‘The Game’s Better When They’re Hated’: MLB Reacts to Yankees’ Stanton Trade

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Late night. Chatter echoing. Beers cold and bourbon neat. Psst, wanna know what the industry really thinks of the mighty New York Yankees flexing their considerable financial muscle to trade for Giancarlo Stanton?

"Yeah, they're going to be…hated," one American League executive says in a dark hallway off of the packed lobby above the clinking of the ice cubes at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.

"The game's better when they're hated."

   

FROM RAGE TO RHAPSODY, amazement to amusement, the Yankees' acquisition of Stanton and their inheritance of the remaining 10 years and $265 million on his deal have sent Major League Baseball into orbit. Hammered into Boston is the realization that defending its AL East title just got tougher. Pounded into the American League is the reality that the Yankees' supposed rebuild was completed at warp speed.

Drilled into everybody is the reminder that there are few constants in this game, but always, always at the top of this list is that few can play on the same economic field as the Damn Yankees.

Over the course of the week, Bleacher Report spoke with some 20 or so baseball figures ranging from owners to players to executives to scouts to managers to media members, and the honest-to-pinstripes reaction truly is all over the map:

Within the industry, there mostly is grudging respect.

Within the game's Haves, it's business as usual. It's the way they live.

Within the Have-Nots, there is resignation combined with the small comfort of knowing that when a backwoods franchise like Miami gets itself into a financial bind, it's nice to know there is a club like New York that offers a soft landing. The Marlins, by the way, are only on the hook for $30 million of the $295 million left on Stanton's deal.

If you're looking for pure, high-octane hatred, well, mostly, that'll have to be left to the fans of 29 other teams. The baseball people have enough to worry about trying to get their own teams in order to dwell on the deal.

"It's not the first time that teams with that economic power have done this," Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter says, noting that AL East rival Boston acquired ace Chris Sale at last year's winter meetings after signing ace David Price as a free agent the year before. "The Yankees have done it and are probably going to do it again. God bless 'em. They should."

    

LUNCHTIME. EXECUTIVES SCATTERING FROM their high-floor suites. Midday sun shining through the resort windows, obscured only by the long, tall shadow of Stanton.

Will he hit 60 home runs next summer? Will he and Aaron Judge lead the Yankees to their 28th World Series title in a blast of shock and awe?

Might they force the cancellation of a game simply because they will knock the Yankees' entire supply of baseballs out of the park during batting practice?

What in the world can we anticipate? What should we anticipate?

"I think it's great for the game," says David Ross, the retired longtime catcher now serving as a special assistant to baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. He is working (and attending) his first winter meetings, and already he's gotten an eyeful.

"It reminds me a lot of the NBA where you get a lot of power teams," he continues. "It's going to make everybody else step up their game. I don't look at it as the Evil Empire. When you see the Yankees getting back to what you expect them to be, it just seems normal."

Normal, of course, is open to interpretation.

"It's the Evil Empire, right?" Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says, eyes twinkling, smile cracking. "It is good for baseball. I'm a fan of the balanced schedule, especially with two wild cards. We play each other too much. But in our division, a lot of people like the way it is because people see those teams more and they bring their big-star players.

"So from a financial end, they love it."

Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler helped orchestrate his own blockbuster this winter, signing Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. Before taking control of the Angels for the 2016 season, Eppler worked in New York under Yankees GM Brian Cashman from 2004-2015, the last four seasons as an assistant GM.

The Angels' moment in the spotlight with Ohtani lasted about two blinks of an eye before the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants both announced Stanton would not waive his no-trade clause for them, allowing the Yankees to swoop in for the kill.

"It's a team just trying to be great," says Eppler, who regularly communicates with his old boss. "That's it. … Just like all of us are trying to do."

   

AS MUCH CHATTER AS the Stanton deal has generated, it's hard to imagine anyone is truly surprised.

This is what the Yankees always do.

Survey the landscape. Scour the bushes. Do what it takes, from making creative three-way deals (the way they acquired Didi Gregorius, Derek Jeter's replacement at shortstop, in a deal with Detroit and Arizona following the 2014 season) to ransacking badly run franchises begging to be looted.

"We've seen one of our MLB jewelry stores become a pawn shop," agent Scott Boras says, slamming the Marlins and their new ownership group, battering Jeter in particular, who skipped the winter meetings yet was widely visible attending a Miami Dolphins game during the week. Talk about bad optics.

Meanwhile, the Yankees' acquisition of Stanton has interrupted all of the talk that dominated last year's winter meetings, that Bryce Harper, the star of next winter's free-agent market, will command a deal of at least $400 million and that the Yankees will be the ones to scoop him up.

But even Harper's agent finds it difficult to fault the Yankees for cranking up their economic engine, what with all of that smooth humming and whirring.

"I'm never going to fault a good jeweler," Boras says. "When there's diamonds to be had, they're in the diamond business and [they] know they can go out and get a great deal. ... You tip your cap to how Cash and all of them [work]. That's going to make an exciting process. … I think they're in position to have a wonderful Bronx opera."

And as the week closed, the Yankees were among the small handful of teams engaged with the Orioles to gauge the cost of Manny Machado.

"Cash and his group in the baseball ops department are always looking for opportunity," Eppler says. "They're not afraid to make bold moves. They're not afraid to make unpopular moves. One thing I've always marveled at with Brian is his focus on what's going to help this organization, not what's going to help me or so on and so forth. He is so focused on doing what's right for the organization. 

"That's been his lighthouse and his beacon for 20 years, even before he was GM. That consistency has put them on this path of [being] a formidable organization with a [formidable] lineup. That's the common denominator in this thing."

THE 1970s. JIMMY NEDERLANDER, then a limited partner of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, tells the Boss that New York is a town of stars. Nederlander knew, of course. He founded the family company that went on to become the largest owner of theater property in the country. And as such, of course, he was a giant on Broadway.

"I know the city we're in and I know that our fans love the big marquee players," Hal Steinbrenner, who inherited the Yankees from his Boss dad, says during a press conference to introduce Stanton on Monday.

He continues, pointing out how the club's fans this year learned to love homegrown players who they can follow over the course of entire careers as Yankees every bit as much as any imported or purchased player. He points out how youngsters like Judge and Gary Sanchez knocked it out of the park with the "varsity" last year, and how exciting that was. But as he finishes, he notes….

"This is New York City. These are the Yankees."

This has been the internal battle waged in the offices of Yankee Stadium for the past few years, insiders tell B/R: Cashman reached a point in which he recognized the Yankees' need to get younger and more athletic. Insiders describe times of tension within the front office relating to Cashman's desire to rid the club of old, dead weight like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and restock the organization with bright young talent. Steinbrenner was skeptical of a Yankees team without stars.

That Cashman was given latitude to do it his way became evident during the summer of 2016, in which the club shed Rodriguez, Teixeira and others. Trading relief ace Andrew Miller to Cleveland for a package of young prospects including pitcher Justus Sheffield and outfielder Clint Frazier was a highlight of what turned out to be a lightning-fast rebuild.

The Baby Bombers, as the group led by Judge, Sanchez and Greg Bird came to be called, pushed the Yankees all the way to Game 7 of this year's American League Championship Series.

But as they did, in a billion-dollar incarnation of the latest Yankee Stadium, there is no escaping one harsh reality: Attendance in the Bronx during the past two yearsa per-game average of 38,851 last summer and 37,820—was the lowest in back-to-back seasons since 1997-98.

Beginning in 1999, the year the Yankees won the second of three consecutive World Series titles, they've now drawn three million or more fans annually over 19 consecutive seasons (they were over four million between from 2005 through 2008). The streak, though, barely survived over the past two seasons, when the Yankees drew 3,063,405 in 2016 and 3,146,966 this year.

"I think Stanton was too big of an opportunity for them to walk away from," an owner of a rival club tells B/R. "He's a hell of a guy, the MVP of the NL and they're not drawing the way they hoped to. They're not making any money. They've got so much debt tied to the stuff they've done."

Now, the new Twin Towers of the Bronx, Stanton (6'6", 245 pounds) and Judge (6'7", 282), come as if designed by engineers to fuel a team that will pack that stadium and, if things turn out as planned, whip the Bronx denizens back into a frenzy not seen since they left the old ballpark next door.

    

MONDAY AFTERNOON. THE PODIUM in the front of the press room is still warm from a couple of hours earlier, when new Hall of Famers Alan Trammell and Jack Morris spoke of the agony and the ecstasy of grinding through a two-decade wait to land in Cooperstown. Now Stanton, Cashman and new manager Aaron Boone hover before a standing-room only crowd of industry typesmedia, executivesand a live broadcast on MLB Network. It's the first sighting of Stanton in a Yankees cap.

And it is the last time all week the podium will be used. Amid a winter meetings of much talk and little action, the Yankees swallow up most of the oxygen. Stanton says he thought this day always would come, even when he signed the 13-year, $325 million deal ludicrously offered by now former Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who had all of the enthusiasm of a baseball expert and none of the knowledge during his tenure running, to use Boras' term, Miami's pawn shop.

"I overthink, and think again on all possibilities that can happen," Stanton says. "So with the history of everything, yeah, of course it was in my mind and I knew I had to be prepared."

He declined offers to play in both St. Louis and San Francisco, he says, because he thinks the Yankees are ready to win now and ready to win for a longer period of time. Whenever he saw them play, they impressed him. Though as his agent, Joel Wolfe, points out, Stanton hasn't seen them play in October, because the slugger wants to win so badly that he annually scheduled European vacations during the postseason because he wanted to get as far away from it as possible if he wasn't participating.

"Just watching them from afar, seeing their young, dynamic group, the way they flow together on the field, how they never give up, never quit, the atmosphere, the storied franchise," Stanton says. "There's not much you can say about why you wouldn't want to be there.

Boone had barely been named to replace Joe Girardi as manager before he suddenly was gifted with a fearsome middle-of-the-lineup hitter.

"You wake up and you're not sure that we were necessarily in on Stanton, but [with] how quick it kind of came together … sure, that catches you off guard," Boone says.

"But you also understand it's the New York Yankees."

Says Hal Steinbrenner: "I've always said that New York's a marquee town, and I think it's important to have marquee players. But more important than that ... [is] to have veteran players that could be mentors for the young kids. And we've got a lot of young kids."

Legendary New York sports columnist Red Smith once wrote that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." Little has changed more than half a century later. The Yankees brand it ubiquitous, like Starbucks and CVS. They gobble up the mom and pop shops where they can.

Even if you're already a formidable opponent, they keep your attention. New Boston manager Alex Cora, a friend of Boone's, was at home in Puerto Rico when he learned that the Yankees now employ a run producer that will make his rookie season as manager even more difficult.

"I saw the rumors on Friday night going to bed," Cora says. "I got up in the morning and saw it."

He attended a charity event hosted by Yadier Molina that Saturday, and there was a moment when Cora looked up and saw a horde of reporters coming at him.

"And the first thing I said is, 'I ain't talking about Stanton,'" says Cora, who played in this rivalry as a Red Sox player from 2005-08 and understands that the day is coming when he will not be able to escape the subject.

   

DINNERTIME. WEDNESDAY. HALLWAYS EMPTYING. The lack of action brings a sort of malaise over these meetings as the week crawls to a wrap, but New York's gold rush keeps the adrenaline stoked.

What is it about hating that keeps us coming back for more?

"When teams are stacked, they're always hated," another American League executive says. "That's all sports, but being the Yankees doesn't hurt."

Several industry types chuckle thinking back to last December's winter meetings in Washington, D.C., when the Red Sox landed Sale from the Chicago White Sox and it was Cashman who likened Boston to a superteam like the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

"Unfortunately, that's what it seems like now, doesn't it?" says a manager from a Have-Not American League team. "Four or five superteams, like basketball."

But this is baseball, and as we all know, baseball is not foolproof. The Red Sox did steal the show last winter, but they were wiped out in the first round of the playoffs by Houston. A couple of winters ago, the San Diego Padres became the darlings of the winter meetings, and that didn't go so well, either. And as one owner notes, the Yankees' Stanton deal takes the focus off of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have spent some $500 million over the past five years (including international bonuses) more than anybody else. The Dodgers still haven't won a World Series since 1988.

"It's all part of it," A.J. Hinch, manager of the world champion Houston Astros, says. "The good news about stuff like that is it's above our pay grade. Obviously, each team has its own challenges, each team has its own things it's going to address and its own resources, and to each their own. In our sport. you don't have to make the most to be the best."

"There's going to be a lot of strikeouts in that lineup, but it's going to be fun to watch for their fans," the AL executive says. "Who knows how many home runs Stanton will hit in that ballpark?"

Says Showalter: "If you make real good pitches to those guys, you'll get them out. If you make bad pitches, they'll go a little further than everyone else is hitting them."

He pauses, then cracks: "I'm glad they haven't changed the rule where the further you hit it you get a run-and-a-half, or a run-and-a-quarter. Can you imagine if they had one of those Skee-Ball things where the further you get it the more points you get?

"Don't give them any ideas in the Competition Committee. In Yankee Stadium, as little as that ballpark is, they don't need any help."

No, they don't. But to New York's credit, the Yankees keep helping themselves. It's easy for fans to hate them, but how many falso wish their team's owner were as hell-bent on winning as the Steinbrenners have been for as long as they've been in the game?

"It makes everybody else step up their game and spend money," Ross says. "It's healthy for the game. It fuels the fans and the rivalries.

"You want people to go watch. Go see how far they can hit the ball. It pushes other organizations to get better and I just think it's great for the game."

A couple of years ago in Arizona, Dave Stewart, the former pitcher, worked with Cashman to complete a trade. Stewart was the Diamondbacks GM who sent Gregorius to the Yankees in that three-way deal in December of 2014. A year later, Stewart lured ace Zack Greinke to Arizona on a $206.5 million deal.

Instead of sparking a playoff run, the Diamondbacks were a bust in 2016 and Stewart was fired by Arizona.

He knows the tension and pressure of a life lived on the high wire, and having returned to his previous role as a player agent, Stewart also knows the bottom line from all sides of the great divide.

"You can hate all you want to," Stewart says, "but I admired the Yankees from early on, because they were committed to winning."

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Giancarlo Stanton-Aaron Judge Duo Completes Yankees’ Next-Gen Dynasty Core

Crack open every superlative you can think of: Yankee Dynasty, Bronx Bombers, Jeter the Jerk...oh wait, that last one slipped in there somewhere from South Florida, but don't you mind that.

As the rest of baseball gnashed its teeth, seethed and split its time between being awestruck by this new New York Yankees conglomerate and blind rage as the Derek Jeter ownership group turns the Miami Marlins into a chop shop, the Yankees and the Yankees Icon cooperated on an absolutely stunning deal, sending slugger Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees just three weeks after he was named as the National League Most Valuable Player. The trade is awaiting Stanton's approval and physical examinations of those involved.

The deal sets up the incredible notion of Stanton, who ripped 59 home runs last year, and Aaron Judge, who blasted 52, batting back-to-back for new Yankees manager Aaron Boone this summer.

From Baltimore to Seattle, more than a few American League pitchers undoubtedly spent part of Saturday wetting their pants as they checked their Twitter feeds.

"Add the impact hitter Gary Sanchez, and with this young, power-hitting group, think the young A's with Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire," one American League executive told B/R on Saturday morning.

"They're going to need a lot more batting practice balls," quipped an executive with another AL team.

How unprecedented is this?

Only twice before in baseball history has a reigning Most Valuable Player been traded. The most recent was in 2004, when the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez from Texas after a Rangers deal with Boston fell apart. The other? Way back in 1914, when Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's dealt Eddie Collins to the Chicago White Sox.

Furthermore, only two players slugged more than 50 homers last season, and now Boone will write both of them into his 2018 lineup. The Yanks now employ both the AL and NL home run champions from 2017.

Next year's Yankees will sneeze and the ball will go out of the park.

Where this team has come in just 18 or so months after dumping Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira and deciding to go full-speed ahead with a reboot is simply remarkable.

Just when other AL clubs were exhaling, thinking that at least the Yankees would go dark for awhile as they reshuffled their roster and acquired young prospects, general manager Brian Cashman put the pedal to the metal and raced past most of the rest of the AL field.

And the best thing about Stanton absolutely falling into their lap after he used his full no-trade clause to scuttle deals that were in place with both the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals is that it didn't cost them any significant pieces from their young core.

Greg Bird is still here, his ceiling still expected to be sky high after injuries wrecked much of his 2017 season. Young infielders Gleyber Torres and Ronald Torreyes. Young pitchers Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield. Outfielder Clint Frazier.

The Yankees were able to dump second baseman Starlin Castro, who is guaranteed $22 million over the next two seasons, and, essentially, some Styrofoam peanuts to the Marlins. The youngsters the Yankees are sending, according to B/R sources, are middling. The kind who fill out organizations, not boost organizations. Yeah, packing peanuts.

Of course, acquiring Stanton does not come without risk. The knock on him is durability, and while he did play in 159 games in 2017, he has made it to the opening bell for 123 or fewer games in four of the past six seasons. Tossing aside the scary end to his 2014 season, when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch in Milwaukee, nagging injuries, like hamstrings, have eroded too many seasons. For the 10 years and $297 million left on his deal, the Yankees certainly hope last summer's marathon man impression was the start of something big for Stanton.

Because if he is a mainstay in the lineup, look out. Stanton and Judge could give several teams a run for their power money by themselves:

All rise, indeed: In one sense, this is a throwback to the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris days for the Yankees:

No question, given their financial largesse, the Yankees are better positioned than nearly anybody else to catch a guy like Stanton on the rebound. Though the Giants and Cardinals tried hard to acquire him, Stanton was able to pull levers behind the scenes, using his full no-trade clause, to help place himself. One person close to him told B/R in October that wherever he decided to go, it would be to a place that guaranteed him a chance to win, that he was tired of going through rebuilds nearly every season in Miami.

The Yankees rebuild—or reboot—it turns out, lasted about as long as it takes you to blink your eyes. Open them back up, and wow. Even without Stanton the Yankees led the majors with 241 home runs in a summer in which MLB clubs combined to smash a single-season record 6,105 home runs. The bar was set high, and individually it was set by the Yankees.

Now, this.

So forget that brief time last Sunday when New York raged because Japanese icon Shohei Ohtani dared to tell the Yankees he did not want to play in their city. Shohei Who?

With Stanton and Judge together, the 2018 Yankees will absolutely terrorize pitchers from coast to coast. Facing these guys will be torture, one pitch at a time, and especially in Yankee Stadium. Only Baltimore's Camden Yards and Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark produced more homers than Yankee Stadium in 2017. Every night will be Guaranteed Home Run Night in Yankee Stadium in 2018.

Really, just one looming question remains: If Stanton and Judge combine to bring the Yankees their 28th World Series title, will Derek Jeter be awarded a sixth ring?

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Shohei Ohtani Joins Mike Trout in Perfect Spot to Maximize 2-Way MLB Stardom

It's a long way from Tokyo Disneyland to the Disneyland in Anaheim, but it's going to be an incredibly short distance now from Shohei Ohtani to Mike Trout in the Los Angeles Angels lineup.

