The ALCS Is Already Awesome, and It Should Stay That Way

The Yankees and Astros, with their combined 210 regular season wins, have been on a collision course to square off in this American League Championship Series since Opening Day. It was one of the few correct predictions I made before the season began, and that doesn’t exactly make me a prophet. It makes me part of the majority who thought this would happen. Through two games, you can’t necessarily say that the details of how we got here have played out predictably. But a series deadlocked at one game apiece with the venue shifting to the Bronx for Games 3 through 5 is certainly befitting of this clash of baseball titans.

The Yanks caught some good fortune in the ALDS round, simply by virtue of Houston having to throw Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in Games 4 and 5 just to dispatch the pesky Tampa Bay Rays. The Bombers did what they had to do in Game 1. They combined a virtuoso pitching performance from Masahiro Tanaka, some great defense, and 5 RBI’s from wunderkind Gleyber Torres in a game they won 7-0. There really wasn’t much to dissect afterwords. The Yanks played a damn near perfect game. The Astros didn’t have an answer on that night. And that was that.

Game 2 was predictably tight from start to finish. Justin Verlander was dominant, save for a lead-off walk to DJ LeMahieu that was promptly followed by a two-run laser beam homer off the bat of Aaron Judge. James Paxton only lasted 2 1/3 innings for New York in which he allowed six men to reach base. Aaron Boone wisely didn’t let Paxton give it away early, and instead turned to Chad Green. He retired six in a row, before being removed with one out in the 5th in favor of Adam Ottavino. But his first-pitch slider to George Springer was hit roughly 800 feet to tie the game. It stayed that way until Carlos Correa’s walk-off homer off J.A. Happ in the 11th to give the Astros a much-needed 3-2 victory.

So now that the series is tied and the venue shifts to the Bronx, a few observations about how this has all played out so far.

The Game 2 loss was on the offense, NOT Aaron Boone

I’ll admit, I wasn’t crazy about the move to take Green out of the game for Ottavino in that spot. But even after Springer’s moon shot, the game was still tied. The fact that the Yankees got Verlander out of the game with the score still even should have been considered an advantage. But as the Yanks were burning through the best of their bullpen to put up zeroes, the offense went dormant. Consider this. Brett Gardner hit a single off the glove of Jose Altuve in the 6th that was alertly barehanded by Correa, who fired home to nail LeMahieu at the plate for the final out of the inning. The Yankees only got one more hit the rest of the ballgame, and it would seem to be that any reasonable person would place the brunt of the blame for the loss right there.

There really is no dispute as to which team has the better pen in this series. It’s the Yankees. But at the plate, they came up empty against Houston relievers Will Harris, Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith, Ryan Pressly and Josh James. That’s not to say that all of the guys I just mentioned are what you would call scrubs, but if the Yankees managed to scratch out a run against any one of them, then Jonathan Loaisiga and J.A. Happ wouldn’t have had to play major roles in such big spots in the extra frames.

The decision to send LeMahieu home was the right call, it just didn’t work out

As it played out live, I was livid that third-base coach Phil Nevin allowed the third out of the inning to be made at home plate, depriving the Yankees of a bases-loaded opportunity. However, after watching the wide angle replay, I can’t say I would have done it any differently. As the ball bounced away from Altuve, it sure did look like it was going to get far enough away to allow the play at the plate to at least be a lot closer than it ended up being. But give credit to Correa, who made a perfect heads-up play to cut LeMahieu down at home.

Two things about this. One, Gary Sanchez has had a really tough time at the plate lately and was anything but a guarantee to produce in the next at bat against Verlander. And two, I’m a firm believer that aggressive baserunning has a tendency to work out in big spots in the playoffs. You always want to put pressure on the defense to execute to perfection when possible, and in this case, the Astros did. A tip of the cap to them for that. But I can’t fault Nevin for sending LeMahieu there.

The middle of the Yankees lineup HAS to be better

With no Giancarlo Stanton last night, the Yankees needed someone to produce in the middle of their batting order, and it just didn’t happen. Even though Gardner did collect a pair of hits out of the 5-hole, Edwin Encarnacion and Sanchez combined to go 0-for-9 with six strikeouts, and Gardner also struck out twice. Adding Game 1 into the equation, Sanchez and Encarncacion are collectively 1-for-17 in the series so far with 10 K’s, and I don’t think I’m overreacting to say that just isn’t gonna cut it. I’ve seen a lot of tweets today clamoring for Sanchez to be benched in favor of Austin Romine, but I just can’t get on board with that…at least not yet. Here’s hoping that a day off and three home games will be the elixir for what ails those bats.

FOX’s in-game Charmin sponsorship was sublime

Ok, this is really all I wanted to write about today, so now that I’ve gotten all the bullshit about baseball out of the way I can talk about this Charmin graphic FOX used on the broadcast last night. I don’t remember what inning it was. Frankly, I don’t even remember what the premise of the graphic was. Apparently it was a comparison of the two second basemen. All I remember for sure was that at one point, Joe Buck (somehow keeping a straight face) introduced a graphic brought to us by Charmin toilet paper that was called “Charmin #2’s,” and by the time I stopped laughing, several innings had gone by.

