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Victor Robles homers in return to lineup as Nats go up 3-0 in NLCS

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WASHINGTON — Victor Robles made an immediate impact in his return to the Nationals‘ lineup.

After missing five games with a hamstring injury, Robles homered, singled and scored twice Monday night as his team took a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series against St. Louis.

The 22-year-old made manager Dave Martinez look like a genius for plugging him right back into center field despite Michael A. Taylor’s homer in Game 2.

It wasn’t a debate for Martinez, who said Sunday that Robles would “get a chance to play” over Taylor when 100% healthy. Robles took swings in the batting cage and made it an easy decision.

“He ran the bases [Sunday] and ran them at full tilt,” Martinez said before Monday’s game. “He looked really good.”

His swings against Cardinals pitching looked even better. Robles, batting eighth, lined a base hit up the middle off starter Jack Flaherty in the third inning and crushed reliever John Brebbia‘s 2-1 fastball over the fence in right-center in the sixth. He finished the night 2-for-4.

Robles hit .255 with 17 home runs, 65 RBIs and 28 stolen bases during his first full season in the majors. He had last played in Game 2 of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Cardinals made only one lineup change after putting up just one run on four hits in the first two games. Jose Martinez started in right field, with Tommy Edman shifting to third base in place of Matt Carpenter.

Martinez singled to start the seventh inning and later scored on a throwing error by Nationals left fielder Juan Soto. It was St. Louis’ only run on the night in an 8-1 loss.

“We haven’t been able to play our brand of baseball in full,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We haven’t been able to get in rhythm or sync, but we still have more baseball to play.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Discipline in a pandemic might be the ultimate competitive advantage in MLB

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Major League Baseball’s plan to play through a public health crisis is outlined in a handbook that encompasses more than 100 pages, every single one of which emphasizes the notion that professional baseball in 2020 will be unlike anything anybody has ever experienced. Players are advised to wear sandals in the shower and close airplane toilet lids before flushing and open windows on buses. Spitting and high-fiving are disallowed, clean towels must be utilized when leaning on dugout railings and pitchers should keep wet rags in their back pockets to prevent them from licking their fingers.

And yet, in spite of the exhaustive detail in baseball’s operations manual, the fate of this season — if there ultimately is one — will hinge on the countless choices made by hundreds of people in dozens of locations on an everyday basis. It will come down to discipline and accountability, not instruction and protocol. In the words of one veteran infielder: “The team that has the fewest positive cases is gonna win the World Series.”

It was a hyperbolic statement meant to emphasize a key point about the reality of this summer: In a 60-game season littered with unconventionality — during which any team, regardless of payroll and talent, can go on a run and win it all — the only true competitive advantage might lie in one’s ability to field the most complete roster possible.

Nearly 3 million Americans had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, resulting in more than 130,000 deaths, when teams officially began workouts on Friday morning. Thirty-eight states had experienced a rise in cases by that point. COVID-19 spreads quickly and easily, oftentimes as a result of contact with carriers who might never experience symptoms. Avoiding a spread that would further jeopardize public health, might endanger more vulnerable members of an organization and, of far lesser importance, jeopardize MLB’s ability to stage a season will take monk-like discipline from those who are classified in the league’s health and safety protocols as being in Tiers 1 and 2, a list that can encompass as many as 3,750 people among the 30 teams.

Can they — specifically the young, wealthy, single players with higher risk tolerances — do it?

Can they maintain the day-to-day, second-to-second focus required to avoid close contact and avoid positive tests for a period of at least 12 weeks, all while balancing the ability to perform their jobs at the highest level?

“I think they’ll be good about it in the beginning, but after that …,” a long-time front-office executive wrote in a text message.

“This is going to be tough for everybody,” Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “You’ve got to be mentally strong.”

Joe Maddon, the Los Angeles Angels‘ 66-year-old manager, believes it will all come down to mindset. He wants his players to get comfortable with the idea of being inconvenienced.

