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Brady, Patriots advance to AFC title game...

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Brady, Patriots advance to AFC title game...

From Comcast SportsNetFOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- Tom Brady is so good at this playoff thing he seems to be going for a championship every year.He gets another chance to lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl after earning his record 17th postseason victory in New England's 41-28 victory over Houston Sunday. Brady even outdid his childhood hero, Joe Montana, and a fourth NFL championship would equal Montana's haul."I love playing, I love competing, I love being a part of this organization," said Brady, who threw for three touchdowns and 344 yards. "I think I've just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted."Next up is Baltimore, which stunned top-seeded Denver in double overtime Saturday, and lost 23-20 at Gillette Stadium last January in the last step before the Super Bowl. But the Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3 this season at Baltimore."I think the two best teams are in the final," Brady said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we."Seldom-used Shane Vereen scored three times, twice on pinpoint throws from Brady, as New England (13-4) beat Houston (13-5) for the second time in a month.Brady was missing some key helpers, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, who broke his left arm and is out for the rest of the playoffs, a person with knowledge of the injury told The Associated Press.However, he got the usual outstanding performance from Wes Welker, his favorite target the last six years. The AFC's top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker looked like he might reach that total against Houston's befuddled defense. He caught six in the first half for 120 yards, including a 47-yarder, and wound up with eight for 131.And the AFC East champion Patriots got more than anyone could have predicted from third-string running back Vereen, who scored their first two TDs on a 1-yard run and an 8-yard pass. He capped his biggest pro performance with an over-the-shoulder 33-yard catch early in the fourth period.It was Brady's 41st postseason TD pass, behind only Brett Favre (44) and, you guessed it, Montana (45).Nice company to be keeping."I grew up a 49ers fan," Brady said after throwing for three touchdowns in the AFC divisional playoff. "Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class."I hope I am around for a few more years," the 35-year-old Brady added with a smile.The boost from Vereen offset the loss of not only Gronkowski, but running back Danny Woodhead (thumb) in the first quarter."Shane had a great game, just a huge growing up moment for him, very special," Brady said. "There were a lot of guys who made a lot of plays."New England's defense helped put away the Texans. Rob Ninkovich's leaping third-quarter interception stopped a drive, and six plays later, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 6-yard score.Although the Texans got two fourth-quarter TDs on passes by Matt Schaub, their season ended with four defeats in their last six games. That slump cost the AFC South champions the top seed in the playoffs, forcing a trip to New England after they beat Cincinnati in the wild-card round.The Texans couldn't measure up."Whenever the season ends, no matter when, it's really hard," tight end Owen Daniels said. "The farther along you get, the harder it is to take. It's one we wanted to win really bad. It's tough to swallow ... but one team gets to have a smile on their face at the end of the season, and it's not us this year."Unlike their 42-14 loss here a month ago, the Texans didn't fold early. J.J. Watt, their dominating defensive end, bothered Brady, and when they fell behind 17-3, they had the fortitude to climb back.Arian Foster did all the work after Danieal Manning's second big kickoff return, this one a 35-yarder that had 15 yards tacked on when kicker Stephen Gostkowski brought down Manning with a horse-collar tackle. The Pro Bowl runner covered all 47 yards on a five-play drive and his 1-yard run -- he barely squeezed into the end zone -- made it 17-10.Houston forced a three-and-out, and a short punt gave the Texans another shot just before halftime. They got close enough for Shayne Graham to kick a 55-yard field goal as the half ended.But the Patriots pulled away in the third quarter for coach Bill Belichick's 17th postseason win, third behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19).Now come the Ravens."It's sweet just playing in the AFC championship," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. "It's a team that beat us earlier this year at their house, and a team that's riled up for us."Needing a quick jolt after being blown out by the Patriots on Dec. 10, the Texans got it on the opening kickoff from Manning. He took the ball 6 yards in his end zone and never hesitated in returning it. He broke free at the Houston 30 and wasn't run down until reaching the New England 12.That spark didn't even last one play, though, and Houston wound up with Graham's 27-yard field goal 63 seconds in.And when the Texans closed the first half with a 10-point spurt, they wasted the momentum by allowing a quick touchdown drive to open the third period. Brady went to the familiar (Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez) on that series before second-year back Stevan Ridley scored on an 8-yard burst.New England lost Gronkowski and Woodhead almost immediately. Gronkowski missed five regular-season games with a broken left forearm, but returned for the finale. Eight Patriots plays on offense and he was gone again.So Brady found other targets; he probably could complete passes to Belichick for big gains.Vereen was an unlikely star. After gaining 400 yards overall during the season, he picked up 124 against the Texans. He had four touchdowns in the regular season."I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," Vereen said. "I come into the game ready to go, and if my number is called, I do my best for the team."NOTES:Brady is 3-2 in Super Bowls and if he reaches a sixth, he'll join a club that currently totals one player: defensive tackle Mike Lodish. ... New England has played in eight AFC championship games, going 7-1, including 5-1 with Brady and Belichick. ... Brady threw for 344 yards, and Schaub threw for 343. Schaub's TD passes were 25 yards to DeVier Posey and 1 to Foster. ... Foster had 90 yards rushing, the first time in four playoff games he did not reach 100. But his 515 tie for most in a player's first four playoff games with Denver's Terrell Davis.

NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson tests positive for COVID-19, out indefinitely

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USA TODAY

NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson tests positive for COVID-19, out indefinitely

NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson has tested positive for COVID-19, Hendricks Motorsports announced Friday.

Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup series champion, has not experienced any symptoms and was tested after his wife tested positive. He will miss Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Justin Allgaier will race in his place.

“My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates,” Johnson said in a statement. “I’ve never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it’s going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I’m supposed to be out there competing. Although this situation is extremely disappointing, I’m going to come back ready to win races and put ourselves in playoff contention.”

Per NASCAR protocols in accordance with the CDC's guidelines, Johnson cannot return until he is symptom-free and has two negative coronavirus tests at least 24 hours apart. He also must be cleared by his physician before returning.

NASCAR has granted Johnson a playoff waiver. He is currently 12th in the standings.

White Sox pitchers' greatest hitting performances before universal DH

White Sox pitchers' greatest hitting performances before universal DH

The universal designated hitter is coming in 2020. Of course, the White Sox have had the DH since 1973, but when interleague play was introduced in 1997, there were still a handful of games where the pitchers hit. Now we won’t have even that.

And that’s fine. White Sox pitchers from 1997-present have hit a collective .104/.137/.144 with three home runs, 17 walks and 205 strikeouts in 516 plate appearances. That’s hard to watch. But there have been some fine moments by White Sox pitchers at the plate throughout history.

On April 29, 1901, Frank Shugart hit the first major league home run in White Sox history. He was a shortstop, but the second home run was by pitcher John Skopec the following day. So, believe it or not, there was a time where the White Sox had an equal number of home runs by position players and pitchers. One apiece — after the game on April 30, 1901.

In 1908, Big Ed Walsh had a season for the ages. He went 40-15 while tossing 464 innings, striking out 269 (a White Sox record until Chris Sale broke it) with 42 complete games and 11 shutouts. He even made 17 relief appearances; what more could you ask for?

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Well, on July 4, he hit a home run — one of only three home runs the Sox hit ALL SEASON! Walsh’s round tripper was the team’s first of the season — in Game 68. So, Ed Walsh won 40 games and hit 33.3 percent of the team’s home runs in 1908. That won’t happen again.

On Aug. 31, 1935, the White Sox beat the Indians 5-0. Three of those runs were on a bases-loaded triple by Vern Kennedy in the sixth inning. Of course, that wasn’t the big story. The big story of the game was that Kennedy tossed a no-hitter.

Tommy Byrne had notorious control issues, but he had talent, so the White Sox traded for the 33-year old lefty for 1953 trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The White Sox ended up trading Byrne to Washington in June, but not before he put up one of the stranger statlines in franchise history. Byrne made six starts but only pitched 16 innings. In four of his starts, he failed to make it out of the second inning. He walked 26 in 16 innings and struck out only four. His ERA was a nightmarish 10.13 but he was 2-0!

But that’s not it. He made twice as many appearances as a pinch hitter (12) than he did on the mound (6). And on May 16, 1953 at Yankee Stadium, he dug in to pinch hit in the ninth inning against Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell with the bases loaded and the White Sox trailing 3-1. You probably know where this is going. Yes, Byrne hit the most improbable pinch hit grand slam, one of only eleven in White Sox history, and the only one by a pitcher.

Jack Harshman holds the White Sox record with 16 strikeouts on July 25, 1954, which you may already know. What you may not know is that Harshman was the New York Giants Opening Day starter in 1950 — at first base. With 12 home runs for the White Sox, he’s one of only two pitchers in franchise history with at least 10. And on June 16, 1957, Harshman started against the Washington Senators and was knocked out of the box after allowing six runs in 4 1/3 innings.

