HOUSTON — Washington Nationals star Juan Soto became the second-youngest player in baseball history to hit a home run in his first World Series game, sending a titanic, 417-foot shot over the train tracks in left field at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night, three days before his 21st birthday.
The left-handed-hitting Soto took American League Cy Young favorite Gerrit Cole deep to the opposite field in the fourth inning of Game 1 between the Nationals and Houston Astros. Only the Atlanta Braves‘ Andruw Jones, who was 19 years, 180 days at the time of his Game 1 homer in the 1996 World Series, was younger.
Soto is the fourth-youngest player to hit a home run in a World Series game, joining Jones, Miguel Cabrera (20 years, 187 days) and Mickey Mantle (20 years, 352 days), who hit a pair in 1952.
He wasn’t done either.
In the fifth inning, Soto delivered a two-run double off Cole to deep left field to put Washington ahead 5-2.
As the cleanup hitter for the Nationals in his second major league season, Soto hit .282/.401/.548 with 34 home runs and 110 RBIs. His bases-loaded single in the wild-card game propelled the Nationals into the division series, where his solo home run off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning of Game 5 helped send the game to extra innings before Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead grand slam.
Entering the World Series, Soto was hitting .237/.326/.421 this postseason. In his first at-bat against Cole, he struck out on a high fastball — the same pitch he later hit out for the historic home run.
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Counting up reasons the Rays — yes, the Rays — will win the World Series
The Tampa Bay Rays are going to win the 2020 World Series.
Honestly, it seems a little silly to be making predictions in this most unpredictable of seasons for Major League Baseball, but assuming we do play ball and get through 60 games and the playoffs without cancellation, the Rays will be the last team standing. I have no idea what the celebration will look like, but it would be apropos for that clinching game to be played inside at Tropicana Field, given that that’s where many of us have been stuck these past few months.
Picking the Rays isn’t really an outlandish choice, seeing as they made the playoffs last year and nearly upset the Astros in the American League Division Series. This is a good team with terrific depth throughout its 40-man roster (or, really, throughout its 60-man summer camp roster). It has been moving in the right direction, from 68 wins in 2016 to 80 to 90 to last year’s 96. It has a core of young veterans, and though the offense lacks a big-name superstar, the Rays have three starters in the rotation that could be as good as any trio in the majors: Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow.
Morton, who keeps getting better with age, finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 2019. Snell won the award in 2018. Glasnow might be the best bet of the three to win it in 2020. That’s three great reasons to the pick Rays to win it all. We’ll get back to them in a moment, but the short season and the quick ramp up to the new Opening Day on July 23 (there will be two games that day, with every other team kicking off July 24) raise an important question about how the season will play differently over 60 games than it would have over 162.
There are two minds on the importance of pitching depth in the shortened schedule:
(1) It’s more important because starters won’t be ready to pitch as many innings early on, and one or two major injuries or a COVID-19 illness could be crushing in a short season if you lack depth.
(2) It’s less important because the short season means a team is more likely to get through it injury-free and thus be able to rely more on its best pitchers.
Here’s the thing with the Rays: They have both possibilities covered. Besides Morton, Snell and Glasnow, they have plenty of rotation depth:
• Ryan Yarbrough, who went 11-6 with a 4.13 ERA last year but held opposing batters to a .267 OBP, ninth among pitchers with at least 100 innings
• Yonny Chirinos, who went 9-5 with a 3.85 ERA and had the 12th-lowest OBP allowed among 100-inning pitchers
• Brendan McKay, the team’s top pitching prospect, who pitched 49 innings in the majors last year after cruising through the minors with a 1.10 ERA in 73⅔ innings
• Trevor Richards, acquired last season from the Marlins
• Joe Ryan, one of my favorite sleeper minor league prospects, who fanned 183 in 123⅔ innings and held batters to a .173 average
Yarbrough is the underrated pitcher, the antithesis of today’s trend of high-velocity, high-spin fastballs thrown up in the zone. He’s an old-school finesse lefty with a sinker, changeup, curveball and cutter that helps him get in on righties and induce a lot of weak contact. He ranked in the 99th percentile in hard-hit rate, which is why batters hit just .228 against him. Yarbrough didn’t have that pitch when he was in the Mariners’ system, but it has been the key weapon that helped him go 27-12 in his two season in the majors.
