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WNBA Finals: Ageless Seattle star Sue Bird is the consummate champion

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Seattle guard Sue Bird sat in her postgame Zoom interview with a bemused smile and a little comic side-eye directed at teammate Breanna Stewart, who threw Storm green and gold confetti at her. Bird was thrilled to be celebrating her fourth title after a blowout 92-59 victory against the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.

But there was also a touch of disbelief, after a trying season in the WNBA bubble in Florida during a pandemic. Bird has been in the league since being drafted No. 1 in 2002, and she has seen everything, but this season was like nothing anyone has seen before. That, the enormity of her accomplishment and the knowledge that her 40th birthday comes next week on Oct. 16, had Bird feeling sentimental and philosophical while her teammates danced and champagne flowed.

“Being younger, you talk about being in the moment and you don’t even know what that means. But as an older player, I fully understand,” Bird said, and then tried to describe the environment. “Listen, out there, it’s weird. There’s no fans. Like the excitement level — and just because of the way the game ended with the score, it was kind of this — we didn’t really know how to react.

“So I think for me right now, it’s a little — it’s almost surreal, shock. I’ll be honest, even today preparing for the game, thinking about it, I was getting a little emotional at the thought of potentially winning. I have a feeling it is going to hit later, and for me as an older player, I think it’s coming out more emotional than excitement.”

Bird became the second-oldest player to win a WNBA title behind Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who was 13 days from turning 41 when she won with the Minnesota Lynx in 2011.

This is the fourth title for the Storm, tying them for most all-time with Houston (1997-2000) and Minnesota (2011, ’13, ’15, ’17). But the Storm’s titles didn’t all come in a close cluster of years; the previous ones were in 2004, 2010 and 2018. Bird is the one common denominator for all of them, as she finished her 17th season in the WNBA on top once again.

“I think the fact that I’ve been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that,” Bird said. “To recreate it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of, because it hasn’t been easy.”

Bird had left knee surgery in May 2019 and missed all of last season. Then she suffered a bone bruise to the same knee early this season, and was limited to 11 of 22 regular-season games.

“This is the one time I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s been hard,” she said. “A lot of ups, a lot of downs. I think the hardest part about being an older player is when there’s that down physically, you start to question whether you can do it anymore. You start to question why you’re doing it. You start to question if it’s worth it because it can be hard.”

Yet once the playoffs began, Bird was totally in charge again, as if she had willed the years to melt away. Bird averaged 9.5 points and 9.2 assists in those six games. Her 16 assists in Friday’s Game 1 were a career high and WNBA Finals record. Tuesday, she had five points and seven assists in a game long decided before the fourth quarter, which Bird spent joyfully on the bench trying to take it all in.

Bird has earned universal praise in the basketball world, including from the Los Angeles LakersLeBron James, who is also in his 17th season and going for his fourth NBA title.

“To have LeBron recognize me in that way is obviously a huge compliment,” Bird said. “I think we’re two of the players — you can throw Tom Brady and Diana [Taurasi] in there — us four are kind of in this elite company of people who are closer to the end than the beginning, but still able to have a huge impact on the game.”

Combining college, WNBA, overseas leagues and international competitions like the Olympics, Bird has celebrated championships all over the world. In the WNBA, her first came in front of the thunderstick-pounding sellout crowd at KeyArena in October 2004. Bird was a few days from her 24th birthday then, and admits she thought at the time that playing for titles would be a regular occurrence.

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Sue Bird opens up about winning her fourth WNBA title with the Seattle Storm after they defeat the Las Vegas Aces 92-59.

But with so much talent concentrated in a relatively small league, even making the WNBA Finals is a challenge. The Storm didn’t do that again until 2010, when they swept the Atlanta Dream. As the clinching Game 3 ended in Atlanta, Bird leaped into the arms of teammate Lauren Jackson, who was the league MVP that year.

No one realized then how close Jackson, 29 at the time, was to the end of her career because of injuries. She would only play parts of two more seasons in the WNBA.

