Even After Best Dunk Contest Ever, A Suggested Rule Change

GettyImages-510119160.vadapt.664.high.50

Aaron Gordon, sitting in mid-air Saturday night. Dunks like this deserve more than a 50. (Photo: Yardbarker)

I work a very busy schedule, with 40 hours a week spent at my job, and yet this week I managed to set aside enough time to watch highlights of perhaps the best duel in NBA Dunk Contest history at least 10 times. The same Youtube clip of the eye-popping battle between Minnesota Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine and Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon that took place six days ago, over and over again, never managing to get old. It was sports entertainment at its finest–the peak of entertainment in general. The dunk contest over the years has wavered from amazing, to okay, to boring, in a torturous circle of inconsistency. And yet, with these two guys flying through the air, Saturday night’s masterpiece showed that it’s back and here to stay.

Though this is the case, there’s a minor tweak the NBA needs to make in order for the contest to be even more exciting: extend the scoring beyond a 50. LaVine and Gordon combined to throw down six straight 50s, spread over the initial round and championship round, but some were better than others. And while it would’ve been amazing to see 50s handed out and the dunking to go into the morning’s wee hours, alterations must be made so the participants receive the scores they deserve. How can this be accomplished?

First, for the championship round, tack on a possible bonus points for creativity. Take Gordon’s first dunk of the championship round, for instance, with the mascot rotating on a hoverboard, holding the ball outright as the high-flying 20-year-old snatched it, spun 360 degrees, cupping the ball in the process, and slamming it through. The dunk itself was a 50, but additional points would be possible for the mascot’s role and the chemistry between the two in regards to timing it perfectly. Each of the five judges would have a bonus point at their disposal. Perhaps not all of the judges would choose to tack it on, but the odds are at least one out of five would. That way not only Gordon’s dunking ability would get the score it deserved, but also his creativity.

LaVine’s dunks were magnificent. All of them made me shake my head in disbelief and rightfully brought those in attendance in Toronto out of their seats. While Gordon is more taller and more muscular and thus appearing more powerful , LaVine’s slender build makes it look as if he’s soaring through the air. It’s a sight to behold, a thing of beauty. And yet the scores he received showed why the scoring system is flawed. As an example, for his dunk attempt that followed Gordon’s 360, he copied it, except without a mascot or teammate or Gordon’s additional flair of putting his available hand behind his head. LaVine bounced the ball to himself instead. As TNT analyst Kenny Smith said, “Even though Aaron’s was better, that’s a fifty.” Within the system that is in place now, almost mirroring a “50” is deemed just as good. Therein lies the problem. Was it a 50? Yes. Did it have all of the pizazz of Gordon’s? No. Hence the dunk is a 50, but under the suggested rule there’s a chance he would be behind because of his lack of creativity. There is no way LaVine spent time conceiving that style of dunk only for Gordon to happen to do the same thing right before. Gordon clearly spent time with the mascot to work on his slam. If the suggested rule change was implemented, Gordon might receive a 52 to LaVine’s 50.

Another wrinkle could be added to spice things up and test the imagination of the dunkers, and that’s cutting down on the similarities in dunks by a contestant. During the championship round, LaVine dunked from a foot inside the free-throw line twice. It was an incredible feat, as the first was a windmill and second between-the-legs, but lacked originality. He had also dunked from the same spot in the opening round, and while it was wowing watch him glide through the air on all three occasions it was clear he had little up his sleeve. Okay, we get it, you can dunk leaping from far away, just not actually the free-throw line. 

All three of those dunks were 50s, according to the judges, and on their own, yes, that’s accurate. Yet, in a contest that looks to feature ability and creativity there really isn’t a place for this repetitiveness. And so, a new rule: if a contestant attempts a dunk that is similar in origin to another in that round–whether it be a windmill, between-the-legs, 360 or from the free-throw line–it cannot be a 50.

In contrast to LaVine Gordon had four dunks in the championship round that were original: the aforementioned, his second that brought the house down–an under-the-legs jam that can’t properly be described in words, only seen–a windmill along the baseline on a pass off the backboard’s side from teammate Elfrid Payton, and a thunderous Dominique Wilkins-esque reverse slam. Everything but the latter received a 50, and deservedly so. Each was unique, with its own backbone. There was no duplication of ideas.

If these rules were implemented, Gordon would’ve won. After LaVine essentially mirrored Gordon’s 360, TNT analyst Charles Barkley proclaimed that the trophy would head to Orlando. He was going by the logic that originality should matter. Simply based off the reaction of the fans, analysts and judges, Gordon’s under-the-legs slam (pictured above) generated the most buzz. How could it not? He took a seat in mid-air, with a person underneath him. This created that reaction because it’s something never been done before in the dunk contest. That kind of thinking warrants a trophy, but for this to take place changes need to be made, or the best of the best dunks won’t truly stand out.

 

 

As Part of Farewell Tour, Kobe Bryant’s Bittersweet Stop In Philly

i

Kobe Bryant bid farewell to Philadelphia as part of his season-long goodbye to the NBA. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

It’s hard for me to get behind the idea of farewell tours. When Derek Jeter announced he was hanging up his spikes after the 2014 season, every game became a show about him. This is his last game here. Here’s a gift from us to you. And here’s some applause. Oh, and, yeah, there’s a game going on down there. I went to his final game at Wrigley Field, and it was a thrill to see him play, even though he was a mere shadow of his former self. It’s fun to say I was able to see his final game at Wrigley, but the whole premise behind the farewell tour phenomenon comes across as self-centered, and has the potential to take away from the game’s beauty.

Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said he wouldn’t do what Jeter did but ultimately couldn’t resist announcing the 2016 season will be his last. Now, everywhere he goes he will be celebrated. Fans will flock to games. Like Jeter, he will acknowledge their praise. And, while other players may shine, the entire season will be about him. It’s difficult not to boil it down to self-marketing, a way of fueling the ego one last time. It’s as if they’re saying, I’m an icon, I’m leaving you, you will miss me, enjoy the last of me here before I go. For players like Jeter, the once captain of the Yankees, and Ortiz, the Red Sox leader, it’s far from classy.

Touring isn’t solely reserved for baseball. Kobe Bryant recently announced that this season, his 20th with the Los Angeles Lakers, will be his last. And last night, his farewell brought him back to his roots, Philadelphia, where he grew up. It was an electrifying atmosphere, something seldom seen in Philly these days (in regards to both the 76ers and the similarly hapless Eagles), and all because of Bryant’s presence. Chants of “Kobe” echoed through the arena. Philadelphia’s roster averages 23 years of age–one of their players, Jahlil Okafor, wasn’t even born yet when Bryant entered the league–and they were in awe of their childhood idol. It was the Kobe Show, and everyone was happily invited.

Continue reading

After Postseason Appearance, What’s Next For Cubs?

After helping the Blue Jays to the postseason, David Price might be wearing blue yet again in 2016--this time, as a Chicago Cub. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

After helping the Blue Jays to the postseason, David Price might be wearing blue yet again in 2016–this time, as a Chicago Cub. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

This past season, the Chicago Cubs won 97 games, clinched a postseason birth, reached the ALDS and had many wondering if they could pull off what Back to the Future: Part 2 predicted: end the Curse of the Billy Goat by winning the 2015 World Series. Despite their talent and the possibility for this all too perfect narrative, it was not to be. And yet, though they didn’t accomplish their goal, the Cubs still proved mediocrity is behind them, with a slew of young talent in both the hitting and pitching departments. What’s next for this long-suffering franchise as it tries to get off the century-plus snide?

Cruelly, ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield recently did his best to give the curse that haunts the Cubs reason to maintain its tortuous hold. He listed Chicago as the favorite to win the 2016 World Series. This is unwise for many reasons: first, there’s already enough pressure on the team without putting this prediction out there; second, there is no reason to believe Kansas City can’t repeat as champions after prevailing in their second-straight World Series appearance; and third, the current Cubs roster might not be built for a title run.

How can Chicago, then, transform into a championship contender? President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, the head-honcho of who stays, who goes and who is brought in, admitted there’s some work to do.

“We have some other areas we need to address,” he told ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers. “We may be forced … to take away from that position-player group to add pitching. I don’t know.”

Continue reading

Back To The Future? As Cubs Face Elimination, Team President Theo Epstein Looks To The Past

In 2004, Boston fans had that same dejected look on their face following Game 3 of the Championship Series. Then their team made history. (Photo: AP)

In 2004, Boston fans had that same dejected look on their face following Game 3 of the Championship Series. Then their team made history. (Photo: AP)

In Back To The Future: Part 2, Marty McFly traveled to October 21st, 2015. That day is here. In the film, it was predicted that the Chicago Cubs had finally ended the long-suffering drought and won the World Series. Much of what McFly experienced on that day is either part of society or isn’t far off. Chicago hopes to join holographic advertising, camera drones, pocket digital cameras, VR headsets and biometrics as 2015 realties, instead of ultimately becoming a cool futuristic hope like the self-tying shoes the film’s creators surely thought would be in department stores by this time.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein can’t predict the future, but talking about another October 21st, the 2004 edition, could breathe life into his team that faces a 3-0 series hole against the New York Mets. This day 11 years ago, Epstein’s Boston Red Sox were basking in their ability to pull off a historic comeback. They had won Game 7 of the ALCS against another New York team, the vaunted Yankees, the night before–their fourth-straight win after facing a 3-0 deficit. A comeback of this magnitude was the first in baseball circles, and while extremely improbable who’s to say it can’t be done again?

Continue reading

As Three Teams Chase The Yankees In AL East, Will Anyone Catch Them?

Troy Tulowitzki has electrified a Toronto Blue Jays team now primed for a run at the AL East crown and possibly more. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Troy Tulowitzki has electrified a Toronto Blue Jays team now primed for a run at the AL East crown and possibly more. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

When I began my dissection of the American League East early last month, all five teams inhabiting the division were in contention. Then the Boston Red Sox took a nosedive, delving further into the basement that had become all too familiar. And now, as they call up young players to see what they can do, the rest of the division is still primed for a postseason run. Entering Tuesday’s play, with less than two months remaining and the stretch run upon us, New York held a 5 1/2 game lead over both the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, with the Tampa Bay Rays not far behind at 7 1/2 games. There is still time for any of these four teams to stand alone at season’s end. What do the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays need to do to accomplish that goal?

Baltimore

The Orioles have won eight of their past ten games, and recently upgraded an already potent offense at the trade deadline. Baltimore traded for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Gerardo Parra, a 28-year-old outfielder whose batting average of .328 ranked fourth in the National League at the time of the deal. He hasn’t missed a beat since joining the Orioles, reaching base four times and scoring three times while batting second and manning left-field. While his acquisition is an upgrade over the assortment of Orioles left-fielders who managed to hit only .210 this season, the pitching staff is worrisome.

Of a five-man rotation that includes Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman, only Tillman posted a sub-4.00 ERA in the month of July. As part of his July struggles Jimenez, viewed as a frontline starter, allowed seven runs in back-to-back starts. His woes. His woes have continued into August, as he allowed six earned runs in a 6-1 loss to Detroit. the 31-year-old was solid prior to this poor stretch, but it’s hard to trust someone who tosses five shutout innings one start and lasts only a combined six innings over his next two. And while Tyler Wilson, who was recalled from the minor leagues to make Monday, gave the staff a jolt with seven sharp innings on Monday, the Orioles will need their veteran starters to deliver if they want to leap-frog the Yankees and keep the Rays and Jays at bay.

The bullpen is fairly stout, but in order to reap the benefits their relievers have to get the ball with the lead intact. That hasn’t taken place on a regular basis. In addition, a dangerous offense is certainly a nice thing to boast, but a team can’t expect to win consistently without consistency from the starters–pitchers who dictate the game’s course.

Tampa Bay 

The Rays embody the gnat that just won’t go away. Year after year, no matter which stars they’ve lost, they manage to be right there in the thick of the race. Prior to this season, they not only entered with a makeshift roster but a new manager in Kevin Cash, whose only prior coaching experience was serving as the Cleveland Indians bullpen coach in 2014, two years after his playing days officially came to a close. He has done an incredible job thus far, picking up where longtime Rays manager Joe Maddon left off with an ability to piece together a contender while relying on a wealth of inexperienced youth.