“Know that, accept that, wear that every day, and you’ll be able to deal with it,” Maddon said. “If you want to come in accepting the norm that we’re normally accustomed to, then you’re going to be frustrated constantly, and you can’t permit that to happen. You just can’t permit that to happen.”

That responsibility, Angels general manager Billy Eppler said, falls on everyone who is included in two of the first three tiers outlined in baseball’s operations manual, all of whom will be in constant contact. The list is made up of mostly players, but it also includes coaches, physicians, trainers, therapists, front-office executives, security personnel and clubhouse staff, among others. The Angels removed the sofas from their clubhouse, leaving only the chairs that sit in front of individual lockers. Eppler wants his players to “think about the clubhouse as more of a closet.”

“It’s just where clothes hang,” he said. “Absent of anything you need to do in the athletic training room, or absent of anything you need to do in the weight room, get outside.”

Players will be tested for COVID-19 every other day and will receive symptom checks at least twice daily. Their food will be individually packaged, their batting-practice baseballs will constantly be replaced and every aspect of their team’s facility will be set up to promote social distancing — from the lockers to the dining area to the dugouts, which will include markings advising them where to sit.

But it will be up to all team employees to wear masks any time they’re off the field and keep at least six feet of separation at every moment possible, from the moment they arrive at the park to when they leave. Otherwise, they’ll be on their own. They’ll go home to their loved ones, who must show similar restraint. Or — because MLB didn’t implement a bubble environment like the NBA, or establish two hub cities like the NHL — they’ll be on the road, constantly fighting the urge to congregate in restaurants, bars or nightclubs.

“It’s just not worth the risk,” Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “It’s easier for me to say it, obviously. I have a wife and three kids. I can just go from home and to the ballpark and feel great about it. But it’s gonna be harder for guys that are single and are living in apartments and things like that. I understand that. But if you wanna get things off the ground, if you wanna play, that’s as good an incentive as any to do the right thing.”

Those who test positive for COVID-19 can’t return to a team facility until they test negative on two separate tests, taken at least 24 hours apart, and are fever-free, without the use of fever suppressants, for at least 72 hours. But there’s also a subsequent contact-tracing investigation that must take place, whereby anyone who has come in close contact with the individual must undergo a diagnostic test.

And then there’s this: Results for routine tests won’t be available for at least 24 hours, a time during which asymptomatic people could infect others without knowing it. Those results took far longer during the first week, putting teams in a scenario where they were either cancelling workouts or forcing players to congregate without knowing if they were carrying the virus.

Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant recently referenced incidents when players went as many as nine days between getting a follow-up test and receiving the results from it.

“If we want this to succeed,” Bryant said, “we have to figure this out.”

Baseball can often feel like an encapsulation of America, and it’s no different amid a pandemic. Some players are eager to resume playing and don’t believe the fear of contracting coronavirus should prevent them from doing so, a point illustrated by Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed when he said, “You can’t just hide out in your house and hibernate your whole life.” Others, most notably Mike Trout and Buster Posey, have expressed serious trepidation.

In that realm lies the concept of wearing a mask, a simple precaution that has morphed into a charged political issue. Most will undoubtedly recognize the importance. But many others might not, which is why teams are hoping their players will simply get competitive with the idea of following the strict protocols that will help prevent an outbreak. If not for the betterment of public health, if not for coworkers who might be at a higher risk, if not for a reeling economy that can’t fully recover until cases flatten, then do it because it might be the reason your team wins the World Series.

Do it because it’s the only hope baseball has of existing in 2020.

“If you happen to get the virus and you’re doing everything the right way, that’s one thing,” Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “But if you’re doing things that you shouldn’t be doing and you get sick, then you’re going to have to answer to a clubhouse full of guys.”

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From hurricanes to coronavirus, three Puerto Rican athletes share their stories of what the island has faced

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It’s like Puerto Rico can’t catch a break.

First, in September 2017, came a borderline Category 5 hurricane, one of the most powerful ever to hit Puerto Rico and the mainland United States. Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damages and killed more than 2,900 people in Puerto Rico. Just as the island was starting to recover from the destruction left in the wake of the hurricane, in January 2020, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake damaged some 8,000 homes.

