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When MLB decided to go to seven-inning games in doubleheaders last year, the rule was implemented to shorten the day for players during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early season outbreaks on the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins caused a slew of postponements, and to alleviate long days at the ballpark during the rescheduled doubleheaders, the traditional nine-inning games were history.
It made sense for the 60-game season in 2020, when fears of the virus spreading were a daily concern and 55 doubleheaders were played.
Just before spring training began this year, MLB decided to bring back the seven-inning doubleheader games for the 2021 season. The games tended to be about a half-hour shorter than the usual three-hour, nine-inning affairs, and MLB and the players union agreed the rule would help the sport get through a 162-game season.
Three months later, many players have been vaccinated, and teams such as the Chicago White Sox and the Cardinals have announced they’ve reached the 85% threshold of vaccinated Tier 1 personnel. That allows teams to relax MLB’s COVID-19 protocols, and fully vaxxed teams theoretically reduce the likelihood of having to postpone games due to the spread of the virus.
But there’s no going back in 2021, so the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers rescheduled Monday’s postponed game with a split doubleheader of two seven-inning games Tuesday.
Kyle Hendricks threw a complete game in a 7-1 Cubs win in the opener, and the teams retreated to their clubhouses for a three-hour wait before Game 2.
The Cubs and Dodgers could’ve rescheduled the makeup game for Thursday, a day off for both teams, which would’ve made it a nine-inning game. Cubs manager David Ross wasn’t sure why the makeup game wasn’t scheduled for Thursday, but he touted the importance of having a day off on the schedule.
“They’re going back to L.A., right?” Ross said of the Dodgers’ travel plans Wednesday. “And those off days are pretty precious for us. Throughout 162 (games), the off days are pretty important. You try to do all you can to maximize those off days. ... I’m just happy we get to play, and I hope fans are excited about two good teams going at it.”
Well, one of the teams was good. The other was not-so-good, though you couldn’t tell which was which in Game 1, as the Cubs scored twice on one wild pitch and knocked out Clayton Kershaw after a four-run first inning, the shortest of his career. The Dodgers’ problems overshadowed Javier Báez’s three errors and three bobbled balls on routine grounders.
Game 1 lasted 2 hours, 17 minutes, which was a treat for players and media alike. Then came the long, long wait as players hung out in the clubhouses instead of immediately getting ready for Game 2.
Had the Cubs and Dodgers played a straight doubleheader, they could’ve started the second game around 4:30 p.m. instead of waiting until 6:40.
The original purpose of the rule was to prevent teams from spending long days in the clubhouse. While the pandemic is ongoing, a limited number of fans are allowed inside ballparks, so some home teams want that second gate that comes with a split, day-night doubleheader.
Ross said he didn’t mind the wait, adding it was “nice” to be alerted about the postponement relatively early Monday.
“I thought the positive was on the front end of this,” he said. “Doubleheaders are a long day anyway. Day-night, that didn’t pop onto my radar. We’re fine with it. Gives us a little break.
“Sometimes it does feel rushed. I remember last year we had back-to-back (straight doubleheaders) with St. Louis that felt super rushed and it was a quick turnaround. (This) gives us a chance to catch our breath and get ready for another game against a good team.”
Another dilemma with seven-inning games is how to treat them in the record books.
Hendricks got credit for a complete game despite throwing only seven innings, the sixth complete game of his career and his first since a nine-inning shutout July 24 on opening night of the 2020 season.
But Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner didn’t get credit for a no-hitter last month despite not allowing a hit in seven shutout innings in the second game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves.
Should Bumgarner have been credited with a no-hitter?
“I didn’t give up any hits today,” he said afterward. “I’m not in control of how many innings we’re playing. I like the seven-inning doubleheader thing. I don’t know.”
Speaking during a Diamondbacks broadcast, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson dismissed the notion that a no-hitter was deserved after a seven-inning outing.
“Uh, I don’t know,” Johnson said. “Let’s play nine innings. Isn’t that the way this game is meant to do and been done for the last 100 years?”
The game is changing, bit by bit, every year, but a few things have remained sacred. Three strikes is still a strikeout. Four balls is still a walk. And until 2020, nine innings was still a game, unless it was shortened by rain or went into extra innings.
Now seven is heaven, at least in most players’ eyes.
“Two nines in a day is a lot of baseball, for sure,” Hendricks said after his Game 1 win. “Most guys don’t seem to mind the seven-inning games. For pitchers, it gives us a chance to go deep in a game and finish it like that.
“There are positives and negatives to everything. But we just take what’s given to us, so we know it’s seven (and) we go out there and play accordingly.”
The pandemic may be receding by 2022, but the guess is seven-inning doubleheader games are here to stay — for better or worse.