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Mastrodonato: Red Sox aren’t complaining about the schedule now, but Yankees should be

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Mastrodonato: Red Sox aren’t complaining about the schedule now, but Yankees should be

Back in July, when the Red Sox had to return from the All-Star break one day early to play a prime-time game against the Yankees on ESPN, Kiké Hernandez was angry.

Hernandez, who signed a two-year, $14 million contract with Boston in the offseason, said the Red Sox needed that fourth day off, the travel back and forth to Denver was too intense and it wasn’t fair to the five All-Stars on the team.

“But hey, MLB likes money and Red Sox-Yankees makes money,” he added. “Let there be money.”

The Yankees didn’t complain.

And nobody is complaining now that the Red Sox have the easiest schedule in recent memory to close out the season.

They took care of business over the weekend with a three-game sweep of the Orioles, who should end up with one of the 50-worst winning percentages in baseball history. Then they were off again on Monday after being off last Thursday.

They’ll play two games against the Mets, who have fallen so far out of playoff contention they have nothing to play for, then guess what the Red Sox are doing this Thursday?

Another off day, of course.

Then three games against the Yankees and low and behold, there’s another off day on the schedule next Monday.

All together, the Red Sox have four off days in 12 days. They finish the season with just 14 games in 18 days.

At the most important time of the season, when rest is at a premium as teams try to set up their postseason rotation and have their relievers as healthy as possible, the Sox are being handed 96 hours of free time by Major League Baseball.

Hernandez acknowledged the importance of getting hot in the final two weeks after the Sox’ win on Sunday.

“Not every year the best team in baseball wins,” he said. “I’m a huge believer in getting hot at the right time. We are getting hot. If we keep winning games and keep rolling, I think it’ll be key for us heading into October. Just getting hot at the right time, that’s what matters.”

Hey, the Red Sox don’t make the schedule. It just so happens that MLB set it up perfectly for them.

The reeling Yankees haven’t had a day off since Sept. 2. They’re 6-11 in that span. They’ll finish the season with 29 games in 31 days. Their final nine games are against the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays.

The Blue Jays will play 16 games in 17 days to close it out.

There’s no excuses for the Red Sox if they don’t make the playoffs. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to sail into the Wild Card Game with their starting rotation lined up perfectly and their best relievers fully rested.

And if the Yankees or Blue Jays wanted to complain now, who could blame them?

COVID disconnect

When it comes to Chris Sale’s bout with COVID-19, his second time testing positive in the last seven months, there have been some mixed messages.

Over the weekend, Sale said he was not vaccinated but assumed he was prepared for COVID because he eats healthy and takes vitamins. He said he hasn’t had symptoms either time he tested positive.

Except that back in February, Sale admitted he did have symptoms.

“I lost my taste and smell for about a week,” he said then. “I had a runny nose for a couple days. I don’t know if my fever got above 99. I had a real mild case.”

Just last week, one of Sale’s teammates, Adam Ottavino, expressed discontent for his teammates who were not vaccinated, thus making them statistically more likely to carry COVID-19 and transfer it to others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We had a player that was taken out of our team and he didn’t have COVID; it was just because he was deemed a close contact and unvaccinated,” Ottavino told the Globe. “I got pretty annoyed with that fact — not necessarily individually to the point of having a problem with anybody. I love all my teammates. But I just felt like that’s a certain part of the protocol that, like, maybe guys didn’t take seriously enough in their decision-making process.”

Wild Card decision

The decision to start Sale or Nathan Eovaldi in the Wild Card Game, assuming the Red Sox have a comfortable lead and can set up their rotation, will likely come down to the wire.

Sale’s velocity was down on Friday, when he averaged 92 mph on his fastball and maxed out at 95 mph.

He only struck out one batter in five innings as he looked like the pitcher who started the 2019 season exhausted after the long postseason push a year before.

Asked about his velocity, Sale said it’s a day-to-day thing depending how his body is feeling.

He’s been effective either way, but if his arm isn’t at full strength on Oct. 5, he might be a better option for a short stint out of the bullpen with Eovaldi starting the game.

“As my arm strength keeps building up and the progression keeps going, I think that’ll pick up as well,” Sale said.

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Shark attacks are more likely during lunar phases closer to a full moon: Research

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Shark attacks are more likely during lunar phases closer to a full moon: Research

Sharks are more likely to attack humans when the moon is full, according to researchers who found that shark bites may be related to lunar phases.

The shark scientists from Florida and Louisiana looked at nearly 50 years of shark attack data from across the globe to see if there’s a relationship between shark attacks and moon phases.

