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Mastrodonato: Alex Cora’s magic runs out as overconfidence in Chris Sale leads to 9-1 loss to Astros 

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Mastrodonato: Alex Cora’s magic runs out as overconfidence in Chris Sale leads to 9-1 loss to Astros 

Chris Sale threw his hardest pitch in three years, twirled around in a circle, pumped his fist, screamed into his glove and stormed into the dugout after the fourth inning.

If ever there was a sign that a starting pitcher had left it all on the field, this was it.

He had completed three innings for the first time in nearly a month. He had thrown a 98.5 mph fastball for the first time since Aug. 12, 2018. He was three batters shy of going through the Astros’ lineup twice. And Tanner Houck, the perfect piggy-back option in that he pitches like Sale but from the right-hand side, was well-rested in the bullpen.

Alex Cora could’ve pulled the plug there, but he didn’t, and now Boston fans will be left wondering if Cora’s magic has finally run dry.

That was the inescapable question after the Red Sox took their second consecutive beating at Fenway Park on Wednesday, when they lost, 9-1, to the Astros to fall behind 3-2 in the American League Championship Series, which heads back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday.

After an intense fourth inning, Cora gave Sale a chance to handle the bottom of the order in the fifth, which Sale did, mowing down the ’Stros last three hitters on just eight pitches, though not a single fastball was thrown harder than 95 mph, a sign that he might be tiring.

Sale was at 79 pitches, his highest total in nearly a month. He had thrown just 91 pitches combined in his first two postseason starts.

“I had to leave everything out there,” Sale said. “I told myself coming into this game I had a job to do and didn’t get it done. But I left my nuts out there on the mound tonight, that’s for damn sure.”

Still, Cora sent him back out for the sixth, about to face the lineup a third time, something that Cora has mostly avoided while Red Sox pitchers have been one of the worst teams in the majors at pitching against teams the third time through the order.

During the regular season, Sox pitchers allowed a .301 average, 27th in MLB, and .908 OPS, 28th, when facing a lineup the third time. In the postseason, Cora had allowed just 15 at-bats a third time through against his pitchers, and hitters had an .800 OPS in those at-bats.

For Sale, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery and having given everything he had in five-plus innings of work, it was a tall task.

He started the sixth by walking Jose Altuve on five pitches. He got weak contact from Michael Brantley, but Kyle Schwarber dropped the catch from Rafael Devers at first base and suddenly Sale was in trouble. Alex Bregman hit a weak groundout to bring up Yordan Alvarez, who was 3-for-3 off Sale in his career, including two hits earlier in the game.

The left-on-left matchup was advantageous on paper, but Alvarez seemed fooled by nothing Sale had to offer. In the second inning, Sale threw a 94-mph fastball that was at least a few inches off the plate, and still Alvarez destroyed it opposite-field over the Green Monster.

He mashed another fastball on the outer half for a single in the fourth.

Cora let him face Alvarez a third time in the sixth.

Again Alvarez got a fastball on the outer half, and again he smoked it to left field. Two runs scored, the Astros took a 3-0 lead and the momentum was all theirs.

Ryan Brasier struggled in relief of Sale and the Astros scored five in the inning to put the Sox away.

Asked about the decision to leave Sale in for that at-bat, Cora was confident it was the right move.

“He was throwing the ball great,” the manager said. “There was some weak contact throughout the night. He was in command… Sometimes we get caught up too much in the third time through the order. He was throwing the ball great. The stuff was really good. He was throwing 97 mph with a good slider.”

Sale said he felt as good in the sixth inning as he had all night, but he hadn’t thrown a pitch harder than 95 mph since the 98.5 mph pitch in the fourth.

“I understand what people think, but there were two lefties coming up in that pocket,” Cora said. “Chris Sale is a lefty, he’s made a living getting lefties out. You have to tip your hat to the kid, to the guy, he didn’t try too much and he goes the other way.”

Cora might be the only manager in the postseason who thinks there’s too much made about the third time through the order. Few managers are allowing their starters to do it these days.

There have been just 96 at-bats facing a pitcher the third time through during the entire postseason. And hitters are batting .271 with a .789 OPS in those at-bats.

In the age of analytics, when teams are using data to make so many of their decisions ahead of time, it’s hard to fault the manager for using his eyes in this game. He saw a pitcher throwing as well as he has in years and wanted to stick with him.

It didn’t work.

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Dolphins’ first-round pick pushed further back by 49ers’ win over Cowboys

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Dolphins’ first-round pick pushed further back by 49ers’ win over Cowboys

The Miami Dolphins didn’t play a wild-card round playoff game, but they still found a way to lose over the weekend.

The Dolphins’ first-round draft pick took another blow with the San Francisco 49ers’ upset win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday evening.

Now, Miami will be selecting No. 25, at best, in the draft’s first round after the 49ers advanced to the divisional round of the postseason.

San Francisco now plays at the NFC’s top-seeded Green Bay Packers. With another upset, the pick that goes to the Dolphins falls to 29. A 49ers loss Sunday would’ve likely given Miami the 22nd pick.

