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ESPN expert predictions — Who will be MLB’s most valuable superstars?

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Astros-Dodgers about more than just bad blood

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The Houston Astros have more pressing issues than their 2017 misdeeds.

While their cheating scandal will again be part of the narrative when they face the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend, the reality of 2020 is the Astros are under .500 and — despite being a virtual lock for the postseason because of this season’s new format and competing in a poor division — jockeying for the best possible playoff seed.

They’ll also be facing a Dodgers team that holds the best record in baseball and is the favorite to win the World Series.

“The Dodgers have an unbelievable team. They pitch really well. They play defense. They hit. They have played a lot better baseball than we have this year. And that’s what we’re focused on,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told ESPN. “We got beat twice by them last time we played them. For us, it’s about trying to find a way to be a good baseball team because they’re hard to beat.”

Tempers flared in Houston in late July when the teams met for the first time since an MLB investigation revealed the Astros had cheated by using a camera-based sign-stealing system during their 2017 championship run. That run culminated in a World Series victory for the Astros in seven games over the Dodgers.

During a two-game sweep by L.A., hard-throwing reliever Joe Kelly tossed a pitch in the area of Bregman’s head and taunted shortstop Carlos Correa after striking him out, prompting both benches to clear. Kelly later received an eight-game suspension for his actions, reduced to five games on appeal.

Kelly’s pouty expression, directed at Correa, has since been immortalized in a mural in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, a few miles from Dodger Stadium.

“You can’t look back at what happened. At this point in the season, every game is crucial. When you’re playing against a great team like the Dodgers, you have to be ready to go. You have to be at your best and ready to play, and not think about anything else,” Bregman said. “These games are bigger games for us than they are for the Dodgers just because of where we are in the season. We need to win. We’re playing .500 baseball right now and need to start playing better as a unit. You have to do that in order to beat a team like the Dodgers. The intensity is definitely going to be there for us because these are must-win ballgames.

“The Dodgers are the best team in baseball. Our focus has to be on trying to win a baseball game. We need to put together good team at-bats, and we need to hit with runners in scoring position. And they have a great pitching staff so that’s tough to do. And we have to play solid defense. And you have to pitch well. They have an unbelievable lineup, All-Stars all the way through that lineup. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Though the Astros apologized this spring and said they believed they had the team to win in 2017, without sign-stealing, the scandal didn’t just disappear. Calls for Houston to vacate the title and players to be punished echoed loudly throughout the game. But once the sports world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, big-picture attention shifted from disparaging the Astros for banging trash cans to coming up with ways to put together an abbreviated championship season.

The Astros caught another break when the season restart required competing without fans as part of MLB’s expansive health and safety protocols. Before the pandemic, outraged fans had anticipated Houston’s visits to their home ballparks to voice their displeasure at players they considered cheaters.

Still, the fact that the players themselves were not punished by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who granted them immunity during the league’s investigation, did not sit well with many of their opponents.

“Sometimes you simply will not be able to change people’s perspective. They are going to think what they are going to think. And that’s fine. It’s their prerogative,” Correa said. “For many, it did not matter that we asked for forgiveness. We were accused of not being honest in our apology and all that. We said we were sorry. We were honest in our apology. And now it’s about playing baseball. We have to focus on our job, which is trying to make the playoffs and win a World Series again. That is our only focus. It cannot be on anything else.”

Said Bregman: “Like so many teams, our team has gone through a ton of adversity with injuries this year. And our team has done a great job of being resilient and really coming together. Each day that goes by we’re trying, we’re trying every single day, to move on and worry about playing baseball. So that’s what matters. If you focus on anything else besides winning games, you’re not doing your job.”

In looking back at the first Dodgers series this season, Bregman’s attention is on correcting his mistakes. And, maybe more than occasionally, taking in a Mookie Betts at-bat.

“There was a ball hit to my left that I tried too much,” Bregman said of a throwing error that contributed to four fifth-inning runs in Los Angeles’ 5-2 win July 28. “I threw the ball home but should have just gone to second base and tried to turn a double play that way. But since I threw the ball home, we didn’t. It was an error. The inning went on and you can’t give extra outs to a team that is that talented and that good.

“And Mookie has been unbelievable. Definitely one of my favorite players to watch,” Bregman said. “I personally try and learn a lot from just watching his swings. I think he does so many good things mechanically that I try and incorporate. And what he does a great job of is hitting a ball in the air to the pull side of the field. And when you pull a ball in the air correctly, with backspin inside the baseball, I love it. And that’s cool, man.”

As for Kelly, the Dodgers activated him off the injured list, where he had been because of right shoulder inflammation, but the reliever will serve his five-game suspension and will not be available for the series.

“[Joe Kelly] is one of the best pitchers in the majors. The Dodgers have so many of those. And all we want to do is compete and show who is best that day,” Correa said. “We are athletes. And sometimes we say things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. But what the Astros and the Dodgers want is to compete and show who the best is. This is an important series, and if that is what it takes for people to tune in, then that’s great.