The researchers discovered there were more attacks during lunar phases closer to a full moon, and fewer shark attacks during phases closer to a new moon.

“There have been long-term questions about what may be driving shark attacks, so we were looking at environmental factors to help us better understand when and where they happen,” said Stephen Midway, an assistant professor in Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences.

“We found that there’s some signal between moon phases and shark attacks,” he said, later adding, “Unfortunately, we don’t have a smoking gun yet, so looking closer at how the moon affects the environment should be studied further.”

The researchers found that more shark attacks than expected occurred when the lunar illumination was greater than 50%, while all the instances of fewer shark attacks than expected happened when the lunar illumination was less than 50%.

A full moon occurs at 100% illumination, a new moon occurs at 0% illumination and first and last quarters occur at 50% illumination.

“Most of the shark attacks were during the daylight hours, so it’s not a nighttime phenomenon attributed to moonlight,” Midway said. “The moon obviously plays a big role in the environment, affecting tides and electromagnetic fields.”

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Mike Preston: With Ravens nearing a breaking point, the defensive front seven needs to step up | COMMENTARY

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Mike Preston: With Ravens nearing a breaking point, the defensive front seven needs to step up | COMMENTARY

Shortly after Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale learned that starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey was out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, he should have huddled with all his linebackers and linemen who make up his front seven.

And then he should have delivered a great speech, one filled with more reality than fiery rhetoric.

In short, Martindale should have said: “If we want to get where we want to be, then the guys in this room have to carry us. From here on out, we have to ball out.”

That’s pretty much the story of the season at this point. The Ravens aren’t at a breaking point after Humphrey’s injury, but they are close.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson is having a brain freeze because he can’t figure out blitzes or pressure packages. His receivers seem to be irritated with Jackson’s tunnel vision to tight end Mark Andrews, and the offensive line struggles in pass protection.

Humphrey’s injury only made things worse because the team was already without starting running backs J.K. Dobbins (knee) and Gus Edwards (knee), Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and cornerback Marcus Peters (knee), as well as starting safety DeShon Elliott (biceps).

Humphrey, who signed a five-year, $98.75 million contract last October, wasn’t playing well but is certainly better than anyone listed at No. 2 on the depth chart. Coach John Harbaugh said he will decide on replacement candidates such as Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Chris Westry or Kevon Seymour during practice this week depending on packages and matchups heading into Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

The Ravens’ secondary has played poorly this season, giving up big plays week after week. They’re allowing 272.4 passing yards per game, which ranks second-to-last in the NFL. But the defense can improve if outside linebackers Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh and Justin Houston become better pass rushers and improve on their 14 ½ combined sacks this season. If that happens, that will allow Martindale more freedom to mix coverages.

The Ravens are tied for No. 1 in the league in run defense, allowing 84.3 yards a game. But linemen Brandon Williams, Justin Ellis, Justin Madubuike and Calais Campbell would really help out the secondary if they got more pressure on opposing quarterbacks up the middle.

In a 16-10 win over Cleveland two weeks ago, the Ravens held the Browns to 40 rushing yards and made injured quarterback Baker Mayfield even more one-dimensional. Even though Cleveland enjoyed a bye last week, the Ravens have the potential to once again impose their will against an offensive line they physically whupped, which allowed them to bottle up running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Josh Bynes have improved in recent weeks with Bynes taking over in the middle and Queen moving to the weak side. Chris Board has been adequate in pass defense filling in for Bynes in passing situations.

Not only would a dominant front seven help the defense, but the offense as well. The Ravens are at their best when running the ball. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman put in some neat little running plays including some options and counters last week, and a good running game makes the play-action passing game even more effective. If the Ravens can run, they usually win. If they fall behind and have to pass block, it’s back to the same losing formula of the past three years.

The Ravens have a good blend of personnel in their front seven and this could be the perfect storm. They have youth in Queen, Oweh and Madubuike. They have solid veteran leadership in Campbell, Williams, Houston and fellow outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.

There are no studs in this group, maybe with the exception of Campbell, but if they rally together, they can be good. If they can’t, the Ravens will lose against quarterbacks like the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford.

Of course, the Ravens are just trying to find something to hold onto now that Humphrey is gone. At this point of the season, the good teams are getting stronger, but the Ravens appear to be getting weaker.

A dominant front seven could give them new life. It’s the only thing they’ve got at this time.

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Ravens roundtable: Breaking down the team’s playoff hopes, the offense’s struggles and more

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Ravens roundtable: Breaking down the team’s playoff hopes, the offense’s struggles and more

Another week, another nail-biting finish, another impactful Ravens injury.

Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was doubly painful for the Ravens, denying the team a two-game lead in the AFC North and knocking cornerback Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral muscle) out for the season.

With only a month remaining in the regular season, the Ravens are at once closing in on a playoff berth and running out of playmakers who could fuel a late-season surge. As Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns nears, Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon assess the precarious state of the team.

Are the Ravens in any real danger of missing the playoffs?

Walker: Thirteen of the AFC’s 16 teams have at least six wins, so sure, the Ravens are in some peril. As we can see from various playoff odds, they helped themselves significantly by banking eight wins. But they have not played well over the last month, and they’ll go the rest of the way without another one of their best players in Humphrey. With the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams coming to town, it’s not clear the Ravens will be favored again until they host the Steelers in Week 18. They will probably need two more wins to get in, and chances are they will find a way to do it. But they would be sitting so much prettier if that 2-point conversion pass in Pittsburgh had not trickled off Mark Andrews’ outstretched fingers.

Shaffer: As long as their chances are less than 100%, yes, the Ravens can miss the playoffs. ESPN’s Football Power Index and FiveThirtyEight give them an 83% chance of making a postseason appearance. At Football Outsiders, it’s 77.7%. And none of those odds account for the loss of Humphrey, whose contributions and leadership are as important as those of any Raven stuck on injured reserve.

Just as a late-season run was always possible last year — just look at the creampuffs they had to beat — a late-season crash is possible here. The Ravens should enter Sunday’s game in Cleveland as underdogs, and they might not be favored again until their regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The expanded playoff field gives them some margin for error, but there are 12 AFC teams with .500 records or better. If the Ravens can’t win at home, things could get dicey awfully quick.

Doon: If you want to consider a doomsday scenario in which the Ravens win only one of their final five games, they could certainly be in some peril at 9-8. But with the new 17-game schedule adding a seventh playoff spot, it’s hard to envision the Ravens slipping out of the postseason entirely. Only the Patriots, Titans, Chiefs and Bills have better odds of reaching the postseason in the AFC, according to ESPN’s FPI.

The AFC North’s two favorites took bad losses Sunday. So who ends up winning the division?

Walker: We thought the AFC North was a beastly division. As it turns out, it might be more of a highly competitive rock fight between so-so teams. That means the Ravens’ one-game advantage is actually significant, though hardly commanding. The Bengals are healthier, and they have hit higher highs, most notably in the head-to-head matchup between the teams. But the Ravens remain the safer bet because of their slight lead and superior track record.

Shaffer: The Ravens’ one-game advantage over Cincinnati might still be enough for them to hold on. The Bengals end the regular season with a home game against a San Francisco 49ers team that, until Sunday, seemed ascendant; a trip to Denver to face the mercurial Broncos; a home game against the eager-for-revenge Ravens; another home game against the streaking Kansas City Chiefs; and a trip to Cleveland to face a Browns team that routed them in Week 9. There are no gimmes in that group.

Pittsburgh is somehow third in the division, but the Steelers don’t do anything well enough to sustain an end-of-season run. The Browns have the most ground to make up and the AFC North quarterback you’d least trust to do that. If the Ravens can win in Cincinnati and shore up their divisional record, they could be tough to catch.

Doon: The Bengals (7-4), Steelers (6-5-1) and Browns (6-6) will certainly push for the AFC North title, but the Ravens control their own destiny. A win over Cleveland on Sunday pushes their odds of winning the division to 76%, according to FiveThirtyEight. What’s more interesting to me is whether they still have a shot at the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. A Patriots loss to the Colts in Week 15 could open the door.

The Ravens’ offense is not in a good place right now. Do Lamar Jackson, Greg Roman and the offensive line deserve equal blame, or is there a primary culprit?

Walker: The offensive line is the least promising leg of that stool in the short term because the Ravens really do not have a better answer at either tackle spot. Alejandro Villanueva and Tyre Phillips played terribly in the second half against the Steelers, but with Patrick Mekari likely sidelined for the next few weeks, who’s riding to the rescue?

If we’re grading on a curve, though, the answer is Jackson. We have known all season that he would need to play like a Most Valuable Player candidate for the Ravens to be a top contender. Instead, he has regressed over the last month, struggling against pressure but also when he had ample time to throw. He has looked past open receivers and attempted low-percentage throws that turned into crushing interceptions. Yes, Jackson is trying to thrive in a sub-optimal context, with shoddy protection and no dangerous running back to take the focus off him. But the offense is struggling because of him, not because of what’s happening around him.

