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BRADENTON, Fla. — After a bout with testicular cancer last season, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon says he’s a “different person” entering the 2018 season.

“I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” the 26-year-old Taillon said at the Pirates’ spring training camp. “I know people always say that when they’ve gone through something like cancer, but it really is true. I look at life differently. I’m a little more serious about things. I’m a more mature person than I was a year ago at this time.”

Taillon received the diagnosis in early May and had surgery. Just five weeks later, he was activated from the disabled list and pitched five scoreless innings to beat the visiting Colorado Rockies.

“The best-case scenario is that it happened during the season,” Taillon said. “I had my teammates for support, and I had a goal of returning to help the team to serve as a distraction.”

Through his first two seasons, Taillon is a respectable 13-11 with a 3.98 ERA over 43 starts.

“I don’t want to say I feel things are easier now because this game is never easy, but I do feel a lot more comfortable,” Taillon said. “Not just with the pitching aspect, but just everything that goes into playing in the major leagues.

“I think back a couple of years ago to spring training and everything was kind of overwhelming. You’re meeting so many people, trying to remember so many names, trying to fit in with the organization and (teammates). I’d go home at the end of the day and be exhausted. Now, I feel like I belong. I feel confident, on and off the field.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says Taillon has already emerged as a leader.

“It’s not so much his words, but his actions,” Hurdle said. “The way he goes about things. The way he handles himself. The work he puts in. The adversity he has overcome. Those kinds of things make the other guys take notice.”

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Scouts, opposing pitchers on why the Cubs can’t hit

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“Mind-boggling.” “A mystery.” “It’s hard to figure.”

Those are some of the words scouts and opposing pitchers used when asked about a Chicago Cubs offense that sits dead last in the majors in many categories, including a .192 team batting average that’s among the all-time worst through 15 games.

What’s most confusing is that the most foundational part of being a major league hitter has the Cubs turned upside down: simply handling a fastball.

“It’s almost mind-boggling,” one AL Central scout said. “There’s too much talent on that whole damn Cubs team. No one can figure it out. I’ve talked to a bunch of guys [other scouts].”

There was a time when throwing the Cubs a fastball was a bad idea. From 2016 to 2018, the combination of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant hit .307 with a .559 slugging percentage against fastballs. But the numbers have steadily dropped since then, culminating in a .235 batting average and just a .419 slugging percentage over their past 75 games (the shortened 2020 season and first 15 games of this year).

As a team the Cubs have an MLB-worst .230 batting average and are slugging just .414 off fastballs in that time frame. Against fastballs of 95 mph or more, they’re hitting a paltry .178 since the start of 2020 and just .105 this season.

“It’s not the lack of bat speed,” one NL East scout said. “These guys all have awesome bat speed. It’s mental.”

While theories differed among scouts, the consensus explanation is Cubs hitters have been caught “in between.” Perhaps they’re worried about chasing pitches with a lot of spin — a recent problem as well — so they aren’t reacting to fastballs like they used to.

“They should be able to catch up to fastballs, and for some reason they are not,” an NL East scout who saw them recently said. “Are they using analytic tendencies too much? So, in a game they expect one thing but the opposition is doing something else?”

Normally 15 games isn’t enough to glean much of anything in baseball, but the Cubs are no longer getting the benefit of the doubt — not from opposing pitchers, scouts or even many fans. Not after years of disappointment since former team executive Theo Epstein famously declared their offense “broken” back in 2018. For all of the movement elsewhere in the franchise, five of the eight primary position players still remain from the Cubs’ World Series victory now a half-decade ago.

“They’re trying to change their philosophy, but with this core group, they had one philosophy and all these guys bought into it,” one scout opined. “It’s turned into a one-dimensional offense. There’s something to be said about contact and putting the ball in play.”

Due to that one dangerous dimension — the ability to hit the ball out of the park — the opposition has consistently pitched the Cubs out of the strike zone. Since 2016, they’ve seen the lowest proportion of strikes, just 47.9%, of any team in the National League. For a while, they took advantage of it, ranking fourth best in chase percentage in 2016 while leading the majors in walks.

Perhaps those hitters became a little overconfident or the league simply figured them out, but they began to chase.

A lot.

