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Carlos Martinez gives the Cardinals a taste of the difference he can make in NL Central – SweetSpot

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MILWAUKEE — The competition figures to be fierce in the National League Central this season. You have the Chicago Cubs, one season removed from a title and smack in the middle of their window of contention. And you have the rising Milwaukee Brewers, who made the division’s biggest offseason splash by acquiring outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain on the same day during the dead of winter.

Meanwhile, you have the always solid St. Louis Cardinals. Always solid but in recent years, not so much spectacular. The Redbirds have finished over .500 each of the past two seasons, extending their streak of winning campaigns to 10. Yet St. Louis has sat out in October both times, which, in a town that lives and dies with its baseball team, is something like a drought.

Solid is good. But in the heightened competition of baseball’s current top-heavy landscape, it’s hardly enough. However, on Wednesday, the Cardinals saw a glimpse of their most likely path from solid to super. That path, if it opens up, will be lighted by Carlos Martinez.

“That was the best we’ve seen,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s the stuff we expect to see. It was fun to watch him today.”

At times, Martinez is dominant, flashing the kind of stuff and the repertoire you only find among those belonging to baseball’s rarefied club of aces. Martinez certainly dominated the Brewers on Wednesday: 10 strikeouts over 8⅓ shutout innings and a midgame stretch of 15 straight outs, eight by strikeout.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was Martinez’s fourth outing since the start of the 2017 season in which he reached double digits in K’s without allowing a run. It was the ninth time in his career that he struck out at least 10 batters. If not for a botched grounder by fielding replacement Yairo Munoz that should have been turned into a game-ending double play, Martinez would have had his third career shutout.

Yet we are only a few days removed from Martinez’s clunker in St. Louis’ season opener in New York, where he walked six and failed to get out of the fifth inning. With Martinez, it has never been a question about his ceiling. It’s been about consistency.

“That’s why we talk so highly [about Martinez],” Matheny said. “We’ve seen that [dominance]. That’s a good lineup over there, and to go through it almost four times and not give up a whole lot, it just shows the kind of variety he has in his pitch selection, the movement and the stuff he has.”

Martinez’s pitch count had climbed to 101 by the end of the eighth, but any question of whether he would be allowed to pursue the shutout was quickly answered when he emerged from the St. Louis dugout to lead off the top of the ninth and proceeded to line a single. In the dugout, there was some debate about whether to take Martinez out.

“It was arguable about whether to send him back out,” Matheny said. “He was at [101 pitches]. I kind of liked the idea of him taking a shot at it. He had the ground ball that we needed to make it happen.”

With one out in the ninth, Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw looped a single just over the glove of shortstop Paul DeJong. Then Domingo Santana hit a hard roller right at Munoz — a prime double-play ball — but Munoz juggled the ball before throwing late to first. By then, Martinez had reach 114 pitches, four more than any other pitcher has thrown in a game during this young season.

What ultimately convinced Matheny to send Martinez back out wasn’t the stuff, which was still terrific. It was the control with which the righty was delivering it. And by control, he didn’t just mean the ability to locate the ball. He also meant Martinez’s demeanor.

“It’s a big deal to our pitchers,” Matheny said. “You try to take everything into consideration. More than anything else, he was under control. It’s not like he was just out there heaving as hard as he can. He was pitching. I would have liked to have given him a chance to finish, but we got to the point where a long at-bat would send him over 120. That’s further than I want to go right now, for sure.”

For Martinez, it was all about focus, repeating the word again and again like it was a mantra.

“I think it was my focus,” Martinez said. “The first two innings, I was in big trouble. But I never lost my focus. I think that helped.”

And again.

“I want to complete my games,” Martinez said. “[Matheny] gave me the opportunity. That was awesome. After the sixth inning, I was really under control. I was really focused and really, really under control.”

If that’s all it took, it’s a lesson Martinez should take to heart, because he was too much for Milwaukee’s hitters most of the night. The Brewers had trouble making contact, and many of their swings all through the lineup were tentative. According to Statcast, Milwaukee managed to hit triple digits in exit velocity on just one swing — a Jonathan Villar single in the second.

The average ball in play off Martinez was at just 80.9 mph. Soft contact, and not much of it — that’s pretty much the definition of dominance. Make no mistake, his teammates took notice.

“He was fantastic,” outfielder Tommy Pham said, putting extra emphasis on that last word. “His stuff was electric. His sinker was moving a lot. He was using his cutter against the lefties, and I think that was something that they’re not used to. And Carlos has one of the best sliders in the game. When you put all of that together with his stuff, you’re going to get a lot of nights like this.”

What’s encouraging for the Cardinals is that there was evidence of a tweak by Martinez a little more tangible than his focus. Martinez used his new cutter 15 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. On at-bats ending with a cutter, the Brewers were 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.

