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Passan: Game 3 win proof Walker Buehler is baseball’s reigning October ace

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Just look at the names. Sandy Koufax. Randy Johnson. Clayton Kershaw. Curt Schilling. Orel Hershiser. Madison Bumgarner. Josh Beckett.

Walker Buehler is 26 years old. He is in his third full season in the major leagues. To put him alongside two Hall of Famers, another shoo-in, a likely entrant and three more of the greatest pitchers in baseball playoff history, then, might feel presumptive, a prisoner-of-the-moment reaction to his latest sparkling outing.

Here’s the thing: These are his peers. The numbers say so. And however statistics can be twisted, engineered and leveraged to tell a story, Buehler needs no such manipulation. Right now, he is baseball’s best big-game pitcher, and the gem he spun in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night only enhanced that argument.

Over six innings, Buehler neutralized the Rays with a heavy dose of a four-seam fastball that defies gravity and a curveball that embraces it. He struck out 10, ceded three hits, walked one, and yielded one run. Against Buehler, the Rays flailed and failed, and though no solace can be taken from that, not when they now trail two games to one in the series, at least they know they’re not the first.

Consider the first set of names: Schilling, Hershiser, Bumgarner. They’re the only players in history to post a better ERA over a nine-start postseason stretch than Buehler’s current run. Schilling’s was 1.14, Hershiser’s 1.17, Bumgarner’s 1.18. From his start in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS through Game 3 of this World Series, Buehler’s is 1.28.

“The more you do these things, the calmer you get,” Buehler said. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

Confidence never is a problem for Buehler. He knows he is good. He’ll talk about how he’s good. It’s extremely matter-of-fact. And these are the facts.

Among players 26 and younger, none has struck out more in the postseason than Buehler. He reached 80 on Friday, passing Bumgarner. The extra rounds and games make this more of a modern record than something to compare Buehler historically, but still: He’s better than his contemporaries.

In all 11 of his playoff starts, Buehler has punched out at least six. The previous record holder for consecutive postseason starts with half a dozen or more strikeouts: Johnson, with nine.

Before Game 3, only two Dodgers pitchers had double-digit strikeout games in which they allowed three or fewer hits: Koufax and Kershaw.

The last player as young as Buehler to record at least 10 punchouts in a World Series game: Beckett when he was 23.

Yes, some of these are arbitrary. Had Buehler not struck out the side in the sixth inning, those double-digit factoids wouldn’t exist. And he pitches in a far different era than Schilling, Hershiser and Bumgarner. Their respective innings totals over those nine starts of microscopic ERAs: 71, 69 ⅓ and 68 ⅔. Buehler has thrown just 49 ⅓ innings, a hair under 5 ½ innings a start, which, even in the heart of the bullpenning era, is nobody’s idea of a horse.

The game’s evolution is a culprit, because Buehler could work deeper into games if given the leash to do so. Even during the regular season the Dodgers welded a restrictor plate to Buehler, lest they overexert him and not have him for the moments they need him to win things like their first championship since 1988.

“Obviously there’s been a few games that I kinda wanted to keep going and keep going and keep going,” Buehler said. “But that’s what you want. I think you want an organization that’s gonna help you and hold you back. And I think as a player you want to keep going. No, I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

Until the Dodgers let Buehler work deeper into games, his lack of a classic sort of playoff performance — a shutout or at least a complete game — will be a reasonable ding on his resumé. It’s less the fault of Buehler than the moment in which he pitches, when someone of his ilk is seen as so valuable that any risk is a risk. Particularly for someone with a Tommy John scar on his right elbow.

With that not an option, at least for now, Buehler instead focuses on carving up opposing lineups. The Rays struck out twice in the first, second and fifth innings and three times in the sixth. They swung under Buehler’s fastball, which is unfair at 97 mph with supreme command and even more prone to embarrass because its average spin rate of 2,550 rpm is among the five best of any starter in the big leagues. High-spin-rate fastballs are the pitcher’s version of sleight-of-hand magic, looking to some hitters like they’re almost rising. The truth is that the speed of the spin simply fights gravity better than lower-speed heaters, meaning they’re still dropping but at a slower rate than the brain can instantaneously process.

Between that and his 3,000-rpm curveball, another elite pitch Buehler controls with the precision of a puppeteer — and don’t forget his slider and cutter, two more power pitches that round out his arsenal — hitters fidget when facing Buehler for good reason. Even though he is more reliant on his fastball than most pitchers, he relies because it’s arguably the best offered by any starting pitcher today. The only others in the conversation are Gerrit Cole — who has the best argument of anyone to dispute Buehler’s big-game throne — and Jacob deGrom, who may someday mount a challenge if the Mets stop Metsing.

“He was unbelievable. He really was,” said Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, who himself made history, homering and driving in a run via sacrifice bunt, the first player to do both in the same World Series game in nearly 60 years. “He made it really easy on me. That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff really.”

The best. That’s saying something. Buehler showed the capabilities in 2018 when he threw 6 ⅔ shutout innings against Colorado to clinch the NL West in Game 163. Less than a month later, in the last World Series Game 3 started by Buehler, he allowed two hits and struck out seven over seven shutout innings. And in his start after that, in Game 1 of the 2019 Division Series, he threw six shutout innings and yielded one hit. His first three this postseason were good, his NLCS Game 6 with six shutout innings excellent and Friday’s brilliant. And the Dodgers are in perfect position should they need him again. Worst-case scenario, if they lose Games 4 and 5, Buehler could go on short rest in Game 6. Otherwise, the Dodgers can have him ready and fully rested for Game 7.

“I haven’t put it all together and grasped or wrapped my head around all that he’s accomplished in this short period of time,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history. He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

There is perhaps one statistic that fully encapsulates why Buehler warrants the best-active-big-game-pitcher label. Pitch-tracking technology goes back to 2008, and over the 13 years since it debuted, only two times has a pitcher struck out at least 22 batters on fastballs in a postseason.

This first was Walker Buehler in 2018.

The second is Walker Buehler in 2020.

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

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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