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Mastrodonato: Red Sox have a Chris Sale problem and a Tanner Houck solution

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Mastrodonato: Red Sox have a Chris Sale problem and a Tanner Houck solution

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox have a Chris Sale problem.

And they have a Tanner Houck solution.

There was nothing competitive about what Sale brought to the table in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on Friday night, when the Red Sox had to dig themselves out of a hole to eventually steamroll the Rays in a 14-6 victory.

But after what they saw from Sale, who put them in a 5-2 defect after an awful first inning, the Red Sox will have to examine whether or not they can continue using him as a starter this postseason.

Asked what happened to the Rays offense after they scored five on Sale in the first and then went quiet, Rays manager Kevin Cash put it simply.

“What happened was Tanner Houck,” Cash said. “He was really tough.”

And the problem with Sale?

“I think command,” Sox manager Alex Cora said. “That’s it.”

Cora defended Sale unflinchingly and insisted Sale would continue to be important this postseason.

“Hey man, we count on this guy,” Cora said. “He is going to be a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish and we’ll get him right. We’ll get him right.”

Sale was struggling to do anything with his fastball, which averaged 94 mph on the night. He had no command of the pitch, which didn’t generate a single swing-and-miss on the 13 of them he threw. One of them was an 0-2 fastball to Jordan Luplow a few inches above the zone and outside, but Luplow looked like he knew it was coming and walloped it over the left-field fence for a grand slam.

On the Fox broadcast, Hall of Famer John Smoltz questioned the pitch selection, given Luplow hits fastballs much better than breaking balls and Sale was in an advantage count. But Cora said he thought it was a good pitch.

“That was above the strike zone,” Cora said. “Sometimes teams, they gameplay on people and they do a good job with it. That 0-2 pitch was above the zone and he got it.”

Sale’s slider was OK, as he struck out Brandon Lowe and Mike Zunino on a couple of them, but without a good fastball, and with a changeup that hasn’t been effective all year, Sale is starting to look like a one-pitch pitcher.

He lasted just one inning before Cora decided to pull the plug and turn it over to his bullpen. The reality is that Sale hasn’t looked himself at all this year.

A lot of pitchers struggle to regain command after Tommy John surgery, though many also return throwing harder than they did before, largely because their shoulders get so strong during the process of rebuilding strength.

“The surgery doesn’t make you better,” Tommy John told me a few years back. “The person makes themselves better.”

Sale’s average velocity of 93 mph this year is the same it was in 2019, when he pitched through a shoulder injury, and 2 mph less than he was throwing in 2018.

Asked if Sale has hit a wall, physically, Cora said, “I don’t think so. I don’t believe so.”

The velocity is less of an issue than the command and effectiveness of his pitches, which the Red Sox have to expect will come back with more time and work. The question is how much patience to have with Sale this postseason, and what the best way to use him will be going forward.

Enter Houck, who has looked about as good as any pitcher in the big leagues over last two years, but especially the last two weeks.

His last start was against the Nationals last Saturday, when he threw five perfect innings with eight strikeouts on just 53 pitches. He added a perfect inning with two strikeouts against the Yankees in Tuesday’s Wild Card Game. And he started Friday’s game with three perfect innings, giving him 27 consecutive outs with 15 strikeouts that would’ve totaled a perfect game.

Look up the advanced metrics and Houck is in the top-20% of the league in most of them, including whiff rate, strikeout rate and average exit velocity.

All the while he’s continued to develop a third pitch in a split-finger fastball that’s acting like a changeup. He’s essentially the right-handed version of Sale, but a better one.

“Tonight was a great example of the repertoire that I’ve been working on really since I got drafted,” he said. “I immediately when I first got drafted, I had the four-seam fastball. I added the split a little more recently. I’ve gone through a few grip changes as well with the slider.

“It’s truly a surreal night of being able to actually put things fully together.”

And the most common thing Houck’s teammates and coaches have to say about him is that he doesn’t panic.

“I had a little butterflies at first, but once I got out there and threw my warmup pitches, I was pretty comfortable,” he said. “I live for those moments where you’re in a different stadium, people yelling at you, all that stuff. I love that environment.”

In the last week, when Houck has pitched with the season on the line three different times, he’s allowed just one run in 11 innings while holding opponents to two hits.

