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Passan: The plays and decisions that got the Dodgers back to the World Series

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Down three games to one, on the verge of another cruel postseason exit, Cody Bellinger looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ lineup card, looked around the room at the men with whom he shares every day in these weird times, and started asking himself rhetorical questions.

“Why can’t we win three games in a row?” Bellinger said. “Why not us?”

This was a fair assessment of an unenviable predicament, a natural response. But there was always a better question to ask, one that he could’ve answered before the Dodgers clinched their third World Series berth in four years by completing their comeback against the Atlanta Braves with a 4-3 victory in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series: Why them?

Here’s why.


In every baseball game, there are thousands of decisions. There are minuscule ones — a fielder choosing to take a step to the right or left, a baserunner taking a slightly bigger lead. There are whoppers — a manager figuring out how long to keep a pitcher in, a catcher calling a two-strike pitch. And then there are those in between, the ones where instinct and intelligence meet and change the course of history.

It was the fourth inning. The Braves had taken a 3-2 lead. They had teetered in the early innings of Game 7. The Dodgers were hitting the ball hard and stranding runners. And Atlanta, which the night before had seen the Tampa Bay Rays stave off blowing a 3-0 series lead in the American League Championship Series, was endeavoring to do much the same.

Dansby Swanson stood on third base. Austin Riley stood on second. There were no outs. This was their opportunity to blow the game open. Nick Markakis slapped a 90 mph one-hopper at Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ veteran third baseman. He was playing deep, the consequence of manager Dave Roberts’ decision not to bring the infield in.

Swanson ran on contact. Decision.

Turner threw home. Decision.

Catcher Will Smith chased Swanson back toward third. Decision.

Swanson reversed back toward home as Turner, now with the ball, chased him. Decision.

In the meantime, Riley was having trouble making a decision. The 23-year-old started toward third, stopped halfway and turned back, then, as Turner was diving to barely nick Swanson with a tag — decision, and almost a catastrophic one — Riley committed to third.

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Justin Turner dives and throws back to third base, turning a double play as the Dodgers get out of trouble in the fourth inning.

It was too late, a massive blunder. Corey Seager, the NLCS MVP, was covering third, ready to receive the heads-up throw from Turner, who flipped from belly to back to make another spot-on decision.

“We made some mistakes,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times. It really hurt. And in games like these, the runs are so hard to come by, you pretty much gotta play flawless baseball.”

After those early stumbles, as the championship innings approached, with a World Series appearance on the line, that’s pretty much exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers did.


If there’s a near-universal criticism of the Dodgers, it goes something like this: Yeah, but they’re rich. And, well, looking at the team’s TV deal, its payroll, its staff size, its resources devoted to scouting and player development and analytics — well, it’s true. The Dodgers spend money. Unapologetically.

And if that disqualifies them, or makes them pale compared to the Rays, who don’t spend money anywhere near the same level, then so be it. The Dodgers will live with that. They’ll live with the grievous sin of chasing the best players and landing them.

Because think about it. That’s what they did this winter when they traded for Mookie Betts. Outfielder Alex Verdugo, shortstop prospect Jeter Downs and taking on David Price’s contract was the price, and it included some risk, too, because Betts was due to reach free agency after the 2020 season. But come on. The Dodgers weren’t the only team with players of that caliber and financial wherewithal to make that deal. They were just the only team willing to.

They had seen Betts in the 2018 World Series. They lost that year to his Boston Red Sox. “We would’ve beat the Red Sox if we had Mookie Betts,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, and, well, at the very least it would’ve been a better series. What the Dodgers knew — what everyone in baseball knew — is that Betts is the sort of player who even when his bat isn’t launching balls can help a team win a championship.

In Game 5, his shoestring catch started a double play that was made possible by Marcell Ozuna leaving early on a tag-up play. (Decision.) In Game 6, Betts leapt at the right-field wall to grab an Ozuna drive primed to go for extra bases. In Game 7, he extended his streak of one-uppery to three.

Fifth inning, Braves still up, 3-2. Freddie Freeman, the NL MVP-to-be and would’ve-been NLCS MVP, launched a Blake Treinen cutter to right. Betts calmly worked toward the fence. He planted his feet, bent his knees, launched himself upward, stretched his arm — turned himself into a silhouette of athleticism — and brought the ball back from over the fence.

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Freddie Freeman hits a fly ball to the wall as Mookie Betts jumps to make the incredible out in right field.

“The Dodgers made plays,” Freeman said. “They got out of a second and third, no outs with a great play by Turner. Mookie robbed my home run. Mookie robbed Marcell the other day. They made the plays.”

Betts said it was his favorite of the three fantastic catches. He didn’t celebrate quite like he had in Game 6. Almost as if he’s so good the spectacular has become ordinary.

“We will strike fast,” Betts said, “before you even think about it.”


In the fourth inning, when the Braves brought in reliever Tyler Matzek to take over from rookie starter Ian Anderson, Roberts had a decision: pinch hit Kiké Hernandez or stick with Joc Pederson.

Roberts chose to remain with Pederson, even if Hernandez lives to pummel lefties and Matzek’s advantage over Pederson was distinct. It was too early. There would be another time, another moment, to deploy Hernandez.

Managing is full of these little decisions, and in Game 7, Roberts nailed almost every one of them — not just because they worked and the Dodgers won but because process accompanied outcome, because logic informed choice. The same situation as occurred in the fourth inning arrived in the sixth, and it so happened another lefty was summoned: A.J. Minter, who had thrown a career-high 42 pitches two days earlier.

