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Atlanta Beats Milwaukee to Reach NLCS

ATLANTA — And in the fourth game, the offenses finally erupted.

Until Tuesday, the National League division series between Atlanta and Milwaukee had been nothing but pitching masterpieces, with three games that saw a total of nine runs. Game 4, the first of the series with a season’s fate at stake, brought out the bats at last.

By night’s end, after an evening of power and pinch-hitting and, yes, some doses of pretty good pitching, Atlanta had beaten Milwaukee, 5-4, and advanced to the National League Championship Series for the second consecutive year.

“Runs were hard to come by,” said Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s first baseman, “but when they were hard to come by we still pulled out two wins and we were able to do it today.”

Indeed, Atlanta showed Tuesday that it could do it even after failing to strike first.

In the fourth inning, Avisail Garcia, the right-handed-hitting Milwaukee outfielder, jumped at a fastball Charlie Morton fired to begin the at-bat for a single to left. Morton’s errant pickoff attempt let Garcia scoot to second, where he stayed when Luis Urias walked on five pitches.

With one out, Omar Narváez lifted a fastball into center for a single that scored Garcia and moved Urias to third. Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee’s No. 8 hitter, promptly turned a sinker into a single to give the Brewers a 2-0 lead.

On Friday, two runs were enough for Milwaukee. On Saturday and Monday, they were enough for Atlanta.

But any ambitions Milwaukee had to sustain that trend vanished in the inning’s bottom half, when, with the bases loaded, the Atlanta pinch-hitter Eddie Rosario swaggered into the batter’s box.

A slider went foul. A fastball became a called strike. Another fastball, another foul, still an 0-2 count with two outs. Rosario then brought Truist Park to life, connecting with a fastball and sending it toward shallow center, tying the game.

Of course, Rowdy Tellez, the man whose home run off Morton had decided Game 1, was due in the fifth inning. Christian Yelich singled. Garcia swung at, and missed, three consecutive sliders from A.J. Minter.

Minter stuck with the slider when Tellez approached. This time, he hit it 448 feet for a home run.

Atlanta offered a far less glamorous or speedy response in its half of the fifth — it included a fielder’s choice off the slightly-cooled-but-still-hot bat of Joc Pederson and a single to right — but tied the game again.

“You could tell the team is hungry to take the next step and keep advancing and progressing,” Rosario said.

Milwaukee turned to one of its fearsome faces, the left-handed reliever Josh Hader, in the eighth. With a 1.23 earned-run average in 60 games this season, along with his third All-Star selection, Hader had dazzled Milwaukee as a strikeout machine.

But Freeman doesn’t succumb to dazzle easily.

Hader, whose slider had already tormented two Atlanta batters on Tuesday, offered another and Freeman took a sweeping, powerful cut at it.

Milwaukee’s hopes of staying alive in the series narrowed when the ball reached the stands in left-center — as it seemed destined to do from the moment Freeman made contact — and the stadium, which had already echoed through the night with Atlanta’s signature chants and taunts, roared anew.

“I didn’t know if he was going slider-happy,” Freeman said of Hader, “but I just kind of looked up and away to keep me from swinging at the slider down and away, and luckily he threw one up there.”

Atlanta and Milwaukee entered Game 4 testing radically different approaches to postseason starting pitching. Atlanta sent out Morton, who had thrown six innings in Milwaukee on Friday, after Manager Brian Snitker invoked the teachings of a man who coached as early as the 1950s to explain his choice in the 21st century.

“This wasn’t short rest — it was the norm, back until we made it not,” Snitker said. “Back in Johnny Sain’s day when he was a pitching coach, he was all for guys getting two days and then pitching.”

Craig Counsell of Milwaukee, it seemed, could hardly harbor such a thought, much less act on it: He ruled out deploying Corbin Burnes, the Cy Young Award contender who allowed two hits in six innings on Friday, for the Brewers’ must-win matchup.

“He wanted to do it, but we had to make sure he was physically ready to do it,” Counsell, whose club had largely relied on a six-man rotation during the regular season, said before the game. “He’s just not ready to do it.”

That left Milwaukee with Eric Lauer, a left-hander who had last pitched on Oct. 1, to face an Atlanta lineup filled with right-handers.

Morton lasted three and a third innings and gave up two runs on four hits. He struck out five. Lauer did not stick around much longer; he pitched three and two-thirds innings, surrendering four hits and allowing two runs.

Atlanta used seven pitchers on Tuesday, and Milwaukee sent five to the mound during a game that lasted almost four hours.

“In the moment right now, we’re all really disappointed,” Counsell said afterward. “And it’s hard to get past the disappointment right now sitting here right now. It just is. But I think in the end we had big goals. We didn’t quite get there. But you win 95 games, it’s a special group, and they did accomplish some special things.”

