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MLB

The best behind-the-scenes MLB moments we ever saw

This was supposed to be opening week, the time when MLB fans everywhere look forward to making a season’s worth of memories. Because we won’t have games to get excited about for a while, we thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane by reliving some of our favorite baseball moments.

In the final installment of our weeklong series focusing on a different baseball theme each day, we asked our MLB reporters to share their best behind-the-scenes moment, with only one rule: They had to be there to witness it.

  • The best home runs we ever saw

  • The best MLB games we ever saw

  • The best prospects we ever saw

  • The best defensive plays we ever saw

Jesse Rogers: For Arrieta, onesie for the ages

Sometimes greatness has a defining moment. For former Chicago Cubs hurler Jake Arrieta, that came in late August 2015. He was in the midst of a stellar second half, but even as late as Aug. 30, his best was yet to come. On that night, the stage was set for one of the greatest pitching performances of our era.

The Cubs were starting to feel good about themselves then, but they were still a young team learning how to win — while Arrieta was learning how to dominate. It was Sunday Night Baseball, in Los Angeles. There’s no bigger stage.

The evening game meant the Cubs would have to fly overnight for a game 24 hours later at Wrigley Field against the Cincinnati Reds. Manager Joe Maddon wasn’t about to let the stress of that schedule get to his young roster. He ordered them to wear onesie pajamas on the flight home to loosen the mood — a scene that would prove surreal after the fact.

That night, Arrieta dealt like he had never dealt before. He struck out 12 in a 116-pitch no-hitter, producing a game score of 98. For perspective, the highest game score of all time is 105. Arrieta wasn’t far off. The spin he created on the ball in that game was the stuff of legend. The 2-0 win stopped a four-game slide by the Cubs and helped them to a wild-card berth.

Arrieta conducted his postgame media session wearing a “mustache” onesie was the icing on the cake of a memorable night. And it was his coming-out party that Cy Young Award voters wouldn’t forget.

Buster Olney: A dress-up standoff

Late in the 1995 season, when I was covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun, the team’s veterans implemented baseball’s standard hazing exercise on the rookies, replacing their street clothes with selected costumes. Armando Benitez refused to participate and stubbornly sat at his locker as teammates showered and boarded the team bus that was running outside of Milwaukee’s County Stadium. I stationed myself outside of the clubhouse and waited to see how the standoff would end.

Two teammates were sent back to the clubhouse as emissaries, in the hope of coaxing Benitez to the team bus. Finally, pitching coach Mike Flanagan walked into the clubhouse — and later, he told me that when he walked in, an enraged 6-foot-4 Benitez had cornered the chosen ambassadors in the shower with a bat. Like a fed-up parent, Flanagan told Benitez to get on the damn bus, and Armando stepped onto the concourse wearing his uniform socks, a pair of baseball pants and a white dress shirt, walking slowly to join his teammates.

David Schoenfield: Some insight into A-Rod

Each year, the Major League Baseball Players Association gives out its own awards — outstanding pitcher for each league, outstanding player, MLB player of the year and so on. For some reason, the awards have never caught on and we recognize the BBWAA awards as the “official” awards. In 2019, for example, the players voted Anthony Rendon as the National League’s most outstanding player over BBWAA MVP Cody Bellinger.

ESPN televised the awards ceremony after the 1998 season. That was the year of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the ceremony was held at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. I was an editor at ESPN at the time and my co-worker Ted and I conducted “chats” with each of the winners. After the winners came off the stage, they came to a back room where we had a computer set up and we spent five minutes or so feeding each player questions from readers. (The internet wasn’t so fast back then and the chat software was pretty rudimentary, so Ted and I actually cheated and selected questions ahead of time. Doing it in real time would have been a technological disaster.)

I remember Sosa coming down and giving Ted a big hug like he was Sosa’s long lost brother or something. Pedro Martinez held up his hand with the long fingers that seemed outsize for a man his size. Greg Maddux goofed on us with all his answers: “I have no idea what I’m doing out there. It’s all luck.”

Then Alex Rodriguez came in. Juan Gonzalez won the MVP award that year, but A-Rod was the players’ choice. (A-Rod finished a distant ninth in the MVP voting even though he hit .310 with 42 home runs and 46 steals.) A-Rod sat down at the table and was actually very interested in what we were doing and how the questions were coming in from readers.

A reader asked him about the new ballpark being built in Seattle that would open up midway through the 1999 season. A-Rod told us that some of the guys had gone over in September to take batting practice. The Kingdome, remember, was a very good home run park. A-Rod told us the ball didn’t carry at all in the new park and that it was not going to be a good hitters’ park. And that’s when I knew he wasn’t going to stay in Seattle for the long haul.

Tim Kurkjian: Niekro won’t knuckle under

The Blue Jays clinched a playoff spot the second-to-last day of the 1985 season. So on the last day, “they were all hung over,” said Yankees knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, who was scheduled to pitch the season finale and was going for his 300th victory. The night before, he and his brother, Joe, also a Yankees pitcher, decided Joe would pitch in relief of Phil so he could potentially have a part in Phil’s historic 300th win.

“So with two outs in the ninth inning, Joe, not the pitching coach, came to the mound to tell me if I got one out more, I would be the oldest pitcher ever [age 46] to throw a shutout,” Phil said. “So I told him, ‘Forget our plan, get the hell off the mound!’ The Blue Jays had runners at second and third. Jeff Burroughs, who was a teammate of mine in Atlanta, was at the plate. We were deciding whether to walk him to load the bases. Burroughs looked at me, pointed to himself and said, ‘Pitch to me.’ He swung at a knuckleball that was three feet outside for the final out. It was the only knuckleball I threw the whole game.”

Tim Keown: Hendrick has last word

I was a rookie beat writer in 1991, sitting in the clubhouse of the old Scottsdale Stadium during a rain delay while a group of current and former Giants held court in the middle of the room — Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark, Don Robinson, Willie McGee. There was some serious experience around the table, and an impromptu storytelling session broke out. They started in on the wildest things they’d seen teammates do on the field, and at one point McGee stood up and launched into the best baseball story I’ve ever heard.

With two outs in the ninth inning of a game between the Reds and Cardinals, George Hendrick broke up a no-hitter by Mario Soto with a home run on a 2-2 count. That’s the basic version, the version you can find by looking up the box score from May 13, 1984.

The version McGee told? So much better. McGee stood in the center of the room and pantomimed Hendrick standing with the bat on his shoulder, watching strike one and then strike two with no apparent interest. He watched the 0-2 pitch, a ball outside, with the same indifference. But on the 1-2 pitch, Soto threw a fastball under Hendrick’s chin. Hendrick hit the dirt — bat and helmet flying — and then stood back up, grabbed his bat, palmed his helmet back on his head and got back in the box. It bears noting Hendrick was a mysterious dude of immense talent and no interest in the game’s frills.

(In another of McGee’s stories, Hendrick arranged to have a car waiting for him in the tunnel behind right field at Busch Stadium after the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series, and when the last out was recorded, he jogged through the open gate and got in the car in full uniform, heading for the offseason.)

Anyway, Hendrick got back in the box, looked out at Soto without saying a word and proceeded to hit the next pitch, a changeup, over the left-field fence to tie the game and ruin Soto’s no-hitter at the last possible moment. Hendrick jogged around the bases dispassionately, put his helmet back in the rack, sat down on the bench and said to no one in particular, “I was going to let the man have his no-hitter.”

Alden Gonzalez: Trout, Pujols have initial ‘meeting’

I was there when Mike Trout and Albert Pujols first met, and it was awkward. It was the spring of 2012. Pujols was a fully formed superstar who had joined the Los Angeles Angels on a 10-year, $240 million contract. Trout was a 20-year-old prospect — a highly rated one, but a prospect nonetheless. He hung around the corner of the clubhouse with all the other young players who didn’t have a spot on the team.

One morning, Pujols was speaking with a teammate and Trout thought he caught his eye. “‘Sup, Pujols,” Trout blurted, nodding in his direction. Pujols didn’t acknowledge him. Trout stayed quiet, sunk back in his chair and turned to someone on his left. “You think he heard me?”

Not long thereafter, Trout began what has become a historical run of greatness. He became the dominant player of the 2010s, immediately after Pujols was the dominant player of the 2000s. His ascension relegated Pujols to the background, but Trout remained gracious. He celebrated every Pujols accomplishment and constantly spoke about him with reverence. In turn, Pujols guided Trout on how to handle stardom and how to maintain consistency when the expectations seemed impossibly high. He was among the few who could relate.

Sam Miller: A very sticky situation

There’s a ton of downtime between arriving at the ballpark and game time, and a lot of it gets spent sitting in the dugout, studying all of its banal details. Once, I was waiting for C.J. Wilson to meet me in the dugout for a pregame interview. I was staring at the rosin bag, and it occurred to me that I’d never held a rosin bag. I wondered what it felt like; dumbly, I was imagining it would be powdery and smooth, like a rock climber’s bag of chalk.

But rosin — you probably already know this, but I hadn’t made the connection! — is just the solid form of resin, a sticky and viscous tree secretion. It’s basically sap! I picked up the rosin bag and got a sap-sticky palm. Baseball is a handshake-obsessed work environment, and I realized immediately that I was going to have to shake a player’s hand any second.

So, in a panic, I went to the dugout water cooler to rinse my hands off. It splashed all over my pants and shirt, but at least I had something to scrub with. Except it wasn’t water. It was Gatorade. That’s when Wilson showed up.

Kiley McDaniel: Trea Turner’s first impression

When covering the National High School Invitational tournament every March in Cary, North Carolina, I typically try to line up games from the nearby Division I colleges to catch as well, but in 2013, there weren’t a lot of options to see first-round types that weekend. I went to see N.C. State because they had two sophomores, left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, who were likely high first-round picks the next year. I hadn’t seen them before but had heard great things.

They were both excellent, even better than I expected. After comparing notes with a couple of scouts in attendance, we agreed Turner was a slightly superior prospect, and both were legitimate candidates to go No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft. Rodon ended up going third, and Turner slipped all the way to 13th after playing through injury for the summer and struggling at the plate in the first part of the spring.

I got a chance to speak with both of them after the game, and Rodon seemed very aware of his trajectory, unfazed by my interest as a writer, even though it was still going to be months until 30 MLB teams were knocking down his door.

