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 (ūüď∑: 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.

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.

Hey Boston, Enough Already

The Boston Bruins are just sitting back right now, feet up on the coffee table, waiting in the wings for the winner of the Sharks-Blues Western Conference Final to be determined. The Carolina Hurricanes were the most fun story the Stanley Cup Playoffs had going, and the Bruins just smothered them in the East Final like a deflating bouncy house at a children’s birthday party. They swept the Canes, who had swept the Islanders, who had swept the Penguins. So I guess on the plus side, haha Pittsburgh. But what that leaves us with is a Boston team that is going into the Cup Final as rested as could be, and awaiting an opponent that will be some combination of tired, shorthanded, or just worse (at least on paper) than the B’s.

So what it comes down to is this: The Boston Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup. Right now, I can’t be convinced otherwise. And that bums me right the fuck out.

Before I continue, I feel it necessary to point out that when it comes to spoiled sports fans, I am one of the worst. In my lifetime, my New York Yankees have won five World Series. My New York Giants have four Super Bowl rings (although I’m really only old enough to have appreciated two of them). Even my rarely talked-about hockey team – the New Jersey Devils – have hoisted three Stanley Cups. What I’m saying is that if you hate me for that, you’re allowed. I couldn’t possibly blame you.

The chokehold that the city of Boston has applied to the sports world in the first two decades of this century is nothing short of enraging. That’s doubly true for me as a New Yorker. The curse of the Bambino has been dead for almost 15 years now, somehow. And oh what I would give to go back and live in those days when the Red Sox were a team that was just good enough to get themselves into an LCS match-up against the Yanks, only to have their hopes and dreams dashed in the most heartbreaking of ways. If that sounds sinister to you, well, it kinda is. But that’s just part of what it means to hate a rival team. Sports are one of the few realms in life where experiencing schadenfraude isn’t something that should be accompanied with instant shame. It’s part of the fan experience.

Since the Patriots beat the Rams in 2002’s Super Bowl XXXVI, that football team has won five more rings. The Red Sox have won four World Series. The Celtics have an NBA title to their credit. The Bruins have won one Stanley Cup, and seem poised to add another. Should that happen, it will be 13 championships in 18 years for one city. But perhaps worst of all, the last three will have come in the span of nine months. Bless the Bucks for knocking the Celtics out of this year’s NBA Playoffs so we at least don’t have to worry about the potential of a clean sweep.

All of this serves to underline the point that Boston has become the modern-day Titletown, and there is no close second. That this has occurred while the New York sports scene has largely devolved into a three-ring circus only adds fuel to my personal dread that would coincide with four more Bruins wins this spring. And the sad truth is, I’m not counting on either St. Louis or San Jose to save us.

Of course, a major part of my disdain for this team is merely because of the location where they play their home games. It’s true that there are some genuinely likable characters on the Bruins’ roster. Zdeno Chara is easy to root for. Tuukka Rask is a great story, and is undeniably one of those guys that seems to shine when the spotlight burns the brightest. There’s a lot to be said for that. In a vacuum, would I love to see David Backes finally win a championship after 13 years of being a very good player who was never on the best team? Sure. And of course I have a soft spot in my heart for former Devil, Marcus Johansson, who has really had a stellar showing this postseason. But as long as they all wear that B on the front of their jerseys, I can’t help but hope they go down in flames.

Honestly, any good will I can build up towards this Boston team as a whole is undone entirely by the way I feel about Brad Marchand. Taking nothing away from his skill, of which he obviously has plenty, the goonery that he puts on display on a regular basis leaves me no choice but to want to see him get his comeuppance. That doesn’t mean I want to see him get injured. I never wish that upon anyone, even if he has a penchant for inflcting injury on others. I just hope that he gets put on his ass every time he hits the ice. More frequently though, he’ll make a dazzling play in the offensive zone that makes me shake my fist at the sky. To Marchand’s credit, it’s rare that you see a guy with the ability to throw a seasoned veteran like Justin Williams so far off of his game that he seemed to forget that he was playing hockey. There is certainly a spot on any team’s roster for a guy with the ability to do that, but Marchand is way too extra for me to actually get to a place in my mind where I can celebrate him.

