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Examining the strategic decisions Blue Jays will likely face in Game 1 – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Already, the strategic gears are moving for the Toronto Blue Jays and their first-round playoff opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays.

On Monday, the Blue Jays announced it’ll be Matt Shoemaker, not Hyun Jin Ryu, who starts Game 1 of the wild-card round at Tropicana Field. Ryu emerged from his final regular season start “a little sore,” according to manager Charlie Montoyo, but the left-hander was still available to pitch if needed. Instead, the Blue Jays opted to give him an extra day of rest in a decision that will have consequences all series long.

So begins the tactical back-and-forth between Montoyo and his longtime colleague, Kevin Cash of the Rays.

“They want to kick your butt every time you play them,” Montoyo said. “But I have the same feeling.”

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Starting with the Blue Jays’ lineup, here’s a closer look at some of the strategic decisions Montoyo and his staff will face in Game 1.

Does Alejandro Kirk play?

It’s only been 25 plate appearances, but Alejandro Kirk has impressed at the plate with a home run and a .983 OPS. Now, the Blue Jays must decide whether they believe that small sample portends further success at the plate for the 21-year-old. Considering how well Kirk has handled velocity so far, his chances of starting against left-hander Blake Snell seem good.

With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slated to start at first base, the Blue Jays will have the DH spot open should they want Danny Jansen’s experience at catcher. But Kirk did work well with Shoemaker last week, so a start behind the plate can’t be ruled out entirely.

How soon does Robbie Ray start warming up?

Technically speaking, Shoemaker is the starting pitcher Tuesday. It’s a big job, and one Shoemaker’s definitely excited to accept, but this is far from an ordinary outing.

The only way Shoemaker’s pitching deep into this game is if he stays incredibly efficient and the Blue Jays take a lopsided lead early. Otherwise, it may well be a relatively short appearance for a couple of reasons. First, Shoemaker has made only one start since returning from the injured list, and he’s only been stretched out to 54 pitches.

Second, the Blue Jays can’t afford to let Rays hitters get comfortable, so they’re better off asking multiple pitchers go max effort for relatively short stints. In his start against the New York Yankees last week, Shoemaker touched 96 m.p.h., so the stuff is there even if he’s not fully stretched out yet.

But at – or ideally before – the soonest sign of trouble, the Blue Jays will need to think about who’s next out of the bullpen. At this point, the odds seem good that the first pitcher up could be Robbie Ray, whose electric but erratic arm the Rays haven’t seen this year.

With Shoemaker starting, there’s a good chance Cash loads up his lineup with left-handed hitters. By bringing in Ray, the Blue Jays would gain the platoon advantage – or force the Rays to empty their bench.

“That’s one thing when you play the Rays: they’re tough to match up against because they’re loaded,” Montoyo said. “They really are. Whoever comes off the bench to hit is a pretty good hitter, too.”

When and how does Pearson become a factor?

The Blue Jays are relying on Shoemaker in a big way after just one appearance back from the injured list. Why not do the same with Nate Pearson? The right-hander impressed in his first outing in five-plus weeks, touching 101 m.p.h. while flashing a plus slider.

When he’s on, that combination is extremely tough to hit, so it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays may be tempted to use Pearson. But they’ll want to be careful with him considering he missed extended time with a forearm strain, so there’s seemingly a good chance he can only pitch once in the wild-card round. With that in mind, the Blue Jays will need to be selective.

Plus, Pearson’s been a starter for his entire pro career, so the Blue Jays will want to give him ample time to warm up instead of rushing him into a game mid-inning.

How do the Blue Jays manage the bullpen?

Because the Blue Jays locked up a playoff spot Thursday, they were able to use the weekend to ensure their heavily used bullpen got a breather.

“That was one of the good things about clinching,” Montoyo said. “They’re all rested going into the series, so that makes me feel really good about it. Anybody can come in at any time.”

Still, that doesn’t tell us who will get the call in high-leverage spots. As the season has progressed, the answer to that question has changed constantly for Montoyo depending on who’s healthy and pitching well. There’s no reason to believe the playoffs will be any different ­– only now the stakes are higher than ever before.

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2021 Draft: Power among Central Scouting's players to watch – NHL.com

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Owen Power, a candidate to be chosen among the top 10 in the 2021 NHL Draft, was one of three players from the University of Michigan to earn an A rating on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary players to watch list released Tuesday.

The list is a compilation of top prospects from all the major development leagues throughout North America and Europe. It will be updated throughout the season as scouts evaluate the players.

“At this point in the evaluation process and considering the lack of a summer scouting season, it’s much too early to identify a strength for the 2021 draft class other than to state that there are a number of good prospects at every position,” director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. “There is no Alexis Lafreniere-type prospect with a clear lead as a consensus No. 1.”

Lafreniere was selected by the New York Rangers with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and signed his three-year, entry-level contract Oct. 12. The forward was the projected top choice from start to finish last season while playing for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

[PDF: NHL Central Scouting 2020-21 Preliminary Players to Watch list]

“There are a number of prospects with a head start to compete for the top prospect based on past performance, but until we can get viewings to evaluate the entire draft class, the projection for No. 1 consideration is an open field,” Marr said.