Hernandez was digging the moment. Even if the Dodgers trailed, 3-2, “I guess the stakes, I kind of like it. It feels cool, it feels good,” he said. “This is what you dream of as a little kid. You don’t just dream of being a big leaguer. You dream about Game 7 of the World Series. This is not the World Series, but it’s Game 7.”

For the last six years, Hernandez has embodied this new incarnation of the Dodgers. He understands his role. He plays all around the diamond and he punishes left-handed pitching. He may have a position he plays more one year than the next, but that depends as much on others as it does him. The superutility role is one of selflessness. It is always about others.

He accepts that because that’s how the Dodgers operate. You’ll get your moment. You’ll work into a 2-2 count, then foul off a ball, then another, and another, and then Minter will do exactly what every left-hander who faces Kike Hernandez desperately tries to avoid: feed him a fastball from anything other than an over-the-top delivery. From the side, especially as Minter throws, might as well be a stick of dynamite. Kaboom went Hernandez. When the ball landed 424 feet later, the NLCS was tied.

“That’s the most excited I think I’ve ever been in an entire baseball game,” Seager said, “watching him hit that ball.”

The comeback, on life support, had its jolt. The Dodgers, wondering why not, had another why.

“Everybody expected us to go to the World Series. We were expecting to get to the World Series,” Hernandez said. “Up to the fact that we were down 3-1 in this series, we hadn’t really gone through any adversity in the season. That was the one thing. It was time to get it done. First time not just going through adversity, but you had nothing to lose. They are the ones with something to lose. They had a 3-1 lead. They shouldn’t lose this series.”


They shouldn’t have. It’s true. The Braves are a very good team, and very good teams with 3-1 leads should finish series. But this is sports, and this is baseball, and should means nothing.

Cody Bellinger should have had a good year. He was the NL MVP in 2019. At 25, he is square in his prime. He batted .239. His slugging percentage shed nearly 175 points. There are explanations — decisions — but this game is judged on a binary. You do or you don’t. Bellinger, for the most part, didn’t.

The seventh inning rolled around. Chris Martin started it by striking out Max Muncy and Will Smith. Bellinger stepped in. In Game 6, they had faced one another. Bellinger was all over Martin. He fouled off the first five pitches of the at-bat, took a ball and fouled another off before flying out. The last pitch, after a potpourri of sinkers and sliders, was a splitter — the very sort of offspeed offering that gets Bellinger lunging.

In Game 7, Bellinger’s comfort was apparent. He took two balls and two strikes and only then started swinging. Foul. Foul. Foul. Again. Martin had gone sinkers and cutters this whole time, and he went there once more. The splitter was nowhere to be seen. The ball wasn’t either. Bellinger crushed it. Like the previous night against Martin, and like an inning earlier with Hernandez, the at-bat lasted eight pitches. On Sunday, something crazy finally happened on the eighth.

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0:26

Cody Bellinger launches a solo home run to right field, giving the Dodgers a 4-3 lead.

The home run was majestic, a Bellinger special, a gorgeous parabola. The aesthetics were secondary. The Dodgers led, 4-3. Bellinger was the second player in postseason history with multiple go-ahead home runs in Game 7s. He’d done it in the NLCS two years ago. The other player: Yogi Berra.

If there was one bad decision made over those final five innings, it came after Bellinger crossed home plate. He leapt in the air for a forearm-bash celebration with Hernandez … and came down with his shoulder out of its socket.

“I’m good,” he told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt following Game 7. “Not the first time it’s happened, but I hit Kiké a little too hard and my shoulder popped out. So I just had to run back to the training room, and they had to pop it back in real quick. But I felt good. I was good enough to play defense to end the game, that’s for sure.”

We’ll know more about Bellinger’s shoulder in the coming days, leading up to the first pitch Tuesday, which will be thrown by Clayton Kershaw. And that’s only because of another decision, one that may have been the most surprising of all.


It is clear, based on how he talks about Kershaw, that Dave Roberts genuinely, deeply admires and respects him. There is a propensity to conflate such emotions with trust — to get a job done, to perform. Maybe it’s unconscious. Perhaps it’s not real. But considering past positions in which Roberts has placed Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer whose playoff performances remain the one bugaboo of his career, one could argue that his decision-making in matters involving the big lefty are subject to a different standard.

Whether Game 7 actually illustrates a shift in his thinking or a temporary moment of clarity may well be seen this week. But Kershaw, even though he spent most of Game 7 in the bullpen, didn’t so much as warm up. Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers’ longtime closer, typically the sort to whom Roberts giddily hands a 4-3 lead, got loose but never ran through the bullpen door.

The ninth inning, just like the eighth and seventh, belonged to 24-year-old Julio Urias. He is typically a starter, though he has pitched enough in relief over the course of his career — the Dodgers have babied him since he debuted in the major leagues as a 19-year-old — that getting the call in the seventh and plowing through a dangerous lineup without so much as a baserunner … well, it’s not entirely surprising. Other than the fact that only one other reliever in a win-or-go-home game has thrown at least three no-hit innings: Pedro Martinez, in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, when he went six hitless.

This, though? This was for the World Series. This was the thinnest of margins, the scariest of scenarios. One mistake. One wrong decision.

He didn’t make either. And it mimicked the rest of the night so chock full of excellence that Seager couldn’t choose a favorite moment.

“I don’t know if you can pick,” he said. “[Turner’s] was huge. Being second and third with no outs and getting out of that inning with only giving up one. Mookie taking away a potential homer, another spark. The pinch hit was awesome. That’s the most excited I think I’ve ever been in an entire baseball game, watching him hit that ball. Then Belli showing up when we needed it, hitting the huge homer. Then Urias at the end of the game and shutting it down. You can’t say enough about what this team has done.”

Sure you can. And it’s simple. All you need to do is ask the right question.

Why them?

That’s why.

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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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