I’m getting slightly off topic here though. So let me end on this note. It certainly looks like we’re headed towards a Boston-St. Louis Stanley Cup Final. And you can bet your ass I’ll be rooting like crazy for the Blues. But I just can’t see them winning four out of seven against these goddamn Bruins.

Boston sports dominance doesn’t appear like it’s going to go away any time soon. The Red Sox are getting their act together after a putrid start to this baseball season. The Patriots are still the Patriots until proven otherwise. The Celtics will continue to be good, even if they’re not elite. And there’s no sign of the Bruins falling out of the category of perennial Cup contender in the near future. All of it together just leaves me with an everlasting sour taste in my mouth. I mean seriously. Enough already, Boston. We get it.

The Most Difficult Trophy to Win in Sports

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! You can have Christmas. For me, April through June are truly my favorite months, at least on the sports calendar. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are in full swing, as each first-round series will have finished three games by the end of play tonight. There have been some truly stunning developments early on. The best team in the sport has been pushed to the brink of elimination in the blink of an eye. Home ice advantage has been relatively meaningless, as the home and road splits are pretty much even so far (11-9 in favor of the home squads). And of course, we’ve seen the typical bad blood brewing between combatants on opposing sides. You get the sense that many of these teams genuinely dislike one another. It’s fucking beautiful.

Experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs through a Canadian lens for the last two years has really illuminated how special hockey’s postseason is in my mind. It’s a shame that the sport is treated as a punchline in some parts of the US. But honestly, if you’re ignoring the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I don’t know what else to say other than that is very much your loss.

Look, I’m not going to be the guy who screams “WATCH MY FAVORITE SPORT!” at people who aren’t interested, because frankly, it’s a lame and ultimately pointless thing to do. But if you are a casual fan or a newcomer to NHL hockey, you just might watch¬†these games and learn something that, to me, is undeniable fact. And that fact is that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports.

Don’t believe me? Wanna tell me that it’s more difficult to win a Super Bowl? A World Series? An NCAA championship? An NBA title? Not a chance. First, the NHL playoffs are a two-month ordeal, as in the length of the NCAA tournament and MLB playoffs COMBINED. It is a near guarantee that between the two teams that play for the Stanley Cup this year, at least half of the competitors on each side will be playing through significant pain. I’m not talking about the headache that caused you to call out of work last week. Which, by the way, no judgment there. Lord knows I’ve used some pretty lame excuses to get out of work in the past. But what I am talking about is the kind of pain sustained by occurrences like taking a PUCK to your FACE.

Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks knows all about what that feels like. He was credited with a goal in Game 1 of the Sharks’ series against the Vegas Golden Knights after a wicked wrister off the stick of teammate Brent Burns ricocheted off of his damn jaw and into the net. The impact of that shot didn’t even knock him off his feet, though it did knock out some of his chompers. He calmly skated off the ice, got the necessary repairs and was back in time for the second period. Absurd.

During the playoffs, players will finish every check and even the biggest stars will give up their bodies to block shots flying toward the net at triple-digit speeds. Naturally, you’re bound to collect a few bumps and bruises along the way. Playing through pain is certainly not a concept unheard of in other realms of sport, but it seemingly happens every year in every series during the Stanley Cup playoffs. These guys are all required to pay a physical price every time they set foot on the ice.

But maybe you’re not convinced. I’ve heard the argument that the NCAA Tournament is more difficult to win because of the 68-team field and the single-elimination aspect that it brings to the table. That same aspect could also fool you into thinking it’s tougher to win a Super Bowl. That’s a fine argument, but look at the flip side. It takes just six postseason wins to earn a National Championship – seven if you’re one of the teams in the First Four. You need no more than four playoff wins in the NFL to take home the Lombardi Trophy. But it takes four rounds and sixteen victories to win the Cup. There is no other major sport that requires a team to win more games to take home the grand prize. I can already hear my hoop heads out there saying, “But! But!.” Yes, the NBA champion will also have won sixteen games by the time that postseason is finished, but that brings me to my next point.

