th inning off Wade Davis of the Chicago Cubs, and the American League topped the National League 2-1 in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night, July 11. Cano, pictured here rounding the bases, was named All-Star Game MVP because of his clutch home run. He is pictured here rounding the bases. The homer earned the American League its 23rd All-Star Game title in the last 30 competitions.

Robinson Cano

It was the first extra-inning home run in an All-Star Game since Tony Perez hit one exactly 50 years ago --- July 11, 1967. Perez threw out one of the ceremonial first pitches before the game.

The AL won the Midsummer Classic for the fifth time, pulling even in the all-time series --- 43-43-2. Cleveland's Andrew Miller allowed a two-out walk in the 10th, but retired the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger to end the game for the AL. St. Louis' Yadier Molina homered for the NL. So the AL gets pride and bragging rights, but no edge in October now. Major League Baseball no longer awards home-field advantage for the World Series based on the result of the All-Star Game, ending that policy this year after 14 seasons.

The Washington Nationals' Max Scherzer became the fifth pitcher to have an All-Star start for both leagues. He started for the American League in 2013, when he was with Detroit. The others to have at least one start for both leagues are Vida Blue, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay and Randy Johnson.

Boston's Craig Kimbrel escaped a second-and-third, two-out jam in the bottom of the ninth, and the All-Star Game went to extra innings tied at 1-1.

The National League had the winning run 90 feet from the plate after Molina led off the NL ninth by drawing a walk, went to second on a passed ball and advanced to third base on a fly by Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt.

Robinson Cano

But Kimbrel got the New York Mets' Michael Conforto to strike out swinging, and the All-Star Game went to a 10th inning for the first time since 2008. Some fans left Marlins Park, and all the starters had been pulled as well.

Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins slugger, was an ambassador for the game, but he was 0 for 3 with two strikeouts. "It was fun getting everything going, being around all these guys."

It was AL 1, NL 1 after seven innings, and such things don't usually happen in All-Star Games. It's the first time since 2008 that an All-Star Game was tied 2-2 after seven, and the first time since 1967 that it had been knotted at 1-1 at this point in the Midsummer Classic. Both of those games wound up going 15 innings.

The National League had seven hits, the AL six so far. And of the 12 pitchers used so far in the game, 10 had allowed at least one hit. Molina homered off Minnesota's Ervin Santana in the bottom of the sixth, pulling the NL into a 1-1 tie with the AL. In one inning, the St. Louis star was a catcher, a slugger ... and a photographer.

Yadier Molina

Earlier in the sixth inning, Nelson Cruz came to the plate for the AL with his phone in his pocket. He wanted a photo of himself at the plate with umpire Joe West, so Molina, shown here, took the picture for Cruz. Pictured here, Molina rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the sixth inning.

Jonathan Schoop got the first extra-base hit of the night with a double in the fifth inning, and Miguel Sano's bloop single that dropped between three converging Washington Nationals got him home as the AL took a 1-0 lead over the NL.

Sano's end-of-the-bat base hit off Alex Wood of the Dodgers was enough for Schoop to jog home and give the AL the lead. Sano's Minnesota teammate Brandon Kirtzler pitched a scoreless fifth inning for the AL.

For the first time since 2010, the All-Star Game was scoreless through four innings. The NL had five hits, and the AL had three. Mookie Betts helped keep the game scoreless by starting an 8-4 double play from deep center field.

In the fourth inning, Nolan Arenado got his second hit of the night for the NL off Jason Vargas, then was thrown out when he tried to advance on Ryan Zimmerman's fly ball to center field. Betts' throw beat Arenado easily.

Carlos Martinez pitched a second consecutive scoreless inning for the NL. The five pitchers used in the first three innings all gave up at least one hit. St. Louis' Carlos Martinez pitched the third for the NL.

Miami All-Star Game

For the AL, Cleveland's Jose Ramirez was 2 for 2 with a stolen base in his All-Star debut.Salvador Perez and end the top of the second inning, and the NL and AL remained scoreless headed into the third inning.

Chris Sale pitched two scoreless innings. He gave up singles to Daniel Murphy and Nolan Arenado to start the second, before getting Ryan Zimmerman to ground into a 4-6-3 double play. Sale escaped by getting the Marlins' Marcell Ozuna to ground out.

Pat Neshek of the Philadelphia Phillies pitched the second inning for the National League, relieving Max Scherzer, and allowed one hit. Sale and Scherzer had held the All-Star Game scoreless after one inning. Both allowed one hit in the first inning.

