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20 burning questions as MLB playoffs begin

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Someone asked about the best thing I saw in the 2020 Major League Baseball regular season, and my answer was baseball. Not a titanic Ronald Acuna Jr. home run or a dazzling Mookie Betts throw or an obscene Yu Darvish splitter or Trevor Bauer doing his Conor McGregor walk or Fernando Tatis Jr.’s drip or a Jose Ramirez walk-off or Adalberto Mondesi stealing second or Juan Soto swinging or Tim Anderson flipping or Mike Trout Mike Trouting, though admittedly I enjoyed all of those things.

Honestly, it was great to just see a groundout.

Months without baseball — with labor issues that were every bit as much to blame for the lack thereof as the coronavirus pandemic — were brutal. Then, when the game returned, and COVID-19 outbreaks sidelined two teams, and people across front offices and even the commissioner worried about pulling off a full season, it felt dire.

I took solace in the simple things. A center-cut, 90 mph fastball, about the worst pitch there is? Beautiful. A dropped popup? It happens. That rollover 6-3? Poetry. Because when compared to the alternative — a summer without the summer game, a fall without the Fall Classic — the mundane became magnificent.

Now here baseball is, still, with the first pitch of the postseason set to be thrown by Kenta Maeda at 2 p.m. ET today on ABC. Three more games follow, and then Wednesday’s cornucopia blossoms to eight, with playoff games at noon, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 10. Again: That’s one day, eight postseason games. This super-sized postseason doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a regular-sized regular season, but it feels quite strong in the moment.

With something that came together so on-the-fly — 10 of the 16 teams’ seeds were determined Sunday, the last day of the season — there are bound to be questions. You’re in luck.

Who’s going to win the World Series?

First question, huh?

Isn’t it what people want to know?

Fine. The Los Angeles Dodgers. I was picking them when the season was 162 games. I picked them when the season was announced at 60. I’m picking them now. Nothing I’ve seen has dissuaded me.

They aren’t just deep. They ooze top-end talent. Betts reminded everyone this year that he’s a top-five player in baseball. Shortstop Corey Seager fulfilled the promise of his rookie season. Will Smith might be the best offensive catcher in the game. Outfielder A.J. Pollock, thought to be a free-agent bust, whacked 16 home runs. Third baseman Justin Turner was his rock-solid self. Utilityman Chris Taylor defies the mediocrity implied by his position. Oh, and the Dodgers have last year’s National League MVP, Cody Bellinger, ready to turn October into his playground.

Their best pitcher has the worst ERA in the rotation: Walker Buehler at 3.44. Two rookies, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, have sub-3.00 ERAs. Clayton Kershaw looks like Clayton Kershaw of old. The Dodgers’ relievers aren’t big names. They just had the lowest walk and home run rate of any bullpen in baseball.

This is a superteam. The Dodgers outscored their opponents by 2.27 runs per game, the fourth-highest difference ever, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The two previous teams to top that, the 1927 and 1939 New York Yankees, swept the World Series. The other, the 1902 Pirates, played the year before the first World Series. They finished 103-36.

The 43-17 Dodgers weren’t quite at that level, though their .717 winning percentage is the best in baseball since Cleveland went 111-43 in 1954. After losing in the 2017 and 2018 World Series to a pair of teams later investigated by Major League Baseball for cheating, this is the Dodgers’ year to add their first ring since 1988.

You sure?

Of course not. Baseball is not basketball. It isn’t football. It isn’t any other major sport. It’s a game in which the worst team can beat the best team, and it isn’t some kind of monumental upset. With the wild-card round this year made up of three-game series and the division series running five before the seven-game league championship and World Series, the 2020 playoffs are ripe for upsets — even with the best teams.

Sweet hedge, bro. Whom are the Dodgers going to face in the World Series?

The Tampa Bay Rays.

Hold on. You’re talking about how baseball is a sport of massive variance, of potential upsets, of a mad October just waiting to happen … and you picked a World Series between the No. 1 seeds?

Uhhhhhh …

You’re the worst. Why the Rays?

There is not a superteam in the American League. There are a bunch of good-to-great teams that beat up on one another all season. The Rays are like the Dodgers without the glitz and glamour. They are fundamentally exquisite. They walk about as much as anyone. They run with intelligence and purpose. They catch the ball with aplomb. Their starting pitchers — especially Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton, their dynamic trio — rate with just about every other three-man offering in baseball. Their bullpen had the second-lowest walk and home run rates.

There are two criticisms of the Rays. The first is that they strike out too much. That is a real vulnerability this October. The second is that they don’t have any stars. That is nonsensical and needs to be launched into a black hole so it can vanish forever. If people don’t know who plays for the Rays, they’re the problem because they’re the ones missing out.