Continue reading

The AL East’s Five Horse Race, Part 1: New York Yankees

The Yankees need struggling C.C. Sabathia to work out his kinks if they want to keep contending in the wildly competitive AL East. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Yankees need struggling C.C. Sabathia to work out his kinks if they want to keep contending in the wildly competitive AL East. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Seventy-eight games may remain in the season, but pennant races are starting to heat up. There is bound to be some reshuffling and separation once schedules start to frequently pit divisional foes against one another, but for a tight-knit atmosphere that has the makings of a free-for-all look no further than the American League East. This division may very well be a five-horse race, with the Boston Red Sox only six games back, peering around the corner, out of the shadows, letting everyone know they’re still around despite a 39-45 record entering Monday’s play. Despite that basement-dwelling record, their minimal distance from the division-leading New York Yankees could make for a fascinating race over the nearly three months that still remain.

Two games separates the Yankees from the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays. Usually, even at this stage, only two or three teams are vying for the divisional crown. Such is the case in baseball’s five other divisions. Considering the rarity of the AL East’s current standing, what does each team need to do to be the last horse standing?


As the first of a five-part series, it’s necessary to take a look at the team that looks down at the rest. How can the Yankees fend off the competition?

New York: The Yankees desperately need 34-year-old CC Sabathia to pitch effectively. The team is skipping his next start after he posted a 5.59 ERA spread over his first 16. He has relinquished 13 home-runs in his past 10 starts, with six multi-home-run games. The ship has sailed on his ability to regain his All-Star form due to a substantial drop in velocity, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a pitcher lurking within who can keep his team in games; in five of his past ten starts he has allowed three runs or less, so it’s not as if he’s going out there and laying an egg every fifth day. The rest of the rotation isn’t dependable enough to maintain success amidst continued mediocrity from a pitcher who they expect a lot from.

Continue reading

If Matthews Recovers From Injury, Mavs Will Make Noise In Western Conference

Dallas invested $57 million in Wesley Matthews even though he is coming off a torn Achilles. (Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Dallas invested $57 million in Wesley Matthews even though he is coming off a torn Achilles. (Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

In the eyes of the Portland Trail Blazers front office, this offseason could be going as planned: acquire frontcourt depth and help on the wing while putting the brunt of their focus on re-signing star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. If Aldridge re-signs, they may very well think the team could contend in the Western Conference. What they failed to place emphasis on is another important piece to their puzzle, Wesley Matthews. As The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick reported on Friday, they didn’t even pay him any attention, deciding not to even make him an offer. And now the heart and soul of their team is gone, having agreed to a four-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks.

Matthews, who is still rehabbing from a torn Achilles, is a risky signing. The injury he sustained late last season that essentially crumbled Portland’s hopes of contending for a championship is considered equivalent to micro-fracture knee surgery in terms of how difficult recovery is. Even in a market littered with inflated salaries due to the impending salary cap increase, throwing $52 million his way could be a disaster given the slim chance he will be even a shell of his former self.

Though the odds aren’t in his favor, given Matthews hard-working persona and never-give-in mentality if anyone can bounce back from such a serious injury it’s him. He is the definition of grit, and the prototypical “3 and D” player–defined as someone who sports a deadly stroke from deep to compliment tenacious defense. In addition, he was widely considered the “iron man” in Portland, never taking any games off, let alone any plays. Only when he suffered such an extreme injury as a torn Achilles was he involuntarily forced off the court.

Continue reading

The Diamondbacks’ Nonsensical Trading of Touki Toussaint

The acquisition of Touki Toussaint by the Atlanta Braves is considered to be a coup. (Photo credit: ProspectInsider.com)

The acquisition of Touki Toussaint by the Atlanta Braves is considered to be a coup. (Photo credit: ProspectInsider.com)

Touki Toussaint’s name might be cool, but it’s not a household one. He’s 19-year-old pitching prospect who doesn’t project to reach the show for a few years, but the Arizona Diamondbacks fans know who he is and what he’s capable of. At his young age and in his first year of professional baseball, he is hardly a sure thing, and yet he’s thought highly enough for the fans excitement to rightfully turn into dismay. They are now left to ponder what could’ve been, and that is because Toussaint, the farm system’s fifth-ranked prospect, was traded to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Bronson Arroyo and infielder Phil Gosselin. The move is considered a “coup” by many baseball writers in favor of the Braves. As for Arizona, it’s perplexing, made all the more so when considering there is no sound reasoning behind their decision.

The move has been called a “coup” by many baseball writers, and they may be right. Arizona selected the 6’3″ right-hander with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft out of Coral Springs Christian Academy. And though raw and unproven, he’s drawn rave reviews in the year since as a pitcher with the talent to one day be a frontline MLB starter. Praised for his lively fastball that sits in the mid-90s, Toussaint is also highly thought of for his demeanor and repertoire of offspeed pitches that, with some work, could compliment the heater nicely.

Following the trade, Quinn Barry of SB Nation‘s Minor League Ball documented his arsenal and why he could be so difficult to hit down the road:

Toussaint’s stuff is where he really makes his bread and butter as a prospect. His fastball, which sits in the high-to-mid 90s and touches 98, has late movement into right-handed batters and away from lefties, making it an extremely difficult pitch to hit. Touki’s curve is likely already a plus major league offering. The hook exhibits extreme break in a 12-6 fashion, so much so that Toussaint himself often seems to have little idea where the pitch is going. His change-up lags behind his other two offerings, but considering Touki’s age and premiere athleticism, there is good reason to believe he can transform this pitch into at least an average offering at maturity.

As Barry notes with the unpredictable nature of Toussaint’s curveball, the righty struggles to control his assortment of pitches. This could be attributed to the wild conclusion of what begins as a straight-forward and deceptive delivery home. He falls off to the first-base side on a regular basis as the pitch cascades towards the plate and as a result doesn’t finish his pitches. In turn, this coupled with the accompanying inconsistencies regarding his balance and footing translates to difficulty duplicating offerings. For 25-year-olds looking to climb up the minor league ladder, this would be a cause for concern, but Toussaint’s age is in his favor. He has plenty of time to develop a motion that consistently leads to more precise location. Right now, Toussaint frustrates hitters with his unpredictability and movement, but if he makes necessary adjustments he could very well become a star. That’s what makes him such a commodity.

Continue reading

The Return Of The Great Albert Pujols Is Fueling Increasingly Dangerous Angels

Albert Pujols celebrates with his Angels teammates after his grand slam Tuesday evening that turned a 7-5 deficit into a 9-7 lead. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Albert Pujols celebrates with his Angels teammates after his grand slam Tuesday evening that turned a 7-5 deficit into a 9-7 lead. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

A ball can’t be hit much harder than what Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim slugger Albert Pujols did to Edward Mujica’s offering in the seventh inning of Friday night’s win over the Oakland Athletics. With the bases loaded and one out, a frozen rope was catapulted off the wall beyond the left-field fence, ricocheting back into the field after making its dent. It was a grand slam, the 13th of his career and his 20th home-run thus far in 2015, erasing what was a five-run deficit as part of what ultimately amounted to an eight-run inning. It was also the latest example of the 35-year-old’s resurgence, a sign that Pujols is indeed back to being great.

Most baseball players need seasoning before they solidify themselves as major leaguers. Pujols wasn’t one of them. He was feared the moment he stepped on a major league diamond, and for good reason. Standing at 6’3″, 230 pounds, glaring out at the pitcher, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger waited for the opportunity to turn his best stuff into a mistake and a souvenir, and time and time again he delivered. His rookie season in 2001 was reminiscent of Ted Williams’ inaugural campaign with the Red Sox, batting .329 with 37 home-runs and 130 RBI to win the Rookie of the Year award and finish fourth in the NL MVP voting.

He was just getting started, and ultimately set an MLB record for most consecutive 30-plus home-run, 100-plus RBI seasons to start a career with 10. And yet, for the first part of his glorious prime, the three-time MVP was just one of many potent power hitters, amassing home-run totals that put him in the middle of the pack but would be near the top in today’s pitching-dominant era. Lost in the mix and taken for granted, but clean amidst the asterisk-laden steroid era, there was no mistaking his greatness. He could do it all. And then 2013 happened.

Father Time was on Pujols’ coattails and his elongated prime quickly became a memory as his body began to betray him. He has dealt with plantar fasciitis for much of his career, a condition that was at its worst entering his second season with the Angels after 11 seasons in St. Louis. Watching him trot around the bases was a painful sight. It was as if he was walking barefoot on shards of glass, instead of in cleats on manicured dirt. On top of this, his right knee was balking, needing arthroscopic surgery. He was a 33-year-old with diminished power, a dipping batting average, and seven years and $212 million left on his deal with the Anaheim Angels.

Continue reading

Daniels’ Belief In Rangers Paying Off As Team Eyes AL West Lead

Joey Gallo has done nothing but mash since his debut on June 2nd, anchoring a Rangers team that roared into contention in the AL West. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

Joey Gallo has done nothing but mash since his debut on June 2nd, anchoring a Rangers team that has roared into contention in the AL West. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

Over course of the long baseball season, teams are bound to struggle. How they fare after a losing streak or a slow start out of the gate comes down to both confidence and patience. If the players are confident and the manager and front office belief in their ability to bounce back, the tide can turn. The Texas Rangers began the season winning just eight of their first 24 games, and yet backing them amidst these woes was General Manager Jon Daniels.

“We took the approach the first few weeks of patience, and I’m glad we did,” Daniels told the media as part of a 20-minute press conference on May 4th. “Let things play out a little bit, give guys a chance to get their feet under them. It has not really picked up with an exception of a few individuals. I think in conversations with our group we’re going to take a little more critical look at things over this road trip and again we’re giving guys a chance to pull out of it.

I’d rather err on the side of patience. I do believe in these guys. There’s no panic. It’s just the reality. We want to see guys turn the corner.”

In April, the offense struggled mightily, batting just .210 as a team. Much was expected of center-fielder Leonys Martin, shortstop Elvis Andrus, third baseman Adrian Beltre and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, but the highest batting average among the four was Martin’s paltry .236 mark. On top of this, those who were hitting well were still suffering from a power outage. Star sluggers Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland both batted over .300 in April but combined for just two homers in 150 at-bats.

While the bats were quiet there was only so much the pitching could do. The rotation had its bright spots, with Nick Martinez, Yovani Gallardo and Colby Lewis proving to be dependable. So did the bullpen, as middle relievers Shawn Tolleson, Roman Mendez and 22-year-old Keone Kela all had sparkling ERAs under 2.70. And yet, the staff’s performance was still underwhelming. Texas’s ERA for the month ranked 20th out of 30 teams, and opponents were batting .275 against them, ranking 27th.

There wasn’t a lot to like, but Daniels wasn’t about to give up. Since that 8-16 start, the Rangers have rewarded his patience with a 25-14 record, among the best marks in baseball to find itself three games over .500 and breathing down Houston’s neck in the AL West.

Continue reading

As Royals Fans Stuff Ballot Box, It’s Time To Get Rid of Fan Voting

Kansas City Royals shortstop Omar Infante, batting .207, is in line to start the All-Star Game. There is something terribly wrong here. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

Kansas City Royals second baseman Omar Infante, batting .207, is in line to start the All-Star Game. There is something terribly wrong here. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

A little more than two weeks remain for fans to vote for the starters in the MLB All-Star game, and it’s looking like a Royal affair. The Kansas City Royals have eight players leading their positions in voting, with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout leading all center-fielders in votes as the lineup’s ninth man. Eric Hosmer leads at first, Mike Moustakas at third, Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Kendrys Morales at designated hitter, Salvador Perez at catcher, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon flanking Trout in the outfield, and most recently Omar Infante at second base. This is absurd, and should be a wake-up call to Major League Baseball. Fans are currently allowed to vote up to 35 times. If the sport wants this to be what it’s meant to be–a must-see attraction full of stars–this voting system shouldn’t be in place. Taken a step further, they shouldn’t have the right to decide who starts.

Putting this ridiculousness into perspective is Infante’s recent leap-frog of Houston’s Jose Altuve. Infante is hitting just .204 this season with an equally atrocious .217 OPB to compliment his zero homers, zero stolen bases, and only 39 hits in 53 games. Altuve, on the other hand, is having a superb season, with 72 hits and a .290 batting average to go with his 17 stolen bases and five home-runs as the anchor of the AL West-leading Astros. And yet he might not start because fans thought it would be fun to take advantage of a flawed system and click the button next to Infante’s name time and time again.

