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 finally piecing together why the Buffalo Bills' mascot is a Buffalo, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
In a battle of reigning Cy Young winners, David Price's Rays upended R.A. Dickey's Blue Jays, 5-4, in 10 innings. The Blue Jays, preseason favorites in the hypercompetitive AL East, now sit at the bottom of the division with the second-worst run differential in baseball. Meanwhile, something deep stirs within Cito Gaston, and he rises to dust off the ol' Blue Phone, the one wired straight to the Rogers Centre, awaiting a call that he knows is coming soon.
The Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Minnesota Wild with a comfortable 5-1 win as they won their first playoff series since the Stanley Cup finals in 2010. "I guess fives are Wild," said Marian Hossa, who had two goals for the Blackhawks, after the game. When met with silence, Hossa explained, "In my native Slovakia, we have a game called poker in which sometimes, in smaller less serious games, some cards are deemed wild and can be used in a number of different hands. One might say 'Fives are wild' in Slovakia, meaning they can replace threes or fours or any other card. I was referencing that situation, and also the fact that we were playing the Wild and we scored five goals, which is wild." Hossa then furrowed his brow and promised to stop trying to make references that Americans cannot understand.
The baseball season is a long and lonely road. To preserve his sanity, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter keeps a diary. These are excerpts from The Captain's private journal.
Wednesday, May 1: vs. Houston Astros
When you take two of three from Houston, it's hard not say "We should've taken three of three from Houston" because they're basically a minor league team, but one of those minor league teams that doesn't have any legitimate prospects, and will occasionally sign a Jose Canseco or a duck that can run the bases to sell a few extra tickets. Yeah, it's funny to watch them waddle around and listen to the noises they make, but you're not really there for the baseball. You're there for a sideshow. Call me a traditionalist, but I think base-stealing ducks and aging Cansecos have no place on a ballfield. You have to respect the game and put a credible product out there.
In case you were out meeting the Mets, meeting the Mets, stepping right up and greeting the Mets, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
The Golden State Warriors blew a 16-point lead, and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili hit a game winning 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left in the second overtime as the Spurs took Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal at home, 129-127. The final result overshadowed an epic performance from Stephen Curry, who played every minute of the game and scored 44 points. "It's too bad that I'm not allowed to come out of games," Curry said afterward. "I really could've used the rest at the start of the fourth quarter so that I didn't lose the accuracy on my jumper." He then paused and added, "It's weird that everyone else came out for at least a little bit. I wonder why the rules are different for me." Curry then shrugged, before collapsing in a fatigued heap under the weight of his own shoulder movement.
An injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls team shocked the defending champion Heat in Miami, 93-86. The Bulls closed the game on a 10-0 run, which once again raises the question: Can LeBron get it done in the postseason? Hold on. Let me watch some tape of LeBron from last postseason really quickly oh oh, wow, yeah, he totally can. Never mind.
This was supposed to be the year the Toronto Blue Jays took over the local sports landscape. This past winter, the Blue Jays finally flexed the financial might afforded by their owner, telecom giant Rogers Communications. They cashed in a few chips from one of the game’s better farm systems, and soon enough, just about everyone who makes predictions about baseball (including me) foresaw a season that would end with the Blue Jays in the playoffs, their feet sore from having kicked so much ass and their notebooks full from having taken so many names.
The context made it even better — the Yankees and Red Sox, the two teams that had dominated the AL East standings seemingly forever, were set to have down years at the same time for the first time since, well, the last time the Blue Jays made the playoffs.
And on a local level, the NHL lockout meant that hockey might not be on the sports page when the season kicked off, and even if it did, the Maple Leafs were on a famous run of futility, one that had Canadian sportswriters flipping through their dictionaries to see if “moribund” is spelled with an extra “u” in the Commonwealth of Nations.
And yet here we are: The Red Sox and Yankees lead the division, and the Maple Leafs are not only back, but in the playoffs for the first time since Nazem Kadri was in middle school.
The Blue Jays, once again, are in last place, 8½ games behind division-leading Boston, eight games under .500 with playoff odds in the single digits.
The baseball season is a long and lonely road. To preserve his sanity, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter keeps a diary. These are excerpts from The Captain's private journal.
Wednesday, April 24: at Tampa Bay Rays
I don't want to dwell on the game. It is what it is. Or was what it was. It didn't go our way. I wasn't there. That's not an excuse — I still take full responsibility. It's the Captain's job to be there for his team, and even when he can't be there physically, it's his job to provide leadership and inspiration remotely. All you can do is individually text every guy on the roster with words of encouragement, or words of mysterious depth, or words of subtle intimidation. You have to know what motivates each player and press his particular buttons. There's an art to it you learn over time. Not everybody's a positive reinforcement guy. Some guys like the fist bump, the friendly tap on the top of the helmet. But some guys you've got to reach other ways, like showing them a photo of an empty locker in the Scranton clubhouse with their name on it, or by refusing to talk to them for an entire month because they missed a cutoff man. One time somebody woke up bound and gagged inside an equipment bag on the Grand Concourse sidewalk.
In case you were out changing the world with the first-ever mass-produced backyard eagle coop (patent pending), here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
On a day when men in the trenches were in demand, the Kansas City Chiefs selected OT Eric Fisher out of Central Michigan with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. "Oh, that's awesome, I love Eric Fisher," said casual Chiefs fan and Kansas City transplant Bill Franzen. "I remember watching him in college and thinking to myself, 'Man, I hope that guy ends up on my Chiefs.' What an exciting year to have the top pick in the draft. I remember last year; I was in the break room at the actuarial firm where I work, and I was like, 'This team is an Eric Fisher–type talent away from contending.' I just can't wait to watch him stop guys from hitting newly acquired quarterback Alex Smith next year." Franzen then paused, looked over his shoulders and asked in a whisper, "Right? Was that a good reaction to have? I have no idea what to think."
