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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Once Ignored by MLB, 5’6″ Superstar Jose Altuve May Now Be Its MVP

HOUSTON — Like gravity and Tex-Mex, Jose Altuve is a force of nature who tugs people in his direction. Old Houston Astros have felt this phenomenon for years. New Houston Astros, like Justin Verlander, feel it immediately upon arrival.

Verlander had barely touched down with his new team when he was talking with Dallas Keuchel in the dugout before a game early one afternoon, a couple of Cy Young Award winners strengthening their acquaintance.

As Altuve walked by, he made a point to stop.

"Hey, Justin," Altuve said. "I just want to let you know...I know you're good, but Dallas is the best. He's my favorite teammate.

"Don't worry. You're second."

Another pause.

"You're tied with everyone else."

Verlander and Keuchel roared with laughter, then continued their conversation as Altuve sauntered off toward whatever was next on his to-do list that afternoon.

And later, during a quiet moment amid the din of what could be stamped this month as the greatest season in team history, Keuchel laid out what regularly echoes throughout the clubhouse when you spend time with the Astros.

"The more you get to know him, the greater you think he is," Keuchel tells B/R. "Because it's not just about his MVP-type talent. He's a leader in the clubhouse. He's a guy who can make you laugh at any point in time. He loves music; he's always singing and dancing.

"You hear about his tryout in Venezuela. That's been well-documented. To see the perseverance and work ethic he put into this game, into his job...cyou see a bunch of guys float toward that."

"I feel proud to have him as a friend," says teammate Marwin Gonzalez, Altuve's frequent carpool partner to Minute Maid Park and friend since they were 17 back home in their native Venezuela.

Adds Chris Devenski, Houston's All-Star reliever: "It's an honor to be in his presence. It's very humbling to know where he comes from. For him to have the heart and determination to follow his dream and not listen to doubters..."

 

At 5'6", Altuve is the shortest player in the majors since the 5'5" Freddie Patek, who retired after the 1981 season.

And at year's end, he may well become the shortest player to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award since the New York Yankees' 5'6" Phil Rizzuto in 1950. He led the American League in batting average (.346), hits (204) and the Baseball-Reference.com version of WAR (8.4).

This year he became the first player in history to lead either league outright in hits in four consecutive seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau. And during his seven-year career, Altuve has more multihit games (358) than oh-fers (239).

Now in his second season as Houston's assistant hitting coach, Alonzo Powell won consecutive Japanese Central League batting titles from 1994-96 at the same time Ichiro Suzuki was winning batting titles in the Japanese Pacific League.

"I know Ichiro well," Powell says. "And I never thought I'd say that I would see a better hitter than Ichiro.

"But three months into the season last year, I made that concession."

Ichiro, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn...both in the United States and abroad, Powell has seen and played against several Hall of Famers and legends, and he says Altuve is the best he's ever seen. His guy, Powell says, is a complete hitter: gap-to-gap, power, average. Take your pick. He can do it all. And often, he seems to. Altuve had more hits (1,250 in 982 games) than Pete Rose did (1,204) at the same stage of their careers.  

"Crazy," Altuve says. "That's crazy."

Yes. Crazy. But then, so, too, is the story of how the little guy with the jumbo-size heart even got here.

    

FIRST TIME ASTROS Hall of Famer Craig Biggio ever met Altuve, it was on Field 2 at the club's former spring training home in Kissimmee, Florida. Altuve was a teenage minor leaguer, and Biggio, already a legend headed for Cooperstown, was conducting an on-field seminar on baserunning.

 

They were discussing leads and breaks and angles and, when the group session ended, Altuve jogged over and shook Biggio's hand.

"Thank you very much," he said before trotting off to the morning's next drill.

Biggio was floored by the gesture.

"I was like, 'Damn! I wish he was taller,'" Biggio says.

It was not the first time someone in the Astros organization reacted that way. The tale of Altuve's tryout with the club in Venezuela is outsize, but sometimes retold incorrectly. The idea, floated in some circles, that he was so little that the Astros sent him home because they didn't believe he had reached the legal tryout age of 16 is pure hogwash.

"This is what happened," Altuve tells B/R, beginning an inspirational yarn for the ages.

There were a bunch of scouts gathered on that day, and they absolutely knew how old he was because clubs do thorough and exhaustive research. As the workout proceeded, one man notable in his absence was Al Pedrique, who now manages Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, but then was a special assistant to Houston general manager Tim Purpura.

"So I run 60 yards," Altuve says. "I catch some ground balls. I hit some balls. And they decide to let me go."

There were maybe 50 or 60 players there, Altuve recalls, and the Astros invited roughly 20 back. Crushed but not surprised, Altuve went home.

This was not the first time baseball had thrown a fastball by him. Between the ages of 14 and 16, he says: "It was tough. Seriously, I was 5'5" and 140 pounds, so everybody used to say the same thing to me."

Hey, Jose. You can play. You can hit. But you're not going to make it because you're just too small. Sorry.

 

He heard this a lot. Heard it after tryouts with the Angels. Tampa Bay. The Chicago Cubs. San Francisco Giants. Atlanta Braves. Oakland A's. The Yankees.

"A lot of teams," he says. "I tried out with the Angels a couple of times. They watched me play the first time, called me back, I went to two or three more tryouts, and they didn't pull the trigger."

He knew Pedrique was a key decision-maker in the Astros organization, and he knew the one scout who was in his corner, a man named Wally Ramos (who has since died), would lobby for him. He figured maybe Pedrique could see something beyond 5'5". Maybe he could see hustle and heart, desire and determination.

So the night Houston sent Altuve home, his head hardened from banging it against so many unopened doors, he did not pout and mope.

He went back to the Astros' tryout camp the next day, gambling that maybe the scouts there wouldn't remember or care that they had cut him the previous day and praying that Pedrique would be in attendance on Day 2.

"They were surprised when I showed up, but they let me go and do it again just because I did show up," Altuve says.

This time, Pedrique was there. And no small part of the reason they didn't shoo the kid away again was because of Ramos. Please let this kid go back on the field, Ramos pleaded with Pedrique. Please don't go by his size.

So Altuve did it all over again: He ran 60 yards. Fielded ground balls. Hit some pitches.

"I hit pretty good," he says.

As he watched, Pedrique, impressed, turned to Ramos.

"Does he play like this every game?" Pedrique asked.

"Yes, that's him," Ramos said. "Doesn't matter who's watching. Doesn't matter how many people are in the stands. He loves to play the game."

Pedrique loved the energy. Loved the smile. He could see the hunger, and the talent. Look, Pedrique told Altuve afterward, we only have $15,000. We don't have anything more for you. Are you willing to take it?

On so many diamonds in front of so many scouts, Altuve had had that carrot dangling in front of him yanked away at the last minute. Take it? You bet, he told Pedrique.

"And $15,000," Altuve tells B/R today. "It was more than I thought."

Says Pedrique: "The smile on his face was like a kid with new toys at Christmas. It was amazing. It was like, OK, I got it."

Eleven years later, Altuve is a three-time batting champion and the driving force for a team that could win the first World Series in franchise history, a title that would mean even more to the city the Astros call home.

"He's an incredible baseball player," says Biggio, who brightens noticeably at the mention of Altuve's name when speaking about him in September. "He has incredible skills. He's won a couple of batting titles, he's on his way toward winning another, and you'd never know it from talking to him. There's no ego."

No longer can you find anyone who wishes he was taller.

    

ON THE LAST Sunday in August, their city under water from Hurricane Harvey and their families stranded at home without them, the Astros finished a game in Anaheim, California, and then flew into a holding pattern in Dallas.

They could not get home; MLB was still unsure of the location of their next game. Whereas baseball once consumed nearly all his time, now Altuve's thoughts were on his wife, Nina, and the couple's 11-month-old daughter, Melanie Andrea.

"The thing that goes unnoticed is who he is as a person," Houston leadoff man and center fielder George Springer says. "He'll take a teammate aside and talk to him. What just happened with the hurricane, he wanted to walk back from Dallas to Houston to go get his family out of there."

Well, perhaps not walk all the way back. But as the storm raged and the Astros fretted, Springer listened as Altuve, starting pitcher Charlie Morton, reliever Luke Gregerson and others engaged in an earnest conversation while en route from Anaheim to Dallas, brainstorming about ways they could rescue their families.

For a time, the working plan was this: Once their off day came on Monday in Dallas, they would rent cars and drive as far as they could until they reached the point where the roads were flooded. Then, they would secure boats and take those as far as they could. Then, they would swim and walk the rest of the way home.

"When you see our captain, our leader, like that..." says Springer, whose sister dispatched three semitrucks loaded with supplies such as clothing, water, food and baby formula from their native Connecticut to Houston during that time. "You can say all you want about who he is as a baseball player, but a testament to who he is and what he means to us is that he was willing to put aside games to go get his family.

"That means more than he could ever do the rest of his career."

As things turned out, MLB sent the Astros to Florida, rescheduling what was supposed to be a home series with the Texas Rangers, and the team went home after that. Thankfully, the players' families were safe, but so many others were not so fortunate. When the Astros returned later that week, Altuve and about half the team spent that Friday visiting with hurricane victims sheltered at a downtown convention center.

"He's just a lovable guy," Keuchel says. "You see it when he goes out in the community. Everyone's face lights up. Especially after the flood and Harvey, he was one of the bright lights for the city."

In May, Altuve teamed up with pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. for his first charity event, which raised money for their respective foundations. McCullers' works to raise awareness for pet shelters and adoptions; Altuve works with Sunshine Kids, a charity that helps kids with cancer.

"I feel like I just started my career, and I don't have a big contract or anything like that, so it's really hard for me to start a big, big charity," says Altuve, who signed a four-year, $12.5 million deal with the Astros in July 2013 that includes a $6 million club option for 2018 and another for $6.5 million for 2019. Talk about club-friendly terms: His is the 11th-highest salary on the team, even below that of reliever Tony Sipp.

But hey, $15,000 was enough when he was 16, and he's not complaining now. He figures he will do his second charity event next year and keep it going.

In the kids he's trying to help, he sees a little of himself, having grown up in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela.

He and Nina met there in school when they were eight and started dating when they were 15. Yes, they were together when Altuve's persistence at those tryouts in 2006 finally paid off, but he laughs when asked about her reaction at the time. She wasn't that into baseball, he says.

Now, she's a little bit more into baseball. And with a healthy daughter at home, well, maybe he's just a wee bit less into it himself.

"She's the most beautiful gift God has ever given me," Altuve says when asked how his daughter has changed him. "Everything is for her now. You can go 0-for-4 or 3-for-4 and you get home and see her and it's the same feeling."

 

Always, there has been a tenderness within him, a tendency to identify with the small, the meek, the underdog. And it has stayed with him.

"I never doubted myself because I already had too many other people doubting," Altuve says. "I wanted to prove those people wrong. And not because one day I could tell them they were wrong. I wanted to prove them wrong for the guys behind me who are short, too. Guys who are not really strong, not really tall, guys who are 14 to 16 right now who are very small and want to get an opportunity.

"And I know maybe after that happened to me scouts now will think twice before telling someone, You're not going to make it. They're going to think, This guy is the same size as Jose, and if Jose made it, maybe one of these guys can make it, too.

"If I open at least one door, two doors, three doors for guys behind me, I'm going to feel like everything that I did, it was because of this, and that will feel good."

    

LIKE THE TEAMMATES and opponents who surround him on the diamond, Altuve's hits come in all shapes and sizes.

In addition to his now-annual appearance at the top of the AL hits leaderboard are the three batting titles, consecutive seasons of 24 home runs and an array of infield hits that both fuel the Astros and display a window into Altuve's greedy baseball soul.

"He's just never satisfied," Houston manager A.J. Hinch says. "He has some very innocent reactions to infield hits, to bloop hits, how much he needs them, how much he wants them.

"The guys give him a hard time because of all the people in the league who you feel don't need hits, it's probably Jose Altuve. Yet he loves every one of them."

First baseman Yonder Alonso played against Altuve all summer—first for Oakland and then, following a trade, for Seattle—and says the moments after Altuve beats out another infield hit are priceless.

"Man, I needed that hit so bad," Altuve will say, standing on the first-base bag.

"Everybody needs hits in the big leagues," Alonso will shoot back. "You're hitting .350."

"Yeah, but I've been struggling."

"Shut up."

"That was a tough hit. I've gone three or four at-bats without a hit."

"Some guys go three or four days without a hit."

The long and short of it is that both Altuve's short and long games do damage. In a subtle nose-thumbing to the doubters of the past, this year he produced a slugging percentage (.547) that was the fifth-highest single-season mark by a player listed at 5'6" or shorter in MLB history, trailing only four separate seasons by Hack Wilson (1927-30).

Yet he harbors no bitterness toward all those men from all those teams who sent him packing all those years ago. Objectively, he says, he can see why they did.

"That was totally understandable because it's hard to believe that a guy who was 5'5" and 140 pounds could be on the same field with Aaron Judge, who's 6'7" and 250 [282] pounds," he says. "It sounds crazy. That's why I'm not mad at all about the guys who didn't give me an opportunity."

At dinner one day this spring, Altuve, Miami Marlins infielders Martin Prado and Miguel Rojas and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez were anticipating the season ahead. Martinez remembers the talk turning to Altuve's tremendous season in 2016, when he finished third in the AL MVP voting, and the second baseman accepting his friends' accolades but explaining that in this game, you need to improve every year at something.

To his friends, Altuve wondered: How am I going to do that?

"He sets [his goals] pretty high and achieves them," Hinch says. "When I got here, he had led the league in hitting the previous year, he had been on the All-Star team. The one thing he said he didn't have was a Gold Glove. So he put in a lot of time and work and energy with Rich Dauer [Houston's first base and infield coach and won a Gold Glove]."

Even before this postseason begins, Altuve already has earmarked areas of his game he wants to improve in 2018. Defensively, he says, he's been charged with a couple of errors that he never should have made.

"And I didn't get a couple of bases I wanted to steal because I didn't trust my instincts," he says. "And in a lot of situations where I didn't get on base, and didn't get an RBI, I want to get better for next season."

It's a delicate balance between high-level consistency and incremental improvement when you're looking at the across-the-board numbers of elite players, and Altuve studies this obsessively. Once you reach an elite level of consistency, he explains, it means you're getting better even if specific numbers don't jump dramatically.

While that is who Altuve is driven to be, his manager and his teammates will tell you that's already who he is.

Last Aug. 1, facing Marcus Stroman in Houston, Altuve took a called third strike in each of his first two plate appearances against Toronto's ace.

"He was super mad, and in the tunnel behind the dugout he told me he was going to look for a curve and hit a home run his next time up," says Carlos Correa, Altuve's All-Star double-play partner. "I'm like, A curve?"

 

Correa noted that Stroman's go-to options behind his fastball are his sinker and his changeup. Yet sure enough, in his third time facing Stroman, Altuve, in a 1-2 count, got his curveball and belted a home run into the Crawford Boxes in left field.

"He came back into the dugout and told me, 'If I tell you I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it,'" Correa says, still marveling.

As he cranks the music in the clubhouse and sings and dances to his teammates' endless amusement, Altuve refuses to allow them to forget other things, too.

"He's always picking on people—George calls him a big bully," right fielder Josh Reddick says, chuckling.

One seasonlong target has been Jake Marisnick who, at 6'4", 220 pounds, hit 16 homers but likely is done for the season with a broken right thumb.

"I have more power than you and I'm half your size," Altuve regularly chirps at Marisnick.

Marisnick knows it is said in good humor, and with an eye toward motivating his teammates.

"As good as he is on the field, off the field he's even better," Marisnick says. "I've respected him since I got here. He was one of the first guys to take me aside and get to know me."

    

THERE IS ONLY one height Altuve hasn't scaled in his career, and he will tackle that in earnest this month.

Minutes after Houston was eliminated in an American League Division Series by the Kansas City Royals in 2015, a distraught Altuve showed up in Hinch's office. The Royals had shut him down, holding him to a .136 batting average (3-for-22), .174 on-base percentage and zero extra-base hits.

"It hadn't even crossed my mind that he hadn't played well," Hinch says. "It was more that he was one of the main reasons we were there."

Yet there in that manager's office, an emotional Altuve apologized to Hinch. Told his manager he was sorry he didn't play better. Told him he felt like he let his teammates down, his manager down, the organization...everyone.

"It was a raw moment for him in what's been a spectacular career as an Astro," Hinch says. "And it was his first taste of leadership."

Two years later, things are different. Alutve has become one of the veteran leaders...and he is not alone.

"You know, I feel like this team is a little different," he says. "The feeling that I have about this team is, we have some veteran players [Reddick and designated hitter Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann] that obviously we didn't have in 2015 that are definitely going to help us. I never feel like I have to carry us."

What he's learned is that the regular season is plenty long enough to allow someone like him to hang glitzy numbers but that the playoffs are short enough that "you just have to get on base, make a play; it doesn't matter how you do it. If you get zero hits but you get on base 20 times, that's what we're talking about."

So he is primed and ready. Whatever it takes—just like that day on the tryout field in Venezuela, way back when he seemed so much shorter than he does today.

"Obviously, the underdog story is very real whether it's the story of him getting signed, becoming an All-Star or everybody referencing his size," Hinch says. "But the growth that he's established ... people don't talk about his size anymore. They talk about his ability and his production. They talk about him being a middle-of-the-order bat."

And it's what Altuve intends to keep them talking about this month and beyond. Consider it one very tall order, filled.

    

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

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B/R’s 2017 MLB Postseason Primer: Your Complete October Viewing Guide

We've placed so many expectations on Washington, D.C., lately, and so little is getting done that it's embarrassing.

We've expected results. We've gotten nothing.

We've waited for significant achievements. We've received little but empty promises and jingoism.

And...

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on just one stinkin' patriotic moment there, Uncle Sam. You say you're sick of politics? You've come to the right place. We're not talking politics here! We're talking Washington Nationals baseball!

As the calendar flips to October and the leaves turn a goldish red, here comes our favorite month. And as we step into the first October in our lifetime in which the Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series champions (unless you're 108 years old as you read this, and we're guessing that's not the case), no team in this postseason tournament is close to tasting the pressure the Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers are chewing.

The Nationals have won the National League East in four of the past six seasons, produced the best record in the majors in 2012, employ some of the game's marquee stars in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg...and have not won a single playoff series since they moved to D.C. in 2005.

The Dodgers boast the game's largest payroll, produced a run for the ages this summer (31-4 turned into 46-8 and 56-11, and a 91-36 start), employ the ace many think is the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw, won their fifth consecutive National League West title...and have not won the World Series since 1988.

But it goes beyond that for one of baseball's jewel franchises: Forget the not winning part. Amazingly, the Dodgers haven't even played in a World Series since 1988.

The Nationals this month will be playing to a background of all sorts of noise regarding their closing window. Harper and Strasburg won't last forever, and Harper will be a free agent after next season. Outfielder Jayson Werth's contract is up after this season, and man, has he looked broken down since coming back from a foot injury.

In Washington in recent years, we've seen infighting (Jonathan Papelbon choking Harper in the dugout) and witnessed broken promises (Harper's reaction upon hearing Max Scherzer signed was to wonder where his World Series ring was). We've seen administrations change (Matt Williams was fired as manager two years ago, Dusty Baker's contract is up after this season, and the Nationals haven't addressed it).

The only thing missing on the diamond in the shadow of Capitol Hill is a filibuster or something, right?

So yes, pressure. Immense pressure, and no small part of the intrigue this month will be witnessing how Harper, Kershaw, Scherzer, Yasiel Puig and the rest of the Nationals and Dodgers handle it.

Welcome to October, and all those crisp, wild baseball nights that go with it. The only thing we can promise is that the only thing that will not come with pumpkin spice this month is the baseball itself.

But we guarantee that come month's end, at least a handful of teams will be lost in some field with Linus and Snoopy, awaiting a Great Pumpkin that will never come.

    

That's Not a Good Omen

Despite finishing with baseball's best record and earning home-field advantage throughout the month, the Dodgers will be trying to buck history. Here's what manager Dave Roberts, rookie wunderkind Cody Bellinger and the rest of the Artists Formerly Known as the Big Blue Wrecking Crew will be navigating around: No team has ever endured a losing streak as long as 10 games (and the Dodgers' this summer reached 11) and won a World Series.

The longest?

    

Could the Numbers (This Season) Be Pointing in Nats' Direction?

Regarding their National League Division Series against the Cubs that starts Friday: The Nationals won the season series 4-3 this summer.

