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Passan: Legendary Game 4 was straight out of a sandlot daydream

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ARLINGTON, Texas — It happened just past midnight on the East Coast, 34 years to the day the last time a World Series game concluded like this. There are so many possible outcomes for the final play of a baseball game. Home run. Strikeout. Single. Groundout. It’s a testament to how good players are that what unfolded in the earliest hours of Sunday morning was so jaw-dropping, an unforgettable October moment, when a fielding error ends a World Series game.

Actually, it was two errors. A game like this, jam-packed with the very things that make baseball so addictive, deserved no less than something historic — something even more improbable than Bill Buckner’s infamous gaffe Oct. 25, 1986. The denouement of Game 4 — Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith dropping a ball at home plate that allowed Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena to dash home, pound home plate with his right hand and gift-wrap their breathtaking 8-7 victory — squashed a potential coronation and breathed life into a series that’s again even.

How these 4 hours, 10 minutes of pure baseball bliss came together only adds to the implausibility of it all, but then that’s why this game is bound to go down in the annals as one of the most memorable in the 116 World Series that have been played. Even before Brett Phillips looped a two-out, two-strike pitch off Kenley Jansen into center field, even before Chris Taylor committed the other error booting the ball as he tried to field it, even before Arozarena stumbled after rounding third, even before Smith’s howler let him off the hook, this was a righteous ballgame, an emotional vise, squeezing tighter and tighter until the whole thing was too much and burst in spectacular fashion.

It all started around 2 p.m. on Aug. 27. Four days before the trade deadline, the Kansas City Royals had agreed to a deal to send Phillips, a backup outfielder, to the Rays. Phillips was elated. He was from Seminole, Florida, a 20-minute drive from Tropicana Field. It didn’t matter that he would get only 25 plate appearances and be used mostly as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. He was home. And this amazing Rays team embraced him, too.

Which admittedly isn’t difficult. Phillips is one of the most well-liked players in baseball. When he laughs, it sounds like a goose honking or a pterodactyl bleating. Last week in the ALCS, when he wasn’t even on the Rays’ roster, he nevertheless spent the games in the team’s dugout, walking around with a stopwatch and clipboard, a faux coach who would write motivational messages, most of which had to do with Arozarena’s postseason exploits.

It was fitting, then, for the Rays and Phillips, that the ninth inning of Game 4 unfolded in such fashion. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who had foolishly left reliever Pedro Baez in to blow two leads earlier in the game, forsook his hard-throwing rookie reliever Brusdar Graterol, who had finished the eighth inning, and at one minute past midnight East Coast time summoned Kenley Jansen, hopeful his magic had not vanished for good.

By no means in this series, or this season, were the Dodgers the Cinderellas of any manner or variety. They are leviathans in payroll and talent, and if Jansen could secure the 7-6 lead Roberts handed him, they would hold a 3-1 series lead and find themselves in prime position to win their first World Series since just two years after the Buckner error.

The Rays’ lineup and Dodgers’ defensive alignments were complete messes, owed to what had happened in the four or so hours prior. The first three games of this series weren’t duds exactly. The Dodgers had hit at a historic clip with two outs. The Rays had stolen the middle game. There wasn’t a single lead change. Good baseball was played by two excellent baseball teams. Drama has been hard to come by.

Game 4 made up for it. There were home runs. From the Dodgers’ Justin Turner in the first and Corey Seager in the second, highlights on a night when both went 4-for-5, and all for naught. From Arozarena and Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier as the Rays fought and clawed and tried to keep pace. Every time they did, the Dodgers answered with more. They barreled balls the whole evening, hitting 19 at 95 mph-plus to the Rays’ seven. That Tampa Bay was even here, within a run and ready to stare down Jansen, felt like providence.

When Jansen blew a sinker past pinch hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo for the first out, the crowd of 11,411 at Globe Life Field, which has turned into Dodgertown South, roared. This was it. They were going to win Game 4, and then Clayton Kershaw, pitching 30 minutes from his hometown of Highland Park, Texas, was going to pitch them to victory in Game 5, and the postseason demons of their iconic pitcher would vanish alongside those of an iconic franchise going on three decades without the most meaningful sort of hardware.

Kiermaier swung at a first-pitch cutter, 93 mph, the kind of velocity Jansen only found in recent days. It sawed Kiermaier’s bat all the way down to the knob. Broken bats don’t always equal outs, though, and the ball fell just out of the reach of diving Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez out into center field. The hardest-hit ball of the inning came courtesy of Joey Wendle, who lined out to left field. With two outs, up stepped Arozarena.

For nearly a month, the 25-year-old rookie, almost a complete unknown outside of front-office circles and extra-deep fantasy leagues, has looked like the best hitter in the world. His home run in the fourth gave him nine this postseason, a major league record. His third hit of the night pushed his total to 26, tying the most in a single playoffs. Arozarena stood in against Jansen, his upper lip curled into a slight snarl. He took a cutter for a strike, stared at a slider for a ball, whacked a slider foul, spit on a cutter just off the plate, stared at another to run the count full, fouled off a slider and trotted to first after Jansen bounced a slider for ball four.

