In honor of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee coming up this Wednesday and Thursday, you will find one of the winning words from the last 10 years of competition in each entry. When they don't fit naturally — which will be always, if my prospicience can be trusted, since they're weird and useless for all practical purposes — I will heroically shoehorn them in like a stubborn cobbler.
Here now are the highlights from the upcoming weekend in professional American baseball.
10. How to Become Nationally Irrelevant — Move to Toronto (Saturday, BAL-TOR)
This is in honor of R.A. Dickey, who you may remember as the feel-good story of 2012 when he and his knuckleball amassed a 20-6 record and won the NL Cy Young Award. In New York.
Repeat: in New York.
You may have noticed after reading his name that we have not heard much from R.A. Dickey this season. Sure, he's lost some velocity, and that may not be as irrelevant as you think for a knuckleballer. And his stats — 4-5, 4.50 ERA — are much worse than last year. But I still have a few questions. First, how would he have done last season in a division where he'd be pitching about half his starts against teams that scored a combined 2,947 runs, as opposed to 2,724? And would his excellent story of overcoming adversity have been so prominent if he weren't pitching in New York? And would he have won a Cy Young that probably should've gone to Clayton Kershaw (well, OK, obviously not since he would've been playing in the American League, but you get what I'm saying)? This is all hypothetical, and predicting what might have happened is about as reliable as constructing a neanderthal Ursprache, but it does make you wonder. In any case, he was one of the best parts of last season, and here's hoping he's got some fireworks left in the old arm — the long-range kind, that can reach us across the border.
And we are BACK, with your all-purpose* guide to the weekend in MLB action.
*Single-purpose, really. It's super limited in function. You can only read it.
10. no. 2 UNC vs. no. 3 Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. and Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN3)
Whoa! Super controversial start! Who is this guy? He must think way outside the box to be including a college baseball game in a post specifically dedicated to MLB. What a challenging artistic choice! I imagine people will have split reactions, but it'll definitely get them talking!
OK, this is here because college baseball gets zero attention, and this is a great series. UNC is 46-7 and UVA is 44-8. Both teams have gaudy statistics; the lowest batting average among UNC's top nine hitters is .278, while the Cavs aren't far behind. But the real attraction here is Carolina's pitching staff, which boasts a 2.50 ERA. Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson are the starters for the weekend, and we could see both in the bigs someday soon. Anyway, if you're ever going to watch a college baseball game before the College World Series, this is a good start. And I swear, the fact that I'll be at one or both games has nothing to do with why I included it here. (Lies.)
In case you were busy watching The Great Gatsby in 3-D as an ill-advised cram session for your 11th-grade English final, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
The Miami Heat rebounded from a disappointing Game 1 defeat by pasting the Chicago Bulls, 115-78, to even up their second-round series. After a pair of ejections, the Bulls found themselves playing without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, meaning they had to play a mostly reserve lineup of B.J. Armstrong, Jud Buechler, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley. Despite the influx of forgotten veterans, the oldest player on the court remained Heat reserve Juwan Howard, who was inactive with "being tired, man; real, real tired."
Klay Thompson had 34 points and 14 rebounds as the Golden State Warriors held off the San Antonio Spurs, 100-91. Midway through Thompson's explosive first half, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was seen staring at the Warriors' wing, mumbling, "decent athleticism, floor-stretching 3-point shooting, on a rookie contract … how do I not possess him?" Popovich then wiped off the small amount of drool that had collected at the corner of his mouth, snapped at Spurs guard Danny Green for being a "lollygagger," before making a mental note to himself to take the title of "general manager" back from R.C. Buford after the game.
Sportswriters love telling people how unbiased sportswriters are, and a big part of that is rooting for stories, not individual teams. That’s pretty obvious. It’s much easier and much more fun to write about an unusual defensive play, or a no-hitter, or a walk-off hit, than it is to write about an arduous 12-5 yawner that stopped being close after the third inning.