Someone needs to hang this up in the Smithsonian

To get a sponsorship like that approved and then presented on an ALCS telecast makes me, like, unreasonably happy. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good poop joke. What I really want now is to just drop the subtlety completely and have Charmin sponsor a scoring summary graphic called “Who Has the Runs?” Depends could have sponsored that crazy Sanchez at-bat in the 11th inning as the “Pants-Shitting Moment of the Game.” Now that the door for poop puns on baseball broadcasts has been cracked ajar, let’s just kick that motherfucker down and really let it all hang out. Make it happen, FOX.

Anyway, Game 3 is Tuesday in the Bronx and should be another tight pitching matchup between Luis Severino and Gerrit Cole. The term “pivotal” really gets played out in these situations, but this game is literally the definition of the word. All I know is this series figures to go at least six and nothing is certain from here on out. Are we having fun yet? Well, my blood pressure has never been higher, so…yes?

Hey Sports Fans, It Ain’t All That Serious

As someone who spent a decade working in sports talk, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of how the medium works. At its core, the structure is based on finding things to argue about, picking a side, and then telling everybody why the other side of the argument is dumb and/or wrong. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of how every realm of media works nowadays. But at least when we’re discussing say, politics, we’re usually talking about issues that have some kind of impact on our lives or society at large. The struggle that sports conversations have at times is that we tend to grab at straws for things to yell about. The result is that we often find ourselves getting all kinds of worked up about things that frankly just don’t matter. Like at all.

There were a couple of examples of this that popped up recently that I think call for some of us to check the temperature of our jets and cool them significantly. Let me start with the underpants-twisting that occurred as a product of what went down in the Red Sox-Rangers game in Arlington on Thursday.

Mike Minor was the starting pitcher for Texas, and he had a significant personal milestone within reach. Nine strikeouts on the day would give him 200 for the season, and that would be the first time in his eight-year career he would have reached that mark. Seeing as how the Rangers and Red Sox had both been eliminated from playoff contention, the outcome of the game didn’t matter for any other reason other than pride. So Texas manager Chris Woodward allowed Minor to keep pitching until he got that 200th K…except that would prove to be easier said than done.

That was in large part because the Red Sox decided that they were as determined to not allow Minor to reach that milestone as Minor was to make it happen. That was made obvious when in the 8th inning, with Minor sitting one strikeout away from reaching the plateau, three consecutive Boston hitters feebly hacked at the first pitch purely with the intention of putting the ball into play. It was at this point that all pretense of this being a battle between two teams trying to win a baseball game was dropped.

So out came Minor to pitch the ninth, despite having already thrown a now almost unheard of 120 pitches. And that’s when things really got absurd. After a Sandy Leon fly-out to start the inning, Chris Owings popped up a 1-1 pitch into foul territory about 30 feet down the first-base line. As first baseman Ronald Guzman converged on the ball, Minor shouted at him to let it drop, which Guzman alertly did. That ran the count to 1-2, following which Minor got an extremely generous strike three call on a pitch that was clearly high and tight. One can only assume that home plate umpire CB Bucknor had seen enough of these teams trying to out-petty each other. But hey, Minor had his 200th strikeout and everyone could go home happy, right?

But that’s not where the story ends, because of course it isn’t. First, the two managers involved in this farce both took swipes at the other in their postgame comments in an effort to paint the other as the REAL bad guy in this situation. Alex Cora lauded his Red Sox for “playing the game the right way,” which is a weird way of describing a team that literally stopped even attempting to put together good at-bats in a game they were losing in the late innings. Woodward accurately mentioned in his presser that the Red Sox “kind of set the tone” by deciding to “not try to win the game.”

Lo and behold there were members of the media who couldn’t let this affront on the game of baseball stand without putting in their two grumpy cents. The Boston Globe‘s Pete Abraham huff-tweeted about how Minor’s 200 K’s “should have a big asterisk” because of how “unprofessional” his pursuit of that milestone was. I was delighted to see Minor himself respond to that tweet like this:

Why do I love this response so much? Because he’s exactly right. NO ONE SHOULD CARE THAT MUCH ABOUT THIS. If you can’t just be happy for a guy who has endured lost seasons due to injury for reaching a significant individual milestone, honestly, why do you even watch sports? Do you need something to be angry about that bad? The 200K storyline was literally the only significance to that game even being played at all. I say good for Mike Minor.

Yet that episode pales in comparison to the energy I’ve seen people waste getting all crabbed up over champagne celebrations for teams that clinch wild card berths. It seems that in the eyes of many a sports fan, despite these teams working since February towards the goal of putting themselves in a position to make the playoffs, that accomplishment warrants nothing more than a firm handshake.