Washington and Los Angeles could advance to play in the National League Championship Series, and they split six games this year.

    

Best Division Series Matchup: Individuals

Quick, order the pizza delivery now: Aces Chris Sale and Justin Verlander will oppose each other as the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros launch their American League Division Series on Thursday in Houston. Talk about a must-see Game 1 matchup.

Both Sale and Verlander are American League Central ex-patriots, with Boston having acquired Sale from the Chicago White Sox in a blockbuster trade at the winter meetings in December and Houston having traded for Verlander in a deal with the Detroit Tigers in August.

They faced each other April 10 in Detroit, with Verlander's Tigers edging Sale's Red Sox 2-1. While Verlander came away with a no-decision (one unearned run, three hits, four strikeouts and two walks over seven innings), Sale was tagged with the loss (two earned runs, five hits, 10 strikeouts and one walk in 7.2 innings).

Added oddity: The Red Sox and Astros finished the season with a four-game series in Boston, so when they pick up in the Division Series it will mean at least seven consecutive games against each other, if not more. That hasn't happened since 1991, when the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays played each other eight consecutive times—three games to finish the season followed by a five-game ALCS, which the Twins won to advance to that year's World Series against Atlanta.

    

Best Division Series Matchup: Teams

Easy: The Cubs opening defense of their World Series title against the habitually disappointing Nationals.

We've catalogued Washington's list of challenges above.

Chicago, meanwhile, has done everything the hard way this year, and facing Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who quietly had a sensational season, in Games 1, 2 and 3 will continue that trend.

Sidelight bonus: Maybe in their down time this series, Cubs star Kris Bryant can work on recruiting Bryce Harper to sign with Chicago as a free agent following the 2018 season. Right?

   

Justin Verlander Already Sold on the Astros

He helped pitch Detroit to a World Series in 2006 and led them to another World Series in 2010. When Houston clinched two Sundays ago, Verlander, now 34, acknowledged that what he's learned over the years is "it happens so quickly. You can forget about it so quickly. You have to do a better job of enjoying it."

Asked how good this Houston team is, Verlander's response was telling in two ways: First, about these Astros and, second, in highlighting a weakness in those Tigers teams.

"Man, it's hard to say," Verlander told B/R. "It's one of the best teams I've seen, one of the best I've played against and one of the best I've been a part of. The thing that's the most exciting is this club has the ability--every single player—to take the extra base, to do the little things. … Those things are all super-important. This is one of the most talented clubs I’ve been on.”

In Detroit, they had sluggers like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but those Tigers weren't nearly as athletic top to bottom as these Astros.

"At the end of all of it, you've got to win the World Series," Verlander said. "I've been on some pretty talented teams that won the American League."

Verlander paused, then grinned, continuing: "If we win the World Series, then I'll say it's the best team I've ever played on."

    

Why a Cleveland-Arizona World Series Would Be Fitting

The industrious Cleveland Indians set an American League record by winning 22 consecutive games from Aug. 24 to Sept. 15.

The determined Arizona Diamondbacks won 13 consecutive games from Aug. 24 to Sept. 6.

So as the streaks ran concurrently, this was going on:

The Indians, by the way, reeled off a 14-game winning streak from June 17 to July 1, 2016, and that worked out pretty well for them: In '16, they reached their first World Series since 1997 and pushed the Cubs into extra innings in Game 7 before, well, you know.

    

Slow Cooking and Fast Finishes

The World Series hangover is real: No team has won back-to-back World Series in nearly two decades, since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000.

And if we get a World Series rematch between the Cubs and Indians, it will be the first Fall Classic rerun since the Yankees and Dodgers were the last two teams standing in 1977 and 1978 (sorry, Dodgers; the Yankees won both).

This year, it took both clubs seemingly forever to get going. The Indians were an MLB-best 53-15 since July 21 and gained 16.5 games in the standings in the AL Central. When that stretch started, Cleveland was a middling 48-45. And its rotation, the deepest among all playoff teams with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, ranked last in ERA in the AL at the end of April (4.78).

Coming off the adrenalin of a World Series, and anticipating another World Series, well, it can make those early-season games in April and May feel like little more than a nuisance, busywork before the main event.

"The beginning of the year was tough," Indians relief ace Andrew Miller told B/R. "It was like, Gosh, we've got to play so long just to get another shot."

Since the All-Star break, Cleveland's 55-20 mark was the best in the majors. So was the pitching staff's 2.78 ERA.

And talk about hangovers and fast finishes: The Cubs were 25-27 on June 1 and trailed the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. They were 43-45 at the All-Star break and trailed the Brewers by 5.5 games.

Now? They are the first defending World Series champion to win their division the following season and reach 90 wins since the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies went 93-69. Those Phillies, after defeating Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series, lost the '09 Series to the Yankees.

    

Let's Talk Droughts

As you may have heard, last year's Cubs snapped a 108-year drought in winning their first World Series since 1908. So how do this year's October entrants stack up?

The Indians now own the game's longest drought: 68 years and counting. They last won a World Series in 1948, over the Boston Braves. (Hey, at least this drought isn't so long as to involve the Boston Beaneaters!)

The Nationals do not own the game's longest drought simply because they played in Montreal until 2005, but the city of Washington, D.C., hasn't won a World Series since 1924, back in the days of the Washington Senators of Walter "Big Train" Johnson.

The Astros came into the game as an expansion franchise in 1962 and have never won a World Series.

The Colorado Rockies came into existence as an expansion franchise in 1993 and have never won a World Series.

The Minnesota Twins haven't won a World Series since 1991, during the days of manager Tom Kelly and ace Jack Morris' incredible Game 7.

The Dodgers, as noted above, haven't won a World Series since 1988.

On the flip side...

The Red Sox last won in 2013 and have won three World Series since 2004. The Curse of the Bambino, smashed.

The Yankees last won in 2009.

The Diamondbacks last won in 2001.

    

Bold Moves and Lasting Images: American League Edition

New York added starting pitcher Sonny Gray at the July trade deadline. Cleveland added right fielder Jay Bruce in August. Minnesota added Big Sexy himself, Bartolo Colon, in early July (before acquiring Jaime Garcia and then flipping him to New York and then trading All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler to Washington on July 31, when the front office seemingly waved the white flag). Boston made no major trades of significance (unusual for president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski) but did send a Panda packing (Pablo Sandoval) and called up rookie phenom Rafael Devers from the minors.

But the move that will turn out to be the most significant of all this month is Houston's addition of ace Justin Verlander. He is 5-0 with an astounding 1.06 ERA in five starts for the Astros and already has pitched in two World Series for the Tigers, in 2006 and 2012.

"I've faced him in the playoffs before and it's no fun," right fielder Josh Reddick told B/R. "He's a guy who's pitched in the World Series and knows how to win.

"And the good thing about having Justin Verlander is that we have him for two more years."

    

Bold Moves and Lasting Images: National League Edition

The Cubs bolstered their rotation at midseason with Jose Quintana. The Dodgers did the same with Yu Darvish at the July deadline. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo did magnificent work in fixing a bullpen that has been problematic for years by acquiring Kintzler, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. The Rockies added depth to their bullpen with Pat Neshek and to their lineup with catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

But the Diamondbacks stole the show with their acquisition of outfielder J.D. Martinez, who is absolutely destroying pitchers in much the same way that a Hummer destroys gas mileage: His 16 home runs in the month of September were tied for the most in National League history with Ralph Kiner (1949), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Overall with Arizona, Martinez smashed 29 homers in 62 games.

"Adding a guy like J.D., not only what he's done on the field, but he's fit in perfectly with us," Diamondbacks setup man Archie Bradley told B/R. "His first week here, it was like we had him all year. At the time we got him, right after the All-Star break, we knew we were a playoff team, but we also knew what the Dodgers were doing."

With Martinez in the season's second half, Arizona is 7-2 against Los Angeles. Look out.

    

Fun With Run Differential

If you're into it, and you should be, here's how the postseason teams stack up:

((((NOTE: NEED TO UPDATE THESE NUMBERS AFTER SUNDAY'S GAMES!))))

American League:

  1. Indians +254
  2. Yankees +198
  3. Astros +196
  4. Red Sox +117
  5. Twins +27

National League:

  1. Dodgers +190
  2. Diamondbacks +153
  3. Nationals +147
  4. Cubs +127
  5. Rockies +67

For context, the clubs with the best run differential going into last season's playoffs were the Cubs (plus-252) and Red Sox (plus-184). The Indians, who won the AL pennant, were second to Boston in AL run differential at plus-101.

    

Why (Fill In Your Favorite Team Here) Will Win It All This Month

Dodgers:This team was 91-36 at one point this season, so it must be dominant, right?

Indians:Kluber and Carrasco are as good a one-two punch as there is, and Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are producing hits more consistently than Shonda Rhimes.

Astros:Verlander and Dallas Keuchel can answer Kluber and Carrasco, and in Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Co., Houston's youth and athleticism will play big.

Nationals: Finally, a bullpen that can hold postseason leads. And Harper, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman lead a lineup that most will have difficulty pitching to.

Diamondbacks: Good luck pitching to Martinez, Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, and don't underestimate starting pitcher Robbie Ray, especially should he face the lefty-challenged Dodgers.

Red Sox: Baseball's best wipeout closer, Craig Kimbrel, has struck out nearly half (126) of all batters he's faced (254) this season. And that outfield of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts is as good an all-around outfield as there is: They hit, they field, and they win.

Cubs: Hey, look; they're not carrying around 108 years of baggage. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and teammates have gotten hot and should be playing free and easy again.

Yankees: Baby Bombers Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Co. will bludgeon you to death while back-end relievers Dellin Betances, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman bring the heat.

Rockies: Leadoff man Charlie Blackmon hits everything in sight, and third baseman Nolan Arenado catches everything in sight.

Twins: After the front office gave up and became a seller in July, those in the clubhouse banded together in a classic "stick it to the man" move that workers frustrated by their bosses everywhere can appreciate.

    

Why (Fill In Your Favorite Team Here) Will Not Win It All This Month

Dodgers: This team lost 16 of 17 at one point, so it must be falling apart, right? (Its middle relief already has, so good luck with the bridge from the starters to closer Kenley Jansen.)

Indians: Left fielder Michael Brantley's ankle still isn't right, center fielder Bradley Zimmer is out with a broken hand and starting pitcher Danny Salazar's elbow remains questionable. And is Andrew Miller past his episode of knee tendinitis? He is, right? Right? Right?!

Astros: They would be so much stronger with a fully healthy Lance McCullers Jr. spinning those curveballs all night long.

Nationals: They're the Nationals. They do not win playoff series!

Diamondbacks: Fernando Rodney is their closer.

Red Sox: Ace Chris Sale is untested in October and is looking fatigued already, and David Price never gave the Boston rotation the depth it expected this summer.

Cubs: Jake Arrieta's strained hamstring still isn't completely healed—he told reporters in early September he couldn't drive off his right leg as strongly as he'd like. Jon Lester has been up and down, John Lackey is at the end of his career, and Maddon still can't even decide on a Game 1 starter. Kyle Hendricks, likely.

Yankees: Luis Severino, their best young pitcher, is about 30 innings beyond his career high, and you wonder how much further he can stretch. Especially in the high-leverage outings of October.

Rockies: How do you win with a rotation of Jon Gray, German Marquez, Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood?

Twins: Hello, wild-card matchup: Ervin Santana is 0-5 with a 6.43 ERA in six career starts in the new Yankee Stadium.

    

Prediction

Coming out of spring training, I had the Indians winning the American League and the World Series.

(Let's all pause and admire my intelligence and wisdom!)

Coming out of spring training, I had the San Francisco Giants winning the National League.

(Let's all pause to talk about, Hey, can we maybe forget that and not figure I'm a moron? Pretty please?)

So, naturally, I'm going to stick with one of those as we launch October...and let's call it Indians over Nationals in six.

    

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

Former All-Star Carl Crawford Is Making $21.9M to Not Play, and He’s OK with It

HOUSTON — The big iron gates swing open, and from the front door on the other end of the long concrete driveway a voice cheerfully hollers, "Come on in!"

It is late on a Saturday afternoon and a sweltering 87 degrees in the quiet here after Hurricane Harvey ripped through two weeks ago. But signs of life are returning throughout the neighborhood. Inside the big house on the sprawling property ringed by what must be a 10-foot-high brick wall, a giant flat-screen TV is primed and waiting.

"We're getting ready for the fight," the man says, eagerly anticipating that night's showdown between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.

On another channel this weekend, meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the Washington Nationals in a preview of what well could be this autumn's National League Championship Series.

There was a time when Carl Crawford would have been smack in the middle of that action, doing what he did best: sprinting straight toward October. Though time changes, sometimes it sends reminders: Checks from the Dodgers still arrive on the first and 15th of each month.

Now in the final weeks of the monster seven-year, $142 million deal he signed before the 2011 season, Crawford is being paid nearly $22 million by the Dodgers this summer to not play baseball.

"It just seems like my hamstrings started hurting one day and never stopped," Crawford shrugs, shaking his head. "Then you compensate, and something else hurts."

Like leaks springing from a hose, once that process starts, the flow that once was so strong slows to a trickle.

Over 15 big league seasons, Crawford, a four-time All-Star, batted .290/.330/.435 with 136 homers, 766 RBI and 480 steals. Four times for Tampa Bay between 2003 and 2007, he led the American League in steals. Four other times, he led the league in triples. He hit .345 against Boston in the 2008 AL Championship Series, then banged two home runs in the World Series against Philadelphia.

He was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2009 All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger in 2010.

Then, the ink on his free-agent deal had hardly dried when his body began to betray him. He never stole more than 23 bags again, hated Boston and hoped a 2012 trade to Los Angeles would bring new life. By the fifth season of those seven years, it was evident Crawford was chasing his own ghost, and he no longer had the legs to catch up.

 

"Every time I would get to 15 stolen bases, I'd get hurt," he says. "Every time, right at 15. That's when I knew, when I couldn't steal more than 15 bases.

"I was doing that in a month."

When the Dodgers finally released him with a .185 batting average and .230 on-base percentage following nearly two years of steady decline in mid-June, 2016, swallowing the roughly $35 million they still owed him, Crawford had a couple of chances to hang on. The Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies were among those who reached out. But Crawford says when his agent, Brian Peters, phoned, he knew what was up before answering and gave Peters a short answer: No thanks.

"I'm not bitter," Crawford says, smiling. "I'm happy. I gave the game as much as I could for as long as I could. I like watching now."

        

TO REACH THIS enormous property on the outskirts of Houston in an area known as Acres Homes, his fight-loving friends will drive past the Sears department store displaying the sign "Your Storm Recovery Headquarters," past a swath of land earmarked as the "Future Home of True Baptist Church" and make a turn at the corner where the Burger King is offering a "2 for $6 Whopper deal."

They will arrive at the property with the big wall, iron gates and the signs reading "Warning: Security Cameras in Use," "Posted: No Trespassing. Keep Out" and "No Soliciting or Loitering."

"Lonely? Nah," Crawford, who turned 36 last month, says from behind that wall. He gets that question a lot, and it's easy to see why. To go from the raucous atmosphere of packed stadiums to days as quiet and wide open as the Texas prairie…well, it's no wonder that last week, a cousin he hadn't spoken with in quite a while phoned with the same assumption. Talk to me, Carl, she said. Really, now, tell me how you're doing...

"It's so funny, man," he says. "I'd really like to get it on record: Everybody thinks I'm sad and lonely, and it's just not the case. It's not the case at all.

"I did my best. I got rewarded for it. I'm at my crib. I did everything I could. So you come home and enjoy your life. People never see me, so they take that as, 'Oh, he's so depressed and lonely.' No. I'm in the comfort of my own home, and I'm not worried about the outside. Trust me, I'm not depressed at all."

 

That he just kind of came back home when it all ended and is keeping to himself is no surprise to those who know him well. Several Dodgers field inquiries regarding Crawford these days with quizzical looks and zero answers.

"He's a very private person," explains closer Kenley Jansen, who says he hasn't been in touch with Crawford, nor has anyone else in the Dodgers clubhouse to his knowledge. "I think he's at home in Arizona. Or maybe Texas."

Crawford maintains residences in both states and splits his time. In Arizona, Crawford's son Leo, 3, lives with his mother. In Southern California, Crawford's son Justin, 13, and daughter Ari, 4, live with their mother.

But Houston always will be home. He grew up 10 minutes from here, in the shadow of what was then known as Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park). A high school sports star who signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at the University of Nebraska and declined a basketball scholarship offer from UCLA, Crawford instead signed with the Rays, who had picked him in the second round of the 1999 draft. His father lives here in this house, and his mother lives not far away. So, too, does his brother, Cory, who manages the barbecue joint Carl owns, Burns Original BBQ.

Crawford knows the grind of the baseball schedule as well as anyone, how bothersome it can be as a player when people keep leaving you messages. So for now, during this transition, he is leaving his friends on the Dodgers alone.

"Just trying to become a normal citizen amongst the people, and that's pretty much it," he says of how he spends his time now. "Relaxing. Absorbing everything. Trying to be subtle. The main thing is trying to catch up on time with my kids, especially my oldest."

That's Justin, and he is quite a baseball player, Crawford says. He's playing some travel ball. Then Carl taps his iPhone and calls up a video of young Leo taking a swing at a baseball on a tee. Thwack! As Leo drills the baseball, Carl smiles the smile of a proud father. Yes, he figures, with these kids' bloodlines, he will be back in the baseball world soon enough.

He is fidgety. As we sit on a couple of bar stools off the kitchen and talk, just as when he played, Crawford's legs keep moving. The man always did have wheels. Only now, where he once routinely stole 50 bags a season, his wheels are out in the back yard of this expansive property. The smell of a neighbor barbecuing is strong. A smoker, probably. Crawford walks out and hops onto one of several four-wheel-drive vehicles that sit amid a full basketball court and three trampolines in the backyard—for the kids in the family—and zooms off along the perimeter of the property to investigate.

A couple of minutes later, he pulls up onto the back patio and brakes.

"Texas living," he says, nodding approvingly.

       

THOUGH HE HAS not been back to a ballpark since he left, Crawford knows who's winning. He likes the Washington Nationals because he is a Dusty Baker fan. He likes the Chicago Cubs because of his days with Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. And Los Angeles, well….

"The Dodgers did some crazy stuff this year," he says, noting both their 29-4 and 1-16 stretches. "I definitely saw that. You can't miss what they did this year."

 

When he watches the team that acquired him in 2012 when he was just 31, he says, it is not weird at all.

"I'm still rooting for them," Crawford says.

Then, he pauses, reels off a good line and laughs: "I was watching it from TV, anyway. I wasn't playing much."

Even for those players who leave on their own terms, the game flits by too quickly. One day you're bathed in the spotlight, applause filling your ears. A few blinks later, it all goes quiet.

Even as his body broke down–wrist, elbow, hamstrings, ankle, oblique, back–Crawford, who teammates always described as among the hardest-working players they knew, looked the part. He just no longer could act it.

"I wish I could have performed better there, because I really liked L.A.," Crawford says. "I just wish I could have played some of my prime years there. I gave them what I had, but it's still just frustrating when you can't do what you want to do. That's why it was no problem when the Dodgers called me into the house, because I already knew I couldn't play the way I wanted to play.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to sleep good at night because I knew that I gave it my best effort."

He broke in with Tampa Bay in 2002, when he was just 20, and calls his nine seasons there "the best years of my career." He played under managers Hal McRae and Lou Piniella before Maddon was hired in 2006.

"We went from last to first, we had come up with slogans and all type of stuff. Mentally getting in our head, 'This is what we're going to do.' A lot of stuff we thought was corny at first, but it actually turned out to be the driving force for us winning. It was cool."

 

"It was attitude. We just brought that culture of being positive and winning. I try to add that to my everyday life. Joe Maddon was the most positive person I've ever been around. I saw how that can rub off on people."

The highs of Tampa Bay quickly ceded to lows he never saw coming as soon as he signed the deal with Boston. A naturally shy, private person, Crawford was no match for the high-volume baseball experience of Fenway Park. Former outfielder Torii Hunter was with the Los Angeles Angels at the time and attempted to recruit Crawford there, but the Boston money spoke louder.

"I should have listened, man. They say, 'Don't go chasing waterfalls,'" Crawford says ruefully, dropping part of the chorus of the 1995 TLC hit.

It became his worst nightmare. He was not equipped to deal with the press in Boston, he finished that first year with a lowly .289 on-base percentage, hurt a wrist, had surgery and never regained his balance. It was as if he woke up one morning suddenly old. His best guess is, playing nine years on the hard artificial turf at Tropicana Field probably produced the wear and tear of 15.