Eight more years passed before Bird returned to the Finals in 2018, and again won in a sweep, this time against the Washington Mystics.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma was at that game, and he has continued to watch with pride as his former star point guard keeps winning.

“For Sue, her incredible consistency as a player comes from her consistency as a person,” Auriemma said. “She’s an incredible leader on the basketball court of epic proportions. As long as she has the opportunity to direct the team, they’re going to find a way to win.”

Six years ago, though, Bird questioned herself. She went through a knee surgery that cost her the 2013 season. In 2014, the Storm missed the playoffs and coach Brian Agler left to take over the Los Angeles Sparks. Bird had felt physically subpar that whole season, and she knew some people thought she was nearly finished as she approached age 34.

Bird committed to getting into the best shape of her life. She also made up her mind to stay with the Storm, rather than explore options as a free agent.

Her belief in the organization paid off with good fortune, as the Storm got No. 1 picks in 2015 (guard Jewell Loyd) and 2016 (forward Breanna Stewart) who became key contributors to the Storm’s past two championships. Stewart was Finals MVP in 2018 and this year, and has averaged 25.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists this postseason, while Loyd averaged 17.8, 5.2 and 3.2.

“With Stewie and Jewell, their talent is really insane,” Bird said. “They are the now generation, but they are also the next generation for the next five, 10, 15, who knows how many years.”

In recent years, Bird has become more outspoken about many issues, including those involving the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Bird came out publicly as gay and spoke of her relationship with U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe — who was with Bird in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida — and the two became a popular power couple in sports.

“It’s her leadership on the court,” Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said of what Bird means to the Storm, “but also how she’s developed as a leader off the court in standing up for a lot of things that have to be done, and for a lot of progress that we have to make in this country.”

Social justice wasn’t a trendy catch phrase for the WNBA this season; it was the bedrock of the bubble. Bird was a big part of the Vote Warnock movement, as the players urged people to vote against one of the league’s owners, the Atlanta Dream’s Kelly Loeffler, in her senate race against Raphael Warnock. Loeffler’s remarks questioning the league’s support of the Black Lives Matter organization and movement alienated some players.

“A league of women, a league of Black women, a league of gay women,” said Bird, who has admitted that in earlier times she tended to steer clear of anything controversial. “We’re kind of checking off all these boxes of people that just get left behind, or don’t get talked about. And so who better to stand up and speak about these issues than those who it directly affects?

“There was a lot on everybody’s plate, and for a variety of reasons. What I’ve come to find out is when you’re in this world of activism and organizing, there’s this other energy that you expend. And then, oh by the way, you have to be a basketball player as well. For a lot of people, it was exhausting at times. Everybody at some point had to hit the Wubble wall and find a way to get over it.”

She did that, and now has her fourth WNBA championship. Bird hopes to play at least through next year, during which she could go to her fifth Olympics.

“The way I feel right now, if I can go through my offseason and continue to build on that in a good way, I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer,” Bird said. “I’m not trying to be elusive but as I’ve always said, things happen. That’s what the last two years have taught me. Anything can happen. So I’m just like, you know, cautiously optimistic.

“Through my career, I’m lucky in a way. My position and how I play it allows for longevity. I never really just relied on my quickness or speed or size, obviously. So as long as I continue to add to my game from a mental perspective, I was always going to be able to stay on the floor, assuming the physical part stayed with me as well.”

Auriemma credits Bird’s resolve and willpower.

“Sue’s discipline is, ‘I want to win championships every single year I’m in the league. And I’m going to give up all the things that cause me to not be able to do that,’ ” Auriemma said. “That’s unusual, but that’s how you last that long.”

Sure, Bird said, she bypasses the extra piece of cake or glass of wine. She has diligently kept to an exercise and sleep schedule. She has fought past the pain and monotony of rehab that comes with injuries.

For someone who never talks about her own greatness, who instead always frames it as part of a collective effort of everyone around her — teammates, coaches, ownership, fans — Bird has reached a peak few athletes in any professional sport do.