In the Atlanta clubhouse, the Champagne was spewing — and planning for the N.L.C.S., which will start on Saturday, would wait just a little bit into the future.

Hours before Tuesday’s first pitch, Major League Baseball announced that Atlanta’s leadoff hitter, Jorge Soler, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Cristian Pache replaced Soler, who hit .269 for Atlanta this season after a July trade from Kansas City, on the division series roster, and Atlanta shuffled its lineup to put Dansby Swanson atop the order. Under baseball’s health protocols, Soler could return during the N.L.C.S.

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Disappointing Race? Reframe It.

Call it the great reframing.

After a big race, professional athletes and amateurs often face the same challenge: how to react when the run doesn’t go according to Plan A, B or C.

It’s something Ryan Hall knows well. A two-time Olympian, and the only American to run a marathon in under 2 hours 5 minutes, Hall has had to strengthen that mental muscle as an athlete and now as a coach to runners including his wife, Sara Hall, the second-fastest female marathoner in American history.

“I went through this process throughout my career, and it’s one I continue to cultivate as a coach,” Ryan Hall said over the phone last week. “When you have a bad race, you don’t want to talk about it to your co-workers or peers. But I’ve learned that actually every single one of those conversations is an opportunity to reframe this narrative in my own mind and with other people.”

It can take time. Hall points to his 10th-place marathon finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as one of the most difficult disappointments of his career. He went into the race as a podium contender and was absolutely dejected at the finish. He is able to see that experience in a positive light now, he said, but it took him three years after the race to get there. “It’s a learned skill,” he said.

For some people, talking about a disappointing race with others can be an isolating experience, said Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist. He calls it disenfranchised grief. “We use that term when the loss of something may not be widely understood, and we see that a lot with amateur runners,” Ross said. “The marathon is so important for us that when it’s done, the general public, our family and friends, they don’t understand it. Why is it so hard?”

After this year’s Chicago Marathon and Boston Marathon — both of which were run in warm weather, slowing down athletes — many runners were eager to reframe how they thought about their races.

Sara Hall was among them. After failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at the U.S. marathon trials last year, she refocused on another big goal: setting an American record. She ran the London Marathon — an elite-only event held last year on Oct. 4 instead of its usual April date — in a personal best, 2:22:01, placing second. On Dec. 20, she raced in the Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz. (she races relentlessly), finishing in 2:20:32, the second-fastest marathon run by an American woman.

She was just under one minute off the American record — 2:19:36, set at the London Marathon by Deena Kastor in 2004. She targeted the 2021 Chicago Marathon with the record in mind.

“It’s hard not to envision it going a certain way,” she said, days after finishing in third place in Chicago with a time of 2:27:19. “I envisioned a great weather day, that I would be in the hunt to win, to set an American record.”

Unlike professional athletes in many sports who have the opportunity to make up for a disappointing performance almost weekly, many runners compete in fewer than half a dozen races a year. At the Tokyo Olympics, some athletes cried openly when they were disappointed by race results. Others were able to quickly reframe their narratives by the time they posted to social media.

“The word disappointed doesn’t quite feel strong enough,” Scott Fauble wrote on Instagram after his 16th-place finish at the Boston Marathon on Monday. “I don’t think I need to belabor that fact, so I’ll sign off with some positives. The crowds were amazing — you guys carried me home those last 10 miles. My body feels generally whole. There will be more races in the future — more chances to live up to my expectations.”

“This race certainly wasn’t everything we’d hoped for,” Reed Fischer posted after his ninth-place finish at the Chicago Marathon, “but it’s a massive step in the right direction and proof (to me, at least), that I belong at this stage and in this event.”

In this process, Ross said, professionals and amateurs alike are able to normalize feeling two things at once: sadness and gratitude.

“I think there is a really powerful shift that we need to make between outcome goals and performance standards,” Ross said. Outcome goals are usually time or place goals. Performance goals can be much more about mentality.

“When the day is not your day, we get lost and upset because we are able to recognize that the outcome goal is out of reach. That’s when falling on performance standards is so important. It’s less about the outcome. It’s how you show up.”

It’s a concept that Sara Hall took to heart in the days after the Chicago Marathon. She loves being process focused, looking to little victories and identifying the next goal.

“Out there, you have to do whatever you can to stay positive, and I did stay positive the whole time,” she said. “That was a win in itself. I told myself I was still in it. I focused on how good my stride felt and how grateful I was to be in the race.”

It will be no surprise to see her show up again.

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Boston Found Garrett Whitlock in the Yankees System. Blame Instagram.

The Jeep Wrangler with the Yankees tire cover became a familiar sight at the Central Alabama Baseball Academy in 2020.

