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MLB league-wide single season home run record set to fall Tuesday

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NEW YORK (AP) Giancarlo Stanton‘s smacks, Aaron Judge‘s jolts and all those dizzying long balls helped Major League Baseball move another poke closer to the inevitable.

Nearly two decades after the height of the Steroids Era, the sports is on track to break its season record for home runs on Tuesday – and not just top the old mark, but smash it like one of those upper-deck shots that have become commonplace in the Summer of the Slugger.

There were 5,663 home runs hit through Sunday, 30 shy of the record set in 2000.

Juiced balls? Watered-down pitching? Stanton’s renaissance? Sensational starts by Judge and Cody Bellinger?

“I don’t think that we are ever going to have a single explanation for exactly why we’ve see so many,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “But players are bigger and stronger. They’re playing a little differently, in terms of the way they swing. Pitchers throw harder. The one thing I remain comfortable with: Nothing about the baseball, according to our testing, is materially different.”

There were 5,610 homers last year, an average of 2.31 per game, and this year’s average of 2.53 projects to 6,143. That would be up 47 percent from 4,186 in 2014.

In just three years, home runs will have increased by 1,957 – an extra 149 miles of long balls at this year’s average home run length of 400 feet, or 15 miles more than the driving distance between Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park and Washington’s Nationals Park.

“The game has changed,” New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “From when I started, there’s a lot less stolen bases, there’s a lot less bunting, there’s a lot less hitting-and-running. You don’t give outs away, and you let guys swing the bat.”

Already 107 players have hit 20 homers this year, just three shy of the record set last season – and up from 64 in 2015, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Along with soaring shots come strikeouts, which will set a record for the 10th consecutive year. There were 36,964 whiffs through Sunday, an average of 8.25 per team per game that translates to 40,099.

“The focus is hitting homers and tolerating strikeouts,” Reggie Jackson said. “I don’t really like all the strikeouts, and I was the king.”

Baseball officials are worried about decreasing action and have been alarmed by the strikeout rise. This year’s total is up from 38,982 last year and an increase of nearly 8,000 from the 32,189 in 2007. The strikeout spike coincides with a rise in fastball velocity; four-seamers have averaged 93.2 mph this year, up from 91.9 mph in 2008, according to MLB data.

“These bullpens are making it extremely difficult. From basically the starter on you’re going to have elite, hard-throwing guys that are looking to strike you out every single time,” said Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo, last year’s home run champion. “The game right now is as max effort as I’ve seen it. Guys are throwing harder. At the plate sometimes you have no choice. It’s hard to steer the ball around when it’s 98 miles an hour and up in the zone.”

Jackson set a record with 2,597 career strikeouts, maxing at 171 in 1968. Six players already have reached 171 this year, led by the Yankees’ Judge at 197. He could break Mark Reynolds‘ season record of 223, set in 2009.

“You’d have been on the bench,” Jackson said. “But I don’t know if you set a guy on the bench with 90 RBIs and 40 homers. That’s Judge. You ain’t going to sit that on the bench.”

Steroids fueled the home run surge in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and power subsided after the start of drug testing with penalties in 2004. The home run average dropped in 2014 to its lowest level since 1992, then started rising during the second half of the 2015 season.

MLB has the UMass-Lowell’s Baseball Research Center conduct periodic testing of baseballs and University of Illinois physics professor emeritus Alan Nathan consults as part of quality control. The sport has said repeatedly that baseballs fall within the specifications in the rules.

Manfred isn’t worried some undetectable substance is fueling the new rise.

“I have never said that it’s impossible there’s something out there that we’re missing,” he said. “What I am saying is we’re doing more, more frequently, less predictably, with better testing, and that’s all you can do.”

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Rays to return home following Irma to play Red Sox, Cubs

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NEW YORK (AP) The Tampa Bay Rays will return home to Florida following Hurricane Irma for what is now a truncated five-game homestand against the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

A three-game series against the New York Yankees was moved from Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to New York’s Citi Field, the home of the Mets. The Rays split the first two games of the series entering Wednesday’s finale.

The Rays said Wednesday they will host the Red Sox as scheduled in a three-game set starting Friday, then the Cubs beginning Tuesday.

