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Fans want Astros players punished for sign-stealing scandal

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More than half of Major League Baseball fans believe that Houston Astros players should have been penalized along with team management in the aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal that’s gripped the game over the past week, according to an online survey conducted among 1,010 adults, including 810 MLB fans, nationwide Thursday and Friday on behalf of ESPN.

Fifty-eight percent of adults responded that Astros players should have been penalized by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, according to the survey. In addition, the vast majority (72% of adults and 76% of MLB fans) said they would support MLB taking additional steps to punish players who were involved in sign-stealing.

According to the survey, MLB fans are paying a lot of attention to the scandal, with 61% of the game’s fans polled saying they are closely following events surrounding the Astros and Boston Red Sox. One-third of MLB fans say they might watch those two teams less, though most Americans say the doping/steroids scandal was worse than the current sign-stealing scandal that led the Houston Astros to fire general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, with the Red Sox parting with manager Alex Cora. The New York Mets were not involved in a sign-stealing scandal, but parted with new manager Carlos Beltran, who was involved with the scandal while a player with the Astros. The survey was started before Beltran and the Mets parted.

Among avid MLB fans, 86% view the situation as serious, with 57% saying it’s very serious, compared to 83% of the game’s overall fans considering it serious, including 52% who say it’s a very serious situation. Among all Americans, 77% find it serious, with 45% finding it to be very serious.

Most Americans say the doping/steroids scandal was worse than this one (49% say doping was worse vs 24% who say the current sign stealing scandal was worse) but rank this scandal above Pete Rose gambling on his own team (44% say this scandal is worse vs 25% for the Pete Rose scandal).

While over half of Americans view both the Astros (56%) and Red Sox (52%) less favorable in light of the scandals, the negative impact is less severe for the MLB, the players, and the owners, with 54% saying their views of MLB itself are unchanged and 53% saying their views of their players haven’t changed. Just under half (49%) say their views of the game’s owners have changed, although around a third or slightly more say they have a less favorable view of each of these entities or groups.

Among MLB fans, it’s about an even split when it comes to whether the teams caught cheating should have their championships stripped, with 56% saying the Astros should relinquish their 2017 championship and 53% believing the Red Sox should do the same.

While 60% of adults and MLB fans alike say the scandals make no difference in their likelihood to watch MLB games, around a third of fans say they are less likely to watch the Astros or the Red Sox.

Roughly 3 in 4 Americans (74%) and MLB fans (76%) believe most teams were using technology to steal signs, but it’s just the Astros and Red Sox who got caught.

The survey has a margin of error of +/-3%, and the margin of error among 810 MLB fans is also +/-3%.

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A case for Francisco Lindor as the MLB Latino Face of the 2020s

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With the MLB postseason here and Hispanic Heritage Month underway, ESPN found the timing ideal to tackle one of the bigger debates among one section of baseball’s fandom: With so many superstar candidates, which one is most worthy of being labeled the current Face of Latino Baseball?

Our friends at ESPN Deportes and FiveThirtyEight devised a formula using on-field performance, social media popularity, feedback from 30 ESPN analysts and fan votes to get to the answer. The results produced a ballot that stands at four candidates: the Atlanta BravesRonald Acuña Jr. from Venezuela, Dominican players Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, and Puerto Rico’s Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians. All are young, charismatic, popular and have enough accomplishments in their short careers to be considered for the honor.

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2:38

Francisco Lindor’s greatest victory didn’t come on the baseball field. Check out this excerpt from E:60’s Francisco Lindor: La Gran Victoria.

Each day this week, we will present the case for each of the four superstars, with our winner to be revealed Friday. We started Monday with Acuña, and continue today with Lindor, the Indians’ charismatic shortstop.

Stats

Since his MLB debut in 2015, Lindor ranks first among all shortstops in WAR (28.4), home runs (138) and extra-base hits, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He also ranks second in RBIs (411) and runs (508), and fifth in OPS (.835) and slugging (.485), while batting .285. At 26, the native of Caguas has earned four All-Star nods, two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers to go with a World Series appearance in 2016 and a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2015.

Social media popularity

Lindor is the third-most popular Latino player on Instagram with more than 767,000 followers. Only fellow Puerto Ricans Javier Baez and Carlos Correa have higher numbers. Lindor has posted 34 times in 2020, generating more than 2.8 million views, the second-highest number for any Latino player behind Correa.

Web searches

Although Lindor is one of baseball’s most popular players, he ranks 10th among Latino stars in average Google Trends index since the start of the 2019 season. With the Indians out of the playoffs in 2019, Lindor missed the usual spike in search popularity for baseball stars during the postseason, and his search index average places him behind other Latino players such as Baez, Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres and 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez.