Oh, and one more thing: Against teams .500 or better this season, Tampa Bay was 21-9. That was the best such record in the big leagues. The Rays know how to beat good teams. And that’s what October is about.

Who are the greatest threats to the Dodgers and Rays?

Atlanta and Minnesota.

The Braves can really, really, really hit. In 26 September games, they scored 173 runs — nearly 6.7 per game. Take out the 29 runs they dropped on the Miami Marlins, and it’s still 5.8 runs per game, a huge number. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna led the NL in home runs and RBIs and finished 14 batting average points shy of an outright Triple Crown … and he wasn’t the best hitter on his team. Freddie Freeman is the NL MVP favorite — with good reason. Here’s the list of first basemen in history with a triple-slash of at least .341/.462/.640, which Freeman put up this season: Lou Gehrig seven times, Jimmie Foxx twice and Albert Pujols, Todd Helton, Carlos Delgado and Norm Cash once apiece. That’s some company.

We haven’t even talked about Acuña or the phenomenal Travis d’Arnaud or Dansby Swanson or Ozzie Albies or Adam Duvall. Not to mention a severely underrated bullpen. All anyone wants to talk about with the Braves is their paucity of starting pitching. Yeah, it’s real, and with league series this October featuring no off days, that might prove to be a problem. Compared to others’ issues, though, it isn’t necessarily a killer.

The Twins are different. They aren’t quite the Bomba Squad of last year. They aren’t sure if they’re going to have third baseman Josh Donaldson or center fielder Byron Buxton for the wild-card series. But nobody pitched better in September than the Twins, who lead off with Kenta Maeda (the presumptive AL Cy Young runner-up), follow with Jose Berrios (who looks dialed in) and chase him with Michael Pineda (who hasn’t allowed a homer in 26⅔ innings this year). The Twins have big arms with swing-and-miss stuff throughout their bullpen, and manager Rocco Baldelli comes from the Tampa Bay tree and is plenty versed in mixing and matching.

It’s not like the Twins are some scrub-ridden offense, either. The ageless Nelson Cruz is a marvel. Donaldson is a delight when he plays. Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Buxton are pure excitement, though each could stand to get on base more.

Put it this way: If the Twins don’t snap their 16-game postseason losing streak — that’s not a misprint — against the 29-31 Astros, something will have gone very wrong.

Did you say 29-31?

Sure did. The Brewers finished with that record, too. Welcome to the consequence of expanded playoffs: Houston and Milwaukee’s .483 winning percentage is the worst ever for a postseason baseball team, just behind that of the 1981 Kansas City Royals, who went 50-53 (.485) and made the playoffs in that year’s split, strike-shortened season.

Those aren’t the only ugly numbers this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the five worst team batting averages ever for playoff teams came in 2020:

2020 Reds: .212
2020 Cubs: .220
2020 Brewers: .223
2020 A’s: .225
2020 Cleveland: .228
1906 White Sox: .230

What’s the best wild-card series?

Give me Braves-Reds. In baseball’s one-year, 16-team experiment, the 2-7 series looks a lot like a 5-12 in the NCAA Tournament — ripe for upset.

Yes, a few hundred words ago, I was singing the Braves’ praise. Yes, a few dozen words ago I was pointing out that over 60 games, the Reds batted .212. Here’s the thing: Cincinnati will start the deserved NL Cy Young winner, Trevor Bauer, in Game 1, follow with Luis Castillo (September: 32⅔ IP, 22 H, 9 BB, 37 K’s, 2.20 ERA) and, if necessary, close with Sonny Gray.

Even though the Reds can’t hit, they walked more than any other team in the National League and finished behind only the Dodgers, Braves and Padres, three swatalicious teams, with 90 home runs. In fact, 59.7% of the Reds’ runs came via the long ball — by far the highest in baseball history, according to ESPN Stats & Info. (The previous best: Toronto in 2019, with 53.2%.)

How about in the American League?

It would be so ESPN of me to say Yankees and whomever the Yankees are playing, right?

It would.

Well, tough. Yankees-Cleveland really is that interesting. It’s not just the matchup between Shane Bieber (who made $230,815 this year and is going to win the Cy Young unanimously) and Gerrit Cole (who made $810,000 per start this year and was very good, especially in September). Greatness abounds. Ramirez should win the AL MVP — and he might be the second-most talented player on the left side of the infield, with Francisco Lindor manning shortstop. The right side of the Yankees’ infield balances the ledger rather nicely, with second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the AL batting champ, and Luke Voit, the league’s home run king.