Sale struck out Stanton, setting him up with 83 and 78 mph pitches before fanning him on a 98 mph fastball.

Perez, AL's catcher, was briefly shaken up when a foul tip from the Giants' Buster Posey caught him on the left hand, but he remained in the game. Posey flied out to center field one pitch later to end the inning.

Photographs by Lynne Sladky, AP Photo; Getty Images; Alan Diaz, AP Photo; and The Associated Press




Nationals Slug Eight Home Runs in 15-2 Rout Over Brewers

By Kevin Santo, USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON --- The Washington Nationals broke out with their own version of home run derby against the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday, July 27. The Nationals tied a major league record with five home runs in an inning, including four consecutive in the third inning, and cruised to a 15-2 victory.

Bryce Harper

It started with Brian Goodwin, who hit a two-run homer after right-hander Max Scherzer drew a walk against starter Michael Blazek in the top of the third inning. Wilmer Difo, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman each followed suit, sending their own solo shots over the wall. Harper is pictured here hitting his first home run in the first inning.

It marked the first time in the history of the franchise that four consecutive batters homered and eighth time in MLB history a team hit four straight homers in a game, most recently accomplished by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010.

The 15-run rout marked the 18th time this season that the Nationals scored 10-plus runs in one game -- a MLB high and franchise record. It was an inning to forget for Blazek, who was making his first career start, as Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon tacked on his own solo shot -- the fifth of the inning in six at-bats -- to chase Blazek from the game.

For Harper, it was his second of the game. He hit a two-run homer in the first inning. The home-run outburst sparked a seven-run inning to give the Nationals a 9-0 lead.

The slugfest didn't end in the third inning. The Nationals tacked on two more home runs by Zimmerman and Jose Lobaton and six more runs in the fourth inning to increase the lead to 15-1.

Zimmerman's two homers moved him into a tie with Frank Howard for the most career home runs in D.C. baseball history (237).

The eight home runs tied the franchise record. The National League record for home runs in a game is nine, and the Major League record is 10. The Nationals gave Scherzer a birthday gift to remember, as they went on to win 15-2 and increase their National League East lead to 13 games heading into Thursday's evenings games.

"I told everybody that I didn't make an out today," said Scherzer. "I don't know if that's ever happened for me. So for me to get two walks, wow, something happened."

"I said coming in here that I wanted to get a win and a knock," Scherzer said. "So the guys showed up today, put an ungodly amount of runs up there. Fifteen runs, I mean that's just -- oh man -- a pitcher's best friend."

Zimmerman's two homers moved him into a tie with Frank Howard for the most career home runs in D.C. baseball history (237).

"I don't think I've ever seen that," said Nationals manager Dusty Baker. "I've seen back to back to back, not four in a row. It's like you almost can't believe it. You know, we'll take it. I mean, that was some kind of inning. ... We had a big offensive barrage today, gave Max a birthday present, and we'll always take that."

Photograph by Brad Mills, USA TODAY Sports




Machado Hits 9th-inning Slam to Lift Orioles Past Angels 9-7

By The Associated Press

BALTIMORE --- The Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels spent the night launching baseballs over the outfield wall, combining for 10 home runs in a game decided by the grandest hit of all.

Manny Machado

Manny Machado capped a three-homer night with a grand slam in the ninth inning, and the Orioles rallied to beat the Angels 9-7 on Friday night, August 18.

"It's like a game where everybody's dunking," said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter.

Machado, pictured here, hit his seventh career slam off Keynan Middleton (4-1), who entered the game with two on and one out in the ninth inning. After Tim Beckham singled to load the bases, Machado hit a drive far over the center-field wall to give the Orioles their first lead.

Machado also hit a two-run homer in the third inning and a solo shot in the fifth to finish with seven RBIs.

Albert Pujols set the tone for the game in the first inning with a milestone homer off Jeremy Hellickson. There would be many more long balls on a steamy night before 26,185 fans at Camden Yards, five by each team.

"Obviously it is a good hitter's park," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We hit the ball good tonight; they did too. The Orioles got the last big hit."

Machado's third slam of the year came on a fastball that caught way too much of the plate.

"I was looking for a pitch and I got it," he said. "I made a good swing on it. Off the bat, I knew it was going to go far."

Middleton said, "I was trying to go fastball away, and I left the fastball over the middle."

