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Astros’ Justin Verlander dominates in another postseason gem

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HOUSTON — Astros ace Justin Verlander continued to move up the all-time postseason charts during a dominant seven-inning outing Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of their American League Division Series matchup.

Verlander blanked the Rays over seven innings, allowing just one hit and three walks while striking out eight. Houston won 6-2, grabbing the quick series lead over the underdog Rays.

For Verlander, it was just another in a long line of postseason gems and with each outing, he climbs the all-time postseason leaderboards.

“I never get complacent about what I’ve been able to do in the playoffs,” Verlander said. “Each and every game is a new opportunity to go out and re-prove myself.”

With his seventh strikeout — a whiff of Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz in the seventh inning, — Verlander passed Roger Clemens for the third-most K’s in postseason history. He’s now at 175, eight behind Andy Pettitte and 24 behind the record-holder, John Smoltz. If the Astros enjoy a deep playoff run as expected, Verlander would likely pass Smoltz this October.

The win was Verlander’s 14th in the postseason, which moves him into a third-place tie with Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. He’s one behind Smoltz, while Pettitte tops the list with 19.

Even if the Astros are eliminated by the Rays, Verlander, 36, will likely get more chances to add to his historic numbers: He continues to insist that he plans on playing until age 45.

“I guess I kind of pegged this like 45 number,” Verlander said in advance of his outing. “Whether that’s realistic or not, I don’t know. I know I’m not going to sell myself short.”

Verlander walked Rays leadoff hitter Austin Meadows to start the game after uncharacteristically struggling to find command of his fastball. He went to his secondary pitches to coax two double-play grounders during a sterling effort from the Houston defense. Verlander, typically a flyball pitcher when opposing hitters manage to put the ball in play against him, seemed as proud of that as any of the records.

“I don’t know if that’s the first game all year I’ve gotten two double plays,” Verlander said. “These guys always give me a hard time because I don’t get them enough ground balls. I was able to get them a few in the game today.”

The defensive support aside, it was an unusually sterling effort even by Verlander’s standards. He became just the 13th pitcher in postseason history to hold an opponent to one or fewer hits over at least seven innings. The last pitcher to do it was Cincinnati’s Bronson Arroyo in 2012.

“He’s an unbelievable competitor,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He prepares more than anybody. I love how much pride he takes in every start that he makes.”

None of this was any surprise to Bregman and his, teammates who have seen Verlander dominate the majority of his outings since he joined the Astros late in the 2017 season. Still, they can’t help but marvel at Verlander’s continued excellence.

“When you can execute at your best in the biggest moments,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “I mean, there’s nothing — there’s not a higher league. Like there’s nowhere for him to go to be tested any further. So the test is really being able to do it start after start and then postseason after postseason.

“I don’t know how to define it. I don’t know what it’s called. Whatever that ‘it’ factor is, he’s got it.”

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Red Sox owner John Henry says Mookie Betts trade was strategic, not financial move

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Boston Red Sox owner John Henry addressed the media for the first time since his team dealt Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, attempting to explain the move to a fan base that is incensed over the trade of the homegrown MVP.

“The baseball organizations that we compete against have become much more strategic and thoughtful about how and when they spend their resources in their question for titles,” Henry said in prepared remarks. “We cannot shy away from tough decisions required to aggressively compete for the World Series. That’s what led to this trade.”

Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president Sam Kennedy all denied that the primary reason behind the trade was to cut payroll and get below the competitive balance tax threshold. Henry had expressed his desire for the team to cut payroll in September, before clarifying that it was a “goal,” not a “mandate.” A few days after Henry’s initial comments, Kennedy said it would be difficult for Boston to keep both Betts and J.D. Martinez, who had an opt-out in his contract after 2019 for the 2020 season.

Henry has called the notion that the team was looking to get under the CBT a “media-driven” narrative. On Monday, he said that the team could not afford to let Betts walk away in free agency without getting a bigger return than a compensatory draft pick.

“In today’s game, there’s a cost to losing a great player in free agency, one that cannot nearly be made up by the draft pick given,” Henry said. “We’ve seen examples of this recently. We at the Red Sox will remember this as one of the toughest, one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to make. … We felt we could not sit on our hands and lose him this offseason without getting value in return to help us on our path forward. We carefully considered the alternative over the last year and made a decision when this opportunity presented itself to acquire substantial young talent for the years ahead.”