Pictured here: Something people are mad about somehow (📷: John Minchillio, AP)

Seriously, just type “wild card champagne” into the search box on Twitter and observe how many of us are all bent out of shape that baseball players have the nerve to experience joy for a feat that two-thirds of the league only hoped to accomplish. Who are you people? Imagine if I suggested that someone who finally gets that new job they’ve been working toward for months shouldn’t celebrate that achievement because hey, IT’S NOT LIKE YOU’RE THE CEO YET. Do we realize how absurd that sounds? I’ve really had just about enough of this never-ending soul-sucking effort on the part of fans and media alike to attempt to remove any trace of fun from sports. IT’S SPORTS! This is supposed to be fun and entertaining. Why do we insist on making every single thing so businesslike and boring. It never ceases to blow my mind.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. One of the most vomit-inducing aspects of sports is when athletes have fun or showcase their personality only for some wet log to say “But, but what about the integrity of the game?” Fucking spare me with that shit. Sports leagues have been riddled with scandal since the goddamn Black Sox were throwing games in the 1910’s, and yet we treat the Brewers popping bubbly as if they’re some kind of scourge that makes us yearn for the good ol’ days when soulless robots celebrated championships with a quiet “Huzzah” mumbled under their breath.

Don’t get me wrong. The point I want you to take from this is not that there’s NEVER anything to get upset about when it comes to sports. There are plenty of things that I feel strongly about that I think are worthy of anger. For example, I think it’s outrageous that Colin Kaepernick has been shunned from the NFL simply for having the balls to say out loud that maybe something ought to be done about bad cops killing black people with impunity. I think Major League Baseball did a terrible job not allowing the Mets to wear hats that paid tribute to first responders on 9/11. The NHL can’t seem to go more than ten years at a time without a work stoppage under Gary Bettman’s watch. These are things to be justifiably upset about. But when we’re talking about a meaningless September baseball game getting sidetracked for one player’s quest for 200 strikeouts, or a team popping bottles after working their asses off for a playoff spot, count me among those that just don’t see what the problem is.

We’re all so on edge all the time nowadays, and one of the byproducts of that seems to be that we reach for things to be pissed about. I understand that any topic that can be spun into a two-sided debate is the kind of content that keeps people tuned in to sports talk shows and the like. But for Christ’s sake, let’s try to be a little bit more selective about the things we allow to grind our gears. I promise we’ll all be much better off for it in the long run.

What We Definitely, Probably, Maybe Know About the NFL So Far

Perhaps more than any other sport, the NFL season has a way of flying by in what feels like the blink of an eye. And faster than you can say Tua Tagovailoa, each NFL team’s regular season is one-eighth complete with Week 2 officially behind us. Week 3 gets underway tonight. It is a Jaguars game, so you’d be forgiven if you don’t really care unless you’re starting Gardner Minshew in your fantasy league for some reason. If so, my heart goes out to you. But with two whole weeks of football in the books, there’s no better time than now to make some hard and fast declarations as to which teams are good and which ones are terrible based on that two-game sample. This is just what we do in the world of sports punditry. What am I supposed to do? Wait until the end of October to pretend I have well-informed insight? Thanksgiving? CHRISTMAS??? No, I believe in seizing the present to spout off opinions that definitely need more time to develop before I can pretend I know what I’m talking about. So here I go acting like I know a lot based on watching a little.

These Teams Are Very Good and Should Be Feared

Have you heard about these New England Patriots? It turns out that when they play football games, they generally win them. The addition of Antonio Brown just adds an extra layer of villainy to their already detestable standing as perennial Super Bowl favorite. But rest assured, this team is very good and the majority of good citizens outside of the greater Massachusetts area already appropriately hate them for it. You don’t need me to tell you to do that. It’s as automatic as Garfield hating Mondays.

Although according to this coffee mug, he’s actually quite fond of the Pats, so…bad analogy?

The Kansas City Chiefs are quarterbacked by the most exciting player in the league in Patrick Mahomes and are off to a 2-0 start. This team is going to score a buttload of points and should probably be considered the most likely to rid us of our annual New England nightmare. However, because the universe is cold and cruel, I fully anticipate they will lose in heartbreaking fashion when the AFC Championship Game is inevitably played in Foxboro come January.

The Baltimore Ravens are one of my favorite stories so far, simply because they have a quarterback who lots of people thought should be a running back when he came out of college. Instead, Lamar Jackson has carved up defenses through the first two weeks. Granted, those defenses belonged to the Dolphins and Cardinals respectively, but 82 points in two weeks is nothing to just write off. As much talk as there was about the Browns overcoming years of being doo doo and having a decent shot of actually winning the AFC North this offseason, Baltimore appears as though they will be the tallest hurdle that Baker Mayfield and co. will have to leap over to get there.

I’m putting the Los Angeles Rams on this list for a few reasons. First, they were in the Super Bowl last year and I don’t have any reason to believe that was a fluke. But more importantly, they’re off to a 2-0 start without Jared Goff having played all that great. That description certainly applies more to his overwhelmingly blah performance in Week 1 against Carolina than his respectable showing this past week against New Orleans. But if and when he consistently performs up to his number-one-overall pick potential, the Rams will be very dangerous. Todd Gurley is a nightmare to tackle and Aaron Donald spearheads a defense that has shown itself to be one of the best in the league at creating turnovers. I expect them to be just fine in the only division in football that has three teams off to a perfect start.

