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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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A man was taken to the hospital after being injured by a foul ball in the Astros’ dugout

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HOUSTON — A man in the Houston Astros dugout who was not in uniform was hit by a foul ball off the bat of Houston’s Michael Brantley during Game 2 of the AL Championship Series and exited with a towel over his head.

The Astros released a statement late in Sunday night’s game on behalf of Harris County Emergency Corps, which said one of its employees was hit and taken to a hospital, where he was evaluated and in stable condition. The company, which provides paramedic services, provided no other details.

“My thoughts and prayers are with his family and him, and I hope I can talk to him soon,” Brantley said after the Astros beat the New York Yankees 3-2 in 11 innings.

Play was briefly halted after the accident in the fifth inning, and Houston manager AJ Hinch came on the field to console a shaken-up Brantley.

Several Astros players were shown in the dugout looking distraught, as were Yankees players who had a view into Houston’s dugout. Houston stars Carlos Correa and George Springer both could be seen putting their hands on their heads and then looking away seconds after the ball entered the dugout.

Play resumed after a couple of minutes and Brantley struck out but reached first on a wild pitch by Adam Ottavino.

The Astros extended the protective netting at Minute Maid Park to cover more of the seating area earlier this year, but there is no such protection for the dugouts. The move came after a 2-year-old girl sustained a skull fracture when she struck by a foul ball during a May game in Houston.

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For Aaron Boone and Yankees, it’s go bold or go home in ALCS

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HOUSTON — If it wasn’t abundantly clear already, Game 2 of the American League Championship Series crystallized the ethos of the New York Yankees: They are not going to sit back idly and watch the Houston Astros wrest a World Series berth from their lifeless hands. They are going to be aggressive, and that aggressiveness may at times verge on recklessness. So be it. Wallflowers cannot, and will not, beat these Astros.

The Yankees’ 3-2 extra-innings loss Sunday night in Game 2 featured a rightfully assertive posture from the earliest moments of the game. They were facing Justin Verlander in the first of four games he and co-ace Gerrit Cole will start should the series extend to seven games, and Boone knows the Yankees must pick off at least one of those to beat Houston. So with a 1-0 series lead in hand already and the opportunity to land a liver shot on the Astros, Boone leadfooted the gas pedal.

Runners on second and third, facing a one-run deficit in the second inning? Boone brought the infield in. Only seven outs from his starter, James Paxton? Boone yanked him. Reliever Chad Green cruising through two innings? Boone pulled him, too, because Adam Ottavino presented a superior matchup opportunity.

This is what constitutes managing in 2019. It’s not purely analytics, and it’s not some sort of abandonment of gut feeling, and it’s certainly not overmanaging, which is a catch-all phrase used by those who think aggressive bullpen maneuvering and seeking out marginal advantages is a bad thing. Here’s what it is: pragmatism.

Because — at least based on his decision-making in the first two games of the ALCS — Boone understands what the Yankees are and what they aren’t, where they lag behind and where they excel. New York is a team with limited starting pitching and five relief pitchers it deeply trusts. That is a flawed pitching staff, but not so flawed that it can’t beat the Astros.

To do so will simply take a deftness similar to what the Tampa Bay Rays showcased in their division-series matchup against Houston. Rays manager Kevin Cash deployed his bullpen with a brilliant touch. He understood the talent advantage the Astros possess would force his team to steal advantages wherever it could. The same goes for the Yankees, and while the overpowering and dominant version of Verlander did not pitch Sunday, the one that did show up was good enough to install a deep sense of urgency in New York.

“Certainly Verlander being on the hill, runs are going to be tough to come by,” Boone said. “More often than not I’m going to play that really aggressively.”

Play aggressively he did, much to the consternation of armchair managers and Monday morning quarterbacks who believe past success portends future success. Consider Boone’s choice in the fifth inning to remove Green for Ottavino. Green had retired all six hitters he faced. Ottavino replaced him, hung a first-pitch slider and watched George Springer punish it for a game-tying home run.

This is a classic case of process not equaling outcome. Ottavino threw a bad pitch. That happens, and when it happens in the postseason it is exponentially magnified. That bad pitch, though, does not take the sound process of Boone’s decision — Springer destroys Green’s bread-and-butter four-seam fastball; Ottavino is death on right-handed hitters — and invalidate it. It means the right play didn’t work. Which, in a seven-game series, admittedly can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Focusing solely on Green’s performance also places Game 2 in a vacuum instead of as one slice of a seven-piece pie. The balance between now and whatever games remain is admittedly difficult to strike, but the Yankees, with Game 3 starter Luis Severino not stretched out enough to pitch deep into games — especially against a lineup as patient as Houston’s — and Game 4 looking like a bullpen affair, needed to weigh Green’s usage accordingly.

Boone is juggling what the front office gave him — and it’s a roster that includes five left-handed relievers, which plays awfully well into the hands of the Astros, who were the best-hitting team against lefties in baseball this season. Boone knows this, and he knows it’s the sort of thing that will haunt the Yankees at some point in the series, which only exacerbated his exigency in Game 2.

“You’re playing it to win the game,” Boone said. “You’re not playing it to — what if we go 13, you know? You’re playing it to what gives us the best chance to win here. And the bottom line is we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning.”

So it went. The possibility of stealing both games at Minute Maid Park — one of them started by Verlander — was exciting enough that Boone emptied his handful of power relievers, going from Green to Ottavino to Tommy Kahnle to Zack Britton to Aroldis Chapman. They covered 20 outs and, Springer’s home run off Ottavino excepted, did so with aplomb.

