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Why NLCS Game 7 won’t be last time we see Braves-Dodgers in October

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Get used to this. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, who will play a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday for the privilege of moving on to the World Series, are bound to be here again. It may not be next year, or the year after, or even the year after that, which illustrates simultaneously the variance of baseball and the excellence inherent in both teams, who are stacked enough to glance three years down the road and still peacock about their chances of success.

This much has been apparent in the National League Championship Series, which hasn’t necessarily been a series for the history books. The Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Braves on Saturday at Globe Life Field to even the series was the closest thing this NLCS has offered to a tight game. In each one, though, were glimpses of what makes these teams so good and why return engagements, however difficult they may be, should be expected.

Whether that translates into a Game 7 to remember is impossible to predict. Game 7s are rare gifts to savor, and the fact that baseball is offering its minions two of them in a two-day span should make even the most opener-fearing, strikeout-loathing, analytics-hating buzzkill giddy.

This one will determine the World Series opponent of the Tampa Bay Rays, who evaded a historic collapse in the American League Championship Series and vanquished the Houston Astros in their Game 7 on Saturday night. Whichever team represents the NL, this will be a matchup of master organization-building, of premium player development — a showdown between teams operating in ways that draw envy from around the game.

The Dodgers are here, and will remain in this stratum, for myriad reasons. They draft and develop players better than any organization. They spend more money than anyone. They balance the primal desire to chase championships with the necessary discipline to build sustainability. The Dodgers are everybody’s worst nightmare: smart, talented, rich, patient, hungry.

Even still, the playoffs — and these playoffs in particular, with no days off — demand more than the Dodgers have to walk into Game 7 self-assured. Their starting pitcher is … well, manager Dave Roberts said he’s not sure, which is probably not true, because the moment Game 6 ended the Dodgers knew exactly what they had at their disposal. They could go with Tony Gonsolin, the rookie who got knocked around in Game 2, or with Julio Urias, their Game 3 starter who also could be a fireman in the late innings, or with Brusdar Graterol, their 100 mph-sinkerballing right-hander who would be just as valuable in late innings. Clayton Kershaw, their erstwhile ace, who would be working on two days’ rest? Probably not, but he’ll be in the bullpen, like he was during Game 6, ready to go.

“We are not done,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “We still got a lot to accomplish. We got a big one [Sunday]. We are going to get prepared and come in and fight for every pitch and find a way to win a ballgame.”

The Braves are not as fat-pocketed as the Dodgers, and their development pipeline isn’t bursting with quite as much talent, and yet what’s on their big league roster is intimidating. It’s Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, signed for cheap, decadelong contracts. It’s Cristian Pache roaming center field with the speed, precision and agility of a drone. It’s Mike Soroka, when he returns from his torn Achilles, and it’s Max Fried, and it’s Ian Anderson, who came into these playoffs with six career starts, still hasn’t given up a run in them and will take the ball for Game 7.

“I have 100% confidence in Ian Anderson,” Fried said. “He is as prepared and as smart as they come. You wouldn’t know it was his rookie year by the way he handles himself, his poise and how he conducts his business.”

Anderson’s last win-or-go-home game, he said, was in high school, which for the 22-year-old wasn’t particularly long ago. He exudes calmness and poise, and his Game 2 outing was uncharacteristically short and wild, which is what made him throwing four shutout innings so impressive.

Quick hooks are de rigueur in Game 7s, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash and Houston’s Dusty Baker demonstrated in the ALCS, so Anderson and TBD stamping their names in the history books as the hero of the NLCS may not be in the cards. If modern baseball dogma takes over, and it probably will, the game will be determined by an interconnected group of three: the offenses, the bullpens and the managers.

Roberts and his counterpart, Brian Snitker, are not regarded as the same sort of chess player in the dugout that Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash is. It’s hard not to see Game 7 on Sunday through that lens, comparing everything each team does with Tampa Bay — the decisions it makes, how it matches up, what a showdown might look like.

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Ronald Acuna lines a double down the right-field line scoring Nick Markakis to give the Braves their first run of the game.

The Rays are the Aldi to the Dodgers’ Whole Foods. Take away Los Angeles’ ability to pay large sums of money and the organizations are very similar, which is no surprise, seeing as the person who runs the Dodgers’ baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, previously was in charge in Tampa Bay. The Rays share ideals with the Braves, too, who are seen as an old-school franchise but have made it to Game 7 of the NLCS leaning heavily on just two starting pitchers, which for a time was as Rays as it gets.

Tampa Bay can give itself 24 hours to party before it tries to figure out how its home run-dependent offense will counteract Globe Life playing like a never-ending warehouse. The Rays have scored an unthinkable 72% of their runs this postseason on home runs, and if those do wind up being fewer and farther between, the Rays will need otherworldly pitching against one of arguably the two most dangerous lineups in baseball or to figure out an entirely new offensive strategy on the fly.

Then again, great teams adjust. It’s what the Braves did early in this series when next to nobody gave them a chance against Los Angeles. It’s what the Dodgers did when Atlanta went up 3-1. And it’s what the World Series winner, whether it’s the Rays or Dodgers or Braves, will do next week.

For now, they are just glad they’re here. Because when some jabroni says “Get used to this,” a skeptic can say: Cubs. And it’s true: Starting in 2016, the Cubs were supposed to be at the beginning of a half-decade-long window of supremacy. It never materialized. And in the NL, the San Diego Padres certainly will have something to say about an annual Dodgers-Braves showdown. As will the Steve Cohen-owned New York Mets, who may Xerox the Dodgers’ modus operandi and give it some East Coast flavor.

Until then, we have this Game 7. Whatever the sport, whenever the moment, Game 7 means something more, even if Snitker said he’s going to treat it like any other game. He won’t because it’s not. It is, Roberts said correctly, “What you live for.” And for the many great matchups to come, the many years these teams are primed to be relevant, right now all they’re living for is to make sure they have a tomorrow.

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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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