On the subject of parity, the NHL has it in spades. The NBA playoff field has been infamously top-heavy since forever.¬†The higher seeds in the NCAA Tournament (i.e., the teams more likely to win) also have an easier road to the later rounds because they often have easier matchups, certainly for the first few games. As an illustration of that point, 16-seeds have won exactly one game in tournament history. ¬†In the NFL, the top two seeds in each conference don’t even have to play in the first round. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning, on the heels of a historically prolific regular season, are currently getting their asses handed to them in the first round by the last team to make it into the dance from the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s not like this is a one-off happening¬†either. Teams that finished the regular season with the NHL’s best record have only won it all four times since the turn of the century. Only one other such team has even made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

Much of what makes the Cup such a difficult prize to win is obviously the fact that hockey is a full contact sport, and that physicality only escalates as the stakes get higher. The lack of physical play helps to eliminate baseball and basketball from this conversation. With no disrespect to the grind that getting through the NBA playoff schedule necessitates, it seems that nowadays if you sneeze too hard in someone’s direction, the referees will blow the whistle and send the offended player to the free throw line.

Being that football is widely regarded as the only sport more physical than hockey, perhaps you’d like to argue that the Super Bowl is more difficult to win. There’s no doubt that attrition goes hand in hand with football perhaps more than any other sport. But remember, football players only play on either the offensive OR defensive side of the ball, whereas hockey players are responsible for taking care of both ends of the ice. And both jobs require getting your hands dirty, so to speak.

Teams competing in the NFL playoffs also only have to compete once a week, with those teams fortunate enough to get to the Super Bowl being rewarded with an additional week off before the big game. NHL playoff games are played every other night for two months. There is no time to rest, and no time to heal. No time to dwell on your last loss, and hardly any time to look forward to your next game. Momentum plays a bigger role in the Stanley Cup playoffs than in any other sport’s postseason.

The Stanley Cup is so treasured that many youngin’s aspiring to become hockey stars are taught not to so much as lay a finger on the Cup. The legend goes that the honor of touching the Holy Grail is reserved for those that are good enough to win it. To this day, that remains my personal favorite sports superstition. If there is any trophy on the planet that deserves such reverence, it is the Stanley Cup. Simply put, it is the most difficult prize to win in sports. The next two months of hockey figure to go a long way towards proving that point. Inject it straight into my veins. I can’t get enough.

Let’s Predict Some Stuff: 2019 MLB Edition

After a bitter and cold offseason featuring one of the most frigid free agency periods in memory, we have almost arrived at the proper Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. I always get giddy this time of year, for one, because it means my birthday is right around the corner. But truly, the start of the baseball calendar has always felt like the beginning of the new year to me more than January 1st ever did.

Even though it’s one of the laziest things a writer can do to put words onto a screen, it is undeniably a fun exercise to try to predict what will happen before the season starts. If nothing else, it gives you something to look back on in October and make fun of me for when 75 percent of these predictions inevitably go to shit. With that in mind, let’s get it…

AL EAST CHAMPION: New York Yankees

Let’s get my homer stuff out of the way nice and early. Yes, I am a die-hard Yankee fan. And yes, this is a prediction that is partly being made because it’s what I want to see happen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a logical argument to be made to back this up.

Obviously, the Red Sox are the defending champions not just of the AL East, but all of baseball. And as Ric Flair put it best, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” That’s never been more true than in MLB’s current divisional scheduling format when the teams play each other head-to-head 19 times a year.

The Yanks are dealing with some pretty major injury concerns to begin the season, particularly with their pitching. Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and C.C. Sabathia will all be on the mend instead of on the mound to start the year.

But an offense that set an MLB record for home runs a year ago actually has a lot of room to improve. The improvement would rely upon¬†getting a bounce-back year from Gary Sanchez, a healthier one from Aaron Judge, and a less schizophrenic one from Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankee bullpen is still the best in the game, whereas the Sox’ pen minus Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly is almost certainly going to cost them a few games this season.