These Teams Are Very Bad and Should Feel Bad About Themselves

The Miami Dolphins might be the worst football team ever assembled, and strangely that’s kind of the point. This is the NFL version of the team from Major League where the unstated goal is to find a collection of players who are bad enough to ensure that they will lose as often as possible. The results through two weeks couldn’t possibly be more laughable. These dead fish have been outscored by a combined 102-10 in their first two games. Unless Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard becomes sentient and learns how to fend off a pass rush, the likelihood of this team winning a game this year appears to be somewhere between not great and no chance in hell.

That beard tho…
📷: Washington Post

UPDATE: Fitzpatrick and his beard have reportedly been relegated to back up in favor of a clean-shaven Josh Rosen

My New York football Giants have been run incompetently for several years now, and their sixth 0-2 start in the last seven seasons is hardly a surprise. It’s nothing short of depressing to see what has become of the twilight of Eli Manning’s career. That potentially Hall of Fame career now appears to have officially struck midnight with Eli being benched in favor of sixth-overall pick Daniel Jones, who actually looks like what would happen if the Lego company tried to make an Eli Manning.

Collect the whole set!
📷: USA Today

I understand that the Giants’ problems extend far beyond the quarterback position and in fact don’t even start there, but the glory days of this franchise are so far back in the rear view mirror, they have completely faded from sight. Bartender, I need a new drink. I seem to have spilled my tears into this one and it’s gotten a little salty.

Alas, the Giants are not the only dumpster fire of a football team that calls Metlife Stadium home. The Jets are off to another one of their “same old Jets” starts to the year. They are also 0-2, and have managed to lose one quarterback to mononucleosis and another to a gross-looking ankle injury. Something called a Luke Falk is now their starter for likely at least the next two games and perhaps longer. The good news is those games will be against a couple of pushovers in the Patriots and Eagles. Oh wait, those teams are actually pretty goddamn good. Well at least the schedule should get favorable once Sam Darnold presumably returns in Week 5, right? Checks schedule, sees Cowboys Week 5 and Patriots (again) in Week 6. Well, Gang Green nation. There’s always next year.

Bless Tim Burke for this Sam Darnold graphic generator so I can bring you this important PSA

The Pittsburgh Steelers were not supposed to be a part of the bad list when the year began. But now that they are 0-2 and Ben Roethlisberger has been ruled out for the season, it’s hard to imagine things getting much better for them. The Donte Moncrief signing wasn’t necessarily supposed to be akin to the second coming of Jerry Rice, but he has been about as bad as could be so far. After catching 3 of his 10 targets for a whopping 7 yards in his Pittsburgh debut, he was targeted just once in Week 2, and that was a pass that bounced off of his hands and was promptly intercepted. At least they wouldn’t do anything foolish like trade a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, except that’s exactly what they did on Monday. The question that remains is can Mason Rudolph turn this team’s fortunes around? Granted, he looked pretty good in almost leading them to a comeback against Seattle. But as I’ve already made clear, it’s my job to make grand declarations based on basically nothing, so my answer is no and he probably shouldn’t even try. But while we’re on the subject of having to fill in for injured quarterbacks…

Look At All These Injured Quarterbacks!

Roethlisberger is done for the year. So is Nick Foles. Drew Brees is out six weeks. Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz have no business still being alive after getting squashed by large football men this past week. I’ve already talked about Sam Darnold coming down with smoochies disease in addition to his backup Trevor Siemian having his ankle reduced to shrapnel.

I’m really sorry, Sam. In all sincerity I wish you a speedy recovery.

All this is before I even mention Cam Newton, who I can’t be convinced isn’t dealing with some kind of injury, whether it’s related to his surgically repaired shoulder or not. It’s only a matter of time before NFL quarterback is being featured on that World’s Most Dangerous Jobs show on History Channel or TLC or whatever the fuck network it’s on. One thing’s for sure. No matter how many QBs go down, NFL teams will surely try to resurrect Bart Starr before they give Colin Kaepernick a call. That’s because as has been firmly established by now, the only unforgivable sin in the NFL is kneeling for the national anthem. No really, it’s a wonderful sports league. Oh boy, it seems my eyes have rolled so far back in my head I can’t see anymore. Oh well.


So there you have it. Two weeks in the books and I think I know everything. Despite the fact I’ve covered less than half of the league in this piece, I think we all know what’s going to go down the rest of the way by now. Sure, there are a bunch of teams that are off to good starts that will probably come crashing down to earth in the weeks to come (looking at you, Buffalo), as well as some teams that have some kinks to work out before they make a push for a playoff spot (looking at you, should-be-winless Atlanta). Now let’s all look forward to Week 3, after which much of what I said here can and should be completely disregarded. LET’S PLAY SOME MORE FOOTBAW!

5 Weird Sports Terms We Never Thought to Question

Sports can be funny sometimes. Seemingly every night on the highlight show of your choosing, you might watch something that you’ve never seen before. Something so wacky it seems to defy all semblance of logic or reason. But perhaps nothing about sports is stranger than some of the terminology that gets used to describe particular recurring events. Here are five examples of weirdo sports terminology that we throw around as if they’re normal things to say, and everyone just goes along with it.