“There are definitely sacrifices that you make,” Bird said. ‘There’s a certain lifestyle that I feel like I’ve committed to. But I don’t see it as giving something up, because you get in return.”

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What Would Democrats Do If They Controlled Congress And The White House?

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There’s a decent chance that in January 2021, Washington, D.C. will be a one-party town.

Democrats have a 72 percent chance of controlling the White House, House of Representatives and Senate, according to the Deluxe version of FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 forecast. It would be the first time they’ve had a political “trifecta” since the first two years of the Obama administration. But while that possibility has pushed some to dream big, Democratic operatives say the limitations of their party’s big-tent politics will likely determine what gets done as much as the wishes of a Biden administration.

In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Biden has dodged questions about a once-fringe idea for expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court, which has let imaginations run wild. Could Democrats actually pursue structural changes on a level not seen in decades? Statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, an overhaul of the federal judiciary, a “Green New Deal” on the scale of what Franklin Roosevelt did during the Great Depression? The country is brutally divided by partisan affiliation, and there is some sense that politics has moved to a more Machiavellian plane; if you are guaranteed power for only two years, leverage it to the hilt.

Yet even court-expansion advocates seem dubious about whether Biden and a Democratic Congress would actually come out of the gate by adding judges to the highest court. The “wish list,” said Christopher Kang of Demand Justice, a liberal group that advocates for judicial reform, is led by “expanding the Supreme Court by adding four seats to offset the two seats that would have now been stolen from a Democratic president.” More likely, though, according to Kang, is that Democrats expand the broader federal judiciary and nominate judges with resumes outside the bounds of the typical white-shoe law firm pedigrees (civil rights activists and academics fill the Demand Justice shortlist). Kang suggested as many as 200 judgeships could be added, pointing out that the Judicial Conference (the policymaking body for the federal courts) has recommended the creation of 70 new judgeships to keep up with the pace of caseloads.

Democrats’ agenda will also be determined by their margin of victory in the Senate. Sen. Joe Manchin will still be in the caucus, after all. Ryan McConaghy, who worked for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, was circumspect when it came to the subject of court expansion. “That is definitely the type of thing that would take a long time and require very careful consideration of where the votes are,” he said. McConaghy, like other Democrats I spoke to, expected that a Democratic Congress’s first priority would be a stimulus package. He drew comparisons to Obama’s first term for what might happen next. Democrats do not hold all three decision-making bodies often, so there’s going to be a real desire to have progress on a core priority. I think there’s a good chance that climate plays the role in 2021 that the ACA played in 2009 and 2010.”

As Election Day and a potential transition bears down, what seemed most on the minds of the progressives I spoke to is how a Biden White House would be staffed. There’s a worry on the left that Biden — known for hewing closely to wherever the party’s center is at any particular moment — won’t seize on a post-Trump moment to make big changes. One progressive Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of intraparty critiques during an election, told me that they were worried that recent history — the Obama administration during the financial crisis — would be a guide for how Biden might act. “Everyone was talking at the time about how Barack Obama was reading “Team of Rivals,” and he picked Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, but you look at what they did with their economic team, and it was all the Citi Group-allied, Wall Street-sympathetic cabal.” Back in January 2019, economist Paul Krugman, who lobbied the Obama administration unsuccessfully for a bigger stimulus package following the economic collapse of 2008, joked to me that “the financial industry has so much clout and so much influence, not just because of the money but because they’re smart people, they’re persuasive, they have great tailors.” There’s a sense that Biden could choose gatekeepers who aren’t open to the sorts of broad changes that the Democratic primaries put in front of voters.

Under particular scrutiny are Biden’s choices for Chief of Staff: Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed have all served as Biden’s chief of staff at various points in time. Progressives have carved out a favorite in Klain, and the Democratic aide I spoke to said that if Biden chose Ricchetti or Reed, “It’s a major tone-setter.” In areas like government antitrust action — the Department of Justice filed suit against Google this week for antitrust violations — the aide said they weren’t optimistic about a Biden administration. “The odds that he picks people that are allied with Amazon, Google, and Facebook to run DOJ antitrust, to run the FTC — they’re pretty high,” they said. “I’m pessimistic.”

