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An ALCS comeback from down 3-0? Here’s why these Astros could pull it off

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At the end of every day during the baseball postseason, I run a set up simulations to estimate the updated probabilities for each series and the ultimate outcome of the bracket. I add the newest results to a log and send them in to Bristol HQ, for inclusion in our ongoing coverage of the playoffs.

Here is the progression of the odds of the Houston Astros of winning the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the World Series, over the past eight days:

This is like that scene in a movie where a character is drowning — let’s call him “Astro” — and is pulled out of water by the hero, whom we’ll call “Dusty.” Dusty launches into some desperate CPR and starts pleading with Astro to wake up and looks to the heavens for a miracle, all while everyone else — Alex and Jose and Carlos and little Zack — stand around and watch the whole business in terror. Before long, reality sets in. It’s too late. Astro is not breathing. Astro is gone.

Then, all of a sudden, Astro spits up a whale’s spout of water and his eyes fly wide open and he gasps for air. Dusty rejoices! Alex and Jose and Carlos and little Zack dance in jubilation. Astro is very much alive.

What else can you say after Carlos Correa — who has nothing do with that protracted analogy above — visualizes himself hitting a home run, tells everyone he is going to hit a home run, then hits a home run to keep the Astros alive for another day? It’s fairy-tale stuff, though given the public approval rating of the Astros entering this postseason, it might be the kind of fairy tale where the prince ditches Cinderella and hits the clubs with the evil stepsisters.

That Houston has staved off elimination by winning back-to-back 4-3 games after tumbling into an 0-3 hole to begin the ALCS against Tampa Bay is not a matter of them coming to life, or the Rays seizing up in some kind of terrible choke mode. Basically, we’ve seen the same game play out five times in a row. The Rays happened to win the first three of them and the Astros the past two. It’s the sequencing that makes this so eye-opening.

Because of that sequencing, the Astros have already made history. Thirty-eight teams have fallen behind in a series 3-0. Four of them have forced a Game 6. The Astros are the fourth. Here’s the list of the others:

  • 1998 Braves: Forced a Game 6 in the National League Championship Series against the Padres, but lost.

  • 1999 Mets: Forced a Game 6 in the NLCS against the Braves, but lost.

  • 2004 Red Sox: Forced a Game 6 in the ALCS, won that, won Game 7, won the World Series, and celebrated while somehow Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore found their way onto the field.

The Astros still have a long way to go before forcing their way into “Fever Pitch 2: Dusty’s Revenge,” but they have already ventured into territory where few 0-3 teams have gone. That’s pretty intense. But can they keep this going? Will they?

The answers: I don’t know and I don’t know. But there are a lot of factors embedded in the way this series has played out to suggest that, at the very least, the Astros have a real shot to do this.

Before we get into those factors, let’s pause for a needed reality check: You can see the probabilities in that table above. The Astros’ odds remain long. They remain long not just because they still trail the series 3-2, but because they are playing the Rays. The Rays entered this series as heavy favorites for a good reason: They have been a better team than Houston this entire campaign. They have gotten this far in the ALCS despite a number of their key hitters struggling because they have a roster of extraordinary depth and versatility. Before the game, Houston manager Dusty Baker even said that it felt like Tampa Bay has more players on its roster than his club.

Tampa Bay is still the favorite to win any individual game in this series. And since they need to win only one more game as opposed to the Astros’ two, the Rays are still in a very good position. Despite the devastating nature of watching Correa end Game 5 on a game-winning shot to center field, the Rays seemed nonplussed during their postgame Zooms. They praised the Astros and looked forward to having Blake Snell and Charlie Morton lined up for the next two games, if needed.

“It’s just been a tough two games, and hey they play good,” Kevin Kiermaier said. “We know we have a really good opponent over there, and we have to come out tomorrow early and often with the bats and let Blake do his thing, and try to get some runs for him.”

But if you live in Houston — and let’s face it, if you’re pulling for the Astros, you either live in Houston, have a relative in the organization or are really, really rooting for Dusty Baker, all good reasons — there are a number of indicators leaning your way:

1. Your team has already bucked history.

Explained above.

2. Their swagger is back.

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Carlos Correa says he made in-game adjustments with hitting coach Alex Cintron before his game-winning dinger.

OK, I understand this is a serious intangible, old-timey sportswriter bromide. But it’s hard to miss. Having been around the Astros a good bit in recent years, one thing that always jumped out about them for me was the cockiness and confidence that marked the way they played and carried themselves. This year, they simply did not resemble that team. They looked like a bunch of guys late for a dinner reservation.

