• CARACAS <a title="" href=""></a> , Venezuela (AP) — For 10 years, ever since they bonded over baseball at work, Franlet Bencomo and Elbert Albarran haven’t missed an opening day game together.This year, however, they left their kids behind and ate a big breakfast before heading out to watch their beloved Caracas Lions because a hot dog inside the stadium costs more than 10 percent of the roughly $30 each makes a month at their minimum-wage jobs.“Now we have to eat beforehand, watch the game and go straight home” said Bencomo, in line for tickets six hours before the start of Friday’s season opener. “There’s no other way.”Throughout Venezuela, as winter league play gets under way, fans are having to make similar sacrifices to feed their passion for “pelota,” — the word for ball that’s used to describe the national pastime.Hyperinflation has pulverized incomes while putting ticket prices out of reach for many. Others are avoiding the ballpark for fear of getting mugged or because they don’t know how they’ll get home amid a nationwide transportation crisis. In response, more daytime games are being played.Venezuela’s eight professional teams are struggling. For the second straight year, state-run oil company PDVSA had to step in with a $12 million lifeline to pay for everything from imported baseballs to the salaries of the seven foreign-born players — most of them minor league prospects from the U.S. — on each team’s roster.During the offseason, vandals picked through stadiums, stripping bathrooms of metal faucets. Groundskeepers have been battling water shortages in several cities. Meanwhile, ticket prices remain a mystery, with some clubs changing them by the week to keep pace with inflation forecast by the International Monetary Fund to soon reach 10 million percent.In Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, the situation is so dire that the Aguilas (Eagles) team canceled its opener and five other home games this month after an inspector hired by Major League Baseball ruled their diamond didn’t meet minimal safety standards. The club said several of its light towers had the copper wiring stolen and the state government, which owns the facility, hasn’t come up with the relatively modest sum of $39 <a title="Glenn Hubbard Jersey" href="">Glenn Hubbard Jersey</a> ,000 needed to repair the lighting. Still, the Eagles will be playing on the road.Venezuela’s once highly competitive winter league has been in decline for years.While many of the 70-plus Venezuelan players on big league rosters return home for a few games each season, most arriving this year, such as Los Angeles Angels pitcher Eduardo Paredes or Detroit infielder Harold Castro, are little known and don’t reflect the nation’s powerhouse talent. Meanwhile, major league organizations have shut down all their academies in the country.Venezuela is scheduled to host the Caribbean Series in February at Barquisimeto, one of the city’s hardest hit by power outages that have roiled much of the country. Last year’s tournament, which brings together the champions of five Caribbean winter leagues, was moved from Barquisimeto to Guadalajara, Mexico, following deadly protests against Venezuela’s socialist government.Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a former Venezuela league president and prominent opposition leader, said he remembers going to the stadium with his father during the 1960s oil boom and watching future Hall of Famer Earl Weaver manage the Cardinals in Barquisimeto. Pete Rose, after winning rookie of the year honors, and Barry Bonds are among other major leaguers who played in Venezuela during its golden era.“Back then there wasn’t such a big difference between salaries in the major leagues and what Venezuelan teams could pay,” he said.In something of a departure from his normally fierce criticism of President Nicolas Maduro, Aveledo applauds the government’s decision to spend part of its dwindling supply of dollars on baseball — even if he acknowledges that there are more pressing needs.From field crews to ticket scalpers to hot dog vendors, thousands of families depend on baseball to make a living, and Aveledo says the stadiums have long served as a sporting sanctuary where fans of all classes and political backgrounds can set aside their differences and mounting hardships.“It is one of the few things that unites us,” he said. “For the three months the season lasts <a title="Rickey Henderson Jersey" href="">Rickey Henderson Jersey</a> , there’s a different vibe in the country.”Indeed, last year stadium attendance rose 5 percent amid the political and economic crisis, although it remains down by a third from a peak in the 2013-2014 season.It’s not just the fans who have to endure sacrifices.Former All-Star shortstop Ozzie Guillen said he was tempted to skip returning home to manage the La Guaira Tiburones (Sharks) for the third straight season.In addition to cross-country bus rides on dangerous roads, players coming from the U.S. run the risk of getting food poisoning at neglected restaurants. And they have to deal with frequent power blackouts, like the one that postponed Monday’s game between the Bravos (Braves) and Magallanes in Valencia.“But I’m not here to cry,” said Guillen, who for the first time since growing up in poverty near Caracas said he has been without running water at his home in a well-to-do district of the capital.Guillen, the first Latino to manage a World Series winner with the 2005 Chicago White Sox, said Venezuelans’ passion for the game shows no sign of fading despite the country’s problems. While ticket and beer prices are rising fast, he insists the ballpark is still the “cheapest bar in all of Venezuela.”“I know things are difficult for the fans,” said Guillen, whose reputation for speaking freely about politics has sometimes gotten him in trouble. “But the game still brings more happiness and joy than sadness.” ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves need to win three straight games against the Los Angeles Dodgers to avoid suffering a ninth consecutive playoff elimination dating to 2001.First, though, the Braves need to worry about scoring a run as the best-of-five National League Division Series moves to SunTrust Park in Atlanta on Sunday night.The Dodgers, trying to make the NL Championship Series for the third consecutive year, won 6-0 and 3-0 in Los Angeles while holding the Braves to nine combined hits and issuing no walks.Article continues below ...The New York Giants in the 1921 World Series are the only other team to be shut out in the first two games of a postseason series.“We’ve just gotta go back home, regroup and win a game,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.It may not get much easier for the Braves in Game 3 as the Dodgers turn to rookie right-hander Walker Buehler as they go for a sweep of the NL East champions.Buehler, who had a 2.03 ERA after the All-Star break, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Monday in the NL West tiebreaker against Colorado that gave the Dodgers their sixth straight division title.“Obviously this will be my first playoff game <a title="" href=""></a> , but (Game) 163 has got to be somewhere between a regular game and a playoff game,” said Buehler, who finished with an 8-5 record and 2.62 ERA. “I’m just going with the same game plan, and try and stay under control.”Buehler beat the Braves in his only regular-season start against them as the 24-year-old allowed a run and two hits over 5 1/3 innings at Los Angeles on June 8.Worse yet for the Braves, that was when their offense was one of the best in the NL. That began to change in the second half and took a dive in September.The Braves are batting .145 in the two playoff games and have one extra-base hit, leaving the team with few answers after being completely stymied by Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw.“I can probably move guys around,” said Snitker, who will bat Ender Inciarte second. “The same guys are going to be out there. We are what we are. We’ve just got to hope. I’m not sure moving guys around, giving them different looks in the lineup, when you’re swinging the bats like we are, is even the answer.”Right-hander Kevin Gausman was slated to start Game 3, but Snitker changed his mind Saturday and will go with left-hander Sean Newcomb.Newcomb, who pitched two scoreless innings of relief in Game 1, had a no-hitter through 8 2/3 innings against the Dodgers in Atlanta on July 29, but had his ups and downs the rest of the season while finishing 12-9 with a 3.90 ERA.The Braves are 10-25 in postseason games since last winning a series in 2001, when they swept Houston in the NLDS. Atlanta hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013, when it lost 3-1 to the Dodgers in the NLDS.The Braves were 1-3 against the Dodgers in Atlanta during the regular season, with Newcomb getting the only win, and 2-5 overall versus Los Angeles.

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