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MLB playoffs 2021 – Inside Boston Red Sox center fielder Enrique Hernandez’s historic October stretch

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HOUSTON — When he was 13 years old, little Enrique Hernandez, always undersized and underappreciated, found himself glued to the television every night in October. “I never missed a playoff game,” he said, and that year in particular, 2004, had him rapt. For a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, baseball heroes abounded: Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada. At that moment, though, nobody was better than Carlos Beltran.

To see Beltran in the 2004 postseason was to see a painter rendering his masterwork. His potential blossomed, his talent radiated and his star glimmered. When he made an out, it was news. He carried the Houston Astros to the cusp of the World Series.

Seventeen years later, Hernandez — no longer undersized, now known as Kiké and finally appreciated — is turning in the sort of performance that he always believed existed inside of him. He believed it over the first seven years of his career when others didn’t, believed it when he landed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent this winter and believed it as they’ve ridden him, like the Astros did Beltran, to the verge of something historic.

Hernandez continued his epic streak Saturday with another home run in the Red Sox’s 9-5 victory over the Astros in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. It was his fifth in seven games this postseason, during which he has gone 16 for 32 with a .500/.514/1.094 line, the best seven-game stretch to start a playoff run since Beltran’s .448/.529/1.138 with six home runs. Hernandez has set first-seven-game records for the most total bases (35, beating Beltran’s 33) and extra-base hits (nine), alongside tying Hideki Matsui’s record hit total.

And best of all, he won the approval of perhaps the most hard-to-please teammate in his career. Chase Utley, the six-time All-Star second baseman with whom Hernandez played for four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is notoriously loath to lavish praise. In the midst of Hernandez’s jag, however, he sent his old pupil a single text message. There were no words. Just an emoji.

👍

“That,” Hernandez said, “is the biggest compliment in the world.”

Hernandez, 30, has bathed in plenty of acclaim from others. His Red Sox teammates. Opponents on the Tampa Bay Rays, who Boston ousted in the division series, as well as the Astros, who survived two of his home runs to win Game 1. Evaluators around the sport, who no longer wonder why Red Sox manager Alex Cora is slotting Hernandez in the No. 2 hole in a lineup that includes Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Kyle Schwarber.

“I always knew I was capable of this,” Hernandez told ESPN in the aftermath of Game 2. “It was just a matter of me getting the opportunity.”

And that, as much as anything, is the story of how Hernandez emerged as the breakout star of this postseason. It is a tale of resilience, of overcoming doubt, of chances taken and delivered upon — of a sport that, more than any other, allows players to redefine themselves long after their narratives have been written in ink.

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Enrique Hernandez ends the bottom of the second with a diving catch, and leads off the top of the third with a mammoth home run.

For Hernandez, it was always about what he wasn’t. He wasn’t Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor or Javier Baez, the jewels of his generation from Puerto Rico. He wasn’t a center fielder or shortstop or second baseman but rather a superutility player, consigned to filling gaps instead of finding himself consistently on a lineup card. He wasn’t part of the Astros future when he made it to the big leagues five years after they drafted him in 2009, so they traded him to the Miami Marlins, and he wasn’t part of their future, either, so they traded him to the Dodgers, and as many big hits as he got during his 142 postseason plate appearances for them, he wasn’t ever a big enough part of their present for his liking.

Hernandez wanted to play every day, full-time. And while he played most days over the last four seasons, it was in the sort of role that saw him consistently subbed in or out depending on the platoon advantage. He never shook the reputation in Los Angeles for hammering left-handed pitching and struggling against right-handers, even though over the last three years his OPS against both sides was nearly identical.

“When I went against right-handers,” Hernandez said, “I felt like I had to get four hits in one at-bat.”

It gnawed at his patience and, as much as he tried to remain positive, ate away at him. While the belief in himself resonated to his core, Hernandez’s levels of trust vacillated, sometimes by the day. He would tinker and tweak and go through stretches in which he wondered if his break was ever coming. He was always a good teammate, beloved in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, personable, a quintessential glue guy. And he made the Dodgers better with his versatility, contributing mightily to their postseason runs. His game-tying home run in Game 7 of the NLCS last season helped keep the Dodgers alive en route to their first World Series win in more than three decades.

At the same time, he knew there was more to him than a secondary role. He grew close to Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman who didn’t get full-time at-bats until he was 31. Turner preached persistence, perseverance. Hernandez heard the words and tried to listen. When he hit free agency following the 2020 season, the Red Sox recruited him more aggressively than anyone, with Cora — who as general manager had chosen Hernandez to play for Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic team — leading the charge.