The vehicle belonged to Garrett Whitlock, who received the navy cover with the interlocking “NY” insignia as a gift after the Yankees drafted him in the 18th round in 2017. Whitlock drove the Jeep to his job as one of the academy’s pitching coaches, a paid gig he picked up while recovering from Tommy John surgery amid a minor league season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. He frequented the travel program’s facilities, often throwing bullpens as he restored his arm’s strength.

So when the Red Sox scooped up the right-hander with the fourth pick in the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 10, 2020, those at the academy instantly noticed the naked tire when he arrived later that day.

“It was pretty funny,” said the academy’s founder, and former minor league catcher, Kennon McArthur, who employed Whitlock for about six months. “Getting picked up by the rival.”

Whitlock was a revelation for Boston in 2021 after the Yankees opted to protect other pitchers on their 40-man roster. The 25-year-old recorded a 1.96 E.R.A. and struck out 27.2 percent of the batters he faced in the regular season. He threw three and a third scoreless, high-leverage innings in Boston’s division series against the Tampa Bay Rays and contributed two scoreless innings in the team’s Game 2 win in the American League Championship Series on Saturday. In the biggest gut punch to the Yankees, however, he was on the mound, working around a solo homer to close out Boston’s wild-card game win over his former club.

Whitlock hadn’t pitched above Class AA before this season, yet he has stepped up as the most valuable reliever for a team with championship aspirations. Just don’t tell him that.

“I’m still just trying to earn my spot on the team,” Whitlock said of his lofty status despite his limited résumé.

Recently Whitlock said he had joked with Chris Messina, Boston’s strength coach, about how he was officially a member of the team now that the regular season had been completed, thus finishing off the terms of the Rule 5 draft, in which a player has to stick with the team that chooses him all year or be returned to his original club. All the Yankees received for the young pitcher was $100,000.

“I joked, ‘You’re stuck with me now,’” Whitlock said.

While Whitlock comes off as unassuming, Manager Alex Cora immediately saw promise in the young pitcher and said the decision to keep Whitlock around was easy back in spring training.

“We saw him throwing a bullpen and I was like, ‘This kid’s making the team,’” Cora said. “He’s A-plus. He’s great. Talent-wise, you saw it throughout the season.”

The Sox knew about Whitlock’s successful rehab from elbow surgery thanks to social media. He had documented his recovery on Instagram, sharing progressively more intense practice sessions while clad in Yankees apparel.

“Instagram gets a shout out,” Cora said after Whitlock closed out Game 4 of their division series against the Chicago White Sox with two shutout innings. “I’m glad that some of the scouts have Instagram and saw him throwing a bullpen.”

Whitlock said he “never” imagined he would be in such a high-leverage role for the Red Sox.

Before Game 4 of the division series, he recounted the day he officially made the Red Sox. He was in the weight room at Boston’s spring training complex when Cora told him they needed to talk. “This is going to be one of two things,” Whitlock naturally thought. He and Cora joined a Red Sox contingent that included Chaim Bloom, the team’s chief baseball officer, along with Dave Bush, the pitching coach, Jason Varitek, a game-planning coordinator, and Kevin Walker, the bullpen coach.

“Hey, have you got any plans for April 1?” Whitlock remembers Bloom asking in reference to opening day. “We’d love to have you out there.”

Whitlock described making the team as the most memorable moment from a season full of special ones. But it wasn’t until months later that he truly believed he belonged in the majors.

It was Sept. 12, and he had just surrendered a walk-off home run to Leury Garcia, a utility player for the White Sox. The latest stumble in a rough start to the month left Whitlock sitting alone in the visitor’s clubhouse bathroom at Guaranteed Rate Field. “I was down on myself,” he recalled.

Then Kiké Hernandez walked in, ready with a pep talk. Hernandez reminded Whitlock that he had been a pillar of Boston’s bullpen. He would remain one.

“He was just like: ‘Hey, man, you’ve been huge for us all year. You’re going to continue to be huge for us,’” Whitlock said. “Once he said that, that gave me a lot of confidence.”

Lately, Whitlock is trying to “soak up everything.” It has been a year of considerable change, frequent firsts and heightened expectations. “You never know if this will happen again,” he said of his surreal season. As McArthur framed it, Whitlock went from “being an injured minor league player to a stud in the big leagues.” Whitlock doesn’t plan on losing sight of that.

“If I ever have a day where I’m just like, ‘Oh, it’s another day,’ that’s the day you come and take me out,” he said. “I never want to take a day for granted ever again.”

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With Use of Openers, Pitching Six Innings Feels Like a Lot

ATLANTA — There are 38 metal flags running up and down the light poles above right field at Truist Park, saluting standout seasons for the home team. A dozen flags signify titles won before the modern World Series, which seems like résumé padding for the franchise now known as the Atlanta Braves.

But there they are, starting in 1872, when a slim right-hander named Al Spalding started all 48 games for the Braves’ ancestors, the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association. He piled up 404⅔ innings that season, and two years later topped 600.