"I gotta think it was the turf," he says. "All of a sudden, I was just having problems all the time."

He hated Boston. The feeling was mutual. And after the Dodgers acquired him along with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto in exchange for five players in August, 2012, he was more than happy to sling public arrows at Boston every chance he got.

"I carried hate for that city for a long time," Crawford says. "But now, I'm over that. I feel much better, because I learned that you can't hate something or you never get over it. It definitely was a learning experience, definitely that. I got that out of it, if nothing else."

 

At home over this past year, watching the Cubs last October, thinking back over it all, he feels Maddon's influence every day.

"I focus on the positive all the time," he says. "Even when the negative energy comes your way, I still find a way to find positive light."

It's why today, as the last of the checks arrive, he will spend October cheering hard for the Dodgers.

"I still got love for that organization," he says. "They saved me at a time when I felt I was just going to collapse as a human, break down as a human. That's why I'll always have love for L.A., because that city just really brought me back to life."

        

HURRICANE HARVEY HAD barely left town when Crawford joined a group of locals to collect and distribute supplies and food to those in need. The group worked out of a local boxing gym and for this, too, Crawford stayed under the radar.

"We just don't Instagram and things like that," he says. "I feel like some people don't want to be seen at their lowest moments."

That Crawford would be moved to help quietly in his native area is not surprising. Touched by what he saw on television of a youth team from Chicago, he helped support its trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 2014. He paid for the travel, hotel and meals for the parents of the 13 boys on the team, despite never having met any of them. He also has funded multiple scholarships through the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

"I came from nothing, so I always remember what it's like to have nothing," he says. "Those memories are still fresh in my mind. So if I see someone in need of help who was in a similar situation to how I was, I try to help. That's what I would have wanted as a kid for me."

Out back is the fitness equipment with which Crawford starts his wide-open days. He gets up in the morning and lifts weights (though nothing heavy anymore), goes for a jog around the perimeter of his property and then starts his day. Whatever errands he has to run, maybe some business with his restaurant.

He still looks like he's in something close to baseball shape.

"Well, you know, you don't want to feel like a bum," he says. "You want to be active. I don't want to just sit on the couch all day. I've got a big family. They're all big people.

"I don't want to get like that right now."

Always, he says, he planned to come back home when his career was over and, hurricane or not, help out in his community.

 

"I just fixed one of my cousins' roofs," he says of another post-hurricane task. "There's always going to be stuff. People still need help. This job ain't over.

"You feel better as a person when you know you contributed in a way you should have."

The family-run barbecue joint is a seven- or eight-minute drive from here. Crawford says he is a hands-on owner, that it "ain't one of those things where I just gave somebody some money to keep it going." It also helps shield him from financially strapped family members, because if one of them comes to him in need, he's got a pretty good line on getting them a job.

He's open to other business opportunities, too, as he tries to balance that line between enjoying his still-new free time and finding things to stay busy with. Same as most retired people, only the vast majority of them have 30 or 40 years on him.

Once, he would take himself out on Friday nights to watch high school football games. He thinks he'd like to start doing that again. Yeah, maybe one of these Friday nights real soon. Otherwise, when there is no fight, many of his nights are gobbled up by Netflix. He loves the current Narcos season, and he watches plenty of comedy specials, especially those starring Kevin Hart. Usually, he finds himself falling asleep in front of the TV.

"Pretty simple, man," he says.

Eventually, he figures, he would like to return to baseball. Maybe to coach.

"If Rocco [Baldelli] can coach first base, I know I can do that," he says, chuckling, of one of his favorite ex-teammates who now is coaching in Tampa Bay.

Closer to home, his favorite childhood team, the Houston Astros, young and athletic, are his kind of club. Maybe, he says, he'll make his return to the ballpark during a playoff game there this autumn.

But right now, there's a fight tonight, and the driveway is long enough that Carl Crawford, the former All-Star who once covered large swaths of big league outfields with the ease of a gazelle, hops onto a Razor scooter to accompany his visitor back to the main street. He whizzes around energetically, enthusiastically, like a reborn teenager with nothing but time and space in front of him.

Autumn is here, and Crawford mentions the Dodgers one more time, saying, "Tell the fellas I said hello."

    

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

As Giancarlo Stanton Chases Roger Maris’ HR Mark, Roger Maris Jr. Cheers

Roger Maris Jr. was listening. He always listens. Because as long as there is baseball and as long as there are home runs, if he listens hard enough, his father is still close to him.

So yes, when Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton tossed a shoutout to Maris Jr.'s father last month, you bet it came through loud and clear.

You see, over the past two decades, we've been through Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire (twice) and Sammy Sosa (three times). We've watched McGwire break the single-season home run record in 1998 (70), Bonds up the ante in 2001 (73) and other 62-plus efforts during the cartoonish seasons of 1998-2001 that made Roger Maris' old record of 61 in 1961 seem almost quaint by comparison. He now ranks all the way down at seventh on the all-time single-season home run list.

And yet, there was Stanton last month, en route to constructing possibly the greatest long ball season we've seen since Bonds', noting he still considers Maris' 61 to be the record.

"I did see that, and I think a lot of people feel that way," Maris Jr. told Bleacher Report in a recent phone conversation. "The record books don't indicate that, but in the court of public opinion, I think a lot of people think that is the record even though it's not in the books.

"Kind of like when Dad hit 61, a few people thought differently at that time, too. It's interesting Stanton is shooting for that, and it's exciting to watch him play."

It says a mouthful regarding both baseball's revered numbers and the permanent stain from the steroid era that a man who spent the entire 2016 season with Bonds as his hitting coach would then approach a milestone home run mark one season later and...completely discard Bonds in favor of digging back into history.

Maris Jr.'s father is not in the Hall of Fame, yet he doggedly continues to be remembered in his own unique way as a historical figure. Seasons come and seasons go, yet Roger Maris never goes out of style. And it is touching to Maris Jr. and his three brothers and two sisters.

"It obviously makes you feel good knowing he's in good light with the people who follow baseball and with the general public," Maris Jr. said. "There's never a time that goes by when you don't think that's great."

Maris Jr., who lives in Gainesville, Florida, was scheduled to be in Atlanta for the Marlins-Braves game two Saturdays ago, and he was supposed to meet Stanton for the first time. While Hurricane Irma forced Maris Jr. to cancel, Stanton smashed No. 54.

Meanwhile, Maris Jr. this month is preparing to launch 61 Outfitters, a clothing company specializing in fishing and hunting caps designed to honor his father.

That Stanton happens to be stirring memories of the former New York Yankees slugger in the same month that the Maris family is gearing up for the launch of a clothing line that plays off Roger's accomplishment is not lost on Maris Jr. He's seen enough to know that timing is everything in this game.

While Maris Jr., 58, doesn't watch baseball as much as he once did, he does pay attention, especially to MLB's annual Home Run Derby. And you bet he noticed it was Stanton at last summer's event in San Diego who set a Home Run Derby record by slugging...61 homers.

"It's all flowing together," Maris Jr. said.

In a way, it always has. One of his wife Danis' two daughters, Brie, 24, interned for the Yankees a couple of summers ago, and the family has been invited back to Yankee Stadium several times for various ceremonies: the 50th anniversary of Maris' 61-homer season, the final game at old Yankee Stadium, Opening Day in new Yankee Stadium, a Roger Maris bobblehead giveaway.

"The Yankees have always been very good to us," Maris Jr. says. "George Steinbrenner was extremely gracious with my dad, and the Steinbrenners to this day always have been very generous with us."

Roger Maris died of cancer in December 1985, at the age of 51. The family's highest-profile baseball date since then, of course, was its attendance at St. Louis' Busch Stadium on the night in 1998 when McGwire broke their father's record with his 62nd home runfive of Roger's six children were in attendance: Roger Jr., Richard, Kevin, Randy and Sandra. Those images remain indelible, and it was especially emotional that evening not only because of the record but also because Roger Maris finished his career in St. Louis.

Maris Jr. vividly remembers plenty of nights running around that old ballpark as a kid, and playing pepper there with his father. While the family talked about its "disappointment" following McGwire's steroids admission, even that doesn't overshadow their fondness for him personally. After the steroids admission, McGwire phoned Pat Maris, Roger's widow, personally to apologize.

"What happened happened," Maris Jr. said. "He admitted what he did, he said he was sorry, and I believe he was. I think he's a pretty great guy. He didn't have to say that. Like when he was under oath to Congress and he took the Fifth, most people would have tried to protect what they did and lied through their teeth. That shows character, for him to come clean and be upfront about it. You've got to give him kudos for that."

From a distance, Maris Jr. still views 1998 mostly in a positive way.

"Sosa and Mac, in my mind, I related it to my dad and Mickey [Mantle]," he said, referring to the two Yankees who dueled in '61, when his dad finished with 61 homers and Mantle 54. "When Dad did this, he was the first guy to do it where the media was really [outsize], when you had television and print, radio; everybody was fighting for stories at the time, but there was nobody in the locker rom to protect him. There was no press secretary. He would be sitting in the locker room for hours answering question after question, and if he didn't answer the 100th question, he was a jerk."

It was quite an education, Maris Jr. said. And then, "to see Mark break the record and get all the adulation, you think about what it was like for Dad."

He's never met Bonds. He was watching on television the night the Giants slugger broke McGwire's single-season record in '01, albeit with far different emotions.

"In the moment, pretty much everyone kind of knew what was going on," Maris Jr. said. "The home runs were just getting out of control. One year they did it, then everyone's hitting 65, 67. Then there was a point where the record was going to be so far obliterated.

"It used to be that every year someone got off to a hot start and there was a number that was attainable. Now, it's not even attainable."

At the time, Maris' achievement was controversial because Babe Ruth was—and remainsa beloved legend and because Maris broke the Babe's single-season record in the first season in which MLB expanded its schedule to 162 games. Previously, clubs had played 154 games.

But while Maris' Yankees played eight more games in 1961 than Ruth's Yankees in 1927, Maris wound up with just seven more plate appearances than Ruth in their historic seasons (698-691). And it took Maris three fewer plate appearances to hit 60 compared to Ruth (684-687). Maris then hit No. 61 in his 696th plate appearance of the '61 season.

There's no telling what Roger Maris would have thought of McGwire and Co., but Maris Jr. said: "I think he would have loved it. I think he'd have been right there with it. He loved the long ball. I don't think he's any different than any other person in this country who lived through that whole time. It was like, Wow. There was a wow factor to the whole deal."

That wow factor re-appeared with Stanton for a time in August and early September, but he's now hit only one home run in his last seven games. Nevertheless, Maris Jr. is rooting for him.

"When he first came into the league and I saw his first homer, I thought, 'Oh my God, who is that?'" Maris Jr. said. "The way he turned on the ball, the power he exuded. Ever since then, I've been a big fan, following him. He's just incredible. When he first came up, you were just in awe if you were a fan and enjoy the long ball.

"I was like, 'How many home runs is he going to hit?'"

    

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

‘It’s Damned Near Impossible’: Inside the Indians’ Unforgettable Win Streak

When they pummeled Boston ace Chris Sale for seven runs to snap a two-game losing streak Aug. 24, the Cleveland Indians felt pretty good about themselves.

When they immediately followed that by shutting out Kansas City over three consecutive games, cumulatively outscoring the Royals 20-0, the Indians were rolling.

Then came two doubleheader sweeps in three days, over the New York Yankees on Aug. 30 and the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 1, road kill that stoked an 11-0 trip.

And two weeks after that the Indians still haven't lost, their American League-record 22-game winning streak now second all-time. Only the 1916 New York Giants, at 26 games, outrank them, and the Indians could break that record Wednesday in Anaheim, California.

"The only word I can come up with is 'surreal,'" Tom Hamilton, now in his 28th season as the team's radio play-by-play voice, told Bleacher Report after Cleveland had finished off a sweep of the Tigers on Wednesday. "A 10-game winning streak is amazing enough in this day and age when there are so many good teams. But for them to win [22] in a row, to do it when they had to play back-to-back doubleheaders, to do it without Andrew Miller, who is as big a game-changer as there is in any bullpen in baseball, without Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, speaks volumes to the depth of the organization.

"You're sitting here going, 'These are the best players in the world. There's a reason why this hasn't happened in 82 years.'

"It's damned near impossible."

Bob DiBiasio, a 38-year Cleveland front office veteran who is the team's vice president for public affairs, was equally nonplussed.

"It is absolutely awe-inspiring, the spirit that these guys show, the style with which they go about their business, the talent that's on display," DiBiasio said.

During these 22 games, the invincible Indians have slugged more home runs (41) than they have allowed total runs (37). Their run differential is plus-105 (142-37). Their starting pitchers are 19-0 with a 1.77 ERA. They have trailed in a grand total of eight innings out of 199.

Almost all of this while one of the game's greatest relievers (Miller, knee), the club's de facto captain (Kipnis, hamstring) and one of the lineup's most lethal bats (Brantley, ankle) have been marooned on the disabled list.

You bet there have been a few nervous smiles and black-humored jokes traded in the trainer's room during this run.

"We don't want to come back and mess it up," Miller told Bleacher Report, chuckling, Thursday before being activated and throwing one scoreless inning for that night's 3-2, 10-inning win over Kansas City. "Hopefully, we can all come back and contribute.

"This team has done such a good job of incorporating everybody, but we hate to miss out."

As the Indians roared through New York, Detroit and Chicago from Aug. 28 through Sept. 7, Miller, the Most Valuable Player of last October's American League Championship Series, had much in common with fans in Cleveland who were glued to the unfolding drama.

"I've been rehabbing and watching on TV like regular fans," he said. "It's been a lot of fun. And the crowds this homestand have been phenomenal. The guys are having fun with it.

"Some guys are pretending this doesn't exist. Other guys are embracing it."

Safe to say that ace Corey Kluber, likely on his way to a second Cy Young Award, is a prime example of the former.

"We keep saying it, but I think it's more of a mindset than anything else: Just keep coming to the field and try to win that day's game," Kluber said on the Indians' television postgame show following his complete-game shutout of Detroit on Tuesday, the team's 20th win in a row.

On the other hand, there's enigmatic young shortstop Francisco Lindor, a slick-fielding, budding superstar whose dramatic two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning RBI double extended Thursday night's thriller into extra innings.

"I think it would be pretty hard to say he doesn't know what's going on and isn't fully invested," Miller deadpanned.

"He hits a home run and what's the first thing he does? He looks into our dugout and smiles," DiBiasio said. "That's just him. ... He wants to share the moment with his teammates."

Last year's run to Game 7 of the World Series, combined with this record streak, has stirred a passion for the game in Cleveland reminiscent of the latter 1990s, when the Indians won five consecutive AL Central titles and played in front of 455 consecutive sellouts at what was then called Jacobs Field.

The biggest difference then was that in Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton, the Indians employed some of the biggest superstars in the game. Their current team is young and just beginning to emerge. Behind Kluber on the mound, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger are still, to varying degrees, still looking to gain consistent success in the game. On the field, players such as Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Roberto Perez and Bradley Zimmer (who suffered a season-ending broken hand last weekend) aren't exactly household names.

"Absolutely there are similarities," DiBiasio said. "It's funny, because you look at Frankie Lindor and that smile of his, and it reminds you so much of Omar Vizquel. The style and grace and smile of Omar right in the middle of the diamond at the most demanding position; it brings you back.

"Then you look at the rosters, and while we don't have a guy like Belle in '95 with 50 homers, we do have a lot of guys who come to the park every day and try to out-do each other and win for the team. People always ask about winning cultures, and one thing I've noticed is that these guys don't want to be away from each other for very long. In the '90s, those guys would be at the park at 1 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game; they couldn't wait.

"It's back to that with this club. They get to the park early because they want to hang out with one another."

The "we" mentality over the "me" mentality is a specialty of Francona's, and after leading the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles, his reputation as one of the all-time managing greats is only strengthening.

The Indians opened the season's second half by losing five of six games to lowly Oakland and San Francisco, a forgettable West Coast trip that sliced their AL Central lead to a half-game and put their record at a middling 48-45.

A highly disgusted Francona called a rare team meeting before the opener of the next homestand with Toronto on July 21 and lit into his team.

"I think there have been a couple of times this year where we weren't taking care of business and doing the things he expected," Miller said.

It wasn't, Miller explained, simply in the wins and losses. It was the little things. Individual players taking care of their work before the game. Making sure that by first pitch, all preparation was complete. The kind of stuff that players can slack on at times during the grind of a 162-game schedule. Francona challenged his team: Who do you want to be? What is your identity?

"He was pretty fired up," Miller said. "He was not happy.

"Usually, he's pretty loose. He has fun and loves to go along with everything. But it was time to buckle up."

The Indians walloped Toronto 13-3 that night and have gone a best-in-the-majors 43-11 since, adding 13 games to their division lead.

Now, the sports world stands at full attention. As the Indians roared into the territory of Oakland's unforgettable 20-game winning streak in 2002, players from that team were watching and rooting for them. Tim Hudson, along with Barry Zito and Mark Mulder one of the Big Three starters on those A's teams, now is retired and home in Auburn, Alabama, and was with a buddy checking scores earlier this week when the Indians tied the Oakland mark.

"Honestly, I didn't think that would be something that could come close to being broken anytime soon," Hudson told Bleacher Report. "I just thought the game of baseball has gotten so balanced, top to bottom, that putting that many wins together would be impossible. But they're so good."

Hudson remembers his A's beginning to capture national attention about the time they won their 13th or 14th in a row. Eric Byrnes, an outfielder on that club, says the team began to feel its swag when its winning streak reached 10, and in those pre-social media days, when the triumphant A's returned to their clubhouse around that time and saw they were the primary focus of ESPN's SportsCenter.

"Once we got to 10, I remember being the lead on SportsCenter, and it was like, 'Holy s--t; we're the Oakland A's and we're leading SportsCenter?! That never happens," said Byrnes, now an analyst for the MLB Network.

"It became an inside joke in the dugout: Hey, let's not give up our lead, let's make sure we watch our highlights first tonight."

Byrnes and Hudson identify with these Indians.

"As a starting pitcher, it seemed like there was a lot of pressure because you can't win a game in the first inning, but a lot of times you can lose a game in the first if you're not on your game," Hudson said. "You almost had playoff pressure on you to put up zeroes early in games."

Game after game over these incredible past three weeks, Indians starting pitchers have been up to the challenge. And so has everybody else.

Moments from this streak will stand out forever to the Indians and their fans. Admitting to being biased in favor of his fellow relievers, one of Miller's favorite days was watching Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway piece together a "bullpen game" in Chicago, a 9-4 win over the White Sox on Sept. 5 near the end of the 11-0 trip. Following the doubleheaders in New York and Detroit, the Indians' rotation was close to being overly taxed, and eight pitchers produced that night: Salazar, Nick Goody, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Joe Smith, Tyler Olson, Bryan Shaw and Shawn Armstrong.

"What's kind of cool about our game is that when you do things, and do things right, like hitting streaks," Francona said, "I think it means more when you're not going out of your way [to keep a hitting streak going] and someone hits on a 3 and 0 count when you're down five runs.

"Our guys are playing to win in the right way. That part's really meaningful. They should enjoy it. What they're doing is pretty special."

What the Indians are doing since hiring Francona before the 2013 season is extremely special.

"Turning point in franchise history," Hamilton said. "We had gone through three dreadful years of 90-plus losses. You didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. We were, like, 'We're getting Terry Francona, the guy who won World Series in Boston? How are we getting him?!'

"If he wins one World Series, he'll have a statue in front of the ballpark like Bob Feller, Jim Thome, Larry Doby and Frank Robinson."

Now there he is after each game, an old-school baseball guy who lives for those nine innings each night, stuck trying to explain all of the magic and history his team is packing into them.

Asked the other day about the controversy surrounding the game's all-time longest winning streak—the tie included in the Giants' 26-game streak—Francona did one of the things he does best: laugh.

"I wasn't there," he explained of that 101-year-old streak. "I have given that zero thought. I promise you, I've given it no thought."

Said Miller: "His postgame interviews are must-see TV. He's having fun with it."

Best part is, aside from opponents who are getting drubbed on a nightly basis, everybody else is, too. Friday night's game with the Royals sold out within minutes of the Indians extending their winning streak to 22, and in the middle of the work week, with school in session, the Indians pulled in a walk-up crowd of nearly 10,000 for Wednesday's noon start against Detroit. Among the total 29,346 who attended was a man hoisting a sign that read: "I Turned 44 Today But I Feel 21."