Infante isn’t the only presumptive Royals All-Star game starter whose positioning can be questioned, and this isn’t the first time undeserving players have had their names called in the Midsummer Classic. Before fan voting took over, being named an All-Star was a prestigious feat. It was a legitimate recognition of someone’s performance. Multiple selections was up there with winning awards. You’re an eight-time All-Star? You must really be one of the best at your position. It was the kind of thing that helped build a legacy.

Continue reading

Yet Again With Cavaliers, LeBron James Stands Alone

Cavaliers' LeBron James once more proved he's the best player on the planet. And yet he can only do so much by himself. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Cavaliers’ LeBron James once more proved he’s the best player on the planet. And yet he can only do so much by himself. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

So much happened in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, deadlocked at two games apiece entering this series-titling matchup, went small, playing a game of chess they hoped would pay dividends. There were lead changes galore and seven-footers seated on the bench while a flurry of guards and forwards ran wild. Amidst this, starting in place of center Andrew Bogut, small forward Andre Iguodala continued to provide a spark offensively. Additionally, Stephen Curry showed why he was named this season’s MVP with a dazzling shooting display. As for Cleveland, it was more of the same from LeBron James–another triple-double. And, unfortunately something else the franchise is accustomed to: James forced to do it all himself.

James returned to Cleveland last offseason after four years with the Miami Heat, where he won two championships with stars at his elbow. His goal was clear: bring a championship to a city starved for success. He tried to do so in his first go-around with his home-state’s team, but despite his otherworldly efforts the lack of support around him doomed chance after chance. Time and time again, whether it was in the Finals or Eastern Conference Finals, James walked through the tunnel a disappointed star.

Given another opportunity to win with James, Cleveland appeared to learn its lesson. Budding star point guard Kyrie Irving was ready to be his sidekick, and the franchise did all it could to please James before and during the regular season, trading for all-star power forward Kevin Love, guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert and center Timofey Mozgov. After some early season struggles, this group looked like a championship contender. For the first time with the Cavaliers, James was at the helm with help.

Wins came in bunches. And then, just the city of Cleveland’s luck–championship-less since the 1964 Cleveland Browns–the dominoes began to fall. Just as he was beginning to mesh with his new teammates, Love went down with a dislocated shoulder, ending his season. If that wasn’t enough, salt entered the wound. Irving began to have knee issues, and proceeded to limp through the first three rounds of the playoffs before fracturing his kneecap in Game 1 of this series, ending his valiant effort to play through the pain.

Cleveland had weathered the blow of losing Love by getting superb contributions from energetic mainstay Tristan Thompson and Mozgov’s intelligence and efficiency. And they seemed to be fine without Irving, as undrafted, gritty guard Matthew Dellavedova stepped up. Cleveland held a 2-1 series lead, splitting in Oakland and winning Game 3 in Cleveland.

Continue reading

Reds Hoping Youth Can Pave Way For Success In NL Central

Anthony DeSclafani has delivered as one of four rookie pitchers given the reigns to the Cincinnati Reds rotation. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Anthony DeSclafani has delivered as one of four rookie pitchers given the reigns to the Cincinnati Reds rotation. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto are in their prime. Aroldis Chapman is, too. Brandon Phillips is at the edge of his. These Cincinnati Reds are ready to taste playoff success and hoist the coveted World Series trophy. And yet, while veteran leadership is the backbone of prolonged success, especially into October, Reds manager Bryan Price is giving the rotation’s reigns to a slew of pitchers born in the 1990s: Raisel Iglesias, up until his current stint on the DL, Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen and, most recently, Jon Moscow. Giving the ball to these four every week is undoubtedly a gamble, joining Cueto and fellow veteran Mike Leake in a rotation that could either surprise or crumble through inexperience as the team fights to stay afloat in a competitive NL Central.

Price is excited about what 25-year-olds Iglesias and DeScalfani and 23-year-olds Lorenzen and Moscot can do. While some managers would rely on one or two young arms to compliment a steady dose of veterans, he feels comfortable with all of them toeing the rubber.

“We felt like all four of those were destined to be part of starting rotation,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It’s come a little bit sooner than we anticipated. We embraced it. It’s a great opportunity to learn and get better. We’re not really going to take baby steps. We expect these guys to go out there and keep themselves in games and compete and learn and pitch innings.”

That mindset isn’t necessarily a popular one around baseball. Pitch limits are all the rage these days for top young pitchers who are looking to get their feet wet. There may be something to this, considering the idea isn’t to run them into the ground early on, but it’s reached an extreme level. So often dynamic young pitchers are sent to the bench come August, when the competition heats up, because they’ve reached the limit set by the team. It’s ridiculous. This infamously took place with Washington Nationals’ prized arm Stephen Strasburg a few years back. Sacrificing the chance to win over a few more innings comes across as a little overprotective.

Continue reading

Given Fresh Start With Braves, Cameron Maybin Is Exceeding New Expectations

Everything is coming together for Cameron Maybin, who is starring in Atlanta. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Everything is coming together for Cameron Maybin, who is starring in Atlanta. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

More and more of baseball’s top prospects are getting promoted and immediately showing why they were so highly touted. This year alone there’s the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, Dodgers’ Joc Pederson and Rangers’ Joey Gallo, just to name a few. There are certainly a few wrinkles in their transition to the majors, but not many. That wasn’t the case eight years ago, when Cameron Maybin’s name was called.

The then 20-year-old center-fielder, a lanky 6’3″ with a powerful stroke and blistering speed, was the Detroit Tigers’ top prospect and ranked sixth among his brethren across baseball. He was supposed to be the next superstar, but he wasn’t. After hitting just .143 in his cup of coffee with the Tigers, he was traded to Florida in 2008 deal that landed star slugger Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. Soon after, he was given lofty expectations by Jim Fleming, the Marlins VP of Player Development and Scouting, who in 2009 said “He’s the complete athlete. He does everything well. He’s a prototypical five-tool player.”

Instead of becoming what Fleming and so many others presumed he would, Maybin struggled through injuries and mechanics proved to be flawed against major league pitching. Put simply, he greatly underachieved. Now, at age 28 and with his fourth team, Maybin is beginning to showcase the talent that once had Detroit abuzz.

Continue reading

Despite Joe Maddon’s Departure To Cubs, Rays Have Remained Successful In AL East

After spending much of the past seven years in the minor leagues, Joey Butler is making most of chance with Rays. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

After spending much of the past seven years in the minor leagues, Joey Butler is making most of chance with Rays. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

In past seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays winning ways could partly be attributed to the managerial magic of Joe Maddon, who sculpted rosters with few stars into an annual playoff contender. They were so successful situationally, never blowing teams away with potency but more often than not finding ways to win. Now, with Maddon at the helm of the Chicago Cubs and the Rays still making noise, something must in the water along Florida’s west coast. At least that’s what it feels like, considering Tampa Bay is second in the AL East with a 30-27 record despite the presence of a first-year manager in Kevin Cash, an offense hitting a lowly .242, a young, unproven pitching staff and a closer in Brad Boxenberger who had three career saves prior to this season.

While Maddon was extraordinary at his job, Tampa Bay’s continued success proves that defense, pitching and the right mix of youth and veterans in a lineup can amount to something even under new management. In addition to the players at Cash’s disposal, the scouting department deserves some credit. Exemplary of their hard work is Joey Butler, a 29-year-old 6’2″, 220-pound slugger who is getting his first real taste of major league ball after spending much of the past seven seasons in the minors. Rarely sniffing the majors with both the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals, he is batting .337 with four home-runs in 28 games thus far.

Similarly, outfielder Steven Souza is providing some pop as an everyday player after spending much of seven years in Washington’s minor league system. The 26-year-old’s batting average isn’t anything to write home about, at .217, but he has 11 home-runs. He always had a mighty swing in the minors, but Washington was wary of promotion. Leave it to Tampa Bay to give him that extended chance.

Continue reading

Sonny Gray Flying Under Radar For Streaking Athletics

Oakland's Sonny Gray has built off last year's success to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Oakland’s Sonny Gray has built off last year’s success to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Since he was named general manager in 1997, Billy Beane has shaped the Oakland Athletics into a model of consistency on a minimal budget. Only three teams since his inaugural year at the helm have finished the season with at least 74 wins: the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, and the Athletics. Now, 74 wins isn’t something to necessarily applaud, as it is still under .500, but when taking into consideration their positioning near the bottom of the MLB in payroll that they have more or less stayed afloat is remarkable.

Most teams have at least one completely nightmarish season, but not his. There’s the renowned Moneyball philosophy, detailed in a book by Michael Lewis and a movie starring Brad Pitt, but intertwined within that approach how does Beane continue to build a contender? By relying for as long as he can on pitchers like Sonny Gray.

Throughout Beane’s tenure in Oakland his teams have been known for their solid rotations. There were the Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder years, the Dan Haren and Rich Harden years, the Gio Gonzalez years and now the age of Gray, Jesse Chavez, Jesse Hahn and resurgent veteran Scott Kazmir. Beane, with a great understanding of what his allotted money can create, has made the most of the windows opened by quality arms such as these before they become too expensive.

Continue reading

Boston’s Clay Buchholz Dazzles Once More, But Can He Sustain Success?

Clay Buchholz has pitched like an ace of late, but can he keep from regressing once more? (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Clay Buchholz has pitched like an ace of late, but can he keep from regressing once more? (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz has his share of skeptics. His career with the team thus far equates to not just a simple roller-coaster, but one that winds in particularly perplexing ways, twisting and forever migrating into the unknown. As of now, he is on the most exhilarating portion of the ride, hoping it will continue stay this way, without any unfavorable undulations to follow.

His career began with a bang in 2007, a no-hitter on September 1st against Baltimore, his second major-league start. That outing, although remarkable at the time, was far from a blessing in hindsight. In the two years that followed he was unable to immediately live up to an obnoxious amount of hype no one could mirror. And then, the curveballs and fastballs that buckled the Orioles returned with regularity, leading in 2010 to 17 wins and the title of the team’s ace.

Just as a switch flipped in 2010, inconsistency replaced this momentarily sharpened repertoire. Injured every other season from 2011 to 2014, the result was good, bad, repeat. Some of the injuries were rather serious, but then there was the AC joint discomfort of June 2013. This was a mystery from the get-go, a back issue that Buchholz attributed to sleeping wrong in bed while holding his child in his arms. One missed start turned into missing almost three months. Instances like this had fans clamoring for a replacement title of ‘soft and fragile.’

Continue reading

For Warriors and Cavs, Guardplay Is Key But Battle Might Be Decided In The Paint

Tristan Thompson's impact is as important to the Cavaliers' success as anyone. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Active as can be, Tristan Thompson is as important to the Cavaliers’ success as anyone. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The upcoming NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers is largely a battle between MVPs–this year’s, Stephen Curry, and three-time winner LeBron James. And yet, those two likely won’t ultimately be the deciding factors. One player can’t win a championship; how a team fares relies heavily on the play of the supporting cast. This means players like Warriors’ Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut and Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. There are many commonalities amongst this quartet, but one is where they set up shop: the paint, where a title can be won or lost.

Green is the most perimeter-oriented of the four, a high-energy guy who seems to have his hands in everything–either good or bad–when he’s on the floor. Highly regarded as a defensive stalwart, his performance on this end is imperative, but so is his output offensively.

He has struggled this postseason, shooting 42 percent from the field and a meager 26 percent from three-point range. Against Houston in the Western Conference Finals, despite struggling with his shot he still averaged 14 points to compliment his 12 rebounds per game. He will need to find his stroke and keep cleaning the glass if the Warriors want to combat the Cavaliers chemistry.

Continue reading

Torii Hunter Drinking From Fountain Of Youth For Surprising Twins

Torii Hunter's return to Minnesota has revitalized the Twins, fueling the team into contention. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Torii Hunter’s return to Minnesota has revitalized the Twins, fueling the team into contention. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Very little was expected of the Minnesota Twins entering this season. One of their presumed few bright spots was the return of Torii Hunter, the star center-fielder who spent the first 12 years of his career with the team before moving on to Los Angeles and Detroit. Now 39 years old, with number 40 just around the corner, Hunter is not only enjoying his second go-around but is flourishing as their beloved elder statesman.