And it’s not just writers who do this. Even without the professional self-interest, fans want to see the underdog overachieve. They want to see the unusual, the exciting, and they want the drama and uncertainty to last as long as possible.
So in the spirit of lasting drama, everyone ought to be rooting as hard as they can against the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers are kind of old news, with two consecutive division titles in their pockets. They rely heavily on slow guys who walk and hit home runs (and if you’re going to do that, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are two pretty good slow guys to have), and they’ve got a starting rotation that might be better than all the other rotations in the division. To balance those strengths come two glaring weaknesses. First, the bullpen has been quite good so far this year but is built on a foundation of quicksand. Second, they have the kind of defense one might expect when a lineup has a lot of slow guys who walk and hit home runs.
Now, none of this makes the Tigers particularly objectionable. The reason you should root against them is that they’re by far the best team in baseball’s worst division, and they’re starting to pull away in the standings.
In case you were busy making a new nonalcoholic mixed drink that's half soda water, half tonic water called the Van de Velde, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Playing without Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, and Kirk Hinrich was too much for the Bulls, who fell 95-92 to the Brooklyn Nets. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau regrettably informed his team of their depleted forces before the game, adding, "I didn't know the games were optional." He then proceeded to drink straight from a bottle of Gilbey's gin, tell Taj Gibson that he wanted to sleep with his sister, and unleash a barrage of awkwardly profuse "real talk about love and pain" upon the injured Hinrich. Bulls forward Carlos Boozer then yelled out his signature catchphrase, "Can you smell the booze stank in the room?!" before being told by Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin that games are not optional. A visibly intoxicated Boozer fouled out of his team's defeat in the fourth quarter.
Even though he had another solid outing, Atlanta starter Kris Medlen fell to 1-4 as his Braves lost to the Washington Nationals, 3-1. Medlen, snacking on biscuits after the game, blamed his spotty start to the season on fatigue based on his home life. "I've got young boys, and they're up at all hours," he said. "I've only been a little off, which just makes me think I could be 5-0 if it weren't for those Medlen kids!"
In case you were busy on eBay trying to unload your Tim Tebow Jets jersey, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
The San Antonio Spurs dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers, 103-82, to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. Lakers center Dwight Howard, who was ejected from the game after getting two technical fouls, said after the game, "Gotcha! Oh, man, that was hilarious! Classic Howard. I was all like, 'T me up! I totally want to never play basketball in a Lakers uniform again,' and they totally did! Joke's on them! I'm pranking people left and right! L.A. is Prank City!" When asked if this meant he was going to re-sign with L.A., Howard's demeanor quickly shifted. "Absolutely not," he said. "This has been the worst year of my life."
Stephen Curry drained six 3-pointers as the Golden State Warriors beat the Denver Nuggets 115-101 in a pivotal Game 4. "Do I feel threatened by Curry? Absolutely not; my legacy is intact," said TNT analyst Reggie Miller after the game. Miller then wiped the steam off his bathroom mirror and examined his temples. Were they grayer than the day prior? "Perhaps," Miller said to himself, "but that just means you're getting wiser. More mature. And some punk kid in Oakland can't take that away from you."
Stating the obvious, strikeouts are a wonderful thing for a pitcher. Retire a batter by your own hand and you don't have to sweat the vagaries of luck, defense, park effects, and all the factors that can conspire to ruin a pitcher's day, through no fault of his own. More broadly, strikeouts are a great predictor of success: Other than the occasional Carlos Marmol, the top strikeout pitchers in baseball often double as the top pitchers in baseball, period.