The bullpen, meanwhile, led the majors in ERA in 2019 and is full of power arms and relievers who can pitch multiple innings. Nick Anderson came over in that Marlins trade with Richards, and in 21⅓ innings with the Rays, he had a sparkling strikeout-to-walk ratio of 41-to-2. He should open as the closer with Diego Castillo, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake and Jose Alvarado the top setup guys.
It’s the big three, however, who will carry the staff. Last year, the trio combined to start 68 of the Rays’ 162 games, or 42%, and they still won 96 games. If each can make 12 starts in this abbreviated season, that’s 60% of the games, a huge boost to the Rays’ chances of not just making the playoffs but also dethroning the Yankees in the AL East.
Snell is the key. He followed his Cy Young season with an injury-marred 2019, missing time because of a broken toe and surgery for loose bodies in his elbow. He made 23 starts but pitched just 107 innings, finishing 6-8 with a 4.29 ERA. The stuff remained electric, however, and some of the underlying numbers suggest that he pitched into some bad luck. His xwOBA — expected weighted on-base average, based on quality of contact — was actually better in 2019 than in his Cy Young season and ranked in the top 8% in the league. In other words, he pitched much better than the 4.29 ERA indicates.
“Yeah, I know all the numbers,” he told me in March, right before spring training shut down. “It was a frustrating season with the injuries, and I do feel like there was some bad luck, but no excuses. The bottom line is I have to do better.”
Snell has had an interesting time since the 2019 season ended. First, he got into some hot water in the offseason, when he criticized the trade that sent Tommy Pham to the Padres while live streaming video games. The Rays’ front office quickly shrugged that one off. In fact, when I talked to general manager Erik Neander in spring training, he was more impressed that Snell knew about Xavier Edwards — the prospect the Rays acquired along with outfielder Hunter Renfroe — than worried about his star pitcher second-guessing a trade.
Snell’s spring training got off to a bad start when he missed a couple of weeks after receiving a cortisone shot for a sore elbow. When he returned in March, he walked four of the five batters he faced in a 22-pitch outing. In May, as the union and the owners negotiated the parameters of a possible return, Snell made headlines when he said he opposed the players taking further pay reductions.
“No, I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK?” Snell said while answering questions on his Twitch channel. “And that’s just the way it is. Like, I’m sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher, and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?”
Snell is ready to play now, however, and when the Rays returned last week to begin workouts at Tropicana Field, he backtracked somewhat from his comments in May. “The only thing about it that I didn’t like with what I said was just ‘I’ve gotta get mine.’ That was pretty bad,” he said. “Everything else I said past that was pretty correct. But just how I started it, I could see how it could anger people, so I’d apologize for that. Everything after that was pretty spot-on with what we’re doing right now.”
Some teammates also expressed initial concern about Morton’s desire to play through the pandemic, but Morton told reporters a couple of days ago that he’s ready to go. “If there are a bunch of people that are sacrificing their time and effort and their safety to make this possible, I feel like I should try,” he said.
Morton’s late-career emergence has been impressive. When he signed with the Astros in 2017, they transitioned him from throwing his sinker to throwing more four-seamers up in the zone. Not only did he start throwing harder, but he also entered the most durable phase of his career, with back-to-back 30-start seasons, including his going 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts in 194.2 innings last year.
He’s in the final year of his two-year contract (there is an option for 2021), and he considered retirement after this season, but that future remains on hold. “Part of me doesn’t really want to end my career this way, if I could help it. I really don’t want to go out because of [the pandemic],” the 36-year-old said. For now, his focus will be on the next 60 games.
Given Morton’s age and the health issues last year for Snell and Glasnow, the short season should be a benefit to those three. The Rays won’t have to worry about monitoring innings and workload for them, like they would have over 162 games. That increases the team’s odds of beating the Yankees in the division.
Those odds go up if Glasnow does what he did last year, when he blazed to a 1.86 ERA through eight starts before missing nearly four months because of a forearm strain. He returned in time to pitch in the postseason, though he was the losing pitcher in the decisive Game 5, when the Astros noticed that he was tipping his pitches and tagged him for four runs in the bottom of the first of a 6-1 victory.
Once a hyped prospect with the Pirates, Glasnow was never able to put it together with the Pirates before the Rays stole him and Austin Meadows in the 2018 trade for Chris Archer. Glasnow is an engaging, athletic, 6-foot-8 tower of intimidation with a 97 mph fastball and wipeout curveball. He dominated with just those two pitches in 2019, though he was working on a splitter back in March. Good luck if that pitch becomes part of his arsenal.
Here’s why I’m picking the Rays. Recent World Series champs have all had strong trios of starters:
• 2019 Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin went 43-20 with a 3.18 ERA. All three pitched some key innings in relief in the postseason to help cover the thin Washington bullpen, with Corbin tossing three scoreless innings in relief of Scherzer in Game 7 of the World Series.
• 2018 Red Sox: Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi went 31-14 with a 2.95 ERA. Eovaldi was an in-season acquisition, and Sale wasn’t 100 percent in the postseason, but all three started and relieved during the playoff run.
• 2017 Astros: Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Morton. Verlander went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in his five starts with Houston, and Keuchel and Morton went a combined 28-12 with a 3.26 ERA. When the Houston relievers struggled in the postseason, Morton came to the rescue and closed out Game 7 against the Dodgers with four innings of relief.
Morton, Snell and Glasnow have similar World Series upside, and any of them could be the Game 1 starter by the time the postseason rolls around.
Also, don’t overlook the position player side of things. Meadows had a breakout 2019, hitting .291 with 33 home runs. He and shortstop Willy Adames might be the only full-time players, but Neander views that as a good thing. There is competition for playing time, and manager Kevin Cash will mix and match with platoons or go heavy on defense at times (Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot give the Rays two elite defensive center fielders). Neander told me that the team had ideas on getting more out of Renfroe, who slugged 33 home runs for the Padres but hit just .208 against right-handers. At worst, he and fellow new addition Jose Martinez give the team two batters who can mash against lefties.
I didn’t even mention Yandy Diaz‘s biceps or fan favorite Ji-Man Choi or 2019 All-Star Brandon Lowe or Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who might figure into the middle of the lineup. This is a fun team.
The Rays can win it all. Let’s just hope they get the opportunity to do it.
Attorney seeking settlements in Red Sox sexual abuse cases
NEW YORK — Last month, when former Major League Baseball All-star Torii Hunter said he’d been called the N-word “a hundred times” at Boston’s storied Fenway Park, the Red Sox were quick to back him up with a promise to fight racism.
“Torii Hunter’s experience is real,” the team said in a June 10 Twitter post, adding that there were at least seven incidents as recently as last year in which fans used racial slurs. The team promised to do a better job dealing with racism: “As we identify how we can do better, please know we are listening.”
But those words rang hollow for more than a dozen Black men who have spent the past several years trying to get the Red Sox to listen to their claims that they were sexually abused by a former Red Sox clubhouse manager who died in 2005.
The former clubhouse manager, Donald “Fitzy” Fitzpatrick, pleaded guilty to criminal charges of attempted sexual battery in 2002, admitting that he used Red Sox team memorabilia to lure young, Black clubhouse workers into secluded areas of the team’s Florida spring training facility, where he abused them. Fitzpatrick did not admit to abusing young boys in other ballparks.
