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What Red Sox need to earn a World Series rematch with Dodgers

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BOSTON — It didn’t take long to dredge up the memories of last October. On Friday, as the Dodgers returned to Fenway Park for the first time since losing the 2018 World Series to the Red Sox, Max & Leo’s, a pizza restaurant located in Fenway Park, put up a sign facing those crossing the David Ortiz Bridge toward the ballpark. Its message? “Hey LA, In case you forgot, this is what the World Series trophy looks like.”

Victory lap aside, the cross-country rivals find themselves in different relative positions from last season. The Dodgers occupy the same territory as the 2018 Red Sox, running away with their division while maintaining the best record in major league baseball. The defending World Series champions, meanwhile, sit in third place in the AL East, one game out of a wild card, chasing the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians.

“This is the team that everybody knows is the best team in baseball,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of the Dodgers. “They are. If you look for motivation after the All-Star break, it’s right there. From day one until the All-Star break, what they’ve been doing is amazing.”

Saturday’s trade for Andrew Cashner by Boston marked the official beginning of a playoff push as president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski moves to shore up some areas of the Red Sox’s roster. But not all improvements can come from the outside, as the front office intently monitors the payroll and manages any potential luxury tax penalties.

Boston will need to see improvements up and down the roster to put itself back at the forefront of the playoff picture. Here’s the short list of what has to happen, in no particular order:

1. Andrew Cashner needs to solidify the No. 5 spot in the rotation

The Red Sox made clear that they were looking to upgrade their starting rotation in recent weeks and got their man in Cashner, trading away two 17-year old prospects, infielder Noelberth Romero and outfielder Elio Prado. Since Nathan Eovaldi hit the disabled list with loose bodies in his throwing arm, the Red Sox have depended on the likes of Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber and others for innings, with a lack of consistency from the last spot in the rotation contributing to the overworked bullpen’s workload. In 16 starts this season, the hodgepodge group of starters asked to fill out the rotation has amassed a 6.79 ERA in just 51⅔ innings.

Similar to his pre-deadline deal last year for Eovaldi, Dombrowski landed a starter before the rush of the trade deadline, locking down his major trade acquisition two weeks ahead of July 31. Cashner will make his Red Sox debut on Tuesday against the Blue Jays. So far this season, the 32-year-old righty has posted a 3.83 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP, striking out 66 batters in 96⅓ innings, posting a 9-3 record. Boston hopes for more of the same.

“He’s been throwing the ball well,” Dombrowski said. “He’s been a guy that has been in the big leagues for a long time. He’s throwing the ball as well as he ever has. … Definitely gives us an improvement in that fifth spot, which we’ve scuffled for such a long time.”

2. Nathan Eovaldi needs to become a reliable reliever

When Eovaldi returns to Boston, which Dombrowski expects to happen next week, he will return as the team’s closer, a role the team refused to assign to anyone else coming out of spring training, channeling the 2003 Red Sox with a closer by committee. Following the departure of free agent Craig Kimbrel, Dombrowski decided to stay pat with the bullpen and not sign an established reliever, instead turning to the likes of Marcus Walden and Josh Taylor. Dombrowski views Eovaldi’s return as equivalent to a major acquisition for Boston heading into the deadline.

“We are going to add Nathan Eovaldi,” Dombrowski said on Saturday. “Some people seem to not grasp onto that. He’s a big addition for us.”

This, however, operates under the assumption that Eovaldi will stay healthy. Eovaldi, who signed a four-year, $68 million deal with Boston this past offseason, has undergone two Tommy John surgeries in his career and underwent a second surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow in March 2018.

“We’ve always thought he could pitch in the pen,” Dombrowski said. “A lot of people have felt that. When we signed him, he really was choosing to not do that because he had other organizations approach him and signed him as a starter. He changed himself with his time frame and said, ‘I’m willing to do whatever you’d like. I’m happy to go to the bullpen and pitch.’ We think he can be very helpful for us at the back end of our bullpen.”

3. Chris Sale needs to get right

It has been an uncharacteristically down season for the Red Sox lefty. Sale signed a five-year, $145 million extension this offseason, but he hasn’t won a game in Fenway Park since July 11 of last year, posting a 4.27 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 46⅓ innings at Fenway so far this season. That winless Fenway starts streak continued on Saturday, when Sale lasted just 4⅔ innings, allowing five runs, seven hits and one walk while striking out seven against the Dodgers. His ERA of 4.04 far outpaces his career-high ERA of 3.41, posted back in 2015.