Just when you thought maybe things seemed a little Goofy in the Ohtani Sweepstakes, what with all of the cloak-and-dagger silence and the big, bad, New York Yankees being bounced from the talks last Sunday, here came the Angels swooping in on Friday to close the deal with the highest-profile Japanese player since Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

And given Ohtani's two-way ability to provide a middle-of-the-order bat and produce a fastball reading of up to 102 mph on the radar gun, there is every reason to believe that Ohtani could become the highest-profile MLB player from Japan ever.

The news, which was announced by Ohtani's American agency, Creative Artists Agency, a little after 11 a.m. PT on Friday, came as an absolute shock around the game.

The Angels, who must pay Ohtani's Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, a $20 million posting fee, had no known ties to Ohtani and are a distant second to the Dodgers in Los Angeles Q rating. Seattle has had a Japanese player on its roster in every season since 1998 and is part-owned by Nintendo. San Diego had a working relationship with Hokkaido and employs executives who wooed him years ago when they were working for the Dodgers (Logan White and Acey Kohrogi) and a director of applied sports science who once worked with Ohtani in Japan (Seiichiro Nakagaki). Texas lured Ohtani's baseball hero, Yu Darvish, from Japan back in 2012.

Yet, the Angels.

"What mattered to him most wasn't market size, time zone or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels," Nez Balelo, Ohtani's agent at CAA, said in a statement. "He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals."

Both Seattle ($3.557 million) and Texas ($3.535 million) had more international pool money to offer Ohtani than did the Angels ($2.315). But Ohtani's actions never were about money, otherwise he would have waited two more years to leave Japan for MLB, when he turned 25 and would have been a true free agent able to command millions.

Instead, the 23-year-old dreamer, who initially wanted to go straight from his Japanese high school to MLB before the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters lured him in 2013 by agreeing to make him a two-way player, decided within the last year that now would be the time to chase his goals in the majors.

How the Angels set up their team to allow Ohtani to pitch and hit will be fascinating. For one thing, the rapidly aging Albert Pujols absorbed most of the designated hitter at-bats last summer, with 611 of his plate appearances coming as a DH and just 25 as a first baseman. Reports this winter are that he's dropped a few pounds and is in good shape, but he still turns 38 on Jan. 16. That hasn't changed.

If Pujols, who has had feet and leg problems in recent years, is healthy enough to play more games at first base, that would help make Ohtani's transition easier. He could DH in the days between starts, which would be less wear-and-tear on his legs. Still unanswered is the question of whether he would play a position on the day before he starts or whether he would take that day to prepare for his pitching assignment. With Hokkaido, Ohtani did not hit on the day he pitched, nor did he hit on the day before and day after pitching.

In Japan, starting pitchers work once every seven days, and teams have Mondays off. Aside from the change in cultures, on the field, that is the biggest challenge that pitchers face coming over from Japan. MLB teams play more games and travel more, so the grind of a season can result in serious fatigue during the stretch run and can be a real issue that clubs must manage. Across town, the Dodgers' Kenta Maeda was on fumes two Septembers ago.

However the Angels work it, and some of how they deploy Ohtani likely will have to be improvised as they go depending on how he is performing and how he feels, his pairing with Trout will make the Angels must-see every day of the season. One day, those two bats could put a hurt on their opponent. The next, perhaps Trout will make a game-saving leap over the fence to preserve an Ohtani victory.

In 543 innings pitched in Japan, the right-handed Ohtani produced a 2.52 ERA with 624 strikeouts. At the plate, the left-handed Ohtani batted .286 with an .859 OPS and 48 home runs in 1,170 plate appearances.

The possibilities, and creativity, seem limitless.

How unusual is this?

While the Angels finished 80-82 last summer and second to Houston in the AL West, 21 games back, they will have outfielder Justin Upton for a full season this summer along with Trout and right fielder Kole Calhoun. Ohtani has not played the outfield since 2014.

On the mound, despite a rotation decimated by injuries last season, Angels starters ranked sixth in the AL with a 4.38 ERA. Ohtani, a right-hander, should add needed depth to a front three of Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker (expected to be ready this spring following forearm surgery) and Tyler Skaggs.

And for now, Ohtani will come cheap. Beyond the signing bonus, his likely salary will be the $545,000 major league minimum next season. Of course, in a market like Los Angeles and given his already high profile, Ohtani should be able to rake in plenty of extra money through endorsements as well.

"Teams clearly put in a lot of work, and we are grateful for that," Balelo said in the statement. "The past few weeks also further demonstrated Shohei's incredible thoughtfulness, attention to detail and determination to make an informed decision. He read every page of every presentation and listened to every word in each meeting, and he was so impressed that it was not an easy choice."

He took meetings last week with seven clubs: the Angels, Dodgers, Seattle, Texas, San Francisco, San Diego and the Chicago Cubs.

Padres owner Ron Fowler characterized Ohtani to Bleacher Report as "a great young man. I'm sorry we didn't get him. Our guys made a presentation that was just unbelievable, as close as we could come to hitting it out of the park."

Among other things, general manager A.J. Preller opened San Diego's presentation by speaking to Ohtani in Japanese for several minutes.

But in the end, it was the Angels who spoke the loudest to Ohtani.

"If you become a professional baseball player, you're either a hitter or a pitcher," Takashi Ofuchi, Hokkaido's amateur scout group leader and a key figure in luring Ohtani to the Fighters in 2013, told Bleacher Report last winter. "But if a person has the possibility to do everything, we need to look at that person and his talent and bring his skills along all at the same time. It's like Michelangelo and Einstein. They could do art and science, everything."

Indeed, why put fences around genius and creativity?

"As a scout, I have to look at the person and his abilities," Ofuchi continued. "Ohtani is the player who changed my way of thinking."

Now, it is up to Ohtani and the Angels to change the thinking throughout MLB. And while they do, who better to have in place to lend an assist than Superman Trout?

Suddenly, summer seems just around the corner.

          

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Remembering Baseball Legend Roy Halladay: Friend, Father, 5 a.m. Workout Warrior

What I remember most is the early mornings, spring of 2010.

This was away from the noise of Roy Halladay's two Cy Young awards, eight All-Star appearances and the absolute brilliance of what would come some eight months later, when he no-hit Cincinnati in Game 1 of the Cincinnati Reds-Philadelphia Phillies Division Series, his first-ever postseason appearance.

No. This was 8 a.m., just after the Phillies' clubhouse opened to the media at their spring training home in Clearwater, Florida. Following more than a decade with the Toronto Blue Jays, Halladay was 33, wanted desperately to win and had engineered an offseason trade to the Phillies for two reasons.

One, they were coming off consecutive World Series appearances in 2008 and 2009. And two, because he lived with his wife and two young sons just a short drive from Philadelphia's camp and wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

Inside that mid-February clubhouse what the Phillies couldn't stop talking about regarding their new ace was how early Halladay arrived every day.

Like, 4:30-or-5-in-the-morning early.

A minor leaguer named Phillippe Aumont told me he had been in town three weeks and had yet to beat Halladay to the Phillies' workout facility in the morning. Veteran closer Brad Lidge told me of Halladay's legendary workouts, "when I'm getting here at 9 in the morning, he's finishing up."

Greatness becomes publicly visible in front of 47,000 standing, frenzied fans during the maw of a no-hitter, or in the throes of a perfect game, or in the plow horse workload of eight 200-inning seasons.

But greatness begins at home, before dawn and alone. It feeds on drive, and it is fueled by ambition.

Roy Halladay, who died Tuesday unspeakably early, at the prime-of-life age of 40, when the small aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, tapped into those things as much as any ace of his generation.

He was great for the Toronto Blue Jays for most of a decade, he was great for the Phillies from 2010-13, and when his shoulder frayed and the hop disappeared from his fastball following all of those innings and finally led him into retirement, he was great with his family.

He reappeared this spring talking about it. He always said he'd be back one day, that baseball always would be in his blood, but worn out from the weight and expectations of two organizations upon retirement, first he needed to go home and be a dad and a husband. And when he finally came back this spring to help with the Phillies' pitchers, he was essentially moonlighting. His real job was as the pitching coach at Calvary Christian High School, a mere mile away from the Phillies' complex, where his son Braden, 16, was a sophomore pitcher. His other son, Ryan, is now 12.

As a competitor, as a father, as a friend, as someone who gave of his time to charity, Halladay earned rave reviews from whichever clubhouse he called home. He led by example and was widely admired, and with baseball's family scattered for the winter following the conclusion of the World Series last week, the shattering, sickening news spread quickly, and the reactions only reinforced it.


Another spring morning, this one in 2009.

Halladay ran through a workout with Toronto in what would be his final spring with the Blue Jays. Indications were growing that he would be traded within the next year. The Canadian dollar had taken a beating in a slumping economy and the Jays were forced to slice payroll. The club's owner, Ted Rogers, had died months before. Meanwhile, Halladay wasn't getting any younger. But when I caught him at the end of the team's workout, he still hadn't run through his own individual workout. If you want to hang around, he told me, I'll talk. But he warned: It's going to be a while.

I went out and grabbed a sandwich, drove back to Toronto's facility and, finally, some 90 minutes after the team had finished working out, Halladay was finishing up. The rest of the Jays had a free afternoon and plans. Halladay had a weight room and lifting.

"I want to be a part of this team making that push," Halladay told me after morning had faded into afternoon as we talked the one subject he always came back to: winning. "It becomes important for any player. Your priorities change. When you come up, you want to establish yourself. Now, after you've been around awhile, all you want to do is win. And the shorter the window, you start getting a little anxious."

He was a big man, 6'6", and could be intimidating. His fastball sizzled. His presence dominated. But he also had one other weapon he utilized, one that not every big flamethrower will: his mind. Early in his Toronto career, after the Jays dispatched him back to the minors when he was still trying to establish himself, he sought out a man named Harvey Dorfman, who was a pioneer in the field of sports psychology.

It was Halladay's wife, Brandy, who actually gets credit. Browsing at a bookstore, she happened upon one of Dorfman's seminal books, The Mental ABC's of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance Enhancement, and picked it up, thinking perhaps it would help boost her husband's confidence. He devoured it, became a Dorfman disciple and rocketed to superstardom shortly thereafter.

By the time he finished, he had thrown a whopping 67 complete games and 20 shutouts.


In his spare time he loved flying, and he purchased the ICON A5 only a few weeks ago that crashed:

His own kids older now, Halladay's return to the game this spring was viewed as the first step to what eventually would have become a more permanent role with the Phillies.

Instead, news of Halladay's death was sudden, stunning and horrible. And as it soaks in, I think back to Aumont, who remained with the Phillies through 2015, lived his dream of playing with Halladay and retired this summer after landing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

"When I get to Canada, that's all I hear, Halladay, Halladay, Halladay," Aumont, a Quebec native, told me on that long ago February morning. "Now I get to be in the same clubhouse with him. I've watched him since I was 15 years old. And now, five or six years later, you're together in the same clubhouse."

And I can't help but think back to the solitude of those spring mornings, Halladay hard at work, the horizon wide open, open to whatever he would make of it.

Around the memories, through the tears, a legacy now carries on in a wholly different way than ever intended.

      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

George Springer, Elite Young Core Turn Houston ‘Lastros’ into 1st-Time Champs

LOS ANGELES — Ten days ago, forget a title—the Houston Astros had never won so much as a World Series game since the year of their inception in 1962.

Then they stepped into Game 1 of this Fall Classic, led by their fearless and mostly flawless leadoff man George Springer...and Springer whiffed four times. He stunk up the place so badly he couldn’t have hit Los Angeles traffic if he exited the carpool lane. Debuts seldom go so wrong, even for D-list Hollywood actors.

That seems like, oh, 56 years ago now.

Forget the opening, but what a show. Once Springer and the Astros sprung to life, the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn't dodge them. Couldn't outrun, outslug or outpitch them, and by the time Houston polished off a 5-1 Game 7 rout before 54,124 in Dodger Stadium, they laid claim to a word they never before could.

"We are a championship city!" Houston manager A.J. Hinch exclaimed onstage during the championship presentation in front of an enormous throng of raucous Astros fans behind the first-base Houston dugout. "These players are always going to be called champions."

Springer, the World Series Most Valuable Player, bounced back from taking that Game 1 golden sombrero to hit .379 with three doubles, five homers, seven RBI and eight runs scored. His eight extra-base hits stand as a World Series record, surpassing Willie Stargell's seven in the 1979 Series. His five homers tied the New York Yankees' Reggie Jackson (1977) and the Philadelphia Phillies' Chase Utley (2009) as the most ever in a Fall Classic. And he became the first player ever to homer in four consecutive World Series games.

From zero to 80 mph in one game flat.

"Unbelievable!" Springer said.

What did the Astros do to pick him up after that rough Game 1?

"He was facing Clayton Kershaw," Astros catcher Brian McCann said. "He made his pitches that night. You tip your cap and move on. You turn the page."

His father, George Springer II, didn't see much of a need to speak with his son, either, following a Game 1 in which Kershaw fanned him three times and Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen struck him out once.

"Didn't need to," Springer II said. "He knows how to turn the page. He understands it's a game. You pick yourself up, and you move forward. The sun always comes up. He's done it consistently."

It's fitting that what Springer did, really, was mirror the rise of these Astros. It wasn't long ago that they too were taking oh-fers and looking for new sunrises.

In November 2011, owner Jim Crane took possession of an aging roster and a broken organization that was stripped to the studs after it traded traded stars like Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn under Drayton McLane. Crane hired Jeff Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals the next month. In the shadow of the national space program, what McLane did was akin to NASA tearing apart one of its rockets, boosters, engines and all, leaving the seat and starting over.

The Astros lost between 106 and 111 games each season from 2011 through 2013. What they did was master the art of tanking: conceding seasons in exchange for hoarding draft picks.

It was ugly, it was painful, and it was beyond chaotic. A lifelong member of the National League, Crane agreed to move his club to the American League in 2013 as a condition of purchasing it. An identity crisis hit hard, the losses piled up, and in 2014, there were days when the Astros charted a 0.0 television rating for some games.

"It was painful," Astros Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell said, standing on the Dodger Stadium turf as the celebration howled around him. "When I left after '05, things started to go south. Then came the 100-loss seasons. It wears on the kids. It's no fun losing."

As one of those who played on Houston's only previous World Series team, the 2005 club that was swept by the Chicago White Sox, Bagwell took it personally.

"You don't want to go on losing all the time," he said. "Then you get Altuve, Springer, Correa, Dallas, Verlander, Yuli, Bregman. Everything Luhnow and the front office did to get this rolling...it's worked out right now."

Out of the darkness came, via the draft, Cy Young-winning pitcher Dallas Keuchel, World Series MVP George Springer, superstar shortstop Carlos Correa and superstar-in-waiting third baseman Alex Bregman.

Signed as international free agents were batting champion Jose Altuve and slugger Yuli Gurriel. Acquired at this year's August waivers trade deadline was ace pitcher Justin Verlander, who went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts for the Astros and then 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA in the postseason.

The remnants of the tanking are still scattered about: This year's Astros, for example, drew 2.4 million fans, still down from the glory days of Bagwell and Craig Biggio, when they regularly drew around 3 million.

But by the time Verlander arrived, it was evident that this was as good a team as any in baseball and maybe the best. After the Astros clinched the AL West title Sept. 17, Verlander exclaimed in the celebration that this probably was the best team he's played on, raving about the club's athleticism, how every single position player in the lineup could scoot from first to third on a hit or score from second.

The ace was already a veteran of two losing World Series teams in Detroit in 2006 and 2012, and it was easy to think back to fearsome sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez who played station-to-station ball and ultimately fell short.

Now, as the Astros lined up for introductions in Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Carlos Beltran leaned over to McCann—a fellow Yankee turned Astro—along the baseline and quietly said, "You know we’re going to win the World Series. This team deserves it."

With that, Beltran gave McCann a hug, and off they went.

"This whole experience has been emotionally draining," a joyful McCann said. "Intense baseball that you don't get during the regular season.

"You can't play six months like this. You'd be crushed by May."

Game 7 didn't quite match the thrills and chills of some of the rest of this World Series. The Astros mugged Dodgers starter Yu Darvish for two runs in the first inning and three more in the second, including Springer's two-run homer that stamped the night with a feeling of inevitability. By game's end, Verlander and Keuchel were warming and ready in the bullpen, just in case.

"This was a dogfight, as hard a fought series...emotionally draining, physically draining," Springer said. "It took seven games. But the difference between us and them today was us scoring early. Being able put them on their heels early and not [let them] attack us was huge."

It was the first time two teams with 100 wins during the regular season met in a World Series since 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds dueled, and Wednesday night became even more dramatic. It was the first time two 100-win clubs met in Game 7 of the World Series since 1931, when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Athletics.

The drama didn't last long, however, thanks to Darvish. Not only did the Astros beat the Dodgers on the field, but they also, in hindsight, whipped them at the trade table this summer when the Dodgers veered away from Verlander and focused on Darvish.

The Dodgers also never recovered from prematurely yanking starter Rich Hill in Game 2. He was cruising along with seven strikeouts in four innings when the Los Angeles analytic storm hit: No matter how well Hill was pitching, they were not going to allow him to face the Houston lineup a third time. That set off a chain reaction that wound up with Los Angeles using nine pitchers and being stuck with Brandon (Losing Pitcher) McCarthy on the mound in the 11th inning. McCarthy hadn't pitched in more than three weeks.

Instead of taking a two-games-to-none lead in the series, the Dodgers went to Houston with the series tied at one game each. And in Games 2, 3, 4 and 5 combined, the Dodgers ran through a stretch in which they used 25 pitchers in 35 innings. In Sunday's wild 13-12 Houston Game 5 win, the Dodgers blew a four-run lead, a three-run lead and a one-run lead.

"This was a great series between two 100-win teams, two great teams, two great offenses, two great defenses, two great pitching staffs," Springer said. "The wildness of this series, the wackiness of this series, the emotional ups and downs...being able to play in this was something I'll never forget."

Nor will anyone associated with the Astros or the city of Houston. Together, Springer and the Astros started in a hole, and together, they roared back by playing some of the best baseball you'll ever see.

"Incredible," Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio said, standing near his buddy Bagwell on the Dodger Stadium infield. "Watching the growing pains. We weren't good, we stocked up on No. 1 picks, and now you [see] them all over the field.

"From an organizational standpoint, from the city's standpoint, speaking as someone who lives in Texas...this is a big deal."

                      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

George Springer, Elite Young Core Turn Houston ‘Lastros’ into 1st-Time Champs

LOS ANGELES — Ten days ago, forget a title—the Houston Astros had never won so much as a World Series game since the year of their inception in 1962.

Then they stepped into Game 1 of this Fall Classic, led by their fearless and mostly flawless leadoff man George Springer...and Springer whiffed four times. He stunk up the place so badly he couldn’t have hit Los Angeles traffic if he exited the carpool lane. Debuts seldom go so wrong, even for D-list Hollywood actors.

That seems like, oh, 56 years ago now.

Forget the opening, but what a show. Once Springer and the Astros sprung to life, the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn't dodge them. Couldn't outrun, outslug or outpitch them, and by the time Houston polished off a 5-1 Game 7 rout before 54,124 in Dodger Stadium, they laid claim to a word they never before could.