Tickets for the relocated games may be exchanged for an equivalent number of free tickets for the games against Boston or versus Baltimore on the season’s final weekend.

 

Miami Marlins begin road trip as Irma bears down on Florida

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ATLANTA (AP) As the Miami Marlins began a weeklong road trip, they couldn’t help but wonder what will be there when they get back home.

Hurricane Irma was bearing down on South Florida with potentially catastrophic force, a beast of a storm that already killed at least 11 people and left thousands homeless across the northern Caribbean.

The Marlins began a four-game series in Atlanta on Thursday night, having arrived on a chartered flight that was more crowded than usual after the team allowed the families of players and staff to come along on the road trip.

While that helped ease some immediate concerns, it was impossible to ignore what was going on back in Miami. Highways were jammed as more than a half-million people were ordered to evacuate amid a desperate search for gasoline and lodging .

“We’re still witnessing Harvey and what went on with the Gulf Coast and that devastation,” Miami manager Don Mattingly said, referring to the storm that less than two weeks ago inundated the Houston area with record rainfall and flooding. “Obviously, to see another one coming, you pay attention.”

The Marlins were mired in a slump that has all but knocked them out of the playoff race. They took another blow in the opener of the series at SunTrust Park, giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to lose 6-5 .

It was Miami’s fifth straight loss and 10th in 11 games, leaving them eight games back in the NL wild-card race with only 22 games left in the regular season.

Dan Straily, who started Thursday and lasted five innings, insisted the players were able to block out any concern about the approaching storm once they took the field.

“There’s one thing ballplayers are really good at, and that’s compartmentalizing our life,” he said. “It’s not that we’re not thinking about that, but for three hours a night we focus on something else completely. Speaking for myself, I can tell you that when I was on the mound I didn’t want to think about what’s going to happen down there the next few days.

“Obviously we’re hoping for the best down there for our homes, but I don’t think it’s affecting our play,” he added.

Before the game, however, Irma was a dominant topic in a rather subdued Miami clubhouse. Players tracked the potential path of the Category 5 storm on their cellphones and hit up reporters for the latest news.

“The reality is: that is reality,” Mattingly said. “It’s a tough situation and a lot of people have a chance of being affected or have already been affected. We’ve got guys that grew up in Cuba. We’ve got guys from the Dominican (Republic). We’ve got guys from Puerto Rico. So, it’s going to affect a lot of people and has a chance to affect a lot of things. To ask them not to be thinking about it at all, I think, is really naive. But I also think as professionals, these guys are pretty used to dealing with things.”

The Braves offered free tickets to fans from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina displaced by the hurricane. SunTrust Park opened this season alongside Interstate 75, a popular choice for Floridians driving north through Georgia to escape the storm.

“We know how difficult it has been for those who have had to pack up and leave their homes as Hurricane Irma approaches,” said Derek Schiller, the Braves president of business. “We hope we can help take their mind off the storm for a few hours by coming to enjoy a baseball game.”

In addition, Atlanta Motor Speedway opened its camping facilities Thursday to evacuees seeking refuge from Irma. The NASCAR track, which is about 25 miles south of the city, offered both its RV and tent campgrounds free of charge, including access to hot showers and restroom facilities.

The massive complex is equipped to handle thousands of campers during its annual race weekend.

The Marlins will play four games in Atlanta through Sunday, then head to Philadelphia for a three-game series that begins next Tuesday. They finally return to Miami on Sept. 15 to host a series against Milwaukee.

No one knows what will be awaiting them in South Florida.

“You feel for the people that had to stay,” center fielder Christian Yelich said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty down there.”

Yelich prepared for the possibility that the Marlins may not be able to return home as scheduled next week. When Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Texas coast, the Houston Astros were forced to shift a three-game series against the Texas Rangers to Tropicana Field in Tampa.

Now, the state of Florida is in the line of fire.

“I packed for probably an extra week or two on the road, just in case,” Yelich said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. But you’re just hoping everybody comes through it all right. You see the videos and the pictures from the islands that this thing’s been hitting, and it’s a lot of devastation.”

AP Sports Writer Charles Odum contributed to this report.

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