"That's an example of how people so embrace this," DiBiasio said. "Sports has almost turned into an event mentality. If it isn't a huge, huge event, then people aren't as into it.

"A 20-game winning streak, that's a daily event that has people like a 40-year-old man making a sign like an eight-year-old coming to the ballpark. That's what it does."

              

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

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Risk-It-All Justin Verlander Trade Gives Astros Best WS Hope in 56-Year History

That wasn't an eclipse on this hot August night; it was a meteor streaking across the sky. Straight from Michigan to Texas.

Justin Verlander is galloping back into a pennant race.

The Houston Astros are charging toward a patch of big league real estate they have never before occupied.

No guarantees they get there, not even with Kate Upton's boy toy, but make no mistake: This isn't a luxury move for the Astros. This was a necessity.

At 80-53, they own the best record in the American League and the third-best record in the majors, behind the otherworldly Los Angeles Dodgers (91-41) and potent Washington Nationals (81-52). They long ago punched their playoff ticket, but it's not enough. Not this year.

A dead-solid perfect chance to win a World Series doesn't come along often. When it does, you've got to seize it. The Houston Astros have been open for business for 56 years, and they've played in exactly one World Series, back in 2005, when the Chicago White Sox whitewashed them.

From Nolan Ryan to Craig Biggio to Jeff Bagwell, Hall of Famers and other assorted great players have punched in for work, punched out for the season and never come close to winning a World Series.

By adding Verlander to a mix that includes Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. on the mound, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman in the field and the steady A.J. Hinch in the manager's chair, these Astros have covered every angle they could to give this group the best chance in franchise history to win a World Series.

What they have also done is what many in the industry said they wouldn’t.

Oh, the Astros are too in love with their own prospects to trade them for a player like Verlander, said some. Shoot, said others—they're too cheap to pick up a rich contract like Verlander's.

We've been down that road before with the Astros, and it was only recently when they failed to step up at the July non-waiver trade deadline. Oh, sure, they added lefty Francisco Liriano to their bullpen, but on the scale of, say, Kate Upton Sexiness, that was about a 2. Yawn.

But don't take it from me. Take it from the Astros themselves.

They were not a happy bunch when their reward for playing their guts out during the first four months of the season was a pat on the back from the front office and a simple "Hey, guys, we tried to make some trades and help you but those dadgum things aren't easy to do, you know."

Keuchel responded as such, via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com: "I'm not going to lie, disappointment is a little bit of an understatement. I feel like a bunch of teams really bolstered their rosters for the long haul and for the huge playoff push, and us just kind of standing pat was really disappointing."

Then there was veteran outfielder Josh Reddick, whose review of general manager Jeff Luhnow's finest sloth imitation in July included an explanation of how it left the Astros "down in the dumps," per MLB Network Radio:

Exit Dumpsville. Next stop: October.

Credit Luhnow and owner Jim Crane for recognizing the moment and for correcting their earlier malfeasance. They now owe Verlander $56 million over the next two seasons, though the Detroit Tigers will pick up about $16 million of that, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale.

It cost the Astros in prospects too; right-hander Franklin Perez, center fielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers are headed to the Tigers. Perez, 19, was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in Houston's system. Cameron, 20, the son of former big league outfielder Mike Cameron, was rated as Houston's ninth-best prospect by MLB Pipeline and Rogers, 22, was ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the club's system by MLB Pipeline.

The ceiling is high for each of those three, and good for the Tigers for holding out for young talent and not just dumping money. But Houston is loaded with prospects. And there are times when they can be overvalued. Houston has done a beautiful job of growing its system, but an organization that passes on making aggressive moves when the time is right is an organization that is going to watch its best chances to win a World Series pass right on by like the moon did in front of the sun in August.

There are no guarantees. And two longtime baseball men I spoke with late Thursday night both said they still like Cleveland as the American League's best team, even after Houston added Verlander.

"Cleveland's got really good players," one high-ranking club official said. "And their pitching is terrific, especially with Trevor Bauer going to well lately. And Terry Francona is still the best manager around."

One longtime American League scout said: "I wouldn't be surprised if Cleveland passed Houston and nabbed home-field advantage."

It is true the Astros haven't been going so good lately. They lost 10 of their first 14 games in August and finished the month 11-17. Their team ERA for that month was a middling 4.00, seventh in the AL. Their 1.36 WHIP was ninth.

But even before corralling Verlander, things were about to get better. All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, out since July 17 (torn thumb ligaments), is expected back for Sunday's series finale against the New York Mets or at the Seattle Mariners on Monday. Starter Lance McCullers, out since July 30 (back), is expected to rejoin the rotation in Seattle.

"He might have the best curveball in all of baseball, and when he's right he's an ace," one executive says.

Keuchel, Verlander and McCullers starting Games 1, 2 and 3—yeah, that's winning stuff right there.

"He certainly makes them better," the AL scout said of Verlander. "There are obvious age (34) and injury risks, but he's shown the doubters he can bounce back."

Indeed, Verlander is 10-8 with a 3.82 ERA over 172 innings in 28 starts this year. Those 28 starts tie him with five others for the MLB lead. And he's been getting better, going 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA in August.

But then that's what Verlander always has done. A notoriously slow starter, he gets better as he gets deeper into a season. And it's going to be strange watching a lifelong Tiger perform in a new set of work clothes.

But score a big one for the Astros in nailing this down and convincing him to waive his no-trade powers. They owed this to their players and to their battered, resilient city. On the baseball field, October could be some kind of fun.

         

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

Destroying Chairs and Blasting Rap: MLB Families Suffer in 9th-Inning Pressure

Two years ago, closer AJ Ramos thoughtfully purchased his father a new leather recliner. He felt it was the least he could do, being that the arms on the old one were shredded as if attacked by a herd of cats, the result of his father's gripping them for dear life while watching his son's nightly high-wire act.

Yes, the ninth-inning pressure is unbearable and the stakes immense. But forget, for a moment, the closers themselves.

How about what the poor loved ones of these hardball specialists endure?

Cleveland's Cody Allen says his father, Craig, gets "nervous as a cat" when manager Terry Francona hands Cody the ball with the game on the line, to the point where the closer's wife, Mallory, several times has had to talk him down from the high branches, telling him: "Craig, you've gotta relax. You've gotta relax. This is bad for your health."

"She's the mediator and therapist for all of us during the season," Allen says.

Eireann Dolan says she hasn't watched her fiance, Washington's Sean Doolittle, pitch live in nearly two years. Before he was dealt to the Nationals on July 16, Doolittle played his first five-and-a-half seasons in Oakland. When the team was home and she was at the Coliseum, by the time Sean reached the mound you usually could find her in her car in the parking lot, gangsta rap cranked up to windshield-rattling proportions. And when Doolittle is on television from the road, she'll snap the leashes on the couple's two dogs and burn nervous energy walking.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen talks to his parents and brothers almost every day, but after he blows a save they know to not even mention the game (they've mentioned a lot of games lately, though, as Jansen has converted 33 of 34 save opportunities this season). San Francisco's Mark Melancon says his wife has a routine in which she'll take the kids to the games during homestands, bring them home in the sixth inning and then, well, who really knows?

"She doesn't tell me a lot," Melancon admits. "She says sometimes she'll record it because she doesn't want to watch it live."

You would think that after living in these conditions for years, it eventually would get easier on the families.

"It's like watching your kids jumping on the trampoline and you're worried they're going to get hurt," says Alex Ramos, AJ's father, who oversees purchasing at a mechanical contracting company in Lubbock, Texas. "You figure it will get better and it will get easier, but it really doesn't. The pressure is still there. And his role, there's thousands of people trying to get his job.

"You read the papers where they're trying to bring in another closer or bring in this guy. It's high stakes. Players can't worry about that, or if they do, they're not going to be good anyway. But parents, we hear that, and as much as you don't want to pay attention, it still bothers you. It's tough to take sometimes."

It was two years ago when AJ Ramos ordered the new recliner, and his father is incredibly appreciative and has done everything in his power to take good care of it. Then comes game time and the whitewater rapids of another ninth inning.

"It's distressed leather now," Alex Ramos quips. "It's not that fine, smooth leather anymore. It's a pretty tense situation. The cushion, too. My butt cheeks are kind of squeezing."

Alex and his wife, Cynthia, who works in immunization for the Lubbock Health Department, watch every game without fail.

"One thing about AJ, I don't know what it is, but he's always had a high amount of walks," Alex says. "But he's also been able to get out of it. His high school coach would say, 'You know, I think I'm just going to save myself a whole lot of grief by loading the bases and then have him pitch.' He can't have a real clean inning. He's got to put pressure on himself. I've seen that forever. A lot of pressure."

There's no escaping that pressure. There are only degrees of it when your son, husband or boyfriend has an intimate working relationship with the ninth innings of close games.

"The extended family gets very nervous because they want you to succeed so bad," says Huston Street, who has served as the closer for Oakland, Colorado, San Diego and the Los Angeles Angels since 2005. "They're probably the only few who get to see the true aftermath of a blown save, or back-to-back blown saves, or a bad month.

"I would say that if your wife is not a part of your team, truly understanding the process … you have to have someone to share it with. For me, she has been there for every one. We've been together my entire career. At the end of the day, some blown saves are worse than others. Sometimes you make all of your pitches and just get beat. Sometimes you miss every spot and you don't get beat, you go three up and three down."

While most might assume it's smiles all around after a save and soul-crushing depression following a blown save, Street says his emotions of the moment are driven as much by the knowledge of how well he did or didn't throw as by the result.

Maybe you wouldn't expect this, but Street, who has been beset by injuries this summer and made only four appearances for the Angels, says that more times than not, he's angry after an outing. Closers, by nature, must strive for perfection because there's so little margin for error, and even when things are going as well as can be expected, perfection is impossible to obtain.

"Sometimes he'll come home so mad, and in my eyes, I'm like: 'You got out of that inning. You got the save tonight,'" says Lacey Street, who married Huston in 2007. "But he'll be like: 'No, no, I didn't have my best stuff. I got lucky tonight. I need to be better tomorrow because tomorrow I might not get lucky.' I try to stay positive and he'll be like, 'Give me tonight, tomorrow is a new day.'"

Lacey buys her own tickets because she likes to sit behind home plate, where she can watch closely and really see what's going on.

"I can see it in his eyes sometimes that it's going to be a 1-2-3 inning," she says. "Those are the days I'm not worried. But sometimes bad luck happens too, and luckily he gets to go redeem himself the next day. He's not a starter; he doesn't have to wait five days. Tomorrow is a new day, let's go get 'em. That's the motto in our household."

Friends sometimes will accompany Lacey and their three sons—Ripken, seven; Ryder, four; and Rafe, two—but if the friends are too chatty, especially at the wrong time, they won't be invited back.

"This is her life too," Huston says. "This is our life. This is our job. This is not your little kid's baseball game. This is my husband's job. So in that moment, respect that."

Lacey chuckles.

"If we have friends in town, listen, you can chat me up the entire game, but when my husband takes the mound, I'm in the zone," she says. "I like to be able to say, what was up with that slider? Or that 0-and-2 pitch to so-and-so? I like to be able to focus and see what pitches he's making and listen to his thought process after the game, to know why he threw that pitch or why he shook right there. It's not a nervous thing, but I like to be able to know, oh yeah, that pitch, was that a good pitch or was that a little off the plate?"

The Streets have been in this grind for so long that some things happen automatically now. Like breakfast.

"He has to have the exact same breakfast every single morning when he's home," Lacey says. "The same scrambled eggs, the same cheese, half an avocado with salt and pepper, strawberries and a piece of toast with peanut butter and honey. That is his breakfast I have to cook him every single morning when he's home, and you know what? If that's what I have to do to get his day going, that's what I do.

"Some people think I'm crazy, but I'm the wife of a closer. You don't understand."

There is plenty that cannot be understood from the outside. From the inside, it's both a matter of love and survival.

"My wife, she does pretty good," Cleveland's Allen says. "If I frickin' blow one or something like that, she's fine. ... But my dad, I've had my mom and sister tell me that when he's at home, he'll literally stop breathing for a few seconds, especially if it's not on TV and he's watching it on the game-tracker on the computer and he's waiting for the result to come up. They say he'll stop breathing."

Adding to the anxiety are the emotions family members must navigate as they watch a loved one try to perform flawlessly without being able to help. When you're the one engaged in an activity, you feel like you have some control over it. ("When I'm on the mound, I feel great," the Dodgers' Jansen says.) But when you're watching helplessly from the sidelines…it's that feeling of quiet desperation that parents of young boys and girls know all too well from Little League games, spelling bees and school plays. Only, it's that times infinity.

"You could probably count on two hands the times she's watched me live," Washington's Doolittle says of Eireann. "And sometimes then, she'll stay in her seat and literally cover her eyes and, based on the crowd reaction, peek through her fingers like how I'd watch a horror movie."

It's true, Eireann says. Often she would rather walk the couple's two dogs, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Stella and a Cattle Dog Shepherd mix named Sophia, than watch Sean pitch. No matter: They've been together for just over four years, and the wedding is in January.

"This is going to sound terrible because I am incredibly supportive, but I have not watched him pitch live out of superstition in about two years," Eireann confirms. "I can't do it. I've built up this armor of superstitions and rituals."

Before the A's traded him, some of those involved taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to games, or not, or taking a particular blanket to a game, or not. Problem is, she's got so many she's started to mix up which work and which don't.

"I will leave the park and sit in the car and blast gangsta rap loud so I can't hear anything in the stadium crowd," says Eireann, who favors 2Pac, Biggie Smalls and NWA. "God forbid I hear anything in the stadium. Then it would be like, why is he facing 15 guys? Then I'll check the phone."

Only gangsta rap will do in these situations.

"It's my guilty pleasure, and it's the loudest music I can listen to that will drown out any possible stadium speaker noises," she says. "I'll have it blasting. The car is moving other cars. There are car alarms going off around me.

"Hey, it works."

Eireann is studying theology in graduate school at Fordham and writes speeches for a motivational speaker, and she likens her dilemma in these moments to the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment created in 1935: A cat is placed in a box with certain indicators, and the person observing does not know if the cat is alive or dead…so both are assumed.

Those moments when Sean is pitching, she says: "I call it Schrodinger's Outing. It's both simultaneously a blown save and striking out the side until it happens."

She leaves her phone at home during the dog walks because if a bunch of text messages start buzzing in from the road, it really sends her into orbit. Say a friend texts, "I'm at the game and the bases are loaded with one out," and then there is nothing more, only suspended animation. She does not want that.

Problem is, she quips: "I think the dogs are inheriting my neuroses too. They've started pacing in the sixth and seventh innings. Like, oh no, a lefty is coming up."

When Oakland was in Chicago in June before the trade, her family—"all diehard White Sox fans, all Irish Catholics from the South Side"—bought a block of 30 tickets to go to a game, and that only caused more stress. First, Sean had just come off the disabled list. Second, they bought tickets next to the visiting bullpen.

"Which is a big no-no," she says. "I did not know this when they did it. My family is like, 'We can go talk to him during the game.' I'm like, 'No we can't! We are not doing that!'"

That didn't stop them from bringing individually lettered signs that were designed to be held up by each family member and spell "Sean Doolittle Fan Club."

"That's quintessential my family," Eireann says. "They could have gone with something simple like, 'We love you Sean.' It was very embarrassing. It was misspelled; there was not full participation. People were like, 'We saw you on the broadcast but couldn't tell what you were trying to spell.'

"I'm going to look back on this in 10 years, and I will still be mortified."

If it seems like sometimes we're all just hanging on by a thread in this life, that thread gripped by the family members who love their closer often seems in danger of fraying at any moment.

And don't tell the Mets' Ramos this, but while he helped his father with that spiffy new recliner, there's not much he can do for his mother.

"It doesn't bother me like it bothers my wife," Alex Ramos says. "As soon as he starts pitching, my wife makes the sign of the cross. That's the first thing. Then she starts rocking back and forth saying, 'Oh no, oh no, oh no.' She's very worried about what's going on. That Olympic gymnast's parents watching from the stands as she was doing her routine [Aly Raisman]? That's my wife. If we ever get to a stadium and they have a camera on her, people would have a great time watching.

"Sign of the cross, every time."

It's not always pretty even when it appears to be. The night of Street's 300th save in 2015, a drunk fan marred the postgame moment, demanding an autograph when Huston went over to the stands to kiss Lacey, who had their two oldest boys with her at the time and was pregnant with the youngest. When Huston politely explained that he only had time for a real quick moment with his wife and had to go, the fan started screaming about how the pitcher broke his 10-year-old son's heart. Later, the miscreant created a Twitter account he used to harass Huston online.

"It's been a wild ride, I have to say," Lacey says. "The highs are so high, and you are on top of the world. But the lows are so low. You blow a save or two or three in a row, or you have a 6.00 ERA, and I'm in the stands with my boys and fans are yelling: 'Street, you suck! You're horrible!' You have to have tough skin and not listen to it."

What gets them through is simple: When the stadium lights fade, loved ones who have agonized over each pitch are there, arms extended, with big hugs no matter the outcome.

Because when the milestones and successes arrive, as Street says, "It's no fun to toast champagne alone."

     

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

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Miguel Sano Overcame Death of Child, Suicidal Thoughts to Reach MLB Superstardom

Chirp, chirp, true story: As Minnesota Twins slugger Miguel Sano arrived at Target Field one day earlier this season, he spotted a bird in the grass.

The bird seemed a little weak. Slow. Sano whistled softly, and wouldn't you know it, the bird ambled toward him.

So the big third baseman carefully scooped it up with his hands and brought it into the clubhouse "to see if we could do something about it," he explains. On this journey of mercy, though, he made sure to detour near hitting coach James Rowson, who has a touch of ornithophobia.

Rowson took off as if in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The players who were in the area are still howling over that one.

"I ran faster than I've run since high school," Rowson says, two months now being a safe distance between him and the rescue (the bird was fine, and released). "I've got a little thing where I have a fear of flying things."

Minnesota's bird-whisperer and middle-of-the-order bopper, Sano specializes in flying things. He's smashed 25 home runs this year while gaining altitude as one of baseball's breakout stars. Last month he finished second to the New York Yankees' Aaron Judge in his first Home Run Derby.

But the very best thing this summer is found in Sano's own nest, where bright smiles have replaced anguish and tears, where son Dylan Miguel, just 10 months old, is living proof of the gifts each new sunrise can deliver.

You see, it was bad enough in the spring of 2014 when Sano's elbow popped as he was throwing from third base, making him the rare position player to lose a season to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. But early that December his first child, Angelica, died of a heart defect one week after her birth in the Dominican Republic.

"He's been through a lot in the last few years," says Mike Radcliff, Minnesota's vice president of player personnel. Nobody knows the depths of that statement more than Sano and the Twins, who signed him as an amateur free agent in 2009 following an exhaustive MLB investigation into Sano's age that subjected him to DNA testing, bone-density testing and was chronicled in the film Ballplayer: Pelotero. Amateur players in Latin American countries must wait until they are 16 to sign professionally in the United States, and there were early charges that he was underage.

Sano emerged from abject poverty that was shocking even by Dominican standards. He and his family were living in a graffiti-covered shack with rotting mattresses when he signed a $3.15 million deal with the Twins. The investigation and controversy cost him what many estimated was an additional $2 million.

He debuted in the majors at 22 in 2015 and crushed 18 home runs with 52 RBI in just 80 games. But his production plummeted in 2016, his OPS dropping to .781 from .916 for several reasons, among them, as manager Paul Molitor says, maybe there was a part of him who listened to people "who maybe gave him a little bit of a false impression as to how big he was in relation to the game."

This season, "there's been a natural progression, and he's starting to see it, feel it," Radcliff says. "The best example is David Ortiz. He grew from, I don't want to say a clown, but a fun-loving guy to feeling how important it all is and the impact he can have not just in the clubhouse but on a team, in a community and, jeez, he leaves the game as an icon in one of the greatest sports cities in the world.

"I'm not going to say Miguel will do that. But he has a chance to have that kind of arc in his career."


Big dreams begin with small steps. But there are no clear instructions for when those dreams and steps collide hard with tragedy. When Sano and his wife, Daniela, were told their daughter had died, the scout who signed him for the Twins was with them.

