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St. Louis Cardinals’ season pretty much ended with one disastrous inning

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WASHINGTON — The St. Louis Cardinals threw 23,884 pitches in the regular season. They threw 756 more in eliminating the Braves in the division series. It took just 33 pitches in the third inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for their season to unravel, however, sending the Cardinals to the brink of elimination against the Washington Nationals.

Here’s how one frustrating inning, full of some bad luck and some ground balls with eyes, unfolded:

Pitch No. 4: Down two games in the series, but with ace Jack Flaherty on the mound, the Cardinals were feeling confident about their chances behind a pitcher who owned a 1.12 ERA since the All-Star break. Flaherty gets ahead of No. 8 hitter Victor Robles 1-2, but Robles fouls off a 96 mph fastball.

Pitch No. 5: Robles fouls off another 96 mph heater. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt goes over to the railing, but the pop-up falls harmlessly into the first row of seats. There is a ramp between the railing and seats, so he can’t reach into the stands to make the catch.

Pitch No. 6: Flaherty throws a slider. Right-handed batters had hit .111 against his slider in the second half. It’s become one of the best, most devastating sliders in the game, one that racks up both strikeouts and worm burners. Robles hits it up the middle — not hard, just 76.5 mph, a ball with an expected batting average, according to Statcast data, of .220. But the ball scoots past a diving Paul DeJong for a leadoff single.

“I didn’t really execute that slider to Robles,” Flaherty said. “He put a good at-bat together. He put the ball in play. Sometimes you find a hole, so he found a hole there.”

Pitch No. 8: Stephen Strasburg lays down a perfect bunt down the first-base line, right on the dirt between the grass and the chalk. The Cards have no chance to get the speedy Robles at second base as Strasburg execute the sacrifice.

Pitch No. 13: After getting ahead of Trea Turner 0-2 with two two-seamers just off the plate, Flaherty fires a 96 mph four-seamer past Turner for a foul tip and strike three for the second out. At this point, it looks good for Flaherty and the Cards. He’s at 44 pitches in the game, he’s recorded three strikeouts and he’s one out away from keeping the game tied at zero after three.

Pitch No. 14: Leadoff man Adam Eaton swings at the first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, and sends a two-hopper to the left of second base. The exit velocity registered at 105.5 mph, but because the first bounce came in front of home plate, it wasn’t exactly a rocket up the middle. The expected batting average was just .240. Eaton is a spray hitter, so there’s no shift in play here, and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was shaded toward the bag. The ball bounces into center field and Robles jogs home with the first run of the game.

Pitch No. 18: With Flaherty ahead in the count 1-2, Anthony Rendon grounds a 96 mph fastball foul past the third-base bag. In Rendon’s first at-bat, Flaherty got ahead with two quick strikes, then missed on four straight sliders low and away. After the hard foul ball, the next pitch will be …

Pitch No. 19: … a slider, low and away, bottom of the strike zone. Good pitch, good location. Rendon basically throws his bat at the ball and lofts a weak fly ball to medium-shallow left field, toward the line. Marcell Ozuna, a Gold Glove winner in 2017, hustles after it and slides feet first. He’s in position to make the catch, but the ball falls out of his glove. Eaton sprints home from first. It wasn’t a routine play, but Rendon’s fly ball had a hit probability of just .180. It is generously ruled a double and the Nationals lead 2-0.

“Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” Flaherty lamented, “but that’s what he does, that’s why he is what he is.”

Still, Ozuna had it … and then didn’t. “A tough play, tough play,” Wong said. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play, as soon as you hit the ground there’s going to be some kind of movement and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove. The breaks haven’t been going our way.”

The Cardinals’ defense has been rock solid all year — a key reason they made the playoffs after a three-season drought. Ozuna’s metrics in left are very good: plus-8 defensive runs saved. “It’s a play that he’s clearly capable of making, but it’s not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make,” manager Mike Shildt said.

The inning continues.

Pitch No. 23: Juan Soto takes a slider on the inside corner for a strike. The count is 2-2.

Pitch No. 24: Soto fights off a curveball at the knees to stay alive. When you post a 0.91 ERA in the second half of the season, you’re getting everybody out: righties, lefties, superstars, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. It doesn’t really matter much. Left-handed batters hit .147 against Flaherty in the second half, including just .118 against his curveball. It was a good pitch, credit Soto for the foul ball.

Pitch No. 25: Soto fouls off a slider.

Pitch No. 26: Fastball up in the zone. Ball three.