Hernandez signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Red Sox and was told he’d play every day. He ping-ponged between second base and center field, and occasionally, when he struggled, Hernandez would text Turner seeking nuggets of advice. Turner’s words buoyed Hernandez, and before a rough bout with COVID-19 that kept him out for nearly two weeks between August and September, he was on pace to play a career high in games. Even after the down time, Hernandez logged 585 plate appearances, qualified for the batting title for the first time and put up nearly five Wins Above Replacement.

He also seemingly found his position. Hernandez locked down the center field role and has been brilliant there in October, tracking deep fly balls with aplomb, sprinting in and diving to snag tumbling line drives, and unleashing otherworldly throws that have been clocked as high as 97.5 mph. Of course, as much as his feet and glove have impressed — as good of an impression as he’s done at the position where Beltran defined himself — Hernandez’s bat remains the showpiece thus far.

Most impressive is the seeming inability of pitchers to find anything that confounds Hernandez. He is tagging fastballs, batting .350 with one home run. He is mauling everything else, going 9 for 12 with four home runs, three doubles and a 2.000 slugging percentage — yes, that’s two thousand — against sliders, curveballs, changeups and split-fingered fastballs. Since baseball began tracking pitches in 2008, no hitter had whacked seven extra-base hits against soft stuff during a single postseason. Hernandez has done it already and the postseason isn’t even halfway over.

Nothing, it seems, can stop Hernandez at this point — not even a nasty bout of food poisoning his wife, Mariana, suffered through during the trip to Houston. It’s back to Boston now, back to the comforts of home and Fenway Park, which will host Game 3 on Monday. The Red Sox, after their record fifth consecutive postseason game with 10-plus hits, stole home-field advantage with Game 2’s home run barrage — two grand slams preceded Hernandez’s blast — and could conceivably wrap up their fifth World Series berth since 2004 in front of their fans.

Boston never got to face Beltran in ’04, as the Astros, then in the National League, bowed out in the championship series to St. Louis. In his last five games that postseason, Beltran remained red hot, batting .412/.545/.824 as the Cardinals committed to walking him in more than 20% of his plate appearances. They did so with Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent — the same caliber of protection that backs Hernandez — hitting behind Beltran. So the notion of Hernandez being fed a diet of bad pitches isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Until he starts making outs, it might be the best hope the Astros have to navigate what they couldn’t have seen coming. Nobody did, really, but then that’s what makes Kiké Hernandez’s October thus far so special. It’s the sort of thing everyone, finally, can appreciate.

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Brad Ausmus joins Oakland A’s as bench coach for first-time manager Mark Kotsay

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Brad Ausmus, the former manager of the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Angels, has been hired as bench coach for the Oakland Athletics, providing some much-needed experience to the coaching staff of rookie manager Mark Kotsay.

The A’s finalized Kotsay’s coaching staff on Friday, also announcing the promotion of Tommy Everidge to major league hitting coach and the hiring of Chris Cron as an assistant hitting coach.

Ausmus, 52, managed the Tigers from 2014 to 2017, winning the American League Central at the beginning of that four-year stretch and finishing with a 314-332 regular-season record. The longtime major league catcher then went 72-90 in his only season as the Angels’ manager in 2019, a year tarnished by the sudden death of young pitcher Tyler Skaggs.

Everidge, 38, has spent the last eight years as a hitting coach in the A’s farm system and was originally drafted by the team in 2004. Cron, the father of Colorado Rockies first baseman C.J. Cron, spent the last eight years in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league system, most recently as the organization’s field coordinator and has compiled two decades’ worth of managing experience in the minor leagues.

The hirings prompted Darren Bush to move from hitting coach to third-base coach and Eric Martins to move from assistant hitting coach to first-base coach. Mike Aldrete will transition from first-base coach to quality control coach. Kotsay, 46, spent the last six years on the A’s coaching staff and was hired over the offseason to replace Bob Melvin as the team’s manager. The A’s allowed Melvin to opt out of the final year of his contract to join the San Diego Padres.

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Buster Olney’s Top 10s for 2022

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A lot of the credit for the Atlanta Braves’ postseason surge was rightly attributed to the midseason deals made by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, because without Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson, Atlanta would not have hosted a championship parade.

But what may have been lost in that narrative was just how much organizational bedrock continued to develop underneath those additions. Austin Riley, just 24 years old, became one of the National League’s best players. Max Fried, who turns 28 next week, posted a 1.74 ERA in his last 14 regular-season starts. Ian Anderson, just 23, now has a full season of experience. The talented Kyle Wright, 26, may have reached a crossroads in his development during the postseason, with moments on which he can build confidence. Dansby Swanson had 62 extra-base hits last season and has developed into one of the sport’s most consistent defenders. Ozzie Albies is a multitalented star. And Ronald Acuña Jr. was the front-runner for NL MVP at the time he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

As the National League Championship Series began in October, the Braves were considered something of a long shot against the Los Angeles Dodgers — and similarly, they were betting underdogs against the Houston Astros in the World Series. So underestimate them now at your own peril.

