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Players who break the internet: The most meme-worthy on each likely playoff team

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When Rob Friedman — better known as PitchingNinja to his quarter-million followers on Twitter — watches a game and sees something that sticks out, he checks his gut before tweeting a highlight. In the seasons since he began posting the nastiest pitches in baseball, he’s developed an intuition about when something might be a hit on social media.

“I just love the superhuman stuff. Some of it is just that it has to be really unusual, sometimes I may be the only person who finds it interesting. I’m watching it and I’m like, ‘Wow that was strange,'” Friedman said. “I’ll tweet stuff and I won’t know if anyone is going to get it or find it funny, but the ones where you doubt whether to put it out there are usually the best ones. You trust your instinct after seeing so many pitches every year.”

While baseball’s culture has pushed back against flair and individuality on the field over the course of the sport’s history, the age of social media serves to highlight it. Bat flips that were once taboo, for example, are now embraced by a new generation of baseball stars. And people like Friedman, who watch baseball obsessively to find a player’s or a game’s idiosyncrasies, are helping drive the change.

With the postseason about to begin, here are some of the game’s biggest online-highlight stars worth keeping an eye on for each of the 16 most likely playoff-bound teams (plus a couple of those still in contention heading into the final games of the season).

Atlanta Braves

Why the internet loves him: Acuna is one of the most talented players in the sport, and he carries himself like he knows it. The Braves’ franchise cornerstone routinely makes the jaw-dropping look routine at the plate, and he truly demolishes baseballs. Last year, he fell just shy of becoming the fifth major leaguer in history to join the 40-40 club, with 41 home runs and 37 stolen bases. He didn’t get a chance to try again in this shortened season, but keep watching — he’s still just 22 years old.

Signature social media moment from 2020: What he does to the ball is serious, but the funniest moment from his season so far was this homer where he slammed his bat down in frustration, thinking he flied out to center field, only to see the ball carry, carry, carry over the wall.


Chicago Cubs

Why the internet loves him: Darvish brings so many pitches to the mound that his arsenal is prime for pitch overlays, dating back to his days with the Texas Rangers. Since this memorable GIF of five overlaid pitches from 2013, Darvish has accumulated several more pitches, including a sinker, a splitter, two different curveballs and an eephus. Combine that with his active social media presence (most of Darvish’s tweets are in Japanese) and a stellar 2020 season and you have an internet fan favorite.

“He’s just got so many pitches and they all move a ton. He loves communicating on social media, which makes it even more fun,” Friedman said. “If I get something wrong, he’ll just correct me, which he does regularly, and chimes in.”

Signature social media moment from 2020: Darvish shows exactly why Friedman loves to watch him pitch by using an overlay to show how wildly different Darvish can make the pitches in his arsenal move.


Chicago White Sox

Why the internet loves him: Robert does everything well on the field with a sense of flair, from demolishing line drive home runs to his speed on the basepaths, but the White Sox Rookie of the Year candidate routinely loves stealing fly balls from left fielder Eloy Jimenez in what can be described as the current on-field bit most closely resembling the old shtick between Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus with the Rangers.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Plenty of Robert highlights have made the rounds on Twitter this year, but the funniest has been the series of fly balls with Jimenez and Robert.


Cincinnati Reds

Why the internet loves him: The polarizing Reds starter is outspoken on social media, but he also makes his presence known when he takes the mound, bringing one of the game’s best approaches and arsenals with him while busting out cleats defending Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly after Kelly threw behind and mocked Astros hitters earlier this year (more on that in a minute).

Signature social media moment from 2020: In a game where celebration is often frowned upon, it’s refreshing to watch Bauer strut around the mound like McGregor after a K.


Cleveland Indians

Why the internet loves him: Bieber is the favorite for the American League Cy Young award and possibly even the MVP trophy for a reason. Cleveland’s ace does nothing but strike out batters, possesses some of the best command in the game and provides fodder for baseball Twitter accounts like PitchingNinja’s, which routinely turns Bieber hitting his spots into GIFs.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Watching Bieber pitch this year has been an absolute treat, and when you overlay two of his best pitches, his fastball and his knuckle curve, as Friedman has done here, you can see why hitters have had a hard time against him.


Houston Astros

Why the internet loves him: “Love” is probably not the best word to use when talking about the relationship between the Astros and the internet post-sign-stealing scandal. But Houston’s baseball team routinely finds itself in the middle of social media moments as other teams respond to the offseason revelations. Correa, as one of the key players on the team, found himself right in the thick of everything, including …

Signature social media moment from 2020: Correa was part of baseball’s biggest internet moment of the year when Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly struck out the star shortstop and the two got into a jawing match, clearing the benches. Kelly has since become a folk hero in Hollywood, and his pouting face was made into a mural in Los Angeles.


Los Angeles Dodgers

Why the internet loves him: It’s simple: Graterol throws gas and has a slider that moves like a Frisbee. On a team full of big-name players, Graterol is probably best known nationally as the pitcher whose failure to pass his physical led the Red Sox and Dodgers to renegotiate the trade of Mookie Betts — but he’s making a name for himself as a pitcher with stuff that screams back-end reliever potential.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Graterol is also a favorite of Friedman, who routinely highlights the movement on the Dodgers reliever’s fastball and breaking pitches, but this moment, where Graterol throws a 101 mph fastball while shaking loose the chain around his neck, is the highlight of his season so far.


