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Will a dream Dodgers win set up another nightmare scenario for the Braves?

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LOS ANGELES — When Chris Taylor hit his third homer of the game in the seventh inning, Braves manager Brian Snitker sat in his dugout chair and stared, unblinking, at some random spot in the Dodger Stadium outfield. What was taking place in front of him, and his reaction to it, seemed comprised of unrelated elements. His face bore no detectable expression, and his body seemed to drift into torpor, as if by fixing his gaze and remaining stock-still he could convince himself none of this was happening. Or, if that failed, at least that it was happening to someone else.

Here come the questions. Here come the doubts. Here, improbably, come the Dodgers.

There will be a Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, and the way it felt after the Dodgers’ 11-2 win, there probably will be a Game 7. These things seem to happen that way — who knows why? — and now that the Dodgers have won seven straight elimination games over the past two postseasons, it’s justified to wonder if they set up these worst-case scenarios just so they can get out of them.

“I mean, we definitely don’t prefer elimination games,” said outfielder A.J. Pollock, who hit two homers to help set up at least one more. “We want to eliminate other teams.”

All of it feels kind of dumb, frankly, which is one of the thoughts that might have been running through Snitker’s mind as he watched a man who had been hitting .111 since Aug. 27 hit his third home run of the game from the dugout. Dumb that this series is heading back to Atlanta after the Dodgers spent the better part of four games playing like amateurs, dumb that the Braves couldn’t even put up a fight in Game 5 with the Dodgers’ pitching staff down to beaks and claws and fully rested ace Max Fried pitching for Atlanta, and especially dumb that the Dodgers’ offense — terrible all series — lost Justin Turner to injury in Game 4 and then came out of their shoes the next night to get 17 hits, five of them homers.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I’m happy it happened tonight. … I means, it’s … it’s baseball. Honestly, I’m happy to just give you guys a series. I expected our guys to fight and scratch and claw and I thought we did that.”

The Braves were here last year, up three games to one in the NLCS before losing three straight to end their season. Grand failure is so woven into the double helix of Atlanta sports history that one Atlanta reporter even threaded a “28-3” reference into a postgame question to Freddie Freeman.

“That’s going to be the narrative,” Freeman said with an air of resignation but not defeat. “It’s been brought up the last couple of days, so I don’t think we have a choice until we kill that narrative. We’re up 3-2 going home. That’s a great position to be in. I think we’re going to be just fine.”

After the game, Roberts and a parade of Dodger players took turns auditioning descriptions of Taylor’s uniquely quirky personality. They all commended his ability to simultaneously play baseball and shift his brain into neutral — “He’s just in the moment,” was the way Roberts put it — and A.J. Pollock broke the news that Taylor only gets passionate about two things: beer and surfing videos.

“He’s not a big guy for the drama,” Pollock said.

He took a curtain call after his third homer, though, after his teammates told him all the cheering and that “CT3” chant — frankly, it doesn’t really roll off the tongue — was intended to make him do just that. After the game, he made a run through all the postgame television and radio interviews on the field relying on smiles and shrugs, and by the time he reached the interview room whatever emotion and jubilation that had built up inside him had clearly dissipated. Asked what he was thinking as he headed to the plate in the eighth with a chance to hit his fourth homer, Taylor said, “I was trying not to think about it.”

Immediately after Kenley Jansen recorded the final out, Taylor jogged across the infield to hug Albert Pujols for at least the fourth time on the night. The Braves headed toward their clubhouse intent on convincing themselves having to win one of the next two remains the preferable position.

But over the course of the previous nine innings, the entire complexion of the series changed, and in mysterious ways. The Dodgers keep losing players like it’s some sort of macabre arcade game. It was Turner in Game 4 and pitcher Joe Kelly in Game 5. Kelly served as the Dodgers’ opener, and he threw 28 pitches — one of which Freddie Freeman hit over the center-field wall to give the Braves a 2-0 lead after three hitters — with a level of deliberation that bordered on obstinacy. With two outs and a 2-2 count to Adam Duvall, Kelly left with a biceps injury that Roberts said will end his season.

“Same with Justin, same with Max (Muncy), we’ve just going to have to figure it out,” Robert said. “That’s not to be dismissive, but that’s just where we’re at.”

But Kelly came out, and Evan Phillips came in, the first in a line of six Dodgers pitchers who pitched two or fewer innings but never game up more than one hit. For the first time in more than two weeks, Albert Pujols played first, effectively replacing Justin Turner, and he had two hits, a walk and scored twice on Taylor homers.

He took each 90-foot increment like he was barefoot and the basepaths were strewn with sharp, tiny rocks. It’s clear the man is still going to be able to hit when he’s 70; at this point, everything involving his swing happens above the waist, but his hands are still quick and the grown-man strength remains. And in another positive development for Pujols, he figures to still be running like the 41-year-old he is when he’s 70.

After the game, the Dodgers ran off the field and bounced down the dugout steps while the mariachi band continued to kill it from their post in the right-center field bleachers and a good percentage of the fans stuck around. The Dodgers didn’t salute them, though, or make any grand gestures after their final home game of the NLCS. They have two elimination games in Atlanta ahead of them, which could mean they’ve got ’em right where they want ’em. They didn’t need to say goodbye to Los Angeles — they apparently plan on being back.

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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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