It wasn’t the worst outcome. In the previous inning, Phillips had entered as a pinch runner for Ji-Man Choi, who himself had come into the game as a pinch hitter. Under normal circumstances, the Rays might have pinch hit for Phillips, but the only bat left was catcher Michael Perez, whose career numbers are worse than Phillips’. The Rays are here in large part because manager Kevin Cash so astutely leverages his roster and makes use of his 28 players, but to say that with the game on the line the Rays wanted Phillips at the plate would be some kind of revisionism. This is playoff baseball. It’s the same reason Taylor, who had last played center field Sept. 12, found himself there in the ninth inning. Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ usual center fielder, had to DH because his back tightened up before the game, and Roberts had pinch hit for his replacement, A.J. Pollock, with Joc Pederson, whose single in the seventh pushed them ahead 6-5. The move looked deft until it didn’t.

Before it was clear Phillips would even bat, Paul Hoover, the Rays’ field coordinator, had told him that he was going to win the game. Rodney Linares, the Rays’ third-base coach who had managed Phillips when he was a highly touted prospect in the Houston Astros system, pulled down his mask after Phillips stared at a ball and then two strikes and yelled: “Just swing the bat, kid!”

On the fourth pitch, Phillips swung. It was a 92 mph cutter, middle-in, where Phillips likes it. Never mind that in his career with two strikes he was 22-for-205, a .107 hitter. Never mind that he hadn’t registered a hit since Sept. 25, two days before the end of the regular season. Never mind that he had logged only two plate appearances in October. Never mind that he had taken only 10 swings in the batting cage behind the Rays’ dugout to prepare for the biggest at-bat of his life. Never mind that the ball left his bat at only 82.8 mph.

Never mind any of that, because what players like Brett Phillips illustrate, what moments like this remind us, is that baseball’s unpredictability is its finest quality. Nothing about this lined up for Phillips to be the hero, and yet there he was, the kid who as an eighth grader screamed himself hoarse as the Rays advanced to a World Series in 2008 that they didn’t win, feathering a ball past the shift, toward Chris Taylor and into history.

Everything unfolded over the next 13 seconds. Kiermaier scoring the tying run. Taylor’s error. Arozarena never breaking stride until he stumbled. Linares screaming at him in Spanish to go back to third. Smith not realizing Arozarena had fallen and trying to sweep the relay throw from Max Muncy. The ball squirting away. Jansen not backing up the play. Arozarena reversing course, diving into home, pounding his right hand on the plate nine times.

Phillips rounded second and ran toward forever. He had seen Kiermaier spread his arms and run like an airplane and thought it looked fun, so he tried it. The Rays met him in left field and moshed around him. Phillips couldn’t breathe. He extracted himself from the pile and knelt and thanked God. His smile was iridescent. He wanted to hug his wife, Bri. She had been working at a jewelry store in St. Petersburg, Florida, and wasn’t in the bubble, so the closest they had gotten was pregame, when she stood on the concourse and told him she loved him, not knowing the biggest moment of his life — next to marrying her, Phillips made sure to note — would happen hours later.

This game, which had been 1-0, then 2-0, then 2-1, then 3-1, then 3-2, then 4-2, then 5-4, then 6-5, then 6-6, then 7-6 and finally 8-7, which Lowe said aged him 10 years on the final play alone and Roberts called “the unperfect storm,” which left the Rays with perma-grins and the Dodgers sulking off the field wondering how this could’ve happened, had everything. One more strike and the series is completely different. One more inch of movement on Jansen’s cutter. One more foot of defensive positioning on Kiermaier’s blooper. The permutations are endless and the lamentations inescapable. One’s cruelties are another’s beauties. The Dodgers had scored six runs with two outs. The Rays scored the only two runs with two outs that mattered.

“Baseball,” Kiermaier said, “works in mysterious ways.”

On a night like this, it’s easy to fall back on those kinds of clichés — on the baseball gods smiling upon one team, for whatever reason deities would do such things. It was impossible to listen to Brett Maverick Phillips, whose family calls him Maverick, and not appreciate or embrace or understand his platitude. As self-reverential as baseball can be, as much as the game can disappoint and frustrate, there are always going to be kids in the backyard pretending.

World Series.

Bottom of the ninth

Down a run.

Two strikes.

The hometown guy at the plate.

He wins it.

“Keep dreaming big,” Phillips said. “These opportunities, they’re closer than you think.”

He laughed, not one of his guffaws but more an aw-shucks. Thirty-four years after the most famous error in baseball history, he was right there for its cousin in infamy, rounding second, airplaning like a kid whose backyard dream actually became a reality.

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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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