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The way Dave Dombrowski chooses to see it, things will break the Boston Red Sox‘s way this season as long as the American League East turns into an arms race.

Forget all about the David Ortiz-sized hole in the middle of the batting order. And never mind Giancarlo Stanton teaming up with Aaron Judge in New York. Dombrowski believes the division will be decided by pitching, and the Red Sox president wouldn’t trade his staff for any other.

“If you told me right now that our starting rotation and our bullpen was going to stay healthy during the season, I’d take our chances right now with our club,” Dombrowski says. “I think we can compete with anybody because we’ve got some guys [who] can shut people down when they come out in big games.”

It’s true Chris Sale was the best pitcher in baseball for three quarters of last season before hitting a wall in August. Likewise, Craig Kimbrel had as dominant a year as you’ll see from a closer, at least until Game 4 of the division series against the Houston Astros.

But the Red Sox have bullpen questions in front of Kimbrel, chiefly whether Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg can return from injuries to be reliable setup men. And then there’s the starting rotation, which had the fourth-best ERA in the league last year (4.06) but nevertheless is filled with uncertainty.

As pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Florida, Monday and partake in their first workout Wednesday, here’s a look at the biggest issue facing each prospective Red Sox starting pitcher.

Chris Sale: Start to finish

Sale had a 2.37 ERA and gave up 11 home runs in 148 1/3 innings through the end of last July. But over his final 11 regular-season starts, he had a 4.09 ERA and gave up 13 homers in 66 innings. Then, in Game 1 against the Astros, he allowed seven runs on three homers in five innings.

Quite simply, Sale hit a wall. It’s happened before, too. His career ERA before the All-Star break (2.74) is half a run lower than after the break (3.28), while his home-run rate jumps from 0.78 per nine innings to 1.11. And in the final month of the season, those numbers skyrocket to 3.78 and 1.51.

But at least Sale is aware of the problem and intent on fixing it. He “won’t spill the beans” about changes he’s making with new pitching coach Dana LeVangie, but suggested a more gradual build-up of his throwing program. After striking out 308 batters last season, the most by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999, Sale also hinted at being more economical.

“I don’t think I need to dial it back. I think I just need to eliminate waste pitches,” Sale said recently. “I’d love to be able to get to the sixth inning on a very regular basis with 80-85 pitches. Easier said than done, and it looks good on paper, but those are kind of the things we’ve been talking about.”

David Price: Head games

Price missed the first two months and another eight weeks last season with an elbow injury, the specificity of which was never revealed. Regardless, the lefty’s head was every bit as big a problem as his arm.

From his feud with local media to needlessly deriding Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the team plane over an innocuous comment during a television broadcast, Price raised a whole new set of questions about his ability to thrive amid the deafening noise that exists in the sports-obsessed fishbowl known as Boston.

Price’s dominance out of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs signaled his elbow was healthier. By all accounts, he has had a relatively typical offseason as he prepares to re-enter the rotation. But with a chance to opt out of his seven-year, $217 million contract after this season, what about Price’s mindset?

“For me, it’s unfair to talk about last year. It’s in the past,” said new manager Alex Cora, whose predecessor John Farrell had a strained relationship with Price. “I’m here to move forward. He’s a talented kid. He single-handedly almost beat [the Astros] in the playoffs. The way he threw the ball with conviction, I’ll take that.”

Rick Porcello: Identity crisis

In 2015, Porcello ranked 75th among 78 pitchers (minimum 162 innings) with a 4.92 ERA. In 2016, he won the Cy Young Award. Last season, his ERA climbed back to 4.65 and he allowed more hits (236) and homers (38) than any other AL pitcher.

If ever Porcello could settle somewhere in the middle of those extremes, he would be a solid No. 3 starter.

A sinkerballer without overpowering stuff, Porcello must locate with precision to be effective. With more hitters hunting low pitches in order to lift the ball in the air, it’s imperative for Porcello to be more exact than ever.

