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Each step Trey Mancini took to his locker in the Houston Astros’ clubhouse at Camden Yards on Thursday felt familiar but was oh so different.

Getting off a plane at BWI Marshall Airport, then heading up Interstate 295 into Baltimore? It was a “drive that I made 1,000 times probably, for a lot of different reasons,” Mancini said hours before he faced his former team for the first time at Camden Yards.

He arrived at the Orioles’ home ballpark via the Astros’ team bus, rather than driving himself and parking in the player lot. Inside the tunnel in the stadium’s lower level, he walked farther toward the third base side than he ever had, heading to the visitors’ clubhouse instead of the one he spent parts of five seasons with a designated locker in.

“It’s so familiar,” Mancini said, “but you gotta remember that you’re here as a visitor now.”

He was welcomed as if it was still home. As Mancini warmed up before the game, the Orioles played a minutelong tribute video on the Camden Yards scoreboard that ended with “Thank you, Trey.” Another ovation came when he stepped up to bat in the second inning, removing his helmet to acknowledge a fan base that meant as much to him as he did to it.

It’s where he met his fiancee, Sara Perlman. It’s where he fought the stage 3 colon cancer that kept him out for the 2020 season. It’s where he was welcomed back and adored in a 2021 campaign in which he was the sport’s best story.

“My relationship with the city transcends baseball,” Mancini said, “and it always will.”

The Orioles traded Mancini, then their longest-tenured player, to the Astros for two pitching prospects Aug. 1. Weeks later, they visited Houston, allowing Mancini to shake whatever jitters he might have had facing the team that drafted him in 2013 and called him up to the majors three years later. He said his feelings about returning to Camden Yards were more excitement than nervousness.

This four-game series means little, otherwise, to the Astros, who have locked up the American League West to guarantee Mancini’s second career postseason berth. Baltimore, though, entered Thursday 4 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot with 14 games left. They were a .500 club when they traded Mancini, three games out of a playoff berth thanks to a 27-16 stretch after a slow start, and have gone 26-20 since, entering Thursday having lost 10 of their past 16 games.

“I was excited to see him get to go to such a good team like that and a really winning organization,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “But at the same time, selfishly, I wanted him to continue to be my teammate and be a part of this organization, so it was tough, but it’s all part of it.”

Hays and his teammates, though, said they haven’t allowed themselves to think whether this season might be going differently had the team held onto Mancini and All-Star closer Jorge López rather than trading them in future-focused moves by making no significant additions to the roster. After the Mancini deal, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias cited playoff probabilities in rationalizing the trade, though he has since walked those comments back. The players, though, have responded by remaining in the race.

“The thing about baseball is there’s a lot of what ifs involved and a lot of hindsight in certain aspects,” outfielder Cedric Mullins said. “It’s just a matter of going out and doing your part at the end of the day.”

Mancini acknowledged that he’s trying to “get a little more consistent at the plate” with Houston, hitting .193/.281/407 since the trade. But his bat, one that nearly made him an All-Star in 2019, would have deepened an Orioles’ lineup that has struggled of late.

“You never know,” infielder Ramón Urías said. “What if we had Trey? We might be better. I don’t know. We’re a different team now, but I think Trey did a good job for us.”

The day Mancini was traded featured “a lot of hugs and tears,” Hays recalled. Outfielder Anthony Santander hugged signed jersey Mancini gave him as an expression of his appreciation for his longtime teammates. Santander said Thursday he plans to frame the jersey and hang it in his Miami home.

He laughed about how frustrated Mancini would get when he played, reminding him to relax by saying “You’re the best hitter here.” Thanks to the trade, that’s no longer the case, but the bond remains.

“At the end of the day, it’s out of our control,” Santander said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “We can’t really control that, and right now, we feel like we have a really good chance to still compete and play hard and do a good job, so that’s all we can do right now.”

Although it took an adjustment for Mancini to find it Thursday, he’s felt welcome in the Astros’ clubhouse. He was thrilled to join a team with World Series aspirations, but he believes he left behind an organization that is trending toward the same level.

“These guys have such a great established culture here,” Mancini said. “From the second I got traded, I felt welcome and part of the team, and that’s just a testament to everything that they’ve built here and what they’ve done. And it’s certainly what Baltimore is on their way to doing over there, building a culture so when guys get traded, are called up there, that they feel welcome and part of the team immediately and it’s infectious.

“I’m really proud of what they’ve done.”

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3 storylines to watch as the Nets enter training camp

Of all the seasons Nets GM Sean Marks has been in the running for Executive of the Year, this might be the year his peers tip their hats.

Marks and team governor Joe Tsai stared an explosive situation in the face – a potential detonation of a championship franchise in the wake of Kevin Durant’s summertime trade request – and steadied the ship through turbulent waters.

Durant remains a Net ostensibly against his will, Kyrie Irving appears motivated on what’s serving as a one-year deal, Ben Simmons both looks and sounds healthy, and the Nets, yet again, return as championship contenders powered by a Big 3 that might be the best in basketball.

But will it be enough? History has shown, especially for this franchise, that the talent on paper is not the end-all, be-all to making a deep playoff run. Entering Year 4 of the Seven-Eleven era, the Nets have just one playoff series victory to show, with the same number of sweeps to boot after the Celtics dusted off the broomsticks and knocked them out of the first round in disappointing fashion last season.

This time, it should be different.

