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Relieved Rays enjoy earning AL pennant in MLB’s strange, tough 2020 season

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SAN DIEGO — Three days of rising anxiety turned into one night of euphoria for the Tampa Bay Rays, who became the new American League champions on Saturday night after finally dispatching the Astros in seven games with a 4-2 victory to advance to the World Series in the MLB playoffs.

“The last three days were pretty agonizing,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We definitely added to our stress levels. That’s a really good team over there. I would have rather gotten it done in Game 4 or 5 than in Game 7.”

There may be more than 2,000 aeronautical miles between Petco Park and the Rays’ home at Tropicana Field, where this game would have taken place under normal circumstances, but that did little to diminish the manner in which they played these games, despite not playing a single game in front of fans all season.

“I feel bad that fans haven’t been able to be at the parks,” said Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay’s starter who also won Game 7. “Our families haven’t been able to see us unless they’re in quarantine. My mom flew in from New Jersey but I can only see her from 15 feet away. But the silver lining to this is get to the postseason and it’s just not the same. But I’ve looked across at the dugout and I know the guys that we’re playing, they care and they want to win. Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other. You adhere to protocols, you social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can’t hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn’t see in a normal season.”

This atmosphere may have been similar to that of a travel team game at eight in the morning, empty stands and little to no outside energy. But the intensity on the field during games was major league quality. Celebrating on the field was a bit awkward, with players looking unsure what they should be doing as they congregated on the infield as they accepted the AL championship trophy.

“It’s been very, very intense,” Cash said. “I cannot sit here and say if we were in the Trop our home or at Yankee Stadium or Minute Maid that they wouldn’t have been very intense in those ball parks. But the intensity of what our players show and what the opposition has shown has made everything very, very tense for all of us. I didn’t (sleep last night). I don’t know if I went to bed. A lot of anxiety. We’ve all watched ‘Four Days in October.’ I didn’t want to see it again.”

The Rays, who had the best record in the AL, will end their 16-day stay in San Diego and fly to Arlington on Sunday, ready to appear in the franchise’s second World Series. It hardly matters that only a few hundred people, mostly family and a smattering of reporters, security guards and the stadium DJ, actually witnessed in person what transpired at Petco Park over the past two weeks.

The 2020 American League pennant will carry the same weight as any previous championship flag, even if it came in a pandemic-shortened 60-game regular season. Someone was going to be crowned AL champs this season, and even if it did take four additional tension-filled days after they took a commanding 3-0 series lead, the Rays were more than eager to fire up a few victory cigars in what turned into a seven-day marathon to put away the Astros.

Tampa Bay just played an unprecedented 12 postseason games in a 13-day span, five games in five days against the Yankees in the ALDS, one day off and then seven in seven against Houston. All the while they shared the same hotel with the Yankees first and then the Astros, a five-story resort in nearby Carlsbad where one club occupied two floors, the other two different floors and one floor provided the buffer.

“This wasn’t easy,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “We played five straight days in the (division series), seven straight days in the (championship series). These guys responded.”

The Rays players were in quarantine in a St. Petersburg hotel the final week of the regular season, sharing that space with the visiting Phillies first and then the Blue Jays during the wild-card round before arriving in San Diego.

Several Rays players chose to be joined by wives and children in quarantine. However, parents were not allowed to do so, leaving them to wave and yell to their sons from about 20 feet away after games.

Reliever Shane McClanahan made his major league debut during the Yankees ALDS and gave up a full-count walk to Kyle Higashioka, only the second big leaguer he had ever faced. Afterward, McClanahan could only speak to his parents over the phone. He said the first thing his father said to him was, “So, a 3-2 walk, eh?” He said he replied, “Yeah, great to talk to you, too, dad.”

Such is big league life in 2020.

Another major difference that these players have already grown accustomed to, no wild champagne-drenched clubhouse celebrations. Those are considered a no-no this season, at least until after the World Series. Instead, the Rays had a dance-off in front of their dugout after beating the Yankees. This time they slipped inside their clubhouse, but it was anything but the normal Animal House-style craziness you’d see in any other year than 2020. Let’s just say there won’t be a need to deep clean the clubhouse carpets.