Pitch No. 27: Curveball below the knees. Good, patient at-bat here by Soto, although with Rendon on second base, a walk to Soto isn’t necessarily the worse thing for St. Louis, setting up the righty-righty matchup against Howie Kendrick. On the other hand, Soto’s eight-pitch plate appearance also runs up Flaherty’s pitch count for the inning.

Pitch No. 30: Flaherty chunks a 1-1 fastball to Kendrick in the dirt and the ball glances off Yadier Molina‘s glove for a wild pitch. It was in the dirt, so it was scored a wild pitch, but Molina didn’t do a good job of getting down to block the ball. The runners move up to second and third.

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AL East offseason preview — Will Yankees add an ace? Will Red Sox really deal Mookie Betts?

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With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams?

Here’s a look at the AL East, which features two teams that won 96 or more games in 2019, two clubs that posted 95 or more losses this year … and, right in the middle, the 2018 World Series champs.

Team-by-team offseason previews: NL East | NL Central | NL West

2019 record: 103-59
2020 World Series odds: 5-1

The Yankees’ biggest offseason storyline will be how general manager Brian Cashman will improve his starting rotation, which on the first day of the GM meetings he stated would be a team priority. The marquee names on the free-agent market, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, are potential targets, but certainly not the only ones.

“Obviously, starting pitching is always something that we want to try to continue to look at and shore up,” Cashman said. “There are some exciting opportunities that exist in the marketplace via trade as well as free agency. Of course, we’re going to talk to Strasburg; we’ll talk to Cole. We’ll talk to the higher-end guys, clearly, and have conversations, and we’ll also talk about some surprise guys, I’m sure.”

The Yankees will also have to address how many of their own free agents they want to keep, and most importantly, how much they want to spend doing so. Cashman has specified that there is no ownership mandate on a maximum payroll, but it’s doubtful a team with more than $210 million in salary commitments for 2020 would be able to work out deals with a Cole or a Strasburg, and also bring back Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius and/or Dellin Betances.

Beyond that, the 2019 Yankees overcame a barrage of injuries to win 103 games and their first AL East title since 2012. But the “Next Man Up” mentality and performance that went along with it is unlikely to be duplicated. The Yankees will likely have to address their injury prevention and treatment protocols in order to avoid setting yet another MLB record for most injured players in a single season. — Marly Rivera

Tampa Bay Rays: Can the Rays stay creative to keep thriving in the East?

2019 record: 96-66
2020 World Series odds: 30-1

The Rays have never been short of good, outside-the-box ideas. After another successful season of bullpenning, Tampa Bay has enough strong starters on its roster, among Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough, to field a full rotation — if the Rays want to. In 2019, they found a lot of success from their bullpen, between Emilio Pagan‘s lockdown year and strong performances from Nick Anderson and Oliver Drake, and they’ll likely keep looking for more diamonds in the rough, given relievers are a notoriously fickle group when it comes to year-to-year consistency (looking at you, Jose Alvarado). Two-way top prospect Brendan McKay could become an interesting factor for Tampa Bay as well, after making his debut both on the mound and at the plate.

General manager Erik Neander hopes to prioritize adding offense to a lineup that finished the season with 769 runs, seventh in the American League. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud hits the open market following his best season, hitting .263/.323/.459 in 92 games. While they weigh bringing back d’Arnaud, the Rays, who had the lowest payroll in the majors in 2019, will look to upgrade at designated hitter, with veteran names such as Edwin Encarnacion and Howie Kendrick being tossed around as solutions. Foundational players like Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Snell remain under team control, with Tampa Bay facing $73.8 million in 2020 salary commitments heading into the offseason. Neander will explore every possible option to make marginal improvements to an already strong team facing financial restrictions. — Joon Lee

Boston Red Sox: How will a new front office balance Mookie Betts and the budget?

2019 record: 84-78
2020 World Series odds: 10-1

Boston enters the offseason with a new chief baseball officer in Chaim Bloom and an offseason already filled to the brim with rumors about what the team will do with superstar Mookie Betts as he enters his contract year — but the questions don’t stop there. Bloom faces the challenge of getting the team’s payroll under the luxury tax threshold — balancing big-time salaries, from Betts to designated hitter J.D. Martinez to starters Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi — while a World Series-worthy roster remains the goal.

Bloom’s decisions over the next few months will not only shape Boston’s direction for next year, but for the foreseeable future. If Boston hopes to keep both Betts and Martinez for 2020, the organization will likely need to trade some of its bigger contract commitments, requiring the creativity that made Bloom a rising front-office star with the Rays. — Lee

Toronto Blue Jays: Can they build a winning team around the kids?