Turner was very different. He was more candid and open and was legitimately surprised when I told him that I thought he was a little better than his heralded teammate. He told me he called the coaches at his dream school, Florida State, when he was in high school, to get them to come recruit him and they basically blew him off. He made a jump in talent as a senior in high school and N.C. State had an extra scholarship, so they were his best offer for college. He talked about how good it felt to perform well against the Seminoles as a freshman starter and how motivating it was to hear that I thought he could go that high in the draft.

Fast forward to the Futures Game a few years later, when Turner was now a top prospect on the verge of the major leagues. A man walked up to me and asked if my name was Kiley, then shook my hand. He was Trea’s dad, Mark, and he wanted to thank me for believing in his son before anyone else in pro baseball did. I assured him I had nothing to do with his son’s success, but he was thankful regardless.

I ran into Mark again years later in the Turner Field concourse when I worked for the Braves and Trea was really hammering us, while playing for the Nationals. I ran into Mark once again and met his wife, Donna, when I was scouting a prospect at Trea’s old high school (they still lived nearby and went to the games) and he recognized me standing behind the plate with a radar gun. They came down to say hello in front of the other scouts, who were all confused, because they knew I didn’t draft Trea. I still maintain I didn’t do anything different than any other scout or writer in my position would’ve done, but it always feels nice to be in on the ground floor of something and be recognized when you’re right, in a field that has so much inherent failure.

Dan Mullen: A manager and his MVP at season’s end

A couple of hours after the Brewers’ heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Dodgers in the 2018 NL Championship Series, I was making my way to the ride-sharing pickup area near the loading docks at Miller Park. To get there, I happened to walk through an otherwise empty area near the Brewers clubhouse while Christian Yelich and Craig Counsell were saying their goodbyes at the clubhouse door.

I overheard Yelich say something along the lines of, “Not bad for the first year in town. Counsell replied with, “Your year isn’t over yet,” talking about the MVP award Yelich would win the next month, and, “Next year will be even better,” while they gave each other a big hug on the way out.

It was such an incredibly sincere moment of respect and admiration between a star player and his manager, and it really drove home how getting so far to fall just short of the World Series felt for them.

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MLB

Web gems and then some: The best defensive plays we ever saw

This was supposed to be opening week, the time when MLB fans everywhere look forward to making a season’s worth of memories. Since we won’t have games to get excited about for a while, we thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane by reliving some of our favorite baseball moments.

In the fourth installment of our weeklong series focusing on a different baseball theme each day, we asked our MLB reporters to tell us about the best defensive plays they ever saw, with only one rule: They had to have seen it in person.

  • The best home runs we ever saw

  • The best MLB games we ever saw

  • The best prospects we ever saw

Tim Kurkjian: Endy’s forgotten gem

New York Mets left fielder Endy Chavez against the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. For all of baseball’s unforgettable moments in the postseason, there haven’t been as many brilliant defensive plays as you might think. One of the best ever is one that will never get proper recognition.

The Mets and St. Louis Cardinals were tied 1-1 in the sixth inning when Scott Rolen hit a fly ball to deep left field. Chavez always wore one of the biggest gloves I have ever seen, bigger than that of Yoenis Cespedes, almost as big as Brett Butler’s, even bigger than the glove of pitcher Greg Maddux. Chavez leaped, slammed into the left-field fence, reached a good foot above it and caught the ball.

“My glove almost fell off. I didn’t even know if I had caught the ball,” Chavez said. “Then I saw the ball in my glove and said, ‘Oh, here it is.”’

The catch was somewhat lost in history because Yadier Molina hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth for a 3-1 lead, and with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Carlos Beltran struck out looking at a curveball by Adam Wainwright, ending the Mets’ season.

Buster Olney: Alomar’s amazing artistry

One hundred forty-two voters chose to not include Roberto Alomar on their ballots the first time he was eligible for Hall of Fame induction, driving his vote percentage below the necessary 75% threshold for election. This was utterly shocking to me after hearing Alomar’s peers rave for years about his incredible defensive skill, as well as his imagination for what was possible. Like Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson, he seemed to have an understanding of where everyone on the field was. With his balletic inspiration, Alomar changed the way defense was played for generations of middle infielders who followed him.

In a game between the Orioles and Red Sox at Camden Yards in 1996, Boston’s John Valentin rounded third base on a ball hit into the right-field corner, and Alomar, set up for a relay along the right-field foul line, caught the throw with his body aligned to rifle homeward. But midturn, Alomar fired all the way across the infield to third base, where Valentin had taken a wide turn. Valentin had no chance to get back to the bag, and he looked stunned as he was tagged out. It was among the many defensive alternatives that Alomar seemed to discover regularly.

David Schoenfield: You can top this? Gimme a break

This isn’t just the best defensive play I’ve ever seen in person — it’s the best defensive play of all time. That’s right. Forget Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series. Forget Ozzie Smith’s bare-handed grab of that bad-hop ground ball. This is it. Buck Martinez for the Blue Jays on July 9, 1985. Don’t even argue about this because you’ll lose.

Here’s the play:

Buck Martinez completes double play with broken leg

Buck Martinez holds on to the ball in a collision that breaks his leg, then while still on the ground, tags out another runner for a double play.

Let’s run down what happened here:

1. Jesse Barfield, who had one of the best arms of all time, throws an absolute howitzer from right field.

2. Phil Bradley, a former starting quarterback at Missouri, destroys Martinez in the collision at home plate. Martinez breaks his leg but manages to hold on to the ball.

3. Stormin’ Gorman Thomas keeps on chugging around the bases.

4. Martinez, who can’t get up because HE BROKE HIS LEG, throws wildly to third base. Thomas turns for home.

5. For some reason, George Bell (not pictured in the video because we needed to see the dude in the green shirt) is actually backing up the play and throws home.

6. Remember, MARTINEZ CAN’T GET UP BECAUSE HE HAS A BROKEN LEG. Bell’s throw somehow finds Martinez’s glove.

7. I have no idea what Thomas was thinking, but he somehow fails to avoid the tag. Martinez gets his second out at home plate, is carted off the field and misses the rest of the season.

Tim Keown: Kirby rises to the occasion

Kirby Puckett, 1991 World Series, Game 6, third inning. Amid the cacophony of the Metrodome — imagine the sound of 50,000 frightened macaws in a closet — Ron Gant of the Atlanta Braves hit a drive to left-center. Puckett, the Minnesota Twins’ center fielder, ran farther and faster than he seemed capable of doing and jumped higher than seemed possible. At the peak of his leap, his glove smacked against the Plexiglas as the ball landed inside it.

As Puckett fired the ball back toward first base to attempt to double up Terry Pendleton, Gant rounded first base and veered toward the dugout without taking his eyes off Puckett. He wasn’t mad or even frustrated; he, like the rest of us, was trying to process what he’d just seen. I’m sure I’ve seen better plays — Kevin Mitchell caught a ball bare-handed — but the combination of artistry and the importance of the moment makes this one hard to beat.

Sam Miller: Simmons does the unthinkable

Defense is hard enough to precisely measure in the present, in front of us and with modern technology, let alone decades after the fact. As such, I wouldn’t say definitively that Andrelton Simmons is the greatest defender of all time, but I believe it’s true, and I watch him with the joy of believing that’s what I’m seeing. At least once every few games, he does something with his body that is worth rewinding and rewatching, and at least weekly, he makes a play that is impossible for all but maybe a half-dozen other humans on the planet.

Out of literally hundreds of Simmons highlights, this is probably my favorite, not because it’s especially explosive, flashy, physical or imaginative — all qualities he has — but because of how surprised the baserunner, the broadcaster and Simmons’ third baseman are that he made the play. That, to me, is the most persuasive endorsement of a defensive play.

On TV, to us amateurs, the easy can look hard, and the hard can look easy. But the baserunner here knows baseball very well, the play was 10 feet away from him, and he totally ruled out Simmons’ getting to that ball. The Angels broadcaster knows baseball very well, knows Simmons very well, and he misread what Simmons would attempt to do on that ball. Finally, the third baseman knows baseball very well and, more than anybody in the world, needs to know Simmons’ range because they share the same coverage area. But when Simmons actually got to the ball, the third baseman was standing 8 feet away from the bag, totally unprepared for what Simmons did.

This play doesn’t have the visual punch of a player diving or leaping over the wall. But it’s clear from the reactions of the people around him that what Simmons did here even without leaving his feet was essentially unthinkable.

Alden Gonzalez: Vizquel with a heartbreaker

The height of my baseball fandom probably came in 1997, when the Florida Marlins reached the World Series, and the entire city of Miami — suddenly exuberant in a time before constant betrayals from club ownership — rallied behind its baseball team in a way that still moves me. The Marlins played the Cleveland Indians in a World Series that reached the maximum seven games, with each team alternating victories until a thrilling finale.

I attended Game 6 hoping to see the Marlins clinch. I sat beyond the center-field batter’s eye. In the bottom of the sixth, with two out and two runners in scoring position, I had a great view of an Omar Vizquel play that put my heart in my throat. Charles Johnson, a notoriously slow-footed catcher, hit a hard grounder that should have trickled into left field and cut the Marlins’ deficit to one. But Vizquel dove full extension, quickly rose to his feet and threw Johnson out at first base from shallow left field. I was crushed — but felt a lot better the following night, when the Marlins finished the job. (Side note: I still can’t believe those mid-to-late-’90s Indians teams never won it all.)

Dan Mullen: Edmonds wows even himself

One of the best things about great defensive plays is that you never really know when you are about to see the one you’ll be writing about in a list such as this. My pick for best game came in Game 5 of an already thrilling World Series. My best home run choice was from the eighth inning of a tense, tied NLCS game. My favorite prospect tale was of seeing a No. 1 overall pick in the draft the very first chance I had. But not this story.

My dad and I just happened to be in Cincinnati to cross Great American Ballpark off our list on a July weekend in 2004. We just happened to be seeing the Reds play the Cardinals, who happened to have a center fielder known for making highlight-reel defensive plays. We just so happened to be sitting in the bleachers in right-center field when Jason LaRue hit a would-be home run just to the right of the center-field fence in the ninth inning of a 7-5 game.