“I thought he did a great job today,” Matheny said. “You could tell, just his face, how focused he was. It was a good game plan he and [catcher] Yadier [Molina] had. He found a rhythm. We talk a lot about rhythm with him. He found it earlier than he has recently. Then you just let him go.”

Martinez was even better with his slider, on which Milwaukee went 0-for-9 with six whiffs. But that cutter, if he can control it and keep it down, as he did Wednesday, is yet another weapon for a pitcher who can rev his fastball up into the high 90s when he has his best stuff. If that sounds like a Cy Young contender, that is exactly what St. Louis hopes he will be.

If Martinez can become a first-division rotation anchor, everything else will start to fall in place for a pitching staff that is the Cardinals’ best hope of joining and overcoming the teams on baseball’s crowded elite tier — a place that the Brewers are trying to reach, as well.

With Martinez sitting atop the rotation hill, Adam Wainwright back from a hamstring injury (he’s starting St. Louis’ home opener on Thursday), Michael Wacha always tough, Miles Mikolas appearing like the Greek Babe Ruth and youngsters Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty looking like keepers — and even with Alex Reyes still working his way back from injury — the Cardinals have a staff that can pair star power with depth more dynamically than the Cubs or the Brewers.

But the star power has to come primarily from Martinez. The Cardinals need him to be what he was Wednesday — a legit, start-after-start ace. And he, like his manager, thinks he has the capacity to be just that.

“I can do that,” Martinez said. “Yeah, I can do that. Right now, I’m just working. Whatever happens in the end, don’t lose your focus.”

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World Series 2020 — Dodgers fans have taken over ‘neutral’ site with L.A. one win from a title

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Tampa Bay Rays were the home team these past three nights. If not for their white pants, you might not have known it. Over the past three weeks, as they situated themselves inside a quasi-bubble in Texas’ metroplex, the Los Angeles Dodgers have commandeered Globe Life Field and made it their own, growing weirdly comfortable with a new ballpark that still lacks an identity. Their fans have tagged along, traveling en masse, increasingly more so as the wins have stacked up and an elusive championship has drawn closer.

In Saturday’s Game 4, after yet another highlight-reel play in the second inning, a “MOO-KIE” chant began and grew so loud that Mookie Betts himself couldn’t help but break character and crack a smile. In Sunday’s Game 5, a stadium of 11,437 people booed Dodgers manager Dave Roberts as he walked to the mound to take the baseball away from Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning.

He, uh, didn’t smile.

“I didn’t get a chance to see the boos turn to cheers, but that’s OK,” Roberts, managing a smirk, said after navigating the Dodgers through the 4-2 victory that put them one win away from a championship. “It’s passion. The fans have passion, so that’s good.”

Several prominent members of the Dodgers spent the spring worried that the coronavirus pandemic would prevent an exceedingly talented team from ever playing together. As their dominant season progressed, many of them lamented that their passionate fans couldn’t truly experience this journey with them. Then the Dodgers swept through the first two postseason rounds and Major League Baseball allowed the Texas Rangers’ home ballpark to host customers at about 25% capacity.

Loyalties seemed split throughout the National League Championship Series — but then the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Atlanta Braves, welcomed the small-market Rays and basically took over. On Sunday night, with Kershaw on the mound in a pivotal swing game, this place was practically theirs.

“It’s a home game,” Harry Bawann, 41, said. “If it wasn’t for all the sound effects trying to help Tampa out, this would be a home game.”

Bawann and his friend, Ricardo Manzanares, acquired tickets thinking they’d be watching the Dodgers with a chance to win it all. Then came Game 4’s bottom of the ninth, a two-out single from Brett Phillips, a bobble from Chris Taylor, a stumble from Randy Arozarena, a muff from Will Smith and one of the most improbable comebacks ever.

Shortly after the Dodgers finally captured their third victory 24 hours later, ticket prices for Game 6 had increased by 48% since the start of the week, according to TickPick. The average ticket price stood at $750 about five minutes before midnight on the East Coast and would undoubtedly increase from there.

Hector Razo, 40, arrived as part of a group of at least 15 Dodgers fans from Los Angeles, each of whom paid $400 to get through the door. Jeff Murillo, a 52-year-old Dodgers fan living in Houston, was joined by his wife and two kids and paid $4,000 for all of them. Nicole Estrada, 39, paid $800 for Game 3, $500 for Game 4 and was prepared to pay a lot more for Game 5.

“This whole year has been really tough on a lot of people and for the city of L.A.,” Estrada said, “and for us to come together, in another state, it’s momentous and it’s historic.”