That changed once the postseason started, but as one break after another went the Rays’ way in this round, that fleeting quality of swagginess fleeted. There was a team meeting, which is more fodder for sportswritery bromides. But, hey, it worked, did it not? You don’t think swagger is a thing? Well, with the season on the line, Correa said he was going to hit a home run and then hit a home run.

What is that if not swagger?

Now, none of this is to suggest that the Astros believe in themselves more than the Rays. The Rays have flourished in obscurity for years, the best evidence for self-belief there is. This is more about the dynamic of the Astros’ clubhouse. When this team behaves like they have over the past couple of nights, they are awfully tough to beat.

3. They didn’t use Framber Valdez and have Lance McCullers Jr. lined up for Game 7.

The Rays have every reason to feel good about the pitchers they have lined up to start the next two games. And after Baker squeezed everything there was to get out of his bullpen on Thursday, while Rays manager Kevin Cash was able to get more length out of his relievers, Tampa Bay’s overall staff is in better shape heading into Friday.

But even as the Astros pulled out the win in Game 5, their pitching plans came very close to becoming scrambled. With the Rays trying to take the lead in the top of the ninth, with Mike Zunino starting the inning with a single and pinch runner Kiermaier reaching second base on a wild pitch, Baker had Valdez throwing in the bullpen behind closer Ryan Pressly. Pressly wriggled out of trouble without Baker having to dip deeper into his pitching depth. That’s huge.

“I said a prayer to my dad and my brother,” Baker said, recounting what was going through his mind as Correa strode to the plate before the game winner. “And I said, ‘Please, Lord let us walk off, because if not we gotta use Framber, and then we don’t have Framber tomorrow to start.”

Let’s not forget that Valdez and McCullers arguably outpitched Snell and Morton in the first two games of the series, though the Rays won both:

Pitchers: IP, H, ER, BB, K
Valdez & McCullers: 13, 8, 3, 4, 19
Snell & Morton: 10, 11, 1, 3, 7

The key for Baker is probably length. Given the state of his bullpen after Games 4 and 5, he needs Valdez and McCullers to repeat their starts from earlier in the series. No easy feat — the Rays’ army of analysts is dissecting those outings as these words are typed — but if they can do so, Tampa Bay’s bullpen edge is minimized.

4. Their luck has turned.

One thing about baseball, you can say the breaks even out over time. But there is no guarantee that they will even out over the course of a short series. However in this case, it appears that things are already regressing to the norm.

Over the first three games of the series, the Astros’ hitters had about 33% more balls struck with an exit velocity of 80 mph or greater than the Rays. Their OPS on those balls was .836. The big league regular-season figure in that category was 1.052. (The Rays were at .977.) Over the past two games, that figure for the Astros is 1.152.

5. They’re kids!

The teams combined to use eight rookie pitchers in their respective most important games of the season. That’s mind-boggling. The oldest of the four rookies the Astros used (Andre Scrubb) is 25. He would have been 9 years old when the Red Sox pulled off their epic comeback.

I think because the Astros have so many familiar postseason faces playing in the series, people overlook just how much turnover they’ve had on their pitching staff since last year’s World Series. Houston had the third-youngest staff in the majors this season.

You think that group is daunted by the history of teams in an 0-3 hole? They don’t know the history.

6. The Astros’ hitters are hitting better than the Rays’ hitters, and their pitchers are pitching better than the Rays’ pitchers.

Yeah, it’s a short sample and simple concept, but it’s true. For the series, Houston has a .759 OPS against .647 for the Rays. The Astros’ wOBA is .325 against an expected wOBA (based on their batted balls) of .395. Tampa Bay has a .279 wOBA and an xwOBA of .289 (per TruMedia). Better process, better results.

It goes on: Houston’s hitters have 34 strikeouts and 17 walks. Tampa Bay’s have 57 strikeouts and 14 walks. Houston has an 8-7 edge in homers. Both teams have had 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position and produced six hits in those spots for a .194 average. Yet the Rays have outscored the Astros 9-3 on those hits. You wouldn’t light out for Vegas to bet on that trend continuing.

7. If momentum is a thing, the Astros have it.

It’s not just that they’ve won the two most recent games, it’s where they started from before those contests and the dramatic nature by which they played out. Houston is riding high.

“Boy that will go down as one of the greatest games in history,” Baker said. “And hopefully it’ll go down as one of the greatest comebacks in history after two more games.”

The Rays remain the favorite. But there are lots of reasons to think that the Astros can pull off the miracle, and evidence to support them.

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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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