But that doesn't mean pitchers can't find success in other ways. In 2011, Jim Johnson shook off a career full of mostly unimpressive results to become one of the league's top setup men; few noticed because he lacked the glory that comes with getting the last out of games. Given his first extended shot at closing last year, Johnson flourished, marking just the 12th time in history that a pitcher had racked up 50 or more saves. The Orioles played a ton of close games last year and famously posted the best record ever for one-run games, which played a big part in Johnson's gaudy save totals. But Johnson himself was responsible for much of that success, and not because of his strikeouts. The right-hander's 15.2 percent K rate ranked just 219th among 270 pitchers with 60 or more innings pitched last year. His 62.3 percent ground ball rate, on the other hand, ranked 6th among those same 270 pitchers, his tidy 5.6 percent walk rate ranking 45th. If you walk very few batters and induce a ton of grounders, you're simply not going to put many men on base, nor allow many extra-base hits. Sure, you'll be susceptible to a few five-hoppers sneaking through the infield. But if that's the worst of a closer's problems, he's probably going to put up a bunch of big seasons.
He might not fit the profile of the fire-breathing ninth-inning man. But Johnson is one of the game's best, his hold on the closing job is rock-solid, and there's no regression monster lurking around the corner.
In case you were out avoiding any Coachella spoilers before the second weekend of the music festival, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
The NFL schedule was released on Thursday, and wow, WOW, wow, what a schedule it is! Not only will every team currently in the NFL play 16 games, but each of these teams will have a strategically placed bye added to their schedule. Additionally, some teams will be playing one or more games on non-Sunday days such as Mondays and Thursdays. Interestingly, no games this year are scheduled for Tuesdays. Marquee matchups include games between last year's division winners, last year's Super Bowl participants, teams that have quarterbacks people have heard of, and members of the NFC East. Early analysis suggests that the NFL schedule favors those teams that play mostly inferior teams, with the caveat that those favored teams might themselves prove inferior in the future. More NFL schedule–related analysis later in About Last Night, including a prediction you're not going to believe!
Eric Chavez got revenge on his former teammates with a three-run double to key the Arizona Diamondbacks' 12-inning 6-2 win over the New York Yankees. The Yankees also got more bad news on the injury front, as shortstop Derek Jeter has been ruled out until the All-Star break with complications related to his injured ankle. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said after the game, "Tonight's loss was tough, as was the news on Derek, but we'll persevere." Cashman then kept repeating the word persevere, as he stripped down to his underwear before asking the gathered media, "Does anyone have that Swedish House Mafia song on their phone? Cause I could really go for getting weird right now." Cashman then had assistant general manager Jean Afterman flick the lights in the room on and off while he danced arrhythmically before collapsing in a heap of tears.
When a manager employs a bullpen-by-committee — let's junk that term forever and call it what it is, a bullpen-by-matchup — he usually does so because he lacks the kind of archetypal, fire-breathing closer who takes decisions out of his hands. When you've got Mariano Rivera or Aroldis Chapman standing by, you can shut off your brain, play your rockin' closer intro, and that's that. If you're going to use a bullpen-by-matchup, you'll likely need to leverage a group of capable but flawed pitchers: lefties and righties with big platoon splits, maybe a combination of ground-ball and fly-ball pitchers, too. That takes prep work, nuance, and foresight.
Jim Leyland showed none of these things on Wednesday.
Justin Verlander and Buster Posey both signed gigantic contract extensions, underscoring a growing trend in baseball: the death of free agency.
Already signed through 2014, Verlander's extension with the Tigers will last five years and pay him $140 million. At $28 million a year, Verlander becomes the third pitcher to break the record for highest average annual contract value in the past four months, eclipsing Zack Greinke ($24.5 million) and Felix Hernandez ($25 million). The deal also includes a vesting option for the 2020 season, which could bump Verlander's earnings over the next eight years to $202 million.
Meanwhile, Posey just inked the second-largest deal ever given to a catcher, which is wild, given he doesn't even have three years of service time under his belt. The Giants will pay Posey $167 million over the next nine years, trailing only Joe Mauer's $184 million pact among catchers and nearly doubling the third-largest catcher deal, the $91 million contract the Mets gave Mike Piazza in the late '90s.