The Cubs went from fourth to 19th to 25th and then 23rd in chase percentage over the span of four seasons.

“The perfect example is Javy Baez,” one scout said. “I remember when he got to the big leagues and he had no clue what the strike zone was. Then he got better. Then I saw him last year and it was like the old Baez is back.”

Baez is an extreme example, but the sentiment held true for the offense as a group.

“Throw them up and in and then down and away,” one opposing pitcher said. “That’s what you do with any hitter, but especially the Cubs.”

And that’s where the Cubs are unique compared to other teams: The majority of their hitters can be pitched to in the same manner because their strengths and weaknesses are very much alike, according to those in the game.

“They’re down-ball hitters,” an opposing pitcher said. “All of them. Just don’t throw a mistake down there. Even David Bote who’s relatively new likes it there.”

This year alone Bote, Baez and Bryant have golfed balls into the stands for home runs. In last year’s postseason, the Miami Marlins shut the Cubs down by straying away from that hot zone.

“Don’t let them extend their arms,” another opposing pitcher said. “Everyone but Rizzo is the same. You can jam them. All the righties and even Jason Heyward from the left side.”

Perhaps the up-and-in approach is the reason the Cubs have been hit by more pitches than any other team. Most hit-by-pitches with the lowest team batting average is a tough way to go about an offense.

“Teams are throwing more up in the zone, from the games I saw,” said a scout who saw their first six games this season. “Guys are overswinging. Trying to do too much. Everyone is trying to get the whole team out of slump so they look like they’re pressing.”

With Jacob deGrom and Brandon Woodruff on the docket later this week, things aren’t going to get easier anytime soon. And that’s before the trade rumors that will come with Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and others all set to enter free agency at the end of the season have really started heating up.

“It’s got to be in the back of their minds, they’re going to break up the team,” one scout said. “Everyone knows it’s totally going to be different next year.”

Those in the game do agree on one thing about this season’s lineup: The parts are better than the sum. One opposing pitcher summed it up with a comparison of the Cubs of 2016, and the Cubs of now:

“They don’t grind you out the way they used to. It’s just an easier lineup to pitch to.”

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Cleared to travel, Minnesota Twins prepare for Tuesday doubleheader with Oakland Athletics

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Minnesota Twins have been cleared to travel and are moving forward with plans for a doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday after having their season interrupted by coronavirus concerns.

The Twins haven’t played since Friday to allow for virus testing and contact tracing as the club has had at least four positive coronavirus tests in the past week.

Kyle Garlick, another unnamed Twins player and a team staff member tested positive in the two days before the postponements against the Angels, manager Rocco Baldelli said this weekend. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons already hadn’t made the trip to Anaheim after testing positive early in the week.

Games between the Twins and the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim were postponed Saturday and Sunday, and Monday’s series opener in Oakland was also postponed. That game will be made up as part of Tuesday’s doubleheader.

Minnesota will start Matt Shoemaker in Game 1 and Jose Berrios in Game 2 of the straight doubleheader, then pitch Kenta Maeda on Wednesday. The A’s haven’t announced probable starters yet.

There have been six MLB games postponed this year because of the virus, including a season-opening, three-game series between the Nationals and Mets after Washington’s coronavirus concerns.

There were 45 regular-season games postponed for virus-related reasons last year, but only two _ between St. Louis and Detroit _ were not made up.

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Short-handed Philadelphia Phillies place three players on injured list amid MLB’s COVID-19 protocols

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PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies placed three players on the injured list due to COVID-19 protocols and two more coaches weren’t with the team for a game Monday against the San Francisco Giants.

A source told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that one player tested positive and the others were placed on the list due to contact tracing.

Left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado, lefty starter Matt Moore and infielder Ronald Torreyes went on the injured list. First-base coach Paco Figueroa and assistant Bobby Meacham also entered COVID-19 protocols, joining hitting coach Joe Dillon, third-base coach Dusty Wathan and bullpen coach Dave Lundquist.

The team did not say if any of the players or coaches had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Infielder Nick Maton and left-handed pitchers Damon Jones and Cristopher Sanchez were recalled from Philadelphia’s alternate site.

Infield coach Juan Castro served as first-base coach Monday night against San Francisco and Triple-A manager Gary Jones came up coach third base.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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