"We are a championship city!" Houston manager A.J. Hinch exclaimed onstage during the championship presentation in front of an enormous throng of raucous Astros fans behind the first-base Houston dugout. "These players are always going to be called champions."

Springer, the World Series Most Valuable Player, bounced back from taking that Game 1 golden sombrero to hit .379 with three doubles, five homers, seven RBI and eight runs scored. His eight extra-base hits stand as a World Series record, surpassing Willie Stargell's seven in the 1979 Series. His five homers tied the New York Yankees' Reggie Jackson (1977) and the Philadelphia Phillies' Chase Utley (2009) as the most ever in a Fall Classic. And he became the first player ever to homer in four consecutive World Series games.

From zero to 80 mph in one game flat.

"Unbelievable!" Springer said.

What did the Astros do to pick him up after that rough Game 1?

"He was facing Clayton Kershaw," Astros catcher Brian McCann said. "He made his pitches that night. You tip your cap and move on. You turn the page."

His father, George Springer II, didn't see much of a need to speak with his son, either, following a Game 1 in which Kershaw fanned him three times and Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen struck him out once.

"Didn't need to," Springer II said. "He knows how to turn the page. He understands it's a game. You pick yourself up, and you move forward. The sun always comes up. He's done it consistently."

It's fitting that what Springer did, really, was mirror the rise of these Astros. It wasn't long ago that they too were taking oh-fers and looking for new sunrises.

In November 2011, owner Jim Crane took possession of an aging roster and a broken organization that was stripped to the studs after it traded traded stars like Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn under Drayton McLane. Crane hired Jeff Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals the next month. In the shadow of the national space program, what McLane did was akin to NASA tearing apart one of its rockets, boosters, engines and all, leaving the seat and starting over.

The Astros lost between 106 and 111 games each season from 2011 through 2013. What they did was master the art of tanking: conceding seasons in exchange for hoarding draft picks.

It was ugly, it was painful, and it was beyond chaotic. A lifelong member of the National League, Crane agreed to move his club to the American League in 2013 as a condition of purchasing it. An identity crisis hit hard, the losses piled up, and in 2014, there were days when the Astros charted a 0.0 television rating for some games.

"It was painful," Astros Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell said, standing on the Dodger Stadium turf as the celebration howled around him. "When I left after '05, things started to go south. Then came the 100-loss seasons. It wears on the kids. It's no fun losing."

As one of those who played on Houston's only previous World Series team, the 2005 club that was swept by the Chicago White Sox, Bagwell took it personally.

"You don't want to go on losing all the time," he said. "Then you get Altuve, Springer, Correa, Dallas, Verlander, Yuli, Bregman. Everything Luhnow and the front office did to get this rolling...it's worked out right now."

Out of the darkness came, via the draft, Cy Young-winning pitcher Dallas Keuchel, World Series MVP George Springer, superstar shortstop Carlos Correa and superstar-in-waiting third baseman Alex Bregman.

Signed as international free agents were batting champion Jose Altuve and slugger Yuli Gurriel. Acquired at this year's August waivers trade deadline was ace pitcher Justin Verlander, who went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts for the Astros and then 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA in the postseason.

The remnants of the tanking are still scattered about: This year's Astros, for example, drew 2.4 million fans, still down from the glory days of Bagwell and Craig Biggio, when they regularly drew around 3 million.

But by the time Verlander arrived, it was evident that this was as good a team as any in baseball and maybe the best. After the Astros clinched the AL West title Sept. 17, Verlander exclaimed in the celebration that this probably was the best team he's played on, raving about the club's athleticism, how every single position player in the lineup could scoot from first to third on a hit or score from second.

The ace was already a veteran of two losing World Series teams in Detroit in 2006 and 2012, and it was easy to think back to fearsome sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez who played station-to-station ball and ultimately fell short.

Now, as the Astros lined up for introductions in Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Carlos Beltran leaned over to McCann—a fellow Yankee turned Astro—along the baseline and quietly said, "You know we’re going to win the World Series. This team deserves it."

With that, Beltran gave McCann a hug, and off they went.

"This whole experience has been emotionally draining," a joyful McCann said. "Intense baseball that you don't get during the regular season.

"You can't play six months like this. You'd be crushed by May."

Game 7 didn't quite match the thrills and chills of some of the rest of this World Series. The Astros mugged Dodgers starter Yu Darvish for two runs in the first inning and three more in the second, including Springer's two-run homer that stamped the night with a feeling of inevitability. By game's end, Verlander and Keuchel were warming and ready in the bullpen, just in case.

"This was a dogfight, as hard a fought series...emotionally draining, physically draining," Springer said. "It took seven games. But the difference between us and them today was us scoring early. Being able put them on their heels early and not [let them] attack us was huge."

It was the first time two teams with 100 wins during the regular season met in a World Series since 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds dueled, and Wednesday night became even more dramatic. It was the first time two 100-win clubs met in Game 7 of the World Series since 1931, when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Athletics.

The drama didn't last long, however, thanks to Darvish. Not only did the Astros beat the Dodgers on the field, but they also, in hindsight, whipped them at the trade table this summer when the Dodgers veered away from Verlander and focused on Darvish.

The Dodgers also never recovered from prematurely yanking starter Rich Hill in Game 2. He was cruising along with seven strikeouts in four innings when the Los Angeles analytic storm hit: No matter how well Hill was pitching, they were not going to allow him to face the Houston lineup a third time. That set off a chain reaction that wound up with Los Angeles using nine pitchers and being stuck with Brandon (Losing Pitcher) McCarthy on the mound in the 11th inning. McCarthy hadn't pitched in more than three weeks.

Instead of taking a two-games-to-none lead in the series, the Dodgers went to Houston with the series tied at one game each. And in Games 2, 3, 4 and 5 combined, the Dodgers ran through a stretch in which they used 25 pitchers in 35 innings. In Sunday's wild 13-12 Houston Game 5 win, the Dodgers blew a four-run lead, a three-run lead and a one-run lead.

"This was a great series between two 100-win teams, two great teams, two great offenses, two great defenses, two great pitching staffs," Springer said. "The wildness of this series, the wackiness of this series, the emotional ups and downs...being able to play in this was something I'll never forget."

Nor will anyone associated with the Astros or the city of Houston. Together, Springer and the Astros started in a hole, and together, they roared back by playing some of the best baseball you'll ever see.

"Incredible," Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio said, standing near his buddy Bagwell on the Dodger Stadium infield. "Watching the growing pains. We weren't good, we stocked up on No. 1 picks, and now you [see] them all over the field.

"From an organizational standpoint, from the city's standpoint, speaking as someone who lives in Texas...this is a big deal."

                      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yu Darvish Can Avenge Game 3 Nightmare, Become World Series Game 7 Hero

LOS ANGELES — Yu Darvish patiently explained Tuesday why he declined Yuli Gurriel's offer to personally and privately apologize to him over the weekend in Houston.

Wouldn't you know it. The way this wild and thrilling World Series finally will play out, they instead will meet again very, very publicly here Wednesday night.

In the biggest start of his life, Darvish, who came up small in a Game 3 bludgeoning, now has a golden chance at redemption when the Los Angeles Dodgers hand him the ball for Game 7.

Darvish appeared at the podium in the press room Tuesday roughly four hours before the Dodgers ambushed Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros 3-1 in Game 6 to steal what might have been the Astros' last, best hope to win what has turned into one of the most classic World Series in years.

"I told him, 'Hey, you don't have to do that, because you made a comment, and, like, I'm not that mad,'" Darvish said, referring to a Gurriel apology that already had been relayed to him. "So, like, I really didn't care that much about that."

But Darvish's teammates knew what it would mean to him to get another chance to shine on the sport's biggest stage, and they promised they would make it happen.

In a pregame dugout huddle before Game 4, several Dodgers assured Darvish, "We're going to get this one for you."

It had more meaning than simply helping him overcome his 1.2-inning, six-hit, four-earned run letdown. It was about showing him they had his back amid a controversy he didn't want to be dragged into.

Gurriel, who was predictably and lustily booed by the sellout crowd of 54,128 in both pregame introductions and in each of his four plate appearances in Game 6 on Tuesday, chose not to appear postgame. He left before reporters were allowed inside the Astros clubhouse, leaving only a shiny gold watch in his locker as evidence that he had, indeed, occupied it.

The Astros expected their teammate would have his ears pinned back by Los Angelenos. Veteran Carlos Beltran, a teammate of Darvish's with the Texas Rangers last season before he signed with the Astros in December, has worked overtime behind the scenes to broker peace and make sure each of these men can try to move forward despite Gurriel's reprehensible racist gesture. Knowing Dodgers fans would let Gurriel have it, Beltran made sure to talk with the Astros' slugging first baseman earlier in the day.

"I told him: Just think about it as if they're calling 'Yuuuuu,' the two letters of your first name," Beltran said. "Just try to flip that and use it as an advantage.

"He made a mistake. Yu Darvish, based on his quote, was able to turn the page right away. He said it was offensive for him, but he put a good quote out there and focused on the positive, not the negative."

What was particularly powerful about Darvish's statement was his desire for the world to learn from this and embrace love.

We all need to learn from how inappropriate and offensive the gesture was. We need to learn how to show remorse for our mistakes. We need to learn how to forgive when that remorse is shown, even when it seems hard not to hold on to that hate.

The only positive that can come out of this is the hope it can prevent a similar situation in the future.

Gurriel, who went 1-for-4 in Game 6, spent much of his night on the business end of the Dodger Stadium catcalls. As Los Angeles radio play-by-play man Charley Steiner said on the air, the fans did not let him up for air.

"I understand," Astros center fielder George Springer said. "I guess you have the right to be upset, but, in my opinion, this one instance doesn't define Yuli."

It's not surprising the Astros have defended their friend. He's a guy they need in a good mindset in order to take home a ring.

But MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said it best when asked to make a statement on the situation: "There is no place in our game for any behavior like the behavior we witnessed last night. There is no excuse."

Darvish will have enough on his mind as he attempts to atone for a Game 3 shellacking in which he lasted just 12 batters. He threw only 49 pitches. And it was Gurriel's leadoff home run in the second that led to the ugly incident that scarred what otherwise has been one of the most joyful and pulsating World Series in years.

Back in the dugout, Gurriel put his fingers to the corners of his eyes and pulled on them, saying to his teammates he hadn't had success against Japanese pitchers. He also referred to Darvish as "chinito," a demeaning Spanish term for Asians.

The gesture and the word were caught by a television camera, went right onto social media and soon went viral. A chastened Gurriel issued a statement of apology afterward and then spent five minutes apologizing and attempting to explain himself to reporters.

It was a night Darvish would like to forget for many reasons, not the least of which was because the Dodgers acquired him from the Rangers minutes before the July trade deadline to help them win a World Series. Between that and his impending free agency this winter, this is perhaps the most important stretch of Darvish's career.

Now, here comes Game 7.

"First of all, not just as a teammate, but as a person, we have really good people in this clubhouse," Darvish said. "I really appreciate my teammates supporting me. But going towards [the Game 7] outing, it doesn't change anything.

"I take any game seriously, and it's going to be the same because of what happened before Game 4. ... I'm making every effort I can make for every time I go out there."

The Dodgers continued to have Darvish's back during Game 6. Before Gurriel's first at-bat, Los Angeles starter Rich Hill stepped off the rubber and acted busy, allowing the boos to pummel Gurriel for a few extra moments.

Now, as the Dodgers attempt to win their first World Series since 1988 with Darvish leading the way, the veteran right-hander will have his own say. And likely in the second inning, Gurriel will step into the batter's box, and their latest meeting will be on full, dramatic public display.

"That's crazy, man," Beltran said. "Sometimes things play out the way we cannot script."

So much drama always is on display in Game 7.

With the world watching and, hopefully, learning, this one will pack a little something extra.

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yu Darvish Can Overcome Game 3 Nightmare, Yuli Gurriel Gesture to Be Game 7 Hero

LOS ANGELES — Yu Darvish patiently explained Tuesday why he declined Yuli Gurriel's offer to personally and privately apologize to him over the weekend in Houston.

Wouldn't you know it. The way this crazy and thrilling World Series finally will play out, they instead will meet again and very, very publicly here on Wednesday night.

In the biggest start of his life, Darvish, who came up small in a Game 3 bludgeoning, now has a golden chance at redemption when the Los Angeles hands him the ball for Game 7.

Darvish appeared at the podium in the press room Tuesday roughly four hours before the Dodgers ambushed Houston and Justin Verlander 3-1 to steal what might have been the Astros' last, best hope to win what has turned into one of the most classic World Series' in years.

"I told him, 'Hey, you don't have to do that, because you made a comment, and, like, I'm not that mad,'" Darvish said, referring to a Gurriel apology that already had been relayed to Darvish. "So, like, I really didn't care that much about that."

Gurriel, who was predictably and lustily booed by the sellout crowd of 54,128 in both pregame introductions and in each of his four plate appearances, chose not to appear postgame. He left before reporters were allowed inside the Astros' clubhouse, leaving only a shiny, gold watch in his locker as evidence that he had, indeed, occupied it.

The Astros expected their teammate and friend would have his ears pinned back by Los Angelenos. Veteran Carlos Beltran, a teammate of Darvish's in Texas before signing with the Astros this year, has worked overtime behind-the-scenes to broker peace and make sure that each of these men knows that the other is a good person despite Gurriel's reprehensible gesture, made sure to talk with the Astros' slugging first baseman earlier in the day. He knew Dodgers fans would try to get in his head.

"I told him, just think about it as if they're calling 'Yuuuuu', the two letters of your first name," Beltran said. "Just try to flip that and use it as an advantage.

"I know sometimes it's hard to do that but at the end of the day, Yuli's a good man. He made a mistake. Yu Darvish, based on his quote, was able to turn the page right away. He said it was offensive for him but he put a good quote out there and focused on the positive, not the negative."

Gurriel, who went 1 for 4 in Game 6, spent much of his night on the business end of the Dodger Stadium catcalls. As Los Angeles radio play-by-play man Charley Steiner said on the air, the fans were not letting him up for air.

"I understand," Astros outfielder George Springer said. "I guess you have the right to be upset but, in my opinion, this one instance doesn't define Yuli. He's a hell of a guy, and I know he didn't mean it."

Darvish will have enough on his mind attempting to atone for a Game 3 battering in which he lasted just 12 batters, surrendering four earned runs and six hits. He threw only 49 pitches. And it was Gurriel's leadoff home run in the second that led to the ugly incident that scarred what otherwise has been one of the most joyful and pulsating World Series' in years:

Back in the dugout and overcome with emotion, Gurriel put his hands to his eyes and slanted them, explaining to his teammates that he was thrilled because it was the first time he hit a home run against a Japanese pitcher. He told them that Darvish pitched him like a "chinito"—slang for a little Asian man—apparently meaning that Darvish threw a fat pitch to him.

The gesture and the word were caught by the television cameras, went right onto social media and soon went viral. A chastened Gurriel issued a statement of apology afterward and then spent five minutes apologizing and attempting to explain himself to reporters.

It was a night Darvish would like to forget for many reasons, not the least of which because the Dodgers acquired him from the Rangers literally seconds before the July trade deadline to help them win a World Series. Between that and his impending free agency this winter, this is perhaps the most important stretch of Darvish's career.

In a pregame dugout huddle the next day before Game 4, several Dodgers assured Darvish that they were going to win that game for him. Much like the Astros are rallying around Gurriel, a man they say is a good person who made a mistake, the Dodgers have rallied around Darvish after his embarrassing Game 3 outing.

Now, here comes Game 7.

"First of all, not just as a teammate, but as a person, we have really good people in this clubhouse," Darvish said. "I really appreciate my teammates supporting me. But going towards [the Game 7] outing, it doesn't change anything.

"I take any game seriously, and it's going to be the same because of what happened before Game 4. … I'm making every effort I can make for every time I go out there."

The Dodgers continued to have Darvish's back during Game 6. Before Gurriel's first at-bat, Los Angeles starter Rich Hill stepped off of the rubber and acted busy, allowing the boos and catcalls to pummel the Houston first baseman for a few extra minutes.

Now, as the Dodgers attempt to win their first World Series title since 1988 with Darvish leading the way, the veteran Japanese right-hander will have his own say. And likely in the second inning, Gurriel will step into the batter's box and their latest meeting will be on full dramatic public display.

"That's crazy man," Beltran said. "Sometimes things play out the way we cannot script."

"I know he didn't mean it," Springer said of Gurriel. "I know he's suffering for it. It's tough to watch. … I just want the world to know that Yuli Gurriel is a great person."

So much drama always is on display in Game 7.

With the world watching and, hopefully, learning, this one will pack a little something extra.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

 

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Home Run Wars: MLB’s Stars Tell You How to Properly Hype a World Series Dinger

LOS ANGELES — Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon in 1969.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa became the first man to nearly bat-flip to the moon during a World Series game in 2017.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind's…bat!

It came during Game 2 of this crank-up-the-fun Dodgers-Astros World Series, an epic match now racing toward Game 6 Tuesday night in Dodger Stadium with the pure, unbridled joy of youthful innocence. Conspicuously absent is any trace of old-school venom from the grumps who would disapprove of anything close to celebratory.

"All of the emotions are running when you're playing at the biggest stage of baseball and you hit your first homer," Correa tells B/R. "It was so much fun."

The rest of this thing is, too.

Through five games of this 113th World Series, never has the formerly staid Fall Classic seen so much flipping, flapping, dancing, grinning and what once was considered baseball sinning.

The 22 home runs through Game 5 set a World Series record, surpassing the old mark of 21 set in 2002 by the San Francisco Giants and the then-Anaheim Angels.

Of those 22, 14 either have tied the game or put a team in the lead.

That means almost every home run has led to party time.

"Everybody is doing their best, trying to play and have fun and have a good effort," the King of the Bat Flips himself, Yasiel Puig, tells B/R. "Especially in [Game 5], there were a lot of runners and a lot of hits for both teams."

Game 5, Game 2, Game 4…take your pick. Swag is in attendance nightly.

During Sunday's rock 'em, sock 'em heavyweight battle which the Astros won, 13-12, in 10 innings to move Houston to within one win of a world championship, Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger slugged a three-run homer that launched Los Angeles to a 7-4 lead in the fifth inning. Upon crossing the plate, Bellinger punctuated his return trip to the Dodgers' dugout by putting his index finger to his lips. No, you didn't need a DVR and a crisp replay to see the dude was shushing Houston's fans.

This after teammate Joc Pederson went all Kirk Cousins one night earlier, screaming "You like that?! You like that?!" after drilling a three-run homer during the Dodgers' five-run ninth inning in a 6-2 Game 4 win. Cousins, the Washington Redskins' quarterback, shouted that spontaneously two years ago into a television camera he was passing while leaving the field following a big comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Pederson later claimed he was so hyped, he had no idea what he was saying in the moment.

As this series swings back and forth and emotions fly higher than all the bats, what's notable is that aside from Yuli Gurriel's racial slur, the Astros haven't angered the Dodgers and the Dodgers haven't teed off the Astros.

"That's the way it should be," Correa says. "It's the World Series. It's the biggest stage in baseball. You're supposed to go out and have fun.

