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Indians hitting coach Van Burkleo opts out due to COVID-19

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CHICAGO — Cleveland Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo has opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Team President Chris Antonetti said Friday that Van Burkelo had been contemplating his departure for some time because of a personal high-risk condition and for his family. The Van Burkleos have a special needs child.

Antonetti said the challenges of traveling and the lack of room in road ballparks may have been the tipping point for the 57-year-old Van Burkleo, who is in his eighth season with the club. He had been under fire for Cleveland’s early offensive struggles.

“We are fully supportive of Ty’s decision,” Antonetti said, adding Van Burkleo remains employed by the team. “He’ll continue to provide support remotely and contribute any way he can from home.”

Antonetti said Alex Eckelman will join the staff to assist Victor Rodriguez and Justin Toole working with the Indians hitters.

Antonetti said the team spoke with all its coaches and staff before the season about working amid the inherent risks from the coronavirus. He said Van Burkleo was committed, but that the wear and tear of the protocols, particularly on the road, may have made it impossible for him to feel safe.

Van Burkleo’s departure further complicates several issues with the Indians’ coaching staff.

Manager Terry Francona will miss his sixth straight game Friday while addressing a gastrointestinal issue he’s combated for months. The 61-year Francona did not make the trip to Chicago and it’s not yet known if he’ll be back next week.

The Indians are off Monday before opening a two-game series at home against the Cubs.

First-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. has been filling in for Francona. Earlier this week, third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh left his regular spot to help Alomar in the dugout. Cleveland has been without bench coach Brad Mills all season after he decided to spend time with family following the tragic drowning of his grandson this offseason.

Antonetti acknowledged the season has already presented numerous hurdles.

“We’ve had to deal with a lot of things and a lot of adversity over the course of the last few months and that’s been highlighted in the last week or so with some leadership challenges,” he said.

Nationals’ Soto youngest ever to win NL batting crown

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WASHINGTON — Juan Soto became the National League’s youngest batting champion, Trea Turner hit a grand slam and drove in seven runs, and the Washington Nationals closed out the season with a 15-5 victory over the New York Mets on Sunday.

Soto walked and singled before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the third inning, elevating his average to .351 and sealing the NL lead in the category during this pandemic-shortened 60-game season.

The 21-year-old Soto surpassed Brooklyn’s Pete Reiser for the youngest ever to take a batting crown. Reiser was 22 when he ended the 1941 season hitting a league-leading .343.

“For me, it doesn’t matter the age,” Soto said with a smile when informed of the feat’s historical significance. “If you deserve it, you deserve it.”

Soto held off Atlanta teammates Freddie Freeman (.341) and Marcell Ozuna (.338) and also finished 2020 with the major league-lead in on-base percentage (.490) and slugging percentage (.695).

Yan Gomes homered for Washington, which won seven of its last nine and closed the season on a three-game winning streak and caught the Mets in the NL East standings.

“These guys don’t quit,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “They play hard every day and you saw what they did the last nine games. I’m proud of them hanging in there.”

The Nationals finished 26-34 a year after winning their first World Series. The Nationals’ .433 winning percentage in the truncated season was the lowest for a defending champion since the 1998 Florida Marlins went 54-108 (.333).

New York slipped from 86-76 last season and third place in the NL East to 26-34 and tied for fourth in manager Luis Rojas’ first season. The Mets still held slim playoff hopes entering Saturday before dropping three in a row, and they would have secured a wild card had they won those games because of three-game slides by Philadelphia and San Francisco to end the season.

“We didn’t get it done,” Rojas said. “We needed to do it, and we didn’t do it. It was definitely all on us. It makes it a little bit more frustrating just seeing that part happened the way we wanted, but we didn’t execute what we needed to do.”

Pete Alonso homered twice for New York and finished with 16 after clubbing a rookie-record 53 last season. Guillermo Heredia added a solo shot for the Mets.

Washington right-hander Austin Voth (2-5) needed 36 pitches to escape the first but made it through five innings to close his season with back-to-back victories. Voth allowed four runs while striking out four.

The Nationals chased Mets starter Seth Lugo after 1 1/3 innings. Lugo (3-4) allowed six runs on five hits and two walks.

With Washington already leading 7-3, Turner busted the game open with a third-inning grand slam off reliever Steven Matz. It was Washington’s first grand slam of the season.

KENDRICK’S FUTURE

Washington and INF Howie Kendrick have a mutual option for 2021, and he has at least one prominent figure hopeful for his return.

“I’m holding onto his leg,” Martinez said. “He’s got a lot of discussions to have with his family and I told him we’ll stay in touch as we always do and we’ll see where he’s at.”

The 37-year-old Kendrick hit .275 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 25 games, and ended the season on the injured list with a left hamstring strain.

NATS AWARDS

Soto was named Washington’s player of the year and RHP Max Scherzer (5-4, 3.74 ERA) earned the team’s pitcher of the year award in voting by local media. LHP Sean Doolittle won his third consecutive Good Guy Award.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: New York placed RHP Erasmo Ramirez (right groin tightness) on the injured list. Ramirez was 0-0 with an 0.63 ERA in six games. The Mets recalled RHP Corey Oswalt.

Nationals: OF Victor Robles was hit by a pitch in the second inning and was lifted for a defensive replacement in the third.

UP NEXT

Mets: New York opens its 2021 spring training schedule on Feb. 27 against Miami in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Nationals: Washington takes on Houston on Feb. 27 in West Palm Beach, Florida, in its scheduled 2021 spring training debut.