Albert Pujols

Pujols' two-run drive was his 609th, tied with Sammy Sosa for eighth on the all-time list. Pujols and Sosa share the distinction of hitting more home runs than any other foreign-born player.

After Pujols and Kole Calhoun connected in succession in the first inning, C.J. Cron and Kaleb Cowart homered in the second for a 5-0 lead. The Orioles used home runs by Mark Trumbo, Machado and Caleb Joseph and cut the gap to a run before a two-run drive by Mike Trout made it 7-4 in the fifth inning.

Pujols is pictured here watching his two-run home run in front of the Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph and home plate umpire Mark Ripperger during the first inning.

All five Los Angeles home runs came off Hellickson, the first time the right-hander yielded more than three in a game. But his hard-hitting teammates made up the deficit.

"It's going to make my night a little better," Hellickson said. "It would still have been nice to do my part in that win."

Darren O'Day (4-1) got the win with 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief.

Pitching for the first time since April 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Angels starter Andrew Heaney gave up five runs and seven hits --- including four home runs --- in five innings.

"I just really never got into a rhythm. My tempo was pretty terrible," said Heaney. "All of those things lead to bad pitches and lead to big innings. That's on me."

Scioscia said, "It was good to see him out there. As he gets into his next start he'll get better."

Pictured here, Scioscia, center, greets Cowart after Cowart hit a solo home run during the second inning. The Orioles had lost 10 straight games on Friday since June 2 before rallying in this one.

Orioles Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander played in his first major league game, going 1 for 4 with a fine diving catch in right field. He was on the disabled list with a strained forearm from March 30 through Wednesday.

Mike Scioscia

Trumbo got the Orioles on the board with a towering solo shot in the bottom of the second --- his 19th homer of the year.

Caleb Joseph led off the Orioles third inning with his eighth homer of the season before Machado made it a one-run game with a two-run moon shot to center.

The Orioles used homers by Trumbo, Machado and Joseph to cut the gap to a run before a two-run drive by Mike Trout made it 7-4 in the fifth inning. By the end of the evening, Machado would be tied for the club lead with 26 homers and closer to team leader Jonathan Schoop with 81 RBIs after driving in seven runs on Friday.

All five Angels home runs came off Hellickson, the first time the right-hander yielded more than three in a game. Darren O'Day (4-1) got the win with 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief.

"It's frustrating," Hellickson said. "After that second inning, I told myself to just keep it at five and get through six. The kind of offense we've got, we weren't out of it after being down 5-0, so I wanted to keep it there and did that until I gave up that home run. That's a little frustrating, but it's nice to have that offense we've got."

The Orioles right-hander allowed seven runs on eight hits over 4 2/3 innings before being replaced by reliever Miguel Castro. Richard Bleier pitched two-thirds of an inning and Darren O'Day (2-3) finished up with 1 1/3 scoreless innings to earn the win.

Anthony Santander, a Rule 5 draft pick, was a surprise addition to the Orioles lineup, and he made a good impression in right field. He ranged far to his left to make a diving catch and rob Trout of a hit in the second inning. He bounced back up after losing his footing and belly-flopped on the wet grass a second time.

Photographs by Patrick Semansky, AP Photo




MLB Hitters on Pace to Hit Nearly 500 More Homers Than Ever Before

By Ted Berg, USA TODAY.Com

Entering play on June 21, Major League hitters had combined to hit 2,701 home runs in 2017. That puts them on a pace for about 6,186 long balls on the season, a total that would shatter the previous record high of 5,693 from 2000, in the thick of the sport's so-called "steroids era."

Aaron Judge

The sharp increase in home runs began around the All-Star break in 2015. It continued into 2016, when hitters combined for 5,610 homers --- second most in history, behind 2000. Last season, 111 players hit 20 or more homers --- the most ever, and only the third year in the sport's history and the first time since 2000 in which over 100 players finished with 20 homers or more.

This year, some 125 players are on track to hit at least 20, and that's not even accounting for the long-held understanding that home run paces tend to pick up in the hotter summer months. Pictured here is the Yankees' Aaron Judge who led the major leagues in home runs with 25 at mid season.




Here are some popular narratives to explain the surge:

1. The ball is juiced: I am putting this one first because I'm growing increasingly convinced it could be true. Ben Lindbergh and sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman presented some very compelling evidence that not only do baseballs used in 2016 travel further by 7.1 feet on average than those used before the All-Star break in 2015, but that the corresponding difference in exit speed is just about exactly enough to account for the uptick in homers based on research elsewhere.