The concourse level of Globe Life Field has become a walking gallery of Dodgers jerseys, from Betts and Kershaw to Don Drysdale and Fernando Valenzuela to Vin Scully and Sandy Koufax. One man also wore a Dodgers-themed wrestling mask. Another sported a fake beard in honor of Justin Turner. And one woman, Alen Aivazian, rocked an Elton John-inspired Dodgers jacket that was covered in Swarovski crystals and cost five figures.

David Siegel, 62, was at the game when Kirk Gibson hit his famous pinch-hit home run for the Dodgers in 1988 at Dodger Stadium but also when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs for the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium to win Game 6 in 1977. This year, of all years, he hopes to watch the Dodgers clinch a World Series title in person for the first time.

“That,” he said, “would mean everything.”

It might mean even more to Kershaw, who has spent a dozen years working diligently in pursuit of that goal and might finally achieve it in his hometown. Through two starts against the Rays, Kershaw boasts a 2.31 ERA and two wins, putting him squarely in the conversation for World Series MVP honors. For Game 5, when he gave up only two runs in 5⅔ innings and worked out of a two-on, none-out jam, he was able to accommodate an additional 10 people or so with nosebleed seats.

“This year’s been just special — weird, special, different — in a lot of ways,” Kershaw said. “I don’t wanna say it’s working out the way I want it to because being at Dodger Stadium would be awesome, too, but to get to have family and friends, to get to have as packed a house as it can be, and make it seem like it’s all Dodger fans, is very special.”

Chris Gutierrez is a 26-year-old nursing student who said he paid more than $1,000 to sit a section up on the third-base side. The three people with him are all nurses who have been working the frontlines of a COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 225,000 American lives, an unavoidable reality that adds a layer of discomfort to all this.

They all had initial reservations about gathering this way, but they also didn’t want to miss an opportunity to watch these Dodgers. Since then, they’ve found comfort in a Globe Life Field staff that has been exceedingly diligent about cleaning surfaces, separating large groups and forcing patrons to wear their masks.

It has helped them enjoy what’s in front of them.

“This is a piece of normality,” Gutierrez said, “and it means the world.”



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World Series 2020 — Clayton Kershaw repairs his playoff legacy with Game 5 win

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Cali Kershaw, 5, a nuclear bundle of energy, jitterbugged around the room, under the table and over it, side to side, everywhere space permitted. Her little brother Charley, 3, tried to keep up, to the point that their father, Clayton Kershaw, felt the need to offer a nudge/apology. “You guys are maniacs,” he said.

It was about 30 minutes after he had won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory in it, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His hair long, his beard ever ratty, his face still cherubic, his resolve hardened, he hadn’t pitched his finest, and that was OK. Afterward, Cali had told him she was proud of him, and that was plenty.

A guy sticks around long enough, and you see him become the man he’s meant to be. Kershaw is 32 years old, past his prime, more craftsman than conqueror. And although there’s an almost-irresistible instinct to measure our greatest athletes against what they once were, and to nevertheless hold that as the idea of what they should be, it always felt unfair. Because for every unicorn who stares down Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, of regression, of a clock that ticks endlessly, and they don’t.

The acceptance phase is the hardest, and it’s where Kershaw, he of the worst October reputation this side of the house that gives out Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He isn’t what he once was, and he doesn’t need to be, because what he is impelled the Dodgers to a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night that left them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988 and him oh so close to getting sized for the ring that has eluded none of his pitching peers.

Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, which is, when one is surrounded by the talent the Dodgers possess, good enough too. He is capable of excellence, and he is prone to failure, and he is usually closer to the former than the latter. He is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transmogrifying into a fateful creature when the calendar turns. He is flawed, in need of careful handling, prone more to reliability than anything.

He is, in other words, a dad. And every October, it seems, reminds of that, because Kershaw is the sort of father who brings his kids up to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still possessed the blessed arm that flung lightning bolts, Cali first sat alongside him at a postgame news conference. And in 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was anywhere to be seen in 2019, because Kershaw wouldn’t dare expose them to the frailty of baseball, which last year damn near broke him. He’d blown a lead, blown a series, and said: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”

What they said was that he wasn’t meant for October, that he was a choker, that he didn’t have what it takes. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. Nobody reaches the heights he has — three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a regular-season career ERA of 2.43 — without the conviction of his ways. If there was some October bugaboo, be it mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher. And pitchers find their way.

This postseason has been his rejoinder. Altogether, 30⅔ innings, 23 hits, 5 walks and 37 strikeouts with a 2.93 ERA and four wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute no longer is what his left arm can produce but the toil it takes to ensure it produces at its apex.

The appreciation cascaded through Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 there wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something in what was presumably his last outing of 2020: a standing ovation. He had held the 3-0 lead the Dodgers spotted him. He worked around a rough third inning in which he yielded a pair of runs. He turned a first-and-third-with-no-outs mess in the fourth into a neat little escape act, securing the inning’s final out when he heard first baseman Max Muncy yell: “Step off!”

