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Tired Max Scherzer exits in 5th, Julio Urias pitches 8th as Los Angeles Dodgers lose Game 2 of NLCS to Atlanta Braves

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ATLANTA — Max Scherzer isn’t usually agreeable to being removed in the middle of a baseball game. It’s the type of situation that visibly enrages him and often sends his manager back into the dugout. But when Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts emerged onto the field at Truist Park in Sunday’s fifth inning, with one on and one out and the Atlanta Braves‘ lineup due to bat a third time, Scherzer nodded in agreement. He told Roberts that he “gave it all I had” and dutifully handed over the baseball.

“My arm was dead,” Scherzer said after watching his Dodgers suffer a second consecutive walk-off loss and fall to the Braves 5-4 in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. “I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired.”

Three days earlier, Scherzer pitched the final inning out of the bullpen to close out the San Francisco Giants in the deciding game of the prior round. He was initially scheduled to start Saturday’s Game 1, but he and the Dodgers agreed on an extra day. And when that day came, Scherzer still didn’t feel right.

Julio Urias will now confront a similar situation.

Urias, lined up to start Game 4, was surprisingly used to pitch the eighth inning of Game 2, with the Dodgers clinging to a two-run lead. Blake Treinen, the Dodgers’ most reliable reliever, needed only nine pitches to navigate the seventh. And Brusdar Graterol and Kenley Jansen were still available. But Roberts said using Urias “was the best option at that point in time.”

The top of the Braves’ lineup was due up once again, starting with the left-handed-hitting Eddie Rosario and Freddie Freeman, giving a left-hander like Urias the platoon advantage. Roberts, the Dodgers’ pitching coaches and key members of the front office had talked about deploying Urias in a scenario like this during one of the first two games. They kept him from throwing his typical between-starts bullpen session because of it.

“He was prepared for it,” Roberts said of Urias. “It was a perfect spot for him.”

But the Braves tied the game off Urias in the bottom of the eighth, getting three hits from the first four members of their lineup. And they won it off Graterol and Jansen in the ninth, with Rosario hitting the line drive that ricocheted off Corey Seager‘s glove and scored Dansby Swanson. Now the Dodgers face a troubling situation — down 0-2 in this series, with questions surrounding how an unconventional relief appearance might affect Urias in a crucial Game 4 start.

Roberts downplayed that.

“Not at all,” he said when asked whether the relief appearance would impact Urias’ effectiveness the next time he pitches. “That’s why he was ready, available [in Saturday’s Game 1], didn’t throw a side — to prepare for one of these two games.”

The Dodgers used Urias in something of a hybrid role over the previous two years, then made him a traditional starting pitcher in 2021 and watched him go 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA over the course of 32 starts in his age-24 season. But their unconventional postseason methods confronted Urias once again leading up to Game 5 of the NLDS, when they informed him of a plan to open with two relievers — Corey Knebel and Graterol — before sending him out for his scheduled start. Three days later, they used him out of the bullpen.

Scherzer believes Urias’ arm will hold up well, largely because he threw only 59 pitches in the start before his relief appearance — 51 fewer than the amount Scherzer did before his.

“You gotta look at the pitch counts over the past couple starts to really evaluate how you recover,” Scherzer said. “And so for Julio — he’s coming from a different spot, a lower pitch count, so you can bet that he’s going to have a fresher arm and that he should be full-go when he gets the start.”

Scherzer, 37, did something similar when he faced the Dodgers in the 2019 NLDS with the Washington Nationals but was able to get up to 109 pitches in the start that followed his relief appearance. Scherzer’s arm also felt tired as he warmed up in the bullpen heading into that game, but he said it loosened up after he got to around 45 pitches.

On this night, that never occurred.

Scherzer could only feel his arm tighten further after the third inning. Upon finishing the fourth, he told Roberts that if the following inning was too taxing, he needed to be pulled. He noticed that the bottom two spots of the lineup were due up before Rosario and Freeman came to bat again and figured Alex Vesia, a young left-handed reliever, would become a better option by that point.

Vesia kept the Braves scoreless, working around a leadoff single with back-to-back strikeouts. Joe Kelly followed with a scoreless sixth inning. Then Roberts went with Treinen, his usual setup man, in the seventh, a clear indication that Urias would handle the eighth. It had all lined up the way the Dodgers scripted, then it all unraveled. And now one must wonder about the cost of it all.

The Dodgers lost both games in Atlanta because they went a combined 2-for-18 with nine strikeouts when hitting with runners in scoring position, not because of the pitching decisions. But home teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win said series 84% of the time, and all that matters for the Dodgers is how they overcome those odds for a second consecutive year against these Braves.

In Game 3 they’ll have Walker Buehler to face Charlie Morton, one of the most decorated postseason pitchers in recent memory. In Game 4, Urias — who blew past his previous career high in innings during his first start of August — will take the ball under unideal circumstances. In Game 5, they’ll probably have to stage another bullpen game.

The Dodgers were heavy favorites heading into this series, and all of a sudden they’re reeling.

“If you look at both clubs, as far as usage and leverage uses, they’re in the same position we are,” Roberts said. “But the thing is that they’ve got a two-game lead in the series.”

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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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