Ball Juiced?

This theory might be the one best suited to explain why the increase in home runs would begin at an All-Star Break and not before any one season or gradually over time.

2. The players are juiced: Some players playing Major League Baseball now are undoubtedly taking PEDs. There are always going to be some players taking PEDs as long as baseball and PEDs exist. There is no way the home run increase could be explained by the emergence of some new wonder drug.

3. Changes in approach: This is another one that comes up a lot as teams, players, media and fans gain access to data provided by Statcast. A handful of players, including prominent stars like Kris Bryant and seemingly out-of-nowhere power hitters like Justin Turner, have made it clear that they are attempting to hit fly balls --- a practice that breaks with the long-held belief that line drives should be a batter's goal. But despite all the anecdotal evidence for the fly-ball revolution, league wide fly-ball rates are no higher than they were from 2006-2011.

Miguel Cabrera

One possible solution to that mystery: If pitchers are throwing more sinkers and more pitches down in the strike zone in an effort to yield more ground balls, hitters' emphasis on hitting fly balls could exist as an adjustment of sorts to that trend. And attempting to put loft into a sinking pitch might lead to more hard-hit fly balls if not necessarily more fly balls total.

Additionally, the league-wide strikeout rate is on pace to set a new record high for the tenth straight season. All the home runs could represent the byproduct of a generation of hitters trained to "sell out for power," worrying less about making contact and more about hitting the ball harder when they do connect.

4. Hitters are just stronger: This is probably true. Athletes across all pro sports appear bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. There is no doubt the physique of your average utility infielder in 2017 looks a whole lot different than it did in 1987. From 1901 to 1991, there were only nine total players who took the field in Major League Baseball at a listed weight of 250 pounds or more.

This year alone there have been 50. In addition, better understanding of offseason conditioning and nutrition (not to mention the fact that big-league players no longer have to work regular jobs in the winter) likely means fitter baseball players across the board.

But home runs as an indication of increasingly strong players would likely increase gradually, and there's nothing terribly gradual about the current spike. It's not like every player just doubled his bench press all of a sudden in July of 2015. Plus, pitchers are stronger now, too.

5. Faster pitches mean harder contact: This one comes up sometimes, but this one I feel pretty comfortable dismissing out of hand. Yes, Major League pitchers throw harder than ever before, and yes, a squared-up 99-mph fastball is going to travel further than an 85-mph pitch hit the exact same way. But 99-mph fastballs are a whole lot harder to square up. No one's asking Aroldis Chapman to be their Home Run Derby pitcher.

Photographs by miamiherald.com; Asbury Park Press; and USATSI



Noah Syndergaard, Mets Top Braves 6-0 in 2017 Opener

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK --- Noah Syndergaard was off to a blistering start, and that could be a concern for the New York Mets. The hard-throwing ace pitched six sharp innings before leaving with a blister.

Noah Syndergaard

Asdrubal Cabrera singled home the go-ahead run in the seventh inning and the Mets broke through following a pivotal replay reversal to beat the Atlanta Braves 6-0 in their 2017 season opener on Monday, April 3.

Syndergaard, pictured here, struck out seven without a walk in his first opening day assignment, the only blemish a blister on the top of his right middle finger that ended his outing.

"It was just affecting me on all pitches," Syndergaard said. "I haven't had it in a long time. I had it when I was going through the minor leagues with the Blue Jays, but kind of a rare occurrence."

Atlanta starter Julio Teheran throttled the Mets as usual, throwing six scoreless innings before a sellout crowd of 44,384 at Citi Field. But once he was lifted after 96 pitches, New York took advantage of five walks by a shaky Braves bullpen in a six-run bottom of the seventh that lasted 35 minutes.

Curtis Granderson had a sacrifice fly and Lucas Duda added a three-run double off ineffective lefty Eric O'Flaherty.

The Mets stopped a six-game home losing streak against Atlanta. The last-place Braves swept their final two series in Queens last year, and improved baseball's best record on opening day to 36-20.

Rene Rivera began the seventh with a single against Ian Krol (0-1). One out later, Jose Reyes walked and Cabrera singled for his third hit. Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte made a strong peg home, and Wilmer Flores initially was called out.

But replays showed catcher Tyler Flowers was in a poor position when he took the throw behind the plate, allowing Flores to touch the front corner with his foot before getting tagged.

"Great slide," Duda said.

From there, the Mets stayed disciplined in the batter's box and built a comfortable lead.