"At the end of the day, we're really young, and we want to go out there and feel like [children] playing the game. I think the fans get more involved. The fans love it, they talk about it, they tweet about it, so it brings everybody closer together and makes everyone love baseball even more."

Through Game 5, this World Series has included eight home runs hit by players age 25 or younger. That already ties it with the 1953 World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers for the second-most homers by players in that age bracket, according to MLB. Only the 1957 World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and New York Yankees had more, with nine.

Correa, 23, nearly sent his bat into the clouds after smashing the first World Series homer of his career. The All-Star shortstop admits it was his most flamboyant flip yet. The fact that it also extended Houston's lead to 5-3 in the 10th inning of Game 2, after the Astros had dropped Game 1, amped up the emotion.

"We were inside, we had all of our lucky spots and man, he crushed that ball," Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. says. "I think it's fun. It draws fans in. I know how guys react, and if it's acceptable or not [can be controversial], but I think the way the game's moving, it brings the fans in. Man, they love it. It gives them something to talk about.

"And I think they enjoy people showing emotion on the field when they get big outs or big strikeouts. It was pretty awesome for our dugout. It was pretty sweet."

It was on that same Dodger Stadium field a mere four years ago when the 2013 National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals broke out into a literal battle of new school vs. old school. St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright was offended when Adrian Gonzalez was demonstrative at second base following a double, and Puig's emotional reaction following a triple further angered the Cardinals.

Wainwright called it "Mickey Mouse stuff." Carlos Beltran, who is now with the Astros but has yet to play in this World Series, said Puig doesn't know how to act.

During the Blue Jays-Rangers American League Division Series two years ago, Jose Bautista sent purists into a rage when he flipped his bat after a monstrous three-run homer that helped the Jays advance.   

Now? You might say the page has flipped right along with the bat.

Where Puig's ears once routinely burned every time he dared do anything flamboyant, all Correa heard was crickets where the critics were concerned. Nobody from the Dodgers even looked at him sideways.

"I didn't get a tweet about it or anything," Correa says. "It was all good.

"I think people are starting to embrace the bat flip and make it a part of baseball already."

Now even some old-timers wish the game was different when they played.

"I wish I had more fun when I was playing," admits Tony Clark, whose 15-year MLB career eventually led him to oversee all of these current goofballs as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "The kids need to see our guys having fun. Our game is fun. Our game's a lot of work, and it takes a particular skill set and requires that you hone it, improve it and dial it in. Being strong helps, being fast helps, being athletic helps, being able to hit that little round ball as they throw it at you is a remarkable skill to have. And when you can do it when you can do it at the rate our guys do and have fun doing it…"

Clark says that when he was a kid, he admired Dave Winfield's wiggle in the batter's box, Rickey Henderson's "pickin' and poppin'" when he was running the bases and Pete Rose diving into second. He says that watching this spring's World Baseball Classic and some of the enthusiasm and emotion on display then "was as much fun as I've had in a long time watching our game. It was an absolute blast."

Begrudgingly or not, even the pitchers these days are more tolerant. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen took no offense to Correa's bat flip.

"If they hit a home run off of me, they deserve it," says Astros starter Dallas Keuchel, who only gave up 15 all season. "I don't give up many.

"Fans like it, and when you're in the moment, that's fine. I think it gets iffy when you get bat flips when you're down.

"If you're not in the lead, there's no reason for it."

And if it puts you in the lead?

"Then go ahead and throw your bat in the stands."

Dodgers backup infielder Charlie Culberson didn't flip, but he practically moonwalked around the bases after slugging a solo Game 2 homer in the bottom of the 11th to pull the Dodgers to within 7-6.

As he alternately spread his arms as if imitating the wings of an airplane and pointed toward the stands, many people were confused. Did he think he had hit a game-tying homer?

Are you kidding? Not this product of the Calhoun, Georgia, school system.

"No, I'm good at math," Culberson quips, pointing out that he not only knew the score was 7-5, but that he also knew nobody was on base, an equation which did not equal a tie game.

"It was an adrenaline rush," he says. "There was a lot going on, my family was there. I pointed to my parents and my wife in the stands. We're just playing ball and having fun."

The perfect bat flip, Puig explains, is neither rehearsed nor planned.

"It needs to come from your heart," he says. "There's no preparing for a bat flip. Nothing. It's coming in the moment."

That's the key element as to why, as the game gets younger, knee-jerk reaction is fading away.

"Carlos is a very poised young player, he understands moments of games very well, and I think in that moment, he knew what that extra run meant for our team and he wanted to celebrate it," McCullers says. "The greatest thing about it was he flipped the bat and looked straight to the dugout, and we were celebrating along with him.

"I think it's really cool to see that aspect, where players are starting to engage their teammates in the celebrations rather than making it a solo act, a look-at-me type thing. It's more a team celebration."

Even from across the field, Puig couldn't help but admire it, to the point that when he homered in the bottom of the inning, he went oppo. Instead of tossing his bat, he simply reached down and placed it on the ground as though it was made of crystal.

"You expect a bat flip from him, right?" McCullers says. "So he set it down on the floor, just kind of lays it there. It's all bringing some character to the game. If you're a fanbase of one team and your guys are doing it, you love it. If you're a fanbase of the other team and you have it done to you, you hate it.

"I think it's great. I think it brings the teams and the fans closer together."

Says Correa: "It's the kind of baseball people want to watch. They want us to put on a show for them. I think that's the way to do it."

The World Series is something every one of these players has dreamed of since he was a little boy, says Alonzo Powell, Houston's highly respected assistant hitting coach. And like McCullers, he loves that these celebrations within the game have become more about the team and less about the individual.

Like hitters looking into the dugout in the immediate aftermath of a homer or bat flip, Powell notes that the game has moved to the point where "pitchers holler into the dugout when they get a big strikeout, too. As long as you're not pointing a finger at the other dugout…the playoffs, the All-Star Game, the World Series, have fun. We're showcasing baseball to the world."

Who knows? At this rate, maybe Powell and his fellow hitting coaches across the game will need to spend five minutes or so a day next spring teaching sessions on the finer points of the bat flip.

"I'll let them do that on their own," Powell says, chuckling. "I'll stick to working with them on their mechanics."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yu Darvish Making Millions by the Pitch as the Kershaw Sidekick Dodgers Needed

HOUSTON  All he knew when he showed up in Los Angeles over the summer was that Clayton Kershaw was on ice.

The Back Injury Heard 'Round Baseball was still reverberating throughout the game, and Yu Darvish was nervously coming to grips with the first trade of his career. The Texas Rangers, the only team he had ever known in the United States, had shipped him to the Dodgers.

Now what?

"In the beginning, I was a little worried that people might be looking for a replacement for Clayton Kershaw," Darvish told Bleacher Report through a translator this week. "And those are big shoes to fill."

Three months later, on the grandest stage of his career, Darvish is in full exhale. The Dodgers never expected him to replace Kershaw, only support their ace left-hander. And as he prepares to make the first World Series start of his career Friday in Game 3, you might say Darvish is on a roll.

He is 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in two starts this postseason. He fired five one-run innings in the National League Division Series clincher in Arizona. Then, he handcuffed the Chicago Cubs on six hits and one run over 6.1 innings in a Game 3 victory in the National League Championship Series.


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Now here he is, looking to pick up the Dodgers following their crushing 11-inning, 7-6 Game 2 loss. He still cannot believe he is participating in a World Series, telling Japanese reporters, "I cannot fathom the magnitude of this event." All the while his free-agent price tag this winter is increasing by the pitch.

"Whoever signs him, ownership feels good because he brings a buzz to the organization because the fans are excited," one American League executive tells B/R. "Everyone saw him on the big stage, so everybody's all-in, and it becomes very easy to overpay guys like that."

"Not everyone in an organization is an evaluator. Some [key decision-makers] are fans, too. That's why players who perform in October, it makes it easier to sign them."

Another executive believes Darvish will command a minimum of five years and $100 million this winter, and a third guesstimates the 31-year-old right-hander will wind up with a deal of somewhere between five and seven years at $20 million to $25 million per.

Before he gets to that, however, the Dodgers are counting on him to extend his run of postseason excellence and command the World Series Game 3 script against an Astros lineup featuring stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer that did significant damage the other night in Dodger Stadium.

In his fifth year in the majors following seven starring seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, Darvish is in the right place at the right time for a number of reasons.

Chief among them is that he's reached a comfortable place in his own mind.

"After I came here, people were very welcoming, and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am," he says. "That makes it much easier for me to fit in in this clubhouse."

It wasn't easy. Sure, his first start for Los Angeles was brilliant: seven shutout innings in New York in a 6-0 breeze over the Mets. But over his next five starts, he got knocked around pretty hard, surrendering a 6.94 ERA and causing many around the Dodgers to wonder what exactly they had traded for.

In retrospect, that was a time of experimentation for Darvish. Really, much of the past two summers have been touch-and-feel for him since he came back from Tommy John surgery early in the 2016 season.

He was 6-9 with a 4.01 ERA over 22 starts for Texas this season before the trade. He showed flashes of his old self but was unable to harness the old consistency. Then came the trade, and the adjustment not only to new teammates but, to a degree, to new ideas as well.

"It's not just about me pitching," Darvish says of that rocky five-start patch shortly after he joined the Dodgers. "It's about me communicating with my teammates. Obviously, I don't know about my catchers, and my catchers don't know about me. So, obviously, it takes time working it out to get to my problem, and then communicating with my catchers and my teammates.

"That's how I overcame the hard times. Those are the keys."

With so many pitches in his repertoire and because he is a thinker, Darvish has always been considered one of the more high-maintenance pitchers in the game. He throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cut-fastball, curve, changeup, slider. Add in a few variations on those and it can feel like going to an amusement park. A different ride every 20 minutes.

"He has so many different weapons you can get enamored with," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says.

Honeycutt looked at Darvish video pre-Tommy John surgery and post, searching for clues to help move him out of neutral. He and the right-hander agreed on one thing: Darvish's right shoulder was dipping too low in his delivery, allowing his left shoulder to raise too high, which was producing a diminishing effect on his changeup. So they smoothed out Darvish's delivery, raising his right shoulder a tick to make it closer to even with his left shoulder. This altered his arm slot, and his changeup improved. 

When things got complicated for him, Honeycutt looked to simplify things, advising him to winnow his mix of pitches at certain timesconcentrate on what's working in the moment, rather than searching for something that isn'tand also altering, at times, his rhythm on the mound.

Despite his stature in the game, Darvish was accepting of the advice and worked with the Dodgers. Even in the midst of his slump, he never lost faith.

"I can't imagine coming to a new organization in the middle of a pennant race and wanting to prove that you're the pitcher we traded for," Kershaw says. "And on the cusp of free agency, wanting to showcase your skills and at the same time wanting to tinker with things and change some things to make yourself even better. Yu's been amazing about that."

Upon his arrival, Darvish says, "People here were very welcoming and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am. That makes it much easier to fit in."

It was a learning process for both sides. As Honeycutt says, "You don't know when you get someone from a different organization how much information was given to them."

The Dodgers are an analytics-heavy club that provides as much informationvideo, statisticalas any of its players wants. Darvish is an information seeker, Honeycutt says, and reached out not only to him but to the club's front office. Through this, his relationship with catchers Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal was being constructed.

"I want him to pitch with confidence and with the level of flexibility he wants," Honeycutt says. "And it's our job to help move the catchers in the direction he wants them to go."

What Kershaw noticed was that when he watched Darvish pitch, it was like he was thinking about things during games, like "about a release point and doing this with his arm and trying to feel it."

"All that stuff was awesome in between starts," Kershaw says. "But it's hard enough to get major league hitters out while you're thinking about mechanics.

"So all I told him was those four days [between starts] you tinker, you work on whatever you need to, but that fifth day you're out there, your stuff is so good. Just go compete."

Pure stuff has never been an issue for Darvish. When he was in his first big league camp with the Rangers in the spring of 2012, his father, Farsad, said Yu threw so hard as a young boy that his classmates in elementary school did what they could to avoid playing dodgeball with him.

"The kids would say it hurt" when he smoked them with the ball, Farsad said. "They didn't want to play with him."

Opponents on the baseball field throughout the years have felt much the same way, and when the Dodgers had a chance to acquire him this summer in talks that went right up to the last seconds of the deadline literallythey moved. They also talked with Detroit about ace Justin Verlander, according to B/R sources, but they lined up with the Rangers.

"Having him go out and pitch so well obviously is fun to watch, but mostly because it's putting us in a better position to win a championship," Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, says.

Darvish's newfound dominance in Los Angeles is one enormous reason why Kershaw finally is shaking off the flawed-to-a-degree narrative that he is not an October pitcher. With Darvish and a strong bullpen, the Dodgers have not had to risk overworking Kershaw by leaning on him too much.

In the past, when the Dodgers' rotation was spotty or their bullpen was weak, they started Kershaw in October on short rest or pitched him deeper into games than probably was fair to him. As Honeycutt says, "Too much was asked."

With Darvish, Rich Hill and Alex Wood in the rotation and Brandon Morrow, Kenta Maeda and closer Kenley Jansen in the bullpen, too much has not been asked of Kershaw. After throwing 100 pitches in Game 1 against Arizona, he hasn't even cracked 90 in his next three starts (87, 89 and 83). Perhaps not coincidentally, Kershaw is 3-0 this postseason, with a signature moment in Game 1 of the Series.

These are not the days of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, with the rest of the rotation filled out by empty jerseys.

And despite Wednesday's Game 2 stumble, the Dodgers are a long way from the time when they had no bridge between whoever started on a given night and Jansen.

"We all knew something was going to happen at the deadline, and getting Yu, with his reputation and his stuff, we were already feeling it," Dodgers starter Alex Wood says. "He has a good sense of humor and he's pretty laid-back. And he likes to dissect pitching. It's been fun having him."

Darvish is doing exactly what the Dodgers acquired him to dodissecting both pitching and rival hittersand both he and the team stand to benefit in a big way.

Perhaps it will lead to the Dodgers' first World Series title in 29 years, and maybe even to a long-term relationship.

"It's easy for me to say right now," Darvish says, eyes twinkling, "that if they offer me $500 million and five years, I can say OK."

Yeah, the guy sure does have a sense of humor.

Right now, he's hitting his spots with the best of 'em.

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yu Darvish Making Millions by the Pitch as the Kershaw Sidekick Dodgers Needed

HOUSTON  All he knew when he showed up in Los Angeles over the summer was that Clayton Kershaw was on ice.

The Back Injury Heard 'Round Baseball was still reverberating throughout the game, and Yu Darvish was nervously coming to grips with the first trade of his career. The Texas Rangers, the only team he had ever known in the United States, had shipped him to the Dodgers.

Now what?

"In the beginning, I was a little worried that people might be looking for a replacement for Clayton Kershaw," Darvish told Bleacher Report through a translator this week. "And those are big shoes to fill."

Three months later, on the grandest stage of his career, Darvish is in full exhale. The Dodgers never expected him to replace Kershaw, only support their ace left-hander. And as he prepares to make the first World Series start of his career Friday in Game 3, you might say Darvish is on a roll.

He is 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in two starts this postseason. He fired five one-run innings in the National League Division Series clincher in Arizona. Then, he handcuffed the Chicago Cubs on six hits and one run over 6.1 innings in a Game 3 victory in the National League Championship Series.

Now here he is, looking to pick up the Dodgers following their crushing 11-inning, 7-6 Game 2 loss. He still cannot believe he is participating in a World Series, telling Japanese reporters, "I cannot fathom the magnitude of this event." All the while his free-agent price tag this winter is increasing by the pitch.

"Whoever signs him, ownership feels good because he brings a buzz to the organization because the fans are excited," one American League executive tells B/R. "Everyone saw him on the big stage, so everybody's all-in, and it becomes very easy to overpay guys like that."

"Not everyone in an organization is an evaluator. Some [key decision-makers] are fans, too. That's why players who perform in October, it makes it easier to sign them."

Another executive believes Darvish will command a minimum of five years and $100 million this winter, and a third guesstimates the 31-year-old right-hander will wind up with a deal of somewhere between five and seven years at $20 million to $25 million per.

Before he gets to that, however, the Dodgers are counting on him to extend his run of postseason excellence and command the World Series Game 3 script against an Astros lineup featuring stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer that did significant damage the other night in Dodger Stadium.

In his fifth year in the majors following seven starring seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, Darvish is in the right place at the right time for a number of reasons.

Chief among them is that he's reached a comfortable place in his own mind.

"After I came here, people were very welcoming, and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am," he says. "That makes it much easier for me to fit in in this clubhouse."

It wasn't easy. Sure, his first start for Los Angeles was brilliant: seven shutout innings in New York in a 6-0 breeze over the Mets. But over his next five starts, he got knocked around pretty hard, surrendering a 6.94 ERA and causing many around the Dodgers to wonder what exactly they had traded for.

In retrospect, that was a time of experimentation for Darvish. Really, much of the past two summers have been touch-and-feel for him since he came back from Tommy John surgery early in the 2016 season.

He was 6-9 with a 4.01 ERA over 22 starts for Texas this season before the trade. He showed flashes of his old self but was unable to harness the old consistency. Then came the trade, and the adjustment not only to new teammates but, to a degree, to new ideas as well.

"It's not just about me pitching," Darvish says of that rocky five-start patch shortly after he joined the Dodgers. "It's about me communicating with my teammates. Obviously, I don't know about my catchers, and my catchers don't know about me. So, obviously, it takes time working it out to get to my problem, and then communicating with my catchers and my teammates.

"That's how I overcame the hard times. Those are the keys."

With so many pitches in his repertoire and because he is a thinker, Darvish has always been considered one of the more high-maintenance pitchers in the game. He throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cut-fastball, curve, changeup, slider. Add in a few variations on those and it can feel like going to an amusement park. A different ride every 20 minutes.

"He has so many different weapons you can get enamored with," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says.

Honeycutt looked at Darvish video pre-Tommy John surgery and post, searching for clues to help move him out of neutral. He and the right-hander agreed on one thing: Darvish's right shoulder was dipping too low in his delivery, allowing his left shoulder to raise too high, which was producing a diminishing effect on his changeup. So they smoothed out Darvish's delivery, raising his right shoulder a tick to make it closer to even with his left shoulder. This altered his arm slot, and his changeup improved. 

When things got complicated for him, Honeycutt looked to simplify things, advising him to winnow his mix of pitches at certain timesconcentrate on what's working in the moment, rather than searching for something that isn'tand also altering, at times, his rhythm on the mound.

Despite his stature in the game, Darvish was accepting of the advice and worked with the Dodgers. Even in the midst of his slump, he never lost faith.

"I can't imagine coming to a new organization in the middle of a pennant race and wanting to prove that you're the pitcher we traded for," Kershaw says. "And on the cusp of free agency, wanting to showcase your skills and at the same time wanting to tinker with things and change some things to make yourself even better. Yu's been amazing about that."

Upon his arrival, Darvish says, "People here were very welcoming and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am. That makes it much easier to fit in."

It was a learning process for both sides. As Honeycutt says, "You don't know when you get someone from a different organization how much information was given to them."

