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Less than two-weeks left in the season, playoff spots are up in the air

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Nationals’ Howie Kendrick named MVP of NLCS

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WASHINGTON — The Nationals are headed to their first World Series.

Fittingly, the player who led them there is going to his first one, too.

Veteran Howie Kendrick was named MVP of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night, with his big bat helping Washington to a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I can truly say this is the best time of my career, the best moment of my career this year,” Kendrick said upon receiving the award.

Kendrick finished the series 5 for 15 with four doubles and four RBI. He was at his best in Monday’s Game 3 win, becoming just the fourth player to hit three doubles in an LCS game as part of a 3-for-4, 3-RBI night that put Washington on the brink of a pennant.

In Tuesday’s clinching 7-4 win, Kendrick scored the fifth run in Washington’s seven-run first inning.

Kendrick, 36, first joined the Nationals in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017, and then remained as a free agent. He sat out 2018 due to a ruptured Achilles, making what happened a year later all the more special.

The 14th-year veteran is a lifetime .294 hitter, but he hit a career-high .344 in 334 at-bats in 2019. He’s been just as good in the postseason; his grand slam in the 10th inning beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Division Series.

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Astros’ Gerrit Cole battles past patient Yankees for Game 3 win

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NEW YORK — Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole did not have his best stuff against the potent New York Yankees offense in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday. He put up nothing but zeros anyway.

Cole went seven often-laborious innings in Houston’s 4-1 win, striking out seven and walking a career-high-tying five batters. But he held New York to just four hits over his seven scoreless frames, extending his streak of starts without a loss to 25, dating back to May 22. That’s the fifth-longest streak without a loss in big league history. But this one wasn’t easy.

“Intense,” Cole said. “Had to battle tonight. I thought their offense did an excellent job working some counts. Fell behind a few guys in a few of the early innings and put us in a tough position [where] we needed to make some pitches, and fortunately we did. Got away with a few mistakes, obviously.”

The Astros took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and reclaimed the home-field advantage they lost when the Yankees won Game 1 7-0 at Minute Maid Park. Cole improved to 3-0 in the postseason with just one run allowed in 22⅔ innings — a 0.40 ERA. His 32 strikeouts during the playoffs are the third most for a pitcher in his first three outings of a postseason, behind Bob Gibson (35, 1968) and Cliff Lee (34, 2010).

“I think he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. Then remembering Cole’s co-ace in the Astros rotation — Justin Verlander — Hinch added, “His competition is right next to him in the clubhouse. They’re certainly a good pair.

“Obviously, I’m biased to my guys. But Gerrit is locked in. And to see him do it on the big stage in a playoff game with the magnitude of this game, it was pretty awesome.”

And yet Cole struggled with his command and pitch count for much of the outing. All five of his walks were issued with two outs. The Yankees got multiple runners on base against him in four of his first five innings, stranding nine runners in the process. The five free passes matched the career high he set on June 18, 2018, against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Cole ended up throwing 112 pitches, tied for his third-highest total this season, before turning the ball over to the Houston bullpen.

“I actually think the beginning of the game he had a hard time finding his stuff and finding his tempo, his rhythm,” Hinch said. “He was still getting through his outing, made some really big pitches, had some pressure on him. Then once he found his curveball, it was pretty lights out.”

Cole got Didi Gregorius on a grounder to second with the bases loaded to end the first. He struck out Aaron Judge with two on to end the second. He retired DJ LeMahieu on a fly ball with two on to end the fourth.

But the closest the Yankees game to finally putting up some runs against Cole came in the bottom of the fifth. With two on and two out, Gregorius lifted a high-arching fly ball to right field that backed Astros outfielder Josh Reddick to the fence. But the ball settled into Reddick’s glove, keeping the Yankees scoreless.

“I initially wasn’t that worried, and then I started to get a little worried when Reddick was kind of drifting back,” Cole said. “But he pulled up and the blood flow just kind of relaxed a little bit. Like I said, thank God he didn’t pull it more.”

Cole’s catcher, Martin Maldonado, was asked about the righty’s stuff and command and rated the stuff “a 10” and said that despite the walks, the Yankees deserve some credit, too.

“That was a pretty good lineup,” Maldonado said. “It’s not like we’re facing a s— lineup. They take some good at-bats, put some at-bats together, foul off a lot of pitches. That’s what they did the whole game, from the first at-bat to LeMahieu to the last at-bat.