Kennedy framed the decision much more simply.

“You don’t trade Mookie Betts to get under the CBT,” Kennedy said. “We traded Mookie Betts and David Price and got back significant value in return.”

Boston found itself lacking payroll flexibility when former general manager Dave Dombrowski was granted autonomy in the baseball operations department before his firing late in the 2019 season. Following the World Series championship in 2018, Dombrowski signed World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi, who has undergone Tommy John surgery twice, to a four-year, $68 million contract and Chris Sale to a five-year, $145 million contract a year before he was scheduled to hit the open market. When asked if there was anything the team could have done to prevent the circumstances that led to the Betts trade, Henry kept his answer short.

“Yes,” Henry said. “We could’ve signed him to a long-term contract, but short of that, I’m not sure what the answer is.”

Boston made offers to Betts over three different offseasons. The last major offer was for 10 years and $300 million, which Betts reportedly countered by asking for 12 years and $420 million.

“We made legitimate offers over three offseasons,” Henry said. “We made it clear to Mookie and I made it personally clear, one-on-one, that we wanted to see him in a Red Sox uniform for the rest of his career if possible.”

The trade of Betts prompted backlash from fans, who are still steaming about the decision a week after the move to ship the right fielder to Los Angeles became official. Kennedy said ticket sales are down 15 percent versus where they were at this point in 2019.

The ownership group insisted that 2020 would not be a bridge year, with estimates for the new season’s payroll clocking in around $190 million.

“Don’t you think it would be a record payroll for a bridge year?” Henry said.

Henry on multiple occasions made a point to compare the trade of Betts to the 2004 midseason trade of Nomar Garciaparra. There are differences, however. Betts is 27, in his prime, with little injury history. Garciaparra was 30 and had dealt with major injuries before his trade to the Chicago Cubs. And Betts, unlike Garciaparra in 2004, is a consensus top-five player in Major League Baseball.

“I know it’s difficult and disappointing,” Henry said. “Some of you no doubt felt the same way in 2004 when we traded Nomar, who like Mookie, was a hugely popular homegrown player. All of us in the organization hoped that we would never have to go through something like that again, but most clubs face similar dilemmas from time to time. I understand there’s probably little I can say that will change how you feel about this, but it’s my responsibility to try.”

Ultimately, Boston says its future was best served with the return of outfielder Alex Verdugo, infield prospect Jeter Downs and catching prospect Connor Wong, believing that the financial flexibility presented by the trade of Betts and Price to the Dodgers presented the best long-term outcome for the organization, as opposed to taking the risk of keeping Betts through the 2020 season and losing him for a compensation draft pick.

“Today’s players spend years in the minors and major leagues earning the right to be paid in a free market, earning the right to make choices. They made significant sacrifices to get there, and they deserve what they receive,” Henry said. “Clubs also have choices to make in this economic system. It’s a system that has a few imbalances as do all economic systems, but it’s a system overall that has led to labor peace and an amazing market for our best players. It’s not the system’s fault that the Red Sox ended up in this position. We were faced with a difficult choice.”

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Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez thinks Astros bashing a bit much

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The passionate reaction around baseball regarding the Astros sign-stealing scandal continues to capture the attention of the entire sport, with stars like Justin Turner and Mike Trout speaking out against MLB’s punishment of Houston on Monday, but Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez said that he believes that the discourse around baseball was “getting a little bit too much.”

“I understand player’s frustrations and stuff like that, but I think in my opinion, it’s already getting a little bit too much,” Martinez said. “We have to move past it at some point. We can’t continue to talk about it. I know it’s frustrating right now. People want to talk about it, this and that, but it’s 2020. I think teams are aware of everything that’s kind of happened. … From here on out, it’s going to be a different message in the clubhouses and a different environment with people like steroids. The punishments were so harsh that people weren’t going to attempt to think about doing anymore. I think it will get to that point.”

Martinez, 32, a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger award winner, also defended Manfred’s decision to grant the players immunity, saying that the facts of the situation would not have emerged otherwise.

“One-hundred percent they wouldn’t have,” Martinez said. “That’s the way it is. There was never any hard core facts that were jumping out at you. If it weren’t for players talking and getting that immunity, I don’t think no one would have ever have said anything.”