Fred Guerrero is the son of the late, legendary Dominican Republic scout Epy Guerrero, who, during his career, signed more than 50 major leaguers, including Cesar Cedeno (Houston Astros), Carlos Delgado and Tony Fernandez (Toronto Blue Jays), Damaso Garcia (New York Yankees) and Alcides Escobar (Milwaukee Brewers). Fred and his wife, Anny, had lost a daughter the year before, during a C-section, and would lose another daughter in 2015.

Grief cut though on so many levels. Sano and his family were devastated. The dull-edged heartache within Fred and Anny stirred all over again. Baseball is a game, sure. But it doesn't shield those within from the miseries of life that torment so many with flat-out unanswerable questions. Like, how do you even go on from tragedy? How do you make it through today? And, then, tomorrow?

Speaking from personal experience, and touching on their shared faith, Guerrero told Sano to trust in God. That he had to accept what happened, no matter how horrible. And while he talked with Miguel over the next many months, Anny talked with Daniela.

"It took him time, but he's a young, tough kid," Guerrero says, speaking via cellphone after a showcase event for amateur players in Aruba. "He knows he battles for his family. They all count on him. He basically goes out to play for them."

In addition to his wife and son, Sano has 12 brothers and sisters, his mother, his stepfather and his father. That's a lot on one pair of shoulders, even if those shoulders are atop a 6'4", 262-pound frame. He started playing baseball at 10, figured out he was good enough to have a shot as a pro at 12 and has lived on the diamond ever since. So he is accustomed to the battles. But losing Angelica, it was unimaginable.

"It's the biggest struggle I've gone through," Sano says quietly during a lengthy conversation with B/R. "But it happened. I think about it all the time. Hopefully, it doesn't ever happen to me again. It's part of who I am, and I just live with it."

He still talks to Guerrero at least every other day. Sometimes more. They check in, discuss their families, the challenges of the day or week, and then they go to back to work, Guerrero hunting players, Sano hunting fastballs.

"You know, it's tough for everyone," Sano says. "If you lost a baby, you think about that the whole year."

He pauses, choosing his words carefully. He regularly attended English classes coming up through the Twins' minor league system and is proud of his progress. When we talked at the All-Star Game in Miami, we spoke in English. In Los Angeles a couple of weeks later, he preferred to use the translator the Twins employ and conduct his part of the interview in Spanish. Then, we finished in English again.

Sano's search for a verbal comfort zone isn't all that surprising. So much comes at these young, Latin American players so fast, and from so many angles. Suddenly by themselves in a foreign country, the culture shock alone can be overwhelming. Then you begin layering over that with everything else that Sano has battled through, and you can see. It is complicated.

He told USA Today's Jorge Ortiz this spring that, initially, Angelica's passing did more than make him ponder quitting baseball. It drove him to thoughts of committing suicide.

"I saw that interview," Guerrero says. "I know there are a lot of thoughts that came through his mind. We never talked about him thinking about committing suicide."

Today, a large tattoo on his right forearm depicts his beloved daughter, and Sano deflects questions regarding any suicidal thoughts.

"I don't like talking about it because of how personal it is," Sano says. "I talked to Fred about it, and his experiences helped me get through it and helped me to get stronger."


You could tell, says Rob Antony, longtime Twins vice president and assistant GM. Even after Sano debuted on July 2, 2015, swinging as if he was making up for lost time, you could tell.

He was hitting .455 by the end of his seventh game. Popped four homers by the end of his first month. He was settling in, and on his way. But tucked within were consistent moments of sorrow and confusion.

"There were times he would get fairly emotional. He's talked about it a lot, so no doubt it's never far from his mind," Antony says.

"I have no doubt that it weighed on him heavily."

Recently traded closer Brandon Kintzler signed with the Twins before the 2016 season following six years with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was with the Brewers in July 2014 when the club learned that shortstop Jean Segura's nine-month-old son, Janniel, died at home in the Dominican Republic.

"You see it happen to a grown man like that, and you realize that baseball really means nothing," says Kintzler, an All-Star this year whom the Twins traded to Washington on July 31. "You just want to go home and hang out with your family. It took Segura a couple of years to bounce back. He's obviously having a great year this year, but I couldn't even imagine. Having a child now [Kintzler's son, Knox, will turn two in October], I could not even imagine that happening to me."

Indeed, 2014 and 2015 were the worst seasons of Segura's six-year career. In 2014, he posted a career-low .246 batting average. In 2015, he racked up a career-worst .281 on-base percentage. This summer, he's hitting .319/.373/.440.

"The fact that Sano is still here, and he's standing," Kintzler says. "... He's probably even a better person now, and probably a greater father now. You've gotta give a lot of credit to that guy. The emotions he went through … he must have a great family around him."

It is impossible to quantify the ongoing effect of sorrow on batting averages and on-base percentages, but after his eye-opening debut in 2015, Sano was more disappointing than not in 2016. Life continued charging at him at full volume, beginning with a difficult transition from third base to right field in spring training. With Trevor Plouffe then ensconced at third and the Twins wanting to shoehorn Sano's bat into the lineup, they sent him out early on many spring training mornings to learn the outfield.

Retired Twin-turned-special adviser Torii Hunter served as his personal tutor in Fort Myers, Florida, and together they would work on fly balls, routes, footwork and throwing to the cutoff man.

"He gave it a great go," Hunter says. "He was willing. He did not stop and complain one time. He was like, 'All right, if this is how I'm going to be in the majors, I'm going to do it."

But he's so big, and he never did become comfortable. Finally, on July 1, the Twins pulled the plug and moved him back to third base.

"Playing right field, I was more tired," says Sano, whose batting average dipped 33 points from '15 to '16 (.269 to .236) and whose on-base percentage dropped 66 points (.385 to .319). "I don't take a rest. I need to run in from the outfield to come hit. It's a good decision to make, and I never can say no, but I want to say thanks to God for giving me a chance to come back to third base."

Throughout, be it from fatigue, lack of focus, immaturity, the grief still simmering in the back of his mind or any number of other reasons, Sano gave away far too many at-bats in 2016, several Twins acknowledge . Among others, Antony had several conversations with him throughout the summer "trying to help him through some things," Antony says. "Sometimes you need to kick him in the rear, and sometimes you need to put your arm around him and say, 'Hey, we believe in you.'

"I think he always feels like he's battling to be one of the most respected players in the game, in a positive way. He takes pride in it, rather than expecting something to be handed to him. When someone is critical, it hurts him.

"He's somewhat of a sensitive giant."

For several days after he was named as an All-Star in early July, Sano's entire body language changed. An always-gregarious personality became even more bubbly. His smile was brighter, his enthusiasm greater.

Though he leads the majors with 159 strikeouts, his .863 OPS ranks 17th in the AL and his combination of 25 homers, 72 RBI and .356 OBP is in line with what the Twins envisioned as his career path.

"I've known him since about 110 pounds ago," Radcliff quips. "We always thought he was a hitter, not just a slugger. I still think that's going to be part of his deal. He's a threat to get a hit, not just a homer.

"And eventually, he's got the kind of personality and makeup that can impact the clubhouse."

It was Radcliff who, working in tandem with Guerrero, went to former Minnesota GM Bill Smith in '09 and asked if he would please go to ownership to sign this kid? The Twins already were over their international budget allotment at the time, but owner Jim Pohlad told Smith, if you think this is the right move, go get it done.

"After we signed him," Antony says, "[Sano] kept saying, 'I'm happy to be with the Twins. They trust me. They believe in me.'"


There's more for Sano to master. Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier are the veteran leaders in the Minnesota clubhouse, but, as Molitor says, Sano wants to be a leader, too, and his influence is growing every day.

The manager sees it in the clubhouse, and in the dugout. When the Twins celebrated their 1987 World Series championship during a Target Field ceremony last month, Molitor happened to stand next to Sano at the dugout railing.

"There's a gentle spirit in there, but I think the competition rages," Molitor says. "He just couldn't stop talking about how much he wanted to have that experience one day, coming back and sharing the memories of a championship with friends and teammates. He had this huge smile on his face.

"He was listening to every word. He was engaged. It shows. He's starting to understand."

When Mauer smashed the first walk-off home run of his career to beat Boston on May 5, Sano raced from the on-deck circle to greet Mauer at the plate, then lifted him up into the air triumphantly as if Mauer, at 6'5", 225 pounds, was a pint-sized Jose Altuve.

"He wasn't like, 'I didn't get a chance,'" Molitor says. "He was the most excited guy on the field. And I think those little, small glimpses of how he views winning have become really [regular], so that's really cool, too."

Knowing all that he's gone through, the Twins treasure both Sano's prodigious home runs and his contagious laughter. Often, they seem to feed off each other. Like that rescued bird earlier this season, Sano has regained his strength and taken flight. It is evident in his All-Star status…and it was evident when he deployed a rubber snake in the dugout on a day when he was not in the lineup, practically giving poor pitching coach Neil Allen a heart attack on the spot. The laughs that followed engulfed the entire dugout.

Kintzler chuckles when he recalls someone asking teammate Ervin Santana earlier this season whom he would not let babysit his kids, and Santana replied Sano because "you can't let a kid babysit a kid."

"That's why he's so good," Kintzler says. "He shows up and doesn't take himself too seriously."

Every day this season before he was traded, Kintzler reminded Sano: Stay humble. By June, Sano was saying it back to Kintzler.

"I'm like, 'You don't need to worry about me. I've been humbled many times. You stay humble,'" Kintzler says.

A month after the Mauer walk-off, when Kintzler suffered a rare blown save opportunity, in Seattle, Sano was the first teammate on the scene again.

"Usually, the biggest superstars on the team aren't like that, but he was one of the first guys who came up to me and was, like, 'You're still our guy, you're still our guy,'" Kintzler recalls. "The next day, I got the save and he was the first one up to me, giving me a hug."

Then, when Kintzler notched another save right after Sano was named as an All-Star, the big third baseman bear-hugged him on the field and told the closer, "You're my All-Star. You're my All-Star."

"It was really cool," says Kintzler, clearly touched. "You just don't see that."

From when they were teammates in '15 to now, Hunter says, Sano has bounced back, grown and matured in so many ways.

"Talking to him about life, he gets it," says Hunter, who has advised the slugger on the value of learning English, financial literacy, marketing and being a good citizen. "He asks the questions, and that's what I love about him."

"He's helped me a lot," Sano says of Hunter. "He told me once that the best way to play baseball is to surround yourself with good people and a better world, and I think that's what I am doing now. It's allowed me to be who I am and it's helped me mature more."

With Dylan Miguel at home and a career just starting to find its rhythm, Sano has found it easier to make others smile.

Why, a couple of weeks ago at the Oakland Coliseum, a woman wearing a Minnesota jersey held up a sign reading, "Miguel Sano, can I have a hug?" and she was beside herself when he jogged over to deliver.

Out of the darkness that once enveloped him, a guiding light has emerged, attracting teammates, fans and, yes, even birds.

Kintzler nods approvingly, smiling and observing: "Everyone goes to him."

    

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

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Sonny Gray Blockbuster Is Big Yankees Win Both Now and for Bright Future

There is only one possible way that Sonny Gray is not a fit with the New York Yankees: He is but a wee lad of 5'10".

I mean, have you seen these Yankees? They're enormous. Walk into their clubhouse and it's like you've stepped into a huddle with NFL linemen: Delin Betances is 6'8", 265 pounds. Aaron Judge is 6'7", 282. CC Sabathia is 6'6", 300. Even closer Aroldis Chapman goes 6'4", 212. They could lead the league in velocity (fastball, and exit) and yards-per-carry. Hut, hut!

Otherwise … heck yeah, Sonny Gray is the Hail Mary pass the 2017 New York Yankees needed not only to strengthen their bid for an American League East title not just right now, but for the near-future, too. The beautiful thing about this acquisition is that it furthers what general manager Brian Cashman and Co. started last year, this whole business of re-tooling the pinstripes.

Gray finally is pitching like an upper rotation starter after a year-and-a-half detour, a detour that as recently as at the All-Star Game in Miami a couple of weeks ago had executives riveted as to how this would turn out. As one exec told me then, there is a difference "between where they value him and what he is." Well, in four July starts, Gray pitched a lot closer to Oakland's opinion of him than anything else: 3-1 with a 1.48 ERA and a 0.986 WHIP.

Just in the nick (not Swisher) of time, Gray helped Oakland president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst squeeze good value out of a return.

Under club control through 2019, Gray also fits not just with Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino as they charge toward the stretch run this year, but he also nicely will complement first baseman Greg Bird next year when he returns … and shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres when he shows up ... and left-hander Justus Sheffield when he appears.

Look, the Yankees are loaded and remain loaded. This is a big win for them in that they didn't have to empty out their strong, revamped farm system to obtain badly needed pitching help for the rest of this season and beyond. And they've energized an already over-achieving team in the thick of the summer.

Oakland did fine in the deal, but the Athletics' part of it comes wrapped in Ace bandages and ice: Outfielder Dustin Fowler, 22, is out for the year with a knee he blew out in his debut with the Yankees this year. Right-hander James Kaprielian, 23, is out for the season following Tommy John surgery. Shortstop Jorge Mateo, 22, is the one piece still standing, but he's got some things still to prove after New York iced him for two weeks last season for sassing team executives, a suspension that caused him to miss the Futures Game.

There are Yankees fans who fell in love with Fowler this summer – ah, young (prospect) love, it's a powerful force – and who liked Mateo and no doubt have mixed emotions about losing them. But that's the wrong lens through which to view Monday's deal.

Let's reiterate: Gray will join Severino, Masahiro Tanaka (on those days when he actually, you know, pitches up to his potential) and a re-energized Sabathia to give the Yankees a strong chance to win every night, not to mention maybe scare Boston's David Price into actually focusing on his opponents instead of on the Red Sox television broadcasters and media.

And while the Yankees accomplished that, they still held onto Torres, Sheffield, outfielder Clint Frazier and a whole bunch of other prospects who fit into their future. In the days leading up to Monday's non-waivers trade deadline, I was talking prospects with one high-ranking MLB official, discussing the fine line between properly valuing them and over-valuing them, and he went on and on about how the real pain Cleveland felt in sending the four-player package to New York for Andrew Miller last July was in parting with Sheffield. That guy, the executive said, is going to be a legitimate ace.

Maybe. Probably. Who knows? That's the thing with prospects: Until they develop, it's all just working on spec. But the point is, for the Yankees, they still have Sheffield today. And Frazier and Torres.

When Cashman unloaded Miller and Chapman one year ago, it signaled the beginning of the end, in short order, for Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira, too. While the Yankees were thrilled with their haul for the two relief aces, there was no way anybody could have predicted that one year later they'd be leading the division by half-a-game over Boston and gaining momentum.

Yet as the cards were played on another trade deadline Monday, here the Yankees are. So bring it on, Sonny Gray. Come deliver your goods, and your moxie. You fit in here like a glove (Rawlings, or Wilson).

But maybe, just in case, you want to go hit the weight room a few times. Your new teammates are pretty darned intimidating.

 

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

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Charlie Blackmon’s Trash 2004 Jeep Just One Layer of MLB’s Quirkiest Superstar

What is Charlie Blackmon looking at?

He is stepping out of the batter's box and staring straight up into the night sky. It is 2010, and Blackmon is with the Double-A Tulsa Drillers. What is it? Is there a UFO swooping in? A Baseball God to beseech for more hits? What in the world is up there in the Oklahoma heavens?

"I was having trouble adjusting my eyes at night in the lights," says the Colorado All-Star, who sees and hits the ball as well as anybody in today's game.

He felt like they were exceptionally bright, producing more glare than light. The result, in his mind, produced a "sun-glare-like" effect that would cause his vision to blur.

"So I was, like, OK, that means there's too much light getting into my eyes and so, in my thinking, my pupils were too big, so what I'm going to do is step out of the box and direct my face at a light," he explains. "Don't look at the light, right? That will hurt your eyeballs. But if I point my face at the light, there will be a lot of light coming into my face and what that will do is constrict my pupils, make them smaller, so it will let less light in."

Then, he figured, when he stepped back into the box and looked out at the pitcher, his blurred vision would be gone and he wouldn't feel like the lights were too bright.

"Whether or not that made sense, it helped me at the time," Blackmon says. "But people would ask me, 'what are you looking at?'"

Charles Cobb Blackmon, 31, Rockies leadoff man, hitting savant and all-around goofball, sees things that others do not. His mind works in ways that others do not. He knows this.

"Yeah, I do some weird stuff," he says.

This is not breaking news to any of his Colorado Rockies teammates.

"He's not being funny," outfielder Carlos Gonzalez says. "He's just being Charlie. That's just the way he is. He's a great player and a great teammate."

"Every day he comes up with something," shortstop Trevor Story chimes in. "He's the most quirky guy I've ever been around."

"He is a legend, that's for sure," says second baseman DJ LeMahieu, one of Blackmon's closest friends on the team. "Charlie's one of a kind."

Blackmon burst onto the Colorado scene for good in 2014 with a spring so sizzling that he forced his way into the club's plans. Then he went 6-for-6 in the home opener with three doubles, one homer, five RBI and four runs scored.

He is one of the hardest-working players on the team, starting his days with a no-nonsense pregame routine each afternoon and finishing with a strict 30-45-minute postgame routine built around an elaborate stretching regimen.

"Certain parts of my body, like my hips, are tight and I think postgame is the best time to improve your flexibility," he explains. "So there are certain parts of my body that I'll stretch out to make sure that, anatomically, I work right and efficiently.

"I probably spend too much energy getting ready to play the game if you ask other people. I do a lot of pregame stretching and warming up, and to me it's important mentally to know I'm ready to play the game, that I can tear out of the box for a triple maybe the first pitch of the game."

Given that he leads the majors with 11 triples, who's to argue?

Also inarguable is the fascination that surrounds his quirky adventures. He is the subject of so many stories that you wonder how much is fact and how much is pure, unadulterated legend.

"I'm embarrassed to admit," Blackmon says, "probably a lot of them are true."

It was LeMahieu who rescued him on the side of the freeway one morning in January, 2016, on their way to work out. Blackmon, who still drives the 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo that served as his high school wheels, sometimes likes to challenge the fuel light by seeing how far he can push it before the tank runs empty. That day, he lost.

"I'm always late to workouts, and that morning, it was still early and I had just gotten out of bed when he called me and said, 'Hey, where you at?'" recalls LeMahieu. "'I'm on the side of the highway.'"

So LeMahieu rescued his buddy, picking him up, driving him to the gas station and bringing him back to the Jeep with a full gas can. Then, to the everlasting gratitude of the Rockies, he alertly snapped a photo for posterity.

"That was really nice of him to take that picture of me," Blackmon says, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"Everyone thought that was staged, but it was real life," LeMahieu says. "He was on the side of the road looking like a homeless man.

"When he was filling up, I said, 'I've gotta get a picture of this.'"

The Jeep has roughly 140,000 miles on it, and if vehicles could become cult heroes, this heap would qualify.

"I hate it," Gonzalez roars. "I told him I'm going to get some gasoline and burn it in the parking lot. I might get in trouble for it, but it will be worth it."

Initially, the Rockies cut Blackmon some slack for refusing to part with his rolling high school sweetheart.

"At the beginning, I get it," CarGo says. "He was a young guy. We all go through that process where we're not making much money, and then you make money but you've got to save it for your family."

"I've told him many times, 'It's about time you get a new car,'" Nolan Arenado, Colorado's All-Star third baseman, says. "'You're one of the best center fielders in the game. It's time.' But he's very laid back.

"He's not into material things. That's what I love about him."

Maybe the closest he's come to getting a new ride happened one time when the Rockies returned home from a road trip. The team bus made the 45-minute trek from the airport into Denver around midnight, and as the sleepy traveling party arrived at Coors Field, Blackmon became alarmed when he couldn't find his Jeep to drive the short distance to his downtown home. Hey, who stole…

Then it hit him: He met the team at the airport to start the trip, and his vehicle was parked there.

"Oh yeah, I did that," Blackmon shrugs. "So I've got to get in a cab and go get it at the airport. Drive 45 minutes back to the airport, get my car, drive 45 minutes back."

What, LeMahieu couldn't save him that time?

"I don't know," Blackmon says. "He let me down right there."

Adds LeMahieu: "I can only help him out so many times. He's gotta eventually figure things out on his own."

On the field, Blackmon has done that as well as anybody in the game. Aside from triples, he also leads the majors in total bases (226) and hits (122) through Sunday and is tied for third in runs scored (75). Brian Jones, the Rockies' longtime video director, says Blackmon has become so adept at studying hitting video that he probably could run the club's digitized system himself.

It's just that, well, when he crosses that stark threshold from baseball back into real life, let's just say some of his good friends in the clubhouse still view him as a ball of clay that could use some shaping.

