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Home runs spark 5-2 win over Cubs, Dodgers take a 1-0 lead in NLCS

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The Dodgers worked their way to a 1-0 advantage in Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday, powering through another short start from Clayton Kershaw with a handful of homers and a shutdown performance from the bullpen. Jose Quintana went five strong for the Cubs, allowing two runs on a pair of hits and walks, but Chicago’s relievers cracked under pressure, handing Los Angeles the lead with home runs from Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig and a controversial play at the plate.

At the outset of the game, it looked like both sides were in for a pitcher’s duel, albeit a short-lived one. Kershaw needed 23 pitches to get through the first inning, but worked out of a jam to strand two baserunners and was able to make it through three scoreless innings before Albert Almora Jr.’s two-run homer in the fourth. Quintana was more dominant, setting down 11 of the first 12 batters to preserve Chicago’s one-run lead through four frames.

In the fifth, the Dodgers caught up with him. Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes drew back-to-back walks, which prompted a visit to the mound moments before Yasiel Puig ripped a one-out RBI double into center field. Charlie Culberson followed the double with a sac fly to tie the game.

With the score knotted 2-2 in the sixth and Kershaw closing in on 90 pitches, Dodgers’ skipper Dave Roberts pulled the left-hander for fellow lefty Tony Cingrani. The five-inning performance stands as Kershaw’s shortest postseason start since Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS. Cingrani, meanwhile, pitched to just one batter, inducing a groundout before he was pulled for Kenta Maeda.

The Dodgers kept things interesting for Hector Rondon, who replaced Quintana in the sixth and promptly gave up a 401-foot, go-ahead home run to Chris Taylor. Rondon was immediately removed from the mound, but the damage had already been done. In the seventh, Yasiel Puig led off with another home run, this one a 378-footer courtesy of Mike Montgomery.

The real drama, however, came later. Culberson doubled into left field, followed by a base hit from Taylor. With one out and John Lackey on the mound, Justin Turner lined a single into left to score Culberson, who was blocked at the plate by Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras. The initial ruling determined Culberson was out at home, but a challenge revealed that Contreras had violated the home-plate collision rule by blocking the runner’s path to home plate without first having possession of the ball.

Despite protests from an irate Joe Maddon, the ruling was overturned in the Dodgers’ favor, boosting them to a three-run lead with two innings left to play. The Cubs couldn’t get another runner on base against Tony Watson and Kenley Jansen, the latter of whom struck out the side on 13 pitches to cap the Dodgers’ win in the ninth.

Game 2 is set for Sunday evening, when Rich Hill (12-8, 3.32 ERA) will face off against Jon Lester (13-8, 4.33 ERA) at 7:30 PM ET. From there, the series will move to Chicago for Games 3 (Yu Darvish vs. Kyle Hendricks) and 4 (Alex Wood vs. Jake Arrieta).

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.