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SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein remembered when he first met Kevin Towers, as a 21-year-old intern working in the San Diego Padres‘ public relations department. Towers was the new general manager.

“I was just out of college,” said Epstein, the Chicago Cubs‘ president of baseball operations. “I was just a nobody, a faceless kid trying to be invisible and not get in the way. But there was never such a thing as a nobody to Kevin Towers — he just wasn’t wired that way.”

Baseball executives and managers left spring training to gather at San Diego’s Petco Park on Sunday and celebrate the life of Towers, who died from complications of a rare form of thyroid cancer on Jan. 30 at the age of 56.

Hall of Famers Trevor Hoffman and Tony La Russa were in the audience, along with Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black and San Francisco Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, both Padres managers under Towers. New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson also were on hand.

Kirk Gibson, who managed Arizona to the 2011 NL West title when Towers was the Diamondbacks’ GM, was among the speakers.

“He looked at players differently,” Gibson said. “When we won, we won with scrappy players. I’m just grateful I got to spend time with Kevin Towers. He meant so much to me and my family.”

A Padres draft pick in 1982, Towers was San Diego’s general manager from 1995 to 2009 and Arizona’s GM from September 2010 until September 2014.

“There are few people that can have a moment like this,” said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who replaced Towers as the Padres’ GM. “People came from far and wide to be here.”

Towers led the Padres to four NL West titles and the 1998 NL pennant.

“I took over for him, and he always treated me so well,” Hoyer said. “We would meet for beers or talk on the phone, and it was always with KT wanting to help me do a better job. That doesn’t always happen, and with me being a first-time GM, I just always appreciated that he treated me the way he did.”

Former St. Louis and Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty hired Towers as a special assistant in 2015, what turned out to be Towers’ final baseball job.

“The first time I met Kevin was in 1995 at the GM meetings, and I’m sure it was at the bar,” Jocketty said. “And from that time on, our relationship and friendship grew. He was one of the guys that always brought all the GMs together. Kevin loved life and lived it to the fullest. He suffered a lot in the last two years, but he always stayed positive and fought a brave fight. There will never be another KT.”

Epstein went on to become the GM who in 2004 helped Boston win its first World Series title since 1918 and in 2016 directed the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.

“He was my friend, my boss and my mentor,” Epstein said. “He didn’t care if you were the president of the team, an intern or a backup beat writer for a newspaper — he treated you like you want to be treated. That was KT. It didn’t matter who you were or who you weren’t. He treated you with love and respect. And if he liked you, you were lucky enough to be dragged into his orbit, and then you were in for the ride of your life.”

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New York Mets don’t plan to sign top pick Kumar Rocker because of concerns with physical exam, sources say

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Barring a drastic change between now and the 5 p.m. ET signing deadline, the New York Mets do not plan to sign right-hander Kumar Rocker, the 10th overall pick in the amateur draft, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.

Rocker, 21, whose dominance at Vanderbilt made him the most well-known college player in perhaps a decade, had an agreement in place to sign for $6 million after he slipped down draft boards earlier this month. But the deal fell apart following his physical examination, and multiple sources said they do not expect a revised one to come together before the deadline.

The possibility of the Mets and Rocker coming to an eleventh-hour agreement always exists, and past deals that looked dead were eventually consummated. But the momentum in recent days, and the expectation of multiple sources, is that the Mets are unlikely to change their stance.

If Rocker does not sign, the Mets would receive the 11th pick in the 2022 draft as compensation. It is unclear whether Rocker will return to Vanderbilt or pursue an alternate path, such as pitching in an independent league before re-entering the 2022 draft or signing with an international league.

Either way, the mutual excitement of July 11, the night of the draft, evaporated over the past three weeks. Rocker’s camp, led by agent Scott Boras, insists he is healthy, pointing to the 122 innings he threw over 20 starts in which he struck out 179 batters with a 2.73 ERA this year. Further, sources familiar with Rocker’s situation said, outside orthopedists disagreed with the Mets’ assessment of Rocker’s health, as can happen with multiple examinations. The Mets, sources said, expressed concerns over the health of Rocker’s arm following the physical last week.

Typically, a team has to offer a player 40% of his slotted bonus — the 10th-pick slot is $4.74 million — to reap a compensation pick for an unsigned player. Because Rocker was selected for the league’s pre-draft MRI program and did not participate, however, the rules allow the Mets to forgo an offer and still receive the pick. Players expected to be drafted high often skip the program, which makes a player’s medical information available to all 30 teams.

By not signing Rocker, the Mets would find themselves with $878,500 unspent from their $9.02 million pool. Most teams exceed the pool by up to the 5% allowed without being penalized, which would push the Mets’ unspent money to more than $1.3 million. They had signed other players under slot with the rest reserved for Rocker’s expected $6 million bonus.

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Tampa Bay Rays prospect Shane Baz to start vs. Japan at Tokyo Games

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Tampa Bay Rays prospect Shane Baz will make his Olympics debut Monday night, starting for the United States against Japan.

A 22-year-old right-hander, Baz is 3-4 with a 2.26 ERA in 12 minor league starts this season, striking out 82 and walking 10 in 55⅔ innings.

After starting 2-4 with a 2.48 ERA in seven starts at Double-A Montgomery, he was promoted to Triple-A Durham in mid-June and went 1-0 with a 1.96 ERA in five starts, striking out 33 in 23 innings. He was the Rays minor league pitcher of the month in June.