The Dodgers are an analytics-heavy club that provides as much informationvideo, statisticalas any of its players wants. Darvish is an information seeker, Honeycutt says, and reached out not only to him but to the club's front office. Through this, his relationship with catchers Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal was being constructed.

"I want him to pitch with confidence and with the level of flexibility he wants," Honeycutt says. "And it's our job to help move the catchers in the direction he wants them to go."

What Kershaw noticed was that when he watched Darvish pitch, it was like he was thinking about things during games, like "about a release point and doing this with his arm and trying to feel it."

"All that stuff was awesome in between starts," Kershaw says. "But it's hard enough to get major league hitters out while you're thinking about mechanics.

"So all I told him was those four days [between starts] you tinker, you work on whatever you need to, but that fifth day you're out there, your stuff is so good. Just go compete."

Pure stuff has never been an issue for Darvish. When he was in his first big league camp with the Rangers in the spring of 2012, his father, Farsad, said Yu threw so hard as a young boy that his classmates in elementary school did what they could to avoid playing dodgeball with him.

"The kids would say it hurt" when he smoked them with the ball, Farsad said. "They didn't want to play with him."

Opponents on the baseball field throughout the years have felt much the same way, and when the Dodgers had a chance to acquire him this summer in talks that went right up to the last seconds of the deadline literallythey moved. They also talked with Detroit about ace Justin Verlander, according to B/R sources, but they lined up with the Rangers.

"Having him go out and pitch so well obviously is fun to watch, but mostly because it's putting us in a better position to win a championship," Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, says.

Darvish's newfound dominance in Los Angeles is one enormous reason why Kershaw finally is shaking off the flawed-to-a-degree narrative that he is not an October pitcher. With Darvish and a strong bullpen, the Dodgers have not had to risk overworking Kershaw by leaning on him too much.

In the past, when the Dodgers' rotation was spotty or their bullpen was weak, they started Kershaw in October on short rest or pitched him deeper into games than probably was fair to him. As Honeycutt says, "Too much was asked."

With Darvish, Rich Hill and Alex Wood in the rotation and Brandon Morrow, Kenta Maeda and closer Kenley Jansen in the bullpen, too much has not been asked of Kershaw. After throwing 100 pitches in Game 1 against Arizona, he hasn't even cracked 90 in his next three starts (87, 89 and 83). Perhaps not coincidentally, Kershaw is 3-0 this postseason, with a signature moment in Game 1 of the Series.

These are not the days of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, with the rest of the rotation filled out by empty jerseys.

And despite Wednesday's Game 2 stumble, the Dodgers are a long way from the time when they had no bridge between whoever started on a given night and Jansen.

"We all knew something was going to happen at the deadline, and getting Yu, with his reputation and his stuff, we were already feeling it," Dodgers starter Alex Wood says. "He has a good sense of humor and he's pretty laid-back. And he likes to dissect pitching. It's been fun having him."

Darvish is doing exactly what the Dodgers acquired him to dodissecting both pitching and rival hittersand both he and the team stand to benefit in a big way.

Perhaps it will lead to the Dodgers' first World Series title in 29 years, and maybe even to a long-term relationship.

"It's easy for me to say right now," Darvish says, eyes twinkling, "that if they offer me $500 million and five years, I can say OK."

Yeah, the guy sure does have a sense of humor.

Right now, he's hitting his spots with the best of 'em.

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yu Darvish Making Millions by the Pitch as the Kershaw Sidekick Dodgers Needed

HOUSTON  All he knew when he showed up in Los Angeles over the summer was that Clayton Kershaw was on ice.

The Back Injury Heard 'Round Baseball was still reverberating throughout the game, and Yu Darvish was nervously coming to grips with the first trade of his career. The Texas Rangers, the only team he had ever known in the United States, had shipped him to the Dodgers.

Now what?

"In the beginning, I was a little worried that people might be looking for a replacement for Clayton Kershaw," Darvish told Bleacher Report through a translator this week. "And those are big shoes to fill."

Three months later, on the grandest stage of his career, Darvish is in full exhale. The Dodgers never expected him to replace Kershaw, only support their ace left-hander. And as he prepares to make the first World Series start of his career Friday in Game 3, you might say Darvish is on a roll.

He is 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in two starts this postseason. He fired five one-run innings in the National League Division Series clincher in Arizona. Then, he handcuffed the Chicago Cubs on six hits and one run over 6.1 innings in a Game 3 victory in the National League Championship Series.

Now here he is, looking to pick up the Dodgers following their crushing 11-inning, 7-6 Game 2 loss. He still cannot believe he is participating in a World Series, telling Japanese reporters, "I cannot fathom the magnitude of this event." All the while his free-agent price tag this winter is increasing by the pitch.

"Whoever signs him, ownership feels good because he brings a buzz to the organization because the fans are excited," one American League executive tells B/R. "Everyone saw him on the big stage, so everybody's all-in, and it becomes very easy to overpay guys like that."

"Not everyone in an organization is an evaluator. Some [key decision-makers] are fans, too. That's why players who perform in October, it makes it easier to sign them."

Another executive believes Darvish will command a minimum of five years and $100 million this winter, and a third guesstimates the 31-year-old right-hander will wind up with a deal of somewhere between five and seven years at $20 million to $25 million per.

Before he gets to that, however, the Dodgers are counting on him to extend his run of postseason excellence and command the World Series Game 3 script against an Astros lineup featuring stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer that did significant damage the other night in Dodger Stadium.

In his fifth year in the majors following seven starring seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, Darvish is in the right place at the right time for a number of reasons.

Chief among them is that he's reached a comfortable place in his own mind.

"After I came here, people were very welcoming, and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am," he says. "That makes it much easier for me to fit in in this clubhouse."

It wasn't easy. Sure, his first start for Los Angeles was brilliant: seven shutout innings in New York in a 6-0 breeze over the Mets. But over his next five starts, he got knocked around pretty hard, surrendering a 6.94 ERA and causing many around the Dodgers to wonder what exactly they had traded for.

In retrospect, that was a time of experimentation for Darvish. Really, much of the past two summers have been touch-and-feel for him since he came back from Tommy John surgery early in the 2016 season.

He was 6-9 with a 4.01 ERA over 22 starts for Texas this season before the trade. He showed flashes of his old self but was unable to harness the old consistency. Then came the trade, and the adjustment not only to new teammates but, to a degree, to new ideas as well.

"It's not just about me pitching," Darvish says of that rocky five-start patch shortly after he joined the Dodgers. "It's about me communicating with my teammates. Obviously, I don't know about my catchers, and my catchers don't know about me. So, obviously, it takes time working it out to get to my problem, and then communicating with my catchers and my teammates.

"That's how I overcame the hard times. Those are the keys."

With so many pitches in his repertoire and because he is a thinker, Darvish has always been considered one of the more high-maintenance pitchers in the game. He throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cut-fastball, curve, changeup, slider. Add in a few variations on those and it can feel like going to an amusement park. A different ride every 20 minutes.

"He has so many different weapons you can get enamored with," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says.

Honeycutt looked at Darvish video pre-Tommy John surgery and post, searching for clues to help move him out of neutral. He and the right-hander agreed on one thing: Darvish's right shoulder was dipping too low in his delivery, allowing his left shoulder to raise too high, which was producing a diminishing effect on his changeup. So they smoothed out Darvish's delivery, raising his right shoulder a tick to make it closer to even with his left shoulder. This altered his arm slot, and his changeup improved. 

When things got complicated for him, Honeycutt looked to simplify things, advising him to winnow his mix of pitches at certain timesconcentrate on what's working in the moment, rather than searching for something that isn'tand also altering, at times, his rhythm on the mound.

Despite his stature in the game, Darvish was accepting of the advice and worked with the Dodgers. Even in the midst of his slump, he never lost faith.

"I can't imagine coming to a new organization in the middle of a pennant race and wanting to prove that you're the pitcher we traded for," Kershaw says. "And on the cusp of free agency, wanting to showcase your skills and at the same time wanting to tinker with things and change some things to make yourself even better. Yu's been amazing about that."

Upon his arrival, Darvish says, "People here were very welcoming and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am. That makes it much easier to fit in."

It was a learning process for both sides. As Honeycutt says, "You don't know when you get someone from a different organization how much information was given to them."

The Dodgers are an analytics-heavy club that provides as much informationvideo, statisticalas any of its players wants. Darvish is an information seeker, Honeycutt says, and reached out not only to him but to the club's front office. Through this, his relationship with catchers Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal was being constructed.

"I want him to pitch with confidence and with the level of flexibility he wants," Honeycutt says. "And it's our job to help move the catchers in the direction he wants them to go."

What Kershaw noticed was that when he watched Darvish pitch, it was like he was thinking about things during games, like "about a release point and doing this with his arm and trying to feel it."

"All that stuff was awesome in between starts," Kershaw says. "But it's hard enough to get major league hitters out while you're thinking about mechanics.

"So all I told him was those four days [between starts] you tinker, you work on whatever you need to, but that fifth day you're out there, your stuff is so good. Just go compete."

Pure stuff has never been an issue for Darvish. When he was in his first big league camp with the Rangers in the spring of 2012, his father, Farsad, said Yu threw so hard as a young boy that his classmates in elementary school did what they could to avoid playing dodgeball with him.

"The kids would say it hurt" when he smoked them with the ball, Farsad said. "They didn't want to play with him."

Opponents on the baseball field throughout the years have felt much the same way, and when the Dodgers had a chance to acquire him this summer in talks that went right up to the last seconds of the deadline literallythey moved. They also talked with Detroit about ace Justin Verlander, according to B/R sources, but they lined up with the Rangers.

"Having him go out and pitch so well obviously is fun to watch, but mostly because it's putting us in a better position to win a championship," Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, says.

Darvish's newfound dominance in Los Angeles is one enormous reason why Kershaw finally is shaking off the flawed-to-a-degree narrative that he is not an October pitcher. With Darvish and a strong bullpen, the Dodgers have not had to risk overworking Kershaw by leaning on him too much.

In the past, when the Dodgers' rotation was spotty or their bullpen was weak, they started Kershaw in October on short rest or pitched him deeper into games than probably was fair to him. As Honeycutt says, "Too much was asked."

With Darvish, Rich Hill and Alex Wood in the rotation and Brandon Morrow, Kenta Maeda and closer Kenley Jansen in the bullpen, too much has not been asked of Kershaw. After throwing 100 pitches in Game 1 against Arizona, he hasn't even cracked 90 in his next three starts (87, 89 and 83). Perhaps not coincidentally, Kershaw is 3-0 this postseason, with a signature moment in Game 1 of the Series.

These are not the days of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, with the rest of the rotation filled out by empty jerseys.

And despite Wednesday's Game 2 stumble, the Dodgers are a long way from the time when they had no bridge between whoever started on a given night and Jansen.

"We all knew something was going to happen at the deadline, and getting Yu, with his reputation and his stuff, we were already feeling it," Dodgers starter Alex Wood says. "He has a good sense of humor and he's pretty laid-back. And he likes to dissect pitching. It's been fun having him."

Darvish is doing exactly what the Dodgers acquired him to dodissecting both pitching and rival hittersand both he and the team stand to benefit in a big way.

Perhaps it will lead to the Dodgers' first World Series title in 29 years, and maybe even to a long-term relationship.

"It's easy for me to say right now," Darvish says, eyes twinkling, "that if they offer me $500 million and five years, I can say OK."

Yeah, the guy sure does have a sense of humor.

Right now, he's hitting his spots with the best of 'em.

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Kike Hernandez’s Heroics Inspire MLB Family, Puerto Ricans Devastated by Maria

LOS ANGELES — Wheels up. It wouldn't be long now. Three epic home runs behind him and a historic World Series in front of him, Enrique Hernandez paused amid the champagne and chaos. Slow this moment down, he told himself. His eyes were red. His heart was full.

He was looking for a hug. He was searching for his father. On this night, it would be one-stop shopping. He hadn't seen him since the final out of the best game of his career, and one of the most memorable in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers. It ended 90 minutes ago. Soon, the team charter flight would be airborne, moving this celebration from Wrigley Field into the big westbound jet, 30,000 feet in the air. But first, he was going to find Enrique Hernandez Sr., and when he did, the man known as Kike would lose himself in one of those wrap-your-arms-tight-and-shut-out-the-rest-of-the-world hugs.

"If I didn't have the dad that I have, I wouldn't be here right now," Hernandez said. "I don't know if I'd even be playing baseball."

Wheels up. It wasn't long ago, and yet it still feels like yesterday. Hurricane Maria had ravished Kike's homeland, darkening the entire island of Puerto Rico. There was no power. No drinkable water. The strongest hurricane in almost 90 years left a full-blown humanitarian crisis that remains today, one month after landfall.

Within days, Carlos Beltran tossed out a lifeline on the group chat that the MLB players who played for Puerto Rico's World Baseball Classic team continued to conduct all summer long. He had spoken with Houston's owner, and Jim Crane was on board. Crane would dispatch a couple of jets with supplies to the island, and another to ferry people out of the destruction and back to the United States.

"My family was able to get out on that plane," Hernandez explained. "My fiancee's entire family was able to get out on that plane. Mr. Crane was extremely generous for what he did. There was no reason for him to do all of what he did for my people back home."

Then Hernandez, his voice cracking, uttered those resounding words that will echo throughout this Houston-Los Angeles World Series, and beyond.

"There's still some good people in the world, man."

Beltran, who quickly donated $1 million of his own money to the relief efforts, approached Crane practically before the winds died down and the damage was fully known in Puerto Rico.

"We'll make it happen," Crane told him.

"It was a quick response, actions right away," Beltran said. "He put me in contact with his company and we were able to move a lot of things quickly."

Together, Beltran and others collected about 500,000 pounds of donations. Crane supplied the airplanes and the schematics. He also supplied a charter passenger plane straight from San Juan to Houston's Hobby Airport. Roughly 100 passengers were aboard, including, among many others, family members of Beltran, Astros bench coach Alex Cora, Cleveland Indians star shortstop Francisco Lindor and Hernandez. 

"It was just something we knew how to do," Crane says, modestly. "We had luckily raised a bunch of money when we had the big disaster here in Houston [Hurricane Harvey], and we diverted some of that cash to help pay for all that."

For Hernandez, it was a summer filled with emotions. He just missed Maria, leaving Puerto Rico the day before the hurricane made landfall after attending the funeral of his grandfather, Enrique Sr.'s father.

He died a year after Enrique Sr. had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

"He's had a rough last two years," Kike said. "Last year, the entire season, he was dealing with cancer. He got cancer, and he kicked cancer's ass."

Now, Kike would share with his father their greatest baseball moment.

"I learned to watch the game through him," Hernandez said. "He sacrificed jobs, he even lost jobs to be there for me growing up. He sat me down one time and said, 'I'm never going to force you to play this game, but if you're serious about it, I'm all-in with you.' He meant every single word of that.

"I was able to get to the big leagues when a lot of people told me I was never going to make it to the big leagues. Not only did I make it, but I helped my team get to the World Series."

Crane's generosity wasn't Hernandez's first brush with the Astros. The baseball world is sprawling, but common threads are pervasive. Hernandez's first professional steps came after Houston, of all teams, made him its sixth-round draft pick in 2009.

He climbed through the minors side by side with Astros center fielder and leadoff man George Springer and made his MLB debut in 2014 on a team that included Jose Altuve.

"Good teammate," recalled Altuve, who watched Hernandez's Game 5 heroics and thought back to those days when they both were young and oblivious to the notion that a near-term World Series could include both of them. "I felt really happy for him because he deserves it. It couldn't happen to a better guy."

Said Springer: "Great dude. He means well. He always has your back. He has a lot of fun, his whole antics, his shenanigans. He plays the game as if he's in his backyard."

The Astros shipped Hernandez to Miami at the July trade deadline in 2014, including him in a package that brought back outfielder Jake Marisnick, two minor leaguers and a 2015 draft compensation pick. Then that December, in his first major deal as president of baseball operations in Los Angeles, Andrew Friedman acquired Hernandez as part of a seven-player deal that also brought catcher Austin Barnes and pitchers Chris Hatcher and Andrew Heaney to the Dodgers in exchange for second baseman Dee Gordon, pitchers Dan Haren and Miguel Rojas and cash.

Friedman joked the other night that the trade came with just that Game 5 moment in mind, a three-homer game in the NLCS.

Depth is what these Dodgers pride themselves on, and the multidimensional Hernandez is Exhibit A. He played every position this season but pitcher and catcher. In 140 games, he batted .215/.308/.421 with 11 homers and 37 RBI. He is not an everyday player, yet manager Dave Roberts sometimes deploys him as the club's cleanup hitter. That's where he was when lightning struck in Chicago.

The "shenanigans" Springer talks about? Hernandez specializes in making those around him smile and laugh, sometimes with clever and colorful usage of, uh, let's just say inappropriate words, other times with more elaborate schemes. If he isn't the class clown, his is the next desk over in the seating chart. Like that time in 2015 when, working to lighten things up, he appeared in the dugout in full uniform and a banana costume.

"That's Kike," Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson said. "Comedian. He dances. He runs his mouth. He's pretty funny."

"He's really special," Carlos Correa, the Astros' All-Star shortstop, said. "He made everybody in Puerto Rico very proud. I felt so proud for him. People talk about the way guys were batting [for the Dodgers], Yasiel Puig, Justin Turner, Clay Bellinger, and then he does that.

"It's all such a dream. A guy from Puerto Rico makes his dream come true."

All of it hit home Tuesday night, as a sold-out Dodger Stadium showed Hernandez and his teammates the appreciation that comes with the franchise's first World Series appearance in 29 years. On his cap, in marker, he has written "Pray4Puerto Rico." And thanks to the quick reflexes of the guy who owns the team the Dodgers will try to beat, Hernandez's father, healthy, bursting with pride and currently a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was right there in Dodger Stadium along with Kike's mother.

"Kike's a good guy," Crane said. "I'm glad his family was on board. We had some disabled people in wheelchairs and some young kids, and some poor [folks] who had two little babies who were just two months old, twins. It was just whoever could make it and wanted to get out.

"I told the guys, listen, if it were my family, I would recommend you get them out because you don't know when you're going to get stuff back up and running, and they're still having trouble getting stuff back up.

"So we just tried to help out. It was the right thing to do. We were concerned."

Since those rescue missions, MLB also has sent a couple of planeloads of supplies to aid its friends in Puerto Rico, including one more a couple of weeks back.

So, wheels up on a World Series that brings with it more layers than usual. Hernandez is in the middle of a stage that is grander than most, looking for pitches to drive, like he did Wednesday night, lining single in the 10th inning to help fuel an improbable Dodgers comeback that ultimately fell short when his friend Springer upstaged him with what turned out to be a game-winning home run for the Astros in the 11th.

"Hopefully," said Hernandez before the Series and just moments after finally finding his father in the Wrigley Field family room, "I can go up to him and say, 'Hey, Mr. Crane, I know that you traded me, but thanks for getting my people out, my family out of Puerto Rico when they needed to get out of there.'

"It was amazing."

