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Breakout pitchers to draft in fantasy baseball

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Even in this age of analytics, it’s not easy to assemble a quality fantasy pitching staff. Pitching workloads are in decline, and the advent of the “opener” is accelerating the death of the win and, alarmingly, the quality start. Consider that in each of the past three seasons working forward, only 58, 57 and 61 pitchers met the qualification threshold for an ERA title, with those easily the three lowest totals of the divisional era (starting in 1969). The 2019 season also saw starting pitchers average a record-low 5.18 innings per start — a 3.5% reduction from 2018 alone and down 15.2% from 2014, or just five seasons prior. There were a total of 1,183 quality starts last season, which represented a drop of 621 from the league’s 2014 total.

When it comes to pitching, perhaps there’s a better title for these times: “The age of streaming.” Ah, but how does one assemble a more matchups-based or even streak-oriented pitching staff? As pitching workloads decrease, so does the potential payoff from your draft-day investments, forcing a more discount-driven strategy — especially at the lower tiers of your roster. You need to take more skills-driven chances at the draft table, while being sharper at identifying those waiver-wire gems.

That’s where this column comes in. One way to identify such draft-day gems (not to mention learn the lessons necessary for in-season transaction success, as you’ll see with some of the individual notes below) is to examine the numbers from previous seasons for pitchers whose traditional rotisserie statistics belie their skill sets. Wins, saves and ERA might be the measures in our beloved game, but the ability to miss bats, throw strikes and command the strike zone are the traits you truly want. Pitchers who exhibit an exemplary combination of the three tend to be set up for the greatest success, and those whose wins/saves/ERA were mediocre are often the ones most discounted.

They’re my annual “Kings of Command,” individuals who met an exclusive set of minimum statistical baselines exhibiting these skills.

Kings of Command baseline numbers

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines from the 2019 major league season. You’ll see that these baselines have been adjusted since last year’s column, to keep up with the ever-changing game. The aim here is to identify pitchers who perform ahead of the league’s average in each.

Starting pitchers

Total batters faced (TBF): 200 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 12.0% or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 62.0% or more
Command rate (K’s per walk or K/BB): 3.0 or more

Relief pitchers

Total batters faced (TBF): 100 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 13.5% or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 61.5% of more
Command rate (K’s per walk or K/BB): 3.0 or more

In 2019, only 78 pitchers (36 starters and 42 relievers) met all of these criteria in either role. Included among that group were both Cy Young Award winners, Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander — as well as the pitchers responsible for 923 of the 1,020 total Cy Young balloting points (or 90.5%), Trevor Hoffman relief award winner Josh Hader, each of the top four as well as 19 of the top 25 pitchers overall on our Player Rater, and each of the six highest-scoring as well as 12 of the 15 highest-scoring overall pitchers in terms of fantasy points.

The nine pitchers listed below also met these criteria, despite falling considerably short of the accomplishments of the rest of the bunch, whether on the field or in fantasy baseball leagues. They still compared favorably to this headline-grabbing group, however, signaling that even a small change or better luck might propel them to greatness in 2020.

These “Kings of Command” are listed in alphabetical order, along with their 2019 Player Rater finishes and fantasy point totals using ESPN’s standard scoring system.

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
2019 Player Rater: RP570/1,350th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 16 (RP388)

Why he’s on here: Burnes’ 2019 was, on the surface, hideous. Among 373 pitchers who faced at least 200 batters, his 8.82 ERA was third-worst. The seeds are here for something great, though, beginning with a slider that enjoyed a major league-best 36% swinging-strike rate (minimum 200 thrown). That pitch was largely behind his 12-strikeout, season-opening March 31 start. Burnes’ four-seam fastball also ranked among the league’s leading offerings in terms of spin rate.

How he could improve: Besides better health, as he spent two weeks on the IL with a shoulder issue in July, stronger command of said fastball would help. Burnes located too many four-seamers low in the strike zone, surrendering 8-of-17 home runs on pitches in the lower half. That’s why he reported to spring training committed to changing his approach, and a strong Cactus League showing might again net him a rotation spot –and the higher ceiling that’ll come with it.

Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
2019 Player Rater: RP36/226th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 226 (RP31)

Why he’s on here: He was the No. 1 RP and No. 50 player overall selected (on average) last spring. After flopping to the tune of seven blown saves, a 5.59 ERA and 15 home runs allowed, he will be this year’s poster boy for “going the cheap route” at the position. Diaz’s draft stock has understandably plummeted, but don’t overcorrect, considering he still had the fifth-best swinging strike rate (19.5%) as well as a well-above-league-average K:BB (4.50) and first-pitch strike rates (63.9%).

How he could improve: A return of his career-best 2018 control would help, but better luck might be all it takes for Diaz to reclaim his status as one of the league’s premier closers. His 16.3% HR/FB rate in 2019 was eighth-highest among qualified relievers, not to mention nearly seven full percentage points higher than his 2016-18 combined number, while his .381 BABIP was second-highest among said relievers and 89 points higher than his 2016-18 number (.298).

Max Fried, Atlanta Braves
2019 Player Rater: SP23/145th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 349 (SP37)

Why he’s on here: Injuries paved the way for Fried to claim a spot in Atlanta’s 2019 Opening Day rotation. By year’s end, he was one of only three ERA-qualified pitchers with at least 24% strikeout and 50% ground-ball rates plus an 8% walk rate or less, joining German Marquez and Stephen Strasburg in that exclusive company. Fried also showed one of the wider average velocity ranges with his four-seam fastball, as well as between his four-seam fastball and changeup, giving him a good array of pitches.

How he could improve: Keeping the ball down can only help his cause. Fried’s 26.1% line-drive rate was 16th-highest among 61 ERA qualifiers, resulting in 75 of his 174 total hits allowed. That might ultimately be the best way to lower his 39% career Statcast hard-contact rate, dropping his HR rate back to the 0.66 per-nine-innings ratio it was at during his minor-league career. If Fried’s command looks sharp during Grapefruit League play, he might be ready to take the leap to stardom.

Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants
2019 Player Rater: SP168/RP70/663rd overall
2019 fantasy point total: 116 (SP114/RP126)

Why he’s on here: He’d have met the qualifications as both starter and reliever in 2019, had he faced 17 additional batters while in the latter role following his August waiver move to the Reds. By the way, he even met the reliever qualification thresholds we’re using while working as a starter. Gausman’s career-to-date production might be seen as a disappointment, but he showed a spark after said bullpen transition: 31.9% strikeout and 5.5% walk rates, plus a 94.5 mph average four-seam fastball velocity.

How he could improve: The Giants plan to use Gausman as a starter, but note their lack of a clear ninth-inning option. Whittling his pitch selection down to just his fastball/splitter made him a more dominating — and intriguing — force in short relief, but he’ll call home the most pitching-friendly venue of his career (even with the fences moved in), if he’s indeed locked into the rotation. The team at least hasn’t been afraid to quickly shift starters into late-inning relief roles (see: Anderson, Shaun).

Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Angels
2019 Player Rater: SP124/450th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 167 (SP110)

Why he’s on here: Between IL stints, Heaney was one of the better-performing command artists of the past two seasons, one of only 15 who can boast at least 25% strikeout and 3.75 K:BB ratios and more than 40 starts. While his ERA+ (98) and FIP (4.21) might’ve been forgettable, he did sprinkle in signs of greatness, including back-to-back double-digit strikeout games in July 2018 as well as in both June and August 2019, or his 3.12 ERA over his first 10 starts of 2018.

How he could improve: Health, health, health, and oh, by the way, health. In those same two seasons, Heaney made three trips to the IL for a combined 98 days pf absence for elbow (twice) and shoulder issues. That’s a problem for a pitcher with a 2016 Tommy John surgery on his résumé. Much of his path to success is obscured by the injury question, but it would also help if he could reduce his near-40% fly- ball rate, an oddity for a pitcher who relies upon a sinker as much as he does.

Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers
2019 Player Rater: RP66/338th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 80 (RP154)

Why he’s on here: Wait, the Tigers, baseball’s worst team (47 wins), needed a closer? Believe it, as Jimenez graduated into the role following the trade of Shane Greene, going 9-for-10 converting saves with a 3.06 ERA and 30.3% strikeout rate in 19 appearances. Equipped with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and slider, Jimenez was once considered one of the game’s most intriguing future-closer candidates, but oddly, by the time he inherited the role he was seemingly completely forgotten.

How he could improve: A continuation of the much-improved control Jimenez showed in his new role would pay the largest dividends, as he walked only 7.9% of the batters he faced with a 70% first-pitch strike rate during that two-month stretch. He also failed to walk any of the final 35 batters he faced. Keeping the ball down might also help, as he had the sixth-highest fly-ball rate among qualified relievers. Even with no change in skills, Jimenez might sleepwalk his way to 25 saves and 85 strikeouts.

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates
2019 Player Rater: SP266/1,196th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 25 (SP216)

Why he’s on here: He faced 227 batters and had a 3.19 FIP in 2019, which was 13th-best among pitchers who made at least 10 starts (he made 11), yet had a 7.13 ERA, which was fourth-worst among that same group. Keller’s minor-league prowess, though, supports his prospects toward a significant step forward in 2020, as he whiffed 25.5% of the hitters he faced with a 3.12 ERA in his career there and was widely regarded a top-10 starting pitching prospect at this time a year ago.

How he could improve: A reversal of Keller’s miserable luck, as he had a .478 BABIP and a 59.6% LOB rate — numbers that are unfathomably unfortunate. It would also help if he could cure his first-inning issues during his first taste of the majors. His ERA in the game’s first frame is 10.64. He can also stand to improve the command of his fastball, considering opponents hit .461/.495/.719 against it. Keller is one of the most critical starters to watch during spring training.

German Marquez, Colorado Rockies
2019 Player Rater: SP52/170th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 340 (SP39)

Why he’s on here: Evaluated in its entirety, Marquez’s 2019 was a significant disappointment relative to the buzz that surrounded him entering the year, as he was selected (on average) 28th at his position and 110th overall in ESPN leagues. He began the year with a 3.48 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over his first 13 starts, but struggled to keep the ball down thereafter, allowing 20 homers and a .246 ISO in his final 15 outings, before succumbing to a tired arm in late August.

How he could improve: Getting out of Coors would be nice. However, among the realistic options is a return of the 52% HR-minimizing ground-ball rate he posted between the 2018 and 2019 All-Star breaks. Recapturing the feel for his filthy, whiff-generating slider alone might help as the pitch had a 22.2% swinging-strike rate in the aforementioned start to 2019, but only 16.9% thereafter. Just be sure not to set your high-end expectations at an ERA crown (or anything close to it).

Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates
2019 Player Rater:
SP58/180th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 288 (SP56)

Why he’s on here: He seems to be scratching the surface of a major breakthrough every year, having made the 2017 list while also meeting the 2018 thresholds. Yet he’s never cracked the top-50 starting pitchers on either the Player Rater or in fantasy points scored. Still, Musgrove has showed good incremental growth, his 170 1/3 innings in 2019 a professional high, while his 17 quality starts earned him a spot in the majors’ top 25.

How he could improve: Musgrove has a considerable weakness, that being his struggles pitching from the stretch rather than the windup. In the past three seasons combined, he has surrendered a wOBA 35 points higher with men on base than with the bases empty, backed by strikeout and ground-ball rates more than 3% and 6% lower in those situations. One would think that’s something coaching can fix, a trait that puts him on spring watch lists. However, after this many years it’s a legitimate, potentially lasting question.

Kings of Command master list of qualifiers

Listed below, with starting pitchers on the left and relief pitchers on the right and in ascending order of their 2019 FIP, are all 78 pitchers who met all of the Kings of Command criteria in 2019.

