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Daniel Murphy of Washington Nationals not expected to be ready for Opening Day



WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, who is recovering from microfracture surgery on his right knee, doesn’t think he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

“It’s reasonable to expect I won’t be in the Opening Day lineup,” Murphy said Wednesday.

Murphy, whose .322 batting average ranked fourth in the NL last season, had the procedure in mid-October and started taking live batting practice a week and a half ago. Over the last few days, he’s been incorporating lateral movement in his ground ball work.

He hasn’t seen any big-league or minor league game action, and Murphy admits he was hoping for a faster rehab process.

“I think naturally for any athlete, I’m going to come back later than I wanted to,” Murphy said. “Due to the fact that this is the first time I’ve had microfracture surgery, I wasn’t really certain what to expect. I’d talked to other guys who had gone through it, but each individual surgery or injury is unique. So I think whenever I do come back, from my personal perspective, it will be later, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be wrong.”

Although Murphy has yet to be officially ruled out for Opening Day, manager Davey Martinez is prepared for the likelihood.

“We have guys that can step in,” said Martinez, who would likely use Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick in Murphy’s absence. “We’re going to miss him for sure, but with those guys in the lineup, we’re going to be fine.”

Washington, which won its second straight NL East title last season before losing to the Cubs in the National League Division Series, opens the season at Cincinnati on March 29.

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MLB Playoffs Daily — Baseball’s biggest postseason party ever is here



Sixteen teams are still standing for the expanded 2020 MLB playoffs after a thrilling finish to the 60-game regular season. As the postseason starts up with a four-pack of American League matchups on Tuesday, we break down the matchups to watch (hint: The New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians pitching matchup is going to be epic), the stats to know, bets to make and what’s buzzing on social media while giving one of our experts a chance to sound off with a hot take to get you ready for the start of the fun.

Key links: Preview | Predictions | Schedule, bracket | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

All times Eastern

Game 1: No. 6 Houston Astros (Zack Greinke) at No. 3 Minnesota Twins (Kenta Maeda), 2 p.m. on ABC

After an offseason of controversy, the Astros secured the AL West’s second automatic spot in the postseason despite finishing the regular season with a 29-31 record. Everything Houston’s offense does this postseason is certain to be scrutinized, starting with Tuesday’s playoff-opening matchup with Maeda, who just wrapped up the best regular season of his career after being dealt to Minnesota this offseason. The Twins will be attempting to end a 16-game (yes, you read that right) postseason losing streak.

Game 1: No. 7 Chicago White Sox (Lucas Giolito) at No. 2 Oakland Athletics (Jesus Luzardo), 3 p.m. on ESPN

A late-season slide caused the White Sox to drop to third in the AL Central and that means opening the playoffs in Oakland, California, where young Luzardo gets the Game 1 call for an A’s team hoping to win its first postseason series since the 2006 American League Division Series.

Game 1: No. 8 Toronto Blue Jays (Matt Shoemaker) at No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays (Blake Snell), 5 p.m. on TBS

The Blue Jays made a surprising choice going with Shoemaker over Hyun-Jin Ryu in Tuesday’s series opener, with manager Charlie Montoyo explaining: “They are one of the best teams in baseball, so we have to be creative. Our ace will be pitching the second game, but they have like four aces over there.”

Of those four aces, the Rays will go with 2018 AL Cy Young Snell as they open their quest to turn the American League’s best regular-season record into a deep run this postseason.

Game 1: No. 5 New York Yankees (Gerrit Cole) at No. 4 Cleveland Indians (Shane Bieber), 7 p.m. on ESPN

Speaking of Cy Youngs, Tuesday’s nightcap features the man many thought would win the AL award going into the season against the ace who undoubtedly will after an incredible 2020 season as New York’s Cole makes his first postseason start with the Yankees against Bieber and an Indians team that won nine of its final 11 regular-season games.

