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Injured Lance McCullers Jr. still looking to help Houston Astros

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HOUSTON — Sidelined for the AL Championship Series, Houston Astros ace Lance McCullers Jr. is heartbroken. He is trying to stay upbeat by helping the rest of his team in its matchup with the Boston Red Sox.

“It’s been a tough couple of days, but I can help lead this team in more ways than just pitching,” McCullers said before Game 2 on Saturday. “Help the guys with the scouting reports, watching the game, trying to pick up on what I can. I can be there for them in more ways than one.”

The Astros overcame a short start by Framber Valdez with a big performance by the bullpen and late homers by Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa in a 5-4 win in Game 1 on Friday night.

McCullers was left off Houston’s ALCS roster because of a flexor pronator muscle strain in his right arm. He pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in the Astros’ 6-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox in Game 1 of their AL Division Series. He started again in Game 4, but departed after four innings with what the team called forearm tightness.

McCullers said he felt something in his arm when he threw a slider to Gavin Sheets with two outs in the fourth in that game. He was able to finish the inning, but he knew something wasn’t right after leaving the game.

He was feeling better Saturday, but still isn’t able to throw. His availability for the World Series should the Astros advance is unclear.

“We’re just going to have to see how I progress, see how I’m feeling over the next couple of days,” he said. “We’re fighting against time a little bit. I’ve got to be able to throw before I just pitch in a game. So today is a better day than yesterday was, and so hopefully those days keep adding up, and we can see where I’m at.”

The 28-year-old McCullers signed an $85 million, five-year contract extension in March, and then had the best season of his career.

He set career highs with 13 wins, a 3.16 ERA and 185 strikeouts to lead the rotation with Justin Verlander out all season after Tommy John surgery.

McCullers was placed on Houston’s ALCS taxi squad so he can be in the dugout with the team and travel to Boston. Despite his efforts to help out in other ways, he’s struggling with the fact that he won’t be on the mound as the Astros try to reach their second World Series in three seasons.

“I want to be out there,” he said. “I feel like in a way I’ve kind of let the guys down. I know I can’t do anything about it, but it feels that way to me.”

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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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