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Agent Scott Boras says MLB draft limits send ‘wrong message’

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Agent Scott Boras believes the agreement reached between Major League Baseball and the players’ union “sends the wrong message” when it comes to possibly shortening the draft and limiting the financial pool for amateur players.

Under terms of the agreement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has the discretion to shorten the 2020 draft from 40 rounds to as few as five rounds, sources told ESPN. And he also has the right to shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds.

“For owners to do this to these young men, who are so passionate about baseball, is something that they need to examine their conscience,” Boras told USA Today Sports in a story published Friday. “More kids will have to go to [college]. And anyone not taken among the top 200 players will have to go back to school.”

Sources said players drafted in 2020 will get only $100,000 of their bonus this year. The remaining amount will be split into payments made in July 2021 and July 2022.

“I’m a big proponent of college, so I want these kids to get their education, but what really bothers me is that kids outside the fifth round deserve their bonuses,” Boras told USA Today Sports. “And now they’re freezing their [bonuses] for the next two years, and are paying them late.”

He later added: “I just think in this climate and this environment, you should keep the status quo. You’re sending a message to drafted players you are major league baseball’s step-child. It’s unconscionable to me for that small amount of money. We’re talking about a whopping $6 million savings over the whole damn draft.”

Boras said that by cutting the draft, teams will suffer.

“In reality, you are going to be surrounding [established] players with less-caliber players now,” Boras told USA Today Sports. “They need 10 rounds to fill their minor-leagues teams with talent. A sixth-round high school talent is a good player. An eighth-rounder out of college is a good player. They can be All-Star players. Now, they’ll be back in school.

“Really, we’re not giving them much of a choice.”

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Tim Kurkjian’s baseball fix – Mom’s birthday, and how she almost cost my brother a home run

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You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.

ON THIS DATE IN 1924, my mother, aptly named Joy, was born. Today is her birth and she turned 96.

She really had no chance in our house against her three boys, who loved and played the game, and her husband, who loved it more than anyone I have ever known. My mom was born in Bournemouth, England, and lived there until her early 20s. My dad loved my mom so much, the only time I saw him disagree with her was when she said that a bowler in cricket throws harder than a pitcher does in baseball.

“Joy, stop!” my dad said at the dinner table in 1968, soon after the historic Game 1 of the World Series. “No cricket player throws harder than Bob Gibson!”

The full “On this date …” archive

My mom and dad went to all the games played by my brothers at Catholic University. The baseball and football team shared the CU Stadium in the 1970s. The right field stands were 250 feet from home plate. The ground rules were unique: any ball that landed no more than halfway up the stands was a double, any ball that landed beyond that was ruled a home run.

So my beloved mom was standing on the dividing line of the stands in 1974 when my brother Andy, who broke all the home run and RBI records at CU, hit a line drive into the stands. The ball hit my mom in the shoulder, and fell into the doubles area.

The umpires conferred. The ball had landed in the doubles area, but if it hadn’t hit that woman (who was the mother of the hitter), it would have been a home run. It was ruled a homer.

My dad, who knew my mom was physically tougher than he was, made sure my mom’s shoulder was OK, then jokingly told her, “What are you doing? You almost cost the kid a home run!”

Other baseball notes from March 28

  • In 1958, Hall of Fame outfielder Chuck Klein died at age 53. He is the only 40-40 player in history. In 1930, he hit 40 home runs and had 40 outfield assists.

  • In 1970, Ron Fairly hit a home run in the All-Star Game. He would finish his career with the most career homers (215) by anyone who never hit 20 homers in a season.

  • In 1986, in the last significant trade made between the Yankees and Red Sox, the Red Sox sent DH Mike Easler to the Yankees for DH Don Baylor. Easler was an ordained minister. The deal was agreed to on Good Friday.