Cole, 29, went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts during the regular season, building a strong case for the AL Cy Young Award, with Verlander likely his main competition for the honor. His record during his loss-free streak improved to 19-0.

For all the gaudy numbers, it’s Cole’s resolve and resourcefulness that most impress his teammates.

“That’s one of his best qualities,” Houston third baseman Alex Bregman said. “When he doesn’t have a pitch or have command or doesn’t have something else, he figures out how to get the job down. We all can learn a lot from that.”

The Yankees led the American League with 943 runs during the regular season and entered the game having scored 30 runs in their five postseason games. And they still didn’t get to a pitcher having an ace’s version of an off night. It’s a harrowing prospect for the Bronx Bombers, knowing that if the series goes to six or seven games, they’ll have to face Cole again, only with the season on the line.

“It goes without saying that anytime you can target another day for him to pitch, it feels pretty good,” Hinch said, before reminding everyone that the series is far from over. “I think there’s a lot of baseball left to play before that factors in.”

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Angels could face MLB sanctions, fines if club violated league drug policy

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The Los Angeles Angels could face significant sanctions if Major League Baseball determines that team employees were told of Tyler Skaggs’ opioid use prior to his July 1 death and didn’t inform the commissioner’s office.

Eric Kay, currently on paid leave as the Angels’ communications director, told federal drug enforcement agents last month that two team employees, including his former supervisor, Tim Mead, were informed of Skaggs’ drug use but did not take action. Two sources familiar with the DEA investigation told Outside the Lines about Kay’s statements to federal agents, which Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, then confirmed.

Under MLB policy, any team employee who isn’t a player is obligated to inform the commissioner’s office of “any evidence or reason to believe that a Player … has used, possessed or distributed any substance prohibited” by MLB.

The policy says commissioner Rob Manfred could fine the club up to $2 million, and it gives him discretion to suspend an employee or ban him or her from MLB for life. An MLB source told Outside the Lines that Manfred’s office never received such notification about Skaggs. MLB officials declined to comment.

Despite Kay’s statements to federal agents, an Angels spokesperson said Saturday that the team was never aware of Skaggs’ drug use.

“We have never heard that any employee was providing illegal narcotics to any player, or that any player was seeking narcotics from him,” Angels spokesperson Marie Garvey said in a statement Tuesday. “The current and former employees that are being accused of knowing this behavior have categorically denied that assertion. The Angels maintain a strict, zero tolerance policy regarding the illicit use of drugs for both players and staff. Every one of our players must also abide by the MLB joint drug agreement.”

When asked why the statement doesn’t address that Kay, the team’s communications director, was an employee who knew of Skaggs’ use and didn’t report it to the league, Garvey declined further comment.

In addition to a potential ban from baseball, Kay could face criminal charges after admitting to authorities that he provided Skaggs with oxycodone for years and sometimes snorted crushed pills with the pitcher.

Skaggs was found dead in his Southlake, Texas, hotel room July 1, having asphyxiated on vomit. He was 27. An autopsy found oxycodone, fentanyl and alcohol in his system.

Kay’s addiction is long-standing, his family and attorney have said. His mother, Sandy, told Outside the Lines that her son started abusing opioids a few years after his father died in 1998.

Kay told DEA agents that in 2015, the two men worked out an arrangement in which Skaggs would give Kay money to buy oxycodone for both of them, and Kay would obtain pills from a dealer.

Kay told agents that he told Mead in 2017 that Skaggs used opioids. In addition, Kay told investigators about a second Angels official who knew of Skaggs’ use. Kay’s mother and his wife, Camela, told Outside the Lines that on April 22, while Eric was in the hospital following an overdose, he received a text from Skaggs seeking drugs. Sandy was visiting her son in the hospital at the time, alongside his wife and Mead. Sandy told Outside the Lines she saw the texts and told Mead that the team needed to intervene.

Mead left the team in June to become the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He told Outside the Lines on Saturday that neither Eric Kay, his family nor anyone else ever told him that Skaggs used opioids.

A source familiar with MLB policy said that Manfred’s office has only media accounts to go on right now and will have to make a judgment as to whether Mead or Kay and his family are telling the truth. The source would not speculate on how much the Angels could be fined, but said it would be “more serious” if someone high up in the organization had been told.

The source said MLB is not currently conducting its own investigation and is instead waiting for the DEA to finish. The source also said Angels officials and attorneys are not sharing information with Manfred’s office because they are concerned that such communications could be subpoenaed by the government.

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