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2021 MLB playoffs – A tense NLDS Game 5 was a fitting end to this Giants-Dodgers series

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SAN FRANCISCO — There’s something about elimination games that manages to condense the air in a ballpark. Each pitch carries the potential to change the game, and wild mood swings are possible in a single at-bat. The world shrinks, and for a few hours it can feel like the only thing that matters.

And this game — Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Giants — began to feel inevitable sometime around August. After a regular season that saw the Giants win 107 games and the Dodgers 106, after a series that saw each team win two of the first four games, there was little doubt this game would do its best to measure up to its considerable hype.

It was a tense, constricted affair, won by the Dodgers, 2-1, in the final inning. There were countless moments when it became clear what it sounds like when more than 40,000 people hold their breath simultaneously.

These two teams played 24 times this season, and each team won 12. The final game, fittingly, was tight and edgy and filled with notes in the margins.

Even over the course of just five games, themes emerged. Giants starter Logan Webb, his chin all right angles and his gait covering as much ground side-to-side as forward, was obstinate once again. He threw seven innings of one-run, four-hit, seven-strikeout baseball to finish his two NLDS starts with 14 2/3 innings, one run and 17 strikeouts. He emerged as the kind of big-game pitcher who wants the ball and is not interested in giving it up. His work took on a metronomic precision: He would finish an inning like he was renting the mound by the minute and strut his way back to the dugout, giving manager Gabe Kapler a no-look fist bump without breaking stride.

“At every stage, you’re asking yourself, ‘Is Logan Webb the best option to get the next three hitters out?'” Kapler said. “And every inning that we sent him out there, we felt like, ‘Yes, yes and yes.'” When the Dodgers looked for his slider low and away, Webb gave them a 94 mph sinker that ran in on right-handed hitters. When they looked for the sinker, he gave them a changeup that got within four feet of the plate before ducking under bats. If pitches had personalities, Webb’s slider would be loud and brash, and his changeup would be the sneaky kid who always gets everyone else in trouble.

Webb, who revealed that he’s three Red Bulls in by the time he heads to the bullpen to warm up, ran his scoreless streak in the NLDS to 13 innings before Corey Seager hit a looping double to left in the sixth to score Mookie Betts and give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead. When it happened, when Betts finished his tour of the bases — a single, his third of the game, followed by a stolen base — it felt like an insurmountable lead. (The stats back it up: In the 24 games between these two teams, the team scoring first won a remarkable 22 of them.)

And then, of course, Darin Ruf led off the bottom half of the inning by sending a booming 452-foot homer to center that sounded like a lightning bolt splitting a tree. The place came alive, at least three Red Bulls’ worth of alive, and it appeared the Giants would do what they’d done all season: simultaneously defy the odds and frustrate the Dodgers.

“It’s two teams that don’t like each other but respect the hell out of each other,” Dodgers pitcher — and Game 5 closer — Max Scherzer said. “At the end of the year, we thought we had ’em, but they would not lose. They. Would. Not. Lose. So we couldn’t, either.”

But in the end, the Dodgers found a way. Cody Bellinger, who is crafting a postseason that could go a long way toward exorcising his miserable, injury-filled season, dribbled a ninth-inning single to center off Giants’ closer Camilo Doval that scored Justin Turner with the winning run. As Turner crossed home plate, Bellinger stood at first and directed a primal scream toward the Dodgers’ dugout. It was his second pivotal hit of the series; his two-run double in Game 2 cleared the way for a 9-2 win, and his at-bats as the games progressed bore less and less resemblance to the ones that produced a .165 average and .542 OPS during the regular season.

“It wasn’t about mechanics,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It was just about a fight. It was me vs. you, Cody vs. Doval.”

And long after the game, Bellinger jogged through the tunnel from the interview room toward his clubhouse, Dodger fans lining the walls on both sides of him, chanting his name. It was a scene that would have been unimaginable just two weeks ago.

Bellinger’s hit came off the fourth straight slider from Doval. It raised questions; given Bellinger’s season-long inability to catch up to high velocity, why did the Giants choose to forsake Doval’s 100+ mph fastball for a pitch more attuned to Bellinger’s hitting speed? Doval, who stood up and answered questions afterward — something far easier to avoid with the clubhouses closed to reporters — said he leaned on his slider because he felt it gave him the best chance of inducing an inning-ending double play.

“Oh, man, the first thing I did was give him a hug, just because he feels awful,” Webb said. “Which is kind of brutal, because he pitched so well for us. For that to happen, for him to be the guy who gave up the run, it just sucks.”

Scherzer’s first career save came with a final out the Giants will remember but MLB would like to forget. Wilmer Flores was called out on appeal by first-base umpire Gabe Morales on a check swing in which he clearly held up. The call prompted fans behind and around the first-base dugout to overcome the protective netting to fire trash and liquids toward Morales.

Which proves once again: Even in its best moments, baseball manages to find a way to divert the narrative. Morales came to the postgame interview room with crew chief Ted Barrett, which seemed admirable until Morales was asked if the replay changed his mind on the call and Barrett answered for him. “Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah,” Barrett said, in a manner that sounded less melodic than it looks. “He doesn’t want to say.”

In a twisted way, the controversial ending only served to underscore a point: The only thing wrong with this series is that it’s over.

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MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting

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The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.

Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.

The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.

Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.

Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.

The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.

News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press

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Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball

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NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.

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Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays‘ proposed plan to split the season between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the news on Thursday.

“Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said.

The idea of playing in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal has been discussed over the past several years after attempts to build a new full-time ballpark locally failed.

Montreal had a big league team from 1969, when the expansion Expos began play, through 2004. The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team has played since its inaugural season in 1998, expires after the 2027 season.

Since Sternberg took control in October 2005, the once-struggling franchise has been a success on the field but not at the box office.

Despite reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020, the Rays have annually ranked near the bottom in attendance. The Rays averaged about 9,500 for home games last season, 28th in the majors and ahead of only Miami and Oakland.

St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch feels a new stadium in his city remains a possibility. Governmental officials have been working on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site.

“We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” Welch said in a statement. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Sternberg said the team will definitely explore options in the Tampa Bay area.

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