"Yeah, we kind of have a big momentum shift right there and probably turned the game around," said Braves manager Brian Snitker. Hansel Robles (1-0) worked a perfect inning for the win.

Freddie Freeman had three hits for Atlanta, including a one-out triple in the fourth inning. Syndergaard struck out the other three batters in the inning, and pitched out of trouble against the middle of the lineup in the sixth.

"That's the reason why he's starting opening day," Freeman said. "He's one of the best pitchers in the game and he worked his way out of it." With fans still filing in, Braves pitcher Bartolo Colon received a standing ovation during pregame introductions as he waved and tipped his cap to the crowd. Big Sexy, who turns 44 in May, won 44 games for the Mets over the last three seasons. He signed a $12.5 million, one-year contract with Atlanta in November. "Bartolo had a huge effect on this team," Collins said.

In his first big league opening day outside Cincinnati, Mets right fielder Jay Bruce drew three walks on his 30th birthday, one with the bases loaded. "It was great. I was nervous, and that was an awesome feeling. I like being a little nervous," Bruce said.

Syndergaard became the seventh different Mets pitcher to start on opening day over the past seven years, the longest streak in club history. Teheran joined Rick Mahler (1985-88) and Greg Maddux (1993-96) as the lone Atlanta pitchers to start four straight season openers. Felix Hernandez (Mariners) and Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) are the only major league pitchers who have longer streaks with their current teams.

Photograph by The Associated Press Photo



AL Champion Indians Rally in 9th, Win Opener 8-5 at Texas

By Stephen Hawkins, Associated Press Sports Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas --- Abraham Almonte hit a tiebreaking single in a three-run ninth inning, and the Cleveland Indians opened their American League title defense by rallying for an 8-5 win over the Texas Rangers on Monday night, April 3.

Abraham Elmonte

Making his first opening-day start for Texas, Yu Darvish had a 5-1 lead behind Rougned Odor, who homered twice and drove in four runs in his first two at-bats since signing a new contract a week ago that the Rangers sealed with two horses.

Edwin Encarnacion, Cleveland's new slugger, tied the score 5-5 with an eighth-inning homer off Matt Bush, and the Indians went ahead against Sam Dyson, who had 38 saves last season. Almonte is pictured here hitting his 3-run single in the ninth inning.

Andrew Miller (1-0) struck out two in a perfect eighth inning, and Cody Allen got the save by striking out the side around Elvis Andrus' triple.

Jose Ramirez also homered for Cleveland. Tyler Naquin's leadoff single began the ninth-inning rally. Yandy Diaz sacrificed and Almonte singled. Carlos Santana added an RBI double and scored on Michael Brantley's single.

Indians starter Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner, made his third consecutive opening day start and gave up three homers and five runs over six innings.

Darvish, entering the final season of his six-year deal, allowed four runs while walking four and throwing two wild pitches over 6 1/3 innings.

Odor got a $49.5 million, six-year deal the week before that included a pair of horses. The feisty second baseman, who hit 33 homers last season, is only 23 years old and already is in his fourth season with the Rangers.

Carlos Gomez's 461-foot home run put the Rangers ahead 2-1.

Michael Brantley, the Indians left-fielder, went 1 for 5. He was limited to 11 games last season following right shoulder surgery and another procedure to repair a biceps problem.

Adrian Beltre, the Rangers' veteran third baseman in his 20th season with only 58 hits shy of 3,000, missed opening day for only the second time. He was on the 10-day disabled list with right calf tightness.

Photograph by LM Otero, The Associated Press




Are More Home Runs Coming to MLB in 2017?

By Bob Klapisch, Columnist, USA TODAY.Com

What if everyone in baseball is still juicing? It's a (mostly) crazy thought, given how aggressively the sport polices itself these days. By looks alone, we're well past the steroid era, when hitters ballooned up to NFL lineman size. The game values speed and athleticism more than ever, so why would PEDs still come up in conversation with executives?

Mark Trumbo

It's because home runs spiked historically in 2016 for no obvious reason. Better, harder-to-detect chemicals are just one possibility, as is a more tightly wound baseball. Or it could be the full bloom of the swing-for-the-planets culture that's willing to trade strikeouts for a 400-foot monster blast.

The result satisfied purists on both sides of the ball. If you love power pitching, the summer of '16 was pure bliss --- MLB set a record for strikeouts for the 11th straight year. Yet there's been a concurrent explosion in home runs, which are up 34 percent since 2014. Pictured here is Mark Trumbo of the Baltimore Orioles who hit 47 home runs during the 2016 major league season.