Baz pitched the second inning of the Futures Game at Denver’s Coors Field on July 11, throwing a called third strike past the Atlanta Braves‘ Michael Harris, fanning the Chicago Cubs‘ Brennan Davis and retiring the Colorado Rockies‘ Ryan Vilade on a groundout.

The United States and Japan enter the game with 2-0 records.

Joe Ryan, traded from Tampa Bay to the Minnesota Twins for Nelson Cruz, beat Israel in the U.S. opener Friday, and former Texas Rangers pitcher Nick Martinez got the victory over South Korea on Saturday.

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Israel ousts Mexico from Tokyo Games with 1st Olympic baseball win

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Israel had just routed Mexico for its first Olympic baseball victory, riding a loud three-run homer by Danny Valencia that helped it jump to a six-run lead, and Nick Rickles wanted to check the reaction.

“I don’t think it’s so much about beating Mexico.” he said after Monday’s 12-5 win. “I think it’s a lot to just raise awareness for baseball in Israel. For me, I was just taking in the moment and seeing after the game the amount of love that we received from people back in Israel. We had messages on top of messages from people just saying thank you.”

Valencia went deep against a Double-A pitcher playing in his 15th consecutive minor league season, Rickles had three RBIs and Israel pounded relievers Fernando Salas and Oliver Perez in a six-run seventh inning to reach the tournament’s double-elimination phase.

Israel (1-2) plays South Korea (2-1) on Tuesday with the chance to advance to a matchup against the United States or Japan on Wednesday that will determine a berth in the gold-medal game.

Rickles has been with the national team program for a decade and played a role in the Olympic buildup. Israel won its group at the 2017 World Baseball Classic and beat Cuba in the second round, then won a two-continent Olympic qualifying tournament and beat out the Netherlands for one of the six Olympic berths. It lost its opener to South Korea 6-5 in 10 innings.

“I don’t think there was a lot of expectations coming into Israel playing baseball at all,” said Rickles, a 31-year-old catcher who retired from Philadelphia’s minor league system during spring training in 2019 to become a Milwaukee minor league coach.

With pitchers such as Julio Urias, Luis Cessa and Jose Urquidy unavailable because Major League Baseball doesn’t allow 40-man roster players to participate, Mexico started Manny Barreda (0-1), a 32-year-old right-hander drafted by the New York Yankees in 2007 and released seven years later.

He gave up six runs, four hits and three walks in two-plus innings.

“He is a great pitcher in Mexico. Last year in the winter, he even pitched a complete nine-inning game,” manager Benji Gil said through an interpreter. “Today just wasn’t his day. He didn’t have a lot of dominance. He had several balls he was missing the location.”

Mexico (0-3), the first country eliminated, was outscored 20-9.

“I’m in shock,” Gil said. “Not even in my worst nightmares did I think that this would be the result.”

Mexico lost right-hander Hector Velázquez and left-hander Sammy Solís just before the Olympics when they contracted COVID-19. Adrian Gonzalez, a 39-year-old, five-time All-Star who made his last big league appearance in 2018, finished 3 for 11 with an RBI and Joey Meneses went 6 for 12 with four RBI.

Zack Weiss (1-0), who allowed four runs and got no outs for Cincinnati in his only big league appearance on April 12, 2018, got the win by allowing one run in two innings in relief of starter Josh Zeid. Israel had 12 hits and set a tournament high for runs.

On a 91-degree Fahrenheit (32.7 Celsius) afternoon with blistering sun, Mexico clawed back to 6-5 before Salas, a 36-year-old right-hander, allowed Ian Kinsler’s leadoff double in the seventh and Valencia’s single.

Perez relieved and the 39-year-old left-hander gave up Blake Gailen’s RBI single, two-run singles by Mitch Glasser and Zack Penprase, and Scotty Burcham’s RBI double.

Ryan Lavarnway, 5 for 13 in the Olympics, doubled up the left-center gap in the first, and Rickles hit an RBI single with two outs. Lavarnway, who played four games for Cleveland in June when Austin Hedges went on the concussion injured list, tried to score from second on Rickles’ hit and was thrown out by left fielder Meneses.

Barreda walked his first two batters in the the third and Valencia, exactly a week shy of the third anniversary of his last big league at-bat, rocketed an armpit-high fastball 10 rows deep into the left-field seats. Rickles greeted reliever Sasagi Sanchez with a two-run single.

“I hammered it, to be honest. I crushed that ball,” Valencia said. “The team needed it. It got the momentum going.”

SOUTH KOREA 4, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 3

Kim Hyun-soo capped a three-run rally in the ninth inning with his fourth hit, a two-out single over Julio Rodriguez off Arizona minor leaguer Luis Castillo, and South Korea (2-1) got its second walk-off win.

Park Hae-Min hit a run-scoring single and Lee Jung-Hoo a tying double.

Former St. Louis Cardinals closer Oh Seunghwan (1-0) relieved with a runner on in the top half and got three straight groundouts.

Juan Francisco, seven years removed from his last major league at-bat, hit a two-run homer halfway up the center-field scoreboard, the ball bouncing off the figures indicating the pitch was 148 kph (91 mph). The 34-year-old Francisco stood at the plate, raised his bat in his right hand and pointed at the scoreboard with his left, then did a quick dance as he watched the fourth-inning drive off Lee Eui-lee.

Raul Valdes, a 43-year-old left-hander whose last big league appearance was with Houston in 2014, allowed one run — on Yang Eui-ji’s first-inning sacrifice fly — and seven hits in 5⅓ innings.

The Dominicans (1-2), who scored their first run on a wild pitch, play an elimination game Tuesday against the Israel-South Korea loser.

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