Experts

Lindor, a key player in Puerto Rico’s runner-up finish at the most recent World Baseball Classic in 2017, garnered four first-place votes and 16 top-3 votes from our panel of ESPN experts. He appeared on 23 of the 30 ballots.

“Lindor is at a perfect moment in his career,” ESPN staff writer Alden Gonzalez said. “Lindor has talent, youth, energy and a magnetic smile. He’s the complete package.”

Special category: Fan vote

Between Aug. 26-28, you, the fans, had a hand in deciding who should be the Latino Face of Baseball through four tightly contested polls.

Lindor finished last in all of the polls, registering 12% on ESPN Béisbol, 10.7% on ESPN Deportes, 15.6% on ESPN Mexico and 12.6% on SC Español.



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Ahead of the presidential election, America’s sports stadiums and arenas become polling centers

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Ever stepped inside a ballpark or football stadium and marveled at how many people can fit inside?

Now those spaces are going to be put to another good use, with many arenas and stadiums across professional sports slated to be turned into polling centers on and before Election Day on Nov. 3.

In the 2016 election, according to Pew Research Center, just 55% of eligible Americans voted — could the intersection of sports and politics lead to more voter turnout, even during the coronavirus pandemic?

“The potential for this kind of creativity is very high. People already trust brands like sports teams — they have identity connections with them. That makes them trusted messengers in a way,” Dr. Jonathan Metzl, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, told ESPN.

Further, Metzl noted that stadiums are safer than traditional polling places right now, “because you can social distance, there’s good airflow, you’re not crammed in there. And so, from a public health perspective, stadiums are also potentially much safer.”

Also, stadiums and arenas are usually close to public transportation systems, making it easier for voters to get to the location, Metzl added.

Here are the arenas and stadiums across professional sports being turned into polling and voting centers:

NFL

Atlanta Falcons

  • Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 1 AMB Dr. NW, Atlanta, GA 30313.

  • Capacity: 71,000.

  • Details: Unknown.

Carolina Panthers

  • Bank of America Stadium, 800 S Mint St., Charlotte, NC 28202.

  • Capacity: 75,412.

  • Details: From Oct. 15-31, Mecklenburg County voters can cast their ballots ahead of Election Day at the stadium.

Detroit Lions

  • Ford Field, 2000 Brush St., Detroit, MI 48226.

  • Details: Ford Field will not be a place to cast ballots, but rather to check them. The building will host 8 of 12 of Detroit’s receiving boards, which ensure integrity of results and ballots from precincts.

Green Bay Packers

  • Lambeau Field, 1265 Lombardi Ave., Green Bay, WI 54304.

  • Details: Johnsonville Tailgate Village — a 13,432 square foot building on site — will be a polling location on Nov. 3.

Houston Texans

  • NRG Park (NRG Stadium and NRG Arena).

  • Details: NRG Park has been designated as the election headquarters for the Harris County Clerk’s Office and for the 2020 presidential election. Early in-person voting will be held Oct. 13-30 in Hall D at NRG Arena. Drive-thru early voting will be held Oct.13-30 in NRG Park’s Blue Lot 16. On Nov. 3, in-person voting will be held at NRG Arena (Capacity: 8,000) and drive-thru voting will be in NRG Park’s Blue Lot 16.

Indianapolis Colts

  • Lucas Oil Stadium, 500 S Capitol Ave., Indianapolis, IN, 46225.

  • Capacity: 70,000.

  • Details: Vote in-person on Nov. 3 between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Kansas City Chiefs

  • Arrowhead Stadium, 1 Arrowhead Dr., Kansas City, MO 64129.

  • Capacity: 76,416.

  • Details: Arrowhead will serve as Election Day polling place for people who live within the city limits of Kansas City in Jackson County.

Los Angeles Chargers and Rams

  • SoFi Stadium, 1000 S Prairie Ave., Inglewood, CA 90301.

  • Details: A voting center outside the stadium will open Oct. 30.

Seattle Seahawks

  • CenturyLink Field, 800 Occidental Ave. S, Seattle, WA 98134.

  • Capacity: 72,000.

  • Details: Was open for the August primary as a voting center for ballot drop-off, a way to get a replacement ballot or to register to vote. CenturyLink will be open on Nov. 3 for day-of voting.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Raymond James Stadium, 4201 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL 33607.

  • Capacity: 65,890.

  • Details: An early voting site, from Oct. 19-Nov. 1.