AL CENTRAL CHAMPION: Cleveland Indians

I’m going with the chalk pick, as tempting as it is to pick the Twins to unseat Cleveland here. This really all comes down to starting pitching for me. The starting five of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber is one of a few rotations that can lay claim to the title of best in the bigs.

The question is going to be whether this team can score enough runs to support them. With Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley, Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes all gone from the lineup, it puts a lot on Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis to do the heavy lifting.

The bullpen is a bit suspect too without Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, but the Central has been, and still is one of the weaker divisions in the sport. Like I said, the Twins are a tempting pick, but I’m gonna take the team with the better pitching to finish the 162-game grind with a slightly better record. But I would not be surprised if this was one of the tighter races down the stretch.

AL WEST CHAMPION: Houston Astros

This one feels like the most “well, duh” pick of the division champs. The Oakland A’s are coming off a 97-win year and will likely be a tough team to play once again this season. But the Astros are just too damn good. It’s hard to find a definitive weak spot on this squad. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer all have room to improve from their 2018 numbers, and I’d be willing to bet that all three will.

Sure, they lost three extremely capable starters in Dallas Kuechel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers. But Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are still very much there. Collin McHugh, Wade Miley and Brad Peacock may not be the kind of names that make opposing lineups shudder, but Houston’s coaching staff has done a remarkable job in recent years of getting the best out of seemingly every arm they have. All that said, this team is my pick to finish the year with the best record in the sport.

AL WILD CARDS: Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins

Whichever team between the Yankees and Red Sox doesn’t win the AL East is a slam dunk pick to take one of the wild cards in the American League in my mind. As for the other WC spot, I’m predicting it will go to a team that (as I mentioned) I toyed with choosing to be a division winner in the Twins.

This is a team that captured a wild card spot two seasons ago, and has made some key additions to their offense this offseason. Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez are all guys that will provide Minnesota with the kind of bats that make them capable of putting up runs in bunches. Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson give them a solid 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation.

The Twins are bound to get a strong push from the A’s and perhaps even the Tampa Bay Rays for this playoff spot, but give me Minnesota as the team that will likely get the bricks blown off of them in a Wild Card Game match-up against the Sawx.

NL EAST CHAMPION: Washington Nationals

I’ve made a point of not looking at any other prediction pieces before doing my own, and I wonder how many pundits have written off the Nats after not only losing Bryce Harper, but losing him to another team in what currently stands as the most wide-open division in baseball. But despite being branded with the reputation of playoff chokers, Washington often finds a way to at least get there, last season notwithstanding.

Make no mistake, this team still has a lineup that packs a punch, and a lot of those punches will come from guys who are going to be mainstays for years to come. Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Anthony Rendon are top of mind in that category. And oh yeah, their pitching rotation is money with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and the newly acquired Patrick Corbin leading the way.

The Braves, Phillies, and even the Mets could all finish within shouting distance of the top spot, but I still like the Nationals to take the prize.

NL CENTRAL CHAMPION: Chicago Cubs

This is a spot where I feel like I may be relying more on my gut than my logic. The Brewers might actually be a more “complete” team than the Cubs on paper, and the Brew Crew hold the distinction of defending champs in this division. But you’ll remember that came down to a Game 163 last season, so to say it was a close race is very much an understatement. The Cardinals will also pose a threat to Chicago, as they have absolutely made strides in improving their club.

This seems like a cop-out explanation, but to me it just feels like the Cubbies are bound to get back to the top spot in the Central this year. Joe Maddon may be my favorite manager in the sport, and the roster he’s working with feels like a nearly ideal blend of youth and experience. Their starting infield in particular is as good as most teams in the game. And I have to make at least one pick here that is based almost solely on gut feeling. Having said all of that, look for Milwaukee to pop up again a little further down in this column.