Verlander wouldn't have hit the open market until after the 2014 season, Posey until after 2016. But you can now scratch two more names off future shopping lists, as free agency continues its march toward irrelevance.
You'll need to know who you're watching. Unlike in the regular season, when you become all too familiar with your favorite team's designated cipher, recognizing players during spring training often takes a well-trained eye. There are the many players wearing 70-, 80- and 90-something who you won't see on the big league roster for a few years, if ever. Then there are the "Is that who I think it is?" double-takes, the veterans who peaked years ago, only to show up in Mesa or Kissimmee or Peoria doggedly trying to fight their way back for one more shot at glory.
These are the NRIs, the non-roster invitees promised almost nothing — not a job, not a major league deal, nothing more than a chance to come to camp, overcome often astronomical odds, and somehow make the Opening Day roster. Today, we'll review the AL NRIs, one player from each American League team who fits the mold of failed prospect, faded star, or just someone with a story to tell (NL later this week).
Even after they had contended all season, even after their starting rotation took off in the second half, even after a five-game winning streak in early August propelled them into a three-way tie for the wild card, the Orioles didn't have many believers. They had crushed preseason expectations, reaped surprise contributions from multiple players, but still had many question marks, especially with their leaky defense on the corners.
That's when Baltimore called up top prospect Manny Machado and the team took off from there. Wilson Betemit, the butcher who had taken over the starting third-base job from fellow butcher Mark Reynolds, got shoved to the bench. And while the 20-year-old Machado showed some holes in his swing, he also came through with some big moments, with the bat and especially withtheglove. The O's went 33-18 the rest of the way, storming to their first playoff berth in 15 years.
Finding two prospects who can dominate as quickly as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper did last year might be a challenge. Still, this year's prospect crop is another impressive one, and one filled with players who could play a big role in this season's pennant races. With that in mind, we decided to count down the 16 players most likely to impact those races — the Machados, if you will.
In baseball, a win is a win except when it's more than a win.
One extra victory for a 100-loss team will mean virtually nothing, little added revenue, no better hope for a playoff chance. The same goes for a 100-win team: In today's 10-team playoff system, sweating over win number 101 or 102 makes little sense, since you're almost certainly in the playoffs, probably winning your division, and most likely claiming home-field advantage throughout if you reach triple digits.
There is, however, a sweet spot for wins, where each one added to a team's ledger greatly improves the odds of a playoff berth. That sweet spot changes every year. In 2012, the two playoff teams that won the fewest games were the NL wild-card winning Cardinals and AL Central champion Tigers, cracking the postseason with 88 wins apiece. So all else being equal, an 89th win for the wild-card runner-up Dodgers or AL Central second-place White Sox would've carried an extraordinary amount of weight.
The wildest day of this Hot Stove season featured the winter's biggest contract for a position player, an affordable two-year deal for a veteran starting pitcher, and a fierce, two-team battle for an underrated starter.
A few hours after the Angels' 11th-hour rush ended with a $125 million deal for Josh Hamilton, the buzz turned to a Cubs-Tigers tug-of-war for Anibal Sanchez. Multiple early reports had Sanchez headed to Chicago for five years and $75 million. But while Hamilton reportedly reneged on a promise to give the Rangers a chance to match any competing offer, Sanchez had no such reluctance, approaching the Tigers to see if they'd match the Cubs' proposal and keep him in Detroit and they did, signing the best remaining pitcher on the free-agent market to a five-year, $80 million contract.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Cam Newton threw for 302 yards and accounted for four touchdowns as the Panthers topped the Eagles 30-22 in Monday Night Football. After the game, fired Auburn coach Gene Chizik greeted Newton in the parking lot with a sarcastic slow clap. "Well, look at Mr. BigShot," he said with a sneer, before toppling to the ground and bruising his ribs on an empty vodka bottle.