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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

There’s some hope that DH is coming to NL

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka scores a run past

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka scores a run past Mets catcher Devin Mesoraco on a sacrifice fly during the sixth inning at Citi Field on Friday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Bud Selig dissolved nearly everything that separated the American and National Leagues during the latter years of his tenure as commissioner. He combined the two umpiring staffs. Created interleague play. He even had the Brewers jump from the AL to the NL.

All one big, happy baseball family.

The thing Selig never budged on, however, was bringing the NL up to date with the 21st century and making the designated hitter universal for both leagues. Selig said he liked the distinction and insisted that fans enjoyed watching the pitchers hit. Converting the NL always seemed like a moot point whenever the debate was opened anew.

Well, here in this space, we’ve long argued that the universal DH is way overdue. The evidence for it continues to pile up, year after year, as pitchers get injured in the batter’s box or on the bases, and a sport with dwindling action somehow stomachs an entirely pointless offensive player for up to the seventh inning or so.

And you know what? Rob Manfred, now in his fourth season as Selig’s successor, has to be seeing the light on this issue, too.

At the conclusion of the Major League Baseball owners’ meetings this past week, we asked Manfred what he thinks about going to the DH in both leagues and if there is momentum building lately in light of additional injuries to pitchers.

Ever the diplomat — Manfred does work for the owners, after all — he didn’t offer an opinion on the DH. But in sifting through his response, you get the sense of where the commissioner stands, and that the clock might be ticking on having pitchers hit.

“I think we have a core of National League owners that prefer the National League game,” Manfred said. “There’s no question about it. I don’t think anybody likes pitchers getting hurt and I don’t think even people who like the National League game — what are pitchers hitting, .113 this year? — I don’t think anybody sees that as positive, either.

“I think the DH is one of those topics that you never quite put to bed. I think that is a continuing source of conversation among the ownership group and I think that the dialogue actually probably moved a little bit.”

In other words, progress.

Manfred already is worried about baseball being swallowed up by what the analytics crowd refers to as the three true outcomes — home runs, strikeouts, walks — causing a dearth of action on the field. So how in good conscience can he endorse a player being an automatic out?

By the way, Manfred was dead-on with that pitchers’ batting average during Thursday’s interview, so he wasn’t just spit-balling on the subject.

We can’t really say the DHs have been crushing it this season, with a .233 batting average and .732 OPS. But that’s a considerable step up from a pitcher’s nightly futility, which features a strikeout every 2.07 at-bats.

That’s an easy argument from an entertainment standpoint. It’s a layup. Sorry, but even a Bartolo Colon home run once every quarter-century doesn’t make up for pitchers mostly wasting everyone’s time.

As for the economics of the game and the competitive integrity of a six-month season, it’s pointless to risk someone as valuable as a starting pitcher by having him do something that puts unnecessary strain on his far more important job. This is particularly true during interleague play, when AL pitchers are forced to grab a bat on very rare occasions, with limited practice.

The most recent case involved Masahiro Tanaka, who suffered strains to both hamstrings while sprinting home on a sacrifice fly during the Subway Series. Maybe you think Tanaka should have been in better shape for such an activity. But he was perfectly fit for his actual job until that freakish injury, which knocked the Yankees’ $155-million pitcher out of the rotation for an indefinite period.

When Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner was asked this past week for his thoughts on the DH, his initial one-word reply was “Wang.” That was a reference to former Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang, who suffered a foot injury while running the bases against the Astros in Houston in 2008 — they were an NL team then — and was never an elite starter again. That was coming off a pair of 19-win seasons, too. With Tanaka’s injury stirring that Wang memory, Steinbrenner’s preference was clear.

“I’m an American League guy, so as a fan, if you’re asking my opinion, I would say it’s unreasonable to expect a guy to do something — especially at this highest level — that he hasn’t done since high school,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s a tough thing, but that’s the American League guy in me talking.”

Mickey Callaway also was an AL guy as the pitching coach for the Indians before the Mets hired him as manager, and we seriously doubt he enjoys seeing his starting pitchers head to the plate with a bat in their hands. Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz suffered injuries on swings earlier this season, which is ridiculous — and these are pitchers who are accustomed to hitting on a regular basis.

Despite Callaway saying publicly that he likes the NL style, he also detailed the additional stress that pitchers endure by having to hit. No other player has to throw upwards of 100 pitches and sprint around the bases on top of that. Maybe that’s not like going up and down the floor for 48 minutes of an NBA game, but it can take a toll.

“You’re asking your pitcher to do the hardest job on the field,” Callaway said. “That’s very taxing, and sooner or later, you’re going to get injured.”

Callaway appreciates what a valuable commodity pitching is. And as Mets manager, he’s painfully aware of what injuries can do to a team. Even so, there apparently still are enough NL hard-liners positioned on that wall to keep the DH out, and that’s going to force MLB to live with these consequences. But maybe not forever.

“It’s just the way the chessboard is set and that’s life in the big city,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said after the Tanaka mishap. “We certainly wish we could avoid it, but those are obviously for owners to deal with.”

As Manfred hinted after sitting with those owners this past week, maybe the universal DH is closer on the horizon than we think. By now, all we can say is better late than never.

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