From our vantage point, we had a perfect view as Jim Edmonds, starting shallow as always, ran back, leaped at the fence and, with his entire arm stretched over the fence, snagged the ball, took a run off the board and quieted an entire ballpark of Reds fans. But as amazing as the catch was, the best part from where we were sitting was being able to watch Edmonds turn and watch himself on the video board with the same expression we all had on our faces as we tried to figure how the heck he timed the catch, jump and turn perfectly enough to pull it off.

Kiley McDaniel: Brinson’s high school sweetie

In high school, Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson was a tools marvel. On the 20-80 scale (50 is major league average), he projected for 60 raw power, was about a 70 runner, projected as a 70 defender in center field and had a 60 arm. There are no more than a few players on earth who have those present tools. Brinson doesn’t even have the same run or defend tools that he used to or projected to have, as he has bulked up.

At the plate, he was kind of a mess at that stage. His high school team didn’t have another Division I player on its roster, and Brinson wasn’t the best hitter on the team, but he still went 29th overall in the 2012 draft because of his potential. He was gangly and long-limbed and had some giraffe-like qualities at the plate. He was pure gazelle in the field, though.

In the first inning of a game that was flush with high-level scouts, a soft liner was hit just over the second baseman’s head, and Brinson seemingly took three strides to make a diving catch on a ball that was hit closer to the right fielder than to him. It looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo playing a fully realized center field. The scouts and I all gasped, then looked at each other silently and bemoaned the fact that we still had to figure out how to project Brinson’s hitting ability.

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MLB

Daily sports TV schedule: What to watch on ESPN, FS1 & other channels for Thursday, March 25

Live sports aren’t happening right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean fans have stopped craving sports action. On Sunday, CBS took the timeslot normally allocated to live March Madness games and filled them with classic games from past tournaments.

The games, like the 1992 Elite Eight matchup between Duke and Kentucky, had fans engaged with the past well enough to get the game trending on Twitter. Over one million people watched the throwback college basketball games on CBS on Sunday afternoon, according to Show Buzz Daily. 

Many networks are following suit without live games to broadcast or provide commentary on. Sporting News compiled all the classic games across the networks to help fans navigate the nostalgia. 

ESPN schedule today

ESPN is continuing with regularly scheduled programs like Sportscenter and NFL Live during the day and airing docuseries like “O.J.: Made in America” at night. On ESPN’s other channels, like ACC Network and SEC Network, the emphasis is on replaying college football and basketball games from last season.

FS1 schedule today

Fox Sports 1 is also continuing with regularly scheduled programming during the day but shifting to classic World Series games at night. First up is the extra-inning thriller in 2016, followed by one of the most dramatic finishes in baseball history in 2001. 

MLB Network schedule today

MLB Network is starting the morning off with some great early season games and finishing with the legendary Aaron Boone home run. 

NBA TV schedule today

NBA TV is featuring the Jazz of the 1990s, teams with two Hall of Fame players in John Stockton that weren’t able to capture a title.

NBC Sports schedule today

NBC Sports is chock-full with Stanley Cup Finals games that clinched championships.

NFL Network schedule today

The two Super Bowl matchups on NFL Network feature two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Peyton Manning makes his first Super Bowl appearance in the first game and Tom Brady takes his perfect 18-0 record into the second game. 

NHL Network schedule today

NHL Network has some classic games to start the day. The 1993 and 1994 Stanley Cup Finals are showcased.

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Fighting

Wednesday is fight night: Watch replays of Crawford, Fury and Mayweather vs. Pacquiao on ESPN2

There may not be any live boxing events going on at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic, but on Wednesday night, boxing fans will have the opportunity to watch replays of some great recent fights on ESPN2, starting at 7 p.m. ET.

Terence Crawford’s last two fights ended in spectacular finishes. In April 2019, Crawford defeated Amir Khan at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Eight months later, Crawford put his WBO welterweight world title on the line once again against mandatory challenger Egidijus Kavaliauskas inside the same venue, in a fight that ended much better than it started for Crawford. The show will also feature two fights from the undercard: Teofimo Lopez vs. Richard Commey for the IBF lightweight world title and featherweight sensation Michael Conlan vs. Vladimir Nikitin in a rematch of their 2016 battle at the Rio Olympics.

Both fight cards will be shown on ESPN2.

Later on Wednesday night, ESPN2 will also feature the Tyson Fury vs. Otto Wallin fight and the classic Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao bout from 2015.

How do I watch the fights?

Watch: Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV

Don’t have ESPN? Learn how to get instant access today: ESPNInstantAccess.com

Here’s the full schedule:

7 p.m. ET: Terence Crawford vs. Amir Khan

8 p.m. ET: Crawford-Kavaliauskas. This broadcast includes:

  • Terence Crawford vs. Egidijus Kavaliauskas, 12 rounds, for Crawford’s WBO welterweight title

  • Richard Commey vs. Teofimo Lopez, 12 rounds, for Commey’s IBF lightweight title

  • Michael Conlan vs. Vladimir Nikitin, 10 rounds, featherweights

10 p.m. ET: Tyson Fury vs. Otto Wallin

11 p.m. ET: Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao

Can’t-miss stories on these fights:

  • Terence Crawford not looking past Egidijus Kavaliauskas

  • Terence Crawford vs. Egidijus Kavaliauskas predictions: Who will win?

  • Growing pains: Teofimo Lopez’s search for legacy and peace with his family

  • Teofimo Lopez reveals his battle with anxiety

  • A prayer for the living: You don’t have to be Irish to root for Michael Conlan

  • How Conlan-Nikitin in Rio changed Olympic boxing forever

  • How Mayweather-Pacquiao was made

  • Mayweather-Pacquiao eclipses 4.4 million PPV buys, $72M gate

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Basketball

Steve Kerr on Michael Jordan’s 1995 return: ‘Thank you’

    Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

On the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA, Steve Kerr says that he and so many of Jordan’s former teammates feel a similar emotion as the years go by — gratitude.

Kerr, who played 3½ seasons with Jordan in Chicago from 1995 to 1998, has plenty of stories to tell and memories to share about the player so many believe is the greatest of all time.

“It’s almost impossible to describe the impact he made on the league itself,” Kerr said during a Thursday appearance on Waddle & Silvy on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. “So it’s easier for me to describe the impact he had on my career alone. Because had I never played with Michael, honestly, I don’t think I would have been offered a contract by the Spurs and wouldn’t have had my run with San Antonio. Wouldn’t have been offered a contract with TNT to go into broadcasting. I could argue that all those things were sort of a domino effect and ultimately coaching the Warriors — everything that I’ve been able to enjoy and experience in the NBA was a direct result of playing with Michael Jordan. And I’m not being falsely modest — it’s just the truth.”

Kerr, now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, still gets asked about Jordan on a regular basis. He understands why Jordan meant so much to so many people and has expressed how much Jordan meant to so many players’ careers.

“Those teams were legendary, and to be a part of those teams and to play with Michael gave me and everybody on that team a chance to put themselves in a position to win championships and be part of something special,” Kerr said. “And it’s affected our lives even to this day. So (former Bulls forward) Jud [Buechler] and I say it all the time, when we do run into Michael, we just give him a little, ‘Thank you,’ or maybe we’re toasting at dinner or something, we hold up a beer and just [say], ‘Thanks, Michael.’ And we just laugh because he’s responsible for a lot of this.”

Kerr has won a combined seven NBA championships — three with the Bulls, one with the San Antonio Spurs and three more as the coach of the Warriors. He says he has repeatedly thanked Jordan for helping him find his niche within the league.

“I’ve run into him every once in a while, maybe once a year, we’ll run into each other,” Kerr said. “Either at an NBA event or a golf tournament or something, and it’s always fun to see him, and he knows, he knows exactly how we all feel about him and the impact he made on all of us. It’s fun to reminisce now, because once everybody’s able to put the sword down and relax and reminisce instead of being in the middle of the fight, you’re able to really cut to the chase and think of the good times and think of all the impact that the team had on each other and on the NBA. It was a lot of fun.”

Kerr recalled just how much hoopla surrounded Jordan’s return on Sunday, March 19, 1995, against the Indiana Pacers. It was Jordan’s first game in almost two years, after he abruptly retired from basketball and played baseball in the Chicago White Sox minor league system for over a year. Jordan was rusty in what was a 103-96 overtime road loss for the Bulls, as Jordan made only 7-of-28 field goals for 19 points to go with six rebounds, six assists and three steals.

“The way I remember it, we were kind of slogging through the latter part of the season,” Kerr said. “We weren’t playing that well. And Michael showed up to practice for the first time in a year and a half, since he retired, and he just shot around one day. And then he came back the next day and then we saw him in Phil’s office (Jackson, head coach) … we’re thinking, ‘What’s he doing? What’s going on? And when he came back a third straight day it was like, ‘This is different.This is not a guy just getting some shots up because he misses the game.’

“So when he decided to come back, we sort of had an idea that [his return] was coming, but when it actually did it was just an incredible moment for all of us. Just to realize that we were about to get a chance to play with him.”

Kerr had to laugh several times during the interview as he remembered just how crazy of a scene it was to have Jordan back around the team. He specifically remembered a conversation he had with Buechler as the pair traveled to the airport in advance of the flight to Indianapolis.

“I think we had already played 65 games maybe, and so we’re on the way to the airport to go to Indianapolis and I said, ‘Jud, what is Phil going to do?'” Kerr recalled. “We’ve already had 65 games. Michael hasn’t been here for almost two years — you think he’ll start him? Will he bring him off the bench? What’s he going to do?’ And Jud, without skipping a beat, he goes, ‘Steve, Steve, Steve, listen, as a general rule, when you have your own statue outside the building, you’re in the starting lineup.’ So I will always remember that comment from Jud, and the timing was perfect and we laughed. The next night was that game in Indianapolis — it was surreal, it really was.”

As much as the Bulls enjoyed having Jordan back, Kerr acknowledged that the six-time NBA Finals MVP wasn’t always an easy person to get along with in practice. Jordan famously punched Kerr in one practice during their tenure, a fact Kerr remembered on Thursday.