“The game is constantly evolving and I’m constantly evolving,” Houck said. “Everyone is. It’s a matter of showing up and sometimes you just got to shut your mouth and open the ears and just listen to the guys that have been there and done that. That’s one thing I think is the best part of this team is we have endless amount of guys with multiple years of service time that I can lean on and ask questions.”

Nathan Eovaldi will pitch Game 3 on Sunday and Nick Pivetta is likely to start Game 4 on Monday while Houck rests after his long outing on Friday. But if there’s a Game 5 in Tampa next Wednesday, the Red Sox will have to consider going straight to Houck rather than giving Sale another shot.

Given Sale only threw 30 pitches Friday and 62 pitches last Sunday, he should be well-rested to pitch out of relief in either of the games at Fenway Park, if the Sox wanted to see him air it out in a one-inning stint instead.

With time, Sale should return to form, as most pitchers do when coming back from Tommy John surgery in the modern era.

But it’s the postseason. The Red Sox don’t have time. They need results. And Houck is getting them.

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Mother tosses 3-year-old from second-story window during apartment fire

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Mother tosses 3-year-old from second-story window during apartment fire

ST. LOUIS – Five people were treated following a fire at an apartment building on the 5800 block of Selber Court in north St. Louis.

Our partners at the Post-Dispatch report a mother tossed her 3-year-old daughter from a second-story window to a neighbor on the ground at the Hillvale apartments.

The fire department says one of those patients includes a child. Three people were taken to the hospital.

The paper also says the fire started in a vacant, boarded-up unit. The Bomb and Arson squad was called to the scene as well.

Firefighters can be seen on the roof trying to knock out the flames. There is also smoke pouring out of the roof.

Bommarito Automotive SkyFOX is over the scene. Authorities appeared to be walking with at least one resident who made it out of the burning building.

The Red Cross is helping 3 residents.

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Prosecutor: Jussie Smollett reported ‘fake hate crime’

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At Jussie Smollett trial, Osundairo brothers at center stage

By DON BABWIN

CHICAGO (AP) — Jussie Smollett staged a racist and homophobic assault and told police he was the victim after the television studio where he worked didn’t take hate mail he had received seriously, a prosecutor said during opening statements in the ex-“Empire” actor’s trial Monday.

Smollett has maintained he was the victim in the January 2019 attack in downtown Chicago. But special prosecutor Dan Webb said the actor recruited two brothers he worked with to help him carry out the fake attack. He then reported it to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 hours on the investigation.

“When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” Webb said.

Two brothers say Smollett paid them $3,500 to pose as his attackers on a frigid night in January 2019.

Webb was named as special prosecutor in the case after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the original charges filed against Smollett. A new indictment was returned in 2020.

Smollett, who arrived at the courthouse in Chicago Monday with his mother and other family members, is accused of lying to police about the alleged attack and has been charged with felony disorderly conduct. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said it is likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

Twelve jurors plus three alternate jurors were sworn in late Monday in a trial Judge James Linn said he expects to take about one week. During jury selection, Linn asked potential jurors if they have been the victim of a hate crime, if they have watched “Empire” or TMZ, a program and website about celebrities, or if they belong to any civil rights or pro-police organizations. Cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom and the proceedings are not being livestreamed, unlike in other recent high-profile trials.

Whether Smollett, who is Black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, will take the witness stand where they are expected to repeat what they have told police officers and prosecutors: that they carried out the attack at Smollett’s behest.

Jurors also may see surveillance video from more than four dozen cameras that police reviewed to trace the brothers’ movements before and after the reported attack, as well as a video showing the brothers purchasing a red hat, ski masks and gloves from a beauty supply shop hours earlier.

Smollett’s attorneys have not spelled out how they will confront that evidence. Lead attorney Nenye Uche declined to comment ahead of this week’s proceedings. But there are clues as to how they might during the trial.

Buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from an area resident who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”

Her comments could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck. Further, if she testified that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements — widely ridiculed because the brothers, who come from Nigeria, are Black — that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.

Given there is so much evidence, including the brothers’ own statements, that they participated in the attack, it is unlikely that Smollett’s attorneys will try to prove they did not take part. That could lead the defense to contend that Smollett was the victim of a very real attack at the hands of the brothers, perhaps with the help of others, who now are only implicating the actor so they won’t be charged.

The $3,500 check could be key, although Smollett says he wrote it to pay one of the brothers to work as his personal trainer.

“I would assume the defense is going to zero in on that,” said Joe Lopez, a prominent defense attorney not involved with the case.