        

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

If the Dodgers Can’t Win the World Series Now, Maybe They Never Will

LOS ANGELES — All over town, all summer long, expectations expanded along with the Los Angeles Dodgers' record, growing ever larger until they delivered themselves into the aisles of the city's grocery stores and steamed into coffee shops.

Starter Rich Hill noticed it when he ducked into his neighborhood market.

Keep fighting, his fellow shoppers would tell him. Keep it going.

For low-key reliever Brandon Morrow, it was when he came and went in his apartment building.

"People would give you a fist bump when you're coming in," Morrow says. "People are pretty excited about it. And everybody at the ballpark, we interact with them more, obviously. They not only work at the ballpark, they're fans. They're there every day and, man, the excitement within the ballpark staff is awesome."

This is the year, Angelenos tell their Dodgers.

And as Clayton Kershaw and Co. prepare for liftoff in the 113th World Series beginning Tuesday night against the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium, it seems clear: If this isn't the Dodgers' year, it might never be their year.

At 104-58, these guys finished with the best record in baseball for the first time since 1974. The 104 wins were their most since they moved from Brooklyn in 1958 and tied for the second-most in franchise history (the 1942 club finished 104-50; the franchise record is 105-49 in 1953).

"It was awesome to do this, but we're not going to sit down and say, 'Ah, we got to the World Series," utility man Enrique Hernandez, the three-homer, seven-RBI Game 5 National League Championship Series hero, says. "That's not our goal. It's never been our goal.

"The goal is to win the World Series. If we get there and don't win, the season is worth nothing."

Kershaw, whom manager Dave Roberts predictably named as his Game 1 starter, is a once-in-a-generation talent often compared with Dodgers Hall of Fame lefty Sandy Koufax.

The Dodgers shelled out big bucks to re-sign three of their own free agents last offseason in closer Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million), third baseman Justin Turner (four years, $64 million) and Hill (three years, $48 million) and maintain the game's highest payroll at $265.1 million (including money owed to those not on the active roster, like Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir). They're loaded with young talent such as Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Austin Barnes.

And after years of saddling Kershaw with what proved to be a too-heavy load in October, they went all-in at the July trade deadline in acquiring Yu Darvish. It was a deft and needed move, especially after young phenom Julio Urias, projected internally and externally to be the Dodgers' next-best starter behind Kershaw by now, was felled by a season-ending shoulder injury in June.

In his third season as the club's president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman is living in a glitzy, movie star-studded different universe than he was in Tampa, where he was general manager of the Rays from 2005-14. There, the expectations were that of a third-grade gym class compared to those in L.A., where Magic Johnson, Tommy Lasorda, Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson and Kobe Bryant have fed the locals championship trophies like street tacos.

Or at least they did baseball-wise, until, ahem...29 years ago.

"I don't think until you live it you can really know it," Friedman says. "You do the math, and ... it had been a long time [since the Dodgers' last World Series title, in 1988].

"But I don't think I appreciated the passion until living it every day, getting a cup of coffee and running into someone there and, at every turn, looking out every night and 50,000 people are there so consistently and with such passion."

The Dodgers' title quest has lasted so long and included so many false starts that not only have they built the most expensive and deepest roster in the game under the Guggenheim Baseball Group, but they also have constructed an All-Star roster of baseball executives. Friedman is assisted by general manager Farhan Zaidi (former assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics), Josh Byrnes (former GM of the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks), Alex Anthopoulos (former GM of the Toronto Blue Jays) and Gerry Hunsicker (former GM of the Houston Astros).

As it does on the field, all that talent comes at an enormous price. Friedman's deal is worth $35 million plus incentives over five years, ESPN's Buster Olney reported, and you can bet his high-powered executive team isn't working for minimum wage, either.

The man whom Friedman replaced and who put much of the frame of this roster in place, Ned Colletti (Dodgers GM from 2006-14), remained employed by the club as a senior adviser to the president for a time and now serves as a broadcaster for the club.

All of this has gotten the Dodgers five consecutive National League West titles...and yet, all that's been worth is a bunch of coffee shop hipsters consistently reminding them that it's been, like, forever since this team has actually won a World Series.

When they trounced the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, the Dodgers were playing in their fifth NLCS in the past decade. They lost to the Cubs last year, and in the flamboyant Mannywood days with slugger Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp and a young Kershaw, they lost consecutive NLCS to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and 2009. In between were more playoff flameouts, more disappointments and more questions about whether Kershaw and his high-priced teammates could win in October.

Now Kershaw is 29, and he's got an opt-out clause in his contract that he can exercise following the 2018 season.

Granted, this team appears set up for the long haul with young stars like Seager and Bellinger, but, then again, when the New York Mets lost the 2015 World Series to the Kansas City Royals, they appeared in a good spot for the next many years with young pitching stars Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Look where that got them.

Forget the notion that the Dodgers haven't won a World Series since 1988.

They haven't even played in a World Series since then.

Every year spins differently, and through so many near misses in recent times, the Dodgers have kept spinning, trying their luck, making moves both big and small while attempting to cover the greatest distance in the game: the final few steps between near miss and World Series champions.

They let Zack Greinke walk after he opted out of his Dodgers deal, and Arizona swooped in at the last minute with a six-year, $206.5 million offer during the winter of 2015-16. Oh, they could have afforded to keep Greinke, but in the evaluation of Friedman and his team, that sixth year was a deal-breaker. And it would have been a case of deploying too many resources in one direction.

At the trade deadline last year, they acquired Hill, in the midst of a late-career breakout season, from Oakland. This year, the Darvish deal was big, but under-the-radar acquisitions for relievers Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani were key.

The comings and goings have been frequent: In a move that shocked the clubhouse last August, they traded catcher A.J. Ellis, Kershaw's best friend on the team. The reasoning was sound: Friedman and Co. felt the team needed to beef up its at-bats against left-handed pitchers, and the catcher they acquired from Philadelphia in the deal, veteran Carlos Ruiz, had better numbers than Ellis in that department.

Internally, the Dodgers continue to pull levers and push buttons, too. Unable to trade the then-disappointing Yasiel Puig at the deadline in 2016, they demoted him to Triple-A Oklahoma City (asked in Chicago last week which team he owed a debt of gratitude for not coughing up a big enough package to obtain Puig, Friedman quipped, "All 29"). This year, after obtaining veteran Curtis Granderson from the New York Mets, the corresponding move was to jettison center fielder Joc Pederson to Oklahoma City.

As Friedman explains, it's a fine line, accomplishing the task of not only collecting the right talent to win but also then making sure "everybody is reading off of the same song sheet."

"Part of being a Dodger is that if you're playing for this organization, you're expected to win," says Hernandez, acquired in Friedman's first big Dodgers deal, a trade that sent popular second baseman Dee Gordon to the Miami Marlins during the winter meetings in December 2014.

"You can't think of it as, 'Oooooh, we made the playoffs!' If you can't play [in the spotlight], they're going to find someone better."

In Friedman's final year running the Rays, the club operated with an $82.6 million payroll, ranked 27th among MLB's 30 clubs. What he has to work with now dwarfs that. But what hasn't changed is his overall team-building philosophy.

"I wondered coming over how that would work," Friedman says. "I think competition, in terms of the daily stakes each night, pursuing a free agent or chasing a trade, there's so many different avenues we're so focused on and hypercompetitive about. That's all that really matters, and the narrative doesn't really affect us very much.

"But I think the one thing that probably is my favorite thing about being with the Dodgers is having that many people who care so much about what we're doing. It fuels us. And when we're on the fence of being aggressive or not with what we're looking at, I think that contributes in a very positive way to doing everything we can."

Every night when Friedman, Roberts, Kershaw, Puig and the rest look out at the tens of thousands who pack Dodger Stadium, they can see why. This is the fifth consecutive season the Dodgers, who this year averaged 46,492 fans per game, led MLB in attendance.

"I have zero issues with high expectations," Friedman says. "In fact, I prefer them. It's much better than the alternative. It's been a long time since we've won a World Series in Los Angeles. That's what they want, and I don't blame them."

They all feel it. When backup shortstop Charlie Culberson's wife dropped him off at the stadium for a workout the other day, she went around to the team store in search of a Dodgers hair bow for the couple's five-year-old daughter. Sarah Culbertson couldn't believe what she saw.

"She said the line at the team store wrapped around the stadium," Culberson said.

Yeah, you could say from the marquee stars on the team—like Kershaw and Turner—down to the man who replaced the injured Seager on the roster against the Cubs—Culberson—the Dodgers realize one thing: Just getting to this point isn't enough.

"It's an accomplishment, getting to the World Series," Culberson said. "But we're not done yet.

"[Beating the Cubs], that was the second-to-last step. We're here to win."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Astros’ Huge Game 7 Win Dedicated to Houston After Hurricane Harvey’s Terror

HOUSTON — History summoned on a muggy Saturday night, and it wasn't the mighty New York Yankees it was calling.

Instead, it crooked a finger at Evan Gattis, and the burly designated hitter responded by depositing a CC Sabathia slider high over the left field wall.

It waved at Brian McCann, and the veteran catcher received a pea just above ground level from third baseman Alex Bregman, seconds ahead of a sliding cleat, to tag Greg Bird in as pretty a defensive play as you will ever see.

It hollered toward Jose Altuve, and the 5'6" second baseman carried his bat damn near all the way to first base after punching an opposite-field homer, then emotionally flung the bat, which landed just outside the first base coaches' box.

It motioned to Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and the rest of the gang, and in their 56th season, the Houston Astros won a Game 7 for the first time, swatting away the proud Yankees 4-0 to win the American League pennant.

The World Series opens Tuesday in Los Angeles, and the Astros will be there for only the second time in club history.

"We've got a lot of history up there in that light tower, but to go to the World Series for a second time…" Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio said, motioning up toward the retired numbers on display.

"These guys worked hard and played well together. And if you understand what we went through with [Hurricane] Harvey, to be able to give back to the fans, it's incredible.

"The people here needed this. Harvey didn't care what your address was."

Minute Maid Park swayed, roared and approved of this epic, command performance. My goodness, did it approve. The Yankees' half of the ninth was deafening, and the crowd counted down the final three outs.

"Crazy," Altuve said. "Since the first pitch, it was very loud.

"It was the loudest game I ever played."

Houston's lone World Series appearance was so long ago, the team was a National League club. That was in 2005, and the Astros ran into a buzz-saw pitching staff employed by the Chicago White Sox. The next World Series game these Astros win will be the first in franchise history.

Steps away from Biggio on the raucous field postgame as Verlander was accepting the American League Championship Most Valuable Player trophy, Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer and executive advisor to Astros owner Jim Crane, teared up.

"It's very special to see this team come together like it did and see the way they played," said Ryan, eyes glistening.

Over 27 years and 816 post- and regular-season games, Ryan was able to pitch in just one World Series contest, in relief—2.1 innings for the New York Mets against the Baltimore Orioles in 1969. From then until his retirement in 1993, he kept on chasing another, without ever catching up.

It's why, from different ends of the spectrum, Verlander and manager A.J. Hinch were emotional on one of the most memorable baseball Saturday nights this area has ever seen.

"This is why you play the game," Verlander said, supermodel fiancee Kate Upton by his side. "You can never expect this."

Said Hinch: "I never knew what it felt like to get to the World Series in any job I've had in 20 years. And now I do. And I have a great appreciation for what it takes to run this journey. We won 100-plus games in the regular season. We won a lot of games in the postseason so far. But it's not easy. This is a grind, and getting through so many ups and downs regardless of how the season goes is awesome when you get rewarded with a chance to win a world championship."

This is an Astros organization that stripped itself down to the studs, losing between 106 and 111 games over three seasons from 2011 to 2013, and then another 92 in 2014 as it was rebuilding around young, would-be stars such as Altuve and Correa.

"When I got here, no one talked about winning," said Hinch, who replaced Bo Porter as manager in '15. "And that was one of the first things that Altuve told me in my office, that he wanted to win. And that represented what the next step was for this organization."

The new Astros' unveiling came in 2015, when they rose up and won an AL wild-card spot, but they slipped last year, failing to make the playoffs before roaring back to win 101 games this year with a total that was second-most in club history behind Biggio's '98 team (102).

"The standards that have been established here, the work that's been put in, the synergy that goes on from the front office to the clubhouse, from ownership … we are really connected because we all have a common goal, and that's to win.

"And I don't care if you're old-school, new-school, analytical, traditional. It's about winning at this level."

Those wins, though, receded into the background briefly when Harvey struck in late August. Thousands were left homeless, powerless, car-less. Even weeks later, you can see displaced locals walking their leashed dogs through lobbies of hotels that have been good enough to extend a helping hand to them.

"Our fans have been through a lot with Hurricane Harvey," Correa said. "I'm just glad we can bring them joy."

One day earlier, with the Astros reeling and one game away from what would have been a stunning elimination after seizing a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series, it was Verlander who dominated over seven innings in winning his second game of this series.

Saturday, Morton, a 33-year-old journeyman who signed a modest two-year, $14 million deal with Houston last November, was spectacular over five shutout innings. Working with a fastball ranging up to 97 mph and a devastating curve checking in around 81 mph, he pumped in 14 strikes out of his 16 first-inning pitches. He threw just six balls over 34 pitches through three innings and a mere eight balls over four innings.

The crowd chanted his name as he pitched ("I was very aware of it," he said). They greeted him warmly out near the right field bullpen when he went to warm up before the game.

"To that degree, this moment is so special to me," Morton said. "I feel in my career like I've let a lot of people down. I feel like I've let a lot of fans down.

"To have people on their feet, it gave me so much energy."

Regarding the strikes he kept pouring into the zone, he said "I honestly felt just aggressive. With everything on the line, you can either ease your way into it, feel around the situation and try to make perfect pitches, or go after guys."

If his pitches weren't perfect in befuddling a Yankees team that finished with just three hits, erstwhile starter McCullers' four innings of one-hit relief were the next-best thing. His curveball is one of the most dominating wipeout pitches in the game. McCullers threw 41 of those babies over his 54-pitch outing. All 10 Yankees swings and misses with him on the mound came against the curve, and all 10 of his 1-2-3, ninth-inning pitches were curves.

"You know, he really does love the moment," Hinch said, and now McCullers and the Astros will have several more days' worth.

For starters, this will be the first World Series that features matching 100-win teams since 1970. Then, Baltimore (108-54) blitzed Cincinnati (102-60) in five games. Along with Houston's 101-61 record this year, the Dodgers went 104-58.

The Astros will wind up playing three of the game's jewel franchises this fall: They knocked out Boston in the Division Series, eliminated the Yankees in the ALCS and hope to prevent the Dodgers from winning their first World Series since 1988 over the next seven to 10 days.

"They're a great team," Altuve said. "It's going to be a fun World Series."

Added Carlos Beltran: "We've got a lot of similarities. They've got a lot of talent, like we do, and they seem to enjoy themselves and have great chemistry."

Just like the Astros. But on Saturday night…well, Los Angeles was still much further away than Harvey, and the sheer heartache of the down-and-out times of the is past receding, ever so slowly.

"I've touched on this before about having the experience of playing into a World Series with a city that kind of needed a boost and something to cheer for," said Verlander, referring to his 2006 and 2010 World Series appearances with Detroit.

"There are a lot of people who are really hurting right now in this city. And it gives the city something to rally around. It gives people something to cheer for that otherwise may not have a lot to be hopeful for.

"And to be a part of that, no matter how big or small it is, whether you're the MVP or the last pitcher in the bullpen, that's something you will never forget."

              

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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$265M Dodgers Finally Step Up to End 29-Year Pennant Drought

CHICAGO — Thump! went Enrique Hernandez's bat, pop! went the Champagne and vroom! went the Los Angeles bus. Rapidly.

En route to their first World Series in 29 years, this deep and talented bunch of Dodgers, the National League's best team during the regular season and now officially in October as well, learned many things along the path to the pennant. And one of the most essential occurred here in Wrigley Field just 12 months ago, as they got caught in a web of humanity when they tried to get out after losing the NL pennant to the Cubs.

So many celebrating Chicagoans were crushing the Wrigleyville neighborhood that the Dodgers were marooned in the clubhouse, their team bus delayed an hour until state troopers arrived to escort the vehicle through the madness.

Now, on the eve of this cruise of a National League Championship Series, ace Clayton Kershaw was asked what the Dodgers learned in losing to the Cubs last autumn that they could carry forward into this year's NLCS.

"Try to walk a few blocks and get an Uber if we lose," Kershaw quipped.

Everyone laughed, and six days later, the Dodgers were the ones laughing last, well into the raucous wee hours of the morning, having emphatically shuttered Wrigleyville for the winter. There was no need for an Uber. It was a smooth ride for this steamroller of a team from the first pitch in Game 1 to the last out in Thursday's 11-1 Game 5 bashing.

The final memories of the Dodgers' last game between their 1988 World Series triumph and their next appearance in the Fall Classic, which will open on Tuesday in Dodger Stadium, are Kershaw getting that postseason monkey off of his back with six one-run innings in the clincher and outfielder Enrique Hernandez smashing three homers, including a grand slam, on a seven-RBI evening.

But all year, this was about getting past the Cubs.

The Dodgers remembered last October. Then, the regular-season schedule this year just happened to put them in Wrigley Field for the Cubs' home-opening series in April, when they were forced to watch Joe Maddon's crew take another victory lap in receiving their World Series rings. And, of course, the two clubs wound up on a collision course for the NL pennant yet again.

"It's awesome," Hernandez said amid one of the most energetic—and deserved—Champagne parties in recent memory. "I don't remember much of it, but when we were up 3-0 I knew the game [had a chance to] get out of hand."

So he belted a grand slam in the third to make it 7-0, and…

"Up seven with Kershaw pitching and with the bullpen we have, I don't think a combined team of the best players in the history of baseball could overcome that," Hernandez said. "I don't know what I did running around the bases. I don't know what I did when I got back to the dugout.

"I don't remember much of this game."

But he knew one thing for certain.

"We beat the world champs' butt, and we did it in an empty stadium," Hernandez continued, now going full throttle. "We crushed the fans' hearts and they left early and by the last out, it was all Dodger fans in the stadium."

Paint it blue, Dodger blue.

"The city needed this," said Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, the last man to manage the Dodgers into a World Series, from over in a safe corner of the room, on the other side of the Champagne spray. "They've supported the Dodgers so much. We owed them this year, and they're getting it because we've got great fans who really supported the team.

"We've always had good fans, even when we weren't winning. To see this happen … it's a gift to them."

It is a $265 million gift, the richest payroll in the game. If the New York Yankees push through to meet the Dodgers in what would be a resumption of the classic World Series matches most recently played in 1981, 1978 and 1977, it would represent the game's two largest payrolls battling in the Fall Classic. The Yankees check in at $224 million and lead the Houston Astros three games to two heading into Game 6 of the ALCS on Friday night.

"Hopefully, Kershaw quipped, "they go seven games and play 37 innings in the seventh game."

After falling just short of the World Series last year, Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, and his staff decided that it was a team worth bringing back as close to whole as possible. So they re-signed their own free agents, Justin Turner (four years, $64 million), closer Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) and starter Rich Hill (three years, $48 million).

Under second-year manager Dave Roberts, an already close team jelled even more in spring training and then during the season as it raced out to an 80-33 start. When the Dodgers hit the skids later in the year with a stunning 11-game losing streak that wobbled to 16 losses in 17 games before they righted themselves, the core didn't crack.

