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Why September return of Nick Markakis could be Braves’ October difference-maker

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WASHINGTON — It’s a classic case of addition by addition.

The Atlanta Braves got Nick Markakis back on Friday. In related news, they just became an ever more dangerous October out.

Playing in his first game since suffering a fractured wrist on July 26, Markakis was all over the place. Facing Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the second inning, he lined a single to center field. In his next trip against the three-time Cy Young winner, Markakis laced a double to center and came around to score the Braves’ first run of the game. In the fifth, he came up with the bases loaded and just barely missed hitting a grand slam, instead settling for a 385-foot sac fly that sent Nats outfielder Victor Robles all the way to the wall in left-center and extended Atlanta’s lead to 3-0.

“I was just up there trying to get comfortable again,” said Markakis, who was hitting .284 with a .787 OPS at the time of his injury. “Your first game back after seven weeks against a pitcher like that is not the easiest feat, so I was pleased. Didn’t see as many pitches as I’d like to, but when I did see my pitch, I tried not to miss it.”

He didn’t miss much of anything in the outfield either.

With Atlanta and rookie starter Mike Soroka leading 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, following a leadoff double by Adam Eaton, Nats MVP candidate Anthony Rendon lifted a fly ball to the gap between left and center. Markakis, a right fielder by trade who was playing left field for the first time this year, and center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. converged on the ball and confusion ensued. In the end, it was Markakis who ended up laying out and making an acrobatic, albeit avoidable, backhanded grab that kept Washington scoreless and almost resulted in him getting trampled by Acuna. An inning later, Markakis was on the ground again, sliding to his knees in shallow left to deprive Robles of a leadoff single.

In typical Markakis fashion, neither play was a work of art (nor was the ball that got under his glove in the seventh and was charitably ruled a double). But considering that Markakis has now played a grand total of four games in left field over the last 12 years, the Braves will gladly live with it. Just like they’ll gladly live with having Markakis back in the lineup.

In the seven weeks since Markakis suffered that broken wrist, the Braves’ outfield has been something of a mess. Austin Riley, who came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Month in May, came crashing back to earth and then landed on the injured list with a sprained knee in early August. Opening Day center fielder Ender Inciarte, who missed two months with a lumbar strain and returned shortly before Markakis got hurt, hit the IL again in mid-August with a balky hamstring. Riley and veteran reserve Adam Duvall, a pair of right-handed hitters, have been good against southpaws but can’t be trusted against righties, and lefty swinger Matt Joyce has been the opposite. If not for Acuna, who has played all three positions (not at the same time) and is threatening to join the exclusive 40-40 club, Atlanta’s outfield might have collapsed on itself and turned into a certifiable black hole. Or something like that. Now, with Markakis back, the Braves’ universe is measurably more copacetic.

“My god,” said manager Brian Snitker following Markakis’ reentry into Atlanta’s atmosphere. “It’s just something else. One live BP, and two of the hardest-hit balls he’s probably had all year. And made a couple really nice plays in left. The guy’s a ballplayer. It’s huge for our lineup and our team to have him back in there.”

To be clear, the “huge” that Snitker refers to is more about the future than the past. Despite the disarray in the outfield, the Braves did just fine, thanks, without their veteran outfielder. In fact, their 30-14 record during Markakis’ absence was tops in the National League and 2.5 games better than the mighty Dodgers. Over that stretch, they managed to extend their division lead by three games over a Washington team that was as hot as any in the league. But that was then and this is now: In order for the Braves to accomplish their goals, from overtaking Los Angeles for top seed in the NL to winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly 20 years (2001 was the last time) to going all the way, they’ll need all hands on deck. On Friday, they added one more very capable pair of hands.

“It was awesome to have Kakes back,” Soroka said. “I know he really wanted to come back and make an impression, and I think he did that right off the bat. That gave us a little life.”

More importantly, it gave Atlanta an even better chance in October.