"Everybody thinks my look is a joke, my hair and my face," Blackmon says. "And apparently, I'm not a very good dresser.

"I think I look amazing."

He favors jeans and a collection of shirts ranging from various things that catch his eye on the internet. Teammates have been known to hoot loudly when they see him pair a Tommy Bahama shirt with that scraggly (stylish?) beard that he's been growing since 2013.

"His clothes…" Arenado groans. "He's not wearing no Louis Vuitton or Gucci. He's wearing … I couldn't even tell you.

"He asked me once, 'Do you want some shirts? I'm going to go on Amazon and get 'em.' And I'm like, Amazon?!"

In the clubhouse when the televisions are tuned to other games before or after Colorado plays, Blackmon will see something that will cause him to go into a rant that Arenado describes as some of "the best rants ever." Which, of course, spurs the Rockies to fire him up even more.

"We'll tell him, 'Oh man, that guy is better than you,'" Arenado says. "And he'll go, 'What?! He doesn't do this as good as me, he doesn't do that as good as me!'

"Oh yeah, we'll tee him up."

That's easy, because while Blackmon may not take himself seriously, he takes his baseball dead seriously. Manager Bud Black throws batting practice to him several times a week, at his request, because Blackmon likes to get a look at the left-handed sliders Black feeds him because he knows that later that night, in a high-leverage situation, he likely will be facing the other team's lefty relief specialist.

Then there was the first time teammate Mark Reynolds met him in 2016. Reynolds came away amazed because as their group was hitting against a batting practice pitcher in the cage, Blackmon remarked that the protective L screen was a little too close. Blackmon stepped off the distance from home plate to the screen, and sure enough, it had been placed a step too close to the plate.

"He's very particular," Reynolds says.

He's also very talented.

Blackmon grew up in Suwanee, Georgia, transferred to Georgia Tech University as a pitcher from Young Harris College and even tossed a shutout inning for the Rambling Wreck in an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves.

"He always was one of the freakiest athletes we had in college," says Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, whose last year at Georgia Tech was Blackmon's first. "There are some things God gave him that you can't teach.

"And the longer he's been in the game, the more his mind has developed. You can tell he's always thinking about things."

A classic case of great arm but no command, Blackmon was an outfielder by the time he left Georgia Tech, when Colorado picked him in the second round of the 2008 draft. Four years later he met LeMahieu at Triple-A Colorado Springs when the Rockies acquired him from the Cubs, and they bonded even more living near each other in Georgia at the time during the offseason.

"My house was close to the place we worked out," LeMahieu says. "He'd stay over, and slowly but surely, he kept leaving his clothes there. Pretty soon, the bathroom was filled up with his stuff. Before I knew it, he was, like, living with me.

"That's Charlie, man."

Interesting thing was, LeMahieu was married.

"He'd text, asking what my wife was making for dinner that night," LeMahieu says. "He was figuring out where he was going to eat."

It wasn't long before Jordan LeMahieu started asking her husband: "Can you find out if Charlie is coming over for dinner again tonight? I need to know how much to make."

Now the two pals are All-Stars living in Denver.

"And my wife goes furniture shopping for him," LeMahieu says, shaking his head. "Charlie will call every once in a while. Not as much now that he has a girlfriend, but I'm pretty sure [Jordan has] helped him buy a couch and a couple of chairs."

He's also bonded with Julian Valentin, Colorado's social media director, partly because they both attended Atlantic Coast Conference schools (Valentin played soccer at Wake Forest University) and partly because, well, Blackmon is a nice dude and his quirks are perfect for capturing on social media. In fact, it was during a Twitter Q&A with fans when Blackmon was in the minor leagues in 2011 that Valentin helped create the outfielder's social media alter ego, Chuck Nazty.

"He did this trip in Europe that I think personifies that personality," Valentin says. "It was a couple of offseasons ago, and instead of flying first class and staying in nice hotels, doing the typical pro athlete thing, he hoofed it. He carried a backpack and stayed in hostels. A friend canceled at the last minute, and he went by himself and enjoyed the experience."

Blackmon sees things. It's just that he doesn't always see the same things others see.

"I'm very analytical and concrete," says Blackmon, who earned his degree from Georgia Tech in business administration with a concentration in finance. "Things have to make sense to me. I always feel like I need to know why things work the way they work. I always ask a lot of questions."

Yes, Charlie Blackmon is an absolute classic, and he doesn't care who knows it. Take, for example, the fact that his walk-up music at Coors Field dates back to 1985, a song called, "It's Your Love" by The Outfield. It's the same tune he's been using since college, and way he figures it, by not choosing something in this century he doesn't have to keep up with "the new trends, or whatever."

Yes, he's quirky, but get close enough to him and the rewards are immense. Why, he's even let Story ride in his Jeep.

"It was a high honor," Story says. "I don't think he lets just anyone ride in the Blessed Chuck Jeep."

Inside of which is an eclectic assortment of items that includes a Wiffle ball bat (used as recently as this past spring training, Blackmon says), a fishing pole, ice chests….

"It's a mess," Story says.

Hey, one man's trash is another's treasure.

"I just feel like every man should have a certain amount of things in his car," Blackmon explains. "At any given time you'll find protein, a Wiffle ball bat, Wiffle ball, duct tape, a couple bottles of water. It's just kind of a rolling box of junk."

Across the clubhouse, CarGo rolls his eyes.

"He told me two years ago he was building a car. A classic car," Gonzalez says. "Two years later, I ask and he says he's still working on it: 'It's going to be a muscle car, but I don't want to give you any details yet.'

"I asked again recently, 'Charlie, what's happening with the car?' He said, 'Oh man, it's taking forever.'"

CarGo howls, laughing at the transparency of it all and how he knows and Charlie knows that this is a ruse to change the conversation.

"He's such a liar," Gonzalez says, smiling broadly. "But that's why we love him."

      

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

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Justin Verlander, Marlins and Donkeys: Trade Deadline Targets for All 30 Teams

MIAMI – From showcase stage to sales rack, the transformation of Marlins Park was nearly instantaneous the second Cleveland relief ace Andrew Miller fanned Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger to end the 88th All-Star Game.

The Miami Marlins are for sale in more ways than one. While owner Jeffrey Loria works to sell his team, the baseball operations side has sent word to the industry that it is intent on selling its players. The third-place Marlins are talking with multiple teams about multiple players, sources with knowledge of the talks tell B/R, including second baseman Dee Gordon, closer A.J. Ramos, third baseman Martin Prado and reliever David Phelps.

"They've told us that they're prepared to dump," an executive with a rival club tells B/R. "They're working on it and talking to clubs. But the conversations always end with one caveat, that they don't know that the owner won't bail at the last minute."

Trade talks always are fluid in the days leading up to baseball's always wild and frenzied July 31 deadline, but they are those times 10 where the mercurial Loria is concerned. And where the Marlins Meter lands in trade talks could influence everything from the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees race in the AL East to what might be the Washington Nationals' last, best chance to win a World Series with Bryce Harper.

The Red Sox and Yankees both can use an upgrade at third base and both have engaged the Marlins in conversations surrounding Prado, multiple sources say. More than 10 clubs have contacted the Marlins about Phelps (2-4, 3.68 ERA) and at least two or three are serious about Ramos (2-3, 3.51 ERA, 17 saves), according to sources. The Marlins are thinking that some of those interested in Phelps will swing over to Ramos if they deal Phelps first. And Gordon's solid comeback (.295/.342/.358 with 32 steals in 38 attempts this season) has sparked some phone calls. Gordon is in the second year of a five-year, $50 million deal that includes a $14 million club option or $1 million buyout for 2021.

The whopper, of course, is slugger Giancarlo Stanton's 13-year, $325 million deal that is guaranteed through 2027 and jumps to $25 million or more annually beginning next season (he's at $14.5 million this summer). Potential ownership groups talking with Loria are said to be not thrilled at all with that deal, while the feeling in the industry is that nobody will even consider taking that contract off of Miami's hands until the Marlins accept that they will get zero good prospects back. It would be a straight salary dump.

The Marlins, who, along with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners are considered to have one of the worst farm systems in the game, are desperately searching for young talent.

As for everyone else, the July goals range from robust to modest. The 30 x 30 skinny:

    

THE CONTENDERS

Red Sox: They're in good shape and don't have to do anything, but they'd like to fill the gaping hole at third base where Panda briefly roamed. With Pablo Sandoval a bust and Travis Shaw lighting it up for the Brewers, Boston would love to acquire Prado from the Marlins. Failing that, perhaps Pittsburgh's David Freese would work. Todd Frazier's bat, currently in use by the White Sox, could play in Fenway, too.

Yankees: "I love this team," one rival executive admires. "They're going to be good for a long time." Surprise contenders this year, the Yanks need to make a small move, not a large maneuver that disrupts some of their Baby Bomber core. Bullpen help like Miami's Phelps or the Padres' Brad Hand is what they are focused on, and/or a first baseman like Oakland All-Star Yonder Alonso, the Marlins' Justin Bour or the Braves' Matt Adams.

Rays: With the fifth-best record in the AL at the break, they need help getting the ball to closer Alex Colome. Phelps, Hand, Oakland's Sean Doolittle, someone like that would help.

Indians: The biggest thing Cleveland needs in the second half is a healthy Terry Francona, and hopefully the heart procedure he had last week will do the trick. All the best to one of the nicest (and funniest) men in the game.

Twins: They started the year hoping Ervin Santana would pitch well enough to command young talent in a trade. Now at two games over .500 to start the second half, Minnesota suddenly is a buyer, keeping Santana and searching for another starter. The Twins are not interested in a rental, but someone who can help their team this year and in the future.

Royals: A month ago, their top scouts were scouring the minor leagues and watching top prospects as the Royals prepared to unload impending free agents like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. Now those scouts are watching major league teams as suddenly hot Kansas City makes a run. The Royals won't pay a lot, but a lower-tier starting pitcher like San Diego's Trevor Cahill would fit.

Astros: Add one more starter and one more reliever and maybe Houston becomes invincible. Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox remains a great option.

Nationals: If they don't acquire a legitimate closer from somebody—Miami's Ramos, Justin Wilson of the Tigers, David Robertson of the White Soxgeneral manager Mike Rizzo may need to hire a lawyer to defend against a case of criminal negligence for not bolstering a team that may be running out of time to make a deep playoff run.

Brewers: In a perfect world, the surprising Brewers would add a starter and a reliever. "Mark (Attanasio, club owner) and David (Stearns, general manager) have a lot to talk about," Milwaukee closer Corey Knebel says. "I'm hoping they see something. They're in there every day with us. They see how it's coming together."

Dodgers: There's more fiction on the Dodgers' disabled list than on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, but this savvy is exploiting the new 10-day disabled list rule to its advantage by moving starting pitchers on and off it to increase their rotation's depth. Losing Julio Urias (shoulder) was a blow because they were counting on him to be their second-best starter behind Clayton Kershaw in October. Adding another starter like Gerrit Cole from Pittsburgh to help in 2018 as well as this year would be a coup.

Diamondbacks: Comfortably ahead in the NL Wild Card race, the Snakes need bullpen help. Or do you trust 40-year-old closer Fernando Rodney? They may also need a shortstop after Nick Ahmed suffered a broken hand. Cincinnati's Zack Cozart would be a great addition.

Rockies: Manager Bud Black thinks the current group of eight starting pitchers will be enough to keep the Rockies going deep into the summer—the returns of Chad Bettis and Tyler Anderson will help. What they really need is a right-handed reliever. Two would be ideal.

   

THE WILD CARD WANNA-BES

Angels: Nobody can figure out how the Angels are just two games under .500 at the break with that broken-down rotation. L.A. has been watching the White Sox's Quintana, among others.

Rangers: Texas is desperate for bullpen help, and you wonder if those two old buddies, Rangers GM Jon Daniels and his San Diego counterpart A.J. Preller, may get together on a deal for Hand. Preller helped bring infielder Jurickson Profar to Texas and always has liked him.

Mariners: If Seattle doesn't get better pitching it won't be in the Wild Card race for much longer. The Mariners are looking for help on that end and can add to their payroll but they don't have many prospects to deal and are determined not to overpay.

Orioles: The Baltimore rotation is under a Code Blue. Only Cincinnati's rotation has been worse, which is like saying the measles are worse than the mumps. You don't want either. The O's are about a week away from becoming sellers.

Blue Jays: Disappointing Toronto is ready to retool could dangle right-hander Marco Estrada, but the heavy lifting likely will wait because the Jays are averaging 39,644 fans per game, fourth in the majors, and are wary of angering their fan base. They could package third baseman Josh Donaldson in a blockbuster but only if it is a clear win for Toronto in the return.

Cubs: The starting pitching has been a wreck and the lineup long ago hit the snooze button for more sleep. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was embarrassed to have nobody from his title team with him at the All-Star Game. Can they pull a deal off with Detroit for Justin Verlander? Someone else? They also need a catcher after Miguel Montero's release or they'll risk grinding Willson Contreras into hamburger meat.

Cardinals: Linked to everyone from starters such as Quintana to position players such as Donaldson, St. Louis definitely has issues. Can those issues be fixed in whopper of a July? Probably not, but stay tuned.

    

THE PRETENDERS

Tigers: Word in the industry is the sinking Tigers must cut payroll. Late owner Mike Ilitch didn't mind spending, but sources say his son Chris is a Tiger of different stripes. They owe Verlander some $70 million, and dealing him would get part of the job done. But their erstwhile ace also has a full no-trade clause.

Athletics: Sonny Gray once was the guy who would bring them a big haul but, as a rival executive says, "he's not a slam dunk anymore. There's a difference between where they value him and what he is." Infielder Jed Lowrie probably will follow already-traded Stephen Vogt (Milwaukee) and Trevor Plouffe (Tampa Bay) out of town as well.

White Sox: Quintana, Robertson and third baseman Frazier will be peddled hard by July 31. Shortstop Tim Anderson is developing in the bigs. Starter Michael Kopech is developing in Double-A. The turnover continues.

Braves: This isn't a strip-down rebuild so much as a rebuild-on-the-fly to try to win sooner rather than later in their new ballpark. Teams are calling about starter Julio Teheran, but the Braves could just as easily surprise and acquire someone, too.

Pirates: Nine out in the Wild Card, the Buccos are headed down Seller's Alley failing a hot start in the second half. Reliever Tony Watson's poor season has diminished his trade value and Cole is popular but the Pirates want a treasure chest worth of prospects back, so the market will have to play itself out. Best bet: Pirates finally trade outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who has a $14.75 million club option next year (or a $1 million buyout.)

Marlins: There's speculation that in addition to everyone else on the market noted earlier, they'll deal 25-year-old outfielder Christian Yelich, who many think is on his way to becoming a superstar. Nobody is untouchable. Not Yelich, not fellow outfielder Marcell Ozuna—no one. But realistically, Phelps and Ramos are the best bets to pack their bags.

Mets: First baseman Lucas Duda and outfielder Jay Bruce are free agents this winter and there is no reason the Mets shouldn't deal both by July 31. The Bruce rumors have been floating so long they seem to be closing in on Iron Man Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak, aren't they? Uncle!

Reds: Rebuilding and with the worst starting staff in baseball, the more young arms the Reds can scoop up, the better. So it makes sense to pull the trigger and trade closer Raisel Iglesias. And, unless they sign him long-term, All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart, too (spoiler alert: Cozart told GM Dick Williams and owner Bob Castellini he would like to stay in Cincinnati, but there has been no contract extension yet).

Padres: No longer considered a rock star GM, beleaguered A.J. Preller is down to just a few pieces to trade as an awful San Diego team that includes three Rule V players plods forward. They will – and should – deal relievers Hand, Brandon Maurer and starter Trevor Cahill. They're looking for a shortstop, a luxury they haven't had for years. B/R sources say they've asked the Yankees about several of their top prospects, including Gleyber Torres (not happening).

Giants: Neither their roster (Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, etc.) nor their attendance (41,574 per home game, third in the majors) suggests rebuild, and they shouldn't. But they need to explore dealing Johnny Cueto because of his opt-out clause after this year—he's owed $84 million over four years and the Giants are risking losing him for nothing.

Phillies: One of these strip-down-and-rebuild projects is going to fail, and you wonder if it will be Philadelphia's. The prospects are not progressing much this year, but at Triple-A, slugger Rhys Hoskins should convince the Phils to deal first baseman Tommy Joseph.

    

FACT OR FICTION?

Fiction: Tigers trade Justin Verlander: They don't want to dump him without getting good prospects, and other clubs don't want to absorb that $70 million price tag. Plus Verlander has a full no-trade clause and may not want to waive it … though the Dodgers are believed to be attractive to him. That would put Verlander and his gal Kate Upton in Hollywood, which likely wouldn't hurt her career. "The last time I saw him he looked damn good," one talent evaluator tells B/R. "They've gotta get rid of some money, and there it is." Finding a taker won't be easy.

Fact: Kansas City becomes a buyer while making one more run: GM Dayton Moore wanted to give this group of Royals one more chance before free agency breaks them up. Now they've played themselves back into position. So if he didn't start the breakup last winter, why would Moore do it now?

Fiction: Yankees make a blockbuster move. No way GM Brian Cashman veers very far from the plan of building a contender with these new Baby Bombers.

 

Fact: Cincinnati All-Star Zack Cozart will receive a gift donkey from teammate Joey Votto. It all started when Cozart took his son to a donkey petting farm near the Reds' spring training complex in Goodyear, Arizona, and raved about the donkeys. Votto promised him a donkey if he ever became an All-Star. Now, Cozart is resigned to being the future owner of a donkey and says he expects Votto to deliver it during Cincinnati's homestand July 14-23.

    

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

Manny Machado’s Drive, Miami’s ‘305 Boys’ Turned Hungry Child into $400M Man

MIAMI — The rope hung from the tree branch in Albert Almora Jr.'s backyard, extending maybe 30 feet down to the ground. Engineered by Almora's father and designed to be incorporated into his son's workouts, that rope had seen Albert Jr. and his friend Manny Machado shimmy up and down it so many times.

"Oh man, that's a legendary rope," Machado, the Baltimore Orioles star, says, smiling. "We had a lot of fun with that rope."

Machado was 10 or 11. Almora was 8 or 9. The purpose of the rope was to help build forearm strength. The two buddies lived maybe a mile apart in the heart of Hialeah, a municipality here in greater Miami, and when they weren't playing baseball, they were talking about baseball, thinking about baseball or working out to make themselves better baseball players.

"I had to kind of use my feet to get up the rope, but Albert would go straight upper body and go all the way to the top," Machado says. "I was like, 'Hey, man, that's crazy. You're crazy. But it made him who he is today. His work ethic has been unbelievable since he was a kid because his father pushed him. Other than Yonder, I think the other guy who works as hard is Albert."

Summer in Miami: Sweat, workout ropes and blooming friendships.

And now, an All-Star Game and memories.

Machado soon would leave behind that rope for offseason workouts at the University of Miami, where he would meet Yonder Alonso, the Oakland A's slugger, and Jon Jay, the Chicago Cubs outfielder. And while Machado downplays it, his work ethic became every bit as impressive as the others. The three would become fast friends as their professional careers launched. Brothers, essentially. Machado even would marry Alonso's sister, Yainee, in 2014. Almora Jr. served as a groomsman.

Though each of their baseball paths took different directions, all roads still lead them back to their beloved hometown in the offseason. The 305 Boys, as so many know them: Machado. Alonso. Jay. Plus, for good measure, throw in Almora, Gio Gonzalez (Washington Nationals starting pitcher), Danny Valencia (Seattle Mariners first baseman) and Sean Rodriguez (Atlanta Braves infielder).

As the All-Star Game docks in Miami for the first time ever Tuesday night, Alonso will be a part of it for the first time, playing for the American League team, while Machado and Jay will be here with their families and friends soaking in every moment.

"We're lucky to have each other," Jay says.

"Oh, man," Alonso says of his impending All-Star debut. "It will mean a lot for family and friends, and for the city of Miami and for people I know, like my first teachers to high school teachers, to baseball coaches, to all of the kids I know, to people who helped me and my family survive in the city of Miami. I will be numb. I will have tears."

And just maybe, following a first-half slump that leaves him out of the game for the first time since 2014, Machado will have time to drive through his old neighborhood and past the tree that once was the center of his life. Maybe he'll even hear the echoes of Almora's father chewing them out for what they did with the rope during their downtime.

"We'd get into all sorts of trouble," Almora Jr., who scored the winning run for the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series last November, says, grinning.