2019 record: 67-95
2020 World Series odds: 75-1

In 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays let the kids play. In 2020, will they be able to find anyone who can pitch? That is the overriding question this offseason for the position-rich Jays, who saw not only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. make his much-hyped MLB debut last season, but also Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette step into the limelight.

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How the four MLB MVP favorites unlocked their home run power

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Cody Bellinger, who damn near broke the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ home run record this season, managed only one home run as a high school senior. Alex Bregman, who belted 41 homers despite also leading his sport in walks, never once reached double-digit home runs in college. Mike Trout, on a faster home run pace for his career than all but four players, went deep every 49 at-bats in the minor leagues. Christian Yelich, who has required only 277 games to produce 80 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers, was typecast as a slap hitter as he neared his mid-20s.

Major league baseball is immersed in the most prodigious home run era of its history, a remarkable circumstance for a sport once tainted by prevalent steroid use. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever and aggressive defensive shifts are commonplace, so hitters are looking to lift, looking to pull and, mostly, looking to slug. The 2019 season, dominated by theories about juiced baseballs, produced 6,776 home runs, blowing past the previous record of 6,105, set only two years earlier.

Bellinger, Bregman, Trout and Yelich are products of that environment. But they’re more than that — they’re what happens when naturally gifted hitters evolve through a time defined by the long ball.

See, it’s not that they couldn’t hit home runs before; it’s that they didn’t care enough to. They were more concerned with the subtleties that produce great hitters, like controlling the strike zone, honing their opposite-field power and consistently meeting the baseball with the barrel of their bat. Their power wasn’t yet prevalent enough for home runs to result from all that.

Bellinger, Bregman, Trout and Yelich are now four of the game’s most complete hitters. They made up four of the top five spots in weighted runs created plus this past season, and on Thursday, they’re each expected to finish in the top two in Most Valuable Player voting for their respective leagues.

What follows is a look at each player’s path toward the most elusive part of his game — the home run.

Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger was always young and always small for the level at which he played. He was already scrawny before growing 8 inches during his junior year of high school, shooting from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-4. When the Dodgers made him their fourth-round pick in 2013, he weighed no more than 165 pounds. His frame was expanding too quickly. His metabolism was working too efficiently.

“He would eat and eat and eat, and he would never gain,” Bellinger’s father, Clay, said. “That’s just the way it was — it’s genetics.”

Clay, a former utility player who spent three seasons with the New York Yankees, could relate. He had the same body type when he graduated high school, then added weight later and grew stronger. He knew the same would happen for his son, and that with it, the power would ultimately emerge; those line drives Bellinger kept sending into the outfield gaps would begin to travel over the fence with more frequency. But watching his son become one of baseball’s most celebrated home run hitters was unimaginable.

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MLB Awards Week — Verlander, deGrom earn their second Cy Youngs

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MLB awards week is here, and that means it’s time to hand out some hardware as baseball’s best of 2019 vie for MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year honors.

Will Mike Trout hold off Alex Bregman for his third American League MVP award? Did Cody Bellinger separate himself from Christian Yelich and Anthony Rendon as the National League’s most valuable player? Which Astros ace will take home Cy Young honors in the AL? Here’s when each award will be announced, the finalists to win and a quick take to get you in the know. Be sure to check back during the week as we update this page with winners and more key information.

Jump to: Rookie of the Year | Manager of the Year | Cy Young | MVP

Doolittle’s prediction for every award

MLB awards schedule

Monday: AL and NL Rookie of the Year

Tuesday: AL and NL Manager of the Year

Wednesday: AL and NL Cy Young Award

Thursday: AL and NL MVP

(All awards announced at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.)

Cy Young (Wednesday)

AL: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

Runner-ups: Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros; Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay Rays

Why Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award: Verlander won his first Cy Young Award in 2011 and then had second-place finishes in 2012 (to David Price, losing by four points), 2016 (to Rick Porcello, losing by five points even though he had six more first-place votes) and 2018 (losing by 15 points to Blake Snell). In 2012 and 2016, he had the edge over the winner in Baseball-Reference WAR and in 2018 he led the AL in FanGraphs WAR. So this could easily be his fifth Cy Young instead of his second.