Kershaw, 29, the 10-year veteran who has been asked to carry an inordinate amount of the baggage in previous postseasons only to see situations blow up on him with one bad inning here, another there and shoddy relief work at times that led to a 5-7 postseason record with a 4.57 ERA, spoke emotionally after Thursday's game about how this is his favorite team of which he's ever been a part.

In fact, in talking about the number of superstars wearing Dodger blue, Kershaw even said, "I'm just really thankful I get to be on this team."

That's right. Kershaw has won three Cy Young Awards, one MVP, he's a seven-time All-Star and he's become a close friend of legendary Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, and Kershaw is thankful he "gets" to be on this team.

As the Champagne splashed, so many other Dodgers were thankful to play their part in getting Kershaw into his first World Series.

"It's easy to say the most impressive thing is when he takes the ball every fifth day," Justin Turner, who, along with Chris Taylor, was named co-MVP of the NLCS said. "But for me, the more impressive thing is watching him go about his business on those other four days, the work the he puts in and the routine and the tireless effort and training and amount of stuff that goes into his day, each and every day, to lead up to that start. It's something I've never seen out of anyone my entire life.

"It's incredible. No one, no one, that I've ever met works harder behind the scenes than Clayton does."

But the thing about this Dodgers team, what made it so dominant, went way beyond Kershaw and the so-called superstars. In the Dodgers' Game 3 win on Tuesday, all five RBIs were produced by players who were not even on the Opening Day roster. Taylor was the 26th man coming out of spring training and opened the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Andre Ethier, because of a back injury, managed just 38 plate appearances this summer. Utility man Kyle Farmer had only 20 plate appearances, spending most of the season at Oklahoma City and Double-A Tulsa. And starter Yu Darvish was a July trade deadline acquisition from Texas.

Meanwhile, shortstop Charlie Culberson, a defensive whiz, had just 15 plate appearances this entire season but plugged in for an injured Corey Seager in the NLCS.

Yeah, the Dodgers have high-priced superstars in Kershaw ($33 million this year) and Adrian Gonzalez ($21.5 million, but done for the year with a back injury), but no small part of that payroll has been earmarked to provide depth that few other teams have.

"Every year, it's been a fun year for guys," Kershaw said. "But there's something about this year."

Then he pointed out how Hernandez sidled up to him just before the start of the game Thursday night and said, "Hey, I've got your back tonight."

"He said that before I even went out there," Kershaw said. "Then he goes and hits three home runs."

Every night, it seems, it's been like that for these guys. The Dodgers have won seven of eight postseason games, and now Roberts says he expects Seager to be back in the lineup for Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday. And in case there is any doubt, Roberts said "I can assure you Clayton will be starting Game 1."

The Dodgers have won seven of eight postseason games. Against their bullpen, Cubs batters started this series 0-for-29 before finally scratching out their first hit. Turner batted .333, slugged .667 and posted a .478 on-base percentage. He had two homers, seven RBI and was 4-for-5 with runners in scoring position, including smashing a walk-off homer in Game 2 that elicited a congratulatory text from Kirk Gibson, the last man to hit a walk-off homer in a Dodgers postseason game. Taylor, meanwhile, the quintessential leadoff man, saw 16 pitches in his first two at-bats alone in Game 5 on Thursday night.

Even after the Cubs eked out a win in Game 4 to avoid the embarrassment of being swept, there was never any doubt.

"We're a better team than they are," one Dodger said simply before Thursday's clincher. "We know it, and they know it. Last year, they were better."

By the time the disappointed 42,735 headed out of Wrigley Field and into their winter a few hours later, everyone agreed.

"The better team won over the course of these five games," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "They played really well. They kind of outpitched us, and everything else. So give them credit."

Credit, indeed.

Now, bring on the Yankees...or the Astros. Doesn't matter, the Dodgers will be home in the Los Angeles sunshine, resting up, savoring the moment and, heck, probably hearing a whole lot about history.

First World Series in 29 years. The Dodgers? Finally.

How will they even know how to act after a wait this long?

"If we win, I might retire," Kershaw said. "I might call it a career."

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Puig Being Puig Is Back: Bat Flips, Tongue Wags Turn Problem Child to Catalyst

Turns out Yasiel Puig—the bat-licking, tongue-wagging, arm-flapping, electricity-generating, sensation-creating, Los Angeles Dodgers-igniting superstar-turned-bust-turned-superstar again—is just like you and me.

"My mom told me, 'You need to listen to people'," Puig told B/R during a recent, quiet conversation at his locker. "They want to help you."

Five years into his MLB career, finally, his ears are wide-open as his mouth and his mind is (mostly) in tune with that of the Dodgers.

When manager Dave Roberts and teammates reach out, Puig (mostly) reaches back.

The results have been stirring, right down to him drawing a leadoff, bottom-of-the-ninth walk before Justin Turner crushed the Chicago Cubs with a walk-off, ninth-inning homer to give the Dodgers a 4-1 Game 2 win and a 2-0 advantage as this National League Championship Series heads back to Chicago.

Puig this season remained a citizen in good standing long enough to play in a career-high 152 games. And following the best all-around season of his career (28 homers, 74 RBI, consistent Gold Glove-caliber defense), he is absolutely crushing it in October.

He batted a scorching .455/.538/.727 to help the Dodgers sweep Arizona in the National League Division Series, then added a double, a homer and two more RBI in the first two games against the Cubs in the NL Championship Series. He now has six RBI in six games this postseason after producing just five RBI in 27 postseason games entering this year. In leading the Dodgers into the NLCS, the way in which he battered the Diamondbacks may turn out to be his most lasting mark on this postseason.

He punctuated plate appearances with gyrating legs like something out of a Michael Jackson video and turned a Game 1 triple into an indelible moment the Dodgers can market from here to eternity: After sliding safely headfirst into the bag, he remained on the ground long enough to soak in the deafening Dodger Stadium roar while staring straight ahead into the Dodgers dugout, sticking out his tongue, lizard-like, and shimmying it back and forth.

 

The place went nuts.

"That's the first time I've seen that one," pitcher Ross Stripling told B/R, chuckling. "I'm anxious to find out who taught it to him.

"We were saying, next year's Yasiel Puig bobblehead, it's gotta be one where his head is still and his tongue is the only thing that moves."

Said Dodgers starter Alex Wood: "He's the best. He does some dumb things sometimes, but we love him."

How Puig worked his way from exile back into relevance is a tale that covers most of the past 24 months, a change in managers, ongoing English lessons, a timeout in Triple-A Oklahoma City last summer and an analytics-heavy Dodgers front office that goes beyond numbers to understand the human condition.

Since Puig's debut in 2013, the Dodgers have exercised Herculean doses of patience with him and, even at that, Puig consistently pushed both his teammates and the front office to the brink. Early on, he earned the nickname "Wild Horse."

But by Andrew Friedman's second season as the club's president of baseball operations in 2016, however, he was beginning to understand something essential: Baseball, Friedman told B/R in the spring of 2016, was failing its Cuban players.

Maybe the way to do things, Friedman argued, wasn't to simply bring in players from other countries and assume they would understand the American way, or force them to understand it. No, there had to be a better way. And that way was better, more personalized communication.

That's where the hiring of Roberts, who replaced Don Mattingly, came in. There were many reasons why Roberts was a great match in Los Angeles, his communication skills chief among them. Roberts checks in with each of his players daily, and maybe none of these individual mini-meetings is as important as those with Puig, whose relationship with Mattingly was, according to B/R sources, broken beyond repair.

Maybe Puig saw something in Roberts. Perhaps Roberts, who was hired in 2016 and was named NL Manager of the Year last season, simply arrived at the right time. Whatever the case, the Japanese-born manager has been able to reach the Cuban-born prodigy in a way that others haven't.

What has impressed Roberts most this year, the manager told B/R, is Puig's "understanding that when things don't go perfect, he's holding himself accountable. And he holds himself to a higher standard, and the way he plays the game on a daily basis reflects that."

Not that the Los Angeles education of Yasiel Puig was without its issues in the Roberts era. Effectively, Puig drained the club of most of its extra reservoir of patience by late last summer with nagging hamstring injuries and sluggish performances. Friedman and Co. tried hard to trade him at the deadline last July 31 and, when those attempts failed, they shipped him to Triple-A Oklahoma City last Aug. 4. He was hitting .260 with just seven homers in 81 games at the time.

It was then that the words from Puig's motherYou need to listen to people! They want to help you!—really, finally began to sink in.

"The last couple of seasons, I don't want to listen to nobody," Puig told B/R. "I only wanted to listen to myself.

"This year is a new year. I'm listening more to the coaches. I'm listening to Dave Roberts and guys like Adrian Gonzalez, who are trying to help me. That's the reason I'm having a better year than the last two years."

Being shipped out got his attention.

"Last year, when the team put me in Oklahoma City for a couple of months … I never listened to nobody, but when I go down there and hang out with the players in the minor leagues, the coaches, they helped me a lot," Puig said. "That's the reason I came back and I do my best.

"Bad things happened last year. And I don't want these things to happen again."

The Dodgers did not and could not know how Puig would react, and there was a thought that perhaps he would never see Dodger Stadium again. After their attempts to deal him fizzled last summer, many expected them to push again for a trade over the winter.

It was a wakeup call, Roberts said of Puig's demotion to Oklahoma City. "All the credit goes to him. We optioned him last year, and he made the most of the opportunity, learned from it, grew from it.

"Even from last year when we recalled him, he's been a different person. I think his care for his teammates and doing the right things is a priority now. And it's good to see him getting rewarded with a tremendous season."

Some of Puig's relationships are coming easier, too, as his English continues to get better and better. Through the Dodgers, he started language lessons shortly after he signed with them and worked extensively with a man named Tim Bravo, a teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico. "He's the best," Puig raved.

He furthered Bravo's lessons and learned more English by watching movies, especially the Transformers and Fast and Furious series. He's nimble enough now to conduct some media interviews in English, which reveals his playful side even more.

His interplay with teammates, whether it's the daily give-and-take with Wood and others or social media moments with Justin Turner, can be highly entertaining. Roberts regularly kids him. Radio broadcaster Charley Steiner is fond of telling Puig he's going to knock the outfielder "into next week," and Puig feigns boxing.

"I'll be ready," Puig joked regarding Steiner's threats. "I need to [bob and weave]."

Said Roberts: "You know what? He's a very lovable guy. And now his true character and heart are starting to come through. Not only on the field with his play, but with people close to us."

Throughout the organization, the Dodgers are noticing.

"I do think going through some of the adversity he's gone through over the past couple of years has changed his outlook," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi told B/R. "He has an appreciation for getting to play baseball for a living, and on a winning team."

Zaidi senses that Puig has taken pride in how many games he's played this year, and he thinks that during July and August Puig produced some of the "best at-bats of anybody on the team, and we've had some guys put up some good at-bats." Roberts said the same thing last week, noting that Puig's Game 2 at-bats were the best he'd seen, and added after Puig walked three times in Sunday's NLCS Game 2 win over the Cubs that Puig is "as focused as I've ever seen him."

Now, the man who often has displayed a surly side, getting into spats with everyone from opponents to his own teammates, is the center of fun again in Dodger Stadium.

"This year everything is different," Puig said. "I come to the park and have fun with my teammates. This is my best year because it's not just about baseball. I'm talking with teammates, having fun with teammates, and that helps me feel better."

He hasn't just opened up to teammates. Zaidi noted how much time Puig has spent on community events, with kids, and how much the children of the team's coaches love hanging out with him.

"There's a certain energy and spirit there," Zaidi said. "What's happened over the last couple of years has impacted the way he goes about his business, and he should be really proud of the results."

In the moment after Game 1 last weekend, he was quite proud of the attention his tongue was getting.

"I don't know why, I feel maybe ice cream in front of me or something like that," he quipped.

Roberts, chuckling, said it was "no surprise. … He's called the Wild Horse for a reason."

Roberts, in fact, has developed such a good relationship with Puig that when his mother comes around, she makes a point to say hello to him, too.

"She tells me, 'You better take care of my son,'" Roberts said. "And I do."

            

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Nationals’ Latest Choke Ruins Best World Series Chance of Bryce Harper Era

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Cataloguing the Washington Nationals' monumental postseason flops has become such a gargantuan task, clearly the government must create a new federal agency just to keep up.

Word is, they've already got a file started at the nearby Library of Congress. Across town, from his own memorial monument, Abraham Lincoln rolls his eyes and sneers.

Even by the Nationals' own standards, Game 5 of this NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs was hide-the-women-and-children hideous.

Oh, it was a lot of other things, too. Epic. Incredible. Interminable. Riveting. Maddening (and Maddoning). It was tragically flawed and tragically hip. And in the end, in the good ol' District of Columbia, it was just plain tragic.

The Cubs escaped, 9-8, and the Nationals' perfect record was kept intact. Since moving from Montreal in 2005, they have never won a postseason series. Not one.

"It's what you live for," Bryce Harper said quietly in the loser's clubhouse of the noise, the drama, the action that spread over four-and-a-half hours and for a time gave the Nationals hope before delivering the usual crushing finish. "Go out and battle your tail off.

"It was a great, tough game. We did all we could to win. We just came up short."

The pit in the middle of this particular piece of fruit came in the fifth inning with the Nationals leading 4-3 and ace Max Scherzer entering the game. He quickly got two outs, then got two strikes on Willson Contreras before the catcher beat out an infield single struck just a bit too far to the left of Trea Turner for the shortstop to do anything about it.

Then Scherzer worked Ben Zobrist to a two-strike count before Zobrist looped a single to center.

Up next, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell ripped a two-run double down the third-base line. Instead of hugging the line with two out, Washington's Anthony Rendon was a little too far off the bag.

Then things got really bizarre: The next four Cubs reached on an intentional walk, a passed-ball strikeout, catcher's interference on Matt Wieters and then a hit batter.

It was a 28-pitch inning for Scherzer. Four Cubs scored. A 4-3 Washington lead became a 7-4 deficit.

The only pitch he regretted, Scherzer said, was the changeup that Russell belted for a double. Otherwise…

"I didn't let the adrenaline get too high," Scherzer, still stunned and agitated, said as the Nationals slowly headed into another premature offseason. "I didn't come out too amped. I was throwing the ball well. You have to stay numb.

"I knew everything was getting sideways. I was numb, going, 'OK, what do I gotta do next? OK, passed ball, now get [Tommy] LaStella. OK, catcher's interference, now I've gotta get [Jon] Jay. Bury the cutter. OK, what's next? I've gotta get [Kris] Bryant.'

"You can't ride the emotional roller coaster."

The Nationals tried. Lord, did they try.

No question, this was the biggest game since the franchise moved from Montreal. And the Cubs tried their damndest to give it to them. Between the sixth and eighth innings, Cubs pitchers walked an astounding seven Nationals batters. Three scored. Chicago did everything but gift-wrap this thing and, still, same as always, Washington could not find the path to victory.

"They all burn," said Scherzer, who lost his share of October heartbreakers in Detroit before signing a seven-year, $210 million deal with Washington before the 2016 season. "This one burns.

"You're going to be kicking yourself the whole offseason."

Look, this isn't a case of kicking a team when it's down. This is what the Nats do in October.

When they staked starter Gio Gonzalez to a 4-1 lead over the Cubs thanks to hero-for-a-millisecond Michael A. Taylor, whose three-run, second-inning homer gave him seven RBI in his past two NLDS at-bats, things were looking really good.

But veteran Nationals watchers knew one thing: They had been here before, Game 5 in 2012, when Gonzalez was the starter and the Nats staked him to a 6-0 lead.

They couldn't win that clincher, losing 9-7 to St. Louis.

And they couldn't win this clincher, losing 9-8 to the Cubs.

This is a club that now has won the NL East in four of the past six seasons. That 2012 group produced the best record in the major leagues. In 2014, they were bounced in the NLDS by San Francisco. Last year it was the Dodgers who bit them in another Game 5 right here in Nationals Park, capped when Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw dramatically emerged from the bullpen for a save.

The last time the District of Columbia saw its team win a postseason series was when the 1924 Senators won the World Series.

Now?

Break up the Nats. Seriously.

If they cannot win with a star-studded roster of Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, forget it. And by "if they cannot win with," I do not mean simply on one windy, chilly October evening in 2017. I mean, this is ongoing.

They've scapegoated closers like Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano, and managers like Matt Williams and Davey Johnson. They've brought in miscreants like Jonathan Papelbon.

They practically covered Strasburg in protective bubble wrap in 2012, shutting him down early to protect his precious arm from throwing too many pitches. Didn't matter, as he didn't pitch last postseason because, yes, his right elbow was hurt.

In the clubhouse, manager Dusty Baker made the rounds well after midnight, catching each player individually at his locker for a hug and a thank you. It was touching and poignant. It also was depressingly familiar.

Managers come and go around here. Players change. But one thing doesn't: October always ends with a thud.

"Nothing really surprises you in baseball," catcher Matt Wieters said. "You've gotta play every game how it is. This one was 9-8.

"We were hoping to win 10-9."

Harper talked about how sad he is that fellow outfielder Jayson Werth, whose contract is expiring, probably played his last game for Washington. Harper had talked this spring in emotional terms about how badly he wanted to send Werth out a winner.

Nope, didn't happen. And now Harper is eligible for free agency after next season, and you can see this team's best chances at Champagne and parades clearly in what sure looks like a rear-view mirror. Harper talked about how the goal still is to "take the next step" and, to get there, trusting in general manager Mike Rizzo and what he's going to do this winter in terms of personnel moves.

But this was perhaps Rizzo's finest summer, adding outfielder Howie Kendrick after center fielder Adam Eaton suffered ACL and meniscus tears and addressing bullpen issues that have been there for years by acquiring Brandon Kintzler, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.

This was the Nationals' best chance, best team, in years. And they still couldn't punch their way out of the NLDS even though the Cubs gave them ample opportunity.

"The Cubs are a great team," Harper said. "We knew that coming in. They have a great staff and a great team. We do as well.

"They just came out on top."

And in other news, leaves turn red and gold in the autumn and Halloween is coming on the last day of this month.

"It's a bummer," Harper said, quietly.

"This game is cruel sometimes," Scherzer said, "the way things can happen."

Meanwhile, down the hall, the defending world champion Cubs were whooping it up, headed for Los Angeles and another big bite of that sweet October pie.

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Yankees’ Historic Comeback Shows This Team Has Makings of Old Dynasty’s Magic

CLEVELAND — He speaks four languages, paints and sketches on road trips and spent two weeks last January giving baseball clinics in three different New Zealand cities.      

Now Didi Gregorius is finishing the year administering another clinic, this one for the New York Yankees in October.

Are they really doing this? The New York Yankees? Again?

Smash! Gregorius sank his bat into a Corey Kluber 94 mph fastball in the first inning and stunned the Cleveland Indians with a solo homer.

Ka-boom! Gregorius whipped that bat around again in the third and launched a Kluber curveball into darned near the same spot in right field for a two-run homer.

Goodbye, Cleveland. Hello...what, exactly?