Then, in March, as Puerto Ricans were busy rebuilding, still from the hurricane as well as from the earthquake, the coronavirus pandemic reached the island. The entire island was shut down immediately, enforcing some of the strictest quarantine rules in the world. The island — with a population around 2.8 million people — has recorded 7,465 coronavirus cases and 153 deaths, according to The New York Times. (And the misery doesn’t end there. Last week, a 5.3 magnitude quake hit the southwest area of the island.)

Some Puerto Rican athletes have lived through all three. During Hurricane Maria, Olympic runner Beverly Ramos sat in darkness for days, her phone’s battery having died in the first few hours without electricity.

“I had no idea what was going on. I wasn’t able to see at the moment the pictures and images — we couldn’t watch the news, so we didn’t know. The [mainland] United States knew more about what was going on in Puerto Rico than us,” Ramos said.

Some Puerto Rican athletes — on tour, like tennis pro Monica Puig, or living in the mainland U.S., like former New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams — watched from afar.

The one thing that’s starkly different with COVID-19, according to all three athletes, is the inability to be able to do the one thing Puerto Ricans are taught to do: Gather as a unit and work together.

Now, with the pandemic raging in the mainland United States, the three Puerto Rican athletes share intimate details of the island, how they overcame the destruction left in the wake of the hurricane and earthquake, and how they know the resilience of the islanders will help them through the pandemic.


Beverly Ramos

Olympic runner

Hometown: Carolina, Puerto Rico

“Wow, here we are again.”

That’s what Ramos, 32, remembers thinking while sitting in her living room on the first day of COVID-19 quarantine — the second week of March 2020. She’d been in lockdown just two and a half years ago in September 2017, when Hurricane Maria was about to make landfall. Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan (which is the capital city and is next to Carolina) had given a similar news conference that reverberated throughout the island then: “For your safety, stay indoors.”

During the three weeks after Hurricane Maria, Ramos left the house only a few times, mostly for groceries. The first few days, in scenes not unlike those around the mainland U.S. during the coronavirus, found people in lines outside grocery stores and, once inside, hoarding toilet paper, paper towels and rice.

As soon as the virus reached Puerto Rico, the entire island was shut down. The governor, Wanda Vázquez, set some of the strictest rules in all of the United States: No gathering outside, no walking or running in parks. No leaving the house — even for essential services — after 7 p.m. Just like in 2017.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria, when Puerto Rican residents slowly ventured out in their cars, Ramos made her way around the island, taking in the destruction the hurricane had left in its wake. Now, when she drives out to get groceries, all she sees is emptiness. No physical signs of destruction, but no sign of anything that makes the island unique.

“The things that make us, us — the dinner gatherings, the Latina music playing in every street, kids playing in parks or yards — all of that was gone,” Ramos said.

After the hurricane, all the anger and sadness she felt, she threw at the destroyed houses, the shattered electric poles and the caved-in roads. Then, like most Puerto Ricans, she cooked a bunch of food and got to work, helping to clear out the debris and rebuild homes and roads.

In hindsight, she realized it was probably for the best that, because of power outages, they couldn’t see the news after the hurricane. That way fear didn’t paralyze them. Instead, they focused all their energy on helping each other, getting food and water to worst-hit communities, cleaning the streets, all the while holding each other and saying, “We are going to be OK; we are going to make it through this.”

“Now, I have all these emotions — sadness, anger — but I don’t have anywhere to put it,” she said. “I can’t touch a human, so forget about bringing a bunch of people together to come up with a solution.”

Her parents work at two different hospitals — as administrative staff — and while the rest of her family hunkered down, her parents left every morning to be around hundreds of COVID-19 patients.

“I am scared for my parents every day,” she said.

Ramos helps restock the groceries in her parents’ house when they’re at work. She reminds her mother to immediately shower and wash her clothes after work. Sometimes she goes over to her parents’ place and stays at least 10 feet away.

Most days she feels helpless, but, she decided, if staying at home is helping people, then that’s exactly what she’s going to do.

