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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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Five baseball books to read while in quarantine

Five baseball books to read while in quarantine

The Nationals Talk podcast has been on a book run lately. Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post stopped by last week to discuss his book, “Buzz Saw”, about the 2019 Nationals season. Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, and author of “Swing Kings”, joined us for Tuesday's episode. We’re a veritable baseball library.

So, in keeping with the book theme -- and the lack of baseball coupled with extra time -- here’s a list of five baseball books to read during quarantine. The list could include 20 other titles. But, many of these books are the reason this was a personal pursuit in the first place. Feel free to add some in the comments. And happy reading.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Kahn’s book, but I do remember it presented this fairy tale view of baseball in my mind.

Kahn covers his Brooklyn childhood, early reporting days at the New York Herald Tribune and follows the Dodgers to the end of the 1955 World Series. For a kid growing up in the sticks three hours north of New York City, everything about the situation delivered the grandeur you would associate with such a life. And the team was loaded with legendary names: Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres (who was from upstate New York).

The era has striking differences to our current baseball one. Kahn was working in a time of baseball-player-as-hero, where emotion, personal interaction and unfettered access colored the presentation of the sport and its players as much as analytics does now. Kahn also knew those players could be incomplete humans, like anyone else, and presented them as such.

This book is part nostalgia, part writing master class and part memoir. Do yourself the favor.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

What Kahn held in eloquence, Bouton held in -- how to say this -- chutzpah.

The subtitle of the book goes like this: “The controversial bestseller that tears the cover off the biggest names in baseball.” Corny? Yes. Oversell? A bit, or so it seems now. But any time a book written about a specific sports league leads to the league’s commissioner, in this case Bowie Kuhn, speaking out against it, the book clearly sent a jolt.

Bouton’s diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots (great throwback jerseys) and Houston Astros is also a look back at his time with the Yankees. He spent seven years (1962-1968) in the Bronx, pitched well (3.36 ERA), and paid attention. What distinctly set Bouton’s book apart was his willingness to tell the truth about what happened behind closed doors. From his personal clashes with management to Mickey Mantle’s drinking, Bouton spilled secrets which were -- and would remain -- significant breaches of any “circle of trust.”

For that, Bouton was reviled and revered. Players despised him for it. Critics adored the insight. The book became a hit. Time magazine once listed it among the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all-time.

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Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger

This hops us into a more modern look at baseball. Beyond that, it also gives a look into what baseball is built on: the three-game series.

When writers travel to cover the NFL, it’s an in-and-out experience. You arrive in the city on Saturday and sometimes leave as soon as Sunday night. For the NBA, you drop in one place, then go directly to another, easily losing track. Baseball provides a temporary chance to unpack.

And during the settling teams blast through three games. Bissinger chose the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry to write about. Tony La Russa was still running things in St. Louis at the time, and became the central figure of the book. He’s intriguing for the obvious reasons of brand recognition, but also because his bullpen strategy in the late 1980s became the standard and remains paramount today.

Bissinger became famous for “Friday Night Lights” and his background knowledge here about La Russa allows the access to deliver even more insight. Good writing, good figures, good story.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

This is on the list because if you somehow have not read it, why not?

We won’t spend too much time on one of the most-famous baseball books in history, if not the most well-known, period.

Quickly: The low-budget A’s force math into the equation in order to find a way to win without significant cash resources. General manager Billy Beane is the architect of this approach (and apparently good-looking enough Brad Pitt plays him in the movie).

At its core, the book is about old-school versus new-school thinking and is (gasp) already 16 years old.

The Only Rule Is it Has To Work by Ben Lindbergh

Lindbergh took the Moneyball concept a step further and crossed it with baseball kookiness.

The Sonoma Stompers, part of the independent Pacific Association, allowed Lindbergh and Sam Miller to run baseball operations strictly on advanced analytics.

The book is a functional, real-world application of a consistent baseball argument: do everything by the numbers in order to maximize outcome. So, does it work?

No spoilers here beyond saying the experiment combined with those who populate independent baseball produces a compelling read.

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Gerardo Parra says playing baseball in Japan ‘feels weird’ without fans

Gerardo Parra says playing baseball in Japan ‘feels weird’ without fans

While baseball players in the U.S. have yet to receive any update on when the 2020 MLB season will begin, the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball league has twice tried to reschedule its season opener only to delay it as a result of the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NPB had hoped to begin its season April 24, more than a month after its originally scheduled start date of March 20. However, the league announced on Friday that “thing are getting worse now” after three of its players, including star pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, tested positive for COVID-19. As of Monday afternoon, there were 3,654 confirmed cases in Japan—up from just over 2,600 last Thursday (per Johns Hopkins).

Unlike the MLB, Japan’s NPB elected to continue playing out its preseason back in February despite the spread of the virus. The league announced Feb. 26 that its 72 remaining preseason games would be played without fans in attendance. It was something that former Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra, now with the Yomiuri Giants, didn’t enjoy as much as the real thing

“It feels weird,” Parra said on a recorded FaceTime call with MASN’s Alex Chappell and Mark Zuckerman. “It feels weird because the motivation for us [as] players, we want to see a lot of fans. I want to see fans enjoy the [game], it brings me a lot of energy.”

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Parra joined the Nationals midway through the 2019 campaign and is widely credited with helping the clubhouse loosen up before turning around its season. After starting out 19-31, the Nationals rallied to secure a Wild Card bid before riding a postseason full of comebacks on their way to winning D.C.’s first World Series title since 1924.

If anyone can make the best out of a weird situation, it’s Parra. But as long as the coronavirus outbreak continues to restrict everyday life, there aren’t going to be many other options for playing baseball.

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