“We’ve done a great job to make it as fun as possible,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “There’s confetti and silly string. But there’s nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes.”

The Rays, who play at 30-year-old Tropicana Field, initially gushed over the Padres’ luxurious and expansive home clubhouse that has been their home for the past two weeks. When asked about the differences between their home and their Petco facilities soon after their arrival on Oct. 2, reliever Nick Anderson answer by asking, “Are you trying to get me in trouble?”

No amount of canned crowd noise could ever duplicate the feeling of a real 40,000-plus crowd. But none of that matters to these Rays. They’re going to play under the brightest lights possible, even if it will be difficult for some baseball fans to know who they’re watching.

“We don’t have too many household names that a ton of people are going to know,” veteran outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “But we know the very well above-average players that we have in there. We’re just a bunch of scrappy, hard playing guys and we show it on the field and we know how to win games and that’s all that’s important to us.”

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Hamilton questions FIA’s choice of Petrov as a steward

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Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has questioned the FIA’s decision to employ Vitaly Petrov as a steward at this weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix after the Russian recently made controversial remarks about Hamilton’s anti-racism stance.

Following the Tuscan Grand Prix, at which Hamilton wore a T-shirt saying “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”, Petrov claimed the world champion had gone “too far” and likened it to “urging everyone to be gay” if a driver came out as homosexual.

Taylor, a Black woman, was fatally shot March 13 when police officers burst into her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation. She was 26.

Hamilton’s shirt at the Tuscan Grand Prix read: “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” on the front and “say her name” alongside her picture on the back. He wore it at F1’s pre-race anti-racism demonstration and again on the podium after winning the race.

Speaking ahead of the following round of the championship in Petrov’s native Russia, the former Lotus and Caterham F1 driver was quoted as saying: “In Russia we have a different mentality, and we do not have the problems that Hamilton is talking about. There should be respect for everyone.”

He added: “For me, this t-shirt, on top of calling for everyone to kneel, was too much.

“It is a personal matter for every adult. You have the right to speak out on social media or give interviews, but I think the US government is well aware of these problems already.

“But to call on that in Formula One itself… I think half of the spectators didn’t even know what the shirt was about until it was explained to them.

“And let’s say a driver admits to being gay — will they come out with a rainbow flag and urge everyone to become gay as well? I think the FIA will no longer allow such behaviours.”

When Petrov’s comments were relayed to Hamilton during a press conference on Thursday in Portugal, the world champion questioned why the FIA had chosen Petrov as a steward over other former drivers who would also be suitable for the role.

“I mean, I’ve not seen all of the quotes, but obviously you’ve just recited some of them so yes of course I would say that’s a surprise that they would be hiring someone that has those beliefs and is so vocal about things that we’re trying to fight against,” Hamilton said. “So you should take it up with them [the FIA] really, there’s nothing that I can particularly do about it.

“But we should definitely be including people here who are with the times, who are understanding of the times that we are living in and sensitive to the matters that are surrounding us.

“So I don’t really understand what their goal is or why particularly he’s here because it’s not like they don’t have any other good options.”

Petrov, who competed in 58 grands prix during his F1 career, is one of four stewards who will officiate at this weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix.

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Champions League’s ultimate sleepers: RB Leipzig to win, Inter Milan to reach final, Sevilla to semis

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The Champions League began on Tuesday and if we’re being honest, we know who’s probably going to win. Through one-sixth of the group stage, FiveThirtyEight gives defending champion Bayern Munich a 26 percent chance of repeating, followed by Manchester City (15 percent), Barcelona (9 percent), Liverpool (8 percent) and PSG (8 percent). PSG’s odds sank by three percentage points after an upset loss to Manchester United, though, and Real Madrid sank from 6 percent to 4 percent following a jarring 3-2 home loss to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Bayern more than looked the part of a favourite in Wednesday’s 4-0 destruction of Atletico Madrid, but with two of what were considered the “top six favourites” losing, there’s a lot of space for lower-tier contenders to advance pretty far in the draw. Besides, all but the chalkiest of tournaments produce surprises. Tottenham Hotspur made it to the final in 2019, while RB Leipzig, Lyon, Ajax, Roma and Monaco have all made somewhat unexpected runs to the semifinals in the past four years.