“I’m going out there every fifth day and getting my ass kicked,” Sale said on Saturday after the loss to the Dodgers. “It’s not fun. I’m still working, still grinding. I’m not going to give up, but it’s tough going out there and being a liability to your team.”

The Red Sox won the World Series without Chris Sale looking like Chris Sale for most of the postseason, when he posted a 5.76 ERA in 25 innings pitched. But Boston wouldn’t have gotten there in the first place without his 2.11 ERA in 27 starts in 2018. Cora said it’s the responsibility of the coaching staff to make sure Sale is clicking on all cylinders, which he hasn’t all year. Sale, however, shifts the blame to himself.

“I’m trying to locate my fastball. That’s the biggest thing,” Sale said. “I’ve been throwing it all over the place. I’ve been trying to throw it in and it’s going away. I’m trying to throw it away and I’m throwing cut fastballs right now and I have never done that in my life. All my hit by pitches this year have been on breaking balls on right-handed hitters. That can’t happen. Shutdown innings, I haven’t had a single one all year. I’m digging my team a hole they can’t get out of early and they’re doing everything they can.”

4. Rafael Devers needs to stay hot

Devers has been a revelation for Boston this season. He has laid claim to the No. 2 spot in the lineup behind Mookie Betts, has markedly improved his plate discipline and has made a leap defensively, dramatically improving his footwork following a rocky first month. The 22-year-old is hitting .327/.380/.557 with 17 homers, 64 RBIs and 26 doubles, and he has been one of the team’s most consistent hitters this season.

As history has shown time and time again, one good half-season doesn’t mean someone has officially arrived in the big leagues. Devers is still a young player, which often goes hand in hand with inconsistency. With offensive production drops from Betts and Andrew Benintendi, Devers has made up a lot of the slack, and the team will depend on him for big offensive production if the rest of the lineup remains at its current levels of production.

5. Consistency, consistency, consistency

As boring as it may sound, the Alex Cora buzzword of the season has been “consistency,” because Boston has been anything but. It’s something Cora constantly brings up in his news conferences, a near-daily reminder that his team hasn’t been what it was just a calendar year ago. Just as frequently, Cora mentions that he believes his team can emerge from its yearlong funk.

“We’re very talented. That’s the bottom line,” Cora said on Friday. “We can play a lot better and everybody knows it. I think that was the coolest thing in the All-Star Game how many people in that clubhouse still believe in us. I don’t know if they like it or not, but they let us know how good we are. If we forgot about that, the three guys that were there and the coaching staff, the players reminded us.”

Those reminders will need to turn into production soon if Boston hopes to even have a chance to defend its World Series title.

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Astros exec suggested using cameras to spy in ’17, sources say

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A high-ranking Houston Astros official asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts leading up to the 2017 postseason, hoping to steal signs and suggesting the potential use of cameras to do so, sources familiar with the request told ESPN.

The reaction among those who received an email from Kevin Goldstein, a special assistant to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, was mixed, sources told ESPN. Some were intrigued by the idea, sources who received the email said, while others were bothered with the thoughts of pointing cameras toward opposing teams’ dugouts, a plan that could have earned them scorn without the scouting community if caught.

The email, which was first reported by The Athletic and confirmed by recipients to ESPN, is the first indication of Astros front-office involvement in potential cheating and further reveals the scope of Houston’s attempts to gain advantages through intercepted signs. Major League Baseball is investigating the organization’s methods of sign-stealing after pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that during its World Series-winning 2017 season the team used a live video feed to steal catchers’ signs and transmit them to hitters by banging on a trash can.

Goldstein, who did not return a message seeking comment, wrote in the email: “One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can’t] do and report back your findings.”

MLB’s investigation ramped up this week as interviewers spoke with on-field and front-office staff from the Astros and other teams. As the investigators attempt to confirm the allegations by Fiers, they continue to lay groundwork for other tentacles of alleged cheating, which people around baseball fear has grown into an epidemic in recent years.

“Technology and stealing info is going to be the black eye of this generation,” one longtime Astros employee said. “It’s really the last frontier that isn’t banned. It’s a way to get a competitive advantage without altering the actual players.”

