With a looping back-post header well into stoppage time, Branislav Ivanovic turned Benfica goalkeeper Artur into a statued spectator and gave Chelsea FC a 2-1 win in the Europa League final. The easy explanation for Americans not well versed in the various continental soccer competitions is to call it Europe's NIT. It's a lesser tournament that nobody really cares about until someone else wins it.
But even that analogy is not really accurate. When Kansas inevitably gets bounced from the NCAA basketball tournament in the Sweet 16, there isn't a consolation spot waiting for them in the NIT. That's effectively how Chelsea won a trophy Wednesday.
Somewhere in West Virginia, the Pirates have a 22-year-old corner infielder who’s putting up Miguel Cabrera–like numbers in low-A. That player, Stetson Allie, is old for the level, but this is his second year in the South Atlantic League. (The placement of West Virginia in the South Atlantic is a stunning feat of geographic creativity. One suspects that the late Sen. Robert Byrd was somehow responsible.)
The first time around, Allie, a former second-round pick, was a pitcher. Blessed with a name befitting a character from The Expendables and a fastball that cracked 100 miles an hour, Allie made two appearances, faced 12 batters, recorded two outs, and walked eight men. Allie’s control problems were well known, even when he was an amateur, and once it became clear that he’d never get over them, the Pirates moved him to first base with the eventual plan of moving him to third, where he can take advantage of, you know, a pretty good throwing arm.
Allie’s story is fascinating, and while hardly unique, his spectacular wildness and transition to position player is going to be the first line in his baseball obituary. Which makes it all the more astounding that when Rick Ankiel got cut by Houston last week, people talked about him like he was a normal baseball player. Ankiel’s own control issues led to a similar change more than a decade ago, but the road he’s taken since has managed to push wild pitches and prospect rankings down a ways in his own career postmortem.
Coming into this season, Scott Feldman owned a career 4.81 ERA. It wasn't all bad, of course. You could blame some of those runs allowed on the harsh pitching environment at Arlington in which he toiled for eight years. There were flashes of strong results, such as the 2009 season that yielded a 17-8 record and 4.08 ERA — though even then his numbers weren't supported by strong peripherals. For fantasy purposes, Feldman's name wasn't one you had to remember at the draft table, unless you were in a really deep league.
Feldman's first three starts this year did nothing to change anyone's opinion. Lasting just 14 combined innings, he allowed 15 hits and 10 walks, for a 4.50 ERA. Except that ERA was a gift, the result of the stat's silly way of distinguishing "earned" runs from "unearned" ones. Turns out Feldman actually allowed twice as many total runs as he had earned runs — 14 in 14 innings. Throw in the weak contributions of the Cubs' offense and defense and you had a mediocre pitcher playing on a lousy team, someone you wouldn't think would be worth starting against anyone.
That's when the schedule gods smiled upon him. On April 26, Feldman got to face the Marlins, owners of the second-worst offense in the majors. He didn't dominate by any means. But Feldman's line — 6⅔ innings, seven hits, two runs, two walks, two strikeouts — proved enough to earn his first win of the year.
That was just the appetizer. In his next start, Feldman squared off against the Padres. He obliterated them, ceding just two runs on three hits, walking one, and striking out 12, en route to the first complete game of his career.
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!"
The Brooklyn Nets took care of business at home, beating the Chicago Bulls, 110-91, to force a return trip to Chicago. Brook Lopez, who led the Nets with 28 points and added 10 rebounds, said after the game, "I dedicated my game to fellow tall Stanford alumnus and twin, Jason Collins, for his bravery today. I have nothing but love." Lopez then hung his head and added, "Unfortunately, I let him down by amassing a large number of points and rebounds. If you're listening, Jason, I'm sorry. But also, I'm really proud of you. I'll try to contribute in fewer tangible ways next game."
In December of 2011, emboldened by a colorful, exciting rebranding and a colorful, exciting, publicly funded stadium, the Miami Marlins signed the jewel of the 2011-12 free-agent class, shortstop Jose Reyes. Miami made room for Reyes by moving franchise shortstop Hanley Ramirez over to third base.
Had Reyes not signed, the Marlins could have used strong-armed, sure-handed former first-round draft pick Matt Dominguez at third base in 2012. Dominguez was already one of the top defensive prospects at his position. But with Ramirez holding down the position, Dominguez spent most of 2012 in AAA. Then, on July 4, the Marlins, for some reason, traded him and pitcher Rob Rasmussen to Houston for Carlos Lee.
Even granting that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is reputed to be one of the brighter guys in the game, and that the long-term rebuilding project he’s undertaken in Houston affords him the ability to take some risks, it looked like a good deal for Houston. After all, Dominguez, who twice appeared on the Baseball America Top 100, was about to turn 23, and the Astros got him for the last couple squirts from the ketchup bottle of Lee’s career.
In case you were busy because no one at the game of Celebrity you were playing could get Lark Voorhies, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Chris Paul scored his team's last eight points, including an acrobatic runner with 0.1 seconds remaining, as the Los Angeles Clippers edged the Memphis Grizzlies, 93-91, to take a 2-0 lead in their playoff series. "I don't know how he does it," Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said after the game. "Seriously. He seems to have a really good understanding of floor spacing and leadership. Is there like, a book he read? Because if so, could anyone tell me the name of it so I can throw it on my Kindle? It would be greatly appreciated."
The Chicago Bulls evened up their series with the Brooklyn Nets with a 90-82 win at the Barclays Center. The Barclays Center is not to be confused with Bar Clay Centre, also located in Brooklyn, which allows patron to both paint their own pottery and sample delicious Belgian ales. Team officials denied rumors that Nets guard Deron Williams, who went 1-for-9 in the loss, mixed the two up before the game. But afterward, there were a suspicious number of shoddily constructed clay trophies strewn about the Nets locker room with "Wurlds #1 PG," and "Chris My Paul," scrawled on them.