Why Verlander over Cole? In a coin flip of a debate, Verlander held two minor edges over Cole: He threw 10⅔ more innings and he held batters to a .171 average versus Cole’s almost-as-ridiculous .185. Verlander also had a slightly lower walk rate, giving him another small edge in OBP allowed. While Cole was dominant over the final four months, winning his last 16 decisions, he wasn’t great the first two months, and Verlander was more consistent with an ERA of 2.51 or lower in five of six months. Throw in a no-hitter, 21 wins and his first 300-strikeout season, and Verlander finally won a close vote. — David Schoenfield

NL: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

Runners-up: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers; Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

Why deGrom won the Cy Young Award (again):

For much of the season, it seemed like this was Hyun-Jin Ryu’s award to lose … and then the Dodgers ace lost it thanks to a 7.48 August ERA, opening the door for deGrom to win his second straight Cy Young. The Mets ace wasn’t quite as good overall as he was during his incredible 2018 season, but he was pretty close during the second half of the season when he went 7-1 with a 1.44 ERA and help opposing hitters to a .179 batting average after the All-Star break. — Dan Mullen

Whose second Cy Young is more impressive, deGrom’s or Verlander’s?

I’ve got to go with Verlander here. He’s 36 and already a lock Hall of Famer, but this is a big notch for his legacy. Just eight different pitchers (11 total times) have won the award at his age or older, and even though I’m not totally convinced he was the best pitcher on the Astros this season (Cole was really good), that’s the kind of fact that will look really good on his plaque in Cooperstown one day. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, he saved us from another year of angry Kate Upton awards analysis tweets. — Mullen

Dan stole my punchline. I’ll also go with Verlander, considering he had much tougher competition with teammate Cole than deGrom did in the NL. Cole won 16 decisions in a row, fanned 326 batters, set a record with nine consecutive double-digit strikeout games and bested Pedro Martinez’s single-season record for strikeout. That’s how good Verlander was: He was better than THAT. As for deGrom, Ryu and Scherzer both had bad Septembers and Scherzer also missed time with an injury, opening the door for him to win again. — Schoenfield

MVP (Thursday)

AL finalists: Alex Bregman, Houston Astros; Marcus Semien, Oakland Athletics; Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Quick take: Trout’s September injury opened the door for a close race with Bregman. The big question is how much of a boost voters will give Bregman for playing on a winning team and appearing in 22 more games than Trout in 2019.

NL finalists: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers; Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals; Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

Quick take: A strong case could be made for any of the three finalists. Bellinger might be the favorite after Yelich’s season ended in mid-September and with much of Rendon’s best work coming in October. Remember, this is a regular-season award.

Rookie of the Year: Yordan Alvarez and Pete Alonso

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Yordan Alvarez’s ability to clobber the long ball in the middle of the Astros’ lineup awarded him the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year.

AL: Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros (30 of 30 first-place votes)

Runners-up: Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays; John Means, Baltimore Orioles

Why Alvarez won AL Rookie of the Year:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was the overwhelming choice as top rookie heading into the season, but this was an easy call for voters, even though Alvarez didn’t make his debut until June 9 — yes, he homered — and spent most of his time at DH. He hit .313/.412/.655 with 27 home runs in 87 games. Prorate his numbers over 150 games, and you get 47 home runs and 134 RBIs. Among players with at least 300 PAs, he ranked behind only Christian Yelich and Mike Trout in wOBA and behind only Trout in wRC+.

It was one of the great rookie offensive performances in the game’s history. Alvarez’s .655 slugging percentage was the highest by a rookie with at least 300 PAs, and only Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911 had a higher adjusted OPS. Alvarez’s fellow finalists, Brandon Lowe and John Means, both made the All-Star team. Maybe Guerrero or Bo Bichette is the player you would most want for the next decade, but no AL rookie impressed this season like the young Astros slugger did. — David Schoenfield

NL: Pete Alonso, New York Mets (29 of 30 first-place votes)

Runners-up: Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves (one first-place vote); Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

Why Alonso won NL Rookie of the Year:

Year of the Home Run or not, hitting 53 homers as a rookie is a pretty good way to state your Rookie of the Year case. Alonso wasn’t just the best rookie in the league this year; he was the best offensive first baseman in baseball.

Fellow finalists Mike Soroka and Fernando Tatis Jr. both showed that they’re well on their way to stardom as well, and it would have been interesting to see how ballots would have looked if Tatis stayed healthy all season, but it’s no surprise that Alonso ran away with the voting here. — Dan Mullen

Which Rookie of the Year would you rather have for the next five years?

Sign me up for Pete Alonso. Yordan Alvarez’s numbers in just over half a season project very close to what Alonso did for a full season, and I think the Astros slugger might have even more potential at the plate, but this isn’t just about the numbers. There was an “it” factor to everything Alonso did this season that I’m buying for the face of my franchise. He handled everything that comes with being a Mets phenom in New York while showing a magnetic personality at every chance.