In his prime, Hunter could do it all. Widely believed to be among the best defensive center-fielders of his or any generation, Hunter’s quick stroke through the zone also provided a great deal of pop for Minnesota. On top of robbing home-runs and hitting them, he had a vibrant smile and accompanying manner. He was the face of the franchise for more than just his talent.

Given the impact he’s making now, it’s as if he is in 20s all over again. Still sporting his toothy, contagious grin, he leads the team in batting average, at .280, and RBI, with 30, while tallying the second-most homers (7)  and runs scored (25). In large part due to this production, a team projected to finish last in the AL Central is sitting in second-place with a record of 29-19, only a half-game behind the Kansas City Royals.

Continue reading

Dazzling Debut By Eduardo Rodriguez Should Be More Than Just A Spot Start For Red Sox

Eduardo Rodriguez didn't show any jitters in his major league debut, leading Boston to a 5-1 win.  (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Eduardo Rodriguez didn’t show any jitters in his major league debut, leading Boston to a 5-1 win. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

A quarter of the way through the season, the Boston Red Sox sit in fourth place in the AL East, their dismal record attributed to both underwhelming hitting and pitching. Touted as a team with division-winning potential, if not more, Boston was supposed to crush the opposition while benefiting from a consistent dose of effecting outings from their staff. Instead, out of 30 teams they are 21st in runs scored, 24th in batting average, 27th in ERA and middle of the pack in quality starts with only 23. Dustin Pedroia has caught fire after being moved into the leadoff spot and Clay Buchholz has pitched well over his last four starts, but all in all there hasn’t been much to cheer about in Beantown. That was until they needed a starting pitcher to go against the hot-hitting Texas Rangers in their series opener, calling upon highly regarded prospect Eduardo Rodriguez to fill the temporary void.

The 22-year-old lefty who was acquired last season in the trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to the Baltimore Orioles rose to the challenge, tossing 7 2/3 shutout innings to earn his first victory. In quieting the Rangers bats, the 6’3″, 200-pound Venezuelan allowed only three hits and two walks, while striking out seven. He is the first Red Sox pitcher ever to put up such numbers in major league debut. Not bad for your first outing in The Show, and yet it might be his last for a while: Boston is expected to send him back down to Triple-A.

Whatever happens, Boston knew he had this start in him. Catcher Blake Swihart, who was promoted at the beginning of May to fill the role of injured Ryan Hanigan, caught Rodriguez at Triple-A and had nothing but good things to say about him.

“He’s a competitor,” Swihart said to ESPN. “He’s going to come out and compete. He thinks he’s going to get the guy out whenever he’s on the mound. That’s what we want.”

Continue reading

For Houston Astros, Batting Average Doesn’t Tell Their Story

The Astros lead the AL West behind powerful bats, like those of Evan Gattis and Chris Carter, and in spite of low batting averages. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The Astros lead the AL West behind powerful bats, like those of Evan Gattis and Chris Carter, and in spite of low batting averages. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Two years ago, the Houston Astros struggled mightily with a young core, suffering defeat an MLB-worst 111 times in its inaugural season in the American League. They showed signs of progress last season, with a 19-win improvement, but no one could’ve expected what’s taken place in 2015: Even after Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, they are 30-18, good for the second-best record in the game and the top position in the division by a six-game margin. How has this rapid rise from mediocrity to elite taken place?

Houston’s success can be attributed to a number of factors: a stifling bullpen, effective rotation, and a lineup that illustrates that statistics can be deceiving. They’re batting .233, the third-worst mark in the majors, and have struck out the second-most times. How can a team batting so poorly be so good? They the sixth most walks in the majors and lead the league in home-runs. This is more than about situational success; it’s about patience amidst a flurry of swings and misses, and power when contact is made.

Evan Gattis is a microcosm of this potency despite an unsightly batting average. The 28-year-old clubbed his 10th home-run against the Orioles on Wednesday, plating his 29th and 30th RBI. He has made this impact despite batting a putrid .218 with 41 strikeouts. He makes his hits count.

So does Chris Carter, their slugging first baseman. Carter, after hitting just over .200 last year, has a long way to go to even sniff the Mendoza Line. He is batting a measly .177 to go with the most strikeouts thus far, but seven of his 27 hits have left the yard. Someone with that batting average and those strikeout totals is manning first base every day. And it’s all because there’s the chance he could tie into one and leisurely round the bases.

Continue reading

Cavaliers Finally Get Supporting Cast Right For LeBron James

Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellvedova represent part of the supporting cast LeBron James has long deserved in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova represent part of the supporting cast LeBron James has long deserved in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010, he was scoffed at by some in the media for joining forces with stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He should want to play against them, not with him. No, he just wanted to be with a supporting cast that had a better chance of not falling short. There was a reason he didn’t win a title in his seven years with Cleveland: no help. And there was a reason he won two championships in Miami.

That’s why it was somewhat surprising when, after four years with the Heat, rumors swirled of a possible return to the Cavaliers. When he made those rumors a reality, it was clear he did so with the hope that this time around it would be different. After years of scrambling to carry the Cavaliers on his back, without a single dependable sidekick, he saw talent within this championship-starved franchise. He saw Kyrie Irving running the point, a budding star at the young age of 22. He saw forward Tristan Thompson transforming into a formidable presence inside. And he saw his return as an opportunity for the front office to finally get it right.

Continue reading

A Mis-step Into The Unknown for Hawks’ DeMarre Carroll

Atlanta Hawks' DeMarre Carroll suffered a knee injury that could not only impact the Eastern Conference Finals, but his career. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Atlanta Hawks’ DeMarre Carroll suffered a knee injury that could not only impact the Eastern Conference Finals, but his career. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

It happened in a split-second. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, determined to score on a fastbreak, Atlanta Hawks’ DeMarre Carroll drove inside, looking to sky towards the rim and shrug off the defense of Iman Shumpert. Then, as he side-stepped through the lane, he crumpled to the floor, as if he had been shot in the leg. Carroll, who joined the Hawks last year and quickly became one of the NBA’s most improved players, grabbed his knee immediately and writhed in pain.

Shumpert, who was complaining about the foul whistled on him, stopped and looked at Carroll with concern. Courtside fans immediately put their hands on their heads in shock. A depressing hush spread over the Hawks crowd that had been raucous just moments earlier. Players rushed to Carroll’s aid. LeBron James came over and gave him pats of encouragement as he was helped off. TNT announcer Reggie Miller said “Oh no” repeatedly.

Speculation as to the severity was rampant. To me it looked like something popped; the Twittersphere thought it might be a torn Achilles, a torn ACL, or a hyperextension. The Hawks diagnosed the injury as a knee sprain, and he will undergo an MRI tomorrow. What the future holds is unknown, but this reality is clear: Carroll was helped off the floor, putting no weight on his limp leg, embodying the unsightly side of sports–the injury.

Continue reading

A Game Of Milli-seconds: Paul Pierce’s Career May End With A Fingertip’s Lasting Touch

After suffering season-ending defeat, Pierce waves to the crowd. The 17-year veteran is pondering retirement. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

After suffering season-ending defeat, Paul Pierce waves to the crowd, possibly for the last time. The 17-year veteran is pondering retirement. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Six and four-tenth seconds remained as guard Bradley Beal inbounded the ball, he had his Washington Wizards teammates hoping that would be enough time. After a frantic effort by backcourt mate John Wall to get the ball into the comforting hands of veteran forward Paul Pierce, the man nicknamed The Truth strove to give the opposing Atlanta Hawks something they couldn’t handle.

The 37-year-old man, who won Game 3 when he infamously “called game”, not bank, looked to add to his legacy and keep his team’s dream alive. He appeared to accomplish this, dribbling towards the corner, beyond the three-point line, shrugging off the blanketing defense of Kyle Korver and launching an off-balance three-pointer that swished through as he fell out of bounds. It was a miraculous shot, but not something Pierce — clutch for many years and whose bank-shot ended Game 3 — is new to. The referees called it good. The game was tied. Overtime was forced. The stands erupted as one, hugging each other, cheering, while his teammates hoisted their arms in the air in jubilation. The Truth he had given his team one they knew was possible.

Continue reading

Comeback By Rockets To Force Game 7 One For The Ages

Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets furiously came back from a 19-point deficit to shock the Los Angeles Clippers and force a Game 7. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Comebacks from a large deficit are fascinating to watch when you aren’t a diehard fan of either team. That’s because instead of experiencing feelings of dismay or elation the NBA fan with no remaining allegiance can study performance. That was the case Thursday night when the Houston Rockets furiously erased a 19-point deficit against the Los Angeles Clippers, ultimately running away with a 119-107 victory. They did this on the road, staving off elimination and with their best player and NBA MVP runner-up James Harden on the bench. 

The reason it was so fascinating was just how drastically different the two teams played. In the third, it was all Los Angeles, clicking on all cylinders; things were going so well that its star, Blake Griffin, was making no-look layups. They were simply better than Houston. The Rockets composure was hanging by a thread, as Harden and center Dwight Howard were involved in scuffles fueled by frustration. The final 12 minutes told a different story. Rockets forwards Corey Brewer and Josh Smith set the tone, with their teammates following suit. The will to win was in their eyes, and what ensued was a thing of basketball beauty. 

In order to come back under such circumstances the team holding the large, seemingly insurmountable lead has to get too comfortable with the point gap. That was certainly the case; as Griffin told reporters afterwards, “We took our foot off the gas.” As a result, the Clippers also tightened up. Their jumpers were either short or clangs off the rim. Their offensive sets were discombobulated; not at any point in the final quarter did they didn’t slow the tempo down and relax. Rather, they played like a stunned team. Meanwhile, the Rockets played like their hair was collectively on fire. A team that looked beaten in the third was playing with confidence again. Los Angeles undoubtedly hurt themselves, but it was more Houston’s energy and efficiency on both ends that forced a Game 7. 

Continue reading

Pelicans Firing Of Monty Williams Makes Little Sense

Monty Williams was fired by the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, a decision that could backfire.

Monty Williams was fired by the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, a decision that could backfire. (Photo: Parker Waters Photography)

This past season, the New Orleans Pelicans went 45-37 to sneak into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s eighth seed. That record was an 11-win improvement over their 2013-2014 season, when they finished twelfth in the conference and 15 games back of eighth-seed Dallas. A vast improvement, yes, but how the Pelicans managed to improve so drastically is what’s remarkable. Anthony Davis, their young power forward, became an MVP candidate as one of the most versatile players in the NBA, consistently putting up big numbers when he wasn’t hampered by a shoulder injury. That’s one reason why they jettisoned into relevancy. Another is how they faired amidst injury: Davis missed 14 games, point guard Jrue Holliday missed 42, forward Ryan Anderson missed 21, as did guard Eric Gordon. All important pieces to the puzzle, all missing at least 17 percent of the season. And yet somehow, despite having to juggle lineups and in turn rely heavily on role players, Monty Williams, the coach who helped make all of this possible, is out of a job.

There could have certainly been external circumstances. His relationship with the front office could have been stretched thin. Perhaps he didn’t mesh well with his players. Considering none of this is known, all there is is speculation. Williams didn’t go to Davis as much as he should’ve in the fourth quarter this season, but the star’s 24 points-per-game average was still 4th in the NBA. Some of his lineups were called into question, but mixing-and-matching is what is forced upon a coach dealing with injuries. Prior to the season, as detailed recently by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, “Ownership gave GM Dell Demps and Monty Williams preseason mandate to make playoffs to keep jobs, w/ no allowance for injuries. They made it.” So, what gives?

Continue reading

Scherzer Has Little Support With DH-To-NL Notion, And For Good Reason

Adam Wainwright's season-ending injury is awful news, but it isn't reason to add  the DH to the National League. (Photo: AP/Jeffrey Phelps)

Adam Wainwright’s season-ending injury is awful news, but it isn’t reason enough to add the DH to the National League. (Photo: AP/Jeffrey Phelps)

For the record, Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer, who signed a monstrous seven-year, $210 million contract this past offseason, likes hitting; he just doesn’t think he should have to. Scherzer jammed his thumb while swinging last week, and in light of his minor injury — and a much serious one, a torn Achilles suffered by Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright while starting his sprint to first — he came out and advocated for the addition of the designated hitter to the National League.

“If you look at it from the macro side, who’d people rather see hit — Big Papi or me?” Scherzer said to CBSSports.com. “Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper? Both leagues need to be on the same set of rules.”