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‘What even is that pitch?’ An oral history of Kerry Wood’s 20-K day – Chicago Cubs Blog

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Editor’s note: This story originally ran on May 6, 2018 for the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game

It was an otherwise nondescript day. In fact, it was a forgettable one. Overcast and rainy, the Cubs were hosting the Houston Astros in an early May matinee. School was still in session, so just 15,758 fans were in attendance. How many stayed to see history is unknown, as the rain picked up throughout the day.

That didn’t stop 20-year-old Kerry Wood from a magical performance. He produced the highest game score in baseball history, posting a pitching line of 9 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 20 K’s. He did it with a dynamic fastball and a slurve, which the Astros would call unhittable. Here are the memories of some of those involved, including Wood. Current Cubs pitchers Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks add their two cents as well after watching the highlights in arguably the greatest-pitched game in Wrigley Field history. It was May 6, 1998 — 20 years ago.

Kerry Wood: “I remember specifically having low energy that day. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a day game or the overcast skies. I was dragging at the ballpark. It wasn’t jumping right away, the way I wanted. I felt sluggish.”

Cubs manager Jim Riggleman: “I do remember him saying that after the fact. He didn’t have a great warm-up.”

Astros second baseman Craig Biggio: “Our minor league [scout] said, ‘Hey, he has a good fastball, OK curve and be patient with him.’ We watched him warm up, and it was like, ‘OK, no big deal.’ Then the game started, and the kid put on his Superman costume, and the next thing you know, he struck 20 of us out.”

Wood: “I was all over the place in warm-ups. I was erratic. Every other pitch in the bullpen, I was getting another ball because I was throwing it to the screen or bouncing it in. I didn’t throw one strike. The first pitch of the game, it didn’t change. I hit [plate umpire] Jerry Meals in the mask. I didn’t have the feel.”

Plate umpire Jerry Meals: “To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen again. It’s the first pitch of the game, so things start going through my head. ‘Is there something I need to be addressing? Is there some bad blood? How do you get crossed up on the first pitch? What the hell is going on here?'”

Wood: “I went to 2-0 on Craig Biggio, then struck out the side. I absolutely surprised myself. After the first I felt great, but I had zero of those feelings warming up.”

Biggio: “He had a nice, smooth delivery. The ball was electric. I could relate it to [Craig] Kimbrel. He’s got that ball where he throws it and it pops in the glove, and it’s heavy and hard and firm. He was on.”

Jon Lester: “In that game, it wasn’t a lot of long at-bats. You see a lot of swings-and-misses and takes, not a lot of foul balls. Nowadays, you know the spin rate and all this stuff, that would have been plus-plus. That’s the biggest thing, the way those pitches broke.”

After four innings, Wood had eight strikeouts. An infield hit by Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez ruined any chance of a no-hitter, but by then, he was locked in and thinking about a complete game.

Wood: “Bagwell’s second at-bat, I know I get to 3-1, and I throw hook-hook and buckle him back-to-back. After that, I knew I had a chance to finish this.”

Meals: “He had everything working. He had a good-hitting team just baffled. They were flailing on the breaking stuff and couldn’t catch up to the fastball.”

Kyle Hendricks: “The movement on his pitches was incredible. What even is that pitch [the slurve]? I don’t know how you snap that off. No clue. You can just see how much spin is being created. Those guys didn’t have a chance.”

Biggio: “We didn’t have the technology they have today. Now you know everything about a guy. What he throws, how hard and stuff like that. You got everything. And you can go look at your at-bats as the game is going on.”

Lester: “The only information you had back then was facing the guy.”

Riggleman: “Somewhere around his 13th strikeout, [third-base coach] Tom Gamboa said, ‘You know how many strikeouts he has?’ It became interesting. … I didn’t know 20 was a record.”

Meals: “The weather turned crappy in the sixth. The grounds crew did a good job.”

Wood: “My goal was not to walk anyone. That’s what I heard my whole minor league career and my short time in the big leagues: Just don’t walk anyone. In a 1-0 game, I was just focusing on not putting the tying run on base.”