The Yankees dispatched the Indians 5-2, sprayed champagne late into the night, completed an historic and incredible comeback from a two-game hole, booked their place into the American League Championship Series opposite the Houston Astros—Game 1 is Friday night—and dreams now are growing bigger by the hour.

"At one point, the '96 team was inexperienced and hadn't won before,"New York general manager Brian Cashman was saying in a hallway just off the Yankees' clubhouse. "It's hard to compare. You take every one when they come, you're in it to win it, and this team's gotten us this far and hopefully will get a little further."

The Baby Bombers are growing, the veterans are leading and the Bronx is getting noisy again. These Yankees are so skilled they've even picked up their manager. Joe Girardi has pointed that out now a few times, and as this division series shifted back to Cleveland's Progressive Field for Game 5, it was hard not to think of the disaster New York left behind in Game 2.

But if Girardi's failure to ask for an instant replay was lurking somewhere in the shadows, it was wiped clean by the end of this night.

Start with Gregorius, who has played in more MLB regular-season games (635) as a native of The Netherlands than any man this side of Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven (699). Cashman acquired him from Arizona in a three-way deal that also included Detroit before the 2015 season as a replacement for icon Derek Jeter.

He's shown remarkable staying power.

"You don't hear much about Jeet other than him owning the Marlins now," quipped veteran CC Sabathia, whose 4.1 solid innings (two runs, five hits, nine strikeouts) pointed the Yanks in the right direction. "If not for what Didi's done, people would still be talking about him playing shortstop for the Yankees.

"You've gotta give Didi all the credit."

Not only did Gregorius slam two Game 5 homers, but it was his three-run, first-inning blast against the Minnesota Twins that keyed New York's wild-card comeback.

"I think back to a couple of years ago when we first got him and everybody in the stands every night was chanting Derek Jeter's name, and, obviously, nowadays you don't hear that near as often," leadoff man Brett Gardner said. "On both sides of the ball, not just defensively but offensively, he's one of the best shortstops in the game."

It's not that Jeter will ever be forgotten in New York, but, hey, Gregorius' staying power has been remarkable. And he's getting better every year.

Funny thing, Cashman said, is that the Yankees scouts liked Gregorius better than he did as Jeter played out his final days and the club zeroed in hard on not necessarily a replacement—because who could ever replace Jeter in Yankees lore?—but someone to at least plug the position for a while. As they analyzed the options, Cashman was swayed.

Then, he almost couldn't get a deal done.

"I couldn’t get it done straight up with Arizona," Cashman said. "Dave Stewart [Arizona's GM at the time] is a close friend of mine, and I tried 10 different ways to do business with the Arizona Diamondbacks direct, and Dave was like, sorry, I just don't see it. He rejected every proposal I made, and I made a ton.

"So finally I called Dave Dombrowski in Detroit [the Tigers' former GM and now the president of baseball operations for Boston]. I knew Dave coveted [pitcher] Shane Greene. I didn't want to give up Shane Greene, but I said, 'Dave, if you can get Didi Gregorius from Arizona for me, I'll give you Shane Greene.' And then within 72 hours he's like, I got him. He matched up, I couldn't, and we had a three-way."

It may go down as Cashman's finest move. The Yankees sure appreciate it.

"To be able to come in and do what he's done over last few years, we're very lucky to have him," Gardner said. "He's a hell of a ballplayer, and he's a huge reason why we're moving on."

So too is Gardner, the quintessential leadoff man who ground 34 pitches out of the Cleveland Indians over five at-bats Thursday night. He struck out on the 12th pitch of his fifth-inning duel with reliever Andrew Miller, but he stroked what wound up being a two-run single on the 12th pitch he saw in the ninth inning.

It was an epic at-bat. It gave the Yankees some breathing room, and, like Cashman's trade for Gregorius, it exhibited the sort of persistence and doggedness that key this team. Yes, of course, the Yankees are supremely talented too, but talent only goes so far.

And the Yankees needed everything they could squeeze from the Old Salts like Sabathia, Gardner, Gregorius, David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman and the rest because the Baby Bombers are finding October a difficult month to traverse. Aaron Judge struck out 16 times in 20 at-bats in this division series, and Gary Sanchez fanned 10 times in 23 at-bats. Greg Bird scuffled too.

But they advanced, and, as Cashman said, "Reggie always talked about how when you have a bat in your hand, you can change the story."

Now one of the final two teams standing in the AL, you bet some of those slugging Baby Bombers will be looking to change the story, pronto.

And while they do, the Yankees have every reason to believe they can author more of their own rich, rich story.

Are they here one year early? Two years early?

Who's counting? Nobody in this clubhouse.

"I think things have come together," Cashman said. "Arriving early implies some guarantee in the future, and I've been around the block long enough to know that, listen, you just seize the moment. That's what we tried to do by reinforcing this team in June and July and seeing how far it would take us, and hopefully it would stay healthy, and so far, it's served us well.

"But in terms of arriving early, I restate: It doesn't guarantee anything in 2018 and beyond. We're excited about our talent, but you've got to keep them healthy, keep them productive, and that's a neat trick in its own self.”

They will look to perform that next neat trick Friday in Minute Maid Park. Stay tuned, and don't take your eyes off this bunch.

               

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

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Justin Turner Has Completed His Rise from MLB Castoff to Heart of the Dodgers

Skillfully having knocked out hit after hit all evening, the ginger man wearing the No. 10 Dodgers jersey with the name "Turner" lettered across the back now stood alone in the spotlight, beaming, another deafening standing ovation serving up goosebumps and memories for all in attendance.

And, even for one who wasn't.

It was just another incredible night in a summer stocked with them in Los Angeles – the latest of which was Turner smashing a three-run homer and driving in five Game 1 runs to help ignite the Dodgers’ 2-0 NL Division Series advantage over Arizona, except there was one subtle twist to this one.

The ginger man dressed in the No. 10 Dodgers jersey was standing onstage at the Staples Center.

The ginger man and wearer of the original No. 10 Dodgers jersey was four miles up the Harbor Freeway and in Chavez Ravine at the time, helping his team pile up one more W.

Ed Sheeran, in the middle of a 17-month world tour and one of the world's biggest pop superstars, could not be reached for comment.

Justin Turner, now launching an October playoff drive and having emerged in 2017 as MLB's Most Unlikely Superstar, absolutely could be reached for comment.

"That was insane," Turner told B/R one recent afternoon during a lengthy conversation as the Dodgers looked to the postseason. "I knew he was in town. I knew the night before he wore a Kings jersey onstage.

"I came in after the game, and I had, like, 30 text messages. And my Twitter account was going crazy, and it's like, Ed Sheeran's wearing your jersey for the encore; he's playing 'Shape of You.' It was incredible."

It started innocently enough, all of it: this frame-worthy season, the Dodgers' successful drive to score him a spot in the All-Star Game via the Final Vote, the .322 batting average that placed him tied for second in the National League, the .415 on-base percentage (second), his emergence as the Dodgers' unofficial captain and, yes, his crossover into Sheeran's universe.

It was way back in spring training when he picked "Shape of You" as his walk-up song.

"I heard it this offseason. You try to figure out what you're going to walk up to, and I love the song," Turner says. "And obviously, I knew he was a ginger.

"I didn't know it would ever get back to him and he was going to wear my jersey in concert."

Unlikely superstar? Turner is 32 now, and the Dodgers are his fourth organization. He was drafted by Cincinnati in 2006, traded to Baltimore in 2008, claimed off waivers by the New York Mets in 2010 and flat-out released after the 2013 season.

When the Dodgers signed him, he was 29 and unsure whether he'd ever get another game in the majors.

"You've gotta tip your cap to what he did," Terry Collins, his manager in New York, tells B/R.

"The best thing about it is the path he took," Dodgers starter Alex Wood says. "Everybody has a different path. He's had his ups and downs, and it all led to him becoming one of the focal points of our team."

"When you get non-tendered or let go by a team, you take that as you're not good enough to play for that team," Turner says.

"To come here and have success [that] first season on top of the fact that I went through kind of a makeover of my swing...from that season on I felt like I was turning a corner offensively. And it's been going pretty good ever since."

Yeah, you might say it's going pretty good in the baseball world for him in the same way it's going OK in the music world for his red-headed compadre.

From backstage somewhere in the U.S. several days after the Staples Center concert, Sheeran recorded a personal greeting and texted it to Turner. In his own unique, disheveled style, wearing a plain dark shirt and rumpled slacks, Sheeran had tugged a Dodgers cap onto his shock of red hair and, camera rolling, voiced a video message:

"Hey Justin, J.T., from one ginger to another: Let's go Dodgers!"

                   

APPROPRIATELY, THE FIRST hit of Turner's major league career arrived at exactly 1:17 a.m. local time in Yankee Stadium in 2009, following rain delays totaling two hours and 34 minutes.

As things have turned out, the guy has had to patiently wait for everything else in his late-blooming career. So why not his first hit, too?

"I never thought about it that way," he says, "And, actually, I had two at-bats the day before in Boston. I struck out in my first at-bat and hit a line drive into right in my next at-bat; someone came in and slid and made a diving catch.

"I guess it all worked out the way it was supposed to work out."

That this lifelong baseball rat from Long Beach, California, who helped lead Cal State Fullerton to the 2004 College World Series title, now is starring for his hometown Dodgers is sweet enough. That his mother, father, one sister, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, "everyone" in his family lives in Southern California while he flourishes there doing the one thing he's always loved is far beyond any reasonable career path.

But before he found himself here, at the center of the October swirl, only miles from where this odyssey started, he had to learn what would get him here, and for that he had to leave.

His journey began more than a decade ago, when the Reds selected him in the seventh round of the draft. In three seasons with Cincinnati, Turner didn't hit his way to the big club, but he took the value of a well-structured organization that was in lockstep at every level of the farm system. The philosophies and jargon were the same, so as the players moved, their coaches at each level literally were speaking the same language. "It's something the Dodgers, I think, are trying to nail down here," Turner says.

The Rooster, former big league shortstop Rick Burleson, was among those in Cincinnati who left an impression. "He was a grinder, a competitor who instilled that fight in you," says Turner, whose consistently dirt-stained uniforms have become a nightly tribute to the Rooster and that fight.

He name-checks several other minor league instructors in Cincinnati too. Men like Freddie Benavides (infield instructor), Ronnie Ortegon (hitting instructor), Darren Bragg (hitting instructor), Ryan Jackson (hitting instructor) and Jamie Dismuke (hitting instructor). Grinders like him, baseball lifers he appreciates. From small moments, big moments come.

From Baltimore, he took the skills to play third base in the big leagues. Then, when the Orioles called him up for 12 games that September, that's mostly where he played.

The window in Baltimore closed practically before it opened. Following his brief taste of the bigs in '09, there was no room for him on the Orioles' Opening Day roster in 2010.

"He loved to play. He was patient," says Dave Trembley, Baltimore's manager at the time who now serves as Atlanta's director of player development. "We sent him out [to the minors] in spring training, told him we don't have a spot for you to go and play, and he was great. He said, 'Dave, no problem. I need to get some at-bats.'"

Patience. When the O's called him back early that season, he lasted five games, went 0-for-9 and in late May was claimed off waivers by the Mets.

From New York, he took a kinship with Marlon Byrd, a career-turning introduction to Byrd's hitting guru, Doug Latta, and a close friendship with Mets captain David Wright.

"They gave me a chance to stick around there long enough to get a chance to meet Marlon and talk about hitting," Turner says. "He was relentless. He was on me almost every day about changing my philosophy. Of course, you try to tell a guy already in the major leagues to change his style, it's not easy. It's like, I'm already in the major leagues. Why would I change?"

Byrd didn't arrive in New York until 2013, Turner's last season there.

Late that August, out of contention, the Mets traded Byrd to Pittsburgh.

But the five months he and Byrd were together changed Turner's life.

"By the end of the season, he kind of got to me a little bit," Turner says. "I made some of the adjustments he was talking about. And not only did I make them, I saw the results. I started driving the ball more."

Over 14 games that September, Turner hit .357 with two homers and a .929 OPS.

In his previous 72 games in 2013, Turner had zero homers.

"That small taste intrigued me," Turner says. "I wanted more."

Byrd invited Turner to work with Latta, who runs a hitting facility in Chatsworth, California, that offseason. Turner wasted no time: At the beginning of the next week after the season ended, he was in the cages with Latta and Byrd.

That winter, he rebuilt his entire swing, adding a leg kick, lowering his hands and emphasizing a weight shift forward during his swing to transfer more power into launching the baseball. Previously, Turner had kept his weight back and concentrated simply on being a contact hitter. Always, he's been blessed with exceptionally quick hands.

"He hit some homers when he was here, but what this guy has done is amazing," Collins, the now-former Mets manager, says. "I think the world of him. He always was a good player. Even as a backup guy, he was tremendous off the bench...and when he had that bat in his hands, he was dangerous.

"He's never been blessed with speed, but he could hit the ball to right field with anybody. He had this swing—I always told him anytime he wanted a hit, he could hit a line drive to right field."

Following his winter of work with Latta, the Dodgers signed Turner on Feb. 6, 2014, just before spring training, on the recommendation of fellow Cal State Fullerton alum and then-Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach, who lobbied then-general manager Ned Colletti on his behalf. Turner responded with a breakout year his first season in Los Angeles, hitting .340/.404/.493 with seven homers and 43 RBI. He slammed 16 homers in '15 and 27 in '16 before finishing with 21 this season.

"I remember seeing him put together a couple of really good at-bats" in the '14 season-opening series in Australia, Dodgers veteran Adrian Gonzalez says of the '14 season-opn. "He made a few plays, and it was, like, 'This guy can play a little.'

"All he needed was a chance."

"I couldn't be any happier for him," says San Diego Padres bench coach Mark McGwire, who was the Dodgers' hitting coach Turner's first two seasons in Los Angeles. "It's so funny how he got a chance to play, with Juan Uribe getting hurt. Then Uribe came back, and Justin was back on the bench, Uribe got hurt, came back again, and Justin was back on the bench."

"He put in hours and hours of unbelievable work," McGwire continues. "I love the way he prepares for a game. I tell these young kids on our team about it: He got on the pitching machine before every game and cranked it up to the highest speed, and all he would try to do was hit balls right back up the middle."

Turner still keeps in touch with Latta, who remains a valuable third-perspective guy beyond current Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward and assistant Tim Hyers.

"He's got an unbelievable eye for the tiniest of adjustments," Turner says.

From the outside, Turner's rebuilt swing isn't the only thing that is noticeably different.

"He's gotten a little hairier," quips Lucas Duda, his former teammate with the Mets who was traded to Tampa Bay in July, "and a little redder."

                                       

DRIVING HOME TO Los Angeles on the first Sunday of July following that afternoon's loss in San Diego, Turner and his fiance, Kourtney, were rattled.

Until then, this season had been one long, unencumbered cruise. The Dodgers were 55-28. Turner led the majors with a .388 batting average and .473 on-base percentage. He had produced the fifth-highest batting average at the All-Star break since 1969, behind only Larry Walker (.398, 1997), Tony Gwynn (.394, 1997), Andres Galarraga (.391, 1993) and Gwynn (.383, 1994).

Yet, here came the speed bump: When the All-Star teams had been announced earlier in the day, Turner had been stiffed.

"I was frustrated," Turner admits. "I was like, if I'm not an All Star now, I don't know if I ever will be."

MLB would name Turner as one of the five NL candidates for the Final Vote competition, a special ballot of theoretically the top five players in each league who just missed the All-Star cut. In a frenzy over the next four days, fans would vote one more time, and clubs would push their players with public relations campaigns.

Away from the noise of the season, Justin and Kourtney talked quietly inside the black SUV as they covered the miles back to Los Angeles.

"We just decided that, you know what, we can feel bad for ourselves and have a pity party, or we can try to go for it and get active on social media and try to get people to vote and do everything we can to try to get there," Turner says.

Over the next four days, the Dodgers' enormous traveling fan club, Pantone 294 (technically, the name for the color Dodger blue), set up shop at Dodger Stadium with some 20 computers, manning them 24 hours a day. An appreciative and humbled Turner stopped in to visit and say thanks when he could—after batting practice, after games. One night, he ordered delivery of a whole fleet of Starbucks coffees.

When the final results were announced that Thursday, not only did Turner win, but he did so with a Final Vote-record 20.8 million votes.

Yessir, it was happening again: Why wouldn't he have to wait four days longer than all of the other All-Stars to be anointed as one of them?

"I'm 32 years old. I don't know how many more opportunities I'm going to have to play in an All-Star Game. For the fanbase not only in L.A., but around the country, around world, to get behind me and support me way they did, set a record in votes, was incredible. That's an experience I'll never forget."

Now, 12 years into his professional career, Turner heads into a month that could provide the exclamation point on a baseball life that stretches back to the days he spent lying sprawled out on the floor at his grandparents' house, watching Kirk Gibson slam a homer and the Dodgers shock the Oakland A's in the 1988 World Series.

Now, he could help the Dodgers win their first title since '88.

"He's a guy who's always been a leader in his own right, but the road he's endured, to stabilize himself as a major league player and as an All-Star, to see that unfold..." manager Dave Roberts says. "I empower him a lot in our clubhouse because he believes in what I believe in. He's all about team first. Certain guys just command the respect of their teammates, and J.T.'s at the top of the list."

People listen to him, a quality that has lifted him into a sort of unofficial co-captaincy role along with well-decorated veteran Chase Utley. When All-Star closer Kenley Jansen briefly wobbled last summer, it was Turner who quietly approached him in a back room and said, Look, I know blowing a save sucks. I know you're pissed. But you are going to get 'em tomorrow; you've got to deal with it. Now go talk to the media and move on.

He knows because he's been in similar straits before. There was that night in New York in 2011, when then-Mets closer Jason Isringhausen was closing in on his 300th career save and Turner fielded a ground ball, lurched to tag the runner going to second, missed, then turned and fired to first, air-mailing the throw over Duda's head. The Mets lost, and Turner wanted to melt right into the earth. Afterward, his close friend David Wright found and counseled him.

"I felt terrible," Turner says. "I came into the locker room after the game scared to death to face the media. I was doing everything in my power to avoid it. I was in the weight room, the training room, and David came in and got me and said, 'Hey, you're going to help us win more games than you're going to lose. Let's go out and talk to the media. They're going to ask questions. Just tell the truth. Just tell them what happened, get it over with and be done with it. And show up tomorrow, and we'll win tomorrow's game.'

"That conversation probably went further than any conversation I've had with anyone on a professional level. It'll stick with me. It sticks with me to this day."

Many things have stuck with Turner over all of these years and, in turn, not only have allowed him to stick around, but to set an example that sticks with others.

So take a good look this month: Baseball's Most Unlikely Superstar, beard as ginger as October leaves, swing as crisp as playoff tension, the shape of him leading the Dodgers.

Why, maybe one day he'll even meet his new texting buddy Sheeran, author of his walk-up song, wearer of his jersey, the singer who rocked his world.

"I'm going to try to," Turner says. "I'm not sure when he'll get back to L.A., but if our schedules can meet, I'm going to try. Otherwise, [if it has to be] somewhere else in the country, maybe in the offseason I'll go and check out a show."

                     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.    

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