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Key questions for epic Braves-Dodgers Game 7

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Because the baseball gods are feeling generous in the 2020 MLB playoffs, we get a second Game 7 this weekend, as the Dodgers and Braves play a win-or-go-home game for the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series against the AL champion Tampa Bay Rays.

With so much at stake, we asked senior MLB writers Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Jeff Passan about the key questions for the Dodgers, Braves and the matchup going into Game 7 on Sunday.

L.A.’s key questions

Who starts for the Dodgers?

That hasn’t been announced, but it is seemingly down to three choices: Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urias and Brusdar Graterol. The latter would be used as an opener, of course, and it makes sense for a couple of reasons. The Dodgers deployed Graterol as an opener during practice runs toward the tail end of the regular season. Also, it would be beneficial to ensure that their best reliever — at this moment, at least — faces the best part of the Braves’ lineup. Gonsolin, who would be on normal rest following an 88-pitch start in Game 2, is in line to pitch the majority of the innings. But Julio Urias, who threw a career-high 101 pitches in Game 3, could provide an inning or two as a bridge. — Gonzalez

Does Clayton Kershaw make an appearance?

That is the fascinating question. Kershaw was hanging out in the bullpen for Game 6, just in case an emergency presented itself. In all likelihood, he will also be in the bullpen for Game 7, waiting for a potential call. The Dodgers would like to avoid using him for three reasons: First, they can save him to start Game 1 of the World Series; second, he was scratched from his scheduled start earlier this week because of back spasms; and finally, he hasn’t been great when used out of the bullpen on short rest, the most recent example coming in Game 5 of last year’s NL Division Series. But if the game is close and Dave Roberts needs an inning or two before getting to his high-leverage relievers, the thought of Kershaw standing in that bullpen might be tempting. Again. — Gonzalez

Can Cody Bellinger find it at the plate?

Bellinger struggled to find consistency with his mechanics throughout the regular season, has four hits and nine strikeouts in 23 at-bats in this series and is batting .238/.333/.476 in the postseason. He has hit some balls hard, but he hasn’t had much to show for it. The Dodgers have had a couple of big first innings in this series, most notably their 11-run output in Game 3, but they haven’t been able to carry that over. In their Game 5 win, they scored three first-inning runs against Max Fried but didn’t do anything else thereafter, putting a lot of pressure on their bullpen and their defense. Both those areas came through, but the Dodgers can’t count on that again. They need more consistent production from their offense. They need Bellinger to be a catalyst again. — Gonzalez

Atlanta’s key questions

How long do the Braves stick with Ian Anderson?

The 22-year-old has just nine career starts — including three scoreless outings in the postseason — but has obviously been impressive, with a 1.31 ERA, one home run in 48 innings and a .154 batting average allowed. His changeup has been his big weapon as batters have hit just .076 against it and he’s not afraid to throw it to right-handers.

Still, it’s a big moment for a rookie. This is the 19th Game 7 in an LCS or World Series since 2000, and rookies have started just three times: Walker Buehler in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS, Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS (and he had plenty of big-game experience in Japan) and John Lackey for the Angels in the 2002 World Series. (And if Tony Gonsolin starts for the Dodgers, he’d make No. 4!)

The Dodgers are known for their very patient approach, and they worked Anderson for five walks in four innings in his Game 2 start. He escaped without any damage, however, as he allowed just one hit and got out of a bases-loaded jam in the third inning when Will Smith grounded out. Still, even if he’s sailing along, don’t look for him to go deep into the game. Braves manager Brian Snitker still has a strong bullpen, and the way the game is managed these days, a quick hook is likely in order no matter who starts.

Of the six Game 7s since 2016, including the Astros-Rays game Saturday, the longest a starter has gone was Zack Greinke’s 6⅓ innings in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Only three other times did a starter even make it through five innings — Max Scherzer matched up against Greinke and Charlie Morton twice, in the 2017 ALCS for the Astros and then Saturday against the Astros. So even if Anderson is throwing up more zeroes — 15⅔ innings so far in the postseason — don’t be surprised if he’s out of there after four or five innings.