NL WEST CHAMPION: Colorado Rockies

This is pretty clearly going to be a two-horse race, as the Rockies and Dodgers are really the only teams in the NL West that are worth a damn. LA may have won the previous six division titles, but I believe Colorado is finally going to put a stop to that streak this season.

This was the other division that needed a 163rd game to decide a winner last year. And while there is no denying the two-time defending NL Champs are still a quality team with loads of depth, the Rockies are returning a very similar looking roster to last season’s while Los Angeles actually changed a lot this winter.

Gone from the Dodgers’ roster are Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood. That’s a lot to lose. Yes, they did add A.J. Pollock, and a consistently healthy Corey Seager would go a long way toward keeping this team on top. But the Rockies are essentially the same group that took LA down to the wire last season, except with the addition of Daniel Murphy. If Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Jon Gray can pitch to their potential all year, I think Colorado has enough to finish in first.

NL WILD CARDS: Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers

This would set up a rematch of last year’s NLCS in the Wild Card Game. It would be a damn shame to have to lose one of these teams in a one-game playoff scenario, but I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And truth be told, it’s in this scenario that I think the Dodgers’ bid at making it to three straight World Series will come to an end.

The one thing the Brewers are lacking is a definitive ace of the pitching staff, and that is something the Dodgers undoubtedly have in Clayton Kershaw. So maybe you can chalk this up as a prediction of heart over head. That Milwaukee lineup is just so damn good, though. The guy who would likely relish this opportunity the most would be Yasmani Grandal, who left Los Angeles to sign with the Beer Makers this offseason. Imagine if he were to play a big role in sending the Dodgers packing come October. We can dream, can’t we?

ALCS Prediction: Astros defeat Yankees

Ugh. It pains my pinstriped heart to say this, but the Astros are simply the better and more complete team, plus they have had the Yankees’ number in recent history. This is the series I want though. A chance to exorcise the demons of the 2017 ALCS in which the underdog Yanks nearly knocked off the eventual World Champion Stros is surely an appetizing situation. I just don’t think the Yankees really want that smoke. Houston is too good.

NLCS Prediction: Brewers defeat Rockies

This presumes the Cubs finish with the National League’s best record, which is far from a lock, but play along with me. The Brewers beat the Dodgers in the Wild Card Game. The NLDS would then see the Rockies beat the Nationals (because the Nats don’t win playoff series, just as a general rule) and the Brewers upset the Cubs. Brewers-Rockies would be a fascinating NLCS, and honestly, predicting a wild card team to make the World Series just makes for a fun little wrinkle in this here prediction column.

World Series Prediction: Astros defeat Brewers

Of all the truly plausible World Series scenarios, this is certainly one that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would desire the least. Houston and Milwaukee aren’t exactly what you would define as large media markets. But if the Yankees can’t be there, sign me up for seven games of this series.

I’m not so sure it would happen that way, because frankly I think the Astros are simply better than the Brewers in almost every conceivable category. But there ya have it. My official World Series pick. So when the Brewers now inevitably miss the playoffs altogether or something dumb like that, you can point back at this and laugh at me.


Predictions aren’t exactly the most profound thing in the world of sports punditry, but they sure are fun to make. By all means, please sound off in the comments and let me know how wrong and stupid I am. And most importantly, HAPPY BASEBALL SEASON TO ALL!

This Week in “What the Fuck?”

The modern-day news cycle is goddamn exhausting in just about every way imaginable. Everyone hates everything and sometimes there seems to be no end in sight to the onslaught of stories that make you want to plant your face firmly into a pillow and let out your most primal scream.

In its best moments, sports can provide sweet reprieve from the cesspool of misery that we’ve come to expect from the average newscast. There really is only so much we can take from the constant reports on death, destruction, political corruption – and worst of all – traffic and weather together.

But when the shittier aspects of society get packaged together and tangled up in the sports news, it’s no less disheartening. Here are three sports stories from the past week that made me say, “What the fuck?”

IF THE BRAVES ARE DISTANCING THEMSELVES FROM THE TOMAHAWK CHOP, THIS IS A WEIRD WAY OF DOING IT

BRAVES
At least there’s no cartoon Indian?

