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    From traditional fan favorites like fireworks and beverage discounts to the return of bobbleheads celebrating Quad Cities River Bandits greats and a unique collection of giveaways, the upcoming Midwest League season has something for everyone.

      The start of the season can’t come soon enough for teams looking to keep their pitching staffs as healthy as possible. A tough spring for pitchers continued Thursday with the announcements that New York Mets star closer Edwin Díaz and Washington Nationals prospect Cade Cavalli were expected to miss the entire season.

        Shohei Ohtani pitched shutout ball into the fifth inning and sparked a four-run third with a bunt single, leading Japan over Italy 9-3 and into its fifth straight World Baseball Classic semifinal. Boston’s Masataka Yoshida homered and drove in the go-ahead run with a grounder, giving him a tournament-leading 10 RBIs.

          Michael Conforto’s once-ailing shoulder appears healthy and the veteran slugger is back to mashing baseballs. The Giants have eased the 30-year-old back on the field after he missed all of 2022 following right shoulder surgery. But even in limited at-bats in the Cactus League, he’s hit four homers, which was tied for the spring lead through Wednesday’s games. 

          Injuries continue to pile up for the New York Yankees as they get ready to begin their AL East title defense. Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters Friday that outfielder Harrison Bader has an oblique issue. The injury puts Bader’s availability for the start of the season in doubt. Plus more news from around the league on Friday.

          Mike Trout was asked to be a part of this U.S. team for the World Baseball Classic. He didn’t have to be. The 31-year-old slugger knew he wanted to join this group ever since he watched the U.S. win the WBC title in 2017. The follow-up tournament was delayed two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. opens it title defense against Britain on Saturday night. They’re a part of Pool C, which also includes Canada, Mexico and Colombia.

          Major league hitters are working with the sport's brightest minds to close the gap on a technology-driven pitching renaissance. White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson is among a star-studded lineup of batters who worked on their swings with Driveline Baseball during the offseason. At places like Driveline and behind closed doors in unlabeled buildings around the major leagues, the race is on.

          Retired slugger Albert Pujols believes he has a future in coaching but isn't in a hurry to get there. Pujols, who retired in October after 703 career home runs, says he's not going to put a timetable on a potential return to the game.  Plus other MLB and WBC news from Thursday.

          Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani is arguably the game's best player anywhere. But in Japan, he's more than just a baseball player. He's an antidote for many in his native country. Japanese culture and politics seem more tenuous than a few decades ago. The economy is stagnant. The birthrate is among the world’s lowest. The rivalry with China is never from from people's minds. In this environment, the return of Ohtani to play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic is playing huge. As one fan puts it, his achievements “have had a positive influence on all Japanese people.”

          Flashy footwear is a feature of this year's World Baseball Classic. Stadium Custom Cleats has provided about 42 specially designed shoes for three dozen players. The company is owned by Alex Katz, a pitcher for Israel at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and at this year’s WBC.


          Major League Baseball's new limits on infield shifts are raising batter spirits this spring. They might be bosltering batting averages, too. Batting averages across the league are up slightly from last spring training, from .259 to .263. Left-handed hitters seem to be benefitting most, with their collected average up from .255 to .274.

          Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper said he will report to spring training on Wednesday as he continues recovering from elbow surgery and then determine when he can return full time. Plus more news from around the league on Sunday.

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