Snitker said he had no special message for Anderson or his team. “They know what we’re doing. They’re very aware that this is Game 7, and shoot, we’ll go out there and let her fly. A Game 7 is another baseball game. It’s not fourth-and-1 and let me get the first down. It’s a baseball game and you have to treat it as such. It’s Game 7, it’s going to be fun, we like how we’re stacked up, we like who’s pitching.” — Schoenfield

How do the Braves navigate through Corey Seager and the heart of the Dodgers lineup?

Seager has been the big bat for the Dodgers, hitting .375 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in the series. Once Anderson is out of there, you might think the decision would be to make sure a lefty is in there to face Seager … except four of the five home runs have come off left-handers, including one off A.J. Minter in Game 2 and one off Tyler Matzek in Game 5. So maybe it’s not the left-handers who face Seager — remember, a reliever has to face three batters, unless it’s the end of an inning — and you worry more about Mookie Betts in the leadoff spot and Justin Turner hitting third, so it’s the right-handers who face the top of the lineup.

One thing for sure: Everybody is available. No Braves reliever pitched in both Games 5 and 6. Chris Martin did throw 30 pitches in Game 6, so he’s the only who might be slightly compromised. Minter threw 42 pitches in Game 5 as the starter, but was so dominant with seven strikeouts in three innings that he’s certainly on option. The one guy who has been pitching high-leverage situations who we might not see is Will Smith, who gave up seven home runs in 16 innings in the regular season and then the big one to the Dodgers’ Will Smith in Game 5 and also walked two batters in Game 4. So most likely it’s some combination of Matzek, Minter, Shane Greene, Martin, perhaps side-armer Darren O’Day if it’s a two-out situation and then closer Mark Melancon. That’s plenty of depth to get through nine innings. – Schoenfield

Will Ronald Acuna Jr. do anything?

The Braves are hitting .263/.333/.450 in the series, but Acuna hasn’t done much damage, hitting .190 with no home runs and two doubles. He has struck out 34% of the time in the postseason, so the swing-and-miss has been a problem the entire postseason. Needless to say, having him on base in front of Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna is a big factor. Those two have been raking. The Braves were the best fastball-hitting team in the majors — in fact, they were the best fastball team in the majors in 13 years — but the Dodgers have been beating Acuna with a lot of fastballs up in the zone and then breaking balls away. — Schoenfield

Matchup wild cards

What’s the matchup worth tuning in to see?

Freddie Freeman vs. Brusdar Graterol. There are only two regulars Graterol hasn’t faced in the NLCS: Acuña and Freeman. It may happen in the first inning. It may happen in the seventh or eighth or ninth. Freeman has seen 28 fastballs this season at 98 mph-plus. He took 16 for balls, fouled off four, flew out three times, swung and missed twice, singled, doubled and grounded out

In other words, if Graterol puts a heater in the zone, Freeman is not likely to stare at it. And considering his propensity to do damage, it’s the sort of face-off that could swing the entire series. — Passan

Who’s a sneaky, unlikely hero?

Nobody in the NLCS is hitting the ball as hard as the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson — and the longer Anderson goes, the likelier he is to remain in the game. Pederson has put the ball in play 14 times in the NLCS. Ten of them have been at greater than 100 mph — and the other four were at 99 mph, 89.7 mph, 88.3 mph and 83.5 mph. Pederson was so pedestrian during the regular season, keeping him on the bench as a pinch hitter seemed like an option. Roberts has stuck with him against right-handers, and he has repaid that not only by smashing the ball but making contact. Pederson, who throughout his career has been something of a strikeout artist, has punched out just twice in the NLCS. — Passan

What’s a strategic element that could come into play?

Work around the three-batter-minimum rule for pitchers by aiming for heavy platoon matchups that could be the third out of the inning. Remember: The minimum does not apply when an inning is over, and for a Braves team that carried 15 pitchers (!) on its 28-man postseason roster, it can leverage that to its advantage.

The Dodgers almost certainly are not going to want to play matchups in the early innings — not if it’s bound to leave them prone in later, potentially more important situations — so if ever A.J. Pollock is up with two outs? Burn Darren O’Day. If Cody Bellinger is in the same situation? Burn Grant Dayton or, if it’s important enough, Will Smith. Managers must treat every out in a Game 7 as if the season depends on it, and with as many pitchers as the Braves have, each inning presents them an opportunity to use the final out to gain an advantage. — Passan

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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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