Martinez did however take issue with the announcement from Manfred that MLB is in talks with the players’ union to further restrict in-game use of video, such as when hitters go to the clubhouse to review their at-bats before returning to the dugout.

“I think it’s really important for us to send a message to our fans,” Manfred said, “that not only did we investigate and punish, but we altered our policies in a way to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Red Sox designated hitter uses video extensively in his preparation, recording every swing during batting practice and routinely breaking down footage to check for any irregularities in his swing, playing a major role in his success following his release from the Astros before the 2014 season.

“He said there are going to be some restrictions, but I think to go out there and take all video out and you’re not allowed to look at at-bats, I think is a little ridiculous in my opinion,” Martinez said. “All of these kids now, when I was in the minor leagues, Double-A, Triple-A, we had video systems. It’s not something you grew up with. You always go back and check something in your swing and it helps you throughout the game. To all of a sudden take that away is a little extreme.”

Martinez continued: “The way the at-bat system works is like you’re watching the game live from NESN. You watch it on NESN, can you steal the signs? It’s too hard. It’s cutting in and out. There’s a guy eating a sausage and they’re talking about him eating a hot dog and this sausage and then all of a sudden everything and then there’s the pitch. I think it’s a little bit extreme to say all of that. Maybe they should become more informed on what exactly you can do and talk to players who have played. ‘Hey does this help? How can we monitor it?’ If you want to delay it, delay it, whatever you have to do, but to sit there and take that away, for me, it’s what makes me me. I’m a very analytical guy. I like to study what my back foot is doing, my elbow. There’s a lot of guys who are like that, and that’s the trend of the game and the way the game has gone.”

Martinez also suggested that limiting access to video could diminish the offensive production on the field.

“You start taking angles away, you’re just making it harder,” Martinez said. “What does the commissioner want? More offense, more offense, but you’re going to limit hitters for doing that? I think it’s tough.”

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Dodgers’ Justin Turner irate with ‘out of touch’ commissioner Rob Manfred

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An offseason of anger for the Los Angeles Dodgers again boiled over Monday as third baseman Justin Turner took aim at Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.

Turner took umbrage with the commissioner’s characterization of the World Series trophy a day after Manfred called it a “piece of metal” when talking with ESPN’s Karl Ravech about the possibility of stripping the Houston Astros of their 2017 title.

“I don’t know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life,” Turner told reporters Monday, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Maybe he hasn’t. But the reason every guy’s in this room, the reason every guy is working out all offseason, and showing up to camp early and putting in all the time and effort is specifically for that trophy, which, by the way, is called the commissioner’s trophy.

“So for him to devalue it the way he did yesterday just tells me how out of touch he is with the players in this game. At this point the only thing devaluing that trophy is that it says ‘commissioner’ on it.”

Turner remains displeased with the punishment meted out by MLB. Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended for a year and ultimately fired by the team, yet no active players were disciplined.

“Now anyone who goes forward and cheats to win a World Series, they can live with themselves knowing that, ‘Oh, it’s OK. … We’ll cheat in the World Series and bring the title back to L.A. Screw [manager] Dave Roberts and screw [general manager] Andrew [Friedman]. It’s just those guys losing their jobs. I still get to be called a champion the rest of my life.’ So the precedent was set by him yesterday in this case.”

Turner added that he doesn’t think Manfred did enough to uncover everything the Astros may have been doing in their sign-stealing scheme. The league’s investigation revealed a system in which the Astros were able to decipher a catcher’s signs in real time and relay them to the batter via bangs on a trash can.

“I think it all comes down to everyone keeps saying, ‘The facts, the facts. You don’t know the facts. These are the facts,’ ” Turner said. “I don’t think anyone knows the facts. I think everyone just wants to hear all the facts. And I think that the commissioner didn’t do a good job of revealing all the facts to us. I still think there’s some stuff we don’t know.”

Turner is the latest member of the Dodgers, losers of the 2017 World Series to the Astros, to sound off about Houston.

Closer Kenley Jansen called the Astros’ cheating “worse than steroids.” Right-hander Ross Stripling said he would “lean toward yes” when asked if he’d bean a Houston player if he were given the chance in a game. And reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger went scorched earth, going as far as to say the Astros stole the 2017 World Series from the Dodgers and that Houston second baseman Jose Altuve stole the AL MVP award that year from Aaron Judge of the Yankees.

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