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Red Sox defeat Astros 6-3 to clinch second consecutive AL East title

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The race for the AL East championship finally came to an end on Saturday afternoon, as the Red Sox sewed up the division with a 6-3 win over the 100-win Astros. Drew Pomeranz led the way with his fourth quality start of the month, firing one run, two walks and three strikeouts over six strong innings.

The Astros only managed to put one runner in scoring position during the first six innings, but Jose Altuve singled to lead off the seventh and Carson Smith promptly gave up three back-to-back-to-back base hits after replacing Pomeranz, allowing Evan Gattis and Yuli Gurriel to plate a pair of runs and snap the shutout attempt. David Price, who was rumored to be sitting out of Saturday’s game, entered to get all three outs of the inning and closed out the seventh with a three-pitch strikeout to George Springer.

The Astros’ rally barely made a dent against the Red Sox’ five-run drive, however. The offense combined for five runs in the fourth and fifth innings, forcing Lance McCullers Jr. off the mound during his last start of the regular season. He issued five runs on six hits in 4 1/3 innings, including Rafael Devers‘ RBI double (his 13th of the year) and Mitch Moreland‘s two-RBI double (his 34th of the year).

Mookie Betts and Brian McCann traded solo home runs in the last few innings of the game, but the Red Sox held on to a three-run advantage for the win and the division title. Craig Kimbrel manned the ninth inning, allowing a home run and double before striking out the side to quash the Astros’ chances of tying their franchise 102-win record.

With the Red Sox’ win, the Twins are set to face off against the Yankees in Tuesday’s AL wild card game. Given their 93-68 record, however, the Sox won’t be looking at any home field advantage in the playoffs, barring an upset of the Indians’ ALDS matchup. The Astros’ 100-61 record guarantees them home field advantage in the ALDS, while the Indians’ 101-59 record gives them home field advantage through the rest of the postseason.

MLB report blames seam height, not juiced balls, for 2019 home run surge

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SAN DIEGO — This morning Major League Baseball released a report from a committee of scientists tasked with studying baseballs and the home run surge from 2019. Their verdict: that manufacturing variation leading to inconsistent seam height — not any intentional act taken to “juice” baseballs — is the reason for last year’s power explosion.

There were 6,776 home runs hit during the regular season, which shattered the previous record, set in 2017, by nearly 11 percent. Numerous players around the league suspected or assumed that the league, which owns the ball manufacturer, Rawlings, had intentionally juiced the baseball to promote offense. The committee concluded in the report that “no evidence was found that changes in baseball performance were due to anything intentional on the part of Rawlings or MLB and were likely due to manufacturing variability.”

That conclusion would appear to only be partially accurate.

Dr. Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist who has been conducting her own research on baseballs and the home run explosion, published her own work on all of this in The Athletic last June. Wills concluded that, based on her examination of baseball seams and seam height, a key part of the manufacturing process — the drying of damp, finished baseballs after assembly is complete — likely did change.

Specifically, she concluded that seam height and decreased bulging of baseballs which led to less aerodynamic drag and farther ball flight was likely the result of Rawlings using heaters to dry balls, as opposed to the traditional air-drying, allowing them to produce more balls in a shorter period of time. Wills told NBC Sports this morning that she suspects Rawlings did this because many more balls were needed due to Major League Baseball mandating that Triple-A adopt the major league ball for the 2019 season.

As such, the key word in this morning’s report is “intentional.” Wills:

“The decrease in drag was very likely unintentional, but the change in the drying process would be intentional. No, they didn’t intend to juice the ball, but yes, they did make an intentional change to the manufacturing process. It was not ‘manufacturing variability’ it was deliberate process improvement to accommodate higher demand. ‘Variability’ makes it sound like it’s random or a mistake. It was not.”

There is also the matter of the decrease in ball flight and home runs observed — and confirmed by today’s report — in the 2019 postseason.

MLB’s expert panel basically punts on any explanations for the variation, noting small sample size and no other apparent explanation. As such, the matter for the immediate change in the home run rate and fly ball distance the moment we moved from September to October baseball is not clear. Wills is continuing her research on 2019 postseason game balls — a matter about which there has already been no small amount of controversy of late — and expects to publish her results soon.

There will be a press conference regarding the study here at the Winter Meetings at 1PM Eastern time today. NBC Sports will be at that press conference. NBC Sports has a good number of followup questions.