If you watch only one game today it should be …

Yankees at Indians. This will be one of the must-see games of this entire postseason, with Shane Bieber — the first pitcher to win the MLB pitching Triple Crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA) since Johan Santana in 2006 — facing off against Gerrit Cole. With a 2.22 combined ERA, it’s one of the best Game 1 matchups in recent years. A few others:

2019 World Series: Max Scherzer vs. Cole (2.69 combined ERA)

2018 World Series: Chris Sale vs. Clayton Kershaw (2.42)

2016 National League Division Series: Kershaw vs. Scherzer (2.46)

2015 NLDS: Kershaw vs. Jacob deGrom (2.32)

2014 NLDS: Kershaw vs. Adam Wainwright (2.09)

Bieber didn’t allow more than three runs in any of his starts and allowed no runs in five of them. Cole had just one no-run start, but had five with just one run. It should be a low-scoring game and it will be interesting to see how willing either manager will be to turn the game over to the bullpens. Cole’s season high in pitches was 114 and Bieber’s was 118.

Hot take of the day

The Reds were a popular pick from our ESPN panel of baseball experts — in fact, 16 of 30 picked them to beat the Braves. I get it: It’s a best-of-three and the Reds will roll out Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. That’s good! But jumping on the Cincinnati bandwagon is also ignoring a couple other key factors: The Braves have a monster offense and the Reds do not.

The Reds hit .212 and relied on home runs for the offense they did generate. They hit 55 home runs at home and just 35 on the road. And none of these games will be played in Cincinnati. As good as Bauer and Castillo were, Bauer went 5-4 and Castillo went 4-6 for a reason: Pitching is only half the game. So maybe pump the brakes just a bit on the Reds. — David Schoenfield

Stat of the day

The expanded playoff format has led to several newcomers crashing the playoff party. Entering this season, six teams had a playoff drought of at least six years; four of those teams made the playoffs (Marlins, Padres, White Sox, Reds). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that ties the most teams ever to snap a six-year playoff drought (1996). In addition to those playoff newcomers, two sub-.500 teams also reached the postseason (Astros and Brewers, .483 win percentage each). That’s the worst win percentage ever by a playoff team. Prior to this season, only one team with a losing record had ever reached the playoffs (the Royals went 50-53 — a .485 win percentage — in the split 1981 season).

Bet of the day

I understand Houston’s recent track record, but it does have an asterisk, and that scrutiny has led to an exhausting year. The Astros limped into the postseason with a 10-17 record and really are overmatched. I understand the lineup has some high-profile names, but this is a team that has not delivered all season. Plus, Zack Greinke has a 5.73 ERA in his past seven starts, while Kenta Maeda has been an awesome addition and might even finish second in the Cy Young voting. The Twins have a loaded lineup, the pitching edge and also home-field advantage that helps in late-game situations. — Doug Kezirian

For more ESPN+ MLB postseason betting info, check out our picks and best bets

Social media post of the day

The oft-outspoken Trevor Bauer has questions for anyone throwing shade at the National League Central after the division put four teams in this year’s expanded playoff field.

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Why Gary Sanchez isn’t catching Gerrit Cole in Game 1 for the Yankees



CLEVELAND — You will never be able to outwork Gerrit Cole, but you have to try. That is the advice that Cole’s former catchers with the Astros have for Kyle Higashioka, the New York Yankees backup who has earned the job as Cole’s latest personal receiver.

Cole has publicly stood by Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ starting catcher, praising him for executing their chosen plan of attack and understanding the nuances of the Yankees’ diverse pitching staff. But Higashioka has earned the job of catching Cole in Game 1 of the wild-card series by virtue of pure results. And, as manager Aaron Boone said heading into the MLB playoffs, “Performance matters; results matter.”

Cole finished his first regular season with the Yankees 7-3 with a solid 2.84 ERA overall, but was 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in his last four starts — with 34 strikeouts in 24 innings — all with the backup Higashioka behind the dish.

In February 2018, during his first spring training as Yankees manager, Boone said he was against the concept of a “personal catcher.” But that was then. Now, Higashioka will be paired with Cole for his first postseason start in pinstripes.

“I don’t necessarily love it; that said, I don’t mind it,” Boone said in explaining his inclination to pair Cole with “Higgy” before Monday’s announcement. “If you have a guy that is the clear backup that’s only playing once every four days or once every five days and they get in a good rhythm with a pitcher … Obviously, I’ve been doing it here with Higgy and Cole. Over the long haul maybe you try to avoid it a little bit, but if things are rolling, I’m not against it.”