“He was tough on everybody,” Kerr said of Jordan. “But that was kind of his philosophy, that if you weren’t tough enough to handle a practice situation with Michael maybe coming after you verbally or attacking you with the ball one-on-one, if you weren’t tough enough to deal with that, he said there’s no way you were going to be able to handle a playoff game. That was his philosophy, and he absolutely would test any new guy.

“So I passed the test. I got a black eye for it, but I passed.”

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Basketball

Inside the tense, unprecedented hours that shut down the NBA

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com
  • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News

LATE WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, there was a brief moment when people in the NBA felt like they had a plan.

Facing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, the Golden State Warriors had announced that they would host the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday with no fans at the Chase Center in San Francisco. Then, at 3:30 p.m. ET, the league’s owners had met via conference call and left with the expectation that NBA commissioner Adam Silver would soon declare that all games would proceed without fans.

There would be a few attempts at normalcy. Warriors players, for instance, felt it was important to play music in the empty arena to maintain some semblance of atmosphere, after a bad experience at a music-and-sound-free game against the New York Knicks in 2017.

But nothing about this situation was normal, and consensus wasn’t easily reached.

Playing NBA games with no fans was a staggering idea with wide-ranging consequences across the sports world, where other leagues were wrestling with the same questions. No fans meant no gate or concessions revenue. That would ultimately cost teams tens of millions of dollars and trickle down to players through the loss of basketball-related income, as well as team employees and arena workers. But the situation had reached a point where public health officials were recommending that all large events be canceled to slow the spread of the virus.

A handful of NBA owners, including the Warriors’ Joe Lacob, had pushed for a temporary postponement of games. Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett told his peers they’d be foolish to believe there were no players or personnel without the coronavirus, and Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta suggested a three- to four-week pause while expressing frustration over the financial hit he’d already taken with empty restaurants and early-season issues in China.

The majority of owners favored a plan to temporarily keep fans from games so the season could continue.

Warriors team president Rick Welts had been studying the situation and meeting with local public health officials for weeks. In his mind, these precautions had become imperative. And as the business day closed on Wednesday, Welts ran through all the different scenarios with his staffers one last time. They were as ready as they could be.

“But you know,” Welts said to one team executive, “this could all change in a few hours.”

MORE: Coronavirus cancellations and reactions in sports

UNBEKNOWNST TO 29 other teams, the Utah Jazz had contacted local health officials in Oklahoma City on Wednesday morning to request assistance with a player — later identified as center Rudy Gobert — who was showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. He had already tested negative for influenza, an upper respiratory infection and strep throat.

Gobert stayed at the hotel as team and league officials waited for the results, which would take at least four to six hours. Privacy laws prevented anyone from sharing details of his condition. Only a small group — the Jazz training staff and front office, Gobert, NBA officials and Oklahoma City public health officials — knew of the situation.

The rest of the league was still getting its head around the prospect of playing games without fans starting on Thursday. If anything, there seemed to be a conscious effort to enjoy the last day of games with fans for a while.

“The fans help out,” Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea said. “Especially at home.”

Even in Oklahoma City, it looked like business as usual before the Thunder-Jazz game. Ball boys chased down long rebounds and fed passes to players warming up on both teams. But just a few minutes before tipoff, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey got the call. Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Within minutes, Lindsey, Thunder GM Sam Presti, owner Clay Bennett, Adam Silver and Oklahoma City county health officials had to decide how to proceed. They landed on: Postpone the game, confine both teams to their locker rooms, test everyone who came in close contact with Gobert, and put anyone who came in close contact with those people in isolation until those test results were in.

As soon as a player tested positive, Silver knew he would have to suspend the NBA season indefinitely. There was no more debate. There was not even time to notify the other teams.

“This was a split-second decision,” Silver would later say.

The tricky part was the choreography. The game was about to tip off.

Thunder director of medical services Donnie Strack sprinted onto the court to call a huddle with the game’s three officials. The players were still walking around, confused and curious. Thunder guard Chris Paul approached the Utah bench and asked, “What’s wrong with Rudy?”

A few moments later, the three referees called over coaches Quin Snyder and Billy Donovan, who signaled to their teams to leave the floor. Jazz forward Joe Ingles waved to the fans as if saying goodbye.

To avoid panic, it was decided that the arena should be cleared of fans before the positive COVID-19 test was announced and the season was suspended. That was no small task. The governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, a regular at Thunder games, happened to be in the building. Sources said that helped facilitate and expedite resources toward clearing the building and managing the public health situation.

As Oklahoma public officials were mobilizing, OKC’s public-address announcer told the crowd that the game was delayed. About 10 minutes later, the crowd was told the game was postponed, and then reassured — twice — that they were safe.

“We quickly agreed that this should not be a business decision,” Silver said.

JAZZ PLAYERS WERE immediately given protective masks and gloves and told to wait in the locker room without an explanation. And no time frame was offered for how long they’d be confined.

Players and staffers called and texted agents and friends to try to figure out what was going on. Eventually, state officials arrived to test each of the 58 members of the Jazz traveling party — a process that would take over four hours.

Word of Gobert’s positive test and the subsequent suspension of the NBA season spread throughout the league. Several games were still going on. The New Orleans Pelicans-Sacramento Kings game was less than an hour from tipping off.

Each team began contact tracing, trying to assess the last time they’d faced Gobert and the Jazz or someone who had recently been with Utah. Pelicans officials soon determined that referee Courtney Kirkland had worked the Jazz-Raptors game on Monday and could have been exposed. Players on both teams discussed it and didn’t feel comfortable with the exposure risk. That game was postponed as well.

Whatever plan there had been just a few hours earlier was rapidly changing.

“‘Unprecedented’ is a word a lot of people throw around,” one general manager said. “But this really is unprecedented.”

Now there were no games scheduled. Playoff races were irrelevant. MVP voting, the Lakers-Clippers rivalry, the grand small-ball experiment in Houston — all of it had been cast aside.

“This remains a complicated and rapidly evolving situation that reminds us that we are all part of a broader society with a responsibility to look out for one another,” Silver wrote in a statement to fans on Thursday. “That is what the NBA will continue to do.”

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS GUARD Josh Richardson learned the season had been suspended as he turned on his phone following a win over the Detroit Pistons.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Richardson said. “Everything became very real, because there’s now people out here who [they] feel like they know. It’s Rudy Gobert. Oh my gosh. It’s Donovan Mitchell. Tom Hanks … and that’s too far. Forrest Gump has it?”

Richardson is from Oklahoma City, so he immediately called family members to make sure they were OK. Sixers players started talking about what this all meant and what would come next.

Nobody in the league had answers yet, except that everyone should go home, self-isolate, watch for symptoms and wait for further instruction.

“I was just home with my dog all day [Thursday],” Richardson said. “But everybody is really, really in touch, whether it’s the team group text, talking to trainers or agents.”

Richardson is a soccer fan. He’d been paying close attention to all the cancellations of European leagues, but seeing things happen from afar is different from living it in real time.

“I kind of figured somebody would end up having it,” Richardson said. “But it’s just one of those things where you just hope for the best and expect the worst.”

Whether this is the worst remains to be seen. Utah players and staffers who were tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday remained overnight in Oklahoma City at the 21c Museum Hotel as they awaited their results. On Thursday morning, before finally returning to Utah, they found out that star guard Donovan Mitchell had also tested positive. Emmanuel Mudiay had been feeling ill before the game, but he tested negative.

The five teams that had played the Jazz over the past 10 days — the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors — were also told to self-isolate. No players from those teams have reported symptoms or tested positive for the coronavirus.

The league had another series of calls with owners, executives, the players’ union and coaches on Thursday to discuss next steps. Issues like player compensation, the importance of maintaining individual privacy on medical information and the economic impact on part-time workers were discussed. The rough outline of a new plan was shaped: This hiatus will last at least 30 days. Then the NBA will see where things stand, both internally and in the world at large.

Privately, teams and owners are bracing themselves for anything.

“It’s remarkable to be here talking to you guys tonight about this hiatus,” Silver said on TNT late Thursday, evening, 24 hours and seemingly a lifetime after making the decision to suspend the season, “when it was only yesterday that the NCAA made the decision to play without fans — which seemed unprecedented — and was a historic decision.

“I think it only makes the point that on this issue and all the things we’ve all dealt with for so many years where it changes day by day, this literally changes hour by hour in terms of what we know.”

Royce Young, Zach Lowe, Brian Windhorst, Tim MacMahon and Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.

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MLB

2020 MLB Rank reaction: Who’s too high or too low?

The results are in, and ESPN has determined Major League Baseball’s top 100 players for the 2020 season. But not everyone is going to agree with who wound up where. In the wake of the release of this year’s voting by 40 of ESPN’s baseball experts, we asked three of our voters — Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield — what their big takeaways were from this year’s ranking of baseball’s best at ESPN.com.

Which top-30 ranking is the biggest surprise?

Doolittle: Alex Bregman was No. 6 last season. Then he went out and finished second in Baseball-Reference WAR (bWAR), second in FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) and first in win shares. So going into his age-25 season, we drop him to No. 12. This makes no sense to me, especially if, as I suspect, he’s getting some kind of sign-stealing scandal adjustment. If Mike Trout doesn’t win the MVP again this season in the American League, Bregman is the most likely player in the league to take his place.

Miller: Blake Snell has pitched four seasons in the majors, and his ERA has been just a little bit better than the league average in three of them. Of course, the exception — 2018 — was one of the finest seasons a pitcher had in past decade, but even that season was hard to replicate, with a 1.89 ERA but just a 2.94 FIP. It’s easy to see him in next year’s top 10, but it’s also easy to see him in next year’s bottom 10.

Schoenfield: Does Kris Bryant have top-25 potential? Of course he does; he was the 2016 National League MVP, and he’s still in what should be the prime of his career. But he hasn’t been a top-25 player the past two seasons. You can blame injuries in 2018, and while his overall batting line from 2019 resembles his 2016 line, this is where we point out that everyone else collectively hit much better in 2019 than 2016. In 2016, Bryant’s 39 home runs ranked ninth in the majors; in 2019, his 31 home runs ranked tied for 49th. In 2016, his .939 OPS ranked ninth; in 2019, his .903 OPS ranked 28th. His 3.6 bWAR tied him with Mike Tauchman, although Bryant was also at 4.8 fWAR, tied for 23rd among position players. It’s not a ridiculous ranking or anything, but I want to see a little more before I put him back in the top 25.