Washington Football Team

  • FedEx Field, 1600 FedEx Way, Landover, MD 20785.

  • Details: Any registered Prince George’s County voter can go on Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. to vote at the third-floor club level of the stadium.

NBA

Atlanta Hawks

  • State Farm Arena, 1 State Farm Dr., Atlanta, GA 30303.

  • Capacity: 21,000.

  • Details: The arena will open Oct. 12 in advance of Election Day, and a portion of the building also will be set aside for counting mail-in-ballots. It is the largest voting location in the state’s history.

Brooklyn Nets

  • Barclays Center, 620 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217.

  • Capacity: 19,000.

  • Details: Barclays Center will serve as a polling site for both early voting from Oct. 24-Nov. 1 and on Nov. 3. Barclays Center will be the largest voting space in Brooklyn.

Charlotte Hornets

  • Spectrum Center, 333 E Trade St., Charlotte, NC 28202.

  • Capacity: 20,200.

  • Details: Spectrum Center will host early voting from Oct. 15-31.

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, 1, Center Court, Cleveland, OH 44115.

  • Capacity: 20,562.

  • Details: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse will serve as a polling location on Nov. 3. Only registered voters residing in precincts I, L and Q in Cleveland’s Ward 3 will be able to cast their in-person ballot at the FieldHouse.

Dallas Mavericks

  • American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., Dallas, TX 75219.

  • Capacity: 20,000.

  • Details: American Airlines Center will serve as the largest polling place in Dallas county for early voting from Oct. 30-Nov. 3. Comerica Center, 2601 Avenue of the Stars, Frisco, TX 75034. Capacity: 7,000. Details: The Comerica Center, home of the G League team the Texas Legends, will be a polling site for Collin County on Nov. 3.

Detroit Pistons

  • Henry Ford Performance Center, 690 Amsterdam St., Detroit, MI 48202.

  • Capacity: 54,000-square-feet.

  • Details: The training facility will allow people to register and vote on-site on Nov. 3.

Golden State Warriors

  • Kaiser Permanente Arena, 140 Front St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

  • Oakland Facility, 1011 Broadway, Oakland CA 94607.

  • Chase Center, 1 Warriors Way, San Francisco, CA 9415.

  • Details:: The team’s Oakland Facility and Kaiser Permanente Arena will both serve as polling sites and ballot drop-off locations Nov. 3. Thrive City, the outdoor area outside of Chase Center, will serve as a ballot drop-off location for San Francisco County voters from Oct. 31-Nov. 3.

Houston Rockets

  • Toyota Center, 1510 Polk St., Houston, TX 77002.

  • Capacity: 18,300.

  • Details: Toyota Center will be open to any registered voter in Harris County from Oct. 13-30 and on Nov. 3.

Indiana Pacers

Los Angeles Clippers

  • The Forum, 3900 W Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90305.

  • Capacity: 17,505.

  • Details: Voters will be able to vote in person or drop off mail-in ballots at The Forum (which Clippers owner Steve Ballmer bought in March) from Oct. 24-Nov. 3.

Los Angeles Lakers

  • Staples Center, 1111 S Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90015.

  • Capacity: 20,000.

  • Details: L.A. County residents can vote in person Oct. 30-Nov. 3. Staples Center will also act as a vote by mail drop box location.

Milwaukee Bucks

  • Fiserv Forum, 1111 Vel R. Phillips Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53203.

  • Capacity: 17,341.

  • Details: Voters can cast in-ballot ballots Oct. 20-Nov. 1.

New York Knicks

  • Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY 10001.

  • Capacity: 20,789.

  • Details: Madison Square Garden will serve over 60,000 eligible voters, making it the largest polling site in New York City. Manhattan voters who are assigned to Madison Square Garden can vote early from Oct. 24-Nov. 1, and voting booths will be located at Madison Square Garden’s Chase Square. Voters can also vote on Nov. 3.

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Chesapeake Arena, 100 W Reno Ave., Oklahoma City, OK 73102.

  • Capacity: 18,203.

  • Details: The Thunder will hold voter registration drives inside Chesapeake Energy Arena every Saturday from Sept.12-Oct. 4 until the Oct. 9 deadline to register to vote in the general election.

Orlando Magic

  • Amway Center, 400 W Church St #200, Orlando, FL 32801.

  • Capacity: 20,000.

  • Details: Orange County registered voters will be able to vote early from Oct. 19-Nov. 1 inside the Disney Atrium.

Phoenix Suns

  • Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 1826 W McDowell Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85007.

  • Capacity: 14,870.

  • Details: Vote in-person on Nov. 3 or drop off your ballot early.