Baseball: Golden Sombrero

This refers to when a batter strikes out four times in the same game. I guess since doing just about anything three times in a game can be referred to as a “hat trick” – which really should be a hockey/soccer term exclusively – baseball people decided to double down on the hat reference and just make it bigger. Something I learned today: According to Baseball Reference, striking out five times in a game is known as a platinum sombrero. Sammy Sosa is the all-time leader in that category with four. But at least they didn’t go any further than that. I mean, no one would be silly enough to coin a term for the ultra rare six strikeout performance…Wait, check that. Apparently, that’s called a titanium sombrero. Well, one thing’s for sure – whether figuratively or literally – no one wants to wear that hat.

Hockey: Apple

This is a cutesy slang name for an assist. Why? Well after doing some thorough research into the term’s origins, it turns out there is a very deep and elaborate explanation for this. It’s because – and stay with me here – assist and apple both start with the same letter. No, seriously. That’s the reason. By that logic, I propose a motion to start referring to goals as grapefruits. As in, Connor McDavid had a really good game tonight. Two grapefruits and an apple on his stat line. Mmmm, nutritious!

Soccer/Basketball: Nutmeg

This refers to when an offensive player either dribbles or passes the ball directly between the legs of a defender. If you’re not sure where this term came from, but you’re thinking, “There’s no way that’s actually a testicle reference, is it?” …Well yes, it absolutely is. After looking into this further, I discovered this little tidbit on Wikipedia that provides an alternative explanation:

Another theory was postulated by Peter Seddon in his book, Football Talk – The Language And Folklore Of The World’s Greatest Game. The word, he suggests, arose because of a sharp practice used in nutmeg exports between North America and England. “Nutmegs were such a valuable commodity that unscrupulous exporters were to pull a fast one by mixing a helping of wooden replicas into the sacks being shipped to England,” writes Seddon. “Being nutmegged soon came to imply stupidity on the part of the duped victim and cleverness on the part of the trickster.” 

I suppose it is more fun to say someone got nutmegged than it is to say they were Trojan horsed. But let’s be serious. I’m not buying this importer/exporter explanation. I know a balls reference when I see one.

Football: Pooch Punt

This describes a short kick designed to prevent a long return, but you’d be forgiven if you think it sounds more like the kind of thing that would get your PETA membership revoked. When you consider there is also a football play known as a flea flicker, I’m starting to think that there’s some kind of odd connection between dogs and football.

But while we’re on the subject of football, you may have heard the term Monday morning quarterback used to describe someone who uses the power of hindsight to critique a football team’s decision making. Well, today I learned that there is a European equivalent used with soccer critics. That term is Thursday morning tippy tappy. I swear I’m not making that up. My life is appreciably better for knowing this. I hope you now feel the same way.

Baseball: A couple of ways we describe curveballs

I can understand why a baseball commentator would describe a curveball as a bender or a hook. Those are quite clearly desriptions of the movement the pitch makes as it approaches home plate. Even referring to it as a deuce makes sense, because the catcher will put down two fingers to signal for that pitch. But where on earth did we come up with the term yakker? That sounds more to me like that one friend of yours who just doesn’t know how to hold their liquor. They know who they are.

But hands down, my favourite curveball word is the term Uncle Charlie. I mean, WHAT? In trying to find the origin of this, I stumbled across a website which offers what can be generously described as a convoluted explanation:

Some historians of the game say the term is connected to CB Radio use in the 1970s.  Some CB radio users at the time referred to the Federal Communications Commission as “Uncle Charlie”.  They say the slight connection between“Curveball” (CB) and CB Radio somehow allowed the term “Uncle Charlie” to jump this very loose connection.

sportsfanfocus.com

A “very loose connection” indeed. I’d have an easier time accepting that the person who coined this term simultaneously had a hard time hitting the curve, and a grumpy uncle they never wanted to invite over for dinner. Uncle Charlie? I never want to see him. The pitch or the person.

Got any other ridiculous sports terms that require more of an explanation? Leave them in the comments below. You can also find me on Twitter (@MaxMadeATweet) or on Instagram (@maxmadeagram). Holler at me any time. I’ll see ya next week!

The Yankees Do Nothing, and Will Probably Win Nothing

The MLB Trade Deadline has come and gone, and the first-place New York Yankees have decided that what they have is enough to win a World Series this year. Well, at least what they’ve decided is that they weren’t willing to part with any top-tier prospects to bolster a pitching staff that has scuffled its way through the last few weeks since the All Star break.

In a vacuum, it’s hard to have an enormous problem with the decision not to thin out a promising prospect pool for the kinds of pitchers that were available at the deadline this year. Once it became clear that the thought of Noah Syndergaard in pinstripes was nothing more than a talk radio caller’s pipe dream, it honestly didn’t make a ton of sense to part with a player the likes of Clint Frazier or even Deivi Garcia to land someone like Robbie Ray. That’s true even if Frazier seems to have fallen out of favor with the front office and doesn’t appear to have a spot on this team in any capacity, at least for this particular season.

But it certainly isn’t a good look for Brian Cashman and Co. when you consider the Houston Astros managed to snag Zack Greinke from the Diamondbacks on the same day he pitched against the Yankees in the Bronx. The Astros’ rotation was already a cut above that of the Yanks, and now the argument could be made that Houston’s worst starter is at least as good as New York’s best.