Since then, a growing number of men have stepped forward to allege that they, too, were abused by Fitzpatrick at Fenway Park and at major league stadiums in Baltimore and Kansas City when the Red Sox were playing on the road. Because their claims date to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, they are too old to be included in civil lawsuits, and the men say their requests for out-of-court settlements have fallen on deaf ears.
Gerald Armstrong, 65, said he believes the team knew that Fitzpatrick, who worked for the Red Sox for decades, was molesting youngsters hired as bat boys, ball boys, and clubhouse attendants. “You can’t tell me that you can have 30 or 40 guys traveling around with him and observing his behavior and not know what he was doing,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said former Red Sox first baseman George Scott, known as the “Boomer,” frequently told him to “stay away from Fitzy.” Scott died seven years ago.
“It was another slap in the face for me,” Charles Crawford, a 45-year-old African American from Taunton, Massachusetts, said after hearing the most recent Red Sox statement about combating racism at Fenway Park. Crawford alleges that Fitzpatrick abused him in a locked storage room and in the team showers at Fenway Park when he was 16 years old, in the summer of 1991.
“Now would be a good time for the Red Sox to show everyone they mean what they say,” said Armstrong, who claims he was the first Black youth to be hired in the visitors clubhouse by the old Kansas City Athletics — only to be allegedly abused by Fitzpatrick multiple times in a stadium storage room and the historic Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City.
When contacted by The Associated Press, Daniel Goldberg, an attorney for the Red Sox, reissued a statement the team released in 2017, noting that Fitzpatrick pleaded guilty to criminal charges under the team’s previous ownership.
“The Red Sox have always viewed the actions — which date back as long as six decades ago — of Mr. Fitzpatrick as abhorrent,” the team statement said. “When the team, under prior ownership became aware of the allegations against Mr. Fitzpatrick in 1991, he was promptly relieved of his duties.”
Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney representing 21 men who claimed they were abused by Fitzpatrick — 15 of whom are Black — has been pushing for out-of-court settlements with the Red Sox, three other teams and Major League Baseball for years, but to no avail. Recently, following the death of George Floyd and statements about combating racism issued by the Red Sox, Major League Baseball and several teams, Garabedian has tried again to open negotiations, without success.
“It’s inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t want to help these victims in this day and age,” said Garabedian, who is known for his work representing victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse, including those who took part in a 2002 settlement with the Boston Archdiocese.
Forbes Magazine recently pegged the value of the Red Sox at $3.3 billion, third among the 30 major league ball clubs. In a recent ranking of billionaires, the magazine also estimated principal owner John Henry’s net worth at $2.6 billion.
Today’s Red Sox, led by Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe, have labored to shed the team’s racist past since buying the franchise in 2002.
Under the late Tom Yawkey, the team’s former owner, the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, signing infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green in 1959, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In addition, the Red Sox had a chance to sign Robinson before he went to the Dodgers, and they took a pass on signing fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays.
Two years ago, the Red Sox tried to step away from the team’s racist legacy when it asked the City of Boston to drop Yawkey’s name from a street that runs alongside Fenway Park. The request ignited opposition from a group of civic leaders who said the move would tarnish Yawkey’s record of charitable giving. But the Red Sox prevailed and today Yawkey Way has reverted to its original name, Jersey Street.
Crawford and Armstrong, who have long accused Fitzpatrick of abuse, said the former clubhouse manager used official team caps and baseballs to draw them and others into private settings in major league ballparks and at other locations.
Garabedian said three of the 21 alleged victims claim Fitzpatrick molested them after showing up at little league games in Boston and nearby Brockton and telling them he was a scout for major league baseball.
“He was very active,” Garabedian said.
Garabedian is seeking $5 million for each of the 21 alleged victims.
But Armstrong said he’s speaking out in large part to encourage all Black men who are victims of child sexual abuse to overcome the shame or embarrassment they may feel so they can acknowledge what was done to them and get the counseling they likely need.
“I think a lot of black men have been molested and for cultural reasons they just don’t come forward to deal with it,” he said. “And if you don’t deal with it, you’re looking at a lot of emotional problems.”
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