Publicly, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said that the Atlanta Braves are doing their part to dissuade fans from participating in the Tomahawk Chop at their games. For the uninitiated, this is where a stadium full of baseball fans makes a chopping motion meant to simulate a tomahawk while bellowing out the most blatant caricature of a Native American chant you could possibly conceive.

So if the Braves are indeed relegating the Chop to the garbage can of history, someone needs to explain what the damn hell the shirt pictured above is doing in their official team store. I mean, what is that other than what can only be described as an instructional diagram?

I remain hopeful that we will eventually do away with the chop, along with Chief Wahoo of Cleveland Indians notoriety, as well as the explicitly racist name of the Washington football team. But I also understand a concept voiced most eloquently by the late, great George Carlin: “Progress is slow. Smallpox is fast.”

UPDATE: This note from Craig Calcaterra at NBC Sports clarifies that the Braves have not and are not making an attempt to distance themselves from the Chop.

Channel 11 in Atlanta, citing ‚Äúsources with intimate knowledge of this situation‚ÄĚ reports that Manfred misspoke when he praised the Braves for getting rid of the Chop. He meant to praise that Braves for getting rid of the mascot Chief Noc-a-Homa, which the Braves ceased featuring in 1986. No I am not making this up.

 

EVERYTHING ABOUT THE ROBERT KRAFT PROSTITUTION STORY HAS BEEN FUCKED…NO PUN INTENDED

kraft

Look, I’m the furthest thing from a Bob Kraft fan. If you read my first post on this site, you know I’m certainly no fan of his New England Patriots either. Kraft has been charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution. Now, I could go off on a whole thing about the unnecessary, unwarranted stigma surrounding sex workers. But let me focus up a bit here.

It seems to me that because Kraft is the most famous figure named in the Orchids of Asia Day Spa story, many of us are either treating him as a punchline, or somehow the most nefarious figure involved. And let’s be clear, that is NOT the case.

The arrests associated with this case are the product of a six-month police investigation that revealed that human traffickers were luring vulnerable girls to the States under the guise of giving them work as a¬†masseuse. Needless to say, that’s not all that the job entailed, and these girls were intimidated and shamed into keeping quiet about what they were being forced to do. That is supremely fucked up.

Honestly, I think it’s ok if you’ve gotten a giggle out of one of the most powerful men in the NFL being caught up in a prostitution story. But holy shit. If Kraft’s role in this story is the only thing you’ve taken out of all of this, you are majorly missing the forest for the trees.

Also, the fact that the spa itself instantly became a hot spot for selfies is such an indictment of what we’ve become as a society…it kinda just bums me out a little.

ON A LIGHTER NOTE, A COLLEGE BASEBALL GAME WAS DELAYED BY A BIRD FIGHT

I contemplated continuing with the theme of stories that make me upset. But why do that when I can leave you with a WTF moment from this past week that will make you smile instead?

It comes to us from a college baseball game between Jacksonville University and Jacksonville State. As chronicled by Deadspin, the game was delayed in the 8th inning because an osprey dropped a fish into the outfield after being startled by an aggressive bald eagle, who clearly had designs on stealing that fish for his own dinner.

eagle
Either that, or he’s eight innings late for the National Anthem

As pictured above, the eagle circled around ready to swoop in to pick up the discarded meal, but one of the players on the field beat him to it…you know, because there was still a baseball game left to finish. In my mind, the eagle then pursued that player and lifted him up into the sky to be devoured along with the fish. But sadly, I can’t confirm and seriously doubt that’s what actually happened.

This concludes my recap of some of the “WTF?” sports stories of the last seven days. Maybe I’ll make this a regular feature? Also, please sound off in the comments if there’s a story that has you all what-the-fuck that I missed.

While I’m here, thanks for everyone who’s reading! My numbers have been steadily going up every week I do this, so let me take a minute to appreciate you for giving a shit! I love you all. See you next week!