What they will almost certainly do is attack the brothers’ credibility, reminding jurors that they are not facing the same charges as Smollett, despite admitting they took part in the staged attack.

“Everything Smollett is responsible for, they are responsible for,” said David Erickson, a former state appellate judge who teaches at Chicago Kent College of Law and is not involved in the case.

Finally, Smollett’s career could take center stage. Prosecutors could make the same point that then-Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson made when he announced Smollett’s arrest in 2019: that Smollett thought the attack would win him more fame and a pay raise.

But Lopez said the defense attorneys might ask the jury the same question he asked himself.

“How would that help him with anything?” he asked. “He’s already a star.”

___

Associated Press reporter Sara Burnett contributed to this report.

___

Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the Jussie Smollett case.

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Zach Wilson’s return wasn’t great, but it was good enough with rest of team firing

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Zach Wilson’s return wasn’t great, but it was good enough with rest of team firing

In Zach Wilson’s return off a knee injury, the No. 2 overall pick struggled. Wilson threw for under 150 yards with a rushing touchdown and an interception.

But the coaching staff stepped up and Wilson allowed him to manage the game as the Jets snagged their first road win of the season over the Texans in Week 12.

While there was some disappointment from the fan base on Wilson’s outing, Robert Saleh was pleased with the performance of his rookie.

“Was it his best game? No. Did he do a lot of things? Did he get comfortable as the game went on? Absolutely,” Saleh said. “He orchestrated two 13-play drives that led the scores where we were able to lap them. Scored before the half, scored after the half and another eight-plus-play drive. So, he orchestrated three pretty long drives and did enough to win the football game and that’s what’s most important.”

Wilson wasn’t happy with his performance, but Saleh looked at those emotions as a positive because of his quarterback eagerness to improve.

“I love that he’s hard on himself,” Saleh said. “His desire to get better is up there with anybody. I mean, he works his tail off at it.”

Saleh added that when Wilson struggles, it isn’t all on the rookie.

“But at the same time, coaches also, we’re hard on ourselves, too. It’s our job to help him get better and do everything we can for him,” Saleh said.

And to the coaching staff’s credit, they helped Wilson in the second half. Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur realized the flow of the game and took the pressure off of Wilson.

In the first half, the Jets were more balanced as they ran the ball 11 times for 49 yards and Wilson threw it 12 times as he completed six passes for 44 yards with an interception.

LaFleur realized his quarterback was struggling and his running attack was working and leaned on the run game.

They ran the ball 23 times for 108 yards in the second half. That alleviated pressure off Wilson. His first pass out of the half was a play action throw to Elijah Moore for 22 yards. Moore was wide open on his deep curl route because the linebackers bit on the fake.

That running attack allowed Wilson to manage the half as he went 8-for-12 for 101 yards in the second half.

“The run game, defense, special teams, that’s what travels. And especially in this time of year, in cold weather, when people are hurting,” Saleh said. “And so, the offense to run the ball the way it did yesterday, the o-line was moving people, there was space, the backs were finding the creases, they were hitting it hard, they were breaking tackles, they were awesome all the way across the board. And so, yeah, whenever you get the run game going, it takes pressure off of everybody.”

And Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich’s gameplan shut down the Texans offense as they mustered 202 yards, and held them to 45 yards in the second half.

Gang Green defense shut down the Texans’ rushing attack by holding them to 96 yards. And on passing downs, they exploited the weak offensive line with a four man rush, the style Saleh wants to play.

They sent four on 71% of Texans QB Taylor’s dropbacks and he went 11-for-19 for 112 yards with one interception and one touchdown. Taylor had a passer rating of 70 and was sacked three times.

While Wilson worked off the rust, the parts around him showed up.

INJURY REPORT

Mike White tested positive for COVID last week and missed the game against the Texans. He’s still in the protocol and isn’t expected to be available against the Eagles.

Joe Flacco was placed on the COVID list because he was deemed a close contact. Flacco didn’t test positive but he missed the Texans game. He was activated on Monday.

Denzel Mims was inactive against the Texans as he worked back from COVID. Saleh says he will practice on Wednesday.

Mekhi Becton has been out because of a knee injury he suffered Week 1 against the Panthers. Becton is on track to do field work as he works his way back to practice.

Tight end Trevon Wesco suffered an ankle injury on Sunday and is out two to four weeks.

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