While there is certainly a case for balance, the discrepancy between leagues adds an element to the game. There would surely be more offense if the DH was part of NL baseball, but the tactical side would diminish. The pitcher’s presence in the batter’s box forces his team to play small-ball with more regularity, to emphasize moving runners over, stealing bases and combating the ninth-place hitter’s perceived ineptness at the plate in other ways.

I use the word “perceived” because pitchers aren’t that bad swinging the bat. Sure, there are some who might as well go up there blindfolded and the overall numbers may look like a statistical eyesore, but as Grantland‘s Michael Baumann details, they on average have more than just once-in-a-blue-moon success rate with a bat in their hands:

From an aesthetic standpoint, I love the man-bites-dog quality that comes with a pitcher batting. And it’s not just that I like laughing at Bartolo Colon — it brings me extra joy when a pitcher gets a hit. Last year, NL pitchers hit .125/.156/.156, while the league as a whole hit .249/.312/.383. Now, you can look at that .125 batting average and .156 OBP and say that position players are about twice as likely to get a hit or get on base as pitchers, and that pitchers are overwhelmingly likely to make an out. But position players are, too. If a position player bats eight times, he’ll get two hits; if a pitcher bats eight times, he’ll get one. For any given spot in the lineup, that’s about the difference of a hit every other game, and I’m happy to swallow the extra out in order to see the pitcher reach base. A position player reaching base is routine; a pitcher reaching base is cause for celebration.

I echo Baumann’s opinion. I thoroughly enjoy pitchers trying to impact the game with more than just their arm. Along with bunting baserunners over, they’ve been known to hit homers, slug liners into the gap, and lift a dying quail into the outfield’s Bermuda Triangle, just like the position players hitting in front of them–players who are expected to hit. And, while some may greatly despise batting or at least the rule that forces them to, for the most part they relish in the opportunity to dig in with the chance to frustrate their counterpart on the mound.

Continue reading

The Mets Are Good, But Will The Magic Last?

The Mets were anchored by Daniel Murphy's three-run double on Thursday, leading to the team's 11th straight victory. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The Mets were anchored by Daniel Murphy’s three-run double on Thursday, leading to the team’s 11th straight victory. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Recently, the New York Mets lost two important players to injury–catcher Travis D’Arnaud with a broken hand and reliever Jerry Blevins with a fractured forearm. Both took place in April 19th’s game against the Miami Marlins. And given their mediocrity over the years, with injury bugs sufficing as salt in the festering wounds, the Twittersphere blew up with sighs of “That’s So Mets.” Despite the blows, something took place in that game that hasn’t been “so Mets” for a long time, something that has been a regular occurrence thus far: a victory. The 8-7 win over Miami was their eighth in a row, a streak that have since increased to eleven with three wins over the Atlanta Braves. The Mets, not the team citizens of the Big Apple are used to running New York, is leading the NL West with a record of 13-3, undoubtedly solidifying itself as the biggest surprise in baseball thus far.

Wednesday’s victory over Atlanta helped New York match its best start since 1986, when the team, led four pitchers who won 15-plus games and a slew of talented hitters, hoisted the World Series trophy. That year, additionally helped by Bill Buckner’s infamous gaffe that prolonged the Boston Red Sox curse, the Mets won 108 games, including the playoffs. To think the 2015 Mets can be reminiscent of that extraordinary team in regards to anything more than an equivalent fast start is a little far-fetched, but there is something magical taking place on Roosevelt Avenue, and it starts with Bartolo Colon.

The people who think baseball players don’t need to be in shape to play the sport well should start their eventually flawed and overall inaccurate argument with Colon, who stands 5’11” and is listed at 285 pounds. The portly man, 41 years in age, with a quick delivery home, doesn’t touch 90 on the gun anymore, yet makes even the most accomplished hitters look silly. Coming off two seasons in which he combined to win 33 games–18 in 2013 and 15 more last year–he is at it again, winning his fourth game of the young season on Thursday to extend the team’s winning streak. How he does it defies logic, but his fastball, which he throws most of the time, clearly has enough movement to keep hitters off balance.

Continue reading

Pelicans Fall Short, But Have Much To Be Encouraged About Entering Game 2

Anthony Davis skies for two of his 35 points, but the Pelicans rally fell short in Game 1 against heavily favored Golden State. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool)

Anthony Davis skies for two of his 35 points, but the Pelicans rally fell short in Game 1 against heavily favored Golden State. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool)

ESPN’s camera focused on Anthony Davis as the New Orleans Pelicans forward walked off the court, into the tunnel and to the locker room. His face often looks overly serious, in large part due to the violent curvature of his black unibrow, but was even more so as defeat sunk in. Amidst this tone his face gave off was a great deal of anger. The unibrow appeared especially furrowed as he chewed gum, looking straight ahead, his eyes unwavering, with no intention of gazing into the camera as it further zeroed in. The star forward, with arms that go on for days and talent that is similarly unending, had just watched his team fall short, 106-99, to their top-seeded opponent, a Golden State Warriors team that won 22 more games during the regular season. As could be read through his fierce expression, Davis was none too pleased with the outcome, despite tallying 20 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter as a big reason why New Orleans, which snuck into this matchup on the regular season’s final day, struck fear into the Warriors hearts whittling a 25-point deficit down to four late. Getting close simply wasn’t enough.

The expression on Davis’s face was one that said many things. One, we can play better than that. Two, I can play better than that. And a third: the smell of blood, that Golden State can be beaten, and we can beat them. Considering that New Orleans was playing the second half without its starting point guard, Tyreke Evans, and that Davis looked overwhelmed through three quarters, scoring just 15 points to go with two rebounds, their ability to come back shows just how much potential they have at full strength.

Continue reading

Leading Pelicans To Playoffs, Anthony Davis Should Be In MVP Discussion

Anthony Davis has been a dominating force this season, and deserves to be in the MVP conversation. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

Anthony Davis has been a dominating force this season, and deserves to be in the MVP conversation. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

This season, NBA fans have been treated to many tremendous individual performances, not to mention down-to-the-wire finishes for playoff berths and seedings. Anthony Davis was one of those individuals whose star-level talent was on display gamely, and his New Orleans Pelicans a team that clinched the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference Playoffs with Wednesday night’s victory over mighty San Antonio. Given the Pelicans were able to fend off Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder for the playoffs final spot, Davis deserves to be in the conversation for the illustrious MVP.

As Oklahoma City also won on Wednesday, New Orleans needed that win to tie the Thunder and prevail through a tiebreaker. Fittingly and far from surprising, Davis was part of making identical records turn into a Pelicans’ postseason berth, draining a double-clutch game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in their matchup on February 6th, his first three of the season to cap a 41-point performance.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry, whom he will face in the first round, a matchup that should make for a very exciting series, and Houston’s James Harden, who will take on Dallas beginning on Saturday, are considered the top-two candidates for MVP, and rightfully so. Curry has been extraordinary for the Warriors, which ended the regular season with a whopping 67 wins, scoring in bunches and creating for his teammates. Harden’s play has been similarly important for his Rockets, finishing the season second in points per game behind Westbrook, who did all he could to help the Thunder without star Kevin Durant, falling just short in the end.

While some in the media are calling for Curry and Harden to be named Co-MVP’s, Davis’s all-around numbers make a case for him to be part of a three-pronged MVP winner, let alone to hold the trophy by his lonesome. His length and tenacity helped him lead the league in blocks per game with three, and in addition to being a defensive stalwart he was smooth offensively, able to score from both inside and outside in a variety of ways; everything from hook shots and turnaround jumpers to face-up midrange twos and acrobatic lunges to the basket swished through on a regular basis for the 6’10” forward. His slight frame accompanying that height did nothing to inhibit his toughness or ability to maneuver against bulkier frontlines. Davis consistently used his vast assortment of moves to create space and make his star colleagues look like chopped liver.

As a result of his array of moves, Davis’s 24 point-per-game average placed him fourth in the NBA. And he did far more than stop opponents and score, grabbing 10 rebounds per game and dishing two assists. He did everything for a team that needed every point, every block, every rebound, every assist he could muster. And, mind you, he did all of this at the age of 22.

Continue reading

Confident He Can Win Cy Young, Joe Kelly Off To Good Start For Red Sox

Joe Kelly delivered on Saturday for Boston, starting what he thinks can be a Cy Young-worthy season. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Joe Kelly delivered on Saturday for Boston, starting what he thinks can be a Cy Young-worthy season. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Powered primarily by its offense, the Boston Red Sox entered the 2015 season expecting much from its rotation’s ace, left-hander 30-year-old Clay Buchholz, in an effort to be more balanced. The problem with this is that while Buchholz may be considered the pitching staff’s best pitcher, but he has done far from enough to earn the “ace” label.

His career has been tumultuous: he threw a no-hitter his rookie season in 2008, struggled to ERAs well over 4 each of the next two seasons, won 17 games in 2010, was shelved by shoulder soreness that mysteriously lingered in 2011, saw his 2010 ERA nearly double the following year, from 2.33 to 4.56, found himself on the winning end in 12 of his 13 decisions in 2013, with a dazzling 1.74 ERA, but was hampered by more soreness that was once again considered a “baffling condition” and proceeded to clearly affect his performance in 2014, which featured a 8-11 record and an equally disappointing 5.34 ERA.

Given the question marks surrounding his health and toughness and in turn his consistency, he doesn’t come across as exactly the kind of pitcher a team should expect the moon from despite tossing seven shutout innings on Opening Day. Case and point: his allowing seven runs in the first inning of his second start, Sunday’s series finale against New York. While he may right the ship, the pitcher Boston should instead expect Cy Young caliber numbers is a 26-year-old right-hander who said this January he plans on winning that illustrious award: Joe Kelly.

Continue reading

MLB Preview: Nationals Favored, But Twenty Others Have Talent To Contend

The Padres were already expected to contend, then they added baseball's best closer. Look out, Giants and Dodgers. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Padres were already expected to contend, then they added baseball’s best closer. Look out, Giants and Dodgers. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Every baseball season has its fair share of storylines, but few in recent memory can compare to the amount of excitement encompassing the sport as the 2015 edition gets underway. Now, this may seem like a stretch to some, but while pondering what this season might hold consider just how many teams are capable of putting together winning records.

The AL West

The American League West has the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and perhaps even the Oakland Athletics (never count out Billy Beane and his magical ways) as potential wearers of the divisional crown. The Mariners added Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 home-runs last season for Baltimore, to a lineup that already had Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager anchoring the middle. As for the Angels, they have last year’s AL MVP in Mike Trout, a veteran slugger in Albert Pujols who feels revitalized entering 2015

The AL Central

The AL Central has four teams who have the makings of a winner, the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and last year’s World Series participant, the Kansas City Royals–all of which I have previewed individually.

The AL East

Since the Tampa Bay Rays have taken several steps back, with inexperience littered throughout the rotation and a manager in Kevin Cash whose prior coaching experience consists solely of a stint as a bullpen coach, they might have trouble staying out of the AL East’s basement. Any of the division’s four other teams, however, could be in first come October. The Boston Red Sox boast a dangerous lineup with the potential to score 1,000 runs this season; the Toronto Blue Jays aren’t far behind in that department; the Baltimore Orioles lost some big pieces this offseason, but quietly brought in efficient replacements; and, though unlikely, the New York Yankees could make some noise if their pitching staff holds up and veterans in the lineup consistently produce.

That’s 11 teams thus far and only one league covered. The National League might look up at that number, but only slightly.

The NL East

On paper, the Washington Nationals have the best starting rotation in the game, with number-one caliber starters at 1 through 5–something formidable staffs over the past couple of decades, like the 1998 Atlanta Braves and 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, couldn’t claim to. Putting into perspective how good this staff could be, their fifth starter is Gio Gonzalez, who won 21 games and finished third in the CY Young voting in 2012. That’s simply not fair.