Biggio: “We’re one swing away from tying the game, so we’re not thinking about the strikeouts. But when you go out there, you see the fans throwing up the K’s, and you’re like, ‘Holy shoot, how many strikeouts does this guy have?’ You start counting them up. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … I think they ran out of K’s.”

During one stretch, Wood struck out five in a row looking.

Wood: “With two strikes maybe they thought I was trying to trick them with off-speed, so a lot of those fastballs were them not pulling the trigger, thinking off-speed.”

Hendricks: “The fastball is obviously electric. It rides up in the zone. A few of these breaking balls to a lefty, it goes up and in to him. The spin rate would have been unbelievable. It makes it more fun to watch, without all those stats on the screen.”

Biggio: “We had 102 wins that year. That was no weak lineup. He carved us up like we didn’t belong there.”

Riggleman: “This is probably a little bit of an indictment of everyone that managed in that period, I was probably thinking like 135 pitches for him. I have to let him try and finish this thing.

“I didn’t want to take him out with men on base. That’s when you give life to the other club. Maybe at the end of the inning. I’m not sure we ever got anyone up though.”

Wood: “Being from Texas and following Roger Clemens, I knew he had the major league record, but it’s not one of those numbers you think is attainable. … I didn’t know how hard I was throwing or how many pitches I had thrown. We didn’t have that back then.”

Riggleman: “There were games [in which] after six or seven [innings], he had 13 or 14 strikeouts, the pitch count was high, and we would take him out. I would get booed like crazy for taking him out. Later, when he was hurt, it was, ‘Oh, you pitched him too much.’”

Wood: “In the seventh inning, I thought the umpires might call it for a moment due to rain. And I knew at that point, if there is a delay, I’m done. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t call that game.’”

The Cubs scored an insurance run in the eighth, giving them a 2-0 lead. Wood had 18 strikeouts yet still did not know he had a chance at a record.

Wood: “I remember thinking in the eighth inning I just wanted to get back out there and finish this up. We scored another run, and I know I just wanted the inning to end. A young player should want his team to score as much as possible.”

Lester: “That would be so hard now. I don’t know if you’ll see 20 again in the future. With bullpens and specialization. … He was very unique. How big and tall he was and he had the levers working. When you think of Kerry Wood, you think of someone special.”

Biggio: “He hit his spots and made his pitches that day. It was just a man amongst boys right there.”

Wood (on getting strikeout No. 20 against Derek Bell): “His first swing in that at-bat, I knew I could throw the rosin bag up there and he would swing at it.”

Meals: “I was thinking about almost calling a no-hitter. The crew chief pointed out he had 20 strikeouts. I had no idea. I wasn’t paying attention to the fans holding up the K’s.”

Wood: “My fist-pump on the mound was about no walks and completing the game. I hugged [reliever] Terry Adams and say something to him, because before the game, he said, ‘Hey rook, why don’t you pitch more than five innings. You’re killing us.’ But no one said anything about 20 strikeouts.”

Meals: “[Umpire] Terry Tata was at first base. He says, ‘You had 19, I had one.’ Because he rang one up on a check swing. That was when I realized 20.”

Wood: “Thirty seconds after it’s over, they bring me over to the camera, and my hands are shaking. My adrenaline is racing. That’s when I found out I struck out 20 and tied the record. I didn’t have anything to say, though.”

Biggio: “You’re bummed out you lost, but 20 punchouts is pretty amazing.”

Riggleman: “You meet a lot of people that say they were there that day, but it was a rainy day in May. Maybe it was 18,000.”

Hendricks: “And to do it that young. He must have been in one of those once-in-a lifetime zones.”

Riggleman: “[Former Cubs] Billy Williams and Ron Santo were at Wood’s game that day and said that it was even more dominating than Sandy Koufax’s perfect game [against the Cubs in 1965]. They were at that one, too. You could make a case, as old as that stadium is, that could be the greatest game anyone has ever pitched there.”

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