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Are the New York Mets the team to beat in the NL East? – SweetSpot

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Wilmer Flores dug in against Matt Albers, the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers tied in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the count 1-2. It certainly seemed like Sunday’s game was headed for extra innings. Flores plays mostly against lefties these days and has never done much against righties in his career, with a sub-.300 OBP and sub-.400 slugging percentage. With two strikes, those numbers are even worse.

Albers threw a 92-mph sinker, but it backed up over the plate, not quite dead center but center enough, and Flores did this:

It was Flores’ third career walk-off home run and pushed the Mets’ record to 12-2. What looked like one of those games in which a good Noah Syndergaard start would be wasted — he fanned 11 in 5⅓ innings, including eight in a row at one point, and induced 25 swing-and-misses, the second most of his career — instead turned into a dramatic 3-2 victory. Yes, it’s only 14 games, but there’s no doubt the Mets feel like they have “it” right now … while the Washington Nationals most definitely don’t.

In D.C., the Nationals scored five runs for Stephen Strasburg against the Rockies, which should be enough for a win, but Charlie Blackmon homered and doubled in two more runs and the Rockies scored four runs off Strasburg. They added two more off the Washington bullpen, including Ian Desmond’s two-out home run in the ninth off Sean Doolittle to haunt his old team and give the Rockies a 6-5 win.

That loss dropped the Nationals to a lackluster 7-9, even though Bryce Harper mashed his MLB-leading seventh home run — and keep in mind that Strasburg and Max Scherzer have started half the team’s 16 games. After opening the season with a sweep over the hapless Reds, the Nationals have gone just 4-9, with some obvious issues to worry about. Daniel Murphy has yet to return after offseason knee surgery, Adam Eaton is back on the DL with a bone bruise in his ankle, Ryan Zimmerman has looked terrible with his average down to .122 and Trea Turner hasn’t done much at the plate (although he’s at least drawing some walks at a much-improved rate).

The hot start/cold start has propelled the Mets to much better odds of winning the National League East, up to 39.3 percent compared with 18.3 percent on Opening Day (via FanGraphs). The Mets can match Scherzer and Strasburg with Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, they have a bench that compares with the Nationals’ as one of the best in the National League and their bullpen may be even deeper, leading the majors with a 1.51 ERA, including 10 scoreless innings from closer Jeurys Familia.

Are the Mets the team to beat in the NL East? I wouldn’t say that just yet, but they’ve dealt with not only a tough early schedule, but some tough weather conditions too. They took two of three from the Cardinals, swept two games against the Phillies, swept the Marlins and Nationals, then took two of three in this series against the Brewers. Next up: a three-game set at home against the Nationals starting Monday. They even luck out by missing Scherzer and Strasburg.

Another thing to consider about the Nationals: They’ve spent years beating up on what has mostly been a lousy NL East. Since the Nationals broke out in 2012, the division hasn’t had three winning teams in a single season. There have been more times when a team lost 90-plus games (10) than when a team other than the Nationals finished above .500 (4). Against those four teams with a winning record — the 2012 and ’13 Braves and the 2015 and ’16 Mets — the Nationals went 38-39. In fact, since 2012 they’ve played .602 baseball against the NL East and .542 against the rest of the majors.

Well, not only do the Mets look better than they did last year, but so do the Phillies and Braves. The Phillies beat the Rays 10-4 on Sunday for their sixth straight win to improve to 9-5. The Braves have been pounding the baseball and are 8-6 after getting postponed on Sunday. Keep in mind: The last time the Nationals were challenged for the division title, in 2015, they folded, going 8-11 against the Mets, memorably getting swept in two big series in August and September.


Red Sox keep rolling: Speaking of dealing with some cold weather, the Red Sox have shrugged off near-freezing temperatures on several occasions to start 13-2, the first team to do that since the 2013 Braves. It’s the best start for an American League team since the 1987 Brewers started 14-1.

On Sunday, Chris Sale lasted just five innings as the game-time temperature was 34 degrees, with a 23-mph wind. It was so miserable the Red Sox gave way free hot chocolate to fans at Fenway. If you ever wondered what it would be like to play baseball in January in New England, this game provided evidence.

Anyway, Sale gave up one run and got a no-decision in the 3-1 win over the Orioles as the bullpen allowed one hit over four scoreless innings. It has been about the pitching for the Red Sox, as the rotation leads the majors with a 2.06 ERA and has allowed just six home runs.

One guy to keep an eye on: A slimmed-down Hanley Ramirez, off to a .333/.386/.569 start. I wasn’t counting on much from Ramirez as two of his three seasons in Boston have provided below-average offense, including a .242/.320/.429 line in 2017, and he’s now 34. If he hits, watch out. He’s also channeling David Ortiz in other ways:

The Dodgers seem a lot better when Clayton Kershaw pitches: Kershaw finally got his first win, allowing one run in seven innings while striking out 12 as the Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks 7-2 to salvage the final game of the series. From researcher Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information: Kershaw had 10 strikeouts on his slider, matching the most for any game in his career. (He also had 10 on June 20, 2011 against the Tigers.)