Continue reading

AL Central Preview, Part 4: Shaky Pitching Could Be Tigers’ Demise

If Joe Nathan can't return to form, it might be a very long season for Detroit. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

If Joe Nathan can’t return to form, it might be a very long season for Detroit. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Detroit Tigers offense is quite formidable, especially with the addition of Yoenis Cespedes as part of a three-team trade this winter. In order to acquire him, however, they had to relinquish 26-year-old starting pitcher Rick Porcello, who was sent to the Boston Red Sox coming off a 15-win season. This move, bringing in a bat and giving up an arm, illustrates where the Tigers’ emphasis is entering the 2015 season. They wanted to make their offense, and adding Cespedes to a lineup that already includes former MVP Miguel Cabrera and the immensely productive Victor Martinez. And yet, while improving one area, they suffered a decline in another. Losing Porcello right after he had improved his ERA by nearly a run from 2013 to 2014 (4.32 to 3.43) created a whole in the middle of the rotation, with question marks ensuing to fill his place. And as it turns out, with the regular season right around the corner, the lack of dependable arms at the rotation’s back end is just one of their worries.

Alfredo Simon and Shane Green are expected to be the 4th and 5th starters this season, but at the moment are bumped up a rung because ace Justin Verlander is on the DL for the first time in his tumultuous career and will remain there for a few weeks.

Simon has a nice resume, albeit a short one as a starter. Last season with the Cincinnati Reds, Simon was very effective, winning 15 games and nearly mirroring Porcello in other statistical categories, but that performance over 196 innings was his first full year as a starter. Porcello is used to throwing a lot of innings; he just happened to have everything come together in 2014 and reap the benefits. Who knows if Simon can go deep into games, let alone match or improve upon last season’s production. He’s 33 years old, and up until last season had only made 19 starts over six seasons. And this spring, his output has been less than pleasing, allowing 14 runs in 22 2/3 innings to equate to a ghastly 5.56 ERA.

Greene, a 26-year-old righty formerly of the New York Yankees, has even less experience as a starter. Last year, his rookie season, he posted a respectable 3.78 ERA in 14 starts, but despite those numbers, herein lies the same problem that surrounds Simon: can he hold up over the course of the season? Putting two pitchers in a rotation who combine to have two years starting experience at the major league level and expecting them to produce and help Detroit contend isn’t exactly an intelligent approach. Of course, this gamble would be a bit more tolerable if the Tigers bullpen wasn’t in disarray.

Continue reading

AL Central Preview, Part 3: Much-Improved White Sox Look To Move Up Division’s Ladder

Slugger Jose Abreu looks to build off his monstrous rookie season for a team that welcomes many talented additions.  (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Slugger Jose Abreu looks to build off his monstrous rookie season for a team that welcomes many talented additions. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

After enjoying much success earlier this 21st century, the Chicago White Sox have struggled to break through in recent years, their wheels stumbling down the road of mediocrity. They finished in last place two years ago, losing 99 games, and despite finishing 10 games better in 2014 a move up a floor out of the division’s basement was all they could muster. And yet, though the Kansas City Royals, last year’s World Series participant, and the Cleveland Indians, this year’s popular pick to win it all, are determined to play postseason baseball–not to mention the still-dangerous Detroit Tigers–Chicago might just end up being the league’s most improved team after a superb offseason.

Superb might be an understatement when discussing their moves this Winter. Looking to improve both their inconsistent offense and a pitching staff that was a bottom-dweller in many statistical categories, the White Sox signed former Yankees closer David Robertson, acquired ace Jeff Samardzija from the Oakland Athletics without having to give up proven major league talent or emptying the farm, and inked first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfielder Melky Cabrera to contracts. If these moves weren’t enough, they gave Robertson bullpen help by signing former Brewers reliever Zach Duke, who dazzled to the tune of a 2.45 ERA in 74 appearances. With five fell swoops, the White Sox on paper looked to be on the road to contention.

The road might be bumpy, however, if nothing else because of the talent around them in the division. The AL Central projects to be that competitive. And yet, they now have the tools to give the Royals, Tigers and Indians a run for their money.

Many of those tools lie in the pitching department. Chris Sale, the rotation’s ace, won’t be ready for Opening Day after breaking his foot in February, but he isn’t expected to be out much longer. Annually in the Cy Young conversation, the 26-year-old hard-throwing left-hander isn’t expected to be out much longer, which means the White Sox will soon field one of the better rotations in baseball. Sale will join Samardzija and fellow 26-year-old Jose Quintana atop the staff, two pitchers who both tossed over 200 innings last year and respectively posted 2.99 and 3.32 ERAs.

Continue reading

AL Central Preview, Part 2: Can Indians Live Up To Hype?

Coming off an extraordinary all-around 2014 season, Michael Brantley has the tools to lead the Indians deep into the postseason. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Coming off an extraordinary all-around 2014 season, Michael Brantley has the tools to lead the Indians deep into the postseason. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That said, a first-round exit would be an upgrade over last season’s disappointment that left them on the outside looking in. After winning 90 games in 2013 to make the postseason as a Wild-Card team, Cleveland took a step back in winning 85 games and missing out on October baseball. In doing so, they finished third in the division, but the hype surrounding the team nonetheless has them leapfrogging their opponents and ultimately standing atop baseball’s podium. This jump from watching the postseason on television to becoming champions may be far-fetched.

Why, then, are they picked to win, a prediction that could further depress a fan-base that has been let down year after year, decade after decade? Perhaps because a team like the Kansas City Royals–featured in part 1 of this AL Central preview–made the World Series last year. In baseball, anything can happen. Teams can go from worst, or at least bad to first, so surely can go from middle-of-the-pack to first. And Cleveland does have a lot going for them. Namely among them is their uncanny similarities to the 2014 Royals: an offense that succeeds situationally, a pitching staff that only improved with time, and a bullpen that strikes fear into the opposition.

The offense is extremely well-manufactured. They added slugger Brandon Moss to the fold this offseason, giving the Indians four hitters who hit 20 or more home-runs last season and also reached base at a respectable clip. The power they possess separates them from the light-hitting Royals, as does their patient approach. Michael Brantley, the team’s center-fielder who is seen as a potential MVP candidate, led the team in batting average, hits, runs, doubles and on-base percentage–the latter mark at .385 thanks to 52 walks and a stunningly low 56 strikeouts. Carlos Santana, their catcher, drew an MLB-leading 113 walks last season, casting aside a mediocre .231 batting average and placing emphasis on a .365 OBP. Moss drew far fewer walks than Santana, and struck out at a more prolific rate, but even still his OBP was over 100 points better than his BA. Though his strikeouts may be concerning, his power should stand out given he is around hitters who love taking pitches until one that strikes their fancy presents itself. His productivity combined with their approach should help the Indians score more runs and make their pitchers happy.

Continue reading

AL Central Preview, Part 1: Can Royals Rekindle The Magic?

With James Shields gone, Yordano Ventura steps into the spotlight as the Royals ace. Can he deliver?  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

With James Shields gone, Yordano Ventura steps into the spotlight as the Royals ace. Can he deliver? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Much of the buzz in sports these days might be surrounding the NCAA Tournament as March turns into April, but this time of year also means baseball is around the corner. One week remains until Opening Night, when the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals face off, but while their NL Central should be quite intriguing the American League equivalent isn’t to be overlooked. Four of the AL Central’s five teams are capable of winning the division. Which of the Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox will come out on top? There is no clearcut front-runner, meaning the six-month journey to the postseason will undoubtedly be a fight to the finish.

In the first of five articles on the AL Central, first up is the team that improbably represented the league in the World Series last year.

Kansas City Royals

Despite last year’s run to the World Series, the Kansas City Royals are flying under the radar entering 2015. There may be something to that, as their offseason was rather forgettable. They lost ace James Shields and replaced him with Edinson Volquez, who despite going 13-7 with a 3.03 ERA last season with Pittsburgh, carries a 4.44 career ERA and had an unsightly 5.71 ERA in 2013. In addition, they took a gamble signing Kris Medlen, the former Atlanta Brave who has undergone Tommy John surgery twice. He is a low-risk, high reward signing, considering that despite the surgeries there is a chance he could regain the form that resulted in a sparkling 12-0 record in 2013. And yet, neither can be depended on. Who knows if Volquez will continue on his productive path or revert, and who knows if Medlen will be even a shadow of his former self.

Continue reading

Sweet 16 Bound Shockers Not Shocking Anyone Anymore

Evan Wessell and the Shockers are done shocking the world. They are among the college basketball elite. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Evan Wessell and the Shockers are done shocking the world. They are among the college basketball elite, as Kansas found out. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

When the NCAA tournament selection committee put Kansas and Wichita State in the same bracket, the college basketball world was giddy with excitement at the possibility of a matchup between the two. The Kansas schools hadn’t faced one another since 1993, and a couple of second round victories were necessary to end the drought and pit them against each other. Those feats were accomplished, and the stage was set. The number-one seed Jayhawks against the seventh-seed Shockers, a tough test for the favorite and a chance for the underdog to prove they are still dangerous come tournament time.

Wichita State has ascended from obscurity over the past few years, jumping onto the map two years ago as a nine-seed with a 26-8 regular season record. They were among many teams to make the tournament’s nickname “March Madness” fitting. Under head coach Gregg Marshall, the Shockers put together a stunning run in the tournament behind an efficiently run offense and aggressive defense. They improbably reached the Final Four, beating number-one seed Gonzaga and number-two seed Ohio State along the way. Versatile forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall and guard Malcolm Armstead led the charge, with ample contributions from a trio of guards, freshmen Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker and sophomore Tekele Cotton.

Their narrow defeat at the hands of Louisville in the Final Four left a sour taste in their mouth, but that was the last game the Shockers would lose for a long time. Wichita State skyrocketed from little-known underdog to a team sporting a 31-0 record entering the 2014 tournament as a number-one seed. In just a year’s time they had become the top seed they had once improbably beaten. And yet, this time as a favorite, their stay was unexpectedly short, ending in the third round at the hand of Kentucky. And so ended the college careers of Early and Armstead, two cornerstones of their success.

Despite the loss of these two stars, the Shockers entered the 2014-2015 season primed for a deep run of redemption. Cotton, Baker and VanVleet, older and wiser, took the reigns, and in turn proved that Wichita State wasn’t about to fade away. Behind this guard trio the Shockers finished the regular season 27-3, but the committee made them a seven-seed after their heartbreaking three-point loss to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. The seeding didn’t match their capabilities, and as millions put together their brackets you can bet many took a long, hard look at the team lurking in the Midwest Region.

Continue reading

Finally Healthy, Daniel Bard Looks To Be Part of Cubs Bright Future

Daniel Bard hopes his troubles are behind him, and many strikes are in his future. (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Daniel Bard hopes his troubles are behind him and many strikes are in his future. (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Chicago Cubs have come to be the Boston Red Sox of the midwest. Up until 2004, the main similarity they shared was their championship droughts, at the time going on at 96 and 86 years. Then Boston cut that bond of heartbreak, winning the World Series. Since that time, they have won two more championships, while the Cubs curse enters Spring Training 106 years long. Despite their ongoing futility, similarities between the two franchises have re-emerged. It all started in 2011, when Theo Epstein resigned as Red Sox GM to become Chicago’s President of Baseball Operations, and since then he has brought in old friends from Beantown to help create another winner. One of them, Daniel Bard, hopes to be part of that something special.

Bard undoubtedly has those aspirations, but given what he has been through, encouraging small steps may be enough for now. Steps like the one he took on Sunday: regularly hitting 94-96 miles per hour on the radar gun, leading to his saying he “feels the best I’ve felt in years,” according to Peter Gammons.

Not long ago, Bard was at the opposite end of the spectrum, inhabiting rock bottom, searching for answers and the strikezone. Everything fell apart in 2012, when the Red Sox had wavered on whether to use him as a starter or a reliever, only to settle on the former and watch him collapse. Bard tossed 59 1/3 innings that season and walked 43 batters, a nightmarish ratio that only began to illustrate his wildness. He also hit eight batters, another trend that would also continue as his mechanics remained disheveled after Boston demoted the hard-thrower and former perceived heir apparent to then-closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Continue reading

Amidst Josh Hamilton’s Saddening Relapse, Looking Back At His Finest Hour

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

While scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday, I came across a headline that tore me up: “Report: Josh Hamilton facing disciplinary issue.” As I read more than just these five words, the issue was labeled as “unspecified.” For any other player, the infraction could be a multitude of things, but for Hamilton, the Los Angeles Angels 33-year-old outfielder, it could only be one: relapse. Further reports speculated what I had dreaded–cocaine and alcohol abuse.