Who didn’t make the top 100 but should have?

Doolittle: We did a pretty good job of avoiding egregious omissions. The highest-ranked player on my list who didn’t make it was Carlos Santana. I can kind of understand it. He’s even more one-dimensional now than he has always been. He’s going into his age-34 season. He doesn’t play a premium position. But the guy can still really hit. He bounced back in a big way from 2018, a season that now looks like an outlier. A player you can pencil in for an OPS+ of 115 to 130 over at least 150 games is a top-100 player.

Miller: He’s got a high-enough disaster rate that I understand why he’s not in the top 100, but only 12 players in baseball produced more WAR per plate appearance than Byron Buxton did last year. He’s got Andrelton Simmons’ defensive value as a center fielder, which gives him a 3- or 4-WAR floor in any fully healthy season. And he hit an outrageous 30 doubles in fewer than 300 at-bats in 2019, hinting, perhaps, at even more power potential than his .513 slugging percentage showed.

Schoenfield: Just eyeballing it from last year’s league leaders … maybe Jorge Polanco of the Twins? He ranked tied for 14th in bWAR among position players at 5.7; fWAR had him lower at 4.0 (still 37th). I’m not sure why there’s such a big difference there because bWAR rates him only slightly above average in the field with 2 defensive runs saved. Polanco did fall off a bit at the plate in the second half (but was still good), so maybe that’s it. Still, he’s the type of solid all-around player who is underrated.

At the end of the season, about what player will you look back at the rankings and say, “I was right, everyone else was wrong”?

Doolittle: We’ve got Aaron Judge at No. 15, down from No. 11. He debuted at No. 14 during his rookie season, the year we did the rankings after the campaign had started, and he was No. 16 the year after that. So we’ve had him between 11 and 16 over his four full seasons. I’d rate him more like No. 50. It brings me no joy to point this out, because I think Judge is good for baseball and his ascendancy to future Hall of Fame status would be a great thing. But his rookie season now looks like an outlier. He’s really good — awe-inspiring might be a more apt description — when he plays but misses too much time.

Now it looks like Judge is going to be on the shelf again to open the 2020 season. The problem with his over-ranking is not just one of value lost from injuries. There is also the loss of repetitions to improve the extreme swing-and-miss tendencies he has shown, which lead to inconsistencies. He’s already going into his age-28 season. Could he end up as MVP? Absolutely. But to cement his status as that kind of player, Judge needs to be on the field for 140 to 150 games. So I hope everyone else is right and I am wrong.

Miller: Shohei Ohtani’s case as a designated hitter isn’t really any better than Miguel Sano’s case as a first baseman, and Sano isn’t in the top 100. So Ohtani’s position at No. 34 is being floated by his fame and hype, or by very high expectations for his pitching. I don’t have particularly high expectations for his pitching. High hopes! But my expectations are cautious, as they would be for any pitcher with an injury history like Ohtani’s. I might put him in the 80s.

Schoenfield: As I predicted, German Marquez did not crack the top 100. His road ERA in 2018: 2.95. His road ERA in 2019: 3.67. I remain convinced that if you put this guy in a neutral park he’s a top-15 starting pitcher in the majors. Aside from him, Corey Seager ranks 78th, which is probably fair based on 2019, but I’m predicting he’ll be much higher in our 2021 rankings after he has a much better season in the middle of that loaded Dodgers lineup.

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Basketball

This isn’t the season the 76ers expected

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com
  • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News

IF EVER THERE were a night Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown should have slept well, it was just before the All-Star break. The Sixers had just turned in their most complete victory of the season, beating the LA Clippers 110-103 on Feb. 11 to win their third straight game.

But instead of heading home, crawling into bed and dreaming about how good his team could be, Brown packed up his Jeep, grabbed his dog, Jack, and drove through the night.

Seven hours north of Philadelphia lies Brown’s hometown of Portland, Maine. And every All-Star break he rents an Airbnb. There are plenty of nice hotels there, Brown says, but “I like my space.”

In the mornings, he has breakfast with his 85-year-old parents. During the day, he spreads out in the rental house and works, breaking only for a walk down to the waterfront or the occasional lobster roll at J’s Oyster.

Each night, around 11, he’ll turn in so he can be fresh the next morning. This annual trip is about finding clarity for the rest of the season, not cramming for a test.

“Just getting my world organized,” he says, “and focusing on what’s most important.”

Before his team had such grand expectations, Brown would use these “hermit” trips, as he calls them, to watch the last two minutes of almost every close game played in the NBA. His video coordinator would cut footage for him so he could study how these games unfolded from an offensive and defensive perspective.

The Sixers weren’t playing many close games in those days — four seasons ago, they won 10 games — but Brown wanted to be ready when “The Process” was complete, when Philadelphia was ready to win. And he felt deep in his bones that they had the talent to do it once Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons arrived as building blocks.

But this year, Brown’s course curriculum was different: He watched every minute of every Sixers playoff game for the past two seasons.

There was plenty he could have looked at to try and fix from this season — the Sixers were in fifth place in the East despite the three-game win streak. But he watches that film every night. If the answer to why the team was so dominant at home but equally anemic on the road was on video, he already would have found it.

No, this trip was about getting away from the ups and the downs of this drama-filled season and looking at the big picture.

He watched the series win against Miami Heat in 2018, then the second-round loss to the Boston Celtics. He watched the series win against the Brooklyn Nets in 2019, then the heartbreaking seven-game series loss to the Toronto Raptors.

“I watch that and, for me, what it does is remind you of what’s most important,” Brown says. “Your negatives, at that stage of the playoffs, get exposed like your worst fears … But that just circles me back into truth. Straight to the truth.”

Simmons’ lack of outside shooting can hurt sometimes. So can Embiid’s overreliance on outside shooting. Their pacing can be off at times. But when they play physically on offense and are fully engaged on defense — which Brown saw enough times when reviewing tape to stake his future on — they can beat anybody.

“Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can win a championship together,” he says. “I know what winning looks like.

“I know what championship talent looks like.”

MORE: Which teams will win the big NBA playoff races?

THE NOISE AROUND the Sixers this season has been deafening.

Embiid has been booed at home and fought with Karl-Anthony Towns — on the court and in social media. Brown has publicly challenged Simmons to shoot 3-pointers. Former Sixer Jimmy Butler has Instagram-trolled from afar. And the questions: the questioning of Brown’s long-term future, Josh Richardson questioning the team’s heart, Al Horford questioning the team’s focus.

The Sixers have become the NBA’s premier drama. But are those headlines conducive to winning?

“I knew when I took this job we would garner a lot of focus and attention,” Philadelphia general manager Elton Brand says. “When you look at the talent and expectations we have, it’s not surprising.”

Brand has studied teams under intense scrutiny, huge personalities and dramatic storylines. The Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000s, LeBron James’ Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers teams, the Golden State Warriors after adding Kevin Durant in 2016, the Boston Celtics with Kyrie Irving last season.

The challenge isn’t to quiet the noise, Brand says, but to grow from the flaws and friction it exposes during the regular season.

“Noise comes with the territory,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of teams thrive after being in the spotlight. And I’ve also seen teams crumble from it.

“If you handle it correctly, it can bring a team together. It can pressure-test you and help prepare you for the biggest moments. That’s where our focus is … on making it work for us and staying centered around what’s most important.”

The coach and general manager seem to have arrived at the same place on that. “We’ll see what side we ultimately land on,” Brand says. “But I believe in the guys we have in our locker room.”

FOR THE MOMENT, the Sixers are missing both Embiid and Simmons in their locker room. Embiid could be back from a shoulder injury as soon as next week, sources say, but Simmons’ prognosis — a lower-back nerve impingement — is harder to predict.

Simmons will be reevaluated next week as the Sixers wait for the inflammation around the nerve to subside. The team hopes he can return before the playoffs, sources say, and with enough time to get back into shape.

But, at this point, that is just a hope.

All of which makes the fundamental question of whether Embiid and Simmons can win a title together more difficult to answer.

“The star power we have is so intriguing,” Horford says. “Even for me when I was looking at free agency, coming here with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, you look at all the potential and everything.

“It’s like, man, if we get it together …”

After the Celtics were subsumed by drama last season, one might think Horford would run away from even more of that with the Sixers. In Boston, the challenge of incorporating Irving into a locker room of budding young stars divided the room.

“It was difficult,” Horford says. “It just wasn’t the right fit.”

Of course, there have been plenty of times the past few years when the fit between Embiid and Simmons also has been questioned. Their skill sets, style of play and personalities don’t have a natural synergy — all that was laid bare as Brown rewatched the playoff games at the Airbnb.

“It’s been like this for seven years,” Brown says. “We’ve been walking on the head of a lightning rod. … You have the journeys of Nerlens [Noel] and Markelle [Fultz]. We’ve had multiple general managers. This is the life we have lived. So be it.”

Brown ultimately had a choice to make that could determine whether he stays as the team’s head coach after this season: Find his way through the noise and back to the original dream of “The Process,” or start advocating for personnel changes and doing things very differently.

He decided to lean in and trust it.

“I’m the only NBA coach [Embiid and Simmons have] ever had,” Brown says. “I know these guys. It’s like how my wife knows when my kids are going to get sick about two days before they get sick. When you’re a parent, you know your kids. And so I look at these two guys and I know they can win together.

“They can and they will.”

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MLB

Acuna in 40/40 club? 162 combined games for Judge and Stanton? Our MLB over/unders for 2020

First, a warning: Don’t print out this article and take it to Vegas. Our 2020 MLB O/U’s aren’t bookie-approved — they’re just some debates we’ve been having this spring as we eagerly await baseball games that count.

Still, the answers could tell us a lot about how the upcoming season will play out. From Astros All-Stars to Bryce Harper’s WAR and more, ESPN.com baseball writers Sam Miller, David Schoenfield and Alden Gonzalez make their picks.

Astros All-Stars: 1.5

Amid the blowback over the Houston sign-stealing scandal, will fans shut out the team’s talented players come the Midsummer Classic? By rule, each team must get one player on the roster. Will the Astros be unofficially capped at that?