Both bullpens are deep. The Cleveland rotation, with Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac, is a nice counterbalance to a Yankees lineup that is clearly stronger, especially in the outfield. Four Yankees numbers are of concern: 11-18 and 10-17. The first is their record on the road. The Yankees were dreadful away from the Bronx this year. The second is their record against teams .500 or better. Against Boston and Baltimore, the dregs of the AL East, New York went 16-4. Against all other teams: 17-23.

Why aren’t they starting Gary Sanchez?

Marly Rivera explains it really well in a piece everyone ought to read, but the tl;dr version is: Sanchez has been awful this year, and Cole is more comfortable throwing to Kyle Higashioka.

OK, smart guy. Who are going to be the breakout players this October?

A few names to consider:

Garrett Crochet, relief pitcher, Chicago White Sox: Drafted 11th overall in June, the left-hander out of Tennessee has pitched six scoreless innings, struck out eight and averaged 100.2 mph on his fastball.

Sean Murphy, C, Oakland Athletics: Nobody was better for Oakland in September than the rookie catcher.

Randy Arozarena, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: He destroys left-handed pitching, and with the Blue Jays featuring a number of lefty options (including Hyun-Jin Ryu), he’ll have ample opportunity.

Trent Grisham, CF, San Diego Padres: Last you saw him in the playoffs, Grisham was in a Milwaukee uniform overrunning a bad hop that allowed Washington to win the wild-card game — and eventually the World Series. He’ll acquit himself better this time around.

Tony Gonsolin, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers: The latest product of the Dodgers’ player development machine doesn’t have the same raw stuff as May but has incredible pitchability.

Tyler Duffey, reliever, Minnesota Twins: Presuming, of course, the Twins are ahead in a postseason game for once and need to call upon their best high-leverage reliever.

Nick Anderson, reliever, Rays: He’s the best reliever in the game. Now it’s time for the whole baseball world to see it.

Will Smith, C, Dodgers: He has been the best hitter on the best team in baseball, and he calls a delightful game, too. The rich get richer.

Austin Adams, reliever, Padres: Back from knee surgery and throwing vicious sliders, the right-hander was a secondary player in the Austin Nola deal before the trade deadline and could pitch his way into primary status.

James Karinchak, reliever, Cleveland: He struck out 53 in 27 innings and should be deployed as an old-school fireman.

Nate Pearson, reliever, Toronto Blue Jays: Typically a starter, he has slotted into a bullpen role and will throw 102 mph fastballs regularly.

What’s the most seemingly lopsided matchup in Game 1?

The White Sox are 14-0 against left-handed starters this year. Against all lefties, they’re hitting .285/.364/.523. The A’s will start rookie Jesus Luzardo. He is left-handed.

The response from White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson: “I guess they haven’t done their homework.”

Perhaps not, though the White Sox have a fair bit of Yankees vibes to them. Their record against the two worst teams in the AL Central, Kansas City and Detroit: 18-2. Their record against everyone else: 17-23. Their record against .500-or-better teams: 12-20.

The Athletics’ Chris Bassitt just won AL Pitcher of the Month for September. Why aren’t teams’ best starters going in Game 1?

It’s not just Oakland. Ryu will get plenty of down-ballot Cy Young support, and he’s starting Game 2 for Toronto behind Matt Shoemaker, even though that pushes Taijuan Walker, Toronto’s second-best starter, to Game 3, which might not be needed. The Cubs might go with Kyle Hendricks ahead of Yu Darvish, a strong Cy Young candidate in the NL. Even though Marlins rookie Sixto Sanchez is the most talented arm on the team with the highest upside, Sandy Alcantara is likely to get the nod.

One decision-maker suggested that the difference between Game 1 and Game 2 simply isn’t that big. Another person said some teams think Game 2 is more important and will save their best pitcher for it — and give an extra day’s rest by doing so. That said, the Elias Sports Bureau passed along an awfully interesting statistic about three-game series. In the past 10 regular seasons, teams that won the first game of a three-game set went on to win the series 75.5% of the time.

What’s the Cardinals’ excuse for not pitching Jack Flaherty in Game 1 or Game 2?

No idea.

Flaherty is the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He doesn’t have the best ERA; that belongs to Kwang-Hyun Kim, the 32-year-old left-hander in his first season who has posted a 1.62 ERA. Flaherty doesn’t have the most experience; that’s Adam Wainwright, the 39-year-old who has been very good this year, too.

Between Kim and Wainwright, though, the Cardinals are trying to pull off some kind of a trick. This season, 126 starters threw at least 30 innings. Only 17 of them averaged below 90 mph on their fastballs. Kim and Wainwright are two of them.

On fastballs between 88 and 92 mph this year, according to Statcast, the Padres hit .329 and slugged a major league-best .658.

