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Nationals sweep Cardinals to reach first World Series

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WASHINGTON — The game was essentially over in the first inning. With chants of “Let’s go Nats!” echoing from the first pitch, and then chants of “Let’s go Corbin!” as Nationals starter Patrick Corbin mowed down the Cardinals with three strikeouts to begin the game, and then “M-V-P!” chants as Anthony Rendon stepped up with two runners on, the Nationals never let the Cardinals breathe. They never let them breathe the entire series.

The Nationals ambushed the Cardinals with a seven-run first inning — a ridiculous amount of action packed into 21 pitches that included six hits, a sacrifice fly, a sacrifice bunt and two horrific defensive miscues — and held on for a 7-4 victory to complete a sweep in the National League Championship Series and reach the first World Series in franchise history. The Cardinals got the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, but never led for a single inning in the four games.

It was complete domination, with the vaunted Nationals rotation leading the way as the Cardinals hit just .130. The four Nationals starters — Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin — allowed five runs in 26.2 innings, three of those in the fifth inning off Corbin in the clinching game. It means for the first time since 1933, when the Washington Senators played the New York Giants at old Griffith Stadium, the World Series will be played in the nation’s capital. The Nationals, born as the Montreal Expos in 1969 and residents of D.C. since 2005, become the 29th franchise to reach the World Series. Only the Seattle Mariners have never reached one.

Back in May, the odds of that happening were long. The Nationals stumbled to a 19-31 start through May 23 and owned the second-worst record in the National League.

“I don’t think we paid too much attention to our record,” Rendon said after the game. “We knew where we were at one point, but we knew where we wanted to go. The season wasn’t over and back then we were upset, but it was still the first half of the season. You don’t win the division or the World Series in the first half of the season.”

There were rumors that manager Dave Martinez could lose his job and even that Scherzer could go on the trade block if the Nationals didn’t turn things around. According to FanGraphs, their playoff odds on that date were 22.2%. Their odds of reaching the World Series: 3.9%.

“It wasn’t by design to get 12 games under .500 and try and battle ourselves back, but we earned 12 games under .500,” president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said. “But then we also earned about .720 ball the rest of the way.”

The Nationals didn’t fire Martinez. They kept Scherzer. The rotation got on a roll and the offense started clicking. Trea Turner was out from April 3 to May 17. Rendon had played just one game between April 21 and May 7 (and still ended up leading the majors in RBIs). Juan Soto was hitting .246/.358/.435 on May 20, but the 20-year-old super sophomore hit .295/.414/.587 the rest of the way.

To a man, the players stressed the importance of the veteran leadership on the team.

“We knew we were going to be the oldest team in the league,” Scherzer said. “Everyone said that was a negative. We looked at it as a positive. I’m one of the old guys. Us old guys can still play. I think the older guys bring a lot of value to the clubhouse. The experience we bring, the emotions we bring, all that helps.”

After May 23, the Nationals went 74-38, tied with the Dodgers for the best record in the NL (the Astros went 74-37). That was their first comeback. They won 93 games and hosted the wild-card game against the Brewers. That was the setting for comeback No. 2: Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth, they rallied for three runs against Brewers closer Josh Hader to win 4-3. That led to comeback No. 3: They trailed 2-1 in the division series to the Dodgers before Scherzer won Game 4 and then trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning in Game 5 when Rendon and Soto smacked home runs on consecutive pitches off Clayton Kershaw to tie the game. Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in the 10th would win it.

The Nationals, tough-luck losers in several playoff series in recent years, were finally over that hump of winning a playoff series. Rizzo, the team’s general manager since August 2009, has guided the franchise for more than 10 years and eight consecutive winning seasons.

“I think every year we’re going to the World Series,” he said on the field after the trophy presentation. “We’ve been in the playoffs five times in eight years. We’ve won more games than any team in the majors except the Dodgers in that time. So every year we head to spring training expecting to win the World Series. Get to the playoffs and you’ve got a puncher’s chance.”

The Nationals didn’t give much of a chance to the Cardinals in the NLCS. Sanchez took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Game 1. Scherzer took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Game 2. Strasburg struck out 12 with no walks in Game 3. Corbin struck out 12 in just five innings in Game 4. The Cardinals did fight back and loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but Daniel Hudson got Matt Carpenter on a hard grounder to second base. Hudson then closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth.

Only three teams previously had been 12 games under .500 and reached the World Series: the 1914 “Miracle” Boston Braves, the 1973 Mets and the 2005 Astros.

Martinez had a heart procedure in mid-September — a cardiac catheterization — after feeling chest pains. Before the game he mentioned that doctors had told him to sit a little more during games. “It’s tough to do, but I’m doing it, and it’s helped a lot,” he said.

As the National League championship trophy was presented, Martinez looked to his team behind him: “These guys right here cured my heart. The heart feels great.”

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Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi — Betting on self as 2020 free agent

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MINNEAPOLIS — Jake Odorizzi watched Dallas Keuchel remain on the free-agent market until June and didn’t want to take a chance of lingering without a contract. So he accepted the Minnesota Twins‘ $17.8 million qualifying offer for a one-year contact and put himself in position to become a free agent again after the 2020 season.

“When it came down to it, the decision came down to me pretty much betting on myself and returning to a place I know very well and enjoyed and continue to improve on what I did last year and then re-entering the market next offseason with a different class,” Odorizzi said Friday, a day after accepting the offer just before the deadline.

While this year’s free-agent class includes Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner, next year’s is a less accomplished group headed by Trevor Bauer, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Marcus Stroman, Jose Quintana and Jake Arrieta.

If Odorizzi had turned down the Twins’ offer and signed with another team before next June’s amateur draft, his new team would have lost at least one draft pick as compensation. Atlanta waited until compensation was no longer a factor, finalizing Keuchel’s $13 million, one-year contract on June 8.

“There’s probably a good chance of getting a deal done at some point in this offseason but there’s also a point of not getting a deal done, a one-year deal at some point like people have done in the past or even sat out,” Odorizzi said.

A free agent can be given a qualifying offer just once, making free agency after the 2020 season more attractive for Odorizzi.

“I think it’s obviously a determining factor and we gathered that from talking to teams,” Odorizzi said. “It’s unfortunate the system is in place how it is. It’s a flawed system. But it’s one that is in place and we have to abide by the rules.”

A right-hander who turns 30 in March, Odorizzi was 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA last season for Minnesota, becoming a first-time All-Star. He struck out a career-high 178 batters in 159 innings in his second season with the Twins and the qualifying offer was a near certainty with the AL Central champions having just one other accomplished starter, Jose Berrios, under club control for next season.

“We gauged the market. There was a lot of interest,” Odorizzi said. “It was one of those things that interest is really great, but interest doesn’t have a dollar figure to it.”

Odorizzi’s return gives the Twins two former All-Star right-handers at the top of the rotation. Beyond that, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine say starting pitchers will be a focus in free agency.

Odorizzi and Minnesota could try to negotiate a multiyear contract before he goes on the open market.

“I’m always open to more years,” Odorizzi said. “That’s obviously a thing that I’m interested in. It’s just a matter of if Thad or Derek are interested in it. My interest is there. I enjoy Minnesota. I’ve been very vocal about the culture there, the time I’ve spent there.”

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Sources — Pirates hire Ben Cherington as new GM

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have hired Ben Cherington as the team’s new general manager, according to multiple reports and confirmed by ESPN.

Cherington served as GM of the Boston Red Sox for four years, winning the World Series in 2013.

He stepped down as the Red Sox’s general manager during the 2015 season after Dave Dombrowski was named Boston’s new president of baseball operations.

In September 2016, Cherington was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays to be their vice president of baseball operations.

He takes over in Pittsburgh for executive vice president and general manager Neal Huntington, who was fired after a 12-year stint.

Since late September, the Pirates have fired Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and team president Frank Coonelly.

Travis Williams has been hired to replace Coonelly while the managerial position remains open.

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Reports — Pirates hire Ben Cherington as new GM

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have hired Ben Cherington as the team’s new general manager, according to multiple reports.

Cherington served as GM of the Boston Red Sox for four years, winning the World Series in 2013.

He stepped down as the Red Sox’s general manager during the 2015 season after Dave Dombrowski was named Boston’s new president of baseball operations.

In Sept. 2016, Cherington was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays to be their vice president of baseball operations.

He takes over in Pittsburgh for executive vice president and general manager Neal Huntington, who was fired after a 12-year stint.

Since late September, the Pirates have fired Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and team president Frank Coonelly.

Travis Williams has been hired to replace Coonelly while the managerial position remains open.

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