Manti Te'o was among the high-profile prospects to drop out of the first round of the NFL draft. Te'o's embarrassment was compounded by a phone call he received from someone purporting to be an NFL general manager. "He said his name was Trick Footballsworth of the Los Angeles Footballers and that I was for sure going to be his first-round pick," a sheepish Te'o explained after the first round was over. "All I had to do was give him my social security number, some bank passwords, and then mail my car keys to a P.O. Box in Simi Valley. Anyone could've fallen for that, though, so I'm not going to beat myself up too hard over this. Though I do need a ride."
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 busting people's chops and bringing them down a peg or two, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
The Masters has a new champion: Adam Scott defeated Angel Cabrera in a tense two-hole playoff to win his first major at Augusta National. But don't get too comfortable, Mr. Scott. You still have a generic moniker that you share with both an actor and (for the most part) a cartoonist. This means that many people will still picture another man's face when they hear your name, despite your mastery of hitting tiny balls into faraway holes. Hi-yo! Yes! Adam Scott's chops: busted.
The Atlanta Braves improved to an NL best 11-1, as they completed a sweep of the Washington Nationals with a 9-0 road win. But don't get too cocky, Atlanta Braves. Of the last three teams to start 11-1, only one made the playoffs. Therefore, your odds of making the playoffs, 1-3, are the same as they were when you started the season, 10-30. Small sample sized! Ka-pow! You thought you were on the top peg, Braves of Atlanta. Now what peg are you on? I bet it's the second or third one down!
Kobe Bryant suffered a devastating Achilles injury that will keep the future Hall of Famer out for the remainder of this season, as well as the beginning of the next campaign. But don't get too all up on your high horse, people who don't like the Los Angeles Lakers. Not only did the Lakers win both of their games this weekend to increase their odds of qualifying for the postseason, but also, Kobe Bryant has still won five championships, become a legend in the second-biggest city in America, and amassed a personal fortune from playing a child's game that will be used to purchase medical care that will ensure that, despite his Achilles tear, he will live a healthier, longer, and more comfortable life than yours. Buh-zing! Sing, oh muses, of the fortunes of Kobe's haters: "Not so great!" Homer'd!
In case you were busy writing a sports recap column in which you carefully embedded subtle Game of Thrones spoilers, here's what you missed in sports this weekend:
It wasn't easy, but the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals will be playing for the NCAA Championship after beating the Wichita State Shockers, 72-68. "This is my favorite time of the year; Cinderella is dead," Louisville coach Rick Pitino declared as he smashed a glass slipper at his postgame press conference. When asked what he does with the glass slipper when his team fails to defeat an underdog, Pitino replied, "What do you mean? These are my slippers. It's not like I get these specially made for this occasion. That would be weird."
The Michigan Wolverines stormed out early and held on late, topping Syracuse, 61-56, to book a spot in the NCAA Championship game. "It's devastating," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim after the game. "Is there a 2-3 defense for the heart? Is there a rotating big man who can stop the tears?" When asked if perhaps he should develop an offensive plan to attack his emotions, Boeheim responded, "Why would you do something like that?"
In case you were busy sneaking multiple poodles into a motel room under cover of darkness, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
A night after scoring 50, Carmelo Anthony had another huge night, scoring 40 points in the New York Knicks’ 95-82 win over the Hawks in Atlanta. "At the rate I'm going, I'm gonna be throwing up 45 a night. That would be awesome," Anthony said, while beaming after the game. "Unless, of course, this is a trend. And tomorrow I get 30. Then 20. Then 10. Then nothing. Then I start scoring for the other team. Ten points. Then 20. Eventually I start scoring hundreds of points for the other guys, night in and night out. I'm physically exhausted, mentally worn down by the failure. Eventually, it ends with me being forced to retire early. I lose all my money, my wife leaves me. That would be terrible."
Danilo Gallinari and the Denver Nuggets handed the Utah Jazz a huge loss in the race for eighth in the Western Conference, winning, 113-96, in Salt Lake City. Utah Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin remained upbeat after the loss. "We're disappointed," he said, "but we still think our main opponent isn't going to stick together through what we imagine will be a tough fight." In unrelated news, Lakers center Dwight Howard received an unmarked package from Salt Lake City containing a whoopee cushion, two hand buzzers, and a flapping dickey.
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).
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Mark Sanchez finished with five turnovers, including three on the final three possessions, as the Jets lost to the Titans, 14-10, and were eliminated from playoff contention. "So many asses," said Sanchez ruefully. "Just so many asses out there, getting in the way of good football. This sport used to mean something. Now they just put you out there like a Christian in the lion's den, attacked by a thousand asses."
Maybe it's our short memories, and how overwhelming the news cycle can seem in the middle of it. But at this moment, the trade that would send R.A. Dickey and two other players to Toronto for a four-player package highlighted by two terrific prospects has shoved all other Hot Stove news to the backburner. Here's why we're freaking the hell out about it.
Welcome to the second-annual edition of Grantland's MLB Winter Meetings coverage. We'll be filing frequent updates throughout each day of the meetings, weighing in on signings, trades, and rumors, while also providing as much color as possible from Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Hotel, home of the The Great Christmas Arboretum Cotillion.
At last year’s Winter Meetings in Dallas, we saw Jose Reyes shock the baseball world by signing with the Marlins for $106 million. Then the Angels swooped in, landing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson for more than $300 million combined. Ten months later, both teams were playing golf, while teams with less splashy agendas competed in the playoffs.
Expect to see plenty of action at this year’s meetings too. Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke top the list of available free agents, while a number of teams have been linked to juicy trade talks. Here are 10 clubs that could make a splash by the time the week is up: