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Why losing Justin Verlander marks beginning of the end of Astros’ sad legacy

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It’s a miracle the ligaments in Justin Verlander‘s right elbow lasted this long. He has thrown 48,822 pitches in the Major League Baseball regular season, another 3,109 high-intensity pitches in the postseason, numerous more deliveries in spring training and bullpen sessions and then all the ones in high school, college and his brief stint in the minors. Many of those, of course, were among the hardest in the game. Nolan Ryan hit 100 mph with regularity back in his prime, but when Verlander arrived in the majors in 2006 throwing 100 mph, he ushered in a new high-octane era of triple-digit radar readings.

When Verlander went down after his first start of 2020 for the Houston Astros, the immediate speculation was that he might need Tommy John surgery. He initially denied those reports and was attempting to pitch in the postseason, but he announced Saturday that he will undergo Tommy John surgery. “I was hopeful that I would be able to return to competition in 2020, however, during my simulated game unfortunately the injury worsened,” he wrote on Instagram.

Given the typical 12-to-14-month rehabilitation period, that means Verlander is likely out for the 2021 season as well — or at least the vast majority of it. It also means he might have pitched his final game for the Astros, as the two-year extension he signed in 2019 runs through 2021. It could mean he won’t resume his Hall of Fame career until 2022, when he will be 39 years old and will have made one start in two years.

With 226 career wins, two Cy Young Awards and three runner-up finishes, five strikeout titles and 72.3 career WAR, Verlander is already a lock for the Hall of Fame. His chances of winning 300 games, however, take a big hit. Coming off 21 wins in 2019, “The Bill James Handbook” estimated his chances of winning 300 at 54%. With the COVID-19-shortened season and now the injury, 300 looks like more of a longshot. He’d have to average 14.8 wins over five seasons, which would take him through his age-43 season. That’s even assuming he’s able to come back at an elite level at 39 years old.

For the Astros, the short-term outlook is obviously damaging to their playoff hopes. Their rotation probably lines up as Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy. That actually still looks like one of the best in the American League. Greinke is 3-2 with a 3.90 ERA, with better peripheral numbers than the ERA indicates. Valdez has had some outstanding starts, including his last one, when he fanned 11 — all on his curveball, although that was against a terrible Rangers lineup. Urquidy has only recently returned after missing time with COVID-19 but has a 2.70 ERA in three starts, and he came up big last postseason. McCullers has been a playoff hero before.

The Astros are pretty much locked into the No. 6 seed as the second-place team in the AL West — although as they stumble along at 25-26, they’ve been unable to completely shake a bad Mariners team, which is only three games behind. As of now, the Astros will face the A’s, who dominated the season series 7-3 while limiting the Astros to 25 runs in the 10 games.

Indeed, the offense has been nowhere near the powerhouse it’s been in recent years, hitting .239/.311/.408, compared to .274/.352/.495 last season. Yes, they deserve all the cheating jokes coming their way, because they certainly didn’t disprove the skeptics with the meager output this season. The Astros won’t be the AL favorite, but this team has enough starting pitching and enough big names in the lineup to get hot at the right time. I wouldn’t pick them to reach the World Series, but don’t discount their chances.

In the big picture, I do wonder whether this is the end of the era, this run that started in 2015 and included the now-controversial 2017 World Series title and three straight 100-win seasons from 2017 to 2019. They will now be without Verlander for 2021, and George Springer, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick are all free agents. Given the current stink hovering over the entire organization, what are the odds any of those players are wearing an Astros uniform in 2021? These guys are all 30-something, so the Astros would possibly go in another direction anyway.

Springer would be the one guy you would most want to bring back, but there’s a longstanding grudge between him and the organization after it tried to sign him to a long-term deal when he was still a minor leaguer and delayed his promotion to the majors. In a thin free-agent market, he’ll also be one of the most sought-after players available.

Then Greinke, McCullers and Carlos Correa are all free agents after 2021. Depending on which direction the Astros go, those three could all be trade bait this offseason. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are signed long term and Yordan Alvarez will be a monster after missing all but one game in 2020, but Altuve in particular has been terrible and will turn 31 next season. He’s signed through 2024, but it’s fair to ask what kind of player he’ll be the next four seasons.

I wouldn’t necessarily expect the Astros to be terrible. If they keep Greinke and McCullers to go with Urquidy, Valdez, Cristian Javier and maybe Forrest Whitley, that could still be a top rotation. They should have money to spend in free agency, although Verlander’s $33 million salary takes a big bite out of the team’s total payroll next year. Still, the Astros will no longer be the division favorites like they’ve been, and without Springer and Brantley they’re losing their two best hitters from 2020.

So it does feel like the 2021 team will look much different from the past few years. How will history judge the 2015-2020 Astros? Not kindly, or at least not as kindly as the dominant run of 100-win seasons would otherwise suggest. The Jeff Luhnow Astros will be remembered for ushering in the tanking era. There’s no doubt it worked, at least for the Astros, who ended up with three straight No. 1 overall picks, two of whom turned into Correa and Bregman. But the tanking philosophy also left an ugly scar on the game, creating an era of non-competitive franchises as they attempted to rebuild.

Luhnow’s devotion to analytics certainly forced other franchises into rethinking their models of player evaluation and development in order to catch up to the Astros and other industry leaders. But it also came with a sense of winning at all costs. Yes, this is professional sports and winning is the bottom line (besides making money for the owners), but that mindset led to trading for reliever Roberto Osuna, who was in the midst of a suspension at the time following a domestic violence arrest. It led to hiring former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, fired last fall after inappropriate comments directed at a group of female reporters in the Astros’ clubhouse.

Most of all, however, the Luhnow Astros will be remembered as cheaters. Perhaps that win-at-all-costs atmosphere allowed players to conclude that sure, cheating during games is OK. Maybe the Astros were merely a product of technology that had gone unchecked throughout the sport. In the end, they got caught, and their 2017 World Series win is tarnished.

So, yes, the Astros won a lot of games. The Verlander trade minutes before the deadline in 2017 will go down as one of the most important in franchise history, as they probably don’t beat the Dodgers without him that October (let alone the Yankees in the ALCS). Verlander’s legacy is secure, but that of the 2015-2020 Astros will forever remain complicated and sad.

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How Mookie Betts changed the super-sabermetric World Series into the super-fun Series

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ARLINGTON, Texas — In 1921, George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. In 2020, Markus Lynn Betts, better known as Mookie, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. Over the 99 years, with hundreds of games and thousands of innings between these events, nobody managed the feat in a World Series game.

That it happens to be Ruth who last mustered the deed is an inspired bit of baseball whimsy, considering the other tie that binds him to Betts. Both were traded by the Boston Red Sox: Ruth to the New York Yankees in a 1919 deal that history considers sports’ greatest all-time fleecing and Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers this year in a far-less-lopsided yet still emotionally consuming swap. Unlike with Ruth, Boston had seen Betts at his peak. The city knew what it was losing.

Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday was the Mookie Betts show. Clayton Kershaw earned a Best Supporting Actor statuette, and sundry other Dodgers earned their scale, but Betts, on baseball’s biggest stage, surrounded by some of its best players, managed to differentiate himself. He married the game of Ruth’s era with its modern version. His dynamism overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rays, just as it did the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, just as it did all season, just as it has for a half-decade. Although he scored only two of Los Angeles’ runs in its 8-3 victory before a decidedly pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,388 at Globe Life Field, Betts left his fingerprints all over the things he stole, from bases to the series advantage.

When the Dodgers traded outfielder Alex Verdugo and shortstop prospect Jeter Downs for Betts and David Price in February, they did so with Tuesday night in mind. The Dodgers lost the World Series in 2017 and ’18. They built a player-development juggernaut, could spend money to match any team and still didn’t win. Betts was the separator.

In the fifth inning Tuesday, with the Dodgers leading 2-1, he separated. First, he drew a walk from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. Then he stole second and became a hero to fans everywhere with the munchies by earning them a free taco through a promotion tied to stolen bases, which happen to be enough of an anachronism in baseball that seeing one in a game is double-take-worthy. A double steal, which Betts and Corey Seager then pulled off, is practically unheard of.

Betts’ greatest coup remained. There is an art to baserunning — to rounding bases properly, to leading off a base, to understanding scenarios as they unfold. The secondary lead — a few extra hops and a step toward the next base as the pitch is delivered — is something Betts does as well as anyone. When Max Muncy chopped a one-hopper that Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz fielded and wheeled home, his throw was slightly up the line, in decent shape to get a mortal running. Instead, it was Betts.

He heaved his body toward home — batting glove sticking out of his right rear pocket, sliding glove on his left hand, gold chain flopping around like it hadn’t a care in the world. Catcher Mike Zunino swept the tag. Too late. The Dodgers led 3-1. That lead expanded to 6-1 by the end of the fifth. It was 8-1 an inning later, with the first of those runs coming on a Betts opposite-field home run around the same vicinity where in NLCS Games 6 and 7 he made spectacular catches against the wall.

All of these elements, they’re Betts’ array of talent dictating what baseball can be. The one-dimensionality of the game in 2020 does not translate in Betts’ world. He hits. He fields. He runs. He plays long ball. He plays small ball. He molds himself to a moment. And the Dodgers follow.

“Mookie,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “is gonna get the best of everybody.”

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are getting the best of him, and that gives them an unmatched catalytic presence. After Betts’ slide around Zunino, the Dodgers followed with an RBI single, an RBI single and an RBI single. It was like a time warp back to the ’80s, before front offices believed that to make a stolen base worthwhile you need about an 80% success rate. In a World Series, in which every out is precious, the prospect of losing even one petrifies managers, so, by and large, they don’t run.

This series, between a Rays organization whose deftness with analytics has helped turn it into a baseball think tank and a Dodgers organization that uses similar principles but can leverage its financial advantage to weaponize them, had all the makings of a new-school, bullpen-heavy, matchup melee — and it might yet evolve into that.

Game 1, though? From Betts’ wheels to the quick-hook Rays leaving starter Tyler Glasnow in to throw 112 pitches despite his ineffectiveness, it was throwback day. The fifth inning in particular, with Betts running and Glasnow battling and the Dodgers’ lineup peppering RBI singles all over the field, might as well have been staged by players wearing flannel uniforms.

To win a World Series, it takes more than conventional wisdom or whatever passes for that today. If for a game or two or three or four it means playing the brand of baseball that the game and situation dictate, then evolve good teams will. The Rays might need to ditch the homer-or-bust ethos that got them here. Already Kevin Cash, their manager, did the exact opposite of what one would have thought with Glasnow. He’s plenty capable of more zags.

But for as much as Cash says Randy Arozarena is the Cuban Mookie Betts … he isn’t. Betts is a singular figure, with each of the five tools abundantly clear and a level of energy that, were it calculable, surely would rate as well-above-average, too.

“Mookie’s pretty special,” Kershaw said. “He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do, and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

That sounds a lot like the Dodgers, actually. They do things others don’t. They do those things consistently. That’s why they won 43 of 60 regular-season games. That’s why they entered the postseason as — and remain — distinct World Series favorites. That’s why their three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to Atlanta registered as such a shock and their eventual pennant rebalanced the sport’s order.

In the middle of it all is Betts, elemental. Without him, the Dodgers don’t become the first team since 1991 to homer twice and swipe three bases in a World Series game. Without him, perhaps they’re still a guy short, and this drought goes on. And it might still. Baseball is twisted that way. What it giveth in Game 1 it might taketh away in Game 2.

What won’t change is Mookie Betts. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers this year. Almost instantly, he embraced his position as the team’s fulcrum, even amid stars, homegrown players and others with tenure. He does it for these games, those moments, the piece of metal that allows baseball players to call themselves champions.

When he does it, those who saw all of his success in Boston can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. It’s not right, really, and it’s not reasonable, especially considering that Betts might have left via free agency anyway. But it’s the same feeling as a century ago: regret commingling with admiration, the feeling of knowing what you lost and loving it anyway because it’s impossible not to.

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How Mookie Betts changed the super-sabermetric World Series into the super-fun Series

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ARLINGTON, Texas — In 1921, George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. In 2020, Markus Lynn Betts, better known as Mookie, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. Over the 99 years, with hundreds of games and thousands of innings between these events, nobody managed the feat in a World Series game.

That it happens to be Ruth who last mustered the deed is an inspired bit of baseball whimsy, considering the other tie that binds him to Betts. Both were traded by the Boston Red Sox: Ruth to the New York Yankees in a 1919 deal that history considers sports’ greatest all-time fleecing and Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers this year in a far-less-lopsided yet still emotionally consuming swap. Unlike with Ruth, Boston had seen Betts at his peak. The city knew what it was losing.

Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday was the Mookie Betts show. Clayton Kershaw earned a Best Supporting Actor statuette, and sundry other Dodgers earned their scale, but Betts, on baseball’s biggest stage, surrounded by some of its best players, managed to differentiate himself. He married the game of Ruth’s era with its modern version. His dynamism overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rays, just as it did the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, just as it did all season, just as it has for a half-decade. Although he scored only two of Los Angeles’ runs in its 8-3 victory before a decidedly pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,388 at Globe Life Field, Betts left his fingerprints all over the things he stole, from bases to the series advantage.

When the Dodgers traded outfielder Alex Verdugo and shortstop prospect Jeter Downs for Betts and David Price in February, they did so with Tuesday night in mind. The Dodgers lost the World Series in 2017 and ’18. They built a player-development juggernaut, could spend money to match any team and still didn’t win. Betts was the separator.

In the fifth inning Tuesday, with the Dodgers leading 2-1, he separated. First, he drew a walk from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. Then he stole second and became a hero to fans everywhere with the munchies by earning them a free taco through a promotion tied to stolen bases, which happen to be enough of an anachronism in baseball that seeing one in a game is double-take-worthy. A double steal, which Betts and Corey Seager then pulled off, is practically unheard of.

Betts’ greatest coup remained. There is an art to baserunning — to rounding bases properly, to leading off a base, to understanding scenarios as they unfold. The secondary lead — a few extra hops and a step toward the next base as the pitch is delivered — is something Betts does as well as anyone. When Max Muncy chopped a one-hopper that Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz fielded and wheeled home, his throw was slightly up the line, in decent shape to get a mortal running. Instead, it was Betts.

He heaved his body toward home — batting glove sticking out of his right rear pocket, sliding glove on his left hand, gold chain flopping around like it hadn’t a care in the world. Catcher Mike Zunino swept the tag. Too late. The Dodgers led 3-1. That lead expanded to 6-1 by the end of the fifth. It was 8-1 an inning later, with the first of those runs coming on a Betts opposite-field home run around the same vicinity where in NLCS Games 6 and 7 he made spectacular catches against the wall.

All of these elements, they’re Betts’ array of talent dictating what baseball can be. The one-dimensionality of the game in 2020 does not translate in Betts’ world. He hits. He fields. He runs. He plays long ball. He plays small ball. He molds himself to a moment. And the Dodgers follow.

“Mookie,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “is gonna get the best of everybody.”

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are getting the best of him, and that gives them an unmatched catalytic presence. After Betts’ slide around Zunino, the Dodgers followed with an RBI single, an RBI single and an RBI single. It was like a time warp back to the ’80s, before front offices believed that to make a stolen base worthwhile you need about an 80% success rate. In a World Series, in which every out is precious, the prospect of losing even one petrifies managers, so, by and large, they don’t run.

This series, between a Rays organization whose deftness with analytics has helped turn it into a baseball think tank and a Dodgers organization that uses similar principles but can leverage its financial advantage to weaponize them, had all the makings of a new-school, bullpen-heavy, matchup melee — and it might yet evolve into that.

Game 1, though? From Betts’ wheels to the quick-hook Rays leaving starter Tyler Glasnow in to throw 112 pitches despite his ineffectiveness, it was throwback day. The fifth inning in particular, with Betts running and Glasnow battling and the Dodgers’ lineup peppering RBI singles all over the field, might as well have been staged by players wearing flannel uniforms.

To win a World Series, it takes more than conventional wisdom or whatever passes for that today. If for a game or two or three or four it means playing the brand of baseball that the game and situation dictate, then evolve good teams will. The Rays might need to ditch the homer-or-bust ethos that got them here. Already Kevin Cash, their manager, did the exact opposite of what one would have thought with Glasnow. He’s plenty capable of more zags.