"Oh yeah, all the time," Machado says, chuckling. "We got on the roof and started sliding. We were kids. What are kids going to do? We had a rope, and it was, like, that looks like fun. ... Those are just things you do as kids, and they were fun. I want my kids to do the same thing when I'm not watching. Because when I'm watching, they're not going to be doing that."

The roof to the Almoras home was angled, and there was a batting cage on the side of the house. Manny and Albert would take turns swinging from the rope until they swung it high enough to land on the roof. Then they would slide down that angled roof and...

"The batting cage would be our stop," Machado says. "It wasn't too crazy. It was the edge of the roof, and we'd just kind of fly a little bit. We were Superman at the time. That's what they called Albert when we were kids. Superman."

Rope, angled roof, slide off, fly through the air, stick a landing in the batting cage.

Kids. Supermen.

"We had some fun times, man," Machado continues. "We played one-on-one football. How do you do that? We figured it out. We go back, man. That's why every time we play the game, we play it differently. We play it [with style]. That's what we like to do. That's how we were raised. That's just how we are."

                              

FROM ALMORA'S YARD to Alonso's guidance, always and fortunately, there was more slack for Machado to tug on the lifelines of his youth. Along with Almora, now 23, Machado, who turned 25 on July 6, was the kid. Jay now is 32 and Alonso 30.

"Yonder showed me the ropes about life, showed me the ropes about baseball life, he showed me a lot that I couldn't have learned by myself," Machado says. "It's awesome. He showed me true love. He showed me what it is to frickin' care for people, what it is to play baseball. What baseball's all about, it's about life and struggles, a lot of good things he's taught me that I can never take for granted. There's nothing I could do or say to repay what he did."

It started with a phone call. Alonso's agent wanted him to take advantage of the Miami connection, to ring the local high school star who was projected to be a top-five draft pick in 2010 and help the agent recruit him. Dutifully, Alonso called. But he does not traffic in salesmanship. He is too genuine for that. The only pitches he enjoys are the cookies he can crush.

Instead, Alonso simply talked with Machado, and though Alonso's agent did not get a new client, the seeds for a lifelong friendship were planted between Alonso and Machado.

"That's why I liked him," says Machado, the Orioles' first-round (third overall) pick that summer. "He spoke from his heart, told me what he had to say, and that's why we're best friends now."

Machado's growing legend had been ricocheting throughout the Miami baseball community for years by then, from Hialeah's Goodlet Park all the way to the city limits.

"I heard about Manny long before he was in high school," Gio Gonzalez says. "I knew his brother-in-law was proud of him. They used to get their hair cut at my friend Jeff's house, and he would tell me, 'My little brother is coming in, and you've gotta see this kid.'

"Lo and behold, I see him, and they're comparing him to A-Rod—his style, his performance. I was blown away. That's high praise, especially in Hialeah."

Machado had one request during that first phone call with Alonso, who had been a first-round pick (seventh overall) out of the University of Miami in 2008 and debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in 2010: Could they work out together so Manny could see what it takes?

"He was a high school player still, so the rules prevented it, and I told him to call me back after he graduated," Alonso says. "Sure enough, at 8 a.m. six months later, he called back and told me he's ready to do it and when do we start?"

It didn't take long for Alonso to see how badly Machado wanted to succeed.

"This guy had nothing," Alonso says, speaking of Machado's childhood. "One meal a day. People have no idea how much he struggled in his young life."

Machado was raised by his mother, Rosa, and an uncle, Geovany Brito. He told Alonso stories of taking the Metrorail to baseball fields alone, every day, at 12, 13, 14 years old because he had no ride.

"That's not cool," Alonso says. "That's not a good thing, when you're 13, 14, taking an hour ride on the Metrorail through bad neighborhoods. That's not safe for anybody.

"He grew up real fast. He doesn't really talk about it. That's just his way."

Around the same time he started working out with Alonso, Machado met Jay through the workouts at the University of Miami. Jay was injured that first offseason and wasn't around every day, but later in the winter, he started to show more frequently.

"I just remember him pushing me, trying to make me better," Machado says. "Trash-talking me while we were sprinting: Hey, how can this old man be beating you?!"

One day about a year later, Alonso invited Machado to come hang out and meet the rest of his family. Machado showed up wearing a Udonis Haslem Miami Heat jersey and sandals.

"As if it was totally fine to come to a family barbecue showing up as if he's hanging out at home on his couch," Alonso says, still laughing.

"This is going to need changing up a little," Alonso instructed Machado that day.

"Who is this kid?" Alonso's sister, Yainee, exclaimed before turning her sights on Machado and zinging him. "Boy, you've got to change it up. Who do you think you are?"

You never know when sparks will fly, do you? Not long afterward, Manny and Yainee started dating. But not before Machado changed it up a little—and obtained Yonder's blessing to move forward.

"It was totally cool," Alonso says. "I said, 'As long as you respect my family, the woman she is and the name she has. And here we are, six years later.

Says Jay: "It was just natural. It definitely was to us. It was cool to see, and it's awesome now. We've known each other a long time, and it's all like one big family now."

                                    

EARLIER THIS SEASON, as the Boston Red Sox were taking extended target practice on him, Machado finally reached the end of his rope. The important thing? How long it took him to get there.

Granted, he had slid into second base late in a game April 21 and knocked Sox star Dustin Pedroia onto the bench for the next several days with a bruised knee. He sent a text message to Pedroia apologizing. But on that Sunday, Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez fired three inside pitches near Machado, and then Matt Barnes whizzed a pitch behind Machado's head.

The next week in Boston, Sox ace Chris Sale fired a 98 mph fastball again behind Machado, who finally blew his stack postgame in a profanity-filled rant in which, among other things, he righteously wondered how much longer this would go on and called out the Boston organization for "coward stuff."     

Notably, Machado displayed a maturity throughout the Boston affair that he hadn't before. During his precocious early days in the majors—he debuted at 19, in 2012—he earned a reputation not only for greatness but for his temper as well. That was stoked by his lost weekend in 2014 against Oakland, when he was angered after he thought Josh Donaldson tagged him too hard and responded two days later by helicoptering his bat toward third base and causing a bench-clearing incident.

Then, last June, Machado charged the mound after Yordano Ventura, the late Kansas City Royals pitcher, drilled him with a 99 mph fastball, causing another brawl.

The Oakland incident earned him a five-game suspension, and the Royals fight earned him a four-game suspension.

That he kept it together against the Red Sox this summer was a clear window into a player who is a little older, wiser and now in possession of essential self-control.

"I think that's a big sign of maturity with him, understanding there's a long history from the other incident and understanding that I'm going to get suspended for five games and then I can't play and can't help my team out," Jay says.

Says Alonso: "We had our talks [after the '14 Donaldson incident]. ... I told him how I felt, my opinion. A lot of that stays between me and him, but we've all got to learn.

"He's a smart guy. He knows what he's good at and what he's bad at. He knows the pros and cons. Every day he learns about his flaws. He's not a hardheaded guy. That's why you look at him and say, 'Oh shoot, this is legit.' Because most guys overlook their flaws."

Alonso remembers watching the way Machado spoke with reporters early in his career, sometimes devolving into outright rudeness. They talked then too.

"Now you see a totally different cat," Alonso says.

The greats generally possess a sharp sense of self-awareness. Defensively, Machado has been compared favorably with Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. With the bat, he's led the American League with 51 doubles (2013), he's cracked 35 homers (2015) and he's belted 37 homers while driving in 96 runs (2016). He rapped 211 extra-base hits in his first 500 big league games, passing Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. (208) for the club record, according to Stats LLC.

"His baseball instincts are off the chart," Jay says. "You can see it in his baserunning. When you look at Manny, you see he's a complete player. He doesn't just play defense. He hits, he runs the bases, he can score from first on a double.

"The thing that's impressed me the most, when I first met him, he was just a skinny, 17-year-old kid, but you could see in his work ethic that his body was going to continue to mature."

This season, though, it's taken Machado a long time to get going. On May 31, he was buried with a .205 batting average and .286 on-base percentage. One talent evaluator at the time told B/R, you watch, he'll still end up at .295 with 35 or 40 homers and 100 RBI.

June was somewhat kinder, though at .242/.297/.462 for the month, Machado still doesn't look like the Machado to whom we're accustomed. But in place of a scowl, more often than not, is a smile as he's learned to cope through the difficult times that baseball inevitably produces.

"I'm not going to lie, it's tough," Machado says. "There were a couple of games where you're down and you're in a really dark place, and you don't know if you're ever going to come out of it. You realize, hey, I'm having a bad day, but you realize there are people out there having worse days."

Many within the industry place Machado on the pedestal right next to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as the game's three best players and already are anticipating the end of the 2018 season, when Harper and Machado will hit the free-agent market at the same time. Amid speculation that Harper could land a record-setting deal somewhere in the $400 million range, there are those who predict Machado won't be far behind.

"They're going to set the standard going forward," Jay says. "There are going to be a couple of other guys up there eventually—Kris Bryant [of the Cubs] and Nolan Arenado [of the Rockies] as well—but these guys are going to push the game to the next level as far as contracts go."

Alonso believes his friend will be worth it not only for his performance but his leadership as well. Already, Orioles reliever Brad Brach marvels over how the organization's minor leaguers flock to Machado and hang on his every move each spring.

"You've gotta stay true to yourself, stay who you are," Machado says. "I think that's the biggest key. "The biggest thing is, I can never forget where I come from. That's why I wear Miami on my sleeve. I never forget where I grew up."

                              

GROUP TEXTS BUZZ back and forth daily from Baltimore to Chicago to Oakland to wherever the schedule takes them. When the Orioles are in Oakland, Machado will skip the team hotel and stay at Alonso's place. When the Cubs open in Baltimore after the All-Star break, Jay will pass on the team's hotel and stay with Machado.

The 305 Boys, wherever they are, regularly are pulling on the rope in the same direction.

"You have so many ballplayers from Miami, and we wear it proudly," Alonso says. "We understand the mentality. It's us against the world.

"It's a survivalist instinct. Miami guys, we stick together. That's how it is, and I think it's always going to be that way."

Last winter, feeling he was "stuck," Alonso overhauled his entire swing from the ground up. Feet, balance, hands, bat placement. It's complicated, but bottom line, he felt like his body wasn't in sync. He felt weak during his swings, "like I was 150 pounds, and I'm 230." He consulted with some of the game's greatest hitters and, of course, Machado, and another Miami friend, Danny Valencia.

Where Alonso always has been the big-brother figure, now it was Machado's time.

"Manny was the base of it all," Alonso says. They agreed to start hitting early, in October, because "he knew I was making humongous changes in my game, and he knew he wanted to be ready early to play in the World Baseball Classic.

"And on days he didn't want to hit, he came to watch and work with me. He was 100 percent there every day."

The results for Alonso have been spectacular. He already has a career-high 20 home runs, and what a year (and location) to splash into his first career All-Star Game.

"The way my family was raised in Miami, we were like glue," says Gonzalez, 31, who is older but grew up within a two-mile radius of Machado and Almora and considers Jay more brother than friend. "We always wanted to be around each other, and we took care of each other. That's something I cherish the most about these young guys. They've never changed. They recognize where they're from and the guys they grew up with."

Over the years, Alonso, Jay and Machado have made sure to rent offseason homes close to each other in Miami so that when they finished their workouts, they could hang out together. One winter, they all lived within two blocks of each other at the beach and spent their time paddleboarding, playing soccer on the sand, riding skateboards down the boardwalk and going out to dinner.

"It's cool," Jay says. "Our wives get together and talk, and if we play in each other's cities, we'll coordinate whether the wives can get to go or not."

The coordinating is just a touch more complicated now. Alonso and his wife, Amber, have a young son, Troy. And Jay and his wife, Nikki, had twin girls during the offseason. But they continue to make sure the logistics work: The Alonsos, Jays and Machados all purchased houses in the same neighborhood not far from the University of Miami and will be moved in by this winter. Which means the guys can get their workouts in in the morning, and the families can hang out at the pool and barbecue together come dinnertime.

"Oh, we all argue," Alonso says. "We fight. We tell each other to beat it and that we don't like each other. But you know what? The next day you go and give that guy a hug and kiss."

"It's going to be a good offseason," Machado says. "Literally, we'll be five minutes apart from each other, and we're going to be hanging out a lot more. It's not like we weren't hanging out before, but we're probably going to get tired of each other for a while."

Maybe at that point, they can find a tree, a rope and invite Almora over for an afternoon.

"I hope they all have the longest careers, ride it until the wheels fall off," Gonzalez says.

"And then, hopefully one day, we will all get to sit down and laugh about how we did it."

 

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

Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman the Pound-for-Pound King of MLB Mound Swag

Hip-hop artist Mike Stud is cruising to the airport, and we are talking sauce. Technically, we are talking music. Hip-hop, rap and his close buddy, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman. But, sauce.

Sauce is the secret ingredient, the "it" factor, the mix that puts a guy over the top. Stud and Stroman met at Duke University, where they made music together both on the baseball field (the hardball kind) and in the tiny closet of their apartment (the recorded kind).

They have remained tight ever since, and whenever the Blue Jays are in Los Angeles, Stroman and Stud make sure to connect. Stroman already has performed—quite convincinglyin one of Stud's videos, "These Days," and he raps on another Stud song, "Shine." On the mound and in the studio, Stroman, one part pitcher, one part artist, is creating the type of cultural and diversified portfolio that will drive home baseball's ties with its next generation of fans. The sauce is included in the mix.

"Music's interesting because it evokes a feeling to a listener and you can't really put a finger on what it is exactly," Stud says. "When you hear an artist, subconsciously, you connect with that artist because you believe it. Marcus has that. Not everyone has that.

"When he gets behind a microphone, he sounds like an artist and people want to hear him. And when they hear him, they believe it. The songs we've made together, those are the best athlete verses on songs I've ever heard. Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, if you compare, no one sounds as good as him. I really do think he could be the best actual athlete who's also a musician."

These days, baseball is searching for the sauce, looking to create a feeling, and the would-be artists in the MLB offices on Park Avenue are working feverishly to put a finger on it. Baseball's culture is changing at warp speed, one Snapchat at a time. The world is zooming rapid-fire into the future, and on the field, trailblazers like Stroman are leading the way.

Take this spring's World Baseball Classic. Team USA had never finished higher than fourth, but suddenly this group became the breakout stars of the year on a March evening at Dodger Stadium. Stud was there, watching as his pal whipsawed through Puerto Rico in the championship game. The evening was a swirling kaleidoscope of colors, roars, trash-talking, incredible plays, taut moments, theatrics and, ultimately, a WBC title. Never had there been more interest in the WBC on North American soil, and with Stroman pitching, strutting and howling onstage, it seemed as if the tournament gained several thousand new fans every time he danced off the mound with another third out.

"Unbelievable experience," Stroman, who started the title game, says during a lengthy conversation with B/R. "Definitely life-changing. Playing for Team USA, that's an honor in itself, and to go out there and win a gold medal with all of those guys was pretty special. And then to win the MVP, that kind of put the entire experience over the top.

"It's pretty much like winning gold in the Olympics. It's got a lot of pride to it, a lot of honor to it, and the fact that the USA hasn't done very well in prior WBCs puts more emphasis on it."

After swooping from that moment straight into the Blue Jays' season, Stroman says he still hasn't assimilated. The WBC blended back into spring training, and then into Opening Day and then into the grind of the killer baseball schedule, which is the greatest enemy of the kind of pizzazz Stroman injects into his game. The relentlessness of the summer saps energy and discourages emotional outpourings because as soon as a guy pumps a fist or lets out a triumphant yell, the old school frowns and the game does something to humble you. But as that night at Dodger Stadium showed, Stroman has his own vibe, and it's too rhythmic to stifle.

In the stands that night, Stud had "goose bumps," he says. "I was super proud of him. Knowing what he's been through and where he's come from, and to see him at that scale, performing at that level ... I'll never forget it. I've been to a million games, and I'm not surprised by anything he does, but you can't get any higher than that. It was an incredible experience to have him rep the country and, not only that, but to be the MVP of it."

As the airport gets closer, our chat moves from sauce to symbolism. The point of the "These Days" video is that two buddies are living vicariously through each other. It is Stud's voice and Stroman's acting.

"I always thought I'd be a professional baseball player, and he's living that life," says Stud, an old pitcher whose own pro dreams were dashed by Tommy John surgery in college about the time his music career started to move. So, in the video, it is Stud on the field in a jersey and it is Stroman living the celebrity's life in Los Angeles, strutting, jumping into a Ferrari.

"You put a camera on him, and the camera loves him," Stud says.

   

GET TO KNOW Stroman, and it's clear he has enough substance that it's not just the cameras and the hipsters who love him. Old-school baseball people dig him, too. Toronto manager John Gibbons has the text messages from retired manager Jim Leyland, the skipper of this year's Team USA, to prove it. As Gibbons was running the Jays through camp this spring in Florida, his phone buzzed multiple times with texts from the crusty, 72-year-old baseball man: "I love this kid!"

Says Gibbons: "He's got as much confidence as any young kid I've ever been around."

On the field, opponents ask Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki about Stroman during games more than they do any other Blue Jays player. What's this guy's deal? What's he really like? Good guy or no? Yes, Tulo tells them all, smiling as he relays this. Great guy, great teammate. He's just emotional.

Teammate Kevin Pillar has answered those same questions from opponents and friends alike. He figures Stroman, 26, is just reaching the point where, after his postseason (2015 and 2016) and WBC accomplishments, all the inquisitiveness will begin to recede.

"With his consistency, and doing it in the WBC, I don't think opponents will view him as arrogant or cocky," Pillar says. "I think they'll view him for who he is. I think it's now expected that he's not a guy out there faking it. It's real."

The key to any artist's connection with their audience is authenticity. Stroman's demeanor is the same whether he's on the mound, on the team bus or on Twitter (@MStrooo6): high energy, enthusiastic, honest.

"I can't honestly think of a day I've been around him when he's down in the dumps or even keel," Gibbons says. "He has lots of energy. He knows he's good. And another thing is, he loves the game of baseball."

A first-round pick of Toronto in the 2012 amateur draft (22nd overall), Stroman, who is listed at 5'8" but might be a tad shorter, grew up on Long Island, New York. His father is a detective in Suffolk County, and his mother does community preservation and works in real estate in the Hamptons. Marcus played quarterback in high school but decided he was finished with football in his sophomore year. He played basketball through his senior year and stuck with his first love, baseball, all the way through.

"I've always been a talker," he says. "I've always been a trash-talker on the basketball court. I've always been that guy with a little chip on my shoulder who felt like he was going to get the job done in any circumstance. I think that's just something my parents instilled in me from a young age. ... I was never going to be the biggest guy in the room, so [my dad] always told me I had to be the most confident."

As the son of a cop, Stroman learned early that he better get his work done before it was playtime. He was never that kid out aimlessly screwing around, having a blast. He was doing his schoolwork or the extra reading comprehension exercises that his dad persistently fed him. And when it was time to prepare for whatever season was coming up, he was running hills, pulling sleds, building up his small body to keep pace with his sharp mind.

"Why I'm so emotional, being myself, authentic, exciting is because when I'm out there, that's the most fun," he says. "I put in all of this work in the offseason, between starts, leading up to it—those are the grinding hours. Those are the hours of tears and blood that you put in relentlessly. So when I go out there every fifth day, I'm just trying to have fun because I know I can't be any more prepared."

If there was any doubt what he was all about, Stroman quickly erased that during the 2015 season. He tore the ACL in his left knee in spring training and was told he would be sidelined for the entire season. Instead, he worked his way back by that September and went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts down the stretch to help push the Jays to their first American League East title since 1993. While he was at it, he used his extra time that summer to finish his sociology degree and graduate from Duke.

"First time I met him, he came to get checked out by doctors after his rehab, and I saw him and said, 'Damn, that's all of you?' I thought there was a lot more," says LaTroy Hawkins, a teammate of Stroman's in 2015 during the final season of his 21-year major league career.

"He's a little guy in stature, but you know what, he walks around like he's 6'7", he pitches like he's Randy Johnson and, hey, the rest is history.

"I don't care how tall he is, he's got one of the biggest hearts I've ever seen."

   

SWAG AND STROMAN have been in step together for as long as infield and dirt, as his friends will testify. Before he was Mike Stud in the music industry, he was Michael Seander at Duke University. Rarely was he involved in hosting prospective freshmen on their visits because his own swag often put him sideways with the baseball coach at the time, Sean McNally. But come Stroman's visit, McNally recruited Seander to host because, well, he and Stroman were both from the Northeast and the coach thought the two would relate. Did they ever.

