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How MLB old school beat new: Inside the Astros’ big inning that won Game 6



A few months before Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash was born, his 2020 ALCS counterpart, Dusty Baker, supposedly co-invented the high five with his late Dodgers teammate, Glenn Burke. Cash was born on Dec. 6, 1977, and Baker had been a major leaguer for a nearly a decade. The momentous hand-slap happened in the 1977 NLCS, after Baker hit a grand slam.

Baker had broken into Major League Baseball as a teammate of Hank Aaron with the Braves in the last season before divisional play, in 1968, back when you had to finish with the best record in your league to make the MLB playoffs which, at the time, was simply known as the World Series. A few years later, he was waiting on deck when Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s hallowed record.

A few months before Kevin Cash became old enough to get his driver’s license, Baker had finished his first season as a big-league manager. He led the 1993 San Francisco Giants to 103 wins, still the most of any team he’s managed over 23 seasons in the dugout. Those Giants did not make the playoffs. They’d finished a game behind Baker’s old team, the Braves, and it was the last season before baseball expanded its playoff format again.

When Baker and Cash ended up against each other in this year’s ALCS, it was an unlikely pairing of managers in many ways. Baker, 71, seemed to be done with the annoyances of skippering, until the Astros ran smack into scandal and they needed someone of his integrity to help restore faith in the franchise. Cash, 42, had guided the Rays’ to the AL’s best record and after six years in the Tampa Bay dugout, had fashioned a reputation as perhaps the best of baseball’s new generation of analytics-minded managers.

The other thing that made the meeting so unlikely is that 2020 is the only one in all of baseball history in which it could have happened. The Rays’ league-best record (40-20, .667) would have staked a playoff slot in any format in place through the annals of the American League. The Astros’ 29-31 mark required this year’s expansion to a 16-team format to allow the club to play on. Thus Baker has managed a 103-win team that did not make the playoffs, and a team that was on a 78-win pace (over 162 games) that did.

Perhaps it’s overstating it, but all of that incongruous history seemed to collide in one dramatic inning during Game 6 of the ALCS. And because things fell Baker’s way, he and Cash together joined an exclusive managerial club: Only four managers have ever reached a Game 7 in a series in which one team lost the first three games of the set. Only the 2004 Red Sox had ever forced a seventh game after falling into a 3-0 hole, doing so in the ALCS that year against the New York Yankees.

The inning in question was the top of the fifth, which Tampa Bay entered with a 1-0 lead. If the Astros go on to finish their epic comeback on Saturday, and we don’t know what dramatics lie in store for us then, fans of both teams might point to this inning for when things finally tilted towards Houston.

When the inning began, Blake Snell had put up all zeros but — as has been his Achilles heel all season — he had not done so efficiently, walking three Houston batters and burning through 71 pitches. Snell, the AL Cy Young winner in 2018, had not completed six innings in any of his 14 previous starts this season, including the playoffs. He threw 105 pitches over five innings but earned the win in Game 1 of the ALCS. On the other side, precocious Houston lefty Framber Valdez was dealing despite allowing an early run.

Let’s go at-bat by at-bat from here:

1. Yuli Gurriel (Leverage index: 1.27; Plate appearance LI rank: 12th)

Snell’s control issues continued. He started Gurriel with a strike on a changeup, but missed with three subsequent changeups. He tried to recover with a fastball and missed. None of the pitches were close enough for him to grouse about. The five-pitch walk pushed Snell’s pitch count to 76. His season average was 82 pitches.

2. Aledmys Diaz (LI: 2.08; PA rank: 3rd)

With the leadoff man on base representing the tying run, the leverage index shot up over 2.0, which made this the statistical definition of a high-leverage at-bat. Cash would have known this, and he does a better job of matching the right pitcher with the right hitter with the right leverage moment than any manager in the sport.

Diego Castillo was getting loose in the Rays bullpen. He and fellow righty Nick Anderson had the highest average leverage index upon entering games among the relievers on the Rays’ ALCS roster. Both have closed games at times, but in 2020, no one bats an eye when Castillo is up in the fifth inning of a 1-0 game.