There are twists and turns along the way, so with that in mind, let’s talk about some teams that could be responsible for some major twists to come.

The term “sleeper” can mean a lot of different things — sleeper to win the whole thing? sleeper to advance out of the group stage? — so let’s talk about teams that fit each possible definition. It might not be likely that these teams will win the title, but they’re more than capable of either knocking out your favourite team or becoming your favourite team in the months ahead.

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Sleeper to win the whole thing

RB Leipzig

Group: H
Title odds, per FiveThirtyEight: 4 percent
First match: beat Istanbul Basaksehir, 2-0
Next match: at Manchester United (Oct. 28)

Despite reaching the Champions League semis in August, Julian Nagelsmann’s squad were stuck in Pot 3, but thanks to United’s upset of PSG, FiveThirtyEight now gives the Red Bull-owned squad a better chance of advancing (63 percent) than PSG (62 percent). A win in Manchester next Wednesday would put them in perfect position to win their group.

The absence of former star Timo Werner, now with Chelsea, is likely hurting RBL’s odds, but they’ve shown no sign of slippage without him, beginning the Bundesliga season with 10 points from four matches. They controlled Basaksehir from the opening kick and got to ease off the throttle pretty quickly.

RBL is attacking from everywhere. In five league and cup matches, seven different players have scored and 16 have logged either a key pass or an assist. Midfielder Angelino (four goals) and forward Yussuf Poulsen (three) are thriving, and the team has only gotten 45 minutes out of injured winger and captain Marcel Sabitzer thus far. We’ll see if he’s ready for the trip to Manchester, but RBL are again proving themselves worthy of big-boy status.

Sleeper to reach the final

Inter Milan

Group: B
Odds of reaching the final, per FiveThirtyEight: 6 percent
First match: drew with Borussia Monchengladbach, 2-2
Next match: at Shakhtar Donetsk (Oct. 27)

Antonio Conte and Inter could not take full advantage of Real Madrid’s defeat, drawing with Gladbach despite creating a 3.5-1.5 xG advantage. It was unlucky, but it was also reaffirmation that this team is fun as hell.

Inter nearly won Serie A last year and have almost inarguably performed better than either Juventus or Barcelona — two teams with far stronger betting odds — since the coronavirus restart this summer. Their only losses in the last three months were to Sevilla in the Europa League final and to a torrid AC Milan this past Saturday.

They kept most of last year’s squad intact and added both full-back Achraf Hakimi and veteran midfielder/enforcer Arturo Vidal. They were really good last year, and they have more pieces this time around.

The Nerazzurri were, along with Atalanta and RB Leipzig, easily the most proven teams in Pot 3 of the draw, and they find themselves in a chaotic group — FiveThirtyEight gives Inter, Shakhtar and Real Madrid each between a 51-59 percent chance of advancing. A win at Shakhtar next week, however, could give them not only great odds of advancing but also a solid shot at winning their group and generating a favourable draw in the round of 16.

Sleeper to reach semifinals

Sevilla

Group: E
Odds of reaching the semis, per FiveThirtyEight: 15 percent
First match: drew with Chelsea, 0-0
Next match: vs. Rennes (Oct. 28)

I know, I know: wrong tournament. Sevilla are kings of the Europa League, having won it six times since 2006, so it’s easy to simply assume they’ll finish third in their group, land in the Europa knockout round and make a run.

They have a real chance to make some noise in the UCL this time around, though. They’ve done so before, after all — they made the quarterfinals in 2018, barely falling to Bayern Munich, and they’ve now scored a road draw against their top Group E challenger in Chelsea. The Blues and Rennes both remain exciting teams, but the path to winning Group E is quite manageable.

Also… they’re pretty dang good. They brought in far more than they sent out in the transfer window, they gave Bayern fits in an eventual extra-time loss in the UEFA Super Cup, and while their goalscoring form has left them a bit in La Liga play — after scoring three goals in their league opener, they’ve scored just two since — their xG figures are solid, and their passing game is sublime. And in an offense-friendly group, they have the sturdiest defense led by centre-bacls Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde.