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Playing for October, Cubs preach ‘next guy jumps in’ mantra with Rizzo, Baez out

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CHICAGO — As if the Chicago Cubs weren’t fighting an uphill battle already, the heart and soul of the team, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, is out indefinitely with an ankle sprain — and it couldn’t come at a worse time of the season. With the Cubs in a dogfight to make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, Rizzo’s presence will be missed in all facets of the team.

“It’s going to be tough to be without Anthony for a while here,” team president Theo Epstein said on Monday afternoon. “He’s so important to everything we do, on the field and off the field.”

Shortstop Javier Baez has been out with a thumb injury, but Rizzo might be the bigger loss. He’s integral to everything Cubs, from leading off, to two-strike hitting, to the bunt defense they incorporate — that’s where he got hurt — to simply being the face that meets the media before and after games. For comparison, Baez hasn’t even commented on his injury since being diagnosed with a hairline fracture, whereas Rizzo was at his locker to discuss the bad news on Monday.

“It’s throbbing but I keep my mind in better spirits and try to be in as good a mood as I can,” he said. “Every year isn’t going to be 2016. You have ups and downs. Everyone in this locker room is fully capable of carrying a heavy load at all times.”

As much as the team is hopeful for a quick recovery, the history of moderate ankle sprains doesn’t scream “a few days,” or even a couple of weeks.

“In the meantime you just have to plan that he’s not going to be there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to get the guys ready and get them indoctrinated in these positions. I really believe our guys will rally around this moment. We have different options to play over there.”

It’s true. The team has better defensive options at first base than one might think, but Rizzo was the best leadoff hitter on the team this season. Chicago was terrible from that spot in the order — until he took over recently. So where do the Cubs turn, at first base and leadoff, to help keep their playoff streak alive?

Replacing Rizzo

A little-known, switch-hitting, backup catcher has emerged as the best candidate to replace Rizzo at first base, at least on the days he’s not behind the plate. Victor Caratini is actually beginning to make a name for himself, both as Yu Darvish‘s personal catcher and as a decent hitter. It’s not just his OPS+ of 113 that’s impressive, it’s actually his batting average. Sometimes, that statistic tells a story. Hitting .282 entering play on Monday, Caratini has become a more complete hitter. And don’t forget his two home runs that won a game off New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom last month. That was a defining moment for Caratini.

“He’s not chasing as much out of the zone,” Maddon said. “And he’s using left-center a lot more consistently. He’s not hitting that rollover ground ball, left-handed. He’s staying through the ball. Left-center has become his buddy. And the right side has gotten better.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 33 percent of Caratini’s balls in play have been to the opposite field; that’s up 10 points from a year ago.

“Caratini has showed time and again he’s good enough to be an everyday player,” outfielder Nicholas Castellanos said. “The fact that he’s getting an opportunity, I’m happy for him.”

Ben Zobrist added: “You don’t make that up with one player. You have to make it up with a couple players. That’s how you try to fill that hole.”

On Tuesday night, in the second game of their series against the Cincinnati Reds, Caratini will be behind the plate for Darvish; the hurler has a 3.17 ERA this season with Caratini catching. It means Maddon will need another first baseman and Ian Happ is his best bet. Like Caratini, he has flashed some decent leather filling in for Rizzo at times, but his offensive game isn’t quite like that of the Cubs’ regular first baseman.

Rizzo has a strikeout rate of 13.9, while Happ is at 25.6 percent after spending four months in the minor leagues. And that percentage is actually down from last year. Meanwhile, Rizzo plays against all types of pitchers, while Happ’s starts are limited to the good matchups. The drop-off is considerable.

“Next man up,” Zobrist said. “Rizz and Javy are a big part of this but no one is bigger than the team.”

It’s the same attitude the Milwaukee Brewers must be embracing as they continue to play good baseball even after losing MVP Christian Yelich to a knee injury. The loss of stars can be overcome for a period of time in baseball. When a very productive player is out several months, that’s when it usually catches up to a team. That’s not the time frame the Cubs are looking at. They can survive — for a bit.

“That’s our expectation,” Maddon said. “Of course it is … It is the next man up kind of a theory. And I do believe there are galvanizing moments when you do lose key people in key situations. I do expect a good result.”