The Braves’ ownership still needs to open its fattened coffers and pay Freddie Freeman. If that happens, Atlanta may actually have a better team in 2022 than that group honored in the championship parade, and have a legit shot at becoming the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back titles.

Early in 2022, with a lot of players unsigned and many more trades to come after the next labor agreement is forged, here are MLB’s top 10 teams:

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Sources — MLB makes first labor proposal since lockout, awaits union’s counter as threat of postponed spring training looms

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Major League Baseball on Thursday made its first labor proposal since locking out players Dec. 2, focusing on a narrow set of issues that did little to encourage players and heightened the likelihood of spring training being postponed, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.

During the sides’ first meeting that discussed core economic issues in 43 days, the league proposed changes to the arbitration system for players with two-plus years of service, tweaked its proposed draft lottery and offered the ability for teams to earn draft picks if top prospects find early success in the major leagues, according to sources.

MLB hoped the proposal would spur discussion with the union after the sides’ failed negotiations leading up to the lockout led to six weeks of inaction.

Topics not discussed Thursday that have been in the players’ suite of asks included changes to the competitive-balance tax and raising the minimum salary.

While the league indicated before the lockout that it was not open to considering free agency before six years or changes to the current revenue-sharing plan, the union could include both in a counterproposal.

The timing of the union’s rejoinder could be paramount to salvaging the mid-February reporting date for pitchers and catchers, though multiple sources fear that negotiations will pick up closer to the end of the month, when the threat of losing regular-season games becomes more realistic.

The disappointment from players in the league’s proposal Thursday wasn’t altogether unexpected. MLB offered a significant revamping of its system in paying players with between two and three years of major league service time, offering an increase in money going to those players through a formula that would determine their pay.

Currently, the salaries of two-plus players are bifurcated. The top 22% of players in the class who have the most service time are designated as “Super 2s” — and receive an extra year of arbitration eligibility, during which they are allowed to negotiate their salaries. The other 78%, regardless of performance, can be renewed by teams at just above the minimum salary. While MLB’s proposal would eliminate Super 2s in the future, sources said, players who currently have one day of service would be able to choose between the current system that includes Super 2s and the performance-based proposal.

MLB’s proposal, sources said, would eliminate Super 2s. Between that and the implementation of a formula — which MLB previously proposed for all arbitration-eligible players — the immediate reaction from players, sources said, was negative, with fears that implementing a scale for two-plus players would at some point open the door to the same in other arbitration-eligible players.

Currently, arbitration salaries are determined by a precedent-based system in which players compare their statistics to past players’ and negotiate their salaries. The league’s attempt Thursday to address service-time manipulation — a practice in which teams keep players in the minor leagues in attempts to gain an extra year before they reach free agency or keep them from reaching Super 2 status — came via rewarding teams that promote top prospects who find success, according to sources.

MLB proposed awarding a draft pick if a team places a Top 100 prospect on its opening day roster, then the player wins Rookie of the Year or finishes in the top 3 of MVP or Cy Young voting within his first three seasons, sources said. The offer included the possibility of a pick in an international draft, sources said, indicating that the league is continuing to push for a change in the signing of non-domestic amateurs. A team, sources said, could reap only one pick per player, meaning if he won Rookie of the Year and then MVP, the second award would not lead to a second pick.

Players’ skepticism toward the idea mirrored that of when the league proposed using the Wins Above Replacement system from FanGraphs to replace the arbitration system. While the idea of incentivizing teams to break camp with their best 26 players is a goal of players, doing so through the opinions of outsiders — in this case the baseball writers who have turned prospect lists into a successful industry — did not appeal to them, sources said.

The third leg of the league’s proposal included a tweak to its draft lottery, which it had previously proposed with three teams, to which the union countered asking for eight. MLB stuck with three teams but offered for a team to be ineligible for the lottery in three consecutive seasons, according to sources.

MLB also continued to push for a 14-team playoff, as opposed to the 12-team version the union proposed, and offered a universal designated hitter, sources said.

Previous discussions stalled without much movement toward a deal. The league had offered to eliminate direct draft-pick compensation — which penalizes teams that sign top free agents — while the union had accepted expanded playoffs.

MLB proposed to increase the Competitive Balance Threshold (CBT) from $210 million to $214 million but added penalties for teams that exceed it, while the union said it would allow teams to place advertising patches on uniforms.

A chasm remains with most of the core economic issues. The players had proposed reaching free agency and arbitration earlier, hiking the CBT threshold to $245 million and amending revenue sharing. Which of those, if any, are the union’s greatest priority could become clearer in its next offer.

And that may offer a greater sense of whether the game’s first work stoppage in more than a quarter century takes the early days of spring training as its only casualty or continues into the regular season.

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