Sleeper to reach quarterfinals

Olympiakos

Group: C
Odds of reaching the quarters, per FiveThirtyEight: 18 percent
First match: beat Marseille, 1-0
Next match: at Porto (Oct. 27)

The top of the Greek Super League features quite a few teams capable of doing minor damage in Europe, but Pedro Martins’ Olympiacos have lost just a combined three league matches over the past two seasons.They took points from Tottenham Hotspur in last year’s Champions League, then beat Arsenal in the Europa League knockouts before falling narrowly to Wolves. In this year’s Champions League play-off round, they beat Cyprus’ Omonia to qualify, and while the scoring margin (2-0) wasn’t dramatically impressive, all the other stats were: they outshot Omonia 45-12, generated 4.2 xG to 0.7, etc. And now they’ve got three points from one match in group play.

Olympiacos are a fun mix of leathery old veterans — former Marseille attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena (36), former Bayern full-back Rafinha (35), former Watford full-back Jose Holebas (36) and former Granada striker Youssef El-Arabi (33) all started against Marseille — and peak-age talent like attacking midfielder Kostas Fortounis (28) and Wednesday’s goal scorer, Ahmed Hassan (27).

This is a tough, physical and unintimidated team. Even if they can’t steal points from Manchester City in Group C, they’ve got more than talent and identity to work their way into the knockout rounds.

Sleeper to reach the round of 16

Rennes

Group: E
Odds of advancing to the knockout round, per FiveThirtyEight: 21 percent
First match: drew with Krasnodar, 1-1
Next match: at Sevilla (Oct. 28)

Rennes missed a prime opportunity by only drawing with the weakest team in Group E, Krasnodar. They took the lead in the second half and then immediately gave it back. But hey, that kept their odds of advancing low enough to call them sleepers!

After finishing third in last year’s abbreviated Ligue 1 campaign and therefore qualifying for the Champions League for the first time ever, Rennes began this season with 13 points in their first five matches before losing stars Edouard Mendy (Chelsea) and Raphinha (Leeds United) to the Premier League. The next batch of stars is already in place, however, and as they gel, they could improve as the group stages move along.

Julien Stephan’s squad brought in Juventus defender Daniele Rugani and Inter Milan full-back Dalbert on loan, and new acquisition Serhou Guirassy has already scored three goals in Ligue 1 play. And they still have 17-year old phenom Eduardo Camavinga, whose presence — and uncanny ability to do this — makes them a must-watch team.

Whether or not they advance, their two group matches against Chelsea — Nov. 4 in London, Nov. 24 in Rennes — will be an absolute blessing if you enjoy things like “goals” and “fun, attacking soccer.”

Sleeper to reach the round of 16

FC Salzburg

Group: A
Odds of advancing to the knockout round, per FiveThirtyEight: 32 percent
First match: drew with Lokomotiv Moscow, 2-2
Next match: at Atletico Madrid (Oct. 27)

The No. 2 team on the Red Bull totem pole held a 1.1-0.7 xG advantage over Lokomotiv on Wednesday but suffered a disappointing draw… and their odds of advancing still went up thanks to Atletico’s massive loss to Bayern.

The spreadsheets love Salzburg: they’re 19th in FiveThirtyEight’s club rankings and 22nd at EloFootball.com. They lost Hwang Hee-chan to Leipzig — and, of course, Takumi Minamino to Liverpool and Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund last January — but the next generation of stars is ready for the UEFA spotlight. Patson Daka, 22, has scored 11 goals in just nine matches this year and generated more than half of Salzburg’s xG on Wednesday. Hungarian starlet Dominik Szoboszlai (19) scored the goals of the day against Lokomotiv, and Sekou Koita (20) is excellent. And now American midfielder Brenden Aaronson (19) is coming aboard as well.

It’s safe to say that your favourite club’s scouting team is and has been watching Salzburg for a while, and while getting paired with Bayern and Atletico makes advancing difficult, they have the ball-control game to make things dicey for the favourites. a win next week would put them in a strong position to advance.