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Reds vs. Cubs – Game Recap – September 16, 2019

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CHICAGO — Kyle Schwarber hit a three-run homer and made a diving catch in left field, helping the Chicago Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Nicholas Castellanos added a two-run double in the eighth inning as Chicago moved a season-high 14 games above .500. Castellanos is the third right-handed hitter in MLB history to record at least 55 doubles and 25 homers in a season, joining Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg (1934) and Joe Medwick (1937).

Chicago has outscored its opponents 59-18 during its win streak.

The Cubs (82-68) pulled within a half-game of Washington for the top spot in the wild-card standings and stayed two games back of NL Central-leading St. Louis, which held off the Nationals for a 4-2 win.

Steve Cishek, Alec Mills (1-0), Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and David Phelps combined for 5 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of an ineffective Cole Hamels. It was Mills’ first major league win in his 17th big league appearance.

It was Chicago’s first game since Anthony Rizzo had an MRI that showed the big first baseman had a moderate lateral right ankle sprain sustained during Sunday’s 16-6 victory over Pittsburgh.

Rizzo will wear a walking boot for five to seven days, casting doubt on his availability for the rest of the season.

“We’re not shutting any doors, but we’re realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.

Cincinnati (70-81) had won three of four, but it went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base.

Kevin Gausman (3-9) pitched two innings for the Reds in his first start since he was claimed off waivers from the Braves last month. The right-hander has been a starter for most of his career, and manager David Bell wanted to give him another look in that spot while giving the rest of his rotation an extra day of rest.

Gausman got into trouble in the first when Chicago put runners on first and second with one out. Schwarber then connected for the second straight day, driving a 2-2 pitch deep to center.

It was No. 37 for Schwarber, the highest total for a lefty batter for the Cubs since Hall of Famer Billy Williams hit 37 in 1972.

Schwarber also robbed pinch hitter Derek Dietrich with a stellar grab on his liner to left in the fourth. Phillip Ervin‘s sacrifice fly cut Chicago’s lead to 3-2, but Cishek struck out Eugenio Suarez looking to end the inning.

IN-GAME CHANGE

Reds infielder Josh VanMeter left in the fourth inning because of a family medical issue. He started at first base after Joey Votto was scratched with an illness.

HE’S HERE

The Reds promoted infielder Christian Colon from Triple-A Louisville. Colon was hit by a pitch while batting for Gausman in the third and scored on Curt Casali‘s bases-loaded walk. It was Colon’s first major league appearance since June 20, 2017, for Miami against Washington.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Reds: SS Jose Iglesias (sore back) was out of the starting lineup. Bell said Iglesias likely will start Tuesday. … SS Freddy Galvis missed his second straight game with left knee soreness. Bell said Galvis doesn’t have meniscus or ligament damage and won’t be out long-term.

Cubs: Closer Craig Kimbrel (right elbow inflammation) is scheduled to throw a simulated game Tuesday and could return this weekend. … SS Addison Russell (concussion protocol) hit off a tee before the game.

UP NEXT

RHP Sonny Gray (10-7, 2.80 ERA) faces RHP Yu Darvish (6-6, 3.97 ERA) on Tuesday night in a matchup of two of baseball’s best pitchers since the All-Star break. Gray is 4-1 with a 1.29 ERA in his last eight starts for Cincinnati. Darvish struck out 14 while pitching six scoreless innings in Chicago’s 4-1 victory at San Diego on Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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White Sox shut down RHP Giolito with lat strain

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The Chicago White Sox are shutting down right-hander Lucas Giolito for the rest of the season with a mild lat strain.

The team said there are no long-term concerns.

“For me, it just sucks because I wanted to finish what I started. But at the same time, it is what it is,” Giolito told reporters. “It just was kind of a random thing that happened. That’s it.”

Giolito, who was slated to pitch against the Twins on Tuesday, ends his bounce-back 2019 season with 14 wins, 228 strikeouts, two shutouts and a 3.41 ERA.

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