The Pandora’s box of technology use, even with new rules put into place before the 2019 season, continues to vex a sport that encourages teams to meander into gray areas. Sign-stealing long has been a part of baseball, supported by players and scouts alike, particularly runners on second base eyeing the catchers’ signals and relaying them to the batter.

The use of cameras to do so is regarded as unethical by many and due to recent rule changes is now codified as illegal by MLB. The level of punishment for those involved in the Astros’ alleged 2017 sign stealing might depend on commissioner Rob Manfred’s interpretation of a rule against using technology for “stealing signs or conveying information.” In 2017, the league fined the Boston Red Sox for using an Apple Watch in their dugout.

The breadth of the Astros’ willingness to use technology for on-field advantages continues to come into focus. During the 2018 postseason, Kyle McLaughlin, an Astros baseball operations staffer, was removed from the camera wells next to the dugouts of the Cleveland Indians and Red Sox during the postseason after pointing a cell phone into the dugout. Luhnow said the Astros simply were running a counterintelligence operation against the teams to ensure they were not cheating.

The 2017 plans relayed by Goldstein involved a pro scouting department that since has been gutted, with the Astros’ analytics-scouting balance since then tilting wildly to the side of analytics — “99 to 1,” according to a person familiar with the team’s resources. Much of the Astros’ scouting work today, sources said, involves cameras and video.

On-field personnel that has drawn the interest of the league includes Red Sox manager and former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, New York Mets manager and former Astros DH Carlos Beltran, Astros manager A.J. Hinch and Red Sox bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, who had the same job with Houston in 2017.

MLB’s probe follows years of cheating allegations by teams regularly reported to the league office because of suspicious actions or anomalous results. The league has looked into past allegations against the Astros by Oakland last August and the McLaughlin incidents in October and cleared Houston of wrongdoing. The scope of the investigation is expected to include other Astros teams, including the 2019 version that lost the World Series in seven games.

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Vera Clemente, widow of Pirates legend, dies at age 78

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PITTSBURGH — Vera Clemente, the widow of Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and a goodwill ambassador for Major League Baseball, has died. She was 78.

MLB and the Pittsburgh Pirates announced her death Saturday. She died in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

MLB says Vera Clemente had health issues recently. The Pittsburgh Pirates tweeted on Nov. 1 that she had been hospitalized in “delicate health.”

Vera and Roberto Clemente were married in November 1964, according to the Roberto Clemente Foundation. Roberto Clemente was a 15-time All-Star with the Pirates. He was killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred says Vera Clemente “impacted countless children and extended her family’s humanitarian legacy of helping those in need.”

Vera Clemente served as the chairwoman for the foundation, which works “to promote positive change and community engagement through the example and inspiration of Roberto.” Vera and Roberto had three sons: Roberto Jr., Luis and Enrique.

Pirates owner Bob Nutting called Clemente “a cherished member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Major League Baseball family.” He says she “epitomized grace, dignity and strength in the wake of heartbreaking tragedy and loss.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Judge says MASN should pay Nats based on MLB panel decision

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NEW YORK — A judge has ordered lawyers for the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles to submit a proposed judgment of what the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network should pay the Nationals for television rights from 2012 to ’16 based on the decision issued in April by an arbitration panel of three baseball executives.

New York Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen wrote in a decision issued Thursday that MASN should pay the Nationals the $296.8 million recommended by the panel, minus rights fees MASN already has paid for that five-year period. Cohen said the clerk of the court should calculate interest on the net amount from April 15 through the date the remaining money is paid.

Cohen heard renewed arguments Tuesday and denied a motion by the Orioles to reargue the case that led to his Aug. 22 decision to confirm the arbitration award. He said the sides should jointly submit a proposed judgment by Nov. 21 and also said the Orioles are not precluded from seeking recalculations of MASN profit distributions.

The Orioles and Nationals jointly own MASN and have been fighting in court for years. MASN was established in March 2005 after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington and became the Nationals, moving into what had been Baltimore’s exclusive broadcast territory since 1972. The Orioles have a controlling interest in the network.

MASN paid the Nationals for 2012-16 what the Orioles proposed, $197.5 million, and Washington argued it should be paid $475 million.

The parties agreed in 2005 to have disputes over rights fees decided by Major League Baseball’s Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee. The decision by the RSDC in April was made by Milwaukee Brewers chairman Mark Attanasio, Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather and Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro.

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