Sam Miller: Unless MLB makes an explicit announcement that legacy Astros aren’t going to be eligible — or that they get the minimum one representative and no more — this is an easy over. The Astros have four of the 20 best position players in the American League, according to PECOTA projections, two of the five best starting pitchers, one of the five best relief pitchers, and we’re talking about an All-Star roster that’s going to swell to 40 names by the end of the process. You could imagine the pickers not wanting to be overly generous toward the Astros, but leaving all but one of these Astros off with a straight face would be like leaving June off a list of the 10 best months.

David Schoenfield: The Astros had four starters in 2019, including pitcher Justin Verlander. They had one starter in 2018 and three in 2017. We can safely predict that fans across the nation will not vote in any Astros as starters, so any players will have to earn their spots. That’s where things get tricky, however, because teams like the Orioles, Tigers, Royals and Mariners might not have any legitimate All-Stars but will take up four roster spots. The league office now names the reserves, and it’s possible said office will hold a grudge against the Astros for being a royal pain in the butt. That said, the Astros had six All-Stars last season, including Gerrit Cole, who is no longer with the team, but not including Zack Greinke, who was an All-Star with the Diamondbacks. Those six All-Stars also didn’t include Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa or Yordan Alvarez, who certainly are All-Star candidates. Over.

Alden Gonzalez: I’ve been thinking about this for a while and have kept it to myself because I didn’t want it to appear as if I were minimizing their transgressions, but regardless — I think the Astros are going to be really good this year. Like, stunningly good — because their major league roster is immensely talented, with or without trash cans, and because they’re going to easily summon motivation during the inevitable lulls when most teams struggle to find an edge. Alex Bregman, Altuve, George Springer, Alvarez, Verlander and Greinke are All-Star caliber players, and that might not even be the full list. You don’t think two of them will get in — for a team that might once again win the division, for an All-Star roster that grows exponentially after players drop out? Come on now.

The Verdict: OVER

Giancarlo Stanton + Aaron Judge combined games played: 161.5

For those of you scoring at home, the two New York sluggers combined to play 120 games last year. Both are banged up this spring — and neither will be in the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup.

Miller: Even with the spring mystery around Judge’s pec and the spring panic about Stanton’s calf, this ought to be cleared easily. Look, yes, last year’s Yankees got hurt a lot. It was a historic run of injuries, by the end of which their surgeons needed Tommy John surgery and their operating tables had broken legs. But that was just a weird year — singular — and at this point it’s just superstition and recency bias causing us to assume worst-case scenarios from every injury report. There’s simply no reason to think the Yankees — who are smart and rich and fill every job in the organization with exceptional talent — would have hired Dr. Nick to keep their players safe.

Schoenfield: I know Stanton played just 18 games last season, but he played 158 in 2018 and 159 in 2017. It feels like the panic about his calf injury is an overreaction to last year’s injuries. Judge has averaged 106 games the past two seasons, which certainly isn’t great, but the question posed isn’t 200 games between the two but a mere 161.5. Over.

Gonzalez: I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna sit here and just pretend everything’s OK. We’re barely into March, and a team coming off a dizzying amount of injuries in 2019 already knows it will begin the season without two key members of its starting rotation — Luis Severino and James Paxton — and the two most dangerous hitters in its lineup. Not cool, and totally OK to say so. Judge and Stanton are merely nursing soft-tissue injuries and should theoretically return before May. But maybe there’s a reason they’ve each had a hard time staying healthy in recent years. Maybe these crazy outliers last longer than one season, Sam! Under — and I hope I’m wrong.

The Verdict: OVER

Gerrit Cole strikeouts: 299.5

The Yanks spent $324 million to land the winter’s most coveted free-agent ace. Cole K’d 326 batters for Houston last year — his first 300 strikeout season.

Miller: Since 2003, there have been only five 300-strikeout seasons. Those five all came in the past five years, though, as perpetually rising strikeout rates rose faster than starters’ perpetually declining innings totals declined. There’s no reason to think that rise is going to slow down, let alone reverse itself, which suggests it’s a good bet that at least one league’s leader — if not both — will clear 300 this year. On the other hand, it’s always, always, always a good bet that any individual pitcher you name will miss some time over the course of a season and fail to reach career highs. So in spirit I’ll take the over, but in actuality give me the under.

Schoenfield: The easy answer would be to take the under, since Cole has exceeded that total just once in his career — last year, of course, when he fanned 326. Factor in a little regression and the possibility of injury and 300 strikeouts is a lot of strikeouts to bet on. Switching divisions doesn’t appear to be a mitigating factor here. The non-Astros teams in the AL West fanned 5,773 times last season while the non-Yankees teams in the AL East fanned 5,824 times. The last pitcher to strike out 300 batters in consecutive seasons was Randy Johnson in 2002 (the final year of five in a row). Add it all up and I’ll take the under.

Gonzalez: We went from zero 300-strikeout seasons from 2003 to 2014 to five 300-strikeout seasons from 2015 to 2019, and they all came from arms with plenty of mileage on them. Verlander did it in his age-36 season. Max Scherzer was 34, Chris Sale was 28 and Clayton Kershaw was 27 — with more than 1,600 major league innings under his belt. Cole, 29 until Sept. 8, seems to have settled into a point in his career when he can reach back and get the strikeout whenever he wants, not unlike LeBron James being able to score every time he touches the basketball. The question is how often he wants to. In the first year of a gargantuan contract, while playing for the team he grew up rooting for and anchoring a rotation that is suddenly in need, desire will be aplenty for Cole. I say he gets to 300 again. Over.

The Verdict: UNDER

Shohei Ohtani innings pitched: 49.2

The Angels’ two-way sensation had Tommy John surgery in October of 2018 and, while he batted in 106 games in 2019, he didn’t pitch at all last season. His career innings total: 51 2/3.

Gonzalez: The plan, at the moment, is for Ohtani to return to the rotation in the middle of May and start once a week. That would put him on pace for 20 starts. If he averages five innings per start — he averaged a little more than that as a rookie in 2018 — that’s 100 innings. The Angels hope delaying him on the front end will prevent them from having to shut him down late in the season. If Ohtani stays healthy, this is an easy over. But this is the first two-way player since Babe Ruth, returning from major elbow surgery. Nothing is easy. I’ll take the over.

Schoenfield: Ohtani’s innings the past three seasons, including his final season in Japan: 25.1, 51.2, 0. We already know the Angels are bringing him along slowly and he probably won’t join the rotation until May. We don’t know exactly how often he’ll pitch or if they’ll let him go deep into games if he’s dealing. Still, there commitment is there to let him pitch. If he makes 15 starts and averages five innings per outing, that’s 75 innings. Over.

Miller: Given his past three seasons, and the nature of pitching while injury-prone, I think he’s more likely to throw no innings than one inning, more likely to throw one inning than two, more likely to throw two than three, and so on — every inning is a triumph not to be taken for granted. (This is true of many more pitchers than it’s fun to acknowledge.) Under.

The Verdict: OVER

Mike Trout + Anthony Rendon OPS: 2.000

Rendon won a World Series last year with the Nationals. Trout won his third MVP. Now they’re Angels teammates. Their (extremely impressive) combined OPS in 2019: 2.093.

Schoenfield: Do you have any inside information on the ball? Rendon had a career high 1.010 OPS last season, but he moves from what was a very good hitter’s park last season to a pitcher’s park. His OPS over the past three seasons is .953. Let’s see, Trout has averaged a 1.081 OPS the past three seasons. Even accounting for a little regression from Rendon, 2.000 looks doable thanks to the Great One. Over.

Miller: Oh, this one’s too hard, I’ll just let the projections do it for me. Let’s see, PECOTA says they’ll sum to … 1.994. Well, that’s barely any help at all! I would take the over if I knew that this specific thing was what Mike Trout cared about, that all he wanted this season was to have his and Anthony Rendon’s OPS add up to at least 2.000. Or 2.100. Or 2.500. You tell me what it is Mike Trout cares about, and I’ll take the over. Since he doesn’t know or care about this prop bet, I have no choice but to stare at the tables dryly and conclude that, due mostly to Rendon’s regression, they’ll be a little bit under.

Gonzalez: This seems close. I’ll say under, ever so slightly. Rendon’s OPS might suffer once the Angel Stadium marine layer grabs hold of some of those balls he’ll pull to left field on warm summer nights, and Trout has won two MVPs with an OPS that did not reach 1.000. You might be surprised to learn that in a time when walks are precious and hitters freely take strikeouts in exchange for slugging, no team had two players with a combined OPS that reached 2.000 last season. It’s hard.

The Verdict: UNDER

Pete Alonso home runs: 44.5

The Met set an MLB rookie record with 53 home runs last year. Another 50 might be too much to ask, but … how about 45?

Miller: Do you have any inside information on the ball? Like Dave alluded to in the previous question, the difference between the ball they played with last year and the ball they could, within production specifications, play with this year is enough to tilt almost every one of these props to the opposite answer. If Alonso were to get the over, he’d be only the third player in history to have two 45-HR seasons by age 25, and the others — Prince Fielder and Jimmie Foxx — debuted a lot younger and had more seasons to work with. On the other hand, Alonso is already in unprecedented territory with the all-time rookie home run record, and until I see six well-struck balls die at the warning track on March 26, I’m forced to take the over on any home run offer.

Gonzalez: I don’t have the inside information you guys are looking for, but I think you’re pretty safe in assuming the baseballs will not be as, um, jumpy as they were during the 2019 regular season — because how could they possibly be? Alonso’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was troublesome, as were his overall struggles against off-speed pitches. He’s going to hit a ton of home runs, but we’re asking him to approach 100 of them through two major league seasons. That’s a little much for a young man with a lot of swing and miss in his game, even in this era. Under.

Schoenfield: Over. Alonso will always have a lot of swing and miss in his game, but there’s room to improve on his 31.9% chase rate. If he does that and swings at more strikes, he can hit 50 again.

The Verdict: OVER

Clayton Kershaw ERA: 3.25

The Dodgers lefty isn’t the pitcher he once was, but, well, he’s still pretty darned good. But the trend is clear. His past four ERAs, dating back to 2016: 1.69, 2.31, 2.73, 3.03.