“Every team wants to play on Sunday Night Baseball because everybody is watching,” he said. “All the players are traveling and they want to see the game on the plane. Whenever there is Sunday Night Baseball, so many teams are flying to another city. It’s the one game we all get to watch. And because baseball is not the most-watched sport, rivalries like Dodgers-Astros, and the history that we have now, are going to make people tune in and watch. And that’s important. It’s important to our game that it becomes must-see TV.”



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Oakland Athletics’ A.J. Puk set for shoulder surgery; Matt Chapman seeking second opinion

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Oakland Athletics left-handed prospect A.J. Puk is set to undergo season-ending surgery Wednesday on his pitching shoulder.

Puk hasn’t pitched this season because of inflammation in the shoulder that required injections. He also underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in 2018.

“For A.J., obviously, it’s been a tough road for him,” manager Bob Melvin told reporters. “Back and forth, ramping up, having to shut down. Obviously there’s something going on that he needs to take care of.”

The 25-year-old Puk had been set to join the Athletics rotation in 2020 after making 10 relief appearances in 2019, going 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 1/3 innings.

Also, Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman, who hasn’t played since Sunday, visited a doctor in Vail, Colorado, on Friday for another opinion on his right hip tendinitis.

Chapman is hitting .232 with 10 home run and 25 RBIs this season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Sources — MLB’s postseason bubble plan awaits union approval

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Major League Baseball’s postseason plan is nearly set, with the approval of the MLB Players Association all that’s left standing between baseball and a bubble, sources told ESPN.

While questions about when and how families would enter the bubble remain unresolved, a neutral-site playoff format of some variety is expected to be finalized sometime next week, sources said.

In the March agreement between the parties, MLB was given authority to stage a postseason that mimics the bubbles that the NBA and NHL have used to shield their players and staff from a COVID-19 outbreak. In order to modify protocols — a key to a robust bubble –, the players must agree to changes.

Cursory bubble discussions in April fell apart when players expressed reservations about leaving their families for months at a time and the league balked at the logistical hurdles.

A bubble with a shorter lifespan is being negotiated between the league and union currently, sources said. Though the league does not need the players’ approval to continue with the format, with so much at stake — MLB could reap upward of $1 billion in postseason television revenue — the willing participation of players is seen as a vital element to the sort of restrictions the league believes necessary.

Under the plan, the World Series would start Oct. 20 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and would end no later than Oct. 28. It would culminate a month of playoff games that begin with the top four seeds in each league hosting all the games in a best-of-three wild-card series. The four American League series would run Sept. 29, 30 and Oct. 1, and the National League would play Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2.

The highest remaining seed in the NL would play its division series in Arlington while the next-highest seed would face its opponent at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The top seed from the AL would be the home team at San Diego’s Petco Park, while the other series would be held at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. The AL Championship Series would take place in San Diego and the NLCS in Arlington, giving the NL’s top seed — likely the Los Angeles Dodgers — a path to a stationary October.

Concerns from Dodgers players, which were first reported by The Athletic, underscore the chasm between the sides. Because MLB players have spent the season outside of a bubble — and, in many cases, around their families — the desire of some players to continue operating without the restrictions of a bubble are being voiced by the union, sources said.

Still, the prospect of a positive test waylaying the playoffs is palpable enough that MLB is insisting on the extra security a bubble notionally provides. A single positive coronavirus test can result in multiple postponements. In a strictly scheduled postseason, with TV network commitments, such a possibility could be devastating.

And with multiple positive tests in MLB this season being traced to family members, the league’s position is simple: Either families go through a quarantine period, enter the bubble and live with players, or they can come to the host cities but remain socially distanced from players during the postseason.

While MLB hasn’t suffered a significant outbreak since the St. Louis Cardinals‘ in July that wreaked havoc on their schedule, the fragility of the regular season — let alone the postseason — is clear. On Friday night, the San Francisco Giants postponed their game against the San Diego Padres following a positive test by someone in the organization. Saturday’s game between the teams will be postponed as well, and if the teams follow precedent, they’ll sit Sunday as well.

A bubble would theoretically help MLB weather any positive tests. The lack of travel days in a typical playoff series allows the league to bake in days to wait out potential positives. An outbreak, on the other hand, could prompt the league to force a team to play immediately using players from their alternate site, something it didn’t do with the Cardinals or the other team that had a rash of COVID cases, the Miami Marlins.

The prospect of spending upward of a month isolated in hotels still is concerning enough to players that including family is a must. In any bubble scenario, the league would rent out entire hotels, allowing players and their families free rein on the property. They would not be allowed to leave the hotels except to attend games.

Concerns from the NBA and NHL bubbles about the tedium of life inside of them have spooked some baseball players, sources said. At the same time, they recognize the success of the other leagues’ bubbles — no one has tested positive in either — and the potential harm of disrupting a playoff that teams see as vital to help deal with an altered financial landscape. There is already fear among some that the free-agent market this winter could be slower than usual; a postseason interrupted by COVID cases could exacerbate that.

Striking a deal on when and how families enter the bubble is not the only hurdle. MLB also has asked for players to quarantine in hotels the last week of the regular season — even teams playing at home — so they don’t need to undergo an intake period before the playoffs, sources said. For teams that make the World Series, that could amount to five weeks of bubble life.

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