Sean McElwee, executive director of Data For Progress, seemed hesitant to get too optimistic. “I think the big constraint for the Obama administration and not doing progressive stuff was first the deficit fearmongering,” he said. “We’re going to spend a lot of time making the case that Democrats shouldn’t allow themselves to sort of be hampered by the deficit.”

Saikat Chakrabarti, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff, also brought up what he saw as the misguided thinking of establishment Democrats — Biden foremost among them — on economic matters like the deficit. “I think he’s probably got some ideological hang-ups around how debt works and how deficits work and how taxes work,” Chakrabarti said. “He just needs people around him who can shake him free of those misconceptions.”

McConaghy thinks Democrats are also likely to push for the kind of reforms outlined in H.R. 1, a bill passed by the House in 2019 that proposed automatic voter registration, restoration of provisions in the Voting Rights Act and offered (non-binding) support for making Washington, D.C a state. That last item is one progressives are sure to push for. McElwee called granting D.C. statehood “morally the right thing to do.” But McConaghy said it could be tough to make a reality. “That type of thing exists in the outer ring of what the main focus will be,” he said, pointing out that the nature of the Democratic caucus is “ideologically wide and geographically diverse.” Some rural state Democrats would likely be against D.C. statehood, he said, because of a perception that it would dilute the power of their vote.

The big-tent nature of the Democratic Party is already being tested, as the Biden campaign floated the idea this week that certain Republicans could find a place in the former vice president’s cabinet.

The news was met with opprobrium from parts of the Democratic ecosystem.

“People Biden is vetting: John Kasich, Meg Whitman, Jeff Flake, Charlie Baker, Charlie Dent,” one activist tweeted.

“People Biden is not vetting: Anyone who endorsed Bernie Sanders.”

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How Brandon Lowe got his swing straightened out at exactly the right time

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ARLINGTON, Texas — This was for the Tampa Bay Rays. For the Silverback Tribe. Mostly, for himself. By now, Brandon Lowe understands how baseball works, how the game will gnaw at your psyche, taunt your process, asphyxiate your effort. It will remind you how hard it really is — and then troll you for giggles. Nothing in the world can humble a man quite like trying to meet cylindrical bat with round ball.

All those moments of doubt and exasperation exist to make days like Wednesday exponentially more satisfying. Before Game 2 of the World Series, Lowe was the disappointment of the postseason. By its conclusion, Lowe may have saved the Rays’ hopes at a championship.

About 700 miles from here, just outside of Nashville, a man was screaming so loud, he said, “I literally woke up the neighbors’ dogs.” For more than a half decade, Hunter Bledsoe has spent countless hours helping turn Lowe’s swing into a marvel of efficiency and power. And finally, after the struggles, the self-doubt, the weeks of frustration, here was Brandon Lowe being Brandon Lowe again, smashing two opposite-field home runs in a World Series game, piloting the Rays to a 6-4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers that evened the series.

For the last three weeks, as the Rays bullied their way to the American League pennant, they had done so with their best hitter virtually nonexistent. Coming into Game 2, Lowe had gone 6-for-56 this postseason. In none of the Rays’ 15 games had he registered more than one hit. He struck out 19 times. He swung at pitches out of the strike zone. He made weak contact. It was like he’d had a Freaky Friday with the mailman and never switched back.

In truth, Lowe’s swing simply fell out of whack, and he needed time to understand that and fix it. Which in the middle of a World Series run against a juggernaut of a team like the Dodgers is no small feat, but then the entire story of Lowe’s career is about the emergence of unexpected excellence.