I’m not at all what you would call a slave to statistics – especially a stat like ERA – but when you consider that there isn’t a single Yankees’ starter with an earned run average below 4.00, it’s impossible to argue that starting pitching wasn’t and isn’t a glaring need on this team. What the Yankees’ hierarchy is essentially telling its fan base is that they plan on winning playoff games by scoring a ton of runs. That isn’t necessarily an empty threat considering the depth of their lineup, but I think we’ve all seen enough postseason baseball to know that generally isn’t how things work.

Sure, there’s a possibility that Luis Severino could return in September and re-assert himself as the ace of the staff. Yes, Dellin Betances could come back and add another dynamic arm out of the bullpen so that the starters won’t be required to go six or seven innings deep come October. But count me among the Yankee fans who just doesn’t see how the Bombers can win a seven-game series against a team like Houston as things are currently constructed.

Make no mistake, this Yankee team is one of just a handful in the league that can be considered championship quality. But watching the pitching staff labor to get outs against the high-powered offenses of the Twins and Red Sox last week was enough to instill more than just a little bit of doubt that they are up to the task. Should they fail to win it all this year, the vitriol that much of the fan base will hurl at the front office will be expected, and frankly, deserved.

It goes back to the offseason when they decided they didn’t need someone like Patrick Corbin enough to pay top dollar for him over six years. Even as Dallas Kuechel remained unsigned through the first two months of the season, the Yanks allowed themselves to be outbid by Atlanta, even though he only ended up signing a one-year deal for $13M. To snooze their way through the trade deadline while Greinke, Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer all changed uniforms doesn’t really make much sense to me when you consider how quickly championship windows can close.

There are arguments to be made about whether or not those three guys in particular would be a good fit for New York, but barring a spectacular turnaround, it certainly doesn’t seem like the investments the Yankees did make in J.A. Happ and C.C. Sabathia were the answer. Domingo German has been a revelation, but the more his innings pile up, the less likely it is that he is a factor come playoff time. I still believe in Masahiro Tanaka as a reliable postseason stalwart, but his performance of late has left a lot to be desired. And as far as James Paxton goes, it’s hard to look at his first year in pinstripes as anything other than a disappointment at this point.

When you get right down to it, the Yankees had a need to address and they chose not to do it. That doesn’t mean they’re punting on the season or anything like that. After all, as I write this they hold an 8-game lead in the American League East and there is no reason at all to fear that they will let that slip. The concern obviously lies in what will happen when they find themselves having to find a way to get 27 outs against Houston, Boston or Minnesota without being outscored four games out of seven.

It’s hard to write a piece like this without sounding like a typical spoiled Yankee fan, but the fact remains that it has been a decade since this team won a ring. I know, I can already hear the fans of championship-starved franchises playing tiny violins for me, but I just think it would be a damn shame for the Yanks to waste another year with this marvelous lineup only to come up empty-handed.

This attitude of “Well, we can just sign Gerrit Cole in the offseason and everything will be fine!” just doesn’t cut it for me. For one, I want to win THIS year. And second, what indication has this team given you in the way they’ve conducted their business over the last several seasons that they would actually pull the trigger on a multi-year megadeal for a pitcher that will be turning 29 in September? If they end up talking themselves out of doing such a thing, I can’t say I’d find myself surprised.

Before I end this piece on such a critical note, I want to make sure I point out that Cashman does deserve a ton of credit for the diamonds in the rough he has found when it comes to position players. Luke Voit, Gio Urshela and Cameron Maybin have all played excellent baseball since putting on the pinstripes. Mike Tauchman has been a pleasant surprise even if he’s played a more regular role than was designed for him at the start of the season.

But the reason why they say pitching and defense wins championships is because that has borne itself out to be true more often than not. It’s hard to make the case right now that the Yankees have enough pitching to pick them to win in October. It would be wonderful if I get proven wrong. Here’s hoping that August and September sees the Yankees’ staff piece it all together. But Andy Pettitte isn’t walking through that door.

It’s a Good Time to Be a Devils Fan

You know who just had a really good weekend? ME! That’s because Ray Shero, the GM of my beloved New Jersey Devils put in some goddamn work at the NHL Draft here in Vancouver.

For starters, he used the number one pick in the draft to select 18-year-old Jack Hughes, who promises to be an elite-level talent at center for years to come. As a kicker, he was also able to snag P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators for some spare parts, some draft picks and some major salary cap relief. And y’know what? I don’t think he’s done.

The Devils still have north of $25 million in cap space, although they will no doubt be saving a chunk of that in hopes of being able to sign Taylor Hall to an extension, seeing as how he is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after next season. But with a hoard of contending teams looking for ways to stay under the $81.5 million cap threshold for next season, Shero and Co. are in an enviable position when it comes to the flexibility of being able to add to their roster without having to subtract much.

The same can’t be said for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who just had to surrender a future first round pick to Carolina simply to free themselves from the weight of Patrick Marleau’s contract. The Vegas Golden Knights are in a similar predicament. They currently find themselves more than $6 million over the cap ceiling, and it seems they will likely have to part with some high-end talent for a light return. The Devils are one of the teams best positioned to swoop in and take advantage of that much like they just did with David Poile’s situation in Nashville.