Sacramento Kings

  • Golden 1 Center, 500 David J Stern Walk, Sacramento, CA 95814.

  • Capacity: 17,608.

  • Details: From Oct. 24-Nov. 3., any Sacramento County resident can drop off a completed ballot, get a new ballot printed to take home, vote in person, register to vote, update voter registration, receive language assistance or use an accessible ballot marking device to vote.

San Antonio Spurs

  • AT&T Center, 1 AT&T Center Parkway, San Antonio, TX 78219.

  • Capacity: 18,581.

  • Details: Residents can vote in person early from Oct. 13-30 and on Nov. 3.

Utah Jazz

  • Vivint Arena, 301 S Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84101.

  • Details: Voters can vote on Nov. 3 in-person instead of mailing in their ballot.

Washington Wizards

  • Capital One Arena, 601 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004.

  • Capacity: 20,356.

  • Details: The arena offers D.C. voters the opportunity to register, cast their ballot or drop-off mail-in ballots both early, and on Election Day.

MLB

Baltimore Orioles

  • Camden Yards, 333 W Camden St., Baltimore, MD 21201.

  • Details: Camden Yards voting will be held inside Dempsey’s Brew Pub and Restaurant, according to the city election board.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Dodger Stadium, 1000 Vin Scully Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

  • Capacity: 56,000.

  • Details: For the five days leading up to the Nov. 3 election, all registered voters in Los Angeles County will be able to park for free and vote at the stadium.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Miller Park, 1 Brewers Way, Milwaukee, WI 53214.

  • Details: City of Milwaukee residents can drive through and vote early Oct. 20-Nov. 1.

Washington Nationals

  • Nationals Park, 1500 S Capitol St. SE, Washington, DC 20003.

  • Capacity: 41,313.

  • Details: D.C. residents can vote from Oct. 27-Nov. 3 for the upcoming general election at the park.

NHL

Los Angeles Kings

  • Staples Center, 1111 S Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90015.

  • Capacity: 20,000.

  • Details: L.A. County residents can vote in person Oct. 30-Nov. 3. Staples Center will also be a vote-by-mail drop-box location.

New Jersey Devils

  • Prudential Center, 25 Lafayette St., Newark, NJ 07102.

  • Capacity: 19,500.

  • Details: The week leading up to the Nov 3., Prudential Center will serve as a satellite office of the Essex County Clerk. Residents who want to drop off their ballot or want to vote in-person can do so on Election Day as well.

New York Rangers

  • Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY 10001.

  • Capacity: 20,789.

  • Details: Madison Square Garden will serve more than 60,000 eligible voters, making it the largest polling site in New York City. Manhattan voters who are assigned to Madison Square Garden can vote early from Oct. 24-Nov. 1, and voting booths will be located at Madison Square Garden’s Chase Square. Voters can also vote on Nov. 3.

Tampa Bay Lightning

  • Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Dr., Tampa, FL 33602.

  • Capacity: 20,500.

  • Details: Hillsborough County voters can partake in early voting from Oct. 19 to Nov. 1, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. During that time, the elections office will also set up curbside tents outside each site for voters who want to drop off their mail ballot.

Washington Capitals

  • Capital One Arena, 601 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004.

  • Capacity: 20,356.

  • Details: The arena offers D.C. voters the opportunity to register, cast their ballot or drop off mail-in ballots both early and on Election Day.

MLS

Los Angeles FC

  • Banc of California Stadium, 3939 S Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90037.

  • Capacity: 22,000.

  • Details: L.A. County residents can vote in-person or drop off mail-in ballots at the venue. Further, L.A. County will also conduct additional election support operations at the stadium.

Seattle Sounders

  • CenturyLink Field.

  • Details: Was open for the August primary as a voting center for ballot drop-off, a way to get a replacement ballot or to register to vote. CenturyLink will be open on Nov. 3 for voting.

WNBA

  • The Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury all share arenas with their NBA counterparts that are serving as polling centers. The Dallas Wings are part of the initiative launched by the Dallas Mavericks, though they don’t play at American Airlines Center. After a push from players, the Washington Mystics’ home at Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. will be a voting center on Election Day. Like Capital One Arena and Nationals Park, will be open from Oct. 27-Nov. 2 for early voting and again for in-person voting on Nov. 3.



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Jeff Passan’s 20 questions as the MLB playoffs begin

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Someone asked about the best thing I saw in the 2020 Major League Baseball regular season, and my answer was baseball. Not a titanic Ronald Acuna Jr. home run or a dazzling Mookie Betts throw or an obscene Yu Darvish splitter or Trevor Bauer doing his Conor McGregor walk or Fernando Tatis Jr.’s drip or a Jose Ramirez walk-off or Adalberto Mondesi stealing second or Juan Soto swinging or Tim Anderson flipping or Mike Trout Mike Trouting, though admittedly I enjoyed all of those things.

