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Stephen Strasburg keeps Nationals’ rotation on a serious roll

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WASHINGTON — Gerardo Parra wrapped both arms around Stephen Strasburg and wouldn’t let go. Their embrace has morphed into something of a tradition. It began late in the season and spilled into the playoffs, partly because this Washington Nationals team has grown so close and partly because Strasburg detests these hugs.

For this one, in the late stages of a victorious night in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Parra held on long enough that a nearby Anibal Sanchez could get in on the action. Max Scherzer then spotted them from the end of the dugout, walked over, spread his long limbs out wide and enveloped them all, suffocating Strasburg with affection.

“Why not,” Scherzer said. “He deserved it.”

Strasburg, pitching three nights after Sanchez and two nights after Scherzer, had just held the St. Louis Cardinals to one unearned run in seven innings on Monday night, leading the Nationals to an 8-1 victory that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

In Game 1, it was Sanchez, expertly mixing a variety of pitches, who came within four outs of a no-hitter.

In Game 2, it was Scherzer, playing his fastball off his changeup, who gave up zero hits and struck out 10 through the first six innings.

In Game 3, it was Strasburg, armed with untouchable off-speed pitches, who struck out 12, walked none and added to what is becoming an illustrious postseason resume.

In Game 4, it will be Patrick Corbin — every bit as capable, every bit as imposing — looking to pitch the Nationals into their first World Series.

“They’re the heart and soul of our team,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said of the team’s starting pitchers. “It’s fitting that they’re the reason we’re in this position.”

If not for Michael Taylor misreading a line drive on Saturday and Juan Soto slipping in the middle of a throw on Monday, the Cardinals would probably be shut out for 27 innings in this series. Sanchez, Scherzer and Strasburg have combined for one unearned run allowed, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 21⅔ innings. The Nationals’ starters boast a 1.59 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and a .164 opponents’ batting average in 56⅔ innings this month, numbers that don’t even include their contributions out of the bullpen.

Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only the 2012 Detroit Tigers, the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers and the 1995 Cleveland Indians have had a starters ERA better than that of the current Nationals through their first nine postseason games, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Brewers, however, relied on openers, skewing the numbers. This postseason has been marked by the rebirth of traditional starting-pitcher usage, and the Nationals — not the Houston Astros — stand as the prime example.

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New York Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes takes batting practice in return effort

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NEW YORK — Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes is taking batting practice in his effort to return from a slew of lower-body injuries.

Minor league instructor and former Mets player Endy Chavez posted and then deleted video on Tuesday of the 34-year-old Cespedes taking swings. That came a few weeks after general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said he was uncertain whether Cespedes would play in 2020.

Cespedes broke an ankle in May while recovering from surgery on both heels. The injuries have sidelined Cespedes for most of the past two seasons.

The video showed the right-handed-hitting Cespedes taking all-out cuts. Chavez captioned it “throwing BP to a prospect in recovery.”

Cespedes is entering the final season of a $110 million, four-year contract.

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In letter, Congress members express opposition to minor league overhaul

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More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “firm opposition” to a proposal by MLB that would reportedly eliminate more than 40 minor league teams.

The letter, signed Tuesday and addressed to commissioner Rob Manfred, warned that the proposal would “devastate our communities, their bond purchasers and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs.”

The current agreement between Major League Baseball and the minor league teams — called the Professional Baseball Agreement — expires at the end of the 2020 season.

MLB is looking to make some major changes that would overhaul all levels of the minors, particularly at low Class A and below.

According to multiple reports, the more than 40 teams at the lower levels that are not included in this venture would be reclassified into a “Dream League,” which would be run jointly by MLB and Minor League Baseball and would include players who were not selected in the draft.

“Reducing the number of Minor League Baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs,” the letter said.

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MLB commissioner says punishments could be severe in sign-stealing scandal

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said he believes the sign-stealing scandal that has engulfed the sport involves only the Houston Astros and that he can mete out discipline beyond the standard fine and draft pick penalties if necessary.

Speaking as the owners meetings began Tuesday, Manfred called the allegations of technology-driven sign-stealing by the Astros “the most serious matter.” He said “it relates to the integrity of the sport” and promised “a really, really thorough investigation.”

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros,” Manfred said after a tour of Globe Life Field, the Texas Rangers‘ new stadium set to open in 2020. “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

Cheating accusations are commonly levied by teams against other teams in discussions with officials in the commissioner’s office, although none had taken hold until former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers alleged the 2017 World Series champions used a camera feed near the home dugout to steal catchers’ signs and relayed them to hitters by banging on a trash can.

Fiers’ allegations prompted the league to open an investigation, which thus far has focused on the 2017 Astros but has included questions about more recent Astros teams, sources told ESPN.

The maximum penalties Manfred has handed out include a $2 million fine and docking of two first-round draft picks after a St. Louis Cardinals employee illicitly accessed the Astros’ proprietary database and a ban on international signings after an investigation into the Atlanta Braves‘ practices in Latin America.

MLB instituted new rules before the 2019 season in hopes of limiting the use of stealing signs via technology, and the scope of Manfred’s discipline could depend on the timing of any alleged wrongdoing.

“I’m not going to speculate on what the appropriate discipline is,” Manfred said. “That depends on how the facts are established at the end of the investigation. The general warning I issued to the clubs, I stand by. It certainly could be all of those [past disciplinary actions], but my authority under the major league constitution would be broader than those things as well.”

Manfred said he does not have a timeline for the investigation, but “I certainly would hope that we would be done before we start playing baseball again.”

Discussion of the Astros, sources told ESPN, is expected to be a common topic at the owners meetings, which run through Thursday.

The fear among a number of top executives, sources said, is that the practice of technology-driven sign-stealing has become commonplace in the game and that the Astros’ case will serve as a litmus test for Manfred’s ability to clamp down.

“Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter,” Manfred said. “It relates to the integrity of the sport. In terms of where we are, we have a very active — what is going to be a really, really thorough investigation ongoing. But beyond that, I can’t tell you how close we are to done.”

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