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Cubs continue skid after Kimbrel’s blown save

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CHICAGO — The Cubs are seeing their season slip away in heartbreaking and dramatic fashion as they lost their fourth consecutive one-run game at Wrigley Field on Saturday, after closer Craig Kimbrel gave up back-to-back, ninth-inning home runs, on back-to-back pitches.

Kimbrel, 31, entered the game against the St. Louis Cardinals holding onto an 8-7 lead before Yadier Molina hit his first pitch, a 97 mph fastball, out to left field. Paul DeJong did the same, moments later, hitting another fastball out.

“I feel like I made two competitive pitches that I wanted to and they went out,” Kimbrel said after the game. “It’s frustrating. It’s the only thing I can say.”

The ending is becoming all too familiar for the Cubs and Kimbrel. He also gave up a game-winning home run to Matt Carpenter in Game 1 of the series on Thursday, breaking a 2-2, 10th-inning tie. In just 23 appearances since signing with the Cubs in June, Kimbrel has given up nine home runs, a career high for one season.

“We had the right guy there at the end,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You talk about two shots to the jaw, and they got the win.”

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Watch Craig Kimbrel discuss the two home runs hit off him on back-to-back pitches in the Cubs’ 9-8 loss to the Cards on Saturday. Video by Jesse Rogers

The Cubs will have to wonder if Kimbrel was ready for the moment, considering he was on the injured list until Thursday with right elbow soreness. The team deemed him ready after a 16-pitch simulated game a couple days earlier, but three home runs given up in less than two innings of work might say something different.

“I feel great right now,” Kimbrel said. “I just didn’t get the results I wanted. The results I need to have to do my job. Moving forward I have a good feeling I will.”

Maddon added: “He was already in one game. He’s had ample time to get it back together. It was kind of surprising…That was the right time for him. There was nothing wrong with his arm strength.”

Kimbrel is signed on for two more seasons after this one, so concern may grow about his performance, if indeed he is healthy. But the here-and-now is the only thing that matters for the Cubs at the moment. It was a crushing defeat in a week of them, even though they fought back several times in Saturday’s four-hour, 24-minute marathon. But whatever can go wrong has, as the Cubs dropped their fifth consecutive game and are reeling from injuries and blown saves.

“Craig’s a Hall of Fame closer,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He’s got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He’s an amazing guy in the clubhouse. We have his back. It’s tough. I know he feels bad, but he’s a competitor and he’s a champion and he’ll bounce back.”

It’s been 47 years since the Cubs lost four consecutive one-run games, but they’ll have to put that all behind them if they have any chance at a fifth consecutive postseason appearance. Saturday’s game will be a tough one to get over. Chicago’s chances to make the playoffs dropped from 77 percent at the end of play on Monday to 13 percent following Saturday’s loss, according to FanGraphs.

“I’m feeling for Craig right now more than anything,” Maddon said.

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Eric Cooper, MLB umpire for 21 years, dies at 52

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Major League Umpire Eric Cooper has died at the age of 52, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced in a statement on Sunday.

“This is a very sad day across Major League Baseball,” Manfred said in the statement. “Eric Cooper was a highly respected umpire, a hard worker on the field and a popular member of our staff. He also served as a key voice of the MLB Umpires Association on important issues in our game. Eric was a consistent presence in the Postseason throughout his career, including in this year’s Division Series between the Yankees and the Twins. He was known for his professionalism and his enthusiasm, including for our international events.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Eric’s family, friends and all of his fellow Major League Umpires. We will honor Eric’s memory during the World Series. Eric will be missed by the entire Baseball family.”

Cooper, a major league umpire for 21 years including this season, most recently worked the ALDS between the Yankees and Twins earlier this month. He joined the Major Leagues in 1999 after a minor league career that began in 1990.

The Iowa native worked behind the plate for three no-hitters in his career: both of White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle’s and one by Red Sox pitcher Hideo Nomo. He also worked the 2014 World Series, where he was behind the plate for Game 2 between the Royals and Giants.

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Who’s savage now? In this new rivalry, Astros own the Yankees

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The demise of the New York Yankees can be traced to a conference room at the old Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, where baseball’s barons met in 2011 to realign divisions, expand the postseason and approve the $615 million sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane, who was awarded the club, at a $65 million discount, on one condition:

That his team becomes a card-carrying member of the American League.

The Astros had spent more than a half century in the National League before moving in 2013, and they trudged off to the AL West lugging with them a most uninspiring past. The Astros had won three playoff series and no World Series titles since they were born, as the Colt .45s, in 1962. The Yankees had won 30 playoff series and eight of their 27 World Series titles in those same 51 years.

In other words, after back-to-back seasons of more than 105 losses, the Astros were nowhere to be found on the House of Steinbrenner’s list of top 105 concerns for the balance of the decade. And yet there the Yankees were in Houston on Saturday night, down and out after Jose Altuve‘s walk-off homer off Aroldis Chapman, eliminated from the MLB playoffs by the Astros for the third time in the last five years.