Honestly, it was great to just see a groundout.

Months without baseball — with labor issues that were every bit as much to blame for the lack thereof as the coronavirus pandemic — were brutal. Then, when the game returned, and COVID-19 outbreaks sidelined two teams, and people across front offices and even the commissioner worried about pulling off a full season, it felt dire.

I took solace in the simple things. A center-cut, 90 mph fastball, about the worst pitch there is? Beautiful. A dropped popup? It happens. That rollover 6-3? Poetry. Because when compared to the alternative — a summer without the summer game, a fall without the Fall Classic — the mundane became magnificent.

Now here baseball is, still, with the first pitch of the postseason set to be thrown by Kenta Maeda at 2 p.m. ET today on ABC. Three more games follow, and then Wednesday’s cornucopia blossoms to eight, with playoff games at noon, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 10. Again: That’s one day, eight postseason games. This super-sized postseason doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a regular-sized regular season, but it feels quite strong in the moment.

With something that came together so on-the-fly — 10 of the 16 teams’ seeds were determined Sunday, the last day of the season — there are bound to be questions. You’re in luck.

Who’s going to win the World Series?

First question, huh?

Isn’t it what people want to know?

Fine. The Los Angeles Dodgers. I was picking them when the season was 162 games. I picked them when the season was announced at 60. I’m picking them now. Nothing I’ve seen has dissuaded me.

They aren’t just deep. They ooze top-end talent. Betts reminded everyone this year that he’s a top-five player in baseball. Shortstop Corey Seager fulfilled the promise of his rookie season. Will Smith might be the best offensive catcher in the game. Outfielder A.J. Pollock, thought to be a free-agent bust, whacked 16 home runs. Third baseman Justin Turner was his rock-solid self. Utilityman Chris Taylor defies the mediocrity implied by his position. Oh, and the Dodgers have last year’s National League MVP, Cody Bellinger, ready to turn October into his playground.

Their best pitcher has the worst ERA in the rotation: Walker Buehler at 3.44. Two rookies, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, have sub-3.00 ERAs. Clayton Kershaw looks like Clayton Kershaw of old. The Dodgers’ relievers aren’t big names. They just had the lowest walk and home run rate of any bullpen in baseball.

This is a superteam. The Dodgers outscored their opponents by 2.27 runs per game, the fourth-highest difference ever, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The two previous teams to top that, the 1927 and 1939 New York Yankees, swept the World Series. The other, the 1902 Pirates, played the year before the first World Series. They finished 103-36.

The 43-17 Dodgers weren’t quite at that level, though their .717 winning percentage is the best in baseball since Cleveland went 111-43 in 1954. After losing in the 2017 and 2018 World Series to a pair of teams later investigated by Major League Baseball for cheating, this is the Dodgers’ year to add their first ring since 1988.

You sure?

Of course not. Baseball is not basketball. It isn’t football. It isn’t any other major sport. It’s a game in which the worst team can beat the best team, and it isn’t some kind of monumental upset. With the wild-card round this year made up of three-game series and the division series running five before the seven-game league championship and World Series, the 2020 playoffs are ripe for upsets — even with the best teams.

Sweet hedge, bro. Whom are the Dodgers going to face in the World Series?

The Tampa Bay Rays.

Hold on. You’re talking about how baseball is a sport of massive variance, of potential upsets, of a mad October just waiting to happen … and you picked a World Series between the No. 1 seeds?

Uhhhhhh …

You’re the worst. Why the Rays?

There is not a superteam in the American League. There are a bunch of good-to-great teams that beat up on one another all season. The Rays are like the Dodgers without the glitz and glamour. They are fundamentally exquisite. They walk about as much as anyone. They run with intelligence and purpose. They catch the ball with aplomb. Their starting pitchers — especially Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton, their dynamic trio — rate with just about every other three-man offering in baseball. Their bullpen had the second-lowest walk and home run rates.

There are two criticisms of the Rays. The first is that they strike out too much. That is a real vulnerability this October. The second is that they don’t have any stars. That is nonsensical and needs to be launched into a black hole so it can vanish forever. If people don’t know who plays for the Rays, they’re the problem because they’re the ones missing out.

Oh, and one more thing: Against teams .500 or better this season, Tampa Bay was 21-9. That was the best such record in the big leagues. The Rays know how to beat good teams. And that’s what October is about.

