Stymied offense equals free baseball

At this time of year, we typically associate “overtime” with the professional sports leagues that are on the verge of crowning champions. Yet, through five combined games, the NBA and Stanley Cup finals have offered precisely 11 seconds of bonus drama.

Fear not. This season, baseball is delivering free entertainment as never before.

The major leagues have witnessed 103 extra-inning games — the most ever through June 5, according to STATS LLC. And that’s not by a small margin. The previous mark was 92, set in 2004. So, this is an increase of nearly 12 percent.

If you’re a diehard who can’t sleep until the big league schedule is put to bed each night, then I suspect you have had an unproductive couple of months at the office. Baseball is reaching timeslots that were once the exclusive purview of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

The most famous play this year — the Scott Cousins-Buster Posey collision at home plate — happened in the 12th inning of a night game on the West Coast. Amid the brouhaha surrounding Posey’s season-ending injury, it’s often overlooked that the Marlins and Giants prolonged the game by combining for seven runs in the ninth; that part of the night was routine.

The most memorable game (non-No-Hitter Division) may have been the 13-inning epic between the Red Sox and Angels on May 4 . . . and May 5. The game lasted five hours — not counting the 2-hour, 35-minute rain delay. It ended at 2:45 a.m., the latest final out in the Angels’ 51-year history.

The Angels returned to their Boston hotel at 3:30 a.m. after the 5-3 win. Their reward: another game at Fenway Park, nine hours later.

And let’s not forget about the Kansas City Royals. According to Mike Swanson, the team’s vice president of communications and broadcasting, the Royals have played the equivalent of three full games beyond what the pocket schedule intended. They have appeared in 12 extra-inning bouts — tied for second in the majors, behind Oakland — and are 6-6.

Ironic, isn’t it? Millionaire ballplayers are working deep into the night, off the clock, while college kids off for summer enjoy the show from the second deck.

Why is this happening? Well, on some level, the answer weaves back to a common theme of the 2011 season: Thanks to Back to the Future Baseball — excellent pitching, improved defense, PED testing — these guys just aren’t scoring like they used to.

Major league teams have combined to produce 8.43 runs per game. According to STATS LLC, that is the lowest figure in more than 20 years.

“The lack of offense keeps games closer,” said Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, whose team is among the six that have made at least 10 encores this season. “Almost all of our extra-inning games have been low-scoring.”

Fellow GMs Dave Dombrowski (Tigers) and Ned Colletti (Dodgers) cited another motif of the season — the competitive balance across the major leagues. “More clubs are evenly matched,” Dombrowski said. That makes sense, too: When teams are highly competitive with one another, blowouts become much scarcer.

It’s true that parity is reigning in baseball this year. Trade deadline buyers and sellers typically begin distinguishing themselves in early June; yet only five teams are more than seven games out of first place. Three clubs that finished last in their respective divisions in 2010 — the Mariners, Pirates and Diamondbacks — have improved significantly.

The longer division races remain tight, the harder it will be for third- and fourth-place teams to put their stars on the midseason auction block.

Translation: This trend of low-scoring, interminable games could extend well beyond July 31.

Some in the industry see inconsistent relief pitching as one factor in the proliferation of extra-inning games. That is true — to a degree — but of less overall significance than the scarcity of runs. Relievers have combined to blow 230 save opportunities this year, according to STATS LLC. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually only the fourth-highest total at this point of the season since 2000.

But relief pitchers are like defensive backs: They make the last mistake, so it’s the one we remember. To the casual observer, then, the closer gets the blame/gratitude for the additional hour at the ballpark.

Economically speaking, this isn’t necessarily a boon for the home teams. Beer sales don’t restart once they are cut off in the late innings of “regulation,” and the stadium workers tend to be paid an hourly wage. So, in many cases, extra innings will mean a bigger overhead — not to mention a long day for behind-the-scenes team staffers.

“For a clubhouse guy, the concern is that the (players’) food might (not) look as appetizing after sitting for an extra hour or so,” said Steve Vucinich, the longtime Oakland equipment manager. “Although they would be so hungry they’d eat almost anything by then.”

See? The players’ dinner plans are at stake, too.

Every Monday morning this season, we will examine a pressing baseball issue in our baseball column, Behind the Seams.