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Dodgers claw back, ride Bellinger homer to WS

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Comebacks complete, crises averted, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back in the World Series, determined to do what they couldn’t the past two times they tried: end a championship drought of more than three decades.

Cody Bellinger‘s mammoth, seventh-inning home run unknotted a tense, tied game, and Julio Urias vanquished the vaunted Atlanta Braves lineup for the final nine outs in the Dodgers’ 4-3 win in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night.

Once trailing 3-1 in the series — and down for the first five innings of Game 7 — the Dodgers clawed back with their not-so-secret weapon: the home run. Los Angeles hit 16 in the series, tying an LCS record, and rode Kiké Hernandez‘s pinch-hit shot in the sixth, followed by Bellinger’s an inning later, to hand Atlanta its latest sporting gut punch.

Urias, typically a starter but pitching in a fireman role, was dynamic over the final three innings and secured the win.

“We never gave up,” said Corey Seager, who set NLCS records with five homers and 11 RBIs en route to being named MVP of the series. “This team never quit. We came out every night and expected to win. Tip your cap to that clubhouse and how we responded, how we came back. We always found the energy, found the big play, found the big spark. Whether it was defensively, offensively, pitching, we grinded through that series. It was a lot of fun to be on top of that one.”

Now comes the hard part for the Dodgers: four more wins — four wins that proved elusive in 2018 against the Boston Red Sox, were just out of their grasp in 2017 against the Houston Astros and most recently were theirs in 1988, the year Kirk Gibson hit his famous walk-off home run in Game 1 of the World Series.

Since then, the Dodgers have habitually flirted with greatness, winning the past eight NL West Division championships and teetering on the precipice of a title. To do so this time, they’ll need to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who nearly blew a 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series before holding on against the Astros in Game 7 on Saturday.

“The World Series is the World Series, no matter what year you get there — ’17 happened, ’18 happened. We fell short; now we are back,” Hernandez said. “The past is in the past — this one feels super special because it is in front of us and it is happening. I am not going to take anything away from the other two, but this one is extremely special. We were able to stay COVID[-19]-free throughout the whole season. … We are extremely lucky, but it shows how focused we were all about what is at stake. Nobody wanted to put the team at risk in any form.

“We knew that from Day 1 in spring training [our goal] was to win the World Series. We took care of business in the regular season; we took care of business against the Brewers; we took care of business against the Padres; we took care of business against the Braves. It was a little harder than we thought it was going to be, but I am glad we pulled it off.”

Hernandez, who arrived at the ballpark for Game 7 wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey, channeled the Lakers legend in his postgame news conference, telling reporters, “The job is not done.”

The Dodgers foisted on Atlanta another heartbreak courtesy of Bellinger, the reigning NL MVP whose struggles this season relegated him to the No. 6 spot in the lineup this postseason. Reliever Chris Martin, who had carved through the three previous hitters he faced, peppered the outside corner against Bellinger, who spoiled pitches to stay alive with two strikes. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Martin left a fastball over the heart of the plate, and Bellinger hammered it 417 feet to right-center field, a majestic shot that left a pro-Dodgers crowd of 10,920 at Globe Life Field screaming with joy.

Bellinger confirmed after the game that his right shoulder popped out when he and Hernandez did a Bash Brothers celebration following Bellinger’s home run.

“Not the first time it’s happened,” Bellinger told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “I just had to run back to the training room, and they had to pop it back in real quick. But I felt good; I was good enough to play defense to end the game, that’s for sure.”

Bellinger caught the last out of the game from his center-field position.

The Braves had three cracks at one win and their best starters, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, lined up on full rest for Games 6 and 7. They proceeded to lose all three and still have not been to the World Series since 1999.

Atlanta had its opportunities, too. The Braves scored in the first inning on two walks and a Marcell Ozuna single, then in the second on a Dansby Swanson home run. A two-run single from Dodgers catcher Will Smith off Anderson in the third tied the game. Atlanta followed its first-inning formula, with Austin Riley providing the single to regain the lead at 3-2.

Already there had been chaos. The Braves giving away two outs on a boneheaded baserunning play by Riley and Swanson in the top of the fourth. The Dodgers stranding eight runners in the first four innings, including the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth. And that madness didn’t relent as the game continued, either.

In the top of the fifth, Freddie Freeman, who would have been series MVP had the Braves won, launched a towering shot off Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen. For the second consecutive day, his back against the right-field wall, his legs splayed in the air, Mookie Betts leapt for an incredible catch, this one saving a home run.

After trading for Betts in February and signing him to a $365 million contract extension, the Dodgers believed they had assembled a roster talented enough to end their 31-year championship drought. That hope lives on among Betts and Seager, starter Walker Buehler and the array of live arms — and even Hernandez, the utility man whose pinch-hit home run off A.J. Minter was the Dodgers’ first to tie a playoff game or put them ahead since Gibson in ’88.

“This was the first time we had our backs against the wall,” Betts said. “All season we have been controlling games, controlling series and whatnot. Seemed like we were getting handled a bit early on. We were able to get ahold of everything and ahold of ourselves. Start to fight back and it shows you the kind of group and type of guys we have. We are never going to give up. Nothing is going to be easy. We will strike fast before you even think about it, and that is what we did.”

The upcoming World Series against the Rays provides an opportunity for redemption, too. The Dodgers remain chapped about 2017, when they dropped the seventh game to an Astros team that eventually was exposed for cheating with a sign-stealing scheme. Although the 2018 Red Sox team that beat the Dodgers didn’t participate in nearly as elaborate a system, it likewise was disciplined by Major League Baseball for running afoul of technology-use rules.

These Dodgers’ aspirations have been bigger than the NL pennant since they returned from the pandemic- and labor-induced delay to play a 60-game season.

“To see where we came … to start with the pandemic and a lot of things going on and guys not with their families, and all of the social injustice — it’s been a lot of sacrifices from guys,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in describing his emotional reaction to leading this group to the World Series. “And guys were uncomfortable, but still to kinda buy in to the Dodgers and what we’re doing to win baseball games, and to make such a difficult year in some instances a positive and a championship year for the Dodgers and the city of Los Angeles.

“Had our backs against the walls, and had to win three games in a row against a very good ballclub. And so there’s a lot of things that had to happen, and we did it.”

The Dodgers clearly were the best team in baseball during the regular season, going 43-17 and outscoring opponents by 136 runs. Both Los Angeles and Atlanta cruised through their wild-card and division series matchups and entered the NLCS undefeated.

From there unfolded a series that until the seventh game hadn’t seen a close, back-and-forth tussle despite both teams playing well at times. Game 7, on the other hand, won’t be easy to forget.

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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.”

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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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