Who are the greatest threats to the Dodgers and Rays?

Atlanta and Minnesota.

The Braves can really, really, really hit. In 26 September games, they scored 173 runs — nearly 6.7 per game. Take out the 29 runs they dropped on the Miami Marlins, and it’s still 5.8 runs per game, a huge number. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna led the NL in home runs and RBIs and finished 14 batting average points shy of an outright Triple Crown … and he wasn’t the best hitter on his team. Freddie Freeman is the NL MVP favorite — with good reason. Here’s the list of first basemen in history with a triple-slash of at least .341/.462/.640, which Freeman put up this season: Lou Gehrig seven times, Jimmie Foxx twice and Albert Pujols, Todd Helton, Carlos Delgado and Norm Cash once apiece. That’s some company.

We haven’t even talked about Acuña or the phenomenal Travis d’Arnaud or Dansby Swanson or Ozzie Albies or Adam Duvall. Not to mention a severely underrated bullpen. All anyone wants to talk about with the Braves is their paucity of starting pitching. Yeah, it’s real, and with league series this October featuring no off days, that might prove to be a problem. Compared to others’ issues, though, it isn’t necessarily a killer.

The Twins are different. They aren’t quite the Bomba Squad of last year. They aren’t sure if they’re going to have third baseman Josh Donaldson or center fielder Byron Buxton for the wild-card series. But nobody pitched better in September than the Twins, who lead off with Kenta Maeda (the presumptive AL Cy Young runner-up), follow with Jose Berrios (who looks dialed in) and chase him with Michael Pineda (who hasn’t allowed a homer in 26⅔ innings this year). The Twins have big arms with swing-and-miss stuff throughout their bullpen, and manager Rocco Baldelli comes from the Tampa Bay tree and is plenty versed in mixing and matching.

It’s not like the Twins are some scrub-ridden offense, either. The ageless Nelson Cruz is a marvel. Donaldson is a delight when he plays. Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Buxton are pure excitement, though each could stand to get on base more.

Put it this way: If the Twins don’t snap their 16-game postseason losing streak — that’s not a misprint — against the 29-31 Astros, something will have gone very wrong.

Did you say 29-31?

Sure did. The Brewers finished with that record, too. Welcome to the consequence of expanded playoffs: Houston and Milwaukee’s .483 winning percentage is the worst ever for a postseason baseball team, just behind that of the 1981 Kansas City Royals, who went 50-53 (.485) and made the playoffs in that year’s split, strike-shortened season.

Those aren’t the only ugly numbers this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the five worst team batting averages ever for playoff teams came in 2020:

2020 Reds: .212
2020 Cubs: .220
2020 Brewers: .223
2020 A’s: .225
2020 Cleveland: .228
1906 White Sox: .230

What’s the best wild-card series?

Give me Braves-Reds. In baseball’s one-year, 16-team experiment, the 2-7 series looks a lot like a 5-12 in the NCAA Tournament — ripe for upset.

Yes, a few hundred words ago, I was singing the Braves’ praise. Yes, a few dozen words ago I was pointing out that over 60 games, the Reds batted .212. Here’s the thing: Cincinnati will start the deserved NL Cy Young winner, Trevor Bauer, in Game 1, follow with Luis Castillo (September: 32⅔ IP, 22 H, 9 BB, 37 K’s, 2.20 ERA) and, if necessary, close with Sonny Gray.

Even though the Reds can’t hit, they walked more than any other team in the National League and finished behind only the Dodgers, Braves and Padres, three swatalicious teams, with 90 home runs. In fact, 59.7% of the Reds’ runs came via the long ball — by far the highest in baseball history, according to ESPN Stats & Info. (The previous best: Toronto in 2019, with 53.2%.)

How about in the American League?

It would be so ESPN of me to say Yankees and whomever the Yankees are playing, right?

It would.

Well, tough. Yankees-Cleveland really is that interesting. It’s not just the matchup between Shane Bieber (who made $230,815 this year and is going to win the Cy Young unanimously) and Gerrit Cole (who made $810,000 per start this year and was very good, especially in September). Greatness abounds. Ramirez should win the AL MVP — and he might be the second-most talented player on the left side of the infield, with Francisco Lindor manning shortstop. The right side of the Yankees’ infield balances the ledger rather nicely, with second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the AL batting champ, and Luke Voit, the league’s home run king.

Both bullpens are deep. The Cleveland rotation, with Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac, is a nice counterbalance to a Yankees lineup that is clearly stronger, especially in the outfield. Four Yankees numbers are of concern: 11-18 and 10-17. The first is their record on the road. The Yankees were dreadful away from the Bronx this year. The second is their record against teams .500 or better. Against Boston and Baltimore, the dregs of the AL East, New York went 16-4. Against all other teams: 17-23.