It would be overly simplistic to say that a partnership with Sánchez will not ultimately work for Cole. Cole went 4-2 with a 3.91 ERA in eight games with Sánchez behind the plate, with 60 strikeouts in 46 innings, good numbers — but not as good as those with Higashioka.

On Monday, Cole explained why he thinks he’s clicking while pitching to Higashioka: “Probably because we’re both from Southern California. I mean, we have a lot of the same interests, and Kyle’s ability to communicate, be a really creative thinker, good pitch framer, good pitch caller. So we’ve worked out well together. That’s what I have to say about that.”

Higashioka addressed what many Yankees fans are probably wondering about in the wake of the announcement — where does this leave Sánchez? — saying, “I know Gary and I know he’s extremely mentally tough so if anything, it’s gonna just spur him on to performing even better, get back to his normal self.”

Veteran Robinson Chirinos had a comparable experience when Martin Maldonado arrived via trade in Houston, and Cole started partnering with him on a regular basis, although the Astros manager then, AJ Hinch, a former catcher himself, would split the catching workload. Chirinos admits that it can be hurtful to realize that your ace performs better or feels more comfortable with someone else behind the plate, but hopes it will be a good lesson for Sánchez that helps him mature and gain the necessary experience and knowledge to be successful in catching an ace like Cole.

“Gary is a very talented young man who doesn’t have a lot of experience catching Cole yet, so communication is key,” Chirinos said in a phone conversation with ESPN. “Gerrit is very smart. He knows what he has to do, and the only way that a catcher can do a good job is to learn how Cole thinks and what he likes and wants. You have to be there for him. My advice would be to keep up the communication. It’s about doing your job to be prepared every time he takes the mound, and he will always give you a chance to win.”

When catching someone as cerebral as Cole, Chirinos believes the best course of action is to develop an intimate knowledge of his capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, in particular when it comes to locating pitches or throwing a certain pitch for a strike.

“For example, when I started catching Cole, he told me that I needed to set up deeper inside, set up more consistently inside. He believed that I did not do a good job of commanding the inside part of the plate. And I agreed,” Chirinos said. “With the stuff that Gerrit has, and catching him where he wanted consistently, it made it much more difficult for batters inside. That was what made the hitters feel more uncomfortable, and from there on we developed a great connection.”

Sánchez’s biggest upside has always been what his bat adds to the lineup. The Yankees learned to bear with his defensive lapses in exchange for getting a generational talent at the plate. In his 2017 breakout season, Sánchez had 16 passed balls, tied for the major league lead, but more than made up for it with his bat, hitting .278 with 33 home runs.

After leading the majors once again in 2018 with 18 passed balls over 89 games, the most in baseball, Sánchez was widely disparaged for his blocking skills. While dealing with a groin injury, Sánchez finished the 2018 season batting just .186 with 18 homers. His defense was considered much improved last season, during which he was the American League’s starting catcher in the 2019 All-Star Game. Sánchez finished the season hitting .232 with 34 home runs — but his 15 fielding errors were most among catchers.

The difference this 2020 season is that Sánchez’s bat has not offset his defensive woes. Sánchez’s five passed balls are second most in baseball. Among advanced metrics, Statcast places him 54th among 61 MLB catchers in runs gained from framing, costing the Yankees three runs’ worth of strikes over the season. But worse yet, at the plate Sánchez has slashed just .147/.253/.365 with 10 home runs.

Sánchez’s struggles at the plate eventually led Boone to bench him in an effort to help him regain his stroke. He has also been working with catching coordinator Tanner Swanson on a new one-knee catching technique to improve his framing for low pitches.

One of the hardest things to do in baseball is to call a game and do it well. And so far Higashioka seems to better fit the bill for the job of catching Cole. While catchers always try to learn as much about as possible about a pitching staff, when it comes to Cole, his former catchers, Maldonado and Chirinos, said that you learn to devote as much time as he does into assessing and delivering pitches.

“Communication is key. This is the time to ask where to set the mitt for fastballs inside. That’s just an example of something that he had to tell me several times, and the only way to learn is by asking,” Chirinos said.

“Gerrit is always talking about previous games, what we should have called or shouldn’t have called,” Maldonado observed. “And Gerrit is very smart. If you talk to him about a game, he will remember every pitch he threw. So he’s not only a pitcher with plus stuff, he’s very intelligent and someone who prepares to the max. And you have to do the same.”