The Dolphins own the 49ers’ selection while the Philadelphia Eagles have Miami’s pick due to the two trades the Dolphins pulled off with the NFC teams last offseason ahead of the 2021 NFL draft. Miami traded back to No. 12 with San Francisco, sending the No. 3 pick, which previously belonged to the Houston Texans, to the 49ers. A move up from 12 to 6, where wide receiver Jaylen Waddle was selected, followed and sent the Dolphins’ 2022 first-rounder to Philadelphia.

In the movement, the Dolphins are now selecting at least 10 spots lower than they would be had they traded the 49ers’ pick to the Eagles instead of their own. The Miami selection going to Philadelphia in the upcoming draft is No. 15. The Dolphins also got a 2023 first-round pick from the 49ers in the deal.

San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, who is one of the Dolphins’ seven candidates being interviewed for their head coaching vacancy, could theoretically play a role in negatively affecting his first draft pick as Miami head coach should he be the choice for the job.

The Dolphins appear more likely than they once were to keep their first-round pick after the Saturday news that the franchise plans to continue working with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

The NFL draft is ordered by first having the 18 non-playoff teams pick in reverse order of record, with lower strength of schedule serving as a tiebreaker. Picks 19-24 are then reserved for the wild-card round losers in reverse order of regular-season record. Picks 25-28 go to divisional round losers and so on until the Super Bowl champion picks 32nd.

Bears interested in Dolphins exec

The Chicago Bears are already seeking interviews with ex-Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and ex-Dolphins coach Brian Flores for their two vacancies in the respective roles.

Now, they have requested permission to interview current Miami executive Reggie McKenzie for the general manager job, according to The MMQB.

McKenzie has been with the Dolphins as senior personnel executive since 2019 after spending the previous seven seasons (2012-18) as the Oakland Raiders’ general manager. In 2016, McKenzie was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year by Sporting News, The MMQB and the PFWA.

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State Fair reports 2021 operating loss, raises admission rates for 2022

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State Fair reports 2021 operating loss, raises admission rates for 2022

Although Minnesotans had to go without their beloved State Fair in 2020, it returned despite numerous pandemic-related obstacles in 2021 to become one of the best-attended North American events of the year, according to Fair officials.

In spite of the comeback, the Fair reported an operating loss of $1.3 million last year, general manager Jerry Hammer told the governing body of the Great Minnesota Get-Together on Sunday. When the Fair was canceled in 2020, the loss was $16.5 million, he said.

The Minnesota State Agricultural Society, which oversees the state’s end-of-summer ritual, held its the 163rd annual meeting in Bloomington over the weekend.

The 2022 State Fair will take place between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5. The new admission prices will be $17 for those 13-64 years old; people 5-12 and 65 and older will pay $15. Those under 4 are admitted for free. The increased price begins Feb. 1. Discount tickets will be on sale for $13 for all ages until Jan. 31 at mnstatefair.org/tickets.

Despite the operating loss, the 2021 Fair drew 1.3 million attendees, Hammer said, adding that pulling off the fair in 2021 amid the ongoing pandemic was “miraculous.”

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Baylor WR, 3-star OL commit to CU Buffs

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CU Buffs football early National Signing Day class of 2022

One of the top receivers for the Big 12 champs is coming to Boulder.

On Sunday, RJ Sneed II announced that he will play his final season of college football at Colorado after spending the previous five years at Baylor.

Also on Sunday, Van Wells, an offensive lineman from C.E. King High School in Houston, announced his verbal commitment to the Buffaloes after spending the weekend in Boulder on an official visit.

Listed at 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, Sneed helped Baylor go 12-2 and win the Big 12 championship game, as well as the Sugar Bowl this season. He was second for the Bears in catches (46) and receiving yards (573) and caught two touchdown passes.

During his career, Sneed has 133 catches for 1,564 yards and eight touchdowns. After playing minimally in 2017 and redshirting in 2018, Sneed finished third on the team in receptions (42) and yards (437) in 2019. In 2020, he led the Bears in receptions (39), receiving yards (497) and touchdowns (three) and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.

A 2017 graduate of Cypress Ranch (Tex.) High School, Sneed was a three-star prospect who had 20 scholarship offers, including from Colorado. He had offers from 17 Power 5 schools, including Alabama, Mississippi, TCU, Arizona State, California, UCLA and Utah.

Sneed graduated from Baylor with a degree in health, kinesiology and leisure studies in August of 2020 and has been working on a master’s in sports pedagogy. He will have one season to play at CU.

With the Buffs, Sneed will provide production and veteran leadership to a group that has lost four players to the transfer portal this offseason: Chris Carpenter, Keith Miller, Brenden Rice and La’Vontae Shenault. Rice has not announced his destination, but Carpenter (UTSA), Miller (Texas A&M-Commerce) and Shenault (Alabama State) have committed to other schools.

Statistically, Rice was the Buffs’ top wide receiver this past season, but the Buffs are slated to return seniors Daniel Arias, Maurice Bell and Jaylon Jackson, junior Dimitri Stanley and sophomores Montana Lemonious-Craig, Chase Penry and Ty Robinson.

Also in the mix will be three incoming freshmen: Grant Page, Chase Sowell and Jordan Tyson.

A three-star prospect, Wells is rated by 247Sports.com as a top-75 interior lineman nationally in the 2022 class. He has 19 total scholarship offers, including from Air Force, Houston and Maryland.

Wells is the third lineman in CU’s class, joining tackles Carter Edwards and Travis Gray.

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