If traditional ways of helping aren’t possible, at least — unlike with the hurricane — she still has electricity and an internet connection. That is more than enough to reach out and bring her community together.

Keeping Puerto Rican children in mind, she put together a list of physical activities for the children of the island in conjunction with New York Road Runners’ Active at Home campaign, providing a Spanish language version for the island.

“We find our own ways to help, always,” she said, and smiled.


Monica Puig

Olympic gold medalist, tennis

Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico

As soon as the hurricane hit, Puig, 26, whose entire extended family lived in Puerto Rico, panicked.

The day after her tour of Asia ended in October 2017, Puig got on a plane to San Juan with career Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova. It was a few weeks after Hurricane Maria had taken thousands of lives.

Puig often felt overwhelming joy upon returning home; that’s how spontaneous her reaction was on seeing the island. But, in October 2017, no positive emotions overwhelmed her. She looked around at an island she didn’t recognize. It was like a war zone, chaos in every direction she turned, helicopters flying too close to feel comfortable and National Guard troops patrolling the streets. Tears instantly filled her eyes.

Puig established a YouCaring campaign to raise money to help rebuild the island. Armed with portable stoves, propane cylinders, solar lamps and radio units procured from the $150,000 in funds she collected through her campaign, she spent days traveling through the worst-hit areas, providing people with supplies.

“It was life-and-death before, but I was able to go down there and help. Now again, it’s life-and-death, and all I can do is watch,” Puig said.

Puig has been in Miami with her parents while Puerto Rico has been under a strict lockdown. Her grandparents have not left their high-rise apartment in almost three months, their groceries being left on their doorsteps by relatives. Puig watched the news fervently as the virus made its way to the most vulnerable segments of the population, the same way the hurricane had done, and she felt helpless, the uncertainty of the timeline making her restless.

The island is in Phase 3 of reopening, and authorities are cautiously optimistic. On July 15, Puerto Rico will allow non-U.S. international travelers.

Puig’s aunt, who is the principal of one of the largest schools in San Juan, is working to figure out a long-term solution — or the new normal — if schools reopen this fall. In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria left schools closed for two months. In 2019, heavy earthquakes on the south coast resulted in extended school closures and more than 250 public schools were permanently closed. Since March 2020, the schools have been shut again because of COVID-19, and the undependable internet connection on the island meant limited online classes.

Puig sees it as another chance for Puerto Ricans to fight back.

“It goes without saying that Puerto Ricans have an unlimited amount of strength,” Puig said. “You would have expected Puerto Rico to just completely cave under Hurricane Maria, or absolutely trash itself after the earthquake, but that wasn’t the case. In each of those instances, everybody in Puerto Rico united together to try and rebuild and come back stronger.”


Bernie Williams

Former major league baseball player, New York Yankees

Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Williams was 19 — two years before his debut with the New York Yankees — in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo left 28,000 people homeless and most of Puerto Rico without power and water.

As gusts of wind shook his house, Williams remembers thinking he might not survive.

When he landed in San Juan 28 years later, and a few weeks after Hurricane Maria in 2017, he was convinced he had gone back in time. The same feeling — as if someone had taken a giant baseball bat and swung it over and over across the island, scraping away trees, houses and lives with it — kept coming back to him. Vega Alta (located on the northeast coast of the island), where his brother, cousins and nephews lived, was one of the hardest-hit parts of the island, and clean water and power were luxuries they didn’t have.

Along with his community, where people still call out, “Hey, Bernie” when they see him, Williams went to work, rebuilding houses and procuring basic necessities.

Later, Williams watched proudly as thousands of Puerto Ricans marched outside the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, in July 2019, calling for the resignation of the then-governor, Ricardo Rosselló. Years of corruption and mismanagement, along with an upcoming impeachment proceeding, resulted in an outpouring of anger from the people of the island. Rosselló resigned to thunderous celebrations by protestors.

“In this whole process, they managed to take down a governor who has shown to not have the best interest of the island,” Williams said. “With all that [going on], they were about to point to something really wrong that was going on, and their voices were heard, which to me is a testament to how resilient the Puerto Rican people are, and I am very proud to be a part of that community.”

An MLB star turned jazz musician, Williams has a life that rarely slows down. Now, he has gone from traveling the world — for baseball and for music — to being stuck at home in New York. While monitoring the coronavirus pandemic, as a black Puerto Rican, he is fervently following the Black Lives Matter protests, calling them “long overdue.”

“As a professional athlete coming up in the ranks, every process that I went through as a black Puerto Rican, you have experienced a third level of racial discrimination, and it’s a given. I grew up with the mentality thinking I have to not only be equal in my performance but I have to do double or triple to exceed everybody’s expectations just to even be considered.

“Every time we have an opportunity to push and make things happen, we should take advantage of that — this is history in the making here.”

Williams knows fighting, surviving and rebuilding are words built into Puerto Rico’s national ethos, but the COVID-19 pandemic is something different. When Williams landed on the island in mid-June this year for a funeral, his temperature was taken, and he was asked a thorough set of questions — how long will you be on the island? Where are you going to be staying? With whom will you be in contact? With whom have you been in contact before this visit?

Every other time he has landed on the island, he has been met with hugs, emotions, sadness and profound gratefulness. But, this time, all he felt was eeriness. The island was so silent, it almost didn’t feel like the island.

“For all of our lives, showing affection meant bringing over food, hugging people, or coming together as a group, and now, showing affection means staying away from people — it’s strange,” Williams said.

There were no strangers yelling, “Hey, Bernie, how is it going, man?” or “Hey, Bernie, come over for dinner sometime!” His brother, who had just recovered from shingles, was extremely cautious, so Williams took all precautions to stay safe around his family.

For now, staying away is all he can do. Later, he’ll mobilize, as he always does, and help his community. Now, if helping means staying away, that’s what he’ll do.



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What past 60-game segments can tell us about the 2020 MLB season

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A typical major league baseball season, played under normal parameters, is a proving ground, a long slog in which teams have to leap over multiple hurdles and survive multiple tests to advance to the last rounds of a sports version of “The Hunger Games.”

It is that way because it needs to be. It is that way because the old cliché is in fact a truism: Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. It is that way because at the game’s highest level, the differences in quality between teams and players are just not that great. In most cases, in fact, they are nearly indecipherable to the naked, untrained eye.

This is why baseball can’t get by with a 60-game season like the NCAA, for which the team-to-team disparity is much higher, can. In college, the nation’s best team might post something like an .831 winning percentage, which is what Vanderbilt did en route to a College World Series title in 2019. That percentage translates to a 135-27 mark over 162 games. A big league team that did that would be regarded as the hands-down best baseball team in history.

The 2020 baseball season has lately been described as a sprint. As it should be. Sixty games is not normally a proving ground. It’s a warm-up act. The adage is that every team wins a third of its games and loses a third, and the wheat is sorted from the chaff during the remaining third. So what happens when the first two thirds are missing?

We tried to find out by taking the past 10 seasons and sorting each campaign into three buckets: the first 60 games, the middle 60 games and the last 60 games. The middle 60 window is designed as games 52 through 111; there are 51 games before that and 51 games after that.

The thinking is this: In the 2020 season, teams will have 60 — and only 60 — contests in which to differentiate themselves. In a strict sense, teams will be judged on their first 60 games, which are their only 60 games. However, in theory, there will be a very different sense of urgency in 2020 than typically exists in a first-60 window, seeing as there would normally be another 100 games to play.

In a normal season, after 60 games, even players on teams that have had very good or very bad starts will say, “It’s a long season.” This will not be a long season. Still, we know that this year’s first 60 games will still be the season’s first 60 games.

The hope in looking at the last-60 window is to better replicate the sense of urgency that will accompany every game from the very start of the season we hope is coming. Still, we know that approach isn’t ideal, either. Sometimes teams run away with a division or fall out of the race quickly. The last-60 window for such clubs doesn’t have the kind of urgency we’re talking about in 2020.

To get a little of both dynamics, we added the middle-60 measurement.

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