Shaffer: Jackson was in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player honors when this offense was clicking. The scheme hasn’t changed dramatically in the weeks since, nor has the play-calling. Yes, teams are blitzing more, but that wasn’t a huge issue last year or in Jackson’s breakthrough 2019 season. So if Jackson deserved plaudits in September and October, he shouldn’t be surprised by criticism in November and December.

Jackson himself has acknowledged that his play has been subpar at points this season — “I looked like a rookie,” he said of his four-interception performance against Cleveland — and the offense’s swoon has somehow coincided with the return of the team’s top three wide receivers: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman. The Ravens’ offensive line is far from perfect; its run-blocking struggles, in particular, can’t be overlooked. And some of Roman’s pass play designs leave you wondering how two receivers could ever end up 5 yards from one another downfield. But Jackson is the nucleus of this offense, and he has been unstable for a while now.

Doon: In Weeks 1-7, Jackson ranked 15th among qualified quarterbacks (minimum 100 snaps) in expected points added per play, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position. From Week 8 onward, he ranks 24th, behind Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield and Saints third-stringer Trevor Siemian. No single stat tells the whole story, but it’s clear Jackson’s play has regressed of late, and the offense is suffering because of it.

Whose absence will matter more in the Ravens’ rematch with the Browns: right tackle Patrick Mekari or cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s?

Walker: Humphrey’s absence will hurt more in the long term because the Ravens are desperately short on healthy bodies in their secondary and even shorter on players capable of forcing turnovers. But we saw how much they missed Mekari against T.J. Watt in the second half of the Steelers game. Myles Garrett is just as frightening, and he also lines up frequently against the right tackle. The Ravens actually did a good job protecting Jackson in their previous meeting with the Browns, and he still struggled. Imagine how ugly Sunday’s game could get if Garrett is in his face the entire afternoon. Phillips, along with the blockers tabbed to help him, will face a monumental task.

Shaffer: Jadeveon Clowney and Garrett have to be on cloud nine this week. Despite his physical limitations, Mekari has been one of the NFL’s better right tackles this season. Phillips, despite his physical gifts, has not. If the Ravens struggle on early downs Sunday, the Browns won’t hesitate to drop seven defenders into coverage and let their edge rushers get after Jackson on third-and-long.

Humphrey, meanwhile, is perhaps the most talented cornerback on the Ravens’ roster, but even he struggled against Cleveland. According to Pro Football Reference, he gave up seven completions on 11 targets for 98 yards in their Week 12 matchup. These Browns wide receivers aren’t as scary as they used to be, and the potential absence of tight end David Njoku (reserve/COVID-19 list) could help ease the burden on the Ravens’ secondary.

Doon: Outside of right guard Kevin Zeitler, Mekari has been the Ravens’ most reliable pass blocker this season. His 74.9 pass-blocking grade ranks 24th among tackles in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Clowney and Garrett are a much scarier duo at defensive end than Jarvis Landry and Donovan Peoples-Jones are at wide receiver, especially when you consider the Ravens’ options. Cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Chris Westry can hold up better than Phillips and Villanueva.

With the Ravens’ secondary decimated by injury, what are your expectations for the defense over these final five weeks?

Walker: More of the same. They will stop the run, rush the passer well enough to get off the field on most third downs and give up explosive plays because of mix-ups in the secondary. Humphrey was the defensive back best suited to countering an opponent’s No. 1 pass catcher, but he made his share of mistakes this season. The Ravens’ struggles might, and probably will, be exacerbated by his absence, but their defense will look similar.

Shaffer: As always, it depends on the team’s health. On paper, the Ravens’ secondary still has enough pieces to be decent. If Averett, Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young can all play meaningful snaps, Don “Wink” Martindale might rest a little easier. But if the injury bug strikes again, leaving the Ravens with practice squad call-ups against receiving corps as talented as, say, the Bengals’, it could get ugly.

Up front, this is a critical juncture for the team’s foundational young players. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen can’t afford to back-slide. Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh can’t afford to hit a rookie wall. Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike can’t afford to be a limited-impact pass rusher. The Ravens need consistency at every spot on the field, or else they’ll see more big plays put on highlight reels.

Doon: The red zone defense might not hold up much longer. The Ravens have allowed touchdowns on just 50% of their opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line, tied for the sixth-best mark in the league. We know the explosive plays have been an issue, but if those 3s start turning into 7s, this defense could be in serious trouble.

Week 14

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Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Browns by 2 ½

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