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Takeaways: Astros make history, even ALCS with Rays

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The 2020 MLB playoffs are down to the final four teams, with the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays left standing in the league championship series. Starting with Sunday’s American League Championship Series Game 1 between the Astros and the Rays through the moment that the World Series is set, this is your place for the stars, turning points and takeaways at the conclusion of every game.

Key links: Ranking the remaining teams | Inside return of fans for NLCS | Schedule, bracket


American League Championship Series Game 6: Houston Astros 7, Tampa Bay Rays 4

What it means: After the Astros held on to beat the Rays, a postseason series between the two teams comes down to a winner-take-all game for the second straight season.

Last year, Houston won Game 5 of the ALDS at Minute Maid Park thanks to eight dominant innings out of Gerrit Cole. The Rays have already survived — if not defeated — Cole this season, having done so in the last round against the Yankees in a decisive Game 5, but that does them no good here, when the stakes are even higher. This is a very different Astros pitching staff that has stifled Tampa Bay for most of six games, featuring three Rays wins followed by three Astros wins.

If history is any consolation for a Rays club that has watched the series slip slide away over the last three days, it’s that in the only other Game 7 in franchise history, Joe Maddon led Tampa Bay past Boston in the 2008 ALCS and into the World Series.

To repeat that, the challenge for the Rays is to push aside the tide of momentum. They won three, then the Astros won three. The Rays’ pitching staff is set up better for Game 7, as Kevin Cash didn’t have to dip into his top bullpen tier on Friday. Some of Houston’s top relievers have been worked hard in this series, and so it will be crucial for Lance McCullers Jr. to go deep for the Astros.

Speaking of McCullers, he started the biggest Game 7 in Astros history, beginning the clincher over the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. He didn’t allow a run in that game but lasted only 2 1/3 innings. The Astros closed it out thanks to four sparkling innings from Charlie Morton, who is likely to start the deciding game for the Rays on Saturday.

So if you’re Tampa Bay, and you can set aside the doubt that creeps in when you’ve dropped three in a row, you can realize that you entered the series as a heavy favorite because, over the course of the season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs, you established yourselves as the American League’s best team. The Rays remain the favorite to win the series. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

If you’re the Astros, now that you’ve forced one more game, you feel like you’ve got one foot in the World Series. For some — the Astros haters — it’s a nightmare scenario. For others, especially those rooting for Dusty Baker to land his elusive first World Series title as a manager, this is shaping up as quite a story.

Game 7. McCullers versus Morton. The American League pennant is on the line. What else could you ask for? — Bradford Doolittle

Next up: Game 7: Rays vs. Astros (in San Diego), 8:37 p.m. ET Saturday


Previous games

ALCS

Game 5: Houston Astros 4, Tampa Bay Rays 3

What it means: The Rays still have the series lead, but suddenly the Astros are out-Raysing the Rays, and because of that Houston has already made history.

Carlos Correa mashed a game-winning homer to dead center field off Rays closer Nick Anderson in the bottom of the ninth, as the Astros beat the Rays to force a Game 6. In doing so after dropping the first three games of the series, Houston became just the fourth of 38 teams to fall behind 3-0 in a series and come back to force a sixth game. Only the 2004 Red Sox, who came all the way back from a 3-0 hole to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, have forced a Game 7. — Doolittle

Game 4: Houston Astros 4, Tampa Bay Rays 3

What it means: Astros starter Zack Greinke, likely a future Hall of Famer, was into his third trip through the Tampa Bay lineup. Houston had just grabbed a two-run lead on a George Springer homer in the bottom of the fifth, but three singles loaded the bags with two outs and Michael Brosseau at the plate.

Manager Dusty Baker had been to the mound already that inning, with red-hot Randy Arozarena at the plate. In 2020 baseball, especially in the postseason, you figured that was it for Greinke. It’s just the way things are done these days.

Greinke had faced 22 batters and thrown 87 pitches when Brosseau stepped to the plate. Baker had gone to the mound and returned to the dugout alone. Greinke was still around to strike out Brosseau with a changeup. Score one for Dusty’s gut. — Doolittle

Game 3: Tampa Bay Rays 5, Houston Astros 2

What it means: Game 3 was an even more exaggerated version of the first two games. The Astros played well except for one disastrous sequence. This one was the worst so far: The top of the sixth featured yet another Jose Altuve throwing error and two key hit by pitches, as Tampa Bay put up five runs that were more than enough for the stifling, crowd-sourced Rays run-prevention machine. Tampa Bay improved to 29-1, including the playoffs, when scoring at least five runs this season.