There is also a tantalizing crop of free agents available that Shero may be willing to bring on board if the price is right. Artemi Panarin highlights that list, but the idea of adding a player the likes of Anders Lee, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Dzingel, or even Joe Pavelski is an enticing possibility. But I wouldn’t expect the Devils to start throwing cash around recklessly. After all, this summer is really putting a spotlight on the importance of having financial flexibility.

Even without taking any future maneuvers into account, the Devils roster as currently constructed is a leaps-and-bounds improvement over what they finished with last season. They may not be at Cup contender status yet, but the additions of Hughes and Subban in one weekend puts a lead block on top of the gas pedal on their rebuild. This team was thought to be years away from their contention window just a few months ago, and now they find themselves in a position where a few more savvy moves by Shero could put them right there.

The Devils also have some promising prospects in their system that might slot into the NHL lineup as early as this coming season. The impact that veterans like Subban and Andy Greene could have on the development of defenseman Ty Smith is incredibly exciting. If the organization is high enough on a guy like Swedish winger Jesper Boqvist, they likely wont feel pressure to overspend on a free agent forward. I get the sense the Devils feel like they have legit future pros down on the farm, meaning they can save their financial assets and wait to spend until they’re one or two major signings away from being a championship team.

Aside from the obvious talent boost, this team also just became a lot more fun from a personality perspective. Subban is one of my favorite characters in the league, as evidenced by this video he tweeted out after the trade to New Jersey became finalized…

#Smashville – I love you! Thank you to the @PredsNHL team, teammates, fans and community for embracing me over the past three years. Ready for this next chapter… @NJDevils are you ready for the Subbanator? 😈☝🏿👀 pic.twitter.com/rkPkkqRKRT— P.K. Subban (@PKSubban1) June 22, 2019

@PKSubban1 on Twitter

After watching cameras follow Hughes around on draft day, a few things become clear. One, the guy eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. Even as he was being whisked around from one media availability to the next, he couldn’t take his eyes off of the TV broadcast of the draft. But the other thing that is apparent from watching this video is that this kid is going to inject his personality into the locker room as well…

Follow Jack Hughes around on his first day as a Devil. pic.twitter.com/A2iWKDcbWA— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) June 22, 2019

@NJDevils on Twitter

Keeping with the theme of Devils having fun, here’s a video of Blake Coleman dancing to Old Town Road at his wedding last week just because…

There’s a part 2 and it’s even better 😂 pic.twitter.com/AmTyB0eOuW— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) June 23, 2019

@NJDevils on Twitter

All of this is to say that it’s a damn good time to be a Devils fan right now. There are few teams in the league who are as solid down the middle with Nico Hischier still on the upswing of his career. A defense corps that was once the glaring weakness on this squad is officially on the come up. Strangely enough, the biggest question mark for this team may be in between the pipes. Cory Schneider isn’t getting any younger and had a hell of a time recovering from injury last season. 22-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood showed a ton of promise in limited time, but still has a lot of room to grow his game.

Needless to say, I am giddy with anticipation over what the rest of this offseason may bring. Last season was a painful one. The litany of injuries never really gave the Devils a chance to return to the playoffs after a surprising postseason berth the year prior. But going forward, a playoff appearance should be the baseline goal for the team this season. October can’t come soon enough. And who knows, if things break right, there may be a summer in the not too distant future where the Devils are lifting the Stanley Cup over their heads once again. And best believe when that happens, we’re gonna party like it’s 1995.

Can the Raptors Actually Do This?

The Toronto Raptors are in the NBA Finals for the first time in their 24-year history. Their path to this stage has been a wild ride, as the team has had to shrug off numerous body blows throughout the playoffs. But through all the moments of doubt, the Raps have thrived with their backs against the ropes as they’ve consistently found a way to dodge the knockout punch.

There was the brief moment of panic after losing their very first game of the postseason at home against what was supposed to be an overmatched Orlando Magic team. They coughed up their home-court advantage against the Sixers in the second round and fell in a 2-1 hole, before storming back and eventually winning that series in one of the best Game 7’s in recent memory. The image of Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot bouncing around the rim before falling in and advancing them to the Eastern Conference Finals has already cemented its place in Canadian sports lore for the rest of time.

Then of course, the East Final was a saga all to its own. After losing the first two games against the Bucks – the team with the best record in the league – the doubt in many Raps’ fans actually felt more like concession that this was the point where it was all going to come crashing down. Except instead of going away quietly, Toronto didn’t lose another game in the series. They took four straight from a Milwaukee team that had only lost TWO in a row one time over the course of the entire 82-game season.

The joy that has been felt all across Canada following that win has been impossible not to feel. But even with all of that being said, there is also a sense even among some of the most die-hard Raptors fans that this is where the party ends. And honestly, considering the depths that this organization has been mired in at certain points of their history, this NBA Finals berth is enough to warrant the glorious celebration it has elicited.

The obvious reason why there is trepidation in believing that the Raptors can win the whole damn thing is because their reward for getting themselves into the Finals is a match-up against the most prolific dynasty of this generation, the Golden State Warriors.