Thousands of players have taken at-bats in the World Series, and none has done what Lowe — rhymes with wow — did in Game 2: hit two opposite-field home runs. And lest you wonder what sort of leviathan Lowe is, what beastly kind of über-man possesses the strength to go oppo twice in a game, get ready for this: He stands 5 foot 10 and weighs 185 pounds. Rays manager Kevin Cash once said of Lowe: “He looks like Elf on a Shelf, but, man, can he hit a ball a long way and really hard.”

Wednesday was baseball Christmas for Lowe and the home runs his gifts. The first came in the first inning, when he was the second batter at the plate — still high in the Rays’ lineup, Cash said after Game 2, because “he’s shown over time that he’s a really good hitter, really good player and sometimes … you got to let them go through some tough patches.” Three innings later, he illustrated that the first-inning shot off rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin was no fluke. He tagged Dodgers rookie Dustin May for a two-run shot that extended the Rays’ lead to 5-0.

To think, of course, that either materialized as if dropped through a chimney could not be further from the truth. Last week, toward the end of the ALCS, as Lowe’s slump reached its nadir, he sent a video of his swing to Bledsoe and two others confidants, asking, simply, “What do you guys see?” Each responded with almost the same answer: Lowe’s posture, which is so vital to him generating such enormous power from such a small frame, had too much slack.

When he is at his best, Lowe uses the swing he honed with Bledsoe, who, with his brother Dustin, owns and operates the Bledsoe Agency. Their office building includes a sports-performance center where Bledsoe, a former SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt, leads offseason workouts that endeavor to build clients into better versions of themselves. When players at the facility hit a ball with 100-mph-plus exit velocity for the first time, they’re invited into an elite group Bledsoe calls the Silverback Tribe.

As he excelled at Maryland, got drafted by the Rays and ascended in the organization, Lowe understood how his natural gifts — his hips rotate with elite levels of force — made up for his natural size. Lowe’s best swing begins with him getting grounded. “Get the booty back,” they’ll say at the performance center. When the posterior positioning happen at the same time as Lowe’s front foot moving, his swing breaks.

That was the problem for most of the last three weeks. Not that one game necessarily sends Lowe into the diamond lane toward excellence, but, as Bledsoe noted: “Everybody who knows Brandon knows he can be really hot and carry a team. When that starts to happen, he’s as good as anybody in the game.”

However much that may sound like an exaggeration, it’s not. Around the halfway mark in the shortened season, nobody in the American League had accumulated more wins above replacement than Lowe. He was grounding himself with aplomb — butt back, no slack, energy building through the middle-third of his body. All that time spent with Bledsoe — from when he came in after his first minor league season and said “I’ve got to get better” to last winter, when three days after that All-Star season he started cage work to prepare for 2020.

“The reason Brandon has a cool moment like this is because of the fact that he’s unwilling not to,” Bledsoe said. “People can pout. They can blame. He just works, man. And at the end of the day, regardless of what happens, it’s a hard game. And you can trust in that. It might not be on the time schedule we want, but eventually it will pay off.

“Brandon’s a very calm personality. He’s extremely competitive. His care factor and care level are extremely high. He’s hard on himself because he wants to be successful. One of the things we talk about the most is having a plan so you’re never truly lost, never that far away. Baseball is really hard. It makes everybody want to quit at some point. When you get into that valley, if you have a plan, you know you’re never too far from climbing out of it.”

Here is Lowe’s plan: hit the snot out of the ball. That’s high up on the easy-to-say, tough-to-do list, but Lowe trusted the responses in the text, trusted the wisdom of the Silverback Tribe, trusted that Cash kept slotting him not just in the lineup but high in it for good reason.

“To say my mind wasn’t going different places during that kind of struggle would be lying to you,” Lowe said. “There were times when I wasn’t feeling too good, but that’s what so great about this team. As soon as I started dragging my feet, somebody was right there to pick me up.”

He returned the favor in Game 2 like he knew he eventually would, and he knew that because Lowe has done this before. When he arrived in the major leagues, he went 0 for his first 19. Transitioning to the big leagues is difficult enough. Convincing yourself that you belong amid the gnawing, the taunting, the asphyxiation — that’s entirely different.