That’s for the future, but it’s crunch time, and the Yankees had an important decision to make ahead of the wild-card series in Cleveland: Who’s catching Cole in Game 1? Boone made his decision public Monday when he announced that Higashioka would be behind the plate. It probably didn’t help Sanchez’s case that he also hasn’t hit well at Progressive Field in his career, 3-for-19 with nine strikeouts and a lone home run.

“I hope our clubhouse always understands that ultimately the team and our success as a team come first,” Boone said before he’d made his choice. “We care about who they are and their careers. You’re constantly trying to strike that balance. Along the way come difficult decisions, decisions that players are certainly going to disagree with, and that’s okay. Hopefully, we always strike that balance … the team comes first, no matter what decisions we have to make.”

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Derek Jeter says Miami Marlins building for the long haul



MIAMI — The Miami Marlins‘ first MLB playoff appearance since 2003 is not supposed to last long.

They’re regarded as young, inexperienced overachievers who benefited from the short season and expanded playoff format. They were outscored by 41 runs this year, and no team has longer odds of winning the World Series at 33-1.

But even if their postseason ends this week in the wild-card round at Wrigley Field, the Marlins believe it’s just the beginning of a new era for the long-suffering franchise.

“For us, this is a steppingstone,” CEO Derek Jeter said Monday. “We didn’t come here to chase ‘a’ championship or ‘a’ playoff appearance. We want to be sustainable.”

Three years into Jeter’s organizational overhaul, the Marlins appear to be built to last as they’re just starting to win. They have an abundance of young pitching, a strong farm system and a modest, manageable payroll.

One year removed from a 105-loss season, the National League East runner-up Marlins will face the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs in the best-of-three wild-card round beginning Wednesday.

“To go through what we did last year, you feel like you’re in a boat in the middle of the ocean and you have no idea where land is, but you know it’s out there,” manager Don Mattingly said. “You have to have faith. That’s why it feels so good to get to this point, and this is the beginning of that, not the end.”

Attendance remains at zero because of the coronavirus, but the bandwagon is growing. Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores wore a Marlins cap at work Monday.

Few foresaw the Marlins as a playoff team, especially after a virus outbreak nearly ended their season after just three games. But a patchwork roster thanks to 174 roster moves produced the team’s first winning season (31-29) since 2009.

“There has been a lot of adversity for this group,” Jeter said. “I’m a little biased, but I don’t think there’s a team in baseball that deserves it more, because our guys have been through quite a bit.”

The Marlins navigated a marathon closing stretch — Monday was their first day off after 28 games in 24 days.

Now they can catch their breath. And in the playoffs, they’ll go about their business with little pressure, especially compared to, say, the Cubs (34-26).

“We’re playing loose; we’ve got nothing to lose,” closer Brandon Kintzler said. “We’re playing with house money. We’re a dangerous team — we’ve got starting pitching that contends with anybody in baseball.”

The rotation is indeed the Marlins’ strength, and with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez, they have three young right-handers capable of taking over a short series.

“We know our dudes have got some stuff,” Mattingly said. “If they get on a roll, you don’t really want to be on the other side of that.”

Miami will be without right-hander Jose Urena, who broke his right forearm when he was hit by a line drive Sunday against the New York Yankees.

The Marlins’ most recent trip to the playoffs also included games at Wrigley Field. In 2003, they won the National League Championship Series there one night after a fan literally lent a hand to the Marlins’ comeback win in Game 6 by trying to catch a foul ball at a pivotal moment.

This time, because of the pandemic, there will be no fans in the stands. Mattingly figures that’s good news for his young team.

“It’s really different playing with nobody at Wrigley than with the streets going crazy and people packed into the building,” Mattingly said. “The younger guys get a little bit of a break not to have to walk in with the place packed and a hostile environment.”

Even minus spectators, however, the Marlins hear taunts from skeptics. One disparaging description — bottom feeders — stuck and raised their hackles even before the season began.

“That has been the term that has pushed us. Every time we won a game, we said, ‘Good job, bottom feeders,'” outfielder Lewis Brinson said. “We knew going into spring training nobody believed in us. We appreciate it. We love it. We want to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because that’s what has gotten us to this moment.”

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