Behind Kershaw’s back, Rays outfielder Manuel Margot had taken off on a dead sprint, the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since Lonnie Smith in 1982. Kershaw fired the ball home, just in time for catcher Austin Barnes to swipe a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slid across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw would break the all-time record for strikeouts in the postseason. Come the sixth, he had turned two pitches into two outs when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ascended the dugout steps and walked toward the mound.

And what greeted him was fascinating: boos. Not just catcalls or hisses. Real, actual, loud boos, from all corners of the stadium. It was October, and Dodgers fans were livid that Clayton Kershaw was being taken out of a game. So were the Dodgers infielders. They asked Roberts to stick with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe Kershaw was his best self. Roberts believed Kershaw had done plenty.

As he walked off the mound, the cheers began. They grew louder. A 5⅔-inning, two-run outing is not typically the thing of which ovations are made, and yet it is just as infrequently made of a fastball that sits in the 91 mph range, too. This was thanks not just for Game 5 but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible — for not bowing out of the weirdness that is pandemic baseball and not resigning himself to the story others wanted to write for him.

“It feels pretty good. It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. That is what you work for. That is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like, too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”

Roberts’ retreat to the dugout brought on another wave of jeers, even though this had been the plan all along, a plan Kershaw had grown to understand, because age for him might have an inverse relationship with talent but it has a direct one with wisdom. Kershaw, ever a dogged competitor, always wants more. He simply has grown to accept that more isn’t always possible or right.

The fortunes of Roberts have been inextricably tied to Kershaw. They have shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts didn’t deviate from the plan for Kershaw to face between 21 and 24 batters. After his 22nd hitter, having thrown 85 pitches, 56 of them for strikes, most on a slider that had seen far better days, Kershaw turned the ball over to Dustin May, whose fastball registers 10 mph higher on the radar gun than Kershaw’s.

“He just grinded,” Roberts said. “He willed himself to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”

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Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw strikes out six batters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win vs. the Rays.

For anyone who sees this as pedestrian because it isn’t up to some standard he himself long ago abandoned, consider: What Kershaw manages to do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It’s just in a less obvious way. It’s a three-dimensional view of the pitcher — of where he is in time, what the reasonable expectations for that are, how he has evolved — in a world that gravitates toward the easiest evaluation, which is to digest numbers and spit them out absence of context.

This is no absolution of Kershaw. He has failed in October. He has blown games, series, seasons. In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion might have cost the Dodgers a ring. In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he couldn’t stop the Red Sox’s coronation. In Game 5 of the 2020 World Series, though, the day after the Rays walked off the Dodgers in gut-shot fashion, Kershaw calmly salved wounds — his teammates’ day-old and his years-old.

Now, barring Roberts going off-script and calling upon Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it is up to the 27 other Dodgers to give Kershaw what he has done his best to give them. Never had he won two games in postseason series until he took Games 1 and 5 of this World Series. A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would make take him off the list of three-time Cy Young winners without a championship. He’s the only one of 10. And of pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles but no World Series title. He’s one of 10 there, too. Likewise, 10 pitchers have won an MVP in the post-1961 expansion era, and Kershaw is the only one without a ring.

Sometime in the next 72 hours, all of that can go away, and it would bring him back into that room, sitting at the table, speaking to a camera but really to the world. He’d tell them what it finally feels like to be a champion, how all of this was so worth it. And right there alongside him would be Cali and Charley, amped up like they’ve got a Red Bull IV, because their daddy, the one who has finally grown into what he’s meant to be, had made them proud.

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Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw passes Justin Verlander for postseason strikeout mark

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Say what you will about Clayton Kershaw‘s performance in October, but he now holds the record for postseason strikeouts.

The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ ace moved past Justin Verlander for the all-time lead while giving up only two runs in 5⅔ innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night. Kershaw struck out six batters, giving him 207 career postseason strikeouts in 189 innings. Verlander has 205 strikeouts in 187⅔ career postseason innings.

“Just means I’ve been on great teams that have gotten to go to the post season a lot,” Kershaw said after helping pitch the Dodgers to a 4-2 win and a 3-2 World Series lead. “And I have gotten to have a lot of starts in the postseason. Obviously a special opportunity.”

The Rays were threatening off Kershaw in the fourth, putting two on with none out while trailing by only a run, but Kershaw induced a shallow pop-up and recorded a strikeout, then threw out Manuel Margot as he attempted to steal home. The 32-year-old left-hander then retired the next five batters in order.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was booed by a very pro-Dodgers crowd at Globe Life Field while removing Kershaw in favor of Dustin May with two outs in the sixth, though at least part of their hostility was undoubtedly rooted in Roberts’ pitching decisions from Game 4.

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