The ultimate sleeper

Midtjylland

Group: D
Odds of advancing to the knockout round, per FiveThirtyEight: 3 percent
First match: lost to Atalanta, 4-0
Next match: at Liverpool (Oct. 27)

Okay, no, Midtjylland probably aren’t going to advance. FiveThirtyEight ranks them 136th overall, and their odds of advancing are better than only Basaksehir’s. They’re stuck in maybe the most aesthetically pleasing possible group with Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. Their goal differential is already -4. But it’s a story that they’re here. Call them a sleeper in our hearts.

Owned by former professional gambler and analytics lover Matthew Benham (who also owns Brentford FC), Midtjylland won its first Danish Superliga title in 2015 and lost to Manchester United in the 2016 Europa League knockout rounds. After years of knocking on the door, they finally qualified for the Champions League group stage by upsetting a solid Slavia Prague with a thrilling late surge of three goals in seven minutes.

Like Salzburg and Rennes, Midtjylland is developing a reputation as a top-notch scouting-and-development club — which is to say, bigger clubs are ready to pounce when a younger player looks good, and the foursome of Anders Dreyer, Sory Kaba, Awer Mabil and Frank Onyeka (four shots, 0.6 xG against Atalanta) is awfully fun to watch.

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Utah erred in athlete’s death, settles for $13.5M

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The University of Utah announced a $13.5 million settlement with the family of slain track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey on Thursday, saying for the first time that her death had been preventable.

Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old heptathlete at Utah, was shot and killed Oct. 22, 2018, by a man she had dated briefly, Melvin Shawn Rowland. Rowland killed himself later that night when cornered by police.

In a news conference Thursday on the school’s Salt Lake City campus, university president Ruth Watkins read a statement expressing the school’s regret after McCluskey, her mother and friends reached out for help numerous times before she was killed.

“The university acknowledges and deeply regrets that it did not handle Lauren’s case as it should have and that, at the time, its employees failed to fully understand and respond appropriately to Lauren’s situation,” Watkins said. “As a result, we failed Lauren and her family.”

McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, filed a federal Title IX lawsuit in January 2019 after Watkins said publicly, following a school investigation, that nothing could have prevented Lauren’s death.

Jill McCluskey, fighting back tears as she read her statement, said the school had made progress in addressing campus safety issues over the past two years.

“We acknowledge and applaud the many positive changes that have occurred at the University of Utah since her death and we hope they continue,” she said. “This settlement is important for many reasons: It addresses how Lauren died, but also honors how she lived.”

When McCluskey — who was raised in Pullman, Washington, where her parents are professors at Washington State — first met Rowland in late summer 2018, he said he was a 28-year-old community college student named Shawn Fields.

In early October, however, she discovered his real identity, that he was actually a 37-year-old convicted sex offender on parole. She immediately broke off the relationship. Over the following two weeks, Rowland sent her text messages posing as friends saying he had been killed in an accident, stalked her at her dormitory, extorted $1,000 from her by threatening to release a compromising photo of her, came to her dorm with a pistol that he showed to other students, and sent a text to McCluskey claiming to be a police officer in what she took to be an attempt to lure her out in public.

In the two weeks before she died, McCluskey and her mother called campus police more than a dozen times seeking help. A December 2018 university investigation determined that police did not check Rowland’s parole status. Had police been aware, it’s possible Rowland could have been found in violation of his parole and returned to prison.

Also, two of McCluskey’s friends told the resident assistant in her dormitory that they believed Rowland might be a threat to McCluskey’s safety, and the resident assistant forwarded those concerns to her superiors. The resident assistant and the McCluskeys have said no subsequent action was taken.

In the statement read by Watkins on Thursday, the school said, “If these employees had more complete training and protocols to guide the responses, the university believes they would’ve been better equipped to protect Lauren.”

The statement did not specify or refer to campus police and housing officials, but employees from both departments had been named in the lawsuit.

Jill McCluskey told ESPN in January 2019 that Watkins’ previous statement that Lauren’s killing could not have been prevented sparked her and her husband to file their lawsuit.

The McCluskeys have said the goal of the lawsuit was to set off a chain reaction to improve campus safety nationwide and that a settlement could force insurance companies to push for safety reforms. The McCluskeys have said all money from the settlement will go to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, which contributes to causes associated with “campus safety, amateur athletics and animal welfare.”

ESPN investigative producer Nicole Noren contributed to this report.

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