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Jorge Soler’s pinch-hit homer puts Atlanta Braves on cusp of World Series title

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ATLANTA — Jorge Soler had taken only 11 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter over the past three years. Nine of them occurred this season, including two in the playoffs, but the concept was still foreign to him. His strategy was to swing as often as he could.

The Atlanta Braves would utilize only relievers in Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night, which meant Soler could be summoned at any moment. So from the second inning on, Soler spent most of his time in the bowels of Truist Park in Atlanta taking repeated swings in the batting cage.

When his turn finally came in the bottom of the seventh, he quickly glanced at the scouting report of Houston Astros right-hander Cristian Javier, stepped into the on-deck circle, watched teammate Dansby Swanson tie the score with a fly ball off the brick wall beyond the right-field fence and told himself to look for something elevated. Four pitches in, Soler got a slider that drifted out over the plate and produced the home run that propelled the Braves to a 3-2 victory and put them one win away from their first baseball championship in 26 years.

“To me, to all of my family, it means a lot,” Soler, speaking in Spanish, said after the Braves took a 3-1 series lead on the Astros. “I wasn’t here at the start of the team. I was elsewhere. They traded me here, and they gave me the opportunity to be here, be part of this group.”

Swanson, a .248/.309/.439 hitter since the start of the regular season, and Soler, pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot because the National League rules prevent a designated hitter, became the first Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to belt back-to-back home runs in a World Series game, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.

Theirs just so happened to come at a crucial time, with the Braves trailing by a run, down to their final eight outs and the Astros’ high-end relievers in the game.

Soler’s batted ball — a 107 mph line drive that sailed just beyond the reach of Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez and prompted a scary collision — accounted for the first go-ahead pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning or later in World Series history since Ed Sprague of the Toronto Blue Jays did it against the Braves in Game 2 of the 1992 World Series.

The current Braves became the third team in World Series history to hit back-to-back, seventh-inning-or-later home runs to tie a game or take the lead, joining Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig for the New York Yankees in 1928. The man who surrendered those homers Saturday night, Javier, hadn’t allowed a run in his nine previous postseason innings.

Teams that take a 3-1 series lead have gone on to win a best-of-seven World Series 40 of 46 times. The Braves will look to do so at home on Sunday night — on the final night of October, at a place where they remain undefeated this postseason.

“I’m happy for our city that they can go through this, experience this,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who has spent his entire 44-year professional career with the same organization. “What a great time of year. For the city, the Braves County, to experience all this, for our players to experience it — it’s a win-win situation.”

The latest victory doesn’t happen without yet another big play by Eddie Rosario, the NLCS MVP who turned in the catch that changed the course of Saturday’s game.

The Braves had finally attained their first lead to begin the eighth inning, but with two outs, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve lifted a Luke Jackson slider out to left field, a little shallow of the sport where Soler’s ball landed. Rosario — 24 hours removed from watching the Astros’ first hit fall right in front of him in the eighth inning — sprinted back and felt the warning track beneath his feet. As he approached the fence, he shot his glove out and made the last-second catch that stunned his teammates.

Moments later, he was still on a high.

“I feel right now I am Super Rosario,” Rosario said. “I don’t see the ball. I throw the glove and catch the ball, everybody’s happy, I’m happy. It’s unbelievable what I did tonight. Wow, what a catch.”

Rosario was asked if there was a strategic element involved in not sticking his glove out until the very end and laughed off the question.

“It just happened,” Rosario said. “That was it.”

The Astros began Saturday’s game by loading the bases with one out against Braves opener Dylan Lee, a reliever who, in an effort to prevent a sleepless night, was not informed he would be starting this game until he arrived in the clubhouse earlier that afternoon. The Astros, a high-powered offense that has mustered only a .206/.291/.298 slash line in this series, produced only one run in that frame. Kyle Wright replaced Lee and got Carlos Correa to hit a soft grounder, then struck out Kyle Tucker and allowed only an Altuve solo homer over the next four innings.

The Braves struggled to get anything going against the crafty Zack Greinke, who navigated through four scoreless innings despite not being fully stretched out. But Swanson, who grew up roughly 20 miles away from Atlanta, brought their offense to life with his seventh-inning home run. He was already approaching second base as his batted ball cleared the right-field fence and shot his right index finger high into the air amid the roar of a sold-out crowd.

Now his Braves — an 88-win team that didn’t get hot until the stretch run and has been counted out ahead of every series it has played this month — are one win away from a championship.

“I’ve played that over and over and over again in my head a million times, whether it was for this team or just this moment in general,” Swanson said-of his homer. “There’s obviously been a lot of work that’s gone into this moment and a lot of dreams that have gone into this moment, and I’m just thankful for great parents and great family that have pushed me and believed in me to get me to this moment.”