But Diaz, despite hitting from the right side, has a career OPS against lefties (.692) considerably lower than his mark against righties (.821). Against “soft” pitches like the curveball and changeup that Snell excels at, Diaz’s career OPS is .787, but just .610 on soft pitches from southpaws. Cash stuck with his ace.

It took six pitches — none of them fastballs — but Snell finally left a slider up and Diaz bounced it through the 5-6 hole on the left side for a single. At 95.5 mph in exit velocity, it was a hard-hit single against a shifted defense. Against a traditional alignment, it probably would have been a tough backhand play for Rays shortstop Willy Adames, but since he was shaded towards second base in the shifted alignment we’ll never know.

So now the leverage index ratchets up even more, with two on, nobody out, and the Rays clinging to that one-run edge. Castillo is getting hot in a hurry in the bullpen. Snell hasn’t allowed a run but he’s in a jam and his pitch count is up to 82, his season average. Next up is light-hitting Houston catcher Martin Maldonado, a clear double-play candidate.

“It was fairly clear,” Cash said afterwards. “I thought the way that Valdez was throwing, there wasn’t going to be a ton of scoring opportunities for us, and wanted to get the ball in to Diego’s hand.”

Cash came out to get Snell, of course. And it’s the kind of thing where you really would like to know what was going through Baker’s mind at that moment. Over a 52-year career, how many times had he seen a manager (or been a manager) pull his ace during the fifth inning of a key game with a shutout working?

We don’t know what was going through Baker’s mind, but we have a pretty good what was going through Snell’s noggin. Skilled lip readers would have noticed he was less than pleased as he stomped off the mound.

“I was just frustrated,” Snell said, before adding, “Most of the time I am aware of it and I understand that Cash is really good at his job and is good at what he does. I’m gonna disagree with him, it’s going to happen. Especially because I am a guy that wants to be out there and go deep as possible.”

3. Martin Maldonado (LI: 2.7; PA rank: first)

By leverage index, this was the most intense moment of the game. Castillo has a vicious sinker/slider combo that allowed him to strike out 28 percent of the righties he faced this season. Maldonado struck out 33 percent of the time against righties.

For nearly all of baseball history and certainly for most of Baker’s long career in baseball, this is a classic bunt situation. Maybe not for the Rays, as Cash’s players didn’t attempt a single sacrifice during the regular season. When Manny Margot laid one down in Game 3 of the ALCS, the postgame reaction in the Zoom sessions was like someone had reinvented the sport.

And indeed, Maldonado squared around to bunt. He’s laid down 26 over them successfully during his regular-season career and executed about 65 percent of his attempts, per baseball-reference.com. That’s about nine percent better than the average bunt attempt in a typical season. Maldonado took a slider, then on another slider, he dropped a textbook bunt up the third base line. The Rays had pulled their corners in but it the bunt was too precise, and Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino pounced on it and threw out Maldonado as the runners advanced.

“Actually I was lucky enough to get two sliders to bunt,” Maldonado said postgame. “(Last year) I tried to bunt with Diaz on second base and I bunt it back to (Castillo against) 98 (mph). So I go in there, ‘Oh God, now I got to bunt in there against this guy’ so I was lucky I got two sliders to bunt.”

This all seems like the straightforward brand of baseball we’ve been watching all of our lives. But what if the respective managers were in opposite dugouts? Would Baker have pulled Snell? Would Cash have called for a bunt?

Anyway, according to FanGraphs.com, after the bunt, the Astros’ win probability dropped from 49.2 percent to 48.5. So if you think that it was obvious that Cash would have made the same call as Baker, it’s not. Maybe, maybe not. The numbers did not like the bunt.

4. George Springer (LI: 2.19, PA rank: second)

Our third straight high-leverage at-bat. Springer had struck out in both of his at-bats against Snell. For his career, he has a .760 OPS against him over 19 plate appearances but since 2018, when Snell ascended to ace status, Springer was 3-for-14, postseason included.