“One of the biggest things I’m trying to do is separate the fastball at the bottom of the zone and elevated above the zone,” Porcello said recently. “When you try to do that, and you’re not executing the knee-high fastball as well as the one out of the zone elevated, everything starts to blend into one pitch. That’s when I get in trouble.”

Drew Pomeranz: Don’t go changin’

As much as any Red Sox starter, Pomeranz would do well to simply repeat 2017. The lefty reached career highs in starts (32) and innings (173 2/3), matched his All-Star 2016 season with a 3.32 ERA and was more consistent over six months than even Sale.

At 29, and after bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation with four teams in four years, Pomeranz might have finally reached his potential. And with free agency beckoning after the season, that could mean a handsome payday.

“I’ve mainly been focused on picking up where I left off because at the end of the year, I was basically throwing every pitch I have when I wanted to, and it didn’t matter the count,” Pomeranz said. “Just trying to pick up from there and get that same feel coming into the season.”

Eduardo Rodriguez: Finding the ceiling

On the night the Red Sox hired Dombrowski in 2015, Rodriguez allowed one run over eight innings against the Cleveland Indians. More than two years later, it remains one of his most impressive starts in the big leagues.

Injuries, specifically recurring instability in his right knee that finally necessitated surgery in October, have prevented Rodriguez from rising to a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Sox still believe he can get there, but if it doesn’t happen this season for the 24-year-old lefty, there will be reason to doubt it ever will.

With Rodriguez likely to miss the season’s first few weeks to complete his recovery, 2016 All-Star Steven Wright could find his way back into the rotation. But that presumes Wright is healthy and available. The knuckleballer missed most of last season after knee surgery in May and was arrested in December on charges of domestic assault. While a Tennessee court retired the charges for one year, Major League Baseball is still conducting an investigation with no timetable for potential discipline.

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Yasiel Puig denies accusations in sexual assault lawsuit

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In a statement released on his Twitter feed Tuesday, free-agent outfielder Yasiel Puig has denied claims in a lawsuit that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2018 and said that the allegations have prevented him from continuing his Major League career.

“I am speaking out now to defend my name against false and malicious allegations by a woman who claims I assaulted her in 2018,” Puig wrote. “These allegations are totally false, the evidence proves they are false, and I look forward to all the facts and the truth coming out.”

The woman, identified in federal court documents only as Jane Roe, sued Puig last October, saying the former Dodgers outfielder followed her into a Staples Center bathroom after a Lakers game on Oct. 31, 2018, “pinned her with one arm” to prevent her from leaving, groped her and masturbated in front of her.

The woman did not file a police report. Puig has not been charged with any crime and he has previously denied the allegations in a court filing.

In his statement Tuesday, released by his attorneys, Puig said: “The fact is that I had consensual sex with a woman I met at a Lakers game after she propositioned me. Afterward we talked about going out together, but she said she did not want her fiancé to find out.”

Attorney Taylor Rayfield, who is representing the woman, said in a statement to ESPN Wednesday, “The simple fact of the matter is that our client never engaged in consensual sexual activity with Mr. Puig — not at the Staples Center Chairman’s Club, and not anywhere else.”

In her own statement, released through Rayfield, the woman said, “I am an out and proud lesbian and have been during my entire adult life. My female fiancée and I were enjoying a Lakers game at the Staples Center when this attack occurred.” She added that the notion that she would leave her fianceé for a sexual encounter in the bathroom with someone she’d just met “is demeaning and ridiculous.”

Puig said Tuesday that he and the woman “messaged each other” after their encounter and planned to get together but never did.

Puig’s Los Angeles-based attorneys, Alan Jackson and Caleb Mason, also said in their statement Tuesday that text messages between Puig and the woman help to confirm Puig’s account of what happened.

“On November 2, 2018, two days after their encounter, when Mr. Puig wrote to ask her when they could see each other again, she replied “I[‘m] working it out! I didn’t forget about you.”

Puig’s attorneys point out that the woman sent Puig heart emoji messages and that, on November 23, 2018, several weeks after the Lakers game, she messaged Puig asking him when he would be back in town.