A rookie slugger becoming the Polar Bear, outlasting Vlad Jr. for the Home Run Derby crown, ripping off his shirt during pennant-race celebrations and tearing up on the field after his record-setting 53rd home run — those are some of the best memories of the entire MLB season, and the guy who produced them in his first year in the Big Apple is the guy I want going forward. — Mullen

Dan is spot-on about Alonso having the “it” factor. The way he won over New Yorkers with his enthusiasm, genuineness, prodigious power and bare-chested interviews was impressive and immediately made him one of the faces of the sport. But I’ll take Alvarez over the next five years, even if he is mostly limited to DH (though I think he has enough athleticism to be not awful if he had to play left field on a regular bases). Of course, Alonso isn’t exactly a Gold Glover at first base.

Anyway, the big difference between the two: Alvarez is more than two years younger, so there is still some growth potential with his bat. Alvarez also has an elite hit tool, as evidenced by his .313 average. He hit more line drives and fewer grounders and popups than Alonso, and he had a slightly lower strikeout rate and higher walk rate. Both are going to mash a lot of home runs, but Alvarez is more likely to post the higher batting averages and higher OBPs. — Schoenfield

Manager of the Year: Rocco Baldelli and Mike Shildt

AL: Rocco Baldelli, Minnesota Twins

Runners-up: Aaron Boone, New York Yankees; Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays

Why Baldelli won AL Manager of the Year:

In his first season as Twins skipper, the 38-year-old Baldelli guided the Twins to 101 wins, the second-most since the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961 (the 1965 team won 102 games). It was a 23-win improvement from 2018, and it gave the Twins their first division title since 2010. The Twins bashed an all-time-record 307 home runs as five players hit 30-plus home runs, and Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano had excellent comeback seasons after disappointing years in 2018.

Baldelli’s best work probably came in coaxing excellent work out of a no-name bullpen. He deployed Taylor Rogers first as a high-leverage setup guy, then as the closer. Trevor May and Tyler Duffey joined Rogers with sub-3.00 ERAs. The Twins held the division lead since April 10 and built their lead to 10 games, but the Indians rallied and caught them on Aug. 9. Baldelli kept the team together, and the Twins finished strong, going 31-15 down the stretch and pulling away by eight games. — Schoenfield

NL: Mike Shildt, St. Louis Cardinals

Runners-up: Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers; Brian Snitker, Atlanta Braves

Why Shildt won NL Manager of the Year:

Shildt’s Cardinals were 44-44 at the All-Star break before they rode a strong second half to St. Louis’ first NL Central crown and playoff berth since 2015. If one series can win you this award, the Cardinals’ four-game sweep of the Cubs in September at Wrigley — with all four victories coming by one run — might have done just that for the second-year skipper.

Shildt’s Cardinals committed the fewest errors in the National League, led the NL in stolen bases and got strong starting pitching — especially from ace Jack Flaherty — as they edged the Cubs and Brewers in a tight NL Central race. — Mullen

Which active manager would you most want in charge of your team?

You know what’s funny? No manager who won 100 games has won a manager of the year award since Lou Piniella in 2001, when the Mariners won 116 games. My point is that sometimes we overlook the managers who have the most talent — AJ Hinch, Dave Roberts, Aaron Boone, Alex Cora, Dave Martinez, Terry Francona (Boston days) — and give extra credit to the guys who seemingly do a lot with less — Kevin Cash, Bob Melvin, Craig Counsell, Terry Francona (Cleveland days). All those guys are good managers. Any of them can run my fictional team.

The manager role today is much different than that of the managers of 30 or 40 years ago. Earl Weaver rarely spoke to his players. Communication with players now is arguably the most important part of the job, along with communicating the organization’s goals and vision to the media. All those guys are good at that. Forced to pick, I’ll go with AJ Hinch. He has experienced failure (he was fired in Arizona), which I think is important. He has developed young players, which is important as today’s game gets younger and younger. He is polished and smart with the media, and when the Astros were suffering an organizational meltdown at the start of the World Series after the clubhouse incident in the ALCS, Hinch was the one guy who immediately said, “This is wrong.” He commands respect, with a physical presence that reminds me of Joe Torre. Oh, he has also won 100 games three years in a row. — Schoenfield

Let’s see. If I’m managing a team, these are the characteristics I value most: ability to communicate the team’s message internally and to the media/public, ability to manage a pitching staff, ability to combine analytics and traditional scouting, ability to handle adversity.

A lot of managers check some of the boxes. But Craig Counsell is the one guy I know who can do everything here because he has been asked to and has succeeded, with back-to-back playoff appearances in Milwaukee. — Mullen

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