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Sunday September 27th, 2020 11:49AM

LEADING OFF: A's choose Manaea, Rays start Morton in WC game

By The Associated Press
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A look at what's happening around the majors today:

THAT'S WILD

Oakland tabbed left-hander Sean Manaea (4-0, 1.21 ERA) to start the AL wild-card game against Tampa Bay. The 27-year-old Manaea was sidelined last year when the Athletics lost the wild-card game to the Yankees, and missed most of this season following shoulder surgery. He returned in September and has been sharp over five starts. He'll start opposite Rays right-hander Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05) — that's right, no openers for either of these forward-thinking clubs — although neither manager will shy away from an early hook.

GOING TO CALIFORNIA

So familiar with playoff heartache, the Washington Nationals have finally advanced in October. Juan Soto delivered a bases-loaded single against closer Josh Hader that scored three runs with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the Nationals rallied past the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3 in the National League wild-card game Tuesday night.

Soto's sharp single skipped by rookie right fielder Trent Grisham for an error that allowed the go-ahead run to score. Stephen Strasburg threw three scoreless innings to win in the first relief appearance of his major league career, and Washington now heads to Los Angeles for Game 1 in a best-of-five Division Series against the NL West champion Dodgers on Thursday. Left-hander Patrick Corbin will start for the Nationals.

Nagging injuries to third baseman Justin Turner, starting pitcher Rich Hill and reliever Joe Kelly have improved enough that all three will be available for the Dodgers.

OCT-HOMER

Hitters smashed a record 6,776 home runs in 2019, and pitchers are preparing for a big fly bonanza this postseason. Justin Verlander told the AP "the game has changed completely" this year, and he's blamed that on adjustments to the baseball. Commissioner Rob Manfred has acknowledged the ball has less drag but says the league isn't sure why. He denied charges from Verlander and other pitchers that the balls have been deliberately altered. Either way, it's been a frustrating year for pitchers, and that's unlikely to change under October's bright lights.

"You know there are going to be a few more runs scored and balls are going to leave the ballpark," A's manager Bob Melvin said.

Might this postseason look something like the 2017 World Series? Pitchers claimed the balls were slicker then, too, and that slugfest between the Astros and Dodgers featured a record 25 home runs and went down as an instant classic. Exciting for fans, certainly. Pitchers remain less enthused.

"Before, it was like the big wreck at a NASCAR race," Braves reliever Shane Greene said. "You might see one, and everybody showed up to see that one homer. Now, you're going to see six."

MOUND MATCHUP

The starting pitchers are set for the NL Division Series opener between the Cardinals and Braves in Atlanta on Thursday. Veteran left-hander Dallas Keuchel will face St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas.

Keuchel, who has made nine career postseason starts, went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts after signing a one-year deal with Atlanta in June. He will pitch against the Cardinals for the first time since 2016.

Mikolas was 9-14 with a 4.17 ERA in 32 starts for the Cardinals. He will make his playoff debut.

MEDICAL REPORT

Two days before opening their AL Division Series, the Twins and Yankees could have updates on a few injured players.

Hot-hitting Minnesota rookie Luis Arraez sprained his right ankle Saturday, and as of Sunday, the club wasn't sure what his timeline might be for a return. He hit .334 in 92 games, splitting time between second base, third base, shortstop and left field.

Yankees slugger Edwin Encarnación hasn't played since Sept. 12 due to a left oblique strain, but he's been adamant he'll return for the playoffs. Third baseman Gio Urshela sprained his left ankle in the regular-season finale Sunday, but the Yankees said it was mild with no swelling.

New York is scheduled to work out at Yankee Stadium.

STILL SEARCHING

For the second consecutive offseason, the Reds are looking for a new hitting coach. Cincinnati fired Turner Ward on Tuesday after one season. Ward was hired as part of first-year manager David Bell's staff last offseason after three years in the same role with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Cincinnati's offense mostly declined. The Reds dipped in batting average and on-base percentage, struck out more often and narrowly improved their output from 696 runs to 701. A number of key players regressed, notably star Joey Votto, who hit .261 with 15 home runs.

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