Why aren’t they starting Gary Sanchez?

Marly Rivera explains it really well in a piece everyone ought to read, but the tl;dr version is: Sanchez has been awful this year, and Cole is more comfortable throwing to Kyle Higashioka.

OK, smart guy. Who are going to be the breakout players this October?

A few names to consider:

Garrett Crochet, relief pitcher, Chicago White Sox: Drafted 11th overall in June, the left-hander out of Tennessee has pitched six scoreless innings, struck out eight and averaged 100.2 mph on his fastball.

Sean Murphy, C, Oakland Athletics: Nobody was better for Oakland in September than the rookie catcher.

Randy Arozarena, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: He destroys left-handed pitching, and with the Blue Jays featuring a number of lefty options (including Hyun-Jin Ryu), he’ll have ample opportunity.

Trent Grisham, CF, San Diego Padres: Last you saw him in the playoffs, Grisham was in a Milwaukee uniform overrunning a bad hop that allowed Washington to win the wild-card game — and eventually the World Series. He’ll acquit himself better this time around.

Tony Gonsolin, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers: The latest product of the Dodgers’ player development machine doesn’t have the same raw stuff as May but has incredible pitchability.

Tyler Duffey, reliever, Minnesota Twins: Presuming, of course, the Twins are ahead in a postseason game for once and need to call upon their best high-leverage reliever.

Nick Anderson, reliever, Rays: He’s the best reliever in the game. Now it’s time for the whole baseball world to see it.

Will Smith, C, Dodgers: He has been the best hitter on the best team in baseball, and he calls a delightful game, too. The rich get richer.

Austin Adams, reliever, Padres: Back from knee surgery and throwing vicious sliders, the right-hander was a secondary player in the Austin Nola deal before the trade deadline and could pitch his way into primary status.

James Karinchak, reliever, Cleveland: He struck out 53 in 27 innings and should be deployed as an old-school fireman.

Nate Pearson, reliever, Toronto Blue Jays: Typically a starter, he has slotted into a bullpen role and will throw 102 mph fastballs regularly.

What’s the most seemingly lopsided matchup in Game 1?

The White Sox are 14-0 against left-handed starters this year. Against all lefties, they’re hitting .285/.364/.523. The A’s will start rookie Jesus Luzardo. He is left-handed.

The response from White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson: “I guess they haven’t done their homework.”

Perhaps not, though the White Sox have a fair bit of Yankees vibes to them. Their record against the two worst teams in the AL Central, Kansas City and Detroit: 18-2. Their record against everyone else: 17-23. Their record against .500-or-better teams: 12-20.

The Athletics’ Chris Bassitt just won AL Pitcher of the Month for September. Why aren’t teams’ best starters going in Game 1?

It’s not just Oakland. Ryu will get plenty of down-ballot Cy Young support, and he’s starting Game 2 for Toronto behind Matt Shoemaker, even though that pushes Taijuan Walker, Toronto’s second-best starter, to Game 3, which might not be needed. The Cubs might go with Kyle Hendricks ahead of Yu Darvish, a strong Cy Young candidate in the NL. Even though Marlins rookie Sixto Sanchez is the most talented arm on the team with the highest upside, Sandy Alcantara is likely to get the nod.

One decision-maker suggested that the difference between Game 1 and Game 2 simply isn’t that big. Another person said some teams think Game 2 is more important and will save their best pitcher for it — and give an extra day’s rest by doing so. That said, the Elias Sports Bureau passed along an awfully interesting statistic about three-game series. In the past 10 regular seasons, teams that won the first game of a three-game set went on to win the series 75.5% of the time.

What’s the Cardinals’ excuse for not pitching Jack Flaherty in Game 1 or Game 2?

No idea.

Flaherty is the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He doesn’t have the best ERA; that belongs to Kwang-Hyun Kim, the 32-year-old left-hander in his first season who has posted a 1.62 ERA. Flaherty doesn’t have the most experience; that’s Adam Wainwright, the 39-year-old who has been very good this year, too.

Between Kim and Wainwright, though, the Cardinals are trying to pull off some kind of a trick. This season, 126 starters threw at least 30 innings. Only 17 of them averaged below 90 mph on their fastballs. Kim and Wainwright are two of them.

On fastballs between 88 and 92 mph this year, according to Statcast, the Padres hit .329 and slugged a major league-best .658.