The Astros once again hit a lot of balls hard — probably more than the Rays did when you dig into the metrics. But whether it was great defensive plays by Kevin Kiermaier in center field or canny positioning of the Tampa Bay infield or the sheer randomness of the universe, the Rays have been doing it all season, all postseason and certainly all series. — Doolittle

Game 2: Tampa Bay Rays 4, Houston Astros 2

What it means: Game 2 came down to two mistakes: Jose Altuve’s throwing error that kept the Rays’ first-inning rally alive — one of two uncharacteristic throwing miscues in the game for the Astros’ second baseman — and the curveball that Lance McCullers Jr. left up and Manuel Margot deposited over the center-field fence for a three-run homer.

The Astros put runners on through most of the game, but for the second straight contest, they couldn’t come up with the big, multirun blow to pierce the Rays’ protective armor. The bottom line was the Astros played well but made a couple of mistakes. The way the Rays are playing right now, that’s all they need to beat you. — Doolittle

Game 1: Tampa Bay Rays 2, Houston Astros 1

What it means: Randy Arozarena continued his transmogrification into the best fastball hitter on the planet with his fourth homer of the postseason, Mike Zunino stroked a highly rare RBI single to put the Rays ahead, and Tampa Bay followed Blake Snell‘s five innings with four shutout frames by four relievers. Along the way, the Rays improved to 16-5 in one-run games this season, a .762 winning percentage, including the postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s currently the best one-run winning percentage by any team over a season. Ever. — Doolittle


NLCS

Game 4: Atlanta Braves 10, Los Angeles Dodgers 2

What it means: If the Braves were going to defeat the Dodgers in this NLCS, and eliminate a star-studded team that won 43 of 60 regular-season games, they needed to be about more than just Max Fried and Ian Anderson in their rotation. In Game 4, Bryse Wilson — a 22-year-old who had accumulated only 15 2/3 innings this season — showed they might be.

Wilson, pitching amid wind gusts that were blowing in at up to 15 mph, tamed a Dodgers lineup that scored a record-breaking 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3, limiting them to a solo home run and no other hits through the first six innings. It paved the way for his high-powered offense to come alive in the bottom of the sixth. — Gonzalez

Game 3: Los Angeles Dodgers 15, Atlanta Braves 3

What it means: Maybe all the Dodgers needed was an encounter with Josh Tomlin.

The Braves brought Tomlin into the ninth inning of Game 2, hoping to give their high-leverage relievers a break with the outcome seemingly in hand. But the Dodgers proceeded to pound Tomlin, scoring four times and putting the tying run on third base before Braves closer Mark Melancon induced a game-ending groundout.

In the aftermath, the Dodgers harped on the importance of getting a longer look at the vaunted bullpen of their opponent and hoped to ride the momentum of their near miracle. Then they went out and scored 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3, setting a postseason record. By the end of it, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson — the three powerful left-handed hitters who struggled throughout the year — had each produced multihit games that included a homer. — Gonzalez

Game 2: Atlanta Braves 8, Los Angeles Dodgers 7

What it means: When the Braves shut out the Cincinnati Reds and the Miami Marlins in four out of five postseason games, it was dismissed as a good pitching staff taking advantage of poor offenses. But now Max Fried and Ian Anderson have limited the Dodgers to one run in 10 innings in back-to-back starts. Plus, before a spirited ninth-inning comeback in Game 2, eight Braves pitchers limited the Dodgers to 10 hits and eight walks in 17 innings, striking out 20. All of which proves that this pitching staff is deep — regardless of the injuries suffered in its rotation — and this team is elite.

In both games, the Dodgers had the opposing starter on the ropes early and did not capitalize. In both games, that has come back to haunt them. Maybe they found something in that four-run ninth inning, which ended with Cody Bellinger 90 feet from tying the score. — Gonzalez

Game 1: Atlanta Braves 5, Los Angeles Dodgers 1

What it means: So much for the Dodgers running completely roughshod through the 2020 MLB postseason. That notion ended at 10:23 p.m. local time Monday, when the barrage ended. It started 16 minutes earlier, with a 98 mph fastball delivered by Blake Treinen, a reliever tasked by the Dodgers with securing big outs. The ball happened to wind up in the nitro zone of Austin Riley, the Braves’ young third baseman/left fielder, and when balls at 98 meet his bat there, they tend to come to rest very far away.

In this case, it was 448 feet, though that number wasn’t as vital as what it represented: the go-ahead run in what had been a taut, well-pitched Game 1 of the NLCS. That hit opened the floodgates, with other Braves feasting off Dodgers relievers in a victory. — Jeff Passan

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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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