One more time: Flaherty, even with his 4.91 ERA, is the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He has the best stuff. He has the right attitude. In fact, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said on MLB Network that Flaherty would go in Game 2. Then, suddenly, the Cardinals decided he wouldn’t. If they win one of the first two games, it will look very smart. If they don’t, they’ll have lost a postseason series without using their ace.

What other pitchers aren’t we seeing?

Right-handers Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, on whom a deep Padres playoff run almost certainly depends, are both questions after exiting their last starts. Justin Verlander’s Tommy John surgery leaves a gaping hole in an Astros rotation that is middle of the pack without him. The Braves with a healthy Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels would be an even greater threat to the Dodgers than they are already. Had Corbin Burnes not caught an oblique in his final start of the season, the specter of Milwaukee ousting Los Angeles would loom far more realistically than it does.

How can the Brewers beat the Dodgers?

Let Craig Counsell do his managerial wizardry and leverage his bullpen to the hilt over three days.

An important thing to note for these next four days of wild-card action: The AL Division Series don’t begin until Oct. 5, four days after the scheduled Game 3 of the wild card. The NL layoff is the same. As teams go into playoff bubbles, they’ll get ample rest.

Counsell is almost certain to go bullpen game in the opener. For Game 2, he has Brandon Woodruff, who is fantastic and has the sort of stuff that can handcuff the Dodgers. Game 3, if it gets there, will probably be all hands on deck again.

Those hands, though, they’re pretty good. The best reliever in the NL this year wasn’t Josh Hader, the Brewers’ closer who has held that title in recent seasons. It was Brewers right-hander Devin Williams, a 26-year-old rookie who, like Karinchak, struck out 53 in 27 innings, allowed just eight hits, posted a 0.33 ERA and regularly used the single best pitch in baseball this season, his changeup.

There’s Hader and Williams. Right-hander Freddy Peralta is a strikeout monster, too. Lefty Brent Suter, who has started and could serve as an opener, is a ground ball machine. Same with Adrian Houser. They’re still not the best on the Brewers at inducing grounders: That’s side-arming right-hander Eric Yardley, who is the perfect countermeasure with a 61.2% ground ball rate. There’s also Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa, two rookies with fastball velocity that sits at 98 mph.

This takes a lot of squinting and some dreaming. But again: This is baseball. Anything can happen.

Like a positive COVID-19 test?

Holy Debbie Downer.

It’s worth asking about.

That’s fair. Considering how the coronavirus nearly waylaid the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ seasons, it’s reasonable to ask how a positive test would affect the postseason, especially when MLB is endeavoring to create a bubble around teams.

The protocol after individual positive tests as the season progressed was typically to miss a few games. Baseball’s playoffs are crammed into such a short time period that postponements aren’t an option. The league’s postseason operations manual calls for all of the usual steps: contact tracing, follow-up testing (even though players and staff are being tested every day) and trying to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.

If there is an outbreak, teams are traveling with a dozen replacement players who can fill in. The idea of that — participating in a postseason with lower-tier players — does not sit well with some officials but is a reality with which they’re learning to live.

Too much is at stake for MLB to lose the playoffs. Owners are counting on the billion or so dollars in postseason TV revenue. It’s the league’s greatest source of income this year, and MLB will do everything it can to secure that bag — including forcing teams to play with lesser talent.

Are there going to be fans?

“That’s the hope,” one official familiar with the situation said Monday. Whether they will appear at the NLCS in Arlington, Texas, or the World Series at Globe Life Field is unclear.

Owners, one person in contact with them said recently, “are desperate to get fans back this year. They want to show that it’s possible so they can have fans on Opening Day next year.”

Don’t expect a packed house. At most, the stadium might be filled to a quarter of capacity. That would still be 10,000 more fans per game than there were at any of the 898 played during the regular season.

What are you most excited for this October?

Baseball.

But not just the simple stuff. The finest teams in the world are vying for a championship. This is the moment for greatness. For the best players playing the best. For Acuña and Betts and Darvish and Bauer and Tatis and Ramirez and Anderson and everyone else showing out.

MLB’s October sizzle reel is full of bright colors and big swings and premium flow and dancing and bubble blowing. It’s DJ Khaled talking over BTS and trying to sell this as the same game for a new generation. “If you don’t know,” Khaled says, “now you know.”

Here’s what those of us in the know know: October is when the best baseball is played, when the best moments are forged, when history, which the game holds so dear, is made. It starts with four games today, doubles on Wednesday and moves forward from there — the biggest playoff field ever, the most games ever, the greatest number of opportunities for those moments.

It’s time to crown a champion. Baseball certainly earned it.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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