But the way things have gone in this particular postseason has me thinking, is it really that crazy to at least hold out some modicum of hope that the Raptors have what it takes to do this? Your thinking doesn’t need to be all that pie-in-the-sky to find reasons to believe.

For example, as loaded as the Warriors’ roster undoubtedly is, they are in fact missing Kevin Durant, who you may be aware is very good at this whole basketball thing. The scary part is that even though no team that employs KD could possibly consider themselves BETTER without him, the fact is that in the last 32 games where Steph Curry has played and Durant hasn’t, the Warriors have won 31 of those games. And honestly, that’s just dumb.

There’s no doubt that Curry is the engine that makes the Warriors go. He’s the best shooter in the league for a reason, and his ability to reach NBA Jam on-fire status from deep is the biggest reason why Golden State is never out of any game, even if they find themselves down double digits late in the 3rd quarter. However, there have been games during this particular playoff run where he has been less than stellar. The idea of him being guarded by Kawhi Leonard should make it reasonable to believe that he can be held in check enough that someone else is going to have to pick up the slack offensively for the Dubs. Is that Klay Thompson? Sure, it could be. And I’d be willing to bet that at least for a game or two, it will be. But any situation where the Raptors can force Golden State into relying on a strong performance from Klay to win a game is a best-case scenario for Toronto.

Getting back to the subject of Kawhi, now is the point where I address how God-like he has been during this playoff run. The man has clearly been playing hurt for a while now, and yet he has still been the best performer on any team this postseason night in and night out. His basketball IQ combined with the intangible will to win he wears on his proverbial sleeve has elevated the play of his teammates. The way he impacts the game on both ends of the floor has been a thrill to watch. In case anyone was unsure of whether or not he is worthy of being in the conversation for top-five player in the league, his performance this spring should erase any of that doubt.

Leonard’s supporting cast has been efficient, even if they’ve been inconsistent. Kyle Lowry is a perpetual enigma who has the ability to go off for 30 on any given night, but somehow also feels like he could be due for the kind of underwhelming showing that has plagued him in the past. But let’s put it this way, if Lowry is knocking down shots and creating transition offense on any given night, the Raptors are scary. If nothing else, Lowry can increase Toronto’s chances of winning enormously if he can defend Thompson well enough to force him to put the ball on the floor instead of the catch-and-shoot approach in which Klay thrives.

Fred Van Vleet has been a revelation as these playoffs have progressed. His three-point efficiency has been a pleasant surprise, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel sustainable. Pascal Siakam has had one helluva year, and should prevent Draymond Green from putting up any eye-popping offensive stat lines. But considering the all-hands-on-deck approach it’s going to take to knock off the Warriors, he’s going to have to make an impact on both ends of the floor.

Marc Gasol has been up and down this postseason, but his ability to hold Brook Lopez in check after an absurd Game 1 performance in the East Finals is a good omen considering that I think it’s safe to say that Kevon Looney is no Brook Lopez. Gasol is another guy that doesn’t necessarily HAVE to have a strong shooting performance for the Raptors to succeed, but if he does find his stroke for a game or two, it would provide a huge boost.

The Raptors are very clearly Kawhi Leonard’s team, but the performance of their bench late in the Milwaukee series was a sign that they at least have the ability to beat anyone, even Golden State. And after all that I’ve written here, I still haven’t once mentioned the name Serge Ibaka, who is one of the most proven playoff performers on the team. He brings an intensity to the floor which is one of those intangible things you won’t see quantified in a box score, but is unquestionably an asset.

At this point, I’ve laid out so many positives that the Raptors have going for them, you might be thinking I’m picking them to win this series. But here’s the thing. When it comes to beating one of the best teams ever, it’s going to take most or all of the “if this happens, then maybe” scenarios to play out exactly how Toronto wants.

When I talk about the possibility of Curry being less than amazing, or Klay being held in check, or Draymond struggling to contribute, or Lowry being a consistent scorer, or Van Vleet doing this that or the other, I’m talking about possibilities that could easily go the other way. You know, the way that would see the Raptors struggling to even win more than a game or two in this series.

On paper, no one is better than the Warriors, with or without KD. But the games aren’t played on paper. The biggest strength the Raptors have going for them is that defensively, they have done a remarkable job of forcing their opponents to get away from their identity. This was particularly evident against the Bucks. No team during this incredible MVP year that Giannis Antetokounmpo has had was able to get into his head the way the Raptors did. All Giannis wanted to do was be able to penetrate off the dribble and get to the rim with a burst of speed. But time after time, the Raptors defense converged on him at the point of attack and either forced him backwards, or caused him to get rid of the ball. If the Raptors can identify and execute the ways to cause Golden State to play an off-brand version of their game, this could be a long series.

So can the Raptors actually do this? Yes! I think it is 100% possible. Is it likely? I don’t know if I’d go that far. But one thing is for sure. I haven’t been this intrigued by an NBA Finals match-up in at least a few years. I don’t know if it’s going to yield the result that most Canadians I’ve talked to are hoping for, but it should be a joy to watch. It all starts Thursday night. I can’t wait.