Harshman didn't hit a home run but was relieved by Dixie Howell, who hit two of them. It’s the only multi-homer effort by a White Sox pitcher — and it was a reliever. Howell had one other home run in 1957, and it was a walkoff — the only White Sox walk-off homer by a pitcher (excluding pinch hit appearances) — on Sept. 6. The year before, Howell homered in consecutive relief appearances for the White Sox — June 27 vs. Boston and July 1 at Cleveland. Not bad.

Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio and Early Wynn finished 1-2-3 in AL MVP voting in 1959, as the Go-Go Sox went on to the World Series. Fox won the MVP, hitting two home runs and posting a .389 slugging percentage. Meanwhile,  Wynn was third in MVP voting, won the Cy Young Award, matched Fox’s two home runs and .389 slugging percentage.

MORE: Tim Anderson leads growing White Sox toward contention: 'He's a man'

His masterpiece was on May 1, when he tossed a complete game, one-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts. But he also homered for the lone run in the 1-0 victory! And that June 14, he went 4-for-5 with three runs, two doubles and an RBI in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Baltimore. It remains the last four-hit game by a White Sox starting pitcher (Adam LaRoche had four hits in a game where he pitched the ninth inning. It doesn’t really count, but it’s fun to mention).

There have been four pinch hit home runs by White Sox pitchers — Byrne’s grand slam (mentioned earlier), Charlie Barnabe on May 1, 1928, and two by Gary Peters. Peters hit a remarkable 15 home runs for the White Sox, a record 13 as a pitcher and two as a pinch hitter. One of those two was a walk-off blast on July 19, 1964 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City A’s. Peters also hit one of two grand slams by a White Sox pitcher — three, if you count Byrne’s pinch hit blast. Peters hit his grand salami on Cinco de Mayo in 1968 off the Yankees’ Al Downing.

The other grand slam by a Sox moundsman was by Monty Stratton on June 10, 1938. Tragically, later that year Stratton suffered an accidental gunshot wound which required his leg to be amputated. Monty never made it back to the majors, but made it back to the minors in 1946 and pitched for several more years on a prosthetic. The 1949 movie "The Stratton Story" tells his inspirational tale.

The best single-season batting average in White Sox history (minimum 15 at-bats) is .526 by Terry Forster, a pitcher. Years before David Letterman referred to the big lefty as a “Fat Tub of Goo,” he went 10-for-19 for the White Sox in 1972 — 10 hits and 29 saves in the same season And then of course, the following season, the American League adopted the designated hitter.

What about those three home runs hit by White Sox pitchers in the DH era?

The first was by Jon Garland in Cincinnati on June 18, 2006 off Esteban Yan, who allowed two of the more unlikely home runs in White Sox history. It was Yan who allowed Paul Konerko’s epic inside-the-park homer at Tropicana Field on April 11, 2000.

Next was Mark Buehrle, who homered off Milwaukee’s Braden Looper on June 14, 2009. Of course, Buehrle later tossed a perfect game on July 23 that year. Buehrle in 2009 became the second pitcher in White Sox history to homer and toss a no-hitter in the same season, along with Frank “Piano Mover” Smith in 1905. Smith had two hits, three runs and a walk in his Sept. 6, 1905 no-no.

The most recent home run by a White Sox pitcher was Anthony Ranaudo on July 27, 2016. It was Ranaudo’s first game in a White Sox uniform; he is one of only two pitchers to homer in their White Sox debut, joining Jack Salveson on June 14, 1935. The 6-foot-7 righty is also one of only two AL pitchers ever to homer at Wrigley Field, joining the Tigers’ Daniel Norris on Aug. 19, 2015. Ranaudo was the first White Sox starting pitcher to homer before allowing a hit in a game since Peters on July 14, 1965.

But of course, Ranaudo’s blast was not the greatest moment by a White Sox pitcher in 2016. That of course would be on June 1 at Citi Field in Queens, when Matt Albers doubled to lead off the 13th inning, scored what would be the game-winning run and got the win over the Mets. The moment was immortalized with its own Topps Now card.

If you take 119 years of history, you’re bound to find a few rays of sunshine. Such is the case with White Sox pitchers at the plate. Fortunately, the designated hitter has allowed generations of White Sox fans to enjoy the fine hitting of Harold Baines, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, just to name a few. So, if Major League Baseball wants to implement a universal DH, that’s fine by us.

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