Meanwhile, Springer’s OPS against Castillo (including the postseason) is a robust 1.125, though it’s over just eight plate appearances. Given that Cash had to anticipate Baker’s decision to call for a bunt to Maldonado, this was the matchup he’d chosen: Castillo versus Springer, rather than Snell versus Springer.

The thing is: Those individual matchup numbers that you just read likely did not enter into Cash’s thinking at all. And they shouldn’t. Managers used to make the mistake of reading too much into small matchup samples far more often than they do now. But become less common as knowledge has increased, and it’s not something that Cash is going to be guilty of very often.

What he is aware of, and has been more a practitioner of, is limiting how often opposing hitters see any one of his pitchers within a game. It didn’t matter that Snell had struck out Springer twice, or that Springer has better numbers against Castillo than Snell. It only mattered that Snell’s control was wavering at a pitch count that has been his typical threshold, and that Springer had seen him twice.

Even more interesting than the matchup was Cash’s defensive alignment. As we know, the Rays are hyper-aggressive at shifting their defense. In this instance, Cash didn’t just put his infield into a pull-side shift against Springer, but he pulled his infield in to try to cut down the tying run at the plate. Three infielders were playing on the grass between second and third base, while first baseman Yandy Diaz was also on the edge of green, halfway between first and second.

Castillo started with an inside slider that handcuffed Zunino and kicked away from him, but he ran it down with cat-like quickness while Castillo raced in from the mound to cover the plate, so Diaz remained perched on third base. On the next pitch, with the Rays infield in same alignment, Castillo put a 96 mph sinker on the outer edge of the plate, though Zunino appeared to be set up for an inside offering. Keep this in mind: Springer rarely hits a ground ball to the right side of the infield.

Springer shortened his swing and poked the on-the-outside-edge fastball through the wide-open right side of the infield. Both runners scored. The Astros’ win probability leaped from the aforementioned 48.5 percent to 64 percent.

“I’m sure (coach) Gary (Pettis) was very happy, because every day in BP, he stands at second base and dares George to try and hit him,” Baker said. “George hasn’t hit him yet, so George would’ve hit him today. I am sure Gary Pettis was very, very happy, and we were even happier than Gary was.”

Pettis, who was diagnosed with cancer in late September, has been in attendance at Petco Park for the last two games and has served as an inspirational figure for Baker and his players.

Here we’re going to switch back into summary mode. The Astros had just grabbed the lead through a sequence of a leadoff walk, followed by the three highest-leverage plays of the game. The Rays pulled their ace starter who was working on a shutout, bringing in one of their relief aces in the fifth inning, played the infield in and shifted at the same time, played the corners in, did everything by the percentages. The Astros bunted and singled through two shifts to grab the advantage.

Was this old school Dusty getting over on new school Cash? Nah, that’s a stretch. Every move Cash made was logical and defensible, while Dusty’s charges simply had better execution. However, it was a beautiful contrast of what baseball is now, and what it has always been.

It also set the wheels in motion. Jose Altuve doubled in Springer and went to third on a passed ball. Michael Brantley walked. Carlos Correa singled in Altuve. Finally, Castillo got Alex Bregman to bounce into an inning-ending double play. But the Astros led 4-1.

The frame began with an Astros win expectancy of 36.2 percent. It ended at 80.9 percent. There was plenty of game left and both teams scored three more times before it was over. But that inning — the top of the fifth — was the tipping point, when Houston’s Hail Mary comeback from hopelessness in the series felt complete. Now the two teams are even.

“We are all frustrated,” Cash said. “I don’t think (the players) are tensing up. I think they are recognizing that we got an opportunity for the fourth time now to do something special.”

With one more game to go, we know in Game 7, Dusty is going to do Dusty, and Cash is going to do Cash. And, honestly, whether you prefer old school, new school or a blend of all the above, would you want it any other way?

“Getting close isn’t good enough,” Baker said. “I’ll show more emotion after we win tomorrow then onto the next challenge. This whole thing has been a challenge and it has been more of a challenge of positive thinking and faith than it has been a challenge of physically on the field.”


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



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.”



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



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



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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