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MLB Playoffs Daily: Braves look to KO Dodgers; Rays try again

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For the fifth straight day, we have a league championship series doubleheader. Welcome to the excess that is the 2020 MLB playoffs. This time, two teams face elimination as the Astros have their backs to the wall for the third straight game and the powerhouse Dodgers are staring at the prospect of having their season end at the hands of the Braves.

Here’s a breakdown of the games, some numbers to know, a hot take of the day and more as you prep for Friday.

Key links: Power Rankings | Predictions | Schedule, bracket | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

All times Eastern; all series best-of-seven played at neutral sites

American League Championship Series Game 6: No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays (Blake Snell) vs. No. 6 Houston Astros (Framber Valdez), 6:07 p.m. ET in San Diego

Obviously, the Astros burned through the bulk of their best relievers in Game 5 and closer Ryan Pressly has thrown two days in a row — although only 30 pitches. “This is the postseason. There are no off days,” he said. So he’ll be ready to go. Really though, Astros manager Dusty Baker isn’t in terrible shape. He can go Valdez to Cristian Javier and then to Pressly if needed. If somebody other than those three pitches, the Rays are probably scoring some runs.

The Rays, however, are hitting just .200/.285/.363 in the series. They haven’t been able to string together many rallies unless a home run is included. Indeed, 71.4% of their runs in the postseason have come via the home run. Home runs are good! But so are singles and doubles, and the Rays need a few more of those. Brandon Lowe did homer on Thursday, snapping a 1-for-33 skid, but that leaves his postseason average at .089. Willy Adames is hitting .118 in the postseason. The Rays need something from those two. Snell has gone 5⅔, 5 and 5 innings in his three playoff starts. In Game 1 against Houston, he allowed just one run, pitching around six hits and two walks even though he had just two strikeouts. He threw 105 pitches and had trouble putting Astros batters away.

Certainly, the Rays aren’t desperate yet. But, as was the case with the 2004 Red Sox against the Yankees, if Houston wins Game 6, it feels like all the pressure in Game 7 will fall on the Rays. — David Schoenfield

National League Championship Series Game 5: No. 2 Atlanta Braves (TBD) vs. No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (Dustin May), 9:08 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas

Just as expected, the guy with seven career starts and a 5.91 ERA outpitched one of the game’s legends, and Bryse Wilson‘s effort helped put the Braves one win away from their first World Series trip since 1999. Most importantly, Wilson went six innings, allowing Braves manager Brian Snitker to minimize his bullpen usage, a key for Game 5 since this will be an all-in bullpen game for the Braves. Given the extraordinary depth Snitker has, that strategy can work, although it helps knowing you have Max Fried in your back pocket for Game 6.

As for the Dodgers, this must now feel like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. I don’t know how fair this is, but we’re reminded of the extremely soft schedule the Dodgers played this season. Of their 60 games in the regular season, only 13 came against teams that finished with a winning record — 10 against the Padres and three against the A’s (they went 8-5). Even their wild-card series came against a sub-.500 Brewers team, then they beat a Padres team basically without its top two starting pitchers. As good as the Dodgers have been, they haven’t been tested until now — and now they’re in danger of being sent home with a big, fat “F” in this series (except for one inning).

I don’t know what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ pitching strategy will be, but it seems whatever he does with his bullpen — going back to the 2017 World Series — usually doesn’t work. He catches a lot of heat from Dodgers fans, and some of his decisions in postseasons past have been questionable, but this one has been on the players. It’s up to them, not the manager, to straighten this out. — Schoenfield


Updated odds for every series

Based on projections of ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle

Astros-Rays: Rays 84.7% to advance
Braves-Dodgers: Braves 78.8% to advance

Running World Series odds

NL: Braves 41.5%, Dodgers 15.2%
AL: Rays 38.7%, Astros 4.6%


Hot take of the day

Well, my baseball friends, this is now quite interesting. The Astros were the 39th team that trailed 3-0 in a best-of-seven series and became just the fourth to force a sixth game after Carlos Correa‘s walk-off home run off Nick Anderson in Game 5. Two of those previous teams (the 1998 Braves in the NLCS against the Padres and the 1999 Mets in the NLCS against the Braves) lost Game 6. The third team, of course, was the miracle Red Sox of 2004, who rallied to win four in a row against the Yankees in the ALCS. How big was Correa’s home run? If the Astros hadn’t scored in the bottom of the ninth, manager Dusty Baker said the Astros would have used Game 6 starter Framber Valdez in the 10th inning.

Instead, Valdez is now rested for Game 6 and you can argue he gives the Astros the slight edge over Blake Snell, based on his performance in the postseason. The Houston bullpen — five rookies pitched among the seven relievers used in a bullpen effort in Game 5 — has held its own with a 3.71 ERA and has a higher strikeout rate in the series than Tampa’s pen (35.1% to 17.2%) along with a lower walk rate. The Rays are hitting just .200 in the series — and one guy, Randy Arozarena, has done most of the damage. In other words, several things are pointing in Houston’s direction and we’re two wins away from having a sub-.500 team in the World Series. Luckily, that won’t happen. The Rays win Game 6. — Schoenfield


Stat of the day

Bryse Wilson became the fourth rookie in the past five seasons to throw at least six innings and allow one or fewer runs in his postseason debut — and all four of them did it for the Atlanta Braves. Three (Wilson, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson) did it this postseason, while Mike Soroka did it in the division series against the Cardinals in 2019.


About last night …

The Astros aren’t done yet, whether the rest of the baseball world likes it or not. Houston staved off elimination for the second straight game, as Carlos Correa hit a walk-off home run to give the Astros a 4-3 win in Game 5 of the ALCS. The Rays’ Ji-Man Choi had tied the game with a solo homer in the eighth. Tampa Bay still leads the series 3-2. … In the NLCS, the kid outdueled the future Hall of Famer, with Atlanta’s Bryse Wilson getting the win and Dodgers great Clayton Kershaw taking the loss as the Braves secured a 3-1 series lead with a 10-2 victory.


Social media post of the day


Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date

The stage was set for another Fernando Tatis Jr. moment, but Cody Bellinger snatched it away. Bellinger’s home run robbery, plucking what would have been a go-ahead shot by Tatis in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series, kept the Padres at bay — barely — and will take its place in Dodgers lore, particularly if L.A. wins it all.


The running MLB playoffs MVP

Randy Arozarena has gone from an unknown outfielder to this October’s breakout star. Going into the playoffs, you might have been asking, “Who is this guy?” But the Rays’ trade for him has been a huge factor in their postseason run. Arozarena went deep again Thursday in Game 5 of the ALCS, his third homer of the series giving him 13 since Sept. 1 (tied with George Springer for the most in baseball). And while his long balls have made a big impression, Arozarena also leads all hitters in the postseason with 43 total bases (and is leading in hits and extra-base hits). Also, he has been flashing some leather in the outfield and some sweet celebration dance moves on the field.

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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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