While there was no positive test, Hamilton went to MLB to inform them of his usage. And while we wait for the punishment and fallout, and while a friend of his says he should retire, his owning up to this saddening mistake is exemplary of the kind of person he is, the kind of person the baseball world rooted for when he turned in his syringe for a bat with the apt label “The Dream”–a dream he was surely living one July night nearly eight years ago.

In 2008, Hamilton was the talk of baseball, and for the first time in a long time it didn’t revolve his problems with drugs and alcohol. He was the Texas Rangers star, with a whopping 95 RBI at the All-Star break and well on his way to an extraordinary season. His story was something out of the movies:  top prospect turned drug addict who fought his way to sobriety only to become the player scouts once proclaimed. The slugger was center stage at All-Star Weekend in baseball’s cathedral, old Yankees Stadium, during its final year. He was the toast of New York. Flashbulbs corresponded with his every move, and in the festivities’ Home Run Derby, with every mighty swing.

Announcing the event was ESPN’s Chris Berman, who delved into Hamilton’s bumpy road to stardom as he dug into the batter’s box, laughed with the catcher and took his first swings:

“Number one overall pick of the Tampa Bay Rays. Blew his $4 million signing bonus with drug addiction, alcohol addiction. Three years was out of baseball, from ’03 to ’05. Woke up every couple hours in dreams that he had to help himself. Then finally got some help, some with Cincinnati last year.”

At that moment, with one homer and one out recorded by Hamilton, Berman’s retelling of his remarkable story was cut off by something he couldn’t believe. As he had begun to go into Hamilton’s resurrection from the depths of a living hell, the destroyer of baseballs muscled out living proof of that rise. The ball soared past the fans sitting in the center-field seats, beyond the final row, off the wall behind them. “Did that go where we think it went?” Berman exclaimed with with an air of bewilderment in his voice. Yes. As close to literally out of Yankees Stadium as it gets. All-Star pitcher Carlos Zambrano, sitting with his colleagues on the grass near the first-base dugout, had his hands on his head and then bowed down to Hamilton, who could only laugh at his strength. He tipped his cap to the crowd. Five-hundred-and-two feet.

“He hit that sign,” teammate Kinsler said, “and that ball just disappeared. And it was like it was gone forever. I kept looking at that sign, and I was thinking, ‘There’s not a chance I could probably hit that thing from second base.'”And he was just getting warmed up.

Continue reading

Can Zach LaVine Now Become More Than Just A Dunker?

Zach LaVine took flight during All-Star weekend's slam dunk contest, but can he do more than fly high? (Photo credit: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Zach LaVine took flight during All-Star weekend’s slam dunk contest, but can he do more than fly high? (Photo credit: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Zach LaVine brought the Madison Square Garden out of their seats with eye-popping dunk after dunk to handily win the slam dunk contest during All-Star weekend. The 19-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves guard entered the league known for his dunking ability, and if people didn’t know about him before they sure do now following his between-the-legs and behind-the-back dunks slammed home with ease Saturday night. As can be imagined, he is living a dream:

“I’m still on cloud nine,” he told the Sun Sentinel.  “I feel like I’m dreaming, seeing all the dunk contests and people hoisting the trophy. I just saw myself do it and lived it. So it’s a dream come true. I’m glad my family is here to witness it and go through it.”

What can’t be imagined is that this is the dream. Every NBA player is immensely gifted, and every NBA player wants to win a championship and to be the best they can be.  Few do win titles. Few live up to their own expectations. Some don’t stick in the league. Some simply aren’t good enough to. And some of those players are too one-dimensional–three-point shooters who just aren’t dependable enough, gifted leapers who have trouble developing more than just repertoire of dunks.

LaVine takes pride in his high-flying acrobatics. He said after the dunk contest that he could beat LeBron James, widely believed to be the best player in the league, if given the chance. “I never go against my own talent so I’ve got to say me,” LaVine said to ESPN. “LeBron’s one of the most freaky athletes of all time … But like I said, I’m a confident person.”

While he has reason to think highly of his athleticism and creativity, he must do all he can to show that’s not all he has to give an NBA team. As he is a 19-year-old rookie, there is no rush, but he doesn’t want to continue a trend. Since the year 2000, only four winners have ever participated in the main event All-Star weekend, the All Star game itself: Vince Carter, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and John Wall. The bulk of the dunk contest participants are young and unproven. It’s, as a result, an opportunity to be put on the map. This past weekend can’t be discussed without mentioning the show LaVine put on. Highlights of his dunks are everywhere. And yet, will he ever be the talk of the town for anything else?

Continue reading

After ‘Coming Home’, LeBron James’ Careless Play Is Torturing Disjointed Cavaliers

In the cracks of solid performances, LeBron James' play is lackadaisical  and puzzling. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

In the cracks of solid performances, LeBron James’ play is lackadaisical and puzzling. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Cleveland Cavaliers held a 19-10 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers with six and a half minutes remaining in the first quarter, but it was how that margin was cut to six that confirmed my suspicions about LeBron James. The Lakers stepped in Kyrie Irving’s passing lane, created a turnover, and looked to take advantage of a fast-break opportunity. Kobe Bryant, an assist machine in the first quarter, rifled a pass to the left corner, where fellow guard Wesley Johnson stood, perched beyond the three-point line. James, who was stationary under the basket, watched Johnson receive the pass, took one step towards him, stopped, and then moved ever so slightly in his direction, hands at his side. That was it. That was his attempt at defense. He couldn’t even conjure up the hand-clapping method often used by the inevitable annoying kid on your team in pick-up games who lazily decides that might break the shooter’s concentration instead of actually contesting the shot. The result of James quote-un-quote defense: a smoothly swished three-pointer by Johnson, who could’ve taken even more time to set himself if he so desired. James was already trotting upcourt when the ball was in the air.

James had 36 points as Cleveland held off Los Angeles 109-102 for a road win, bringing the team back to .500 with a 20-20 record and ending a six-game slide. He was efficient offensively, draining jumpers and driving inside for layups–culminating with a strong move around defenders to put the game away late. This being his second game back from injury, the Cavaliers were hapless during his two-week absence, losing six of seven games. They needed him back, and in many respects he delivered, but then there is this possession in the second quarter to mirror his boredom on defense: with 14 seconds on the shot-clock and 10:44 remaining before halftime, James, no more than four feet from his bench and with his back to the basket, collected a pass, refused to even attempt to back his defender down and lazily and turned around and shot a lifeless jumper, which clanged off the rim. If there was any enthusiasm put into this attempt, his mannerisms sure didn’t show it. And so, as exemplified by his lethargy on both ends of the floor, a question needs to be asked: does James truly care?

There might very well be reason to think he doesn’t. Given what has taken place since James said goodbye to Miami and hello again to Cleveland, I have a theory: factoring in how wounded he left Ohio, particularly the championship-starved city of Cleveland and his hometown of Akron, back in 2010, I’m under the impression that he believes those wounds healed once he said “I’m coming home.” Perhaps he thinks his return in itself is enough. And if that’s the case, what a puzzling way to toy with a fan-base that has rekindled adoration for its prodigal son.

Continue reading

Jones, Elliott Too Much For Ducks As Buckeyes Take Title

Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota and the rest of the Ducks met their match Monday night. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Ohio State Buckeyes, thought by many not to be deserving of the fourth and final spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, could look around AT&T Stadium and see thousands upon thousands of red-and-white clad fans, greatly outnumbering that of their opponent, the favored Oregon Ducks. And they had plenty to cheer about, as, it would turn out, that advantage in fans mirrored the play on the field. Cardale Jones, all 6’5″, 250 of him, dazzled once more in his third college start, while Ezekiel Elliott overpowered the Ducks defense on the Buckeyes way to a 42-20 victory.

Oregon Ducks fans had reason to be encouraged by the start, scoring on their opening drive in blistering, not-out-of-the-ordinary fashion. On that 11-play drive run in under three minutes, the Ducks, orchestrated by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, overpowered the Buckeyes. It looked as if, given with what ease Oregon scored, the rest of the game might play out similarly. And yet, that’s far from the truth. Fans raucously cheered that touchdown in the bar I was at, but they hadn’t yet seen Jones and Elliott take the field. And when they did, applause was minimal. Elliott was unstoppable from the start, and Jones showed little sign of inexperience on the biggest of stages.

Entering the championship game, there was the thought that Ohio State’s defense would have a tough time containing Mariota, as well as running backs Royce Freeman and Byron Marshall. Yet it was Oregon’s defense that was left scrambling. They were lucky to hold Elliott to a gain of less than eight yards, and, while able to get past linemen and therefore to Jones, they were unable to bring the quarterback down. Instead, an inability to finish tackles opened up the doors to one of Jones’ strengths: mobility. He may be 250 pounds, but that doesn’t mean he was slow. On the contrary, that weight on such a tall frame made him terrifying. And he had a strong arm, to boot.

Continue reading

Amidst Incredible Offseason, Preller Determined To Turn Padres Into A Winner

A.J. Preller, left, is all smiles these days after bringing in players like Matt Kemp, right, as the Padres look to be relevant once more.

A.J. Preller, left, is all smiles these days after bringing in players like Matt Kemp, right, as the Padres look to be relevant once more.

For many years now, the San Diego Padres have been on the outside looking in come October, struggling to put together contending ballclubs or show any signs of future success. Good players come through from time to time, but the great ones–Trevor Hoffman and Mr. Padre, the late Tony Gwynn–are long in the past. Mired in futility without any ray of hope to even convince their fans that leap-frogging the reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants and ever-so dangerous Los Angeles Dodgers was even conceivable, new General Manager A.J. Preller wasted little time this winter putting the franchise back on the map.

Preller has functioned as San Diego’s Santa Claus, in prolific fashion giving fans gifts in the form of the stars they’ve long desired. In the matter of just a couple of days, Preller has revamped the entire outfield, trading for Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, Atlanta Braves’ Justin Upton and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Wil Myers–a trio that is more than capable of further breathing life into Padres baseball.

The result is a logjam in the outfield, as there are six others capable of playing left, center or right on the roster, but this means more moves are expected, and if his decision-making thus far at the helm is any indication Preller will continue act swiftly and flourish in doing so. Kemp may have a hefty long-term contact and an injury-prone body, but the 30-year-old former NL MVP managed to play in 150 of 162 regular season games and hit 25 homers with 82 RBI. Upton, 27, was similarly productive last season and doesn’t have the injury issues of Kemp. He hit .270 and ranked fourth in the NL in home-runs with 29 and third in RBI with 102. Myers was made available as part of Tampa Bay’s rebuilding effort, and as a 24-year-old who batted only .222 last season his value as San Diego’s now everyday center-fielder is based on his potential.

Preller managed to add these pieces without parting with his minor-league system’s highly touted prospects. The 37-year-old former Texas Rangers assistant GM has been nothing short of magical for an organization set out to be more than just relevant. Clearly, Preller and the rest of the Padres front office is tired of looking up at Giants, Dodgers and even Arizona Diamondbacks year after year. They might very well trail the former two this coming season, with how talented they are perennially and no signs of slowing down, by San Diego is sure to make some noise. Fans will get introduced to more than new players; they will see a new energy and have plenty to smile about.

Continue reading

Despite His Postseason Success, Sandoval An Unwise Target For Boston

Pablo Sandoval is a very risky target for the Boston Red Sox.

Pablo Sandoval is a very risky target for the Boston Red Sox.

After an abysmal 91-loss season, the Boston Red Sox are itching to right the ship and succeed within what is a wide-open AL East. Beloved manager Joe Maddon left the Tampa Bay Rays for the Chicago Cubs, a deflating blow to that franchise. The Yankees will once again have to deal with old age, and the return of one of their many over-the-hill stars, Alex Rodriguez. Toronto isn’t to be trusted, with stars here and there yet lacking the makings of a perennial power. And Baltimore isn’t exactly the most intimidating division winner. Given all of this, Boston doesn’t necessarily need to toss money every which way this offseason to get back on track and put 2014 behind them. And yet, the front office decided to offer free-agent third baseman Pablo Sandoval a five-year, $95 million contract.

The Red Sox still have David Ortiz as its anchor, with Dustin Pedroia, Yoenis Cespedes and Mike Napoli all producing around him. In addition, the organization has a wealth of young talent either already making an impact in the majors or on its way off the farm. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Brock Holt and Christian Vazquez had their fare share of exciting moments last year, representing just a taste of what’s to come. Rusney Castillo, who signed with and joined the team late this past summer upon defecting from Cuba, is another piece to the puzzle, as is third baseman Garrin Cecchini, who didn’t disappoint in his cup of coffee. Catcher Blake Swihart, outfielder Manuel Margot and Michael Chavis are just a few others who shouldn’t have that much time left on the farm. It is these players the team should be focused on; not bringing in a risky signing who puts a halt to the development of prospects.