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Kenneth Moffett, federal mediator of 1981 baseball strike and former MLBPA executive, dies at 90

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Kenneth Moffett, the federal mediator during the 1981 baseball strike who briefly succeeded Marvin Miller as the second head of the players’ association, has died. He was 90.

Moffett died Nov. 19 at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, said his wife, the former Mary Taddeo. He had been ill with dementia for about six months and the death certificate cited natural causes, she said Monday.

His death was first reported by The New York Times.

Moffett was part of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in 1980, when baseball players and owners reached an agreement that put off a work stoppage until the following year. As deputy director of the FMCS during the 50-day strike that interrupted the 1981 season, he shuttled between the parties, set up bargaining sessions and suggested frameworks for settlement.

He also worked at the FMCS during the August 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization against the Federal Aviation Administration. President Ronald Reagan ordered the firing of workers who did not return to their jobs.

Moffett said in 1994 that baseball negotiations were different from all other types of collective bargaining.

“It is done in a fishbowl,” Moffett told The Associated Press. “Every statement, every press release — anything — is for public consumption. In most negotiations, you don’t hear a peep until there’s a settlement.”

As the union’s 1994 strike deadline approached, Moffett said: “My gut reaction is it seems like nothing’s changed. … The issues are still the same.”

Moffett was hired in December 1982 as the second executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and took over on Jan. 1, 1983, when Miller retired ahead of his 66th birthday. Moffett was given a three-year contract but lasted just 10 1/2 months and was fired that Nov. 22 by the union’s executive board.

Donald Fehr, then the union’s general counsel, took over as acting executive director on Dec. 8, became executive director on a full-time basis in January 1986 and held the top spot until retiring in December 2009.

Moffett became assistant to the president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians in 1985. That union merged with the Communications Workers of America in 1994. He retired in 2003 as the CWA’s human resources director.

Moffett is survived by his fourth wife, whom he married in 1999; and three children from his first wife, Barbara: son Kenneth Jr., director of negotiations at the National Treasury Employees Union; son John; and daughter Laura Tornell. Moffett’s three previous marriages ended in divorce.

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The Mets spent, the Yankees didn’t and more

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When MLB free agency began, as I was comparing notes with agents and executives, a popular discussion was how many players would sign big deals before the collective bargaining agreement expired on Dec. 1. The common opinion was that only a couple of guys would sign for $75 million or more — and some legitimately thought zero would. They also expected slower-than-usual overall volume.

All of that turned out to be … wildly wrong!

Now we’re in the midst of a lockout that will likely freeze the market for months, but before Dec. 1, we had tons of action to a degree that no one expected. Over the course of about three weeks, teams handed out 51 MLB deals with guaranteed money totaling $1.974 billion. If you include extensions occurring in the 2021 calendar year, another $1.655 billion was spent, and nearly $1.1 billion of that went to five players: Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Jose Berrios, Francisco Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr. Let’s go on a journey of the lessons learned from this incredibly entertaining and active first part of the offseason.

The Mets went hard.
The 2021 season didn’t go that well for the New York Mets, who ended the season in third place in the National League East with 77 wins and watched the Atlanta Braves win the World Series. But since the clock turned to November, things have turned around. Robinson Cano‘s season-long suspension ended, Jacob deGrom should be healthy by the time the season starts, and they added Max Scherzer ($130 million guaranteed), Starling Marte ($78 million), Mark Canha ($26.5 million) and Eduardo Escobar ($20 million) in free agency. With these additions, FanGraphs’ depth charts now have the Mets in a dead heat with the best teams in baseball. The Mets, a team that posted 34.6 WAR in 2021, are projected to post 48.0 in 2022 — behind (and just slightly) only the Dodgers and Yankees.

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Buck O’Neil joins Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, others in being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame

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Buck O’Neil, a champion of Black ballplayers during a monumental, eight-decade career on and off the field, joined Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and three others in being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Former Minnesota Twins teammates Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat, a longtime television analyst after his playing days, also were chosen along with Bud Fowler by a pair of veterans committees.

Oliva and Kaat are the only living new members. Dick Allen, who died last December, fell one vote shy of election.

Kaat pitched 25 seasons with a host of teams, including the Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals, winning 283 games. He served as an analyst for the Yankees before moving on to the MLB Network.

The 16-member Early Days and Golden Days committees met separately in Orlando, Florida. The election announcement was originally scheduled to coincide with the big league winter meetings, which were nixed because of the MLB lockout.

The six newcomers will be enshrined in Cooperstown, New York, on July 24, 2022, along with any new members elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. First-time candidates David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez join Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling on the ballot, with voting results on Jan. 25.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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