ESPN has reviewed text message exchanges between Puig and the woman, which became public through an exhibit filed as part of the woman’s federal lawsuit.

She did send the text messages Puig’s legal team referenced but only after Puig had sent her several messages in an apparent attempt to meet privately.

Rayfield said the woman only sent those messages because she was “fearful of a further attack or retribution by Puig,” and in an attempt “to de-escalate his behavior by providing curt responses.”

In their statement Tuesday, Puig’s attorneys did not include a text message Puig sent the woman hours after the Lakers game. In that text, Puig wrote: “Private between me and me [sic] everything that happens no one has to know,” according to the transcript of text messages that appears in court documents.

Last month, ESPN reported that a number of teams had factored the allegations, as well as Puig’s declining play, into their decision making when considering him as a free-agent signing.

“Nobody wants the headache,” one front-office source told ESPN.

Puig said Tuesday he initially remained silent about the allegations against him on the advice of his attorneys and is speaking out now because of delays in the legal system and a civil case that has unfairly tarnished his image in baseball circles.

“With a mere unsupported accusation, the sports world has turned against me without ever hearing my side,” Puig said in the statement from his attorneys.

“All I ask is that I be given the chance to prove these claims false, and in the meantime, play the game that I love so much.”



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Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman among Houston Astros players on IL for health and safety protocols

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The Houston Astros have placed Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Robel Garcia and Martin Maldonado on the injured list “as a result of health and safety protocols,” general manager James Click said Wednesday.

Click said the moves were not a function of the players breaking COVID-19 protocols.

“Absolutely not. The guys have been exceptionally vigilant of making sure that at the ballpark, away from the ballpark, they’re following the rules,” Click told reporters. “I think this is just another reflection of the situation we’re in, not just in baseball but in the country.”

The Astros, who are not at the 85% vaccination threshold to loosen the protocols, said they didn’t know about having to make these moves until after Tuesday’s game. All other players on the team will go through increased testing, and all coaches and staff have been cleared to continue working.

In corresponding moves, the Astros called up infielder Taylor Jones, catcher Garrett Stubbs, infielder Abraham Toro, infielder Alex De Goti and outfielder Ronnie Dawson from the team’s alternate training site.

All five players are expected to arrive in time for Wednesday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers at Minute Maid Park.

“When it rains it pours,” Click said. “It’s a difficult situation, but we can’t let that take our focus away from winning this game.”

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Twins SS Andrelton Simmons, who declined vaccine, out after positive COVID-19 test

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons has tested positive for the coronavirus and was placed on the COVID-19 injured list Wednesday before the team’s doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox.

Simmons has said he doesn’t plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine, which was made available in a single-shot dosage to the team at Target Field on Thursday.

Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said Simmons was experiencing “very mild” symptoms and resting at home. The positive test result was received late Tuesday, after the Twins lost 4-2 to the Red Sox.

After the initial phase of contact tracing, the Twins determined no additional players needed to be quarantined.

Simmons was replaced on the roster by infielder J.T. Riddle, who was summoned from the taxi squad. Third baseman Josh Donaldson, out since the season opener with a strained hamstring, was expected back for the second game of the doubleheader.

The Twins held a meeting to remind players and staff to heed virus protocols, even though a majority of them have gotten vaccinated. The full immunization period isn’t in effect yet.

“We’re not out of the woods by any means on that front,” Falvey said, adding, “Now is the time to be as vigilant as possible.”

Simmons tweeted last month that he would not be getting the vaccine or advocating for it for “personal reasons and past experience,” on which he declined to elaborate. He confirmed Sunday that he did not participate in the teamwide vaccination. Asked if he planned to get the shot in the future, Simmons said he didn’t know.

“We want to continue to educate people in the environment. This is real. This is something that can enter. We know that,” Falvey said. “Sometimes no one really knows exactly how it can come at different times. We know that from looking not just across our sport, but across all sports and across the country and the world. Our view of that is constantly reminding people of why we think it’s a good idea to get vaccinated. Our docs have recommended that, and so we continue to provide them as resources to players, to learn as much as they can about this.”

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