This six-game American League Championship Series verdict was framed by profound big-picture implications. The Yankees have failed to reach the World Series for the 10th consecutive season, a biblical drought by any Bronx measure. The last time the Yanks had completed a decade without making a single World Series appearance, a man born almost five years before the start of the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, was sitting in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, the Astros are heading to the Fall Classic for the second time in three years, looking to make the case that they will soon reign as the sport’s latest dynasty.

The Process > The Pinstripes.

Here’s the thing about this ALCS: The Yankees weren’t just beaten by a better team; they were beaten by a better program. Years after making a $15,000 investment in a 5-foot-6 Venezuelan teenager named Jose Altuve, the Astros built their program around first-round draft picks — George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman — and their commitment to landing the two available starters, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who might have made the Yankees unstoppable.

Hal Steinbrenner didn’t want to take on Verlander’s money in the summer of 2017, and his general manager, Brian Cashman, didn’t want to trade Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier for Cole, the former Yankees draft pick, in January of 2018. Those are two conspicuous reasons why today’s Yankees are looking a bit like yesterday’s Knicks, the consistent playoff participant that lost all five series it played against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls between 1989 and 1996. (The Knicks beat the Jordan-less Bulls in 1994.) Jordan eliminated four different Knicks coaches in that period. His dominance of New York, of course, was easy to see coming.

The Astros’ dominance of New York? Not so much. They went 51-111 in 2013 to run their loss total to 324 games over three seasons, perfecting the art of tanking before Sam Hinkie could get his process-trusting hands on the Philadelphia 76ers. While torturing their fan base, the Astros drafted and developed enough talent to finally post a winning record in 2015, at 86-76, and to claim that extra wild-card spot added that same 2011 day the team was officially sold to Crane and booked for the AL.

Houston defeated the No. 1 wild card, the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium, with Dallas Keuchel and three relievers combining for the shutout that opened a one-way passion play that continued Saturday night. The Astros have now beaten the Yankees in a sudden-death wild-card game, in a Game 7 of the ALCS after being down 3-2 in the series, and in a Game 6 of the ALCS after being up 3-1 in the series. The Astros have now beaten the Yankees with Keuchel as their ace (2015), with Verlander as their ace (2017) and with Cole as their ace (2019).

The Astros have now beaten two Yankees teams managed by Joe Girardi and one managed by Aaron Boone.

“Damn Yankees” was a Broadway musical and movie. It doesn’t matter that “Damn Astros” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The end result in this latest series seemed inevitable a couple of nights ago. After Thursday’s Game 4 disaster, shaped by a series of Little League errors and CC Sabathia’s grim farewell, the Yankees appeared to be waiting for the local coroner to declare them dead. Inside a home clubhouse about as still as a church at midnight, Aaron Judge quietly addressed reporters under a big-screen TV that relayed a message to players to report the following day at 3:30 p.m. “TRAVEL ATTIRE: TRACK SUITS,” the rest of the bulletin read.

Truth is, the Yankees didn’t look like they were preparing to play baseball in Houston. They looked like they were preparing to play golf back home.

Out of left field, they smacked two first-inning homers off Verlander in Game 5, sparing themselves the indignity of losing all three ALCS games in the Bronx and breathing life into Boone’s post-Game 4 forecast that “stranger things have certainly happened. A lot stranger.” Like the 2004 Yankees making history — a year after Boone’s Game 7 dagger against Boston — by losing four straight ALCS games to the haunted Red Sox, who exorcised more than eight decades’ worth of demons and doubts.

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Astros biggest World Series favorites since 2007

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The Houston Astros have been installed as the favorites over the Washington Nationals in the World Series.

Caesars Sportsbook on Sunday opened the Astros as -235 favorites to beat the Nationals in the best-of-seven series. The Nationals are listed as +195 underdogs.

Game 1 is Tuesday in Houston.

At -235, the Astros are the largest favorites entering the World Series since the 2007 Boston Red Sox were -240 to beat the Colorado Rockies, according to Sportsoddshistory.com.

The Astros and Nationals each were considered World Series contenders entering the season but took different routes to the Fall Classic.

Before the season, the Astros opened as co-favorites with the Red Sox, at 6-1, to win the World Series at Caesars Sportsbook. Houston won an MLB-high 107 games. The Astros reached their second World Series in the last three years with a dramatic win over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Houston’s Jose Altuve hit a two-run, walk-off home run to finish off the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS on Saturday. Houston beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series.

The Nationals are making the franchise’s first appearance in the World Series and had to overcome a disappointing start to the season to get there. Washington was 19-31 on May 23, with their World Series odds drifting to 50-1 at some sportsbooks. The Nationals caught fire in the second half of the season to earn a wild-card berth in the National League. They outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers in a wild-card game and then upset the Dodgers in a National League divisional series. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals to win the NL pennant and advance to the World Series, where they’re one of the largest underdogs in recent years.

The Astros winning in a sweep is +750 at DraftKings sportsbook. The Nationals winning in a sweep is 25-1.

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