The Nets are getting a clean takeoff through training camp and are bringing largely the same core group back with a couple of new complementary faces. That familiarity will help them in the ways the lack of it doomed them last season. After starting last year with 10 new faces on the roster, seven of the 10 players who project to play meaningful minutes are returning from last year’s team.

That doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing all the way through. Here are three potential icebergs the Nets have to navigate around on a championship cruise.

Is second-year big man Day’Ron Sharpe ready for primetime?

Also known as ‘Do the Nets have enough size?’ While the numbers say the Nets were statistically an OK rebounding team last season, watching them battle for boards before acquiring Andre Drummond in the James Harden deal was a sight for sore eyes.

The Nets were routinely out-rebounded, especially after a big wing in Joe Harris was ruled out for the season because he needed two ankle surgeries. Drummond provided size where Nic Claxton lacked it, but the lack of a rebounding presence was thoroughly exploited in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics averaged 39.5 boards and the Nets only hauled in an average of 34. Those rebounds proved costly in a series decided by small margins.

The Nets got bigger this summer for sure. Royce O’Neale, whom the Nets acquired from the Utah Jazz for a trade exception and a first-round pick, plays bigger than his 6′4″ height would suggest. He averaged five rebounds for his career but has a season averaging seven boards as a 3-and-D who fits seamlessly alongside this talented group. TJ Warren checks in at 6′8″, 220 pounds. Markieff Morris isn’t known as a rebounder, but he’s 6′9″, just under 250 pounds.

Not to mention a healthy Simmons is a rebounding machine with the capacity to grab a board and take it the length of the floor for either a finish at the rim or a dime to an open teammate.

But Drummond left for Chicago and the Nets never signed a legitimate backup center despite having the cap mechanisms to do so. Instead of going after DeMarcus Cousins or Hassan Whiteside, the Nets are entering training camp with second-year big man Day’Ron Sharpe as the only other big man on the roster aside from Claxton, whose photos out of training camp also suggest he has put on more muscle weight to his once-considered lank frame.

Claxton, due to a variety of injuries and illnesses, has also only played in 97 regular-season games in his first three NBA seasons, giving a heightened chance that there will be times when Sharpe is the only center available to play. Sharpe has proven to be an effective rebounder but hasn’t adequately tested those instincts against the league’s best because he didn’t get much playing time as a rookie.

The first few games of the preseason and regular season will dictate whether or not Marks’ additions have helped compensate for the Nets’ lack of a brute force rebounder and defender like Drummond. If Brooklyn’s rebounding struggles continue, the Nets may need to add depth at the five

Will the Nets finally get a string of good health?

Speaking of Claxton’s availability history, the Nets have six players projecting to play critical minutes who have not been reliable for playing a full slate of games. Take TJ Warren, for example, whose size and scoring ability make him an excellent option to help take the load off Durant’s shoulders for spurts at a time.

Until you remember Warren hasn’t played in each of the past two seasons because of a nagging foot injury.

The injury bug festered in Brooklyn last season, and the Nets have a combustible roster with players who could be subject to aggravating old ailments. Harris hasn’t played basketball since Nov. 14 after attempting to make a comeback on an ankle that needed a second surgery.

Simmons hasn’t played basketball in a year-and-a-half and is coming off a microdiscectomy after dealing with a herniated disc in his lower back. Claxton’s availability has already been mentioned and the numbers alone speak volumes for Irving, who has appeared in only 103 games in his first three seasons in Brooklyn and has both regular-season and playoff injuries to show.

Of course, there’s Durant, the basketball machine who has said on multiple occasions to “let me die out there on the court” because he wants to play as many minutes as his team needs him to win games. He is three seasons removed from rupturing his Achilles – though his play makes it look like it never happened – and suffered an MCL injury that cost him a month-and-a-half on a freak play where Bruce Brown tumbled into his knee.

Every team’s season hinges on players being available, but the Nets have had bad luck in that department. Will this be the year they finally string it together?

How will Steve Nash maximize his players’ talents?

It’s not every day a superstar and former league MVP goes directly to the franchise owner and calls for both the jobs of his team’s head coach and general manager. And it’s certainly not every day that a team owner says no to a superstar’s demands – while also declining to fulfill his trade request.

But such is the status in Brooklyn, where things have to be at least a little awkward after Durant requested a trade, then reiterated that trade request with an ultimatum – ‘either trade me or fire both Steve Nash and Sean Marks’ – that went unfulfilled.

And while Marks’ resume as a general manager may have earned him a reputation as one of the best in the business, there is no doubt Nash – who took the Nets job two seasons ago with no prior coaching experience – has something to prove.

From rotations to in-game adjustments and timeouts, there have been times where Nash has looked in over his head as the leader of a team with championship aspirations, no time more glaring than when his former assistant Ime Udoka lapped him with defensive strategies that clamped the Nets’ two star scorers.

This season, success for Nash will be dictated by how fluid the offense looks and the variety of ways in which he’s able to unlock Simmons’ game. Nash said last season the Nets would use Simmons often at the center position, but his previous head coaches used his gifted playmaking abilities to start him at the point guard. The Harden deal also proved the Nets need a point guard to organize the offense so Durant and Irving aren’t tasked with doing so.

It will be on Nash not only to maximize Simmons’ talents but to get the most out of everyone and install an offense not nearly as predictable as the one opponents game-planned for last season.

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