Miller: Kershaw’s FIP — an ERA predictor that uses only a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and home run rates — was above that 3.25 mark last year for the first time since he was a 20-year-old rookie, suggesting his decline is very real and perhaps worse than the surface-level numbers say. On the other hand, for the third year in a row his FIP didn’t predict his ERA at all, but was actually much worse than Kershaw’s surface-level numbers said. I’ll take the under, knowing there are two ways to win this one: Kershaw could reverse that decline and pitch like he did in 2018, 2017, or even (dream a little dream) 2016, or he could not reverse that decline, but continue to be the rare genius who can thread the FIP/ERA divide.

Gonzalez: Every five days last summer, Kershaw stepped atop a major league mound with inferior stuff, most of which looked awfully similar coming out of his hand. He still managed to compile 178 1/3 innings, win 16 of his 21 decisions and post a 3.03 ERA that ranked 10th among qualified pitchers. It was, in its own way, amazing. It’s hard to ever bet against Kershaw, but unless he ramps his fastball back in the 92-mph range, or gets his slider to travel with consistent depth, or develops a pitch — be it a changeup or a two-seamer — that can run in on left-handed hitters, it’s hard for me to see him succeed to that level again. I’ll take the over, then watch him prove me wrong.

Schoenfield: Never bet against Clayton Kershaw. At least in the regular season. Under.

The Verdict: UNDER

Mookie Betts runs scored: 129.5

Betts scored 135 runs last season for Boston, a career high. Now, he’s in Hollywood — in a Dodgers lineup that could be historic.

Schoenfield: This is a good one. Betts scored 129 runs in 2018 and 135 runs in 2019. Those Red Sox teams scored 876 and 901 runs. The Dodgers scored 886 runs in 2019, so even with the pitcher hitting they had lineups comparable to Boston’s — meaning there is plenty of power behind Betts to knock him in. Still, 130 runs is a big total: Only three players exceeded that in the last decade: Betts, Charlie Blackmon in 2017 and Curtis Granderson in 2011. Dodgers leadoff hitters scored 118 runs last year and their No. 2 hitters scored 120. But the leadoff guys also hit 44 home runs and the No. 2 guys hit 35. Mookie will have higher OBP, however, so I’ll take 130-something.

Gonzalez: Betts will lead off for the Dodgers this season. Following him will be Max Muncy, then Justin Turner, then Cody Bellinger, then some combination of Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Gavin Lux, Will Smith and, if Pederson is ultimately traded, A.J. Pollock. As Dave pointed out, the Dodgers scored 886 runs last year, just 15 fewer than Betts’ Red Sox — with a pitcher in the lineup most of the time and, of course, no Mookie Betts. Last year’s Dodgers offense was scary. This year’s promises to be historic. And I’m not about to put limits on it. Over. Why not?

Miller: Hey I’m asking you for the last time: WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE BALL!?! If we assume 30 home runs for Betts, and we assume a Dodgers lineup that performs about as well as it did last year (other than the addition of Betts), then we have this: The Dodgers’ leadoff hitters scored 34.4% of the time they got on base last year, not counting home runs. At that rate, and assuming Betts hits 30 homers, he would need to get on base 291 times. That means playing every day, never missing a trip to the plate, and nearly matching his career-best .438 OBP — a stretch, given he’s never had another season over .400. Maybe he’ll hit more than 30 homers, maybe the Dodgers’ lineup will be better, maybe I forgot to carry a one along this process, but I’ll take the under.

The Verdict: OVER

Bryce Harper WAR: 4

Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies before last season. His WAR in 2019, according to baseball-reference: 4.2.

Gonzalez: Over the past four years, Harper’s FanGraphs WAR has gone from 2.9 to 4.8 to 3.4 to 4.6, so, who knows. Harper is still only 27 years old. He should be significantly better than this every single year, and yet, here we are. Topping this mark might hinge on two factors that are impossible to predict: Health and defensive effort. I’ll take the over because this sport is so much more fun when Harper plays at an elite level.

Miller: Under. I’m tired of having huge expectations and feeling disappointed by Harper’s borderline Hall of Famish career. I’m ready to have some low expectations and watch him splatter them on a seat in the third deck. I bet you anything he will, too, cause he’s still so talented and strong and when he gets on a hot streak there’s nobody — aw, dang, did it again.

Schoenfield: Over. While it now seems we’ll never see 2015 MVP-level Harper again, I’d like to think he has more in him than we saw last season (.260/.372/.510, 125 OPS+). Over, although not by much.

The Verdict: OVER

Ronald Acuna Jr. home runs + stolen bases: 79.5

In his age-21 season, the Braves superstar narrowly missed becoming just the fifth member of the 40/40 club, slugging 41 home runs and stealing an NL-best 37 bases.

Miller: Under. Stolen bases have a habit of disappearing fast, especially for big guys.

Schoenfield: Over. A few more home runs will balance out fewer stolen bases.

Gonzalez: Under — not because Acuna isn’t great, but because that’s an extremely high bar.

The Verdict: UNDER

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MLB

What rewatching two key Astros 2017 World Series games tells us

  • Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
  • Former deputy editor of Page 2
  • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

This case is not an episode of “Law & Order,” wrapped up in a nice tidy hour of television.

The evidence is murky and inconclusive. Then again, maybe the evidence — such as it might be — doesn’t matter.

The Houston Astros, after all, have admitted to cheating in 2017, offering apologies for their actions if not exactly contrition for their sins. The commissioner’s report on the sign-stealing scandal found the Astros, even after the September memo sent to all teams reminding them of league regulations prohibiting the use of electronic equipment for stealing signs, “continued to both utilize the replay review room and the monitor located next to the dugout to decode signs for the remainder of the regular season and Postseason.”

The public has rendered its verdict. Case closed, World Series trophy forever tarnished.

One thing we still don’t know, however: How much did the Astros actually benefit from stealing signs? One popular piece of supposed confirmation that has become widely quoted is that in Game 5 of the World Series — that wild 13-12 win for the Astros over the Dodgers — the Astros didn’t have a single swing-and-miss against Clayton Kershaw’s breaking stuff. The great Kershaw, who just five days earlier had dominated the Astros at Dodger Stadium, striking out 11 batters in seven innings. No swing-and-misses?

Is that proof? Well, for starters, it was actually one swing-and-miss against his breaking stuff, not zero, and four in the game, out of the 94 pitches Kershaw threw in Game 5. That is a low total. But even in his dominant Game 1 start at home, Kershaw induced just eight swing-and-misses, five on his breaking stuff.

With all that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to go back and watch Game 5. I also watched Game 4, when Dodgers starter Alex Wood didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning, a game the Dodgers won 6-2 (the only postseason game the Astros lost at home that year).

In comparing the two games, one thing stands out: No matter what the Astros knew or didn’t know, Kershaw did not pitch a good game. His slider was inconsistent all game long, often flattening out over the middle of the plate instead of diving in and below the knees to right-handed batters. Yuli Gurriel hit a big three-run homer off a slider that tied the game 4-4 in the fourth inning and it was an absolute cookie.

None of this will change anyone’s opinion on anything and there is no smoking gun, but here are my notes from re-watching the two games.

Game 4: Alex Wood

Wood had an excellent season in 2017, going 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA, including 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA in the first half. Relying on a two-seamer/changeup/curveball selection, he made the All-Star team with that huge first half, but his home run rate climbed in the second half and manager Dave Roberts moved him to the back of the rotation in the postseason. In fact, one storyline heading into his Oct. 28 start was that Wood had pitched just once in a month, starting Game 4 of the National League Championship Series 10 days earlier — when the Cubs tagged him for three home runs in 4⅔ innings.

General observations:

You’re not going to hear any trash-can banging on the Fox broadcast, or at least I couldn’t while watching back on YouTube. While the commissioner’s report said the Astros were still cheating in the postseason, it’s possible they had changed to another identifying signal by this time. An Astros fan named Tony Adams watched 58 home games from 2017 that were available on video and listened to every pitch, logging any banging noises he heard. He tracked 8,274 pitches and found a banging noise before 1,143 of them (the bangs were deployed to indicate a breaking ball).

After the Danny Farquhar game on Sept. 21 — when the White Sox pitcher evidently picked up on the system — the banging slowed down. In the final two regular-season games that Adams monitored, he registered just one bang each game. In two playoff games against the Boston Red Sox, he registered just one bang. Adams does not list, however, the American League Championship Series games against the New York Yankees or the World Series games against the Dodgers.

It’s important to note that you rarely see the catcher signs from the game feed. With Fox hyperactively moving from close-ups of the pitcher to the hitter to the dugout to the on-deck hitter and so on, you often don’t get the center-field camera shot until the pitcher is beginning his delivery. You see the catcher signs maybe a quarter of the time. Which is why Houston bench coach Alex Cora, according to the report, arranged for a video room technician to install the monitor outside the dugout to display the live feed of the center-field camera.

OK, some notes on Wood’s game in the ever-popular numbered list format:

(1) The first two pitches of the game were actually pretty constructive, showing the Dodgers were certainly suspicious that something might be going on with the Astros. I checked another feed of the game I have access to at ESPN, and on the first pitch of the game you see catcher Austin Barnes going through a series of signs, which you don’t normally do with nobody on base. Before the second pitch, Wood actually stepped off the rubber and Barnes cycled through the signs again.

(2) “We’d heard whispers of some of the shady stuff they’d been doing,” Wood told The Athletic’s Andy McCullough in December. “Obviously, we had no idea it was to the extent that came out.” The Dodgers grew even more paranoid after they witnessed the Astros using multiple signs with no runners on base during the first two games at Dodger Stadium — the Astros themselves were paranoid about sign-stealing from the opposition. Baseball as presented by Robert Ludlum and John le Carré. As a result, Wood was constantly changing his signs. “We probably didn’t go eight or 10 pitches that whole time without changing,” he said.

(3) When Jose Altuve stepped in for his first at-bat, Fox flashed a graphic showing Altuve hitting .517 at home in seven playoff games with five home runs. “You look at these home playoff numbers, sometimes it’s hard to explain,” Joe Buck said. Well, that’s one way to put it. The Astros went 8-1 at home that postseason, hitting .273/.343/.519 compared to .208/.284/.347 on the road. Of course, the Yankees went 6-0 at home and 1-6 on the road with a larger OPS difference than the Astros, so be careful where you cast your small-sample-size stones.