Miami Marlins

Why the internet loves him: Pedro Martinez recently said Sanchez is a “mini me with better stuff,” and the inspiration is very clear in the Marlins starter’s windup. Since making his debut, he’s become a favorite of Friedman’s. Regardless of whether you’re rooting for or against the Marlins making the playoffs, if Sixto is on the mound, you’re going to have a good time watching someone throw with electric stuff.

“Sixto Sanchez is off the chart with his pitches and exciting to watch. Part of it is that he plays it up, he plays like he’s excited,” Friedman said. “Sixto stands out because he just loves the attention too and you can tell. If there were fans out there, they would be going crazy and he craves that stuff.”

Signature social media moment from 2020: In many ways, this GIF encapsulates Sanchez on the mound: incredible stuff and some swagger.


Milwaukee Brewers

Why the internet loves him: Sometimes all it takes is one pitch to become a social media favorite, and the changeup of Brewers reliever Devin Williams is just that. The righty has been one of the best arms coming out of the bullpen, but the movement on his off-speed pitch really sticks out every time he takes the mound.

“If there is one pitch in baseball that you have to watch, it’s Devin Williams’ changeup,” Friedman said. “That has stood out to me as something that’s cropped up this season where I didn’t come into this season thinking that I was going to watch Devin Williams every single time he comes out to pitch.”

Signature social media moment from 2020: At a time where it seems like every reliever is coming out of the bullpen with a fastball measuring in the high 90s, watching Williams fool hitter after hitter with his off-speed stuff is a welcome change of pace.


Minnesota Twins

Why the internet loves him: Buxton hasn’t necessarily lived up to the extraordinary hype that accompanied him as a consensus top prospect in baseball, but as one of the game’s fastest players, the Twins outfielder routinely makes plays in the outfield and basepaths that few around the game can match.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Watching Buxton circle the bases for an inside-the-park home run truly highlights his game-changing speed.


New York Yankees

Why the internet loves him: Amid an up-and-down season for the Yankees, Voit laid claim to the lineup’s most stable presence while stars like Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres struggled at the plate and others like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge spent considerable time on the injured list. For most of the season, Voit’s power at the plate represented one of the glimmers of hope for Yankees Twitter during their midseason slump, and he also provided some levity with his conspicuously non-specific “foot stuff” that has slowed him in the field and on the basepaths — though not at the plate — and has become a running joke among fans. Then, when that Yankees slump turned into a 10-game win streak, Voit, who had been outspoken on his team’s poor play throughout, made it clear things had changed when he said, “We’re back to being the Bronx Bombers.”

Signature social media moment from 2020: When those rejuvenated Bronx Bombers hit five home runs in a single inning against the Blue Jays, of course one of them came from Voit — who happens to be chasing a home run crown.


Oakland A’s

Why the internet loves him: Laureano popped up on the radar of even the most casual baseball fans this season when he found himself in the middle of a bench-clearing brawl with Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, but the rangy Athletics center fielder routinely makes home-run-robbing catches look like a casual, normal part of his arsenal.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Since establishing himself in the majors, Laureano seemingly brings back a couple of homers every season, and every time, it’s a spectacle.


Philadelphia Phillies

Why the internet loves him: The same reasons Harper came up as one of the most hyped baseball prospects of his generation are many of the same reasons he remains one of the most popular and polarizing players in the game. Depending on who you ask, Harper is both underrated and overrated, but either way, he often provides eye-catching highlights at the plate or in the outfield.

Signature social media moment from 2020: It’s easy to forget that Harper was a catcher before converting to the outfield, but throws like these remind baseball fans that he possesses special talent.


San Diego Padres

Why the internet loves him: At this point in 2020, it’s hard to say anything about Tatis that hasn’t already been said. He rakes, while embodying the joy a new generation of baseball players hope to infuse into the game by breaking some of the sport’s antiquated unwritten rules. Few in the sport do that better in the batter’s box, in the field and on the basepaths.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Air Tatis.


San Francisco Giants

Why the internet loves him: It’s hard to overlook the in-your-face baseball romanticism of the grandson of a baseball legend flourishing in the major leagues with a breakout season at age 30. The Giants surprised many around baseball with their performance so far this season, and the team doesn’t sniff a playoff spot without the offensive production of Yaz, who’s hitting .285/.390/.944 with 2.3 WAR.

Signature social media moment from 2020: A staring contest between Yaz and the TV audience. Some social media swooning ensued.


St. Louis Cardinals

Why the internet loves him: Bader brings an elite defensive skill set to the outfield for the Cardinals and routinely makes attention-grabbing snags in the outfield. Additionally, he’s an active presence on Instagram, where he routinely posts game-day outfits and operates a second account to display his closet.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Bader makes diving catches in center field look routine, and he always seems willing to go flying through the air to make the extra effort.


Tampa Bay Rays

Why the internet loves him: The consistency of Adames at the plate can come and go, but the Rays shortstop routinely makes eye-opening plays and brings an uncommon level of energy and joy to the field.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Adames makes a handful of eye-opening plays where he shows off his rocket arm from shortstop, and this is just one of the latest entries.


Toronto Blue Jays

Why the internet loves him: Bichette brings a level of controlled chaos both in the field and at the plate. His swing features an uncommon number of moving parts, from a huge leg kick to a pre-swing bat movement, but something about it just works. Among the trio of Blue Jays sons — Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio — many evaluators around the sport expect the son of Dante to be the franchise’s most important building block. Plus, his name became a meme as fodder for endless puns — from Bro Bichette to Dough Bichette to Edgar Allan Poe Bichette.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Bichette is known more for his bat than his glove, but this diving stop and incredibly long throw remains atop Bichette’s highlights during his first “full” season on the Blue Jays’ major league roster.

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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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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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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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