But for as much as Cash says Randy Arozarena is the Cuban Mookie Betts … he isn’t. Betts is a singular figure, with each of the five tools abundantly clear and a level of energy that, were it calculable, surely would rate as well-above-average, too.

“Mookie’s pretty special,” Kershaw said. “He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do, and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

That sounds a lot like the Dodgers, actually. They do things others don’t. They do those things consistently. That’s why they won 43 of 60 regular-season games. That’s why they entered the postseason as — and remain — distinct World Series favorites. That’s why their three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to Atlanta registered as such a shock and their eventual pennant rebalanced the sport’s order.

In the middle of it all is Betts, elemental. Without him, the Dodgers don’t become the first team since 1991 to homer twice and swipe three bases in a World Series game. Without him, perhaps they’re still a guy short, and this drought goes on. And it might still. Baseball is twisted that way. What it giveth in Game 1 it might taketh away in Game 2.

What won’t change is Mookie Betts. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers this year. Almost instantly, he embraced his position as the team’s fulcrum, even amid stars, homegrown players and others with tenure. He does it for these games, those moments, the piece of metal that allows baseball players to call themselves champions.

When he does it, those who saw all of his success in Boston can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. It’s not right, really, and it’s not reasonable, especially considering that Betts might have left via free agency anyway. But it’s the same feeling as a century ago: regret commingling with admiration, the feeling of knowing what you lost and loving it anyway because it’s impossible not to.

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Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Cash goes against trend, leaves Tyler Glasnow in to throw career-high 112 pitches

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ARLINGTON — Rays manager Kevin Cash defended his decision to stay with starter Tyler Glasnow in a crucial fifth inning in Tampa Bay’s 8-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday.

Glasnow ended up throwing a career-high 112 pitches, giving up six runs on six walks. Four of those runs came in the fifth.

“Just trust that he had plenty of stuff to keep us right there,” Cash said after the game. “The walks are definitely not ideal but we didn’t do a good job of holding the runners on. We can’t allow the double-steal right there.”

With the Dodgers leading just 2-1 at the time, Cash opted to let Glasnow keep pitching after he walked both Mookie Betts and Corey Seager. Betts stole second, then both runners pulled off a double-steal, opening up the inning for Los Angeles. Glasnow was at 99 pitches after the two walks — his fifth and sixth of the night — but kept going.

“I felt relatively good,” Glasnow said. “Any pitcher at the end part of the [outing], you want to be left in. That’s the competitive nature … I think the adrenaline takes over. When I go to 100 pitches I don’t feel the fatigue that much.”

It was a curious move mostly because it went against the trend Cash had set all year. The Rays bullpen ranked third in innings pitched during the regular season and ranked first in stranding inherited runners. In fact, their 19% of inherited runners scored percentage was 14 points below league average.

After the double-steal, Cash figured Glasnow was his best bet against Max Muncy with a man on third and less than two outs.

“I felt like we needed a strikeout and there might not be anyone better equipped to get a strikeout right there than Glass,” Cash said.

Muncy grounded to first, scoring Betts from third, which was followed by a run-scoring single from Will Smith that finally ended Glasnow’s night. Reliever Ryan Yarbrough took over for him.

“If I could go back and strike [Muncy] out it would be great but it didn’t happen that way,” Glasnow said. “I felt a little weird at the beginning. Just too many walks, not executing enough.”

Glasnow is the first pitcher in World Series history to allow six earned runs and walk six batters, becoming just the third hurler to do so in the postseason. His 4.1 innings of 112 pitches were the fewest innings pitched by any pitcher in an outing of 110-plus pitches in any postseason game since pitches were first tracked in 1988. It was also the most pitches thrown by a Tampa Bay hurler this season.

The Rays insist he was fine to remain in the game in the critical inning.

“I thought he was throwing the ball extremely well,” catcher Mike Zunino said of the fifth inning. “Couple free passes but he landed the breaker, threw some great change-ups. He has a high ceiling with strikeouts so he has the ability to get us out of jam.”

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