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Dodgers first team to clinch playoff spot, plus current postseason bracket

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The 2020 MLB playoffs are less than two weeks away, even though it seems like only yesterday that the regular season kicked off. The compressed 60-game schedule is rapidly coming to a close, and the MLB standings are tight heading to the finish, with wild-card positioning, postseason seeding and the rest of the playoff picture at stake.

As has been the case with so much this season, the playoffs will have a new look, with an expanded format that includes 16 teams for the first time in MLB history.

This will be the place to visit every day through the end of the regular season for updated looks at the potential playoff field, recaps of the biggest games, analysis of the most important storylines and previews of the critical games ahead.

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Current playoff field | The big story | Playoff debates | Key games ahead

Key links: MLB standings | Predictions | Stock watch | 2020 playoff schedule


Who is in?

Los Angeles Dodgers

The overwhelming preseason favorite was the first team to secure a spot in the postseason tournament, clinching a berth with Wednesday’s win over the Padres. L.A. took two of three from San Diego, which sits in second place in the NL West.

What’s next? The Dodgers, who hold the best record in baseball, are looking for their eighth consecutive NL West championship and the top seed in the National League. Of course, the big prize for the Dodgers would be their first World Series title since 1988. This will be L.A.’s 14th playoff appearance since they last won it all.

Dodgers must-read: How A.J. and Kate Pollock faced their daughter’s premature birth during COVID-19

Who could be next?

The White Sox can clinch a playoff spot Thursday if they beat the Twins or if the Mariners lose to the Giants.


If the season ended today …

The matchups: Here’s what the first round of the expanded playoffs would look like, based on the standings entering play Thursday, Sept. 17.

Best-of-three series, higher seed is home team

AMERICAN LEAGUE
No. 1 White Sox vs. No. 8 Indians
No. 2 Rays vs. No. 7 Blue Jays
No. 3 Athletics vs. No. 6 Astros
No. 4 Twins vs. No. 5 Yankees

NATIONAL LEAGUE
No. 1 Dodgers vs. No. 8 Giants
No. 2 Cubs vs. No. 7 Phillies
No. 3 Braves vs. No. 6 Reds
No. 4 Padres vs. No. 5 Marlins

Magic numbers to clinch playoff spot

NL: Padres 3, Cubs 5, Braves 6, Marlins 10, Phillies 11, Giants 11, Reds 13

AL: White Sox 1, Rays 3, A’s 3, Twins 3, Yankees 6, Blue Jays 8, Indians 8, Astros 10


About last night …

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0:46

Luis Castillo fans 10 over seven scoreless innings as the Reds down the Pirates 1-0.

The Reds have been one of the most confounding teams of the season. A trendy pick to be a prime postseason contender, the Reds’ offense has been dreadful, although the peripheral numbers indicate they’ve hit into some bad luck. (They’re 15th in hard-hit rate, but dead last in BABIP and overall batting average, and 26th in runs scored.) Ultimately, the only numbers that really matter are the ones on the scoreboard, and based on them, Cincinnati has been a disappointment.

Even so, whenever we’re ready to write off the Reds for good, they get an outing like the one they got from Luis Castillo on Wednesday, or a sparkler from Trevor Bauer, and they again seem like a potential playoff team that could cause some trouble, particularly in a best-of-three series.

Castillo blanked the Pirates for seven innings in a 1-0 victory (see, who needs offense?) that ran Cincinnati’s winning streak to five games and pulled the Reds one percentage point ahead of the Cardinals and into second place in the NL Central, a spot that would get them into the postseason. Yes, four of the five wins came against the dreadful Buccos. But none of the teams the Reds are contending with for a playoff berth are world-beaters. The Phillies slipped below .500 after blowing a four-run lead in a 5-4 loss to the Mets. The Giants, while a nice story, can’t be considered a postseason lock. The Cardinals are a game under .500 with their doubleheader-filled schedule taking a toll on their pitching staff. The Brewers? Meh.

Meanwhile, Bauer is a legit Cy Young candidate and Castillo isn’t all that far behind (1.23 ERA, 24 Ks in 22 IP over his past three starts). If Sonny Gray recovers from a sore back and pitches the way he did early this season — and the bats take even a slight turn for the better — there’s still time for the Reds to make some noise.