One more time: Flaherty, even with his 4.91 ERA, is the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He has the best stuff. He has the right attitude. In fact, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said on MLB Network that Flaherty would go in Game 2. Then, suddenly, the Cardinals decided he wouldn’t. If they win one of the first two games, it will look very smart. If they don’t, they’ll have lost a postseason series without using their ace.

What other pitchers aren’t we seeing?

Right-handers Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, on whom a deep Padres playoff run almost certainly depends, are both questions after exiting their last starts. Justin Verlander’s Tommy John surgery leaves a gaping hole in an Astros rotation that is middle of the pack without him. The Braves with a healthy Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels would be an even greater threat to the Dodgers than they are already. Had Corbin Burnes not caught an oblique in his final start of the season, the specter of Milwaukee ousting Los Angeles would loom far more realistically than it does.

How can the Brewers beat the Dodgers?

Let Craig Counsell do his managerial wizardry and leverage his bullpen to the hilt over three days.

An important thing to note for these next four days of wild-card action: The AL Division Series don’t begin until Oct. 5, four days after the scheduled Game 3 of the wild card. The NL layoff is the same. As teams go into playoff bubbles, they’ll get ample rest.

Counsell is almost certain to go bullpen game in the opener. For Game 2, he has Brandon Woodruff, who is fantastic and has the sort of stuff that can handcuff the Dodgers. Game 3, if it gets there, will probably be all hands on deck again.

Those hands, though, they’re pretty good. The best reliever in the NL this year wasn’t Josh Hader, the Brewers’ closer who has held that title in recent seasons. It was Brewers right-hander Devin Williams, a 26-year-old rookie who, like Karinchak, struck out 53 in 27 innings, allowed just eight hits, posted a 0.33 ERA and regularly used the single best pitch in baseball this season, his changeup.

There’s Hader and Williams. Right-hander Freddy Peralta is a strikeout monster, too. Lefty Brent Suter, who has started and could serve as an opener, is a ground ball machine. Same with Adrian Houser. They’re still not the best on the Brewers at inducing grounders: That’s side-arming right-hander Eric Yardley, who is the perfect countermeasure with a 61.2% ground ball rate. There’s also Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa, two rookies with fastball velocity that sits at 98 mph.

This takes a lot of squinting and some dreaming. But again: This is baseball. Anything can happen.

Like a positive COVID-19 test?

Holy Debbie Downer.

It’s worth asking about.

That’s fair. Considering how the coronavirus nearly waylaid the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ seasons, it’s reasonable to ask how a positive test would affect the postseason, especially when MLB is endeavoring to create a bubble around teams.

The protocol after individual positive tests as the season progressed was typically to miss a few games. Baseball’s playoffs are crammed into such a short time period that postponements aren’t an option. The league’s postseason operations manual calls for all of the usual steps: contact tracing, follow-up testing (even though players and staff are being tested every day) and trying to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.

If there is an outbreak, teams are traveling with a dozen replacement players who can fill in. The idea of that — participating in a postseason with lower-tier players — does not sit well with some officials but is a reality with which they’re learning to live.

Too much is at stake for MLB to lose the playoffs. Owners are counting on the billion or so dollars in postseason TV revenue. It’s the league’s greatest source of income this year, and MLB will do everything it can to secure that bag — including forcing teams to play with lesser talent.

Are there going to be fans?

“That’s the hope,” one official familiar with the situation said Monday. Whether they will appear at the NLCS in Arlington, Texas, or the World Series at Globe Life Field is unclear.

Owners, one person in contact with them said recently, “are desperate to get fans back this year. They want to show that it’s possible so they can have fans on Opening Day next year.”

Don’t expect a packed house. At most, the stadium might be filled to a quarter of capacity. That would still be 10,000 more fans per game than there were at any of the 898 played during the regular season.

What are you most excited for this October?

Baseball.

But not just the simple stuff. The finest teams in the world are vying for a championship. This is the moment for greatness. For the best players playing the best. For Acuña and Betts and Darvish and Bauer and Tatis and Ramirez and Anderson and everyone else showing out.

MLB’s October sizzle reel is full of bright colors and big swings and premium flow and dancing and bubble blowing. It’s DJ Khaled talking over BTS and trying to sell this as the same game for a new generation. “If you don’t know,” Khaled says, “now you know.”

Here’s what those of us in the know know: October is when the best baseball is played, when the best moments are forged, when history, which the game holds so dear, is made. It starts with four games today, doubles on Wednesday and moves forward from there — the biggest playoff field ever, the most games ever, the greatest number of opportunities for those moments.

It’s time to crown a champion. Baseball certainly earned it.



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