(4) At times, Wood and Barnes used just one sign, such as with Evan Gattis batting in the third inning. Without seeing the catcher on every pitch, it’s hard to know how often the Dodgers used multiple signs and how often they used just one when nobody was on base.

(5) With Marwin Gonzalez batting in the third inning, Fox showed a graphic with the Astros’ decline in strikeout rate from 2016 to 2018: From 27th to first. “Credit the organization,” John Smoltz said. This is one of the overriding narratives about the 2017 Astros, although it’s important to note that due to personnel changes (such as the addition of Gurriel and Alex Bregman’s first full season), preseason forecasts projected a steep drop in strikeouts for the Astros — with or without cheating. One study, by Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus, using Adams’ data, concluded “the loud banging scheme for which the Astros got caught seems to have done at least as much harm as it did good.”

At least in the regular season. But we don’t really know what happened in the postseason. Like I said, it’s all murky and muddy.

(6) Bregman lined out to center in the fourth on a 3-1 fastball — with Barnes clearly flashing just one sign. Bregman hit it pretty good: 96 mph exit velocity. In fact, the Astros had a fair number of hard outs in the game, although most of those came on the ground. They had three outs against Wood on exit velocities over 100 mph; those are usually hits. They had four more outs on balls between 95 and 100 mph. Wood was good, he moved the ball around and kept everything down, but he was also fortunate in some regards. Indeed, he had just four swing-and-miss strikes out of the 84 pitches he threw. At the same time, give him credit. The Astros weren’t able to lift the ball, even if they did know what was coming. Really, it shows how hard it is to hit major league pitching, even if you might know what pitch is coming.

(7) George Springer finally broke up Wood’s no-hitter with a two-out home run in the sixth inning, crushing a 3-1 slider into the Crawford Boxes in left field. Wood kept the pitch down, but it was over the middle part of the plate. That gave the Astros a 1-0 lead, although the Dodgers would tie the game in seventh and then score five in the ninth to even the series with a 6-2 win. I think one key aspect to Wood’s game is he worked very quickly, often seemingly started his delivery as Barnes was still flashing the sign. That will be in stark contrast to Kershaw, who will slow way down when runners got on base — in theory, making it easier for the Astros to relay stolen signs to the hitter. Of course, Wood had allowed just two walks before Springer’s homer and never had to pitch with a runner on second base, making it easier to remain in a fast-paced rhythm.

Game 5: Clayton Kershaw & Co.

Let’s move on to one of the wildest games in World Series, that 10-inning battle that lasted 5 hours, 17 minutes. With Kershaw pitching — coming off that 11-strikeout outing in Game 1 — the Dodgers built an early 4-0 lead. Kershaw couldn’t hold it. The Astros tied the game but the Dodgers went back ahead 7-4. Kershaw couldn’t hold that lead, either. Maybe it was the ball.

An interesting report had surfaced from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci prior to Game 5: The World Series baseballs were slicker than the regular-season baseballs, according to pitchers and coaches on both the Astros and Dodgers. This made it particularly hard to throw a slider, they claimed. Verducci wrote that earlier in the postseason he had heard similar complaints about the ball from the Indians.

“The World Series ball is slicker. No doubt,” Astros starter Justin Verlander said. “I had trouble throwing the ball,” Dodgers starter Yu Darvish said. “It was slicker.”

With that in the background, Kershaw took the ball for Game 5.

(1) Despite the concerns about the ball, the Dodgers entered Game 5 hitting .176 and the Astros entered hitting .226. Those numbers would go up after this game. It’s also worth noting that Kershaw was on full rest after throwing just 83 pitches in Game 1 — Roberts had vowed not to use him on short rest this postseason like in the past. Anyway, on Kershaw’s first pitch to Springer, Barnes set up inside and the fastball was outside, off the plate. Kershaw would not have his A-plus command in this game.

(2) Kershaw ended the first by striking out Altuve swinging on a 1-2 slider — the only swing-and-miss he’d get all game on a breaking ball. It actually wasn’t a good pitch, a slider with little movement left up in the zone over the middle of the plate.

(3) Kershaw retired the first six batters, working quickly. In the second, he threw a good 2-2 slider to Gurriel that he took just below the knees — the kind of pitch that Kershaw is used to racking up strikeouts with and might make you wonder if Gurriel knew to lay off. But he didn’t throw many of those good sliders in this game.

(4) In fact, let’s take a little timeout here. Kershaw would throw 39 sliders in the game with just that one swing-and-miss, plus five called strikes, seven fouls and seven balls in play. The seven balls in play resulted in three hits — two singles and, as we’ll see later, a home run by Gurriel. All three pitches were belt high, and the pitch to Gurriel was an absolute cookie.

It’s not just about the swings, however. It’s also about the pitches the Astros didn’t swing at, like that 2-2 slider to Gurriel. Kershaw had a chase rate of 12.9% in the game on his slider and curveball. From 2016 to 2018, Kershaw had a chase rate of 34.4% on breaking balls, so the Astros were certainly disciplined in this game. In fact, over that three-year span, Kershaw had a lower chase in any game just twice — although one of those came earlier in this postseason, in the division series against the Diamondbacks.

However, this was a problem Kershaw was having in general at this time. Remember, he had missed all of August that season with back issues. Of the 20 games over that three-year period when he induced the lowest chase rate on breaking balls, seven came between Sept. 1, when he returned from the injured list, and the end of the World Series. His chase rates on breaking balls by game that postseason: 12.5, 17.6, 20.0, 35.0, 12.9 and 28.6 (his relief outing in Game 7). Simply put, this was not vintage Kershaw. In fact, entering the game he had allowed seven home runs in his four playoff starts. Of course, it’s impossible to know the effect of the Astros knowing the signs on some or all of those pitches, but this game looked like a pitcher struggling with his location and perhaps the slickness of the ball.

(5) In the bottom of third, Gonzalez took a 1-0 slider for a strike, and the camera flashed to the dugout and you saw Carlos Beltran go up to Astros manager AJ Hinch and say something to him — one or two words. Any lip readers out there? That’s the only time I saw Beltran in the dugout in the game when the camera flashed there between pitches or during celebrations (he didn’t play in the game).

(6) In the bottom of the fourth, Kershaw really lost it. He walked Springer on five pitches, including two fastballs that weren’t close. Altuve singled on a flat slider in the middle of the plate. With Carlos Correa up and a runner on second for the first time, Barnes went through the signs, but Kershaw stepped off the rubber and Barnes went out to the mound for a meeting.

“A change of the signs again,” Smoltz said in the booth, “making sure [the Astros can’t] decode everything they’re doing.” On the 0-1 pitch, we get a good view of Barnes flashing the signs: one finger, three, two, one for a fastball inside … and Correa doubled down the line on a fastball inside (it would have been a ball if he hadn’t swung).

Verducci recently talked to Kershaw about Game 5 and Kershaw’s initial comment was, “I just pitched poorly. I lost the game.” Verducci pressed on and Kershaw said he didn’t want to go there: “I can’t. It’s over.”

Kershaw did eventually admit, however, that he didn’t change his signs with a runner on second base. “If you don’t change your signs up every few pitches with a guy on second base, it’s on you,” he said. “I just don’t want to have multiple signs with a guy on first base, you know? That slows the game down. Slows the rhythm down. And I didn’t do that in Houston. I used one sign. And I should have known. They were using multiple signs all the time.”

(7) Kershaw then threw his worst pitch of the game: a first-pitch nothing slider Gurriel mashed for a game-tying three-run homer. The pitch had so little movement that Smoltz actually referred to it as a fastball.

(8) Kershaw got the first two outs in the fifth, but then Springer battled for eight pitches and walked on a 3-2 slider. Bregman battled for 10 pitches and also walked on a 3-2 slider. Did they know not to swing? That was it for Kershaw. He refused to look at Roberts when the skipper took the ball. Remember that we mentioned Wood had allowed eight balls in play of 95-plus mph? Kershaw allowed just four.

(9) Kenta Maeda came in to face Altuve. He had thrown 42 pitches in Game 3. “You have to wonder how crisp he’ll be after all the pitches he threw a couple days ago,” Smoltz said. Altuve spit at a 2-2 slider, and I’ve seen the Dodgers retroactively wondering he how laid off that pitch. But it wasn’t really close. Smoltz even said, “A couple of the sliders were not close enough for Altuve to swing at. [But] I almost think he has to go back to a slider on a 3-2 count.”

Maeda instead threw a changeup that Altuve pulls foul, then a fastball right down that middle that Altuve clocked 415 feet to center field to tie the game.

The interesting thing: Right before Maeda pitched, Altuve took a quick glance toward … what, third base? It reminds me of that spat Darvish and Christian Yelich got into last year when Darvish stepped off the rubber because Yelich appears to momentarily glance toward left-center. Altuve does something similar. The conspiracy theorists might suggest a signal in the left-field scoreboard (the Astros’ bullpen is in right-center). Or maybe he was just checking the positioning of the fielders or the third-base coach (although with two out and two strikes, I’m not sure he would be looking at the coach). Regardless, it was a bad pitch and Altuve didn’t miss.

(10) The game only got crazier from there. Brandon Morrow, pitching for the fifth consecutive game, would come in from the Dodgers’ bullpen and throw six pitches and give up four runs. Brian McCann would hit the fifth home run of the game for the Astros off an up-and-in fastball from Tony Cingrani. The Dodgers would tie it with three runs in the ninth.

Kenley Jansen came on for Los Angeles in the bottom of the ninth. With an 0-2 count on Altuve, Barnes went out to the mound. “Again with nobody on, here in the postseason, multiple signs,” Buck said. Which is especially interesting in this case because Jansen basically throws one pitch. Off the 33 pitches he threw that night, 31 were cutters.

The Astros would beat him in the 10th. Jansen hit McCann with two out and then walked Springer. Bregman then lined a first-pitch cutter into left-center for the winning hit. Bregman had homered off Jansen in Game 4.

“I got him on a slider last night,” Bregman said after the game, “so I knew he wasn’t going to throw that. Looking for a cutter. Correa, all our hitting coaches, they all said you better stay on top of the cutter.”

Correa was asked how the Astros got it done on offense. “Talked before the game,” he said. “Have a good approach.”

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