Max Fried is now Spalding’s spiritual progeny. On Saturday he worked six innings in the opener of the National League Championship Series, a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fried also worked six innings in the last round, against the Milwaukee Brewers. This is a major accomplishment in the modern playoffs.

“I think six innings in the postseason is huge for a guy, just the energy they expend mentally and physically,” Manager Brian Snitker said. “I feel like we have three guys that can do that.”

The others are Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton, and the Dodgers have three of their own in Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. On the American League side, though, the rotations are falling apart.

The Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros used eight pitchers apiece in Game 1 of the A.L.C.S., and the Dodgers used eight on Saturday. That was out of necessity, though, because Urias and Scherzer had just pitched on Thursday to help close out the Giants in San Francisco.

“Clayton Kershaw would be starting this game; unfortunately, he’s hurt right now,” Scherzer said on Saturday afternoon. “So this isn’t by design. As a whole, we looked to have four starters going into the postseason, but we don’t. And so we’re just trying to navigate this as best as possible.”

The Dodgers have so much depth that three Cy Young Award winners are off the playoff roster: Kershaw is recovering from a forearm injury; David Price was dropped for this round after struggling down the stretch; and Trevor Bauer is under investigation for sexual assault. Each of those pitchers is making more than $30 million this season.

In Game 1, a collection of mustachioed middlemen followed the opener and throttled Atlanta, which fanned 14 times without a walk. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s sunny superstar, whiffed four times against four different pitchers. No matter: Third baseman Austin Riley, who had homered earlier, drilled a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth.

The game was played crisply, mainly because all those pitchers had good stuff and knew it. They filled up the strike zone, nearly making this the first game in N.L.C.S. history without a walk (alas, the Dodgers drew one in the ninth). There were four stolen bases — even a sacrifice bunt! — and the whole thing seemed shorter than its 3 hours 4 minutes. That is when baseball is at its best.

The A.L.C.S., meanwhile, has been a mess, a bloated double feature with a running time of 495 minutes. Boston’s Chris Sale, who returned from Tommy John surgery in August, has made two playoff starts and gotten nine outs. Besides the Red Sox’ Nathan Eovaldi — a sound bet for five innings, if rarely for six — no starter on either team would be called durable.

Some of this is understandable, natural attrition at the end of a long season that followed a very short one. But part of it is on purpose. Pitchers aren’t supposed to be Al Spalding, or even Al Leiter, anymore.

“You’re limiting even your best to 18 outs now,” said the former pitcher Ron Darling, who is calling the N.L.C.S. for TBS. “So if we lower our expectations from 27 outs, then a four-inning start in the postseason is a very good start.”

Teams focus more intently than ever on matchups, deciding in advance whose pitch mix might disrupt a particular hitter. With so many off-days built into the October schedule, most relievers are available every game, and managers — with heavy input from the front office — seem eager to deploy them. Even veteran starters understand the difference.

“As players, all we want to do is win, so if you tell us this is going to help us win, yeah, we’re all on board, let’s go for it,” said Scherzer, who allowed one run in the N.L. wild-card game but was lifted in the fifth inning.

“To speak on the other side of the coin, from a fan’s perspective and baseball as a whole, if you say: ‘Is this something that we want the game to go into? Do we want to see this in the regular season?’ My answer is no. No, you don’t,” Scherzer said. “You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”

He added: “But when you get down to elimination games, you get into postseason games, you do whatever it takes to win. So, to me, I think this is more of a question in the off-season if we want to address it.”

Scherzer, who is part of the executive subcommittee for the players’ union, likes the idea of a rule change that could theoretically limit the use of an opener by tying the starting pitcher to the designated hitter. Called the “double hook” by the Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark, the rule would mandate that a team lose its designated hitter as soon as it pulls its starter.

The viability of that idea, and others, will be debated during off-season negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. But as sensible as the opener can be as a strategy, it is still a jarring innovation.

Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who used Corey Knebel as an opener for Game 5 of the division series and Game 1 of the N.L.C.S., resisted the idea when the Tampa Bay Rays first used it in 2018. Beginning a game with a reliever seemed to be against baseball’s spirit.

“I hated it,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t baseball. I like to see the starters, and starters go deep. But when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line. So it doesn’t matter how appealing it is or what it is. The goal is to prevent runs.”

The Dodgers have done better than any other team, with a 3.01 earned run average in the regular season and a 2.05 mark across their first seven playoff games. Their problem now is that Atlanta is also rich in pitching. It is a franchise tradition.

“It’s just kind of the way I was raised in the game,” Snitker said. “I came up with the Braves here and we were all about starting pitching. I don’t know any better.”

The N.L. teams have the arms to keep this series entertaining — or at least to keep it from morphing into the slog we saw in Houston. Just don’t expect the starters, even the really good ones, to stick around too long.

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