Different, it would seem, suits Lowe. His path to the World Series was circuitous enough, his understanding of himself deep enough, that he can stare at 6-for-56 and lean on his psyche, rely on his process, bank on his effort. As far gone as he was, turns out it wasn’t that far. When that cylindrical bat in his hands met the round ball, he was the one doing the humbling.

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Will Dodgers be OK if Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin don’t contribute more?

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Los Angeles Dodgers were three days removed from a taxing seventh game of the National League Championship Series and needed Tony Gonsolin to give them as much as he could as their opener in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night. He provided four outs, but allowed a home run to the second batter he faced.

With the deficit at only a run and two outs in the top of the fourth, the Dodgers needed Dustin May to keep the game close and bridge the gap to their high-leverage relievers. He was charged with three earned runs and exited before the start of the sixth.

The Dodgers cycled through seven pitchers in their 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, evening the Fall Classic at one game apiece.

Given the state of their pitching heading in, a loss like this might have been expected. But it also reinforced a problem that could haunt the Dodgers in what remains of this final round — May and Gonsolin, the two young starters counted on to be multi-dimensional weapons in October, haven’t been effective enough. And whether it’s execution or inexperience or a product of their unconventional usage is anyone’s guess.

“I still trust them, I still believe in them, and they just have to make pitches,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’ll look at the video and see what we can do better at, but they’re still gonna need to get big outs for us.”

May, 23, and Gonsolin, 26, combined to produce a 2.46 ERA in a combined 102⅔ innings during the regular season, placing themselves squarely in the thick of a deep field for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Since then, they have been charged with 13 earned runs on 15 hits and 13 walks in 16⅔ innings in the postseason and haven’t come anywhere close to a traditional five-day schedule.

When Gonsolin took the ball for Game 2 of the NL Championship Series — in place of Clayton Kershaw, who was scratched that morning because of back spasms — it marked his first appearance in 17 days. He was charged with five runs in 4⅓ innings. Five days later, he came into the top of the second in Game 7, gave up a leadoff homer to Dansby Swanson, then allowed the first three batters to reach in the fourth and was taken out. Three days after that, he opened Game 2 of the World Series.

May was effective as a multi-inning reliever early in the postseason, compiling three scoreless innings in the NL Division Series against the Padres and getting five outs late in Game 1 of the NLCS. But he gave up a run in each of his two innings as an opener in Game 5 and allowed the first three batters to reach as an opener in Game 7. Three days later, he was coming out of the bullpen again.

“It’s a big ask, to be quite frank,” Roberts said. “Right now, with the off-days, every team is gonna go down a starter, so that’s one thing. And so people have to adjust to certain roles. And when you’re talking about playing seven days in a row and how you can get as many outs as you can in the CS — yeah, these guys are in uncharted territory. Credit to them — they’re not making any excuses. They expect themselves to make pitches.”

The Dodgers traded Kenta Maeda, let Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill depart via free agency, and lost David Price after he decided to opt out of the 2020 season. And yet they still sported the second-best rotation ERA in the majors during the regular season. May, with his triple-digit sinkers, and Gonsolin, with his nasty sliders, were a major reason for that. They came on so strong that the Dodgers felt comfortable plucking from their starting-pitching depth before the non-waiver trade deadline, sending clubhouse favorite Ross Stripling to the Toronto Blue Jays so that he could finally solidify a spot in a major league rotation.

But May and Gonsolin haven’t come close to resembling the postseason weapons the Dodgers were hoping they would be.

On Tuesday, Brandon Lowe, who entered with a .107/.180/.161 slash line this postseason, homered off each of them. With Julio Urias saved for Game 4, Clayton Kershaw scheduled for Game 5 and Walker Buehler lined up to take the ball in Games 3 and 7, May and Gonsolin will likely continue on in uncertainty.

They’ll need to adapt quickly.

“It’s different, certainly,” Roberts said. “But I still, we still, need those guys to get important outs going forward for us to win this thing.”

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