In hopes of ‘winning now’ teams often buy into the philosophy that high-profile stars need to be at the focal point. To some, there is no time to plug in players developed within their minor league systems and wait for them to find their stride at the major league level. Touted prospects are to be traded for stars. That’s what has been so prevalent in the last decade, and yet so rarely does it lead to the ultimate success.

Boston does need to pony up and get ace Jon Lester back, which will cost a pretty penny, after trading the current free-agent to Oakland in July, but that might be their only logical move involving a star this offseason. Targeting Sandoval, who, despite his postseason success, has watched his statistics across the board decline over the past three years, is the classic sign of an impatient organization. Sandoval is 28 years old and a .294 career hitter, but his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) has dropped each of the past three years, while his .315 BA and .352 OBP of four seasons ago transformed into a .279 BA and paltry .324 OBP this past season. He hit .366 in the postseason as an integral piece of another Giants championship puzzle, but suitors of free-agents have been entranced by playoff statistics before, only to be disappointed with regular season performance upon signing October heroes. Among the many examples of this, there is Carlos Beltran, whose historic .435 BA, eight-homer postseason in 2004 with the Houston Astros resulted in a seven-year, $118 million contract from the Mets and an overall underwhelming and injury-prone tenure that included just one trip to the playoffs.

Sandoval’s weight is of concern, too. Listed at 5’11”, 245 pounds even after losing 30 pounds last offseason, questions have long been raised about just how he will hold up over the long-haul. Coinciding with his weight issues, if his bat continues to diminish he will be rendered ineffective, as he hasn’t the ability to steal bases nor the patience to draw walks with any consistency. Right now, he is still an exciting player, which a knack for succeeding on the biggest of stages, but that is no reason to turn a blind eye to a troubling regular season trend and potential issues down the road.

Boston is reaching into the cookie jar, and only one remains. Lester is that one, yet they are fishing around for another that doesn’t exist. Sandoval might be a solid player, but he’s not worth pursuing this fervently.

Maddon And Young Cubs A Perfect Fit

Joe Maddon is set for his new challenge: building the championship-starved Cubs into a winner.

Joe Maddon is set for his new challenge: building the championship-starved Cubs into a winner.

Yet another October comes and goes with the Chicago Cubs on the outside looking in, watching opponents hoist a trophy that has eluded their grasp since 1908. They might very well be doing the same next year, but they should find the Kansas City Royals, this year’s unexpected and unforgettable runner-up, to be an uplifting sign. Chicago has blossoming talent, the patience to continue to develop their prospects and, soon to be made official, a new manager in Joe Maddon who is proven winner and fits this franchise in dire want of success.

Maddon became available after stunningly leaving his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, this coming on the heels of GM Andrew Friedman’s departure to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maddon found himself a candidate for the Cubs job in a fairly classless way, pursuing the position while also being courted for it while Rick Renteria was still under contract as the team’s manager.

No matter how slimy the trail was to landing Maddon, the fact is that he has been scooped up by a franchise desperate to lay the Curse of the Billy Goat to rest. This isn’t to say Renteria couldn’t have eventually have accomplished the feat, but Maddon has the track record to immediately fuel the kind of buzz the North Side hasn’t experienced in many a year.

“It tells me that the Cubs are determined to win their first World Series in 107 years,” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian said recently on SportsCenter. “They’ve already started that process by gathering and collecting a whole bunch of really good, young position players. And now they’ve added a manager that had a terrific run with the Rays, helped build that team into a consistent winner, and is generally regarded around the game as one of the best managers in baseball.”

Continue reading

Champs Again: Giants Fend Off Royals Behind Bumgarner’s Mastery

The San Francisco Giants, behind Madison Bumgarner, hoist the trophy yet again. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The San Francisco Giants, behind Madison Bumgarner, hoist the trophy yet again. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Pitching wins championships. That’s what they say, at least. Of course a lot more goes into hoisting the World Series trophy at October’s end, including timely hitting and superb defense, but that adage will have a tough time ringing truer than it just did. San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner was summoned as a reliever in the fifth inning, his 6’5″ lanky frame looming large atop the mound in front of a blue-clad fan-base desperately hoping their Kansas City Royals luck would change against a previously unhittable repertoire twirled from his left arm. Their dreams were dashed, as all he did was continue to lower his already microscopic ERA, tossing the final five innings in shutout fashion to send San Francisco into a frenzy for the third time in five years.

Kansas City entered Game 7 coming off a resounding 10-0 win in Game 6, determined to prevail as champion in its first playoff appearance since 1985. And what a story that would’ve been. This was not to be, however. The series finale had all the makings of a high-scoring affair, with the teams combining to score five runs in the first three innings, but that 3-2 Giants lead would hold up. The Royals, built around their energy, were quieted by the eventual World Series MVP.

After posting scoreless inning after scoreless inning, Bumgarner sat in his jacket on the bench with focus and determination written all over his face. And time after time, you knew he wasn’t done, just biding his time before it was his turn again. Despite his excellence, one mighty swing or a collection of skillful smaller ones could still change the dynamic of the game. That’s what made the last couple of innings so gripping. The Royals have won in every way imaginable this season, so nothing could be put past them.

Continue reading

Will The Clock Strike Midnight For Royals?

Battling with the Giants, the Kansas City Royals are two wins away from a championship. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Battling with the Giants, the Kansas City Royals are two wins away from a championship. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

For as long as I can remember I have watched October baseball intently, glued to the television screen, soaking in the quest for a championship. That streak ended this year. I now have a job that keeps me far too busy for the baseball fanatic in me, and its absence has been torturous. I have seen bits and pieces at restaurants and highlights on the internet, but no more. This is especially disappointing considering how incredible the postseason has been for the Kansas City Royals. The franchise, after punching its first ticket to October baseball in 29 years, won the first eight games of the postseason to reach the World Series.

Their remarkable run continued a 2-1 series lead against the San Francisco Giants, built around a steady bullpen, quality starting pitching and a lineup thriving in the power, speed, and small-ball departments, but the series got a little more interesting as the Giants took Game 4 in resounding, come-from-behind fashion. Kansas City still has the looks of a champion, but though the glass slipper fits this unlikely contender now will its effort be enough to keep the clock from striking midnight?

Continue reading

Without Jeter, The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Just Won’t Be The Same

Derek Jeter’s career came to a fitting end on Sunday, after a third-inning RBI single off Boston’s Clay Buchholz. He left to a standing ovation from the Fenway Park crowd, 36,000-plus fans who have booed the New York Yankees for so many years but couldn’t help but respect its beloved captain on this day. Even though hatred has long played into the rivalry between Boston and New York, on this sunny afternoon the two teams came together in celebration of an incredible player and his illustrious career. Neither team is postseason-bound, a first in the Derek Jeter era, and with the Yankees heart and soul hanging up his spikes the rivalry completely lost its gusto. A once blazing fire now smolders.

This reality has been some time coming. It’s been a decade since Boston ended 86 years of heartbreak, and that means it’s been a decade since the height of the rivalry. Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz were the three remaining pieces of that 2004 puzzle, mainstays on diminishing enemies. Rodriguez all but banished, now only Ortiz remains, approaching 40 himself as Boston’s equivalent in importance. Players have come and gone, as glorious primes like Jeter’s have turned into retirement ceremonies seemingly with the blink of an eye. Soon it will be Ortiz’s time, leaving an hole that simply cannot be filled–an emptiness the Yankees and their fans are currently feeling with Jeter’s ride into the sunset.

Boston fans will always despise Yankees fans, and vice-versa. Just as that is the case, there will always be something in the air when the two teams face off. However, that something in the air will fueled by history, what the rivalry once was. It is hard to see how the chills, the goosebumps that made every battle its own baseball movie, return. The dynamic infused by the players created that unforgettable emotion. There were so many unlikable players in pinstripes, and so many scrappy, likable players on Boston. It was the clean-shaven versus long locks and scruffy faces. It was David vs Goliath. And Jeter was at the heart of that dynamic as everything the late George Steinbrenner looked for in a Yankee–immensely talented, clutch, business-like, and a champion. He is what made the rivalry what it was. And now he’s gone, and so go the remnants of an intense and glorious era.

Jeter’s Fenway Farewell And The Decay Of The Yankees

Derek Jeter bids adieu in his final major league game.

New York Yankees great Derek Jeter bid adieu in his final major league game on Sunday against Boston.

(Editor’s Note: This article was written by D.J. Rallo, a regular contributor to Moonlight Graham’s Umbrella.)

On Sunday, Derek Jeter finished his Hall of Fame career at a sold-out Fenway Park with an RBI single off of Clay Buchholz in the third inning, exiting to a standing ovation from an assortment of Red Sox and Yankees fans, alike.

And with Jeter now officially retired, Yankees’ skipper Joe Girardi breathes a heavy sigh of relief knowing that he will not have to jeopardize his 2015 season with a third consecutive and over-the-top farewell tour.

Girardi, who claimed in April that he “wasn’t hired to put on a farewell tour,” faced insurmountable pressure from fans and the league to feature Jeter prominently throughout the season, despite obvious regression in Jeter’s performance. Even the slightest adjustment of dropping the Yankee icon to the bottom of the batting order would have been considered sacrilege and disrespect to the 20-year tenured captain and his fans.

It almost felt as though Yankee fans favored a season-long circus for their 40-year-old, .256 hitting shortstop in the two-hole, opposed to a pennant chase that was entirely probable in a weak American League East.

With all due respect, Derek Jeter is a legend and an icon. His no. 2 will hang beside the greatest to ever don the pinstripes. He served as the ambassador of Major League Baseball for two decades. On and off the field, the general consensus is that Jeter did all the right things.

One could even argue that if any player deserved an entire season’s worth of celebrations, it would be Jeter. But at what cost?

That’s not to claim that the Yankees’ shortcomings in 2014 were entirely in the hands of their captain. The infield was unstable, winter acquisitions fell short of expectations, and front end pitchers suffered significant injuries.

Continue reading

Farewell, Captain: Jeter’s Incredible Career Comes To A Close

Derek Jeter bids farewell to the game he has played so well, and he will be sorely missed.

Derek Jeter bids farewell to the game he has played so well, and he will be sorely missed. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The New York Yankees entered Tuesday’s play four games back of the second Wild Card spot in the American League, with six games remaining. As they are in need of a miracle to make the postseason, this is likely the final week of their season. It is much more than that, though: it’s the final week of Derek Jeter’s illustrious career.

New York may have hurt its chances of extending his final season by keeping him and his declining production at the top of the lineup–the 40-year-old is batting .256 over 563 at-bats even after a recent surge–yet, a final go-around wouldn’t be the same without the Yankee captain in such an important spot. And it is so Derek Jeter of him to finish strong. The Yankees have won five of its past six games as it tries to make one last dash to the postseason, and Jeter has a hit in each game, with two hits in four of them. Thirteen percent of his RBIs on the season have come during this week’s worth of success, as he has compiled six in this stretch–including three in Monday’s victory over division-leading Baltimore.

What he does at the plate matters, of course, and so does how his production affects New York’s chances, but what trumps all is the reality that this could very well be the last few days the future Hall of Famer suits up in pinstripes. And his farewell nears is difficult to come to grips with, even for me as someone who has long followed rival Boston. After this week, no more sawed-off clutch hits to the opposite field or improbable jump-throws from his shortstop position–both Jeter trademarks. Baseball just won’t be the same.

Jeter’s importance to the Yankees over the past two decades can hardly be exaggerated. As a baseball fan who has followed the game for much of my 24 years, I have taken a keen interest in Jeter, despite being a fan of his enemy. I have not cared for many of New York’s players throughout the years–the franchise is, after all, the Evil Empire, as Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino once dubbed–but Jeter has always stood out as a player who commanded respect. When he faced Boston, I disliked when he would collect one of his 3,000-plus hits, and shook my head at dazzling plays in the field, but there was always something about him that kept my distaste pertaining solely to the rivalry and not him individually. It was hard not to marvel at his talent.

Continue reading