The all-or-nothing approach delivers its share of drama, the war between pitchers and sluggers has never been more intense, especially with the growth of the 100-mph fastball. But it also results in longer games --- extended at-bats, more trips to the mound, endless pitching changes. Everyone, including commissioner Rob Manfred, concedes baseball must quicken its pace.

Yet even if some of the more radical proposals are ever enacted --- like a pitch clock or fewer mound visits --- the surge in home runs remains a mystery. That is, unless you're cynical enough to believe PEDs are still rampant.

One major league executive said late last season, "Every time I hear about some kid getting caught (juicing), I think, 'There's plenty of guys who are getting away with it.' Do I know for sure? No. But nothing would surprise me."

Such talk is a dagger to the heart at MLB headquarters, where the strongest-ever anti-PED initiatives were hatched in 2014. It's not just the penalties that serve as Manfred's muscle --- 80-game suspension for the first positive test, 162 games for the second, lifetime ban for the third. It's random testing at night at home in hopes of catching cheaters who use fast-acting PEDs after games. The stuff is in and out of the system by the following afternoon, which used to stymie testers.

Today's monitoring, however, is so aggressive one official at the commissioner's office said, "We've made it harder than ever to beat the system." It's not perfect, but MLB is right: Clamping down has come a long way.

But remember this, too: Screening is only designed to catch the last-known chemical. Who knows what else is out there? After all, Alex Rodriguez never tested positive and might have been able to run the table had a disgruntled Biogenesis employee not blown the whistle on supplier Tony Bosch.

Diancarlo Stanton

Still, even if PEDs are out there, it's hard to believe they're as prevalent as the early 2000s and that so many players are part of this conspiracy. The fact is, the new sluggers aren't your prototypical Home Run poster boys. To the contrary, there were more than 100 hitters who slugged at least 20 homers last year, tying the record set in 2000. Pictured here is Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins, one of the game's foremost sluggers.

Otherwise, no one hit 50 HRs last year. Mark Trumbo led the majors with 47, and only two National Leaguers, Chris Carter and Nolan Arenado, hit more than 39. Yet, for the first time in history, more than 3 percent of all plate appearances resulted in a home run in 2016. What gives? To some old-school observers, it's more about mind-set than PEDs. It's the willingness to swing and miss in pursuit of the holy grail, the moon shot.

"When I was a ballplayer --- granted I wasn't much of one --- but in my day if I struck out I'd come back to the dugout thinking, 'I failed. I failed,'" said Buck Showalter. "You just don't see that attitude any more. Guys get paid to hit the ball out of the ballpark. You can only do that by swinging hard."

Keith Hernandez

SNY's Keith Hernandez, who used to pride himself on rarely striking out (he whiffed in only 11.8 percent of his plate appearances), agreed. "This is the worst two-strike hitting I've ever seen," said Hernandez, the former Mets first baseman pictured here. "So many flawed swings --- they're the biggest guess-hitters ever."

To be fair, guessing is part of a hitter's tool kit when he's facing a triple-digit fastball. The only way to catch up to, say, Noah Syndergaard's four-seamer is to start the swing early and hope for the best. And when you do? Start your home run trot, because there's a school of thought that swears the baseballs were altered to benefit hitters last summer.

"One conspiracy theory is that the cork is different," Orioles closer Zach Britton said at the All-Star Game. "I know MLB wanted to get more offense in the game, so you can do that without changing a strike zone or something in general? You can somehow change the cork, maybe."

Rawlings Sporting Goods, which manufactures baseballs in Costa Rica, insists there's been no change in materials or protocol. That includes stitching. Some pitchers believe the seams on the ball were flatter in 2016, which, if true, reduced grip and diminished spin rate. That's a recipe for slower-rolling, easy-to-crush breaking pitches.

Of course, it's possible there's some truth in each of these theories. If the players aren't stronger because of PEDs, it's a fact they work out more intelligently than ever. Nutrition is a similarly refined science. Everyone eats healthier, no one shows up at the park hung over anymore. Can you remember the last player you saw smoking?

And working counts, waiting for that one mistake? Entire rosters are built around players who display such patience. Hopefully, the evolution toward power vs. power means the game is moving forward. We'll take that explanation any day.

Photographs by Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports; Sports Illustrated, si.com; and New York Mets/Pinterest



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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