The way Stud recalls it, McNally, who resigned as Duke coach after the 2012 season, was a "hard ass" brought in "on a mission to clean up the program, bring it to the next level." Stud says the two were not copacetic, and Stroman, of course, leaned toward his new friend with an independent streak of his own. One clash in particular still stands out. It came during an intrasquad game when Stroman and his coach were arguing between innings.

"Marcus goes back out on the mound, and during the entire inning, he told every batter what pitch was coming," Stud says. "It wasn't to show up the players, it was to show McNally, 'I'm this good.' He literally told every batter every pitch, and he went through the inning 1-2-3. I was injured at the time, watching on the side and thinking, 'This kid's a star.'"

Two themes have been constants in Stroman's life: Always, he could do things others couldn't, and always, he's been doubted because of his diminutive size.

Even after he became the first Duke player ever to be a first-round draft pick, there were questions within the Blue Jays organization about whether he ever would be a starting pitcher in the majors. When the club first called him to the bigs in 2014, Stroman's first five appearances came as a reliever. Though his stuff set him apart, some of the Blue Jays' baseball people thought he would never survive as a starter because he was a little guy with no downward tilt to his delivery.

Since then, he's refined his sinker, curve and cutter and, with his two-seam fastball, has excelled at inducing ground balls. Last year, he had the highest ground ball-to-fly ball ratio in the majors at 2.4-to-1, and he had the highest ground-ball percentage at 61.4 percent, according to the Blue Jays. As Gibbons says and as opponents see, it's made him a completely different pitcher. And it's only bolstered Stroman's confidence—and swag.

Several Jays players say they notice a palpably different energy level in the clubhouse on the days he pitches. When one of them makes a particularly good play in the field, Stroman is the first to let the defender know how much he appreciates the effort. He hollers at himself, hollers at his teammates and every now and again, he gets caught up in the moment and chirps at an opponent, too.

"Probably the other guys don't like it, but that's their problem," Jays infielder Ryan Goins says. "He'll let us know that the other team has no chance."

In a game against the Oakland Athletics during his rookie season in 2014, Stroman engaged in a tiff with slugger Josh Donaldson, who had doubled earlier in the contest and came to the plate in a big spot with a runner on second base. Stroman fanned him, let out an exuberant yell and, when Donaldson stared him down, removed his glove and looked as if to say, "Bring it."

When the Blue Jays acquired Donaldson that November, many wondered how it would go with the two combatants now in the same clubhouse. How it went was that once they got to know each other, the two All-Star-caliber players became fast friends and terrific teammates.

"I love Donaldson," Stroman says. "I love how competitive he is. The edge he brings to our team is unbelievable, and that just shows you that between the lines, anything kind of goes. It's just a matter of knowing how to turn it on and off."

Even today, when someone brings up their past, the two still will have a quick laugh about it.

"That's why I try not to judge anyone until you actually meet him," Stroman says. "You never know what he's gone through or the experiences he's had to get to that point until you learn for yourself from a first-person perspective."

It's how, after he opted to play for Team USA in the WBC instead of Puerto Rico (his mother is Puerto Rican, thus making him eligible for that team), he and the Puerto Rico players could engage in public trash-talking during the WBC title game and yet emerge with no hard feelings. Every time Stroman threw a ball, many in the Puerto Rico dugout were informing him, in Spanish, that, essentially, they don't swing at that junk.

"Obviously, we were trying to get to him," says Cubs second baseman Javier Baez, one of the ringleaders that night in the Puerto Rico dugout. "I know him pretty well. After the game, I went up to him and I told him I was trying to get to him, and he just started laughing. I congratulated him."

Weeks later, Stroman chuckles.

"It's never too much," Stroman says of the jabbering and emotions on the mound. "Everything I do on the mound is authentic. It's me having fun with the game of baseball. It's me being myself. It's me letting myself show.

"A lot of times in this game, baseball wants to corner you and say you're supposed to act a certain way. And by doing so, it takes away from how you perform. It takes away from the level you could possibly get to when you allow yourself to show your emotions."

Yes, swag accompanies Stroman. Always has. You do not operate your own clothing line without it. Trademarked by Stroman in 2015 (and run by his mother Adlin Auffant, his sister Sabria Santos and his brother-in-law Abdat Santos during the season), HDMH: Height Doesn't Measure Heart extends his brand in ways that go beyond simple threads.

"It's more about the message than anything," says Stroman, who acknowledges that his house sometimes resembles a warehouse. "It shows people what I'm really about."

   

ONE DAY, AND it is coming, there will be no debate. Those in and out of the game will not be divided into old school and new school. There will be only one camp, and it will be the camp of baseball, a place where cultures have melted together and a slugger will not have to fear retaliation at the plate because he dared to smile and shout while celebrating a double.

Young players and fans do not frown and scowl, and they do not traffic in the unwritten rules of the game—or, of decorum. Many are expressive, and so many revel in the emotions that become not only a celebration of the sport but also a celebration of life itself. Stroman's talent places him on the extreme end of those who can lead the way in connecting with and winning a new generation of fans. His interest in social media, creating a personal brand and the greater good of all things baseball make him not just a willing participant but also an eager one.

"Absolutely, I feel like I'm part of the young wave in MLB, young stars," he says. "You have so many of them now to attract peopleMike Trout, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman ... You have so many young guys—Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, that entire Cubs team—they are unbelievable. They're ... all in their early to mid-20s, and these are who the kids are growing up with. They're watching each and every day, and they see the passion and emotion they play with.

"A couple of years ago, it was different. It might not have been as showy or as emotional like it is today. But obviously, there is a balance. It can't be too much. There are certain things—going over the top—where you can't disrespect the other team. Just as long as it's good-natured and it's in the moment and it's meant for you and your teammates and it's about celebrating a big out or a home run or a big pitch in a big time, then why not?"

Stroman majored in sociology and minored in markets and management studies at Duke. He's applied several of the principles he learned in his marketing classes to his HDMH business, and the sociology classes fed his interest in the world around him.

"I really love people, love meeting new people, and I love learning about how groups of people think," Stroman says. "I loved being a sociology major because I felt it put me in a better position to see the world, how society essentially is played out. Just because you may think that a situation is supposed to work out a certain way, it might not because of how society views things. Which is crazy."

Within the mishmash of cultures and beliefs that encompass the game's society, Leyland, incidentally, is not the only graybeard who has become enamored with Stroman. Buck Martinez is 68, played 17 seasons in the bigs (1969-1986), managed the Blue Jays during two summers (2001-02) and piloted the inaugural Team USA WBC club in 2006. From his nightly perch in the Jays' television booth, he appreciates Stroman for who he is, not what the old school may want him to be.

"I think in this generation we need to allow people to be themselves," Martinez says. "That's what the fans want to see. They want to see genuine emotion.

"We saw it in the WBC, and I think that's where everybody stepped back and said, 'You know what? This isn't a bad thing.' The NBA does it. The NHL does it. Football people do it. And baseball's always been behind the curve because they've said you've gotta respect the game. Well, what's that mean? ...

"[Baltimore Orioles manager] Buck Showalter talks about it all the time. He says, 'Every once in a while, I'll see somebody do something and I'll look down the bench to see if it bothers my players. And if it doesn't bother my players, it shouldn't bother me.'"

And Showalter is the guy who, while managing the New York Yankees in the early 1990s, publicly chastised Ken Griffey Jr. for daring to wear his cap backward during batting practice. Now 61, Showalter understands that any sort of litmus test for "respecting the game" is firmly going the way of flannel uniforms and artificial turf.

While Stroman is a break from the past (he says he fully intends to pursue a music career "when the time comes"), his rap life, he says, "is nonexistent right now. In-season, it's baseball, baseball, baseball." No matter how much of a modernist he is with his behavior on the mound, what could be more respectful of the game than that?

Just as the reserved Griffey steered the game through the '90s with his outsize talent, 1,000-watt smile and Nike branding, Stroman is among those who have everything it takes to become one of today's modern, multithreat poster boys. The game, the swag, the smarts, the sauce.

"[A] guy like Marcus, I don't call it changing, I call it evolving," Stud says. "This kid is a well-educated, family-minded, African-American adult who battled his way to the top. He's somebody you should root for."

   

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

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Who’s Your Daddy? Pedro Martinez Jr. Making Own Fame as Teen Hitting Star

Look at him. Just look at those cherubic, chubby cheeks. Eyes straight ahead, hands on knees, crouching, ready to pounce on the next baseball that travels his way. Boston Red Sox jersey and baby-faced. Just like his father.

The child in the picture is 16 now. A boy on the cusp of manhood. A baller in the Dominican Republic facing an adult decision: Does he reach for a pen next month when he becomes eligible to sign a professional baseball contract? Or does he stay in school and work on developing his imperfect game?

He has been dreaming of this day for so long that you can practically close your eyes and picture him as a boy, with a baseball glove, a legacy and, shoot, maybe even a mango tree nearby.

"It's still there!" exclaims Pedro Pablo Martinez Jr., 16, youngest son of Pedro You-Know-Who, Hall of Famer and the dad in this story. "It's in Manoguayabo, the place where my dad comes from. Where my grandma had her first house.

"He has a little spot there where he grows food and vegetables. He loves flowers. He tells me stories about how he would study and do his homework on the mango tree. The branches are very strong, and he would sit on one of them and do his homework."

It was following a bitter Game 2 loss in the 2004 American League Championship Series to the hated New York Yankees that his pitcher/poet/philosopher father unspooled what at once was a classic line, after some 56,000 full-throated denizens of Yankee Stadium lustily serenaded him throughout the game with chants of "Who's Your Daddy?! Who's Your Daddy?!" It became the Bronx's favorite taunt when, after another frustrating loss to the Yankees machine a month earlier Martinez told reporters, "I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy."

"I actually realized that I was somebody important, because I caught the attention of 60,000 people, plus you [the media], plus the whole world watching a guy that, if you reverse time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to actually pay for a bus," Pedro Sr. said after that Game 2 loss. "And today, I was the center of attention of the whole city of New York."

Like that sturdy old mango tree first referenced more than a decade ago, the branches of Pedro Martinez's family have grown sturdy, and they continue to bear fruit. Together with wife Carolina, Pedro is a proud parent of Pedro Isias Martinez, 17, and Pedro Pablo.

The game has hooked both of his boys. No surprise there. The eldest is playing high school ball in Boca Raton, Florida. That's where the youngest will land this fall if the family delays the start of Pedro Jr.'s professional baseball career.

"To be honest, as a dad, I don't want to trade education for now," Pedro Martinez told B/R during a conversation this spring. "And he's got some stuff he needs to develop still. But without a doubt, the skills are there.

"I'm hoping that he's patient enough to hold on and go to junior college. I am leaning toward education, but I know he realizes he can play with those kids who have been signing in the Dominican."

       

WHO CAN BE patient at 16? A slugging third baseman in the International Prospect League in the Dominican Republic, Martinez Jr. has been playing baseball since he took his first steps. He drinks it in as if the game is liquid and he is the thirstiest man on earth. And still, he cannot get enough. He catapults from one drill to the next as if all of this hustle and bustle will bring tomorrow today.

"Nice kid," says Red Sox slugger Hanley Ramirez, who has spent time with him in the weight room during spring training. "Quiet. Respectful. He loves baseball. Loves it."

"Oh my gosh; you have no idea," Martinez Jr. says from his home in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, during a recent telephone conversation. "I'm really excited just to put a uniform on and play baseball professionally. It's a dream come true.

Friendly and articulate, earnest and intelligent, he is a pleasure to speak with. School has just let out for the summer. Instant freedom. Wide-open days. Already, he says, he misses his friends. But now is not the time for summer frivolity. It is the time for the love of his life, baseball. So he dives into it each day, hard, with every bit of the focus of a high school kid filling out college applications to all the best schools.

One way or another, like his father says, his education will continue.

Question is, will it be the book kind, or the baseball kind?

"To me, he's one of the best players for July 2, 2017, right now," says Amaury Nina, president of the IPL, referencing the opening date of this year's international signing period. "Seven or eight teams want to sign him, have a lot of interest, so we're waiting to see what's going to happen. His dad wants him to go to college first."

Nina says he agrees with Pedro Sr., that he also has sons and that he would do the same thing. It is a giant leap, indeed, from childhood to the pros at 16.

"I don't think his son agrees, because his son wants to play," Nina continues, adding, "He's one of the best hitters I see right here in the Dominican at his age."

That is no casual statement. One of the prospects who came through his league is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and is starring in the Class A Midwest League for the Lansing (Michigan) Lugnuts, batting .327 with four homers and 39 RBI in 58 games. The Chicago Cubs' top prospect, Eloy Jimenez, who signed for $2.8 million in 2013, also played in the IPL. So, too, did Kansas City prospect Elier Hernandez, who signed for $3.05 million (2011); and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yadier Alvarez, who signed for $16 million (2015). 

Nina was involved with the signing of each of those players. And so, as he quickly will tell you, when he says something, he knows what he's talking about.

"Let me tell you something," Nina says. "I had Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the IPL, too, and I don't say that Pedro's son has the same power Vladimir Jr. has, but it's going to be similar one day. Some players get power early, and some you have to wait a little bit more. I think Pedro is going to have to wait a little to have the same power as Vladimir Jr., but hitting-wise, I think they both have the same ability."

The school in Boca Raton is both a fallback plan and negotiating leverage. If his financial offers are disappointing when this summer's international signing period opens, then, well, playing ball with his brother at school in Florida is a pretty good option.

But it certainly is not plan A for young Pedro.

Martinez Jr. rises early for his daily workouts. Typically, he says, he works on his speed and strengthening his legs from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., then takes a short break, eats lunch and heads to the IPL facility in Santo Domingo to take ground balls and batting practice. Then he and several teammates go to a local track for some long-distance running. After that, toward 8 p.m., he moves on to the gym and works his upper body for an hour or so before he goes home and stretches. Then, he has a protein drink, eats dinner and goes to sleep.

Next day, he does it all over again.

Underpinning everything he does is an understanding. Given his father's Hall of Fame career, and the fact that his uncle Ramon produced a 14-year career for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates with one All-Star appearance (1990, Dodgers), Martinez Jr. plays with a big shadow and strong brand recognition always looming.

"It's actually been a challenge," Pedro Jr. says of the legacy created by his dad and uncle. "I've gotten to learn a lot from them. My father, he's a father who wants me to train my hardest. His personality is just that way, and the numbers he put up in the bigs, there's a lot of pressure."

Also understood, however, is this: Pedro Pablo Martinez Jr. is going to do it his way. Though he has pitched some—also like his dad and unclehe "wasn't a big fan of pitching" and thoroughly prefers hitting and playing the infield.

"Third base, I describe it as one of the hardest positions to play, but at same time one of the most entertaining because you need to have certain abilities for you to be able to play that base," he says.

"And I'm a guy who likes challenges. What can I say? I like things hard."

Pedro Sr. told both sons from the time they could walk that what they wanted to do when it came to baseball or anything else in this world would be up to them, not up to him.

"As a matter of fact, I never asked them to play baseball," the Hall of Famer says. "They just came up and said, 'Daddy, I want to play.'

"And I said, 'You know what, it's going to be fun from one to 13. But after 13, I'm going to treat you like a man and I'm going to hit you hard. And I'm going to work your tail off and you're going to have to be disciplined.'

"Never embarrass me on things I did not embarrass myself."

And so it is: Pedro Martinez Jr. likes to train hard.

Working his legs is a priority because the weakest part of his game, according to just about everyonehis father, his uncle, scouts and Ninais his lack of speed. Though he has improved lately, not long ago he was clocked at 6.7, 6.8 seconds in the 60-yard dash.

"Third base only, actions are just OK," noted an international scouting director with one major league club who has scouted Martinez Jr. "Looks like he should go to JUCO in South Florida and keep getting stronger. Right-hand bat has fringe bat speed with gap juice. Heavy feet moving around."

The belief is that Martinez Jr. is a fast-growing, gangly kid who still is an unfinished product. At 6'2", he's already outgrown his father, who is 5'11". Ramon Martinez is 6'4", and the other uncles are tall as well. So Pedro Sr. has helped his son get into a running program designed to increase his speed.

"Because where can he get the slow legs?" Martinez Sr. says. "I was always fast. Ramon was a super athlete; he ran better than I did. Jesus, my younger brother, was also a runner. We were all runners. So I don't see where he's not going to run. That would be the only thing where he needs to work harder."

   

THOUGH HE'S LIVED a baseball life, Pedro Pablo Martinez Jr. is young enough that he doesn't recall much of his father's career. Wide-eyed, he heard all of those "Who's Your Daddy?" chants in Yankee Stadium, but he heard them during the 2009 World Series, when his father was pitching with the Philadelphia Phillies in the final season of his well-decorated career.

Red meat to a den of Yankees fans, they never let him forget. Pedro started Games 2 and 6 in the 2009 World Series, both in Yankee Stadium and packaged with lustrous "Who's Your Daddy" soundtracks that Yankee fans never forgot. He was charged with the loss in both games, the Yankees nicking him for four runs in four innings in Game 6, clinching their 27thand most recentWorld Series title. Though Martinez gamely battled, at 37, time had chiseled away the sharp edges that made him an ace during all of those classic Red Sox-Yankees battles earlier in the decade.

"I love the way he can handle pressure," says Martinez Jr., who was seven in '09. "He's really cool. He doesn't let those things get to him.

"I can remember his Phillies starts. It was pretty fun. I got to experience a couple of stadiums, see my dad pitch. I got to have the clubhouse experience; I actually got a hat signed from all the Phillies then: Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth. It was really nice."

He keeps that hat on top of his nightstand, next to his bed.

One day, maybe he will have his own major league cap.

"They were always full of questions," Pedro Sr. says of his sons. "The most intriguing questions would be the stuff out of the ordinary. Like, 'Daddy, how is it that you're all in there naked taking a shower?' Those are awkward questions. It's like, 'We're all boys. We all get together.' And it was like, 'Oh, OK, that's kind of cool.' They don't realize until they have to do it."

The best piece of wisdom Martinez Jr. recalls his father dispensing, though, has nothing to do with showers and everything to do with toughness.

"'There's no crying in baseball,'" Pedro Jr. recalls. "I think that's the one that had the most impact on me."

So he grinds. He runs lap after lap, knocks off drill after drill, chasing his dream of extendingand expandingthe family legacy. A Pedro Martinez hitting instead of pitching? Yes, there are some things he must figure out on his own.

"I do help a lot," Martinez Sr. acknowledges. "I understand from a pitcher's perspective what the swings have to do, what you have to do to hit a breaking ball, how you compare your bat speed and all those things, and he knows I know.

"Without a doubt, a lot of people have helped him, too."

Pedro Pablo Martinez Jr. turns 17 on Aug. 30 and says his father "is the one who knows what he's going to do with me." Clearly, the fairy tale would be if the Red Sox sign him, though as Pedro Sr. acknowledges, "It's really difficult because it's hard for the organization to tell me the negativity about some of the things they might see. Everybody [there] has so much respect for me."

Flip side is, Pedro is around Boston so often, it would be easier for him to keep closer tabs on his son's development.

"As much as I want that, I also would like people to just recognize him for his talent, and not for daddy's legacy," Martinez says. "I would like him to be a humble man, yes. I would like him to be a good role-model citizen. But in baseball, I would like other people to do the judgment. I don't really want to judge him for myself because my love for him is way bigger than his talent."

Always, Pedro Sr. speaks with passion. He is a stickler for what is right and wrong, a proponent of the theory that kids should be prepared to thread their way through life in far more areas than simply between the baselines. Especially his kids.

The way he figures it, if you have talent and health, you eventually will make your money. Since those long-ago days when his youngest son wore a blue "Gigantes" top and hoisted the bat that one day would carry him to this point, the family has been bracing for the big decisions.

"Let's just pray that the kid can stay healthy and he can do what we expect him to do," Pedro Sr. says. "But he's going to work his tail off; that's a guarantee. That is a guarantee.

"And he's going to be educated and disciplined, too. Or else I will consider myself a failure."

Some 20 minutes from the son's home, the tree made famous by his father continues to thrive. Pedro Jr.'s grandmother has moved and Pedro Sr. owns the property, but no longer is there any homework done under that tree. Nor does Pedro Pablo Martinez Jr. have time to sit on one of its branches, like his father did, to contemplate life's big decisions.

"Honestly," he says cheerfully, "I just take mangoes from it."

         

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

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