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 busy scaring little children by reciting Mariners hitting stats from the past decade, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
The Utah Jazz were eliminated from the NBA playoff picture after an 86-70 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. But don't worry, people of Salt Lake City, you still have a critically acclaimed production of the classic musical West Side Story playing through April 21 at the Capitol Theatre. The Salt Lake Tribune raves, "This touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival hits on most cylinders."
Who will be taking the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs? Why, it's the Los Angeles Lakers, who not only qualified, but in beating the Houston Rockets 99-95 in overtime, were able to snag the seventh seed in the West. "It's quite an achievement," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni after the game, "that a team no one believed in overcame all the odds to make the playoffs. If you had told me when I took over this team that was stuck in a mire that we would be seventh in the West " D'Antoni then drifted off and shook his head, before Lakers center Dwight Howard tiptoed up behind him and dumped a small cup of red Gatorade over his head.
In case you were busy learning how boring Nevada is outside of Las Vegas, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Texas's Yu Darvish was one out away from a perfect game, but he was forced to settle for a near shutout as Marwin Gonzalez singled late in the Rangers' 7-0 win over the Houston Astros. "He sure did mar my win tonight, didn't he?" Darvish asked rhetorically after the game, before adding, "see, you can make puns out of anyone's name. Not just mine, Yu guys."
Kobe Bryant got his 19th career triple-double as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Dallas Mavericks, 101-81, in a critical Western Conference showdown. The Lakers also retired star center Shaquille O'Neal's no. 34 at the game. Bryant showed great respect for his former teammate, saying, "He's the best player I've ever suited up next to. I mean, even Dwight Howard is no Shaquille O'Neal." Bryant's eyes narrowed, as a flood of memories came back to him before he added, "But, of course, Shaquille O'Neal is no Dwight Howard." Bryant's eyes narrowed yet further as he felt compelled to add, "But Dwight Howard is no Shaquille O'Neal," before Bryant's eyes became somehow even narrower as he said, "But Shaquille O'Neal is no Dwight Howard." Then Bryant, his eyes now impossibly narrow, added, "But, of course, Dwight Howard is no Shaquille O'Neal," before he closed his eyes completely, swallowed hard, and said, "and neither of those guys could hold Elden Campbell's jock."
In case you were busy planning the ultimate prank (hint: you need Krazy Glue, a dozen Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, and three rubber snakes), here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
Despite a gruesome leg injury to reserve forward Kevin Ware, Louisville knocked off Duke, 85-63, to book a spot in the Final Four. "Man, that's the worst thing that I've ever seen on a basketball court," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino at his postgame press conference, "and I'm not talking about the refereeing. Zing. But seriously, I'm just gutted by what I saw today. Really soul-shaking stuff out there. And not just the refereeing — I'm sorry, I just can't stop zinging those guys. I know this isn't the time. Much as it wasn't the time for them to call a foul on every play right after Kevin hurt his leg. Damn it! Must. Stop. Zinging. Refs."
Brittney Griner and the Baylor Lady Bears were shocked by the Louisville Cardinals in the regional semifinals of the Women's NCAA Tournament, 82-81. "Can you dunk away the tears?" Griner asked her teammates after the game, before a horrifying wave of loneliness washed over her as she realized she was the only person in the room who could answer that question. Griner was later seen, alone in the deserted Chesapeake Energy Arena, yelling, "I feel nothing!" as she dunked ball after ball through the unguarded nets.
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).
The A's and Astros pulled off a five-player trade yesterday, one that strengthens Oakland's status as a contender and upgrades Houston's already vastly improved farm system.
Heading to Oakland are infielder Jed Lowrie and right-handed reliever Fernando Rodriguez. In return, Houston gets young slugger Chris Carter, right-handed pitching prospect Brad Peacock, and Single-A catcher Max Stassi.
In case you were busy hunting for valuable royal bones in a local parking lot, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Tyson Chandler secured his third straight 20-rebound game, becoming the first New York Knick to do so since Willis Reed in 1969, as the Knicks topped the Detroit Pistons, 99-85, at Madison Square Garden. After the game, an excited Chandler said, "I hope to channel that energy in the postseason and have another Willis Reed moment when it really matters." When asked if he knew exactly what having a Willis Reed moment entailed, Chandler pulled a knife out of his pocket, stared straight into the camera and said, "Yes, I will do anything to motivate my team to win a championship. Anything."
In case you were out seeing if it was really as cold as the guy on TV said it was (it was), here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The New York Knicks snapped the San Antonio Spurs' seven-game winning streak, with a decisive 100-83 victory at Madison Square Garden. "Doesn't matter," said Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich after the game, "just a meaningless game, in a meaningless regular season, in this meaningless march to death we call life. Right, Tony?" He then looked back at his point guard, Frenchman Tony Parker, who nodded sagely at his coach before putting out a Gauloise between his fingers.
Oregon showed off its speed on both sides of the ball, beating Kansas State, 35-17, in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. In a postgame interview, ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe asked veteran Kansas State coach Bill Snyder if he felt the game had finally started to pass him by. Snyder replied, "I don't know. We ran into a good team, but I guess I did kind of feel like Tommy Lee Jones in that movie, you know, that one?" Rowe suggested, No Country for Old Men, but Snyder shook his said, saying, "No, you know that one where he's old." Rowe continued prompting Snyder with films starring an older Tommy Lee Jones, such as Men in Black II and Space Cowboys, but Snyder responded, "No, I think he's like a cop and a dad." Rowe, visibly frustrated at this point, said, "He's a cop and a dad in everything!" She then continued listing Tommy Lee Jones movies until Snyder realized he was thinking of Clint Eastwood.