Also of note: The Dodgers claimed the first seat at the postseason feast, assuring they’ll be playing in October for the eighth straight year. The White Sox missed a chance to clinch a playoff spot, losing 5-1 to the Twins, but are just one win away from their first berth since 2008. Minnesota used its 2019 formula for success, touching White Sox ace Lucas Giolito for a pair of home runs by Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton. Miguel Sano added his 12th long ball as insurance in the eighth. … Speaking of long balls, the Yankees bashed their way to a place that had never been reached by the Bronx Bombers before. New York hit six home runs in back-to-back games for the first time in club history — then did that one better in the seventh inning on Kyle Higashioka‘s third home run of the night. Higashioka, who became the first No. 9 hitter with three homers in a game in Yankees history, had never hit more than three homers in a season entering Wednesday. New York’s 13-2 win over the Blue Jays was its seventh straight over Toronto and Baltimore, giving the Yankees a 1½-game lead over the Jays for second place to restore order in the AL East. … The Astros, who were shut out 1-0 by the Rangers’ Kyle Gibson, are 9-15 over their past 24 games (and 24-25 on the season) but still hold a two-game lead over the Mariners for the second playoff spot in the AL West. — Steve Richards


Pennant race debate: Which unexpected contender is the biggest surprise, and which is the best bet to get past the first round?

Joon Lee: The emergence of the Orioles as playoff contenders definitely surprised me most, as I expected them to finish in last place in the AL East. Between Anthony Santander and Pedro Severino, the team has had some bright spots this season in terms of continuity from last year. But among the surprise playoff contenders, I expect the San Francisco Giants to have the strongest chance to make it to the second round. This team has had its share of surprises this year, between Mike Yastrzemski and Donovan Solano emerging as key offensive cogs, but the relatively young Giants have a bevy of veterans with postseason experience, including Johnny Cueto, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria, who could help San Francisco pull off a first-round upset in what has already been a chaotic season.

David Schoenfield: I’ll go with the Orioles as the biggest surprise. Coming off a 108-loss season that featured one of the worst pitching staffs of all time and a record number of home runs allowed, Baltimore basically did nothing in the offseason to supplement the roster. In fact, the Orioles’ biggest move was trading their best position player, Jonathan Villar, to dump his salary. But the O’s have played respectable baseball and somehow hung close to the eighth playoff seed. The Giants are the best bet to advance, however, thanks to a very good offense. There’s a little bit of 2010 in this team. That year, Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres were the two best players (by WAR). This year, it’s Mike Yastrzemski and Donovan Solano.

Bradford Doolittle: The Giants seem like the best bet to get into the playoffs, which makes them the most likely to win two games in a first-round best-of-three. If the Marlins can sneak in, however, they seem like the best bet to pull off an upset (if there is such a thing in a best-of-three). That’s especially true if they don’t match up against another team from the NL East, as they’d be able to throw out some dynamic young arms the opponent will not have seen much, if at all. The Orioles rate as the biggest surprise. I actually thought the Tigers would be a bit worse, but I also thought Detroit’s Central-only schedule would be considerably weaker, boosting them over the O’s in the standings. Baltimore might be in the process of being knocked down by its slate right now, but the Orioles done a great job of hanging in so far.

Dan Mullen: The Orioles and Tigers aren’t going to catch the Yankees, so we can rule them out, leaving a choice between the Giants and the Marlins. Here’s why I’m taking Miami: Even year or not, if the Giants beat the Rockies for that final spot (San Francisco and Colorado have four games left against each other), they’re looking at a No. 8 seed and a first-round date with the Dodgers. I know this is a short series and anything can happen, but L.A. is the best team in baseball by a pretty large margin and beating the Dodgers in any series is unlikely.

Miami, on the other hand, is currently the No. 5 seed and could finish anywhere between there and the No. 7 spot, based on how the Marlins, Phillies and Cardinals end the season. In a very only-in-2020 thing, finishing No. 5 would be the worst-case scenario here, as it would mean playing the Padres, while getting in as the No. 6 or No. 7 could set up a winnable chance at a Braves team with major starting pitching issues.


Key games ahead

Dodgers-Rockies, Thursday (8:40 p.m. ET): Los Angeles is closing in on the division crown and Colorado is trying to keep its playoff hopes alive as the NL West foes meet at Coors Field.

Blue Jays-Phillies, Friday (6:05 p.m. ET): Hyun-Jin Ryu and Vince Velasquez are scheduled to square off as two East teams on the right side of the playoff line meet in Philadelphia.

A’s-Giants, Sunday (4 p.m. ET): Will the Giants’ lead in a tight race for the NL’s final playoff spot last through a tough three-game series with their Bay Area rivals?

Twins-Cubs, Sunday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN): It’s a Sunday night ace showdown as Yu Darvish tries to help his Cy Young case against Jose Berrios and the Twins.

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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.”

play

2:00

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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