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Twins reach five-year deals with Kepler, Polanco

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MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins have locked up a pair of young position players for the long term by agreeing to five-year contracts with right fielder Max Kepler and shortstop Jorge Polanco, according to two people with direct knowledge of the deals.

The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team had yet to announce the contracts, which were reached on Thursday as pitchers and catchers went through their first workout in Fort Myers, Florida. The Twins scheduled a news conference for Friday.

Kepler’s contract is worth $35 million and includes a $10 million club option for 2024 with a $1 million buyout. Polanco’s deal, which is valued at $25.75 million, has a 2024 option that could become guaranteed as well as a 2025 club option.

Kepler, who turned 26 on Sunday, had agreed last month to a $3,125,000 salary for 2019 in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Entering his fourth full season as a regular in the lineup, Kepler won the team’s defensive player of the year award in 2018. He never found a rhythm at the plate, batting a career-low .224, but he set his major league career high with 20 home runs.

Raised in Berlin and signed by the Twins as a 16-year-old, Kepler has long been considered a late bloomer by the organization who has only scratched the surface of his potential because of his roots in Germany where baseball is mostly an afterthought.

With this contract, the Twins could buy out his first three years of eligibility for free agency. With so many unsigned stars still on the market around MLB, the Twins have expressed caution toward such commitments with their not-there-yet status. So chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine turned inward to begin assembling a core of what they’re targeting as a future contender.

Kepler and Polanco will now be the only players on the books for 2020 and beyond. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz and starting pitcher Martin Perez have club options for next season, but they can be bought out.

Polanco, who will turn 26 in July, wasn’t going to be eligible for arbitration until next year. Entering his third season as a regular, Polanco batted a career-best .288 last year in 302 at-bats after serving an 80-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug .

One of the team’s top prospects, Royce Lewis, is a shortstop who was drafted out of high school with the first overall pick in 2017, so Polanco could always find himself at a different position near the end of this deal. Another recent first-round pick, Nick Gordon, was selected fifth overall in 2014 as a shortstop out of high school. He has already begun to play some second base, having finished last year with Triple-A Rochester.

Astros claim AL pennant with walk-off win against the Yankees

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Following a rollercoaster performance on Saturday, the Astros clinched the American League Championship Series with a decisive 6-4 walk-off win against the Yankees, claiming their second AL pennant and earning a well-deserved entrance to the World Series.

Both clubs decided to preserve possible Game 7 starters Luis Severino and Gerrit Cole, electing to have a “bullpen day” for a pivotal Game 6. Chad Green took the mound for the Yankees, tossing one inning before handing the ball off to a long line of relievers, while Brad Peacock‘s rare playoff start was capped at 1 2/3 innings. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that made it the first postseason game since 1999 in which neither starting pitcher lasted two innings or longer.

All told, the two clubs utilized a total of 13 pitchers to make it through nine innings. The Astros lost Ryan Pressly to a worrisome knee injury in the third, but were able to lean on José Urquidy for 2 2/3 innings of one-run, five-strikeout ball. Although Yankees’ bullpen fought back in every inning, they had considerable difficulty recovering from Yuli Gurriel‘s three-run homer off of Green in the bottom of the first:

Still, New York managed to get in a couple of knocks as well: first, with Gary Sanchez‘s RBI single in the second inning, then with Gio Urshela‘s 395-foot blast in the fourth inning — the second of his postseason career to date. That wasn’t enough to close the gap, however, and Alex Bregman‘s productive groundout in the sixth helped cushion the Astros’ lead as they headed toward the final few innings of the series.

That lead started to look a little shaky in the ninth. Only three outs away from a ticket to the World Series, Houston closer Roberto Osuna gave up a leadoff single to Urshela, which was quickly followed by a jaw-dropping, full-count, game-tying two-run shot from DJ LeMahieu that barely cleared the right field fence.

With the threat of extra innings and a potential loss looming, the Astros engineered a last-minute rally to regain the lead and stake their claim for the pennant. With two outs and no runners on, George Springer took a five-pitch walk from Aroldis Chapman. In the next at-bat, Houston pinned their hopes on José Altuve — and he didn’t disappoint, lifting a 2-1 slider out to left field for a 406-foot, two-RBI homer that confirmed the Astros’ series win.

The 2019 World Series will mark the third Fall Classic appearance for the Astros and the first for the Nationals. It all begins on Tuesday night.