Here’s another fun list from Sarah, the most 10-plus K/0 BB games since 1893:

Randy Johnson: 36

Curt Schilling: 27

Clayton Kershaw: 22

Roger Clemens: 21

Now, about the rest of the team …

The Reds are a mess: I didn’t think any team would be bad enough to challenge the Marlins for the worst record, but the Reds have been an ugly disaster so far. They’re 2-13 after a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals. There’s no need to get into the particulars. When you’re 2-13, you’re not hitting and you’re not pitching.

I do, however, want to take a moment to discuss Joey Votto. That usually means we’re discussing good things. Not right now. Votto is hitting an empty .236 — no extra-base hits and just three walks. It saddens me just to type those numbers. That’s 14 games without an extra-base hit and a walk rate that has dropped from 19.0 percent in 2017 to 5.0 percent this season. God forbid, could Votto go from MVP runner-up to washed-up overnight?

The good news: Probably not. Consider these items:

  • Votto once went 19 games without an extra-base hit, back in 2015. For further context, he had a 16-game streak last season.

  • Via Statcast, Votto’s average exit velocity last year was 87.9 mph; including Sunday’s game, it’s 88.3 mph this year.

  • The walk rate is a little weird, but Votto also started last season not walking much (11 times in April compared to a monthly high of 35 in August).

More bad weather: On Jackie Robinson Day, bad weather in the Midwest canceled six games, including a Yankees-Tigers doubleheader. It also pushed Shohei Ohtani’s next start to Tuesday against the Red Sox.

It’s impossible to analyze what the poor weather has meant. It’s ironic, however, that the players negotiated to have extra off days in the schedule, only now so many games have been postponed that teams will be spending some of those days playing makeup games. The White Sox have played 12 games in 18 calendar days. It’s obviously affected attendance. Bottom line: No excuses. If there’s bad weather, both teams have to play in it.



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

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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

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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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Jay Johnstone, a two-time World Series champion and popular prankster around MLB, dies at 74

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LOS ANGELES — Jay Johnstone, who won World Series championships as a versatile outfielder with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers while being baseball’s merry prankster, has died. He was 74.

He died last Saturday of complications from COVID-19 and also had suffered from dementia in recent years, according to his daughter, Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone. He died at a nursing home in Granada Hills, she said Monday.

“COVID was the one thing he couldn’t fight,” his daughter said by phone “It’s really kind of shocking.”

Besides the Yankees and Dodgers, Johnstone played for the California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Chicago Cubs during a 20-year major league career that began in 1966 and ended in 1985. He had a career batting average of .267, with 102 home runs and 531 RBIs.

In the 1981 World Series, Johnstone had a pinch-hit, two-run homer in Game 4 that rallied the Dodgers to an 8-7 win over the Yankees. That tied the series at two games apiece, and the Dodgers won the next two games to claim the title.

In his first postseason experience, he went 7-for-9 as the Phillies got swept by Cincinnati in the 1976 National League Championship Series. He played for the Yankees when they beat the Dodgers to win the 1978 crown.

With the Angels, Johnstone preserved Clyde Wright’s no-hitter against Oakland on July 3, 1970. He caught a fly ball by Reggie Jackson to straightaway center field just in front of the wall in the seventh inning.

Johnstone possessed a sense of humor that he used to keep his teammates loose with pranks. He would nail their cleats to the floor or set them on fire. He cut out the crotch area of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear.

Johnstone once replaced the celebrity photos in the office of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda with pictures of himself, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse. He locked Lasorda in his office during spring training.

Another time, Johnstone and Reuss dressed up as groundskeepers to drag the infield during a game. Lasorda imposed a fine on both players for being out of uniform, and Johnstone responded with a pinch-hit home run.

His daughter said Johnstone’s pranks didn’t end at the ballpark. She recalled rubber snakes in their pool and spiders by the bathtub. She said her friends loved being around her father because “he always made us laugh.”

“He wanted to find the humor in life no matter how serious things got,” she said. “That was his motto to everything: bring a smile to people’s faces. Everyone loved him.”

After retiring, Johnstone briefly worked as a radio color commentator for the Yankees and Phillies. During an interview with Yankee players Deion Sanders and Mel Hall, he got them to uncover a restaurant bread basket containing a snake, startling both players, who jumped out of their seats.

Born John William Johnstone Jr. on Nov. 20, 1945, in Manchester, Connecticut, he moved to California and grew up in West Covina. After attending Edgewood High, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Angels in 1963 and made his major league debut at 20.

Johnstone appeared in the hit movie “The Naked Gun” as a member of the Seattle Mariners in a game against the Angels.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 52 years, Mary Jayne Johnstone, and son-in-law Ryan Dudasik.

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