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Astros’ Carlos Correa, struggling recently, comes up big with walk-off HR vs. Yankees

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HOUSTON — The 2019 season has been a trying one for the AstrosCarlos Correa. Injuries have limited his availability and production, and even when he returned to the active list for the postseason, he struggled to find the timing at the plate that had made him one of the game’s brightest young stars. That timing returned Sunday, and it was just in time for Houston.

Correa homered to the opposite field off Yankees lefty J.A. Happ on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning, giving the Astros a desperately needed 3-2 win over New York on Sunday. As the series shifts to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Tuesday, both teams head east with one win on the board.

“Going into that last inning, I thought, ‘I got this,'” Correa said. “I felt like I got this. And I had the right approach against [Happ]. I’ve been successful against him going the other way. And that’s what I tried to do. I saw a good pitch down the middle, and I drove the other way.”

The Astros might not have been in position for Correa’s heroics if not for a great defensive play he made to prevent a run in the bottom of the sixth.

With two outs and runners on first and second, Brett Gardner struck a hard-hit liner at Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, and the ball took an in-between hop. Recognizing the difficulty of the play, Correa ranged over from his position at shortstop and corralled the errant ball. DJ LeMahieu raced around third toward the plate with what would have been the lead run. But the strong-armed Correa gunned him down at the plate.

“The second I saw him come over and make a clean catch of the ball and come up and ready to throw, honestly, I thought he was out,” said Astros starter Justin Verlander, whose solid 6 2/3 innings got lost in the glare of Correa’s night. “It went from ‘Crap!’ to ‘We got this guy. We got an extra out!’ It was just incredible.”

According to Statcast, Correa covered 58 feet to retrieve the ball on the play and then unleashed an 87 mph throw to catcher Robinson Chirinos to get LeMahieu.

“As an infielder, I know how tough it is to catch a ball that’s a line drive right at you in between,” Correa said. “So as soon as I knew that it was going to crash in between, I was creeping over. When it hit him, and I saw the ball go my way, I just went after it. And I grabbed it, and when I looked up and I saw he was sending the runner, I thought, ‘Oh, I got this guy.’ So I threw him out. I don’t know why he sent him, but thank you.”

As the innings advanced, a Houston lineup that has struggled to score consistently in the face of elite pitching this October grew increasingly frustrated. Before Correa’s winner, the Astros hit 19 balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph in the first two games of the series, but they had just five hits to show for them. The Yankees, on the other hand, had 14 hits on their 23 hard-hit balls.

At one point in the eighth, Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez, the favorite to win this season’s AL Rookie of the Year award, struck out against lefty Zack Britton and snapped his bat by pounding it into the ground near home plate. When Correa’s homer left the ballpark, it wasn’t quite a catharsis because the ever-confident Astros felt it was due to happen anyway.

“We’re just going to keep getting to the next at-bat, keep letting the next hitter do his job [against] the pitching that comes in,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “It’s all about winning today’s game. And our guys are responding perfectly to the difficulty in beating those guys.”

Correa hit .279 with 21 homers during the season but played in only 75 games, suffering fractured ribs in May and injuring his back in August. He wasn’t cleared to rejoin the club for the playoffs until shortly before Houston started its ALDS series against the Rays. Correa played in only three big league games in September.

Although his defense has been sharp throughout October, the rust was apparent when he was at the plate. Entering Sunday, Correa was hitting .136 with a .318 OPS and one RBI in six postseason games. However, he felt so good in batting practice before Game 2 that his teammates in the dugout were telling him he would be the hero.

They were right, and, it turns out, Correa believed them.

“I mean, he knew he was gonna end it when the pitching change came in,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He told us. Then he did it.”

Correa doubled in the second and in the sixth drove Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner to the fence with a deep drive to left-center. But the final proof that his swing might — at last — be coming around didn’t manifest until the 11th, when he jumped on a Happ fastball and sent 43,359 orange-clad fans home happy. But no one was happier than Correa.

“It’s huge. It’s huge,” he said. “We came to the ballpark knowing we had to win this game, no matter how we had to win this game. JV on the mound, and I knew our lineup was going to do what we do throughout the whole year, and that’s put great at-bats together as a team. And we were able to do that today, and we got the win.”

As young as the 24-year-old Correa still is, he has already joined a select group of hitters with multiple game-ending hits in postseason play. Correa has two of them now, with the other coming against the Yankees in Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS. Only David Ortiz (three) had more. Alfonso Soriano, Edgar Renteria, Bernie Williams, Paul Blair and Goose Goslin also had two.

“Moments like this, like tonight make everything worth it,” Correa said. “Nights of hard work, doing my rehab, not missing anything, it’s all worth it when you look at moments like this.”

Any win in October is big, but this one not only saved the Astros from falling into an 0-2 hole with three games looming in the Bronx but also set up Houston to grab the edge in the showdown with red-hot ace Gerrit Cole taking the mound Tuesday. That is a very different perspective than the one the Astros might have had on their flight to New York had Correa not come through on both sides of the ball.

But he did, and suddenly the Astros have their superstar shortstop back in fully functional form.

“We’ve always said he’s a big part of our offense, big part of our defense, big part of our team,” Hinch said. “He’s usually hitting third, fourth or fifth, but on this team, we’ve pushed him down a little bit, coming back from injury.

“You can see the impact that we love so much about him. And you look at his RBI totals in the postseason, you look at his walk-offs, you look at the big moments. He’s a pretty special man.”

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