The 31 players on the preliminary list with A ratings are considered potential first-round picks. Players with B ratings are considered possible second- or third-round choices, and those with C ratings are potential fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round selections.

Power (6-foot-6, 214 pounds), a defenseman who turns 18 on Nov. 22, became the second player for Chicago to win United States Hockey League Defenseman of the Year last season. The Mississauga, Ontario, native led USHL defensemen with 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) in 45 games and tied for first with five power-play goals. 

“He can put up points, and is very mobile for how big he is,” NHL Central Scouting senior manager David Gregory said. “He runs the power play, has elite hockey sense and is going to be a highly sought-after player.”

Power entered the USHL as a 15-year-old in 2018-19 and set a league record by scoring 11 goals as a 16-year-old defenseman.

Forwards Matthew Beniers (6-1, 174) and Kent Johnson (6-0, 166), who each will join Power at Michigan in the Big Ten this season, also received an A rating. A 24-game conference schedule is tentatively set to begin Nov. 13.

Beniers scored 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists) in 44 games for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program under-18 team last season. 

“He’s a kid that’s been on the radar for a couple of years now with the program,” Marr said. “He has the skills and the smarts, but it’s his intangibles with his compete and how he gets things done and makes things happen that make him so appealing.”

Johnson, 18, scored 101 points (41 goals, 60 assists) in 52 games for Trail of the British Columbia Hockey League last season. He scored 147 points (61 goals, 86 assists) and averaged 1.31 points per game in 112 BCHL games.

“He’s an elite point producer,” Gregory said. “When you see a 17-year-old put up 100 points, that’s something special. He plays with pace and skill, is crafty with the puck and can snipe it as well. He’s going to score a lot of goals.”

Among the A-rated skaters considered likely to be selected in the first round are forwards Xavier Bourgault (6-0, 172) of Shawinigan and Zachary Bolduc (6-1, 175) of Rimouski in the QMJHL, and Dylan Guenther (6-0, 166) of Edmonton in the Western Hockey League; and defensemen Luke Hughes (6-2, 176) of the NTDP under-18 team, Brandt Clarke (6-1, 180) of Barrie (OHL) and Daniil Chayka (6-3, 187) of Guelph (OHL).

Hughes, the youngest of the three Hughes siblings (Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes and New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes) scored 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) and three power-play goals in 48 games for the NTDP under-17 team last season. He has four assists in seven games for the under-18 team this season.

“Luke does things so quickly,” Gregory said. “You wouldn’t see him skate it up as much as Quinn, but he can do it and does. He can snap a pass, stretch a pass. He’s got this veteran’s poise as a young guy. It’s very tough to compare [Luke and Quinn Hughes] but you see some similarities like you did with Jack and Quinn. They have that quickness, that escape ability, that all three of them have.”

Bourgault has scored five points (three goals, two assists) in four games and Bolduc two goals in four games.

“He’s one of these dynamic offensive players that just come at you every game; he just pops,” Marr said of Bourgault. “Every time he’s on the ice, he’s a scoring threat when the puck is on his stick.”

The A-rated players to watch on the International side include center Aatu Raty (6-1, 177) of Karpat in Liiga and goalie Jesper Wallstedt (6-2, 214) of Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League.

Raty has no points and two shots on goal in 9:34 of ice time this season. Wallstedt is 1-1-2 with a 1.92 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in four games.

“[Wallstedt] was always a difference-maker,” Marr said. “He’s got the skills and attributes with his athleticism, reflexes, and mental toughness. Just like Iaroslav Askarov (chosen No. 11 by the Nashville Predators in the 2020 draft) had his following prior to the 2020 draft, Wallstedt does as well this season.”

Photos courtesy of Chicago Steel / USHL and Daryl Marshke / USA Hockey’s NTDP

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Players, fans rip Rays for Blake Snell’s quick hook in Game 6 – Sportsnet.ca

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Heading into the sixth inning, Blake Snell was holding the Los Angeles Dodgers offence in check.

Then Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash decided to take the ball from his ace after he gave up his second hit of the game. Unfortunately, that pitching change provided the spark the Dodgers needed as they would score two runs including one off a wild pitch to take the lead in Game 6.

Many took to social media to question Cash’s decision to pull Snell after just 73 pitches.

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Dodgers can win elusive World Series title if Roberts pulls right strings – Sportsnet.ca

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After suffering a heartbreaking defeat in the most bizarre fashion imaginable in Game 4, the Los Angeles Dodgers rebounded in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.

Now the Dodgers are just one victory away from slaying their past playoff demons and finally capturing that elusive title.

But the Rays aren’t just going to roll over and hand them the crown. Tampa Bay has its ace on the mound in Blake Snell and manager Kevin Cash hinted at some lineup changes to help spark the offence.

Will the Dodgers close it out or will the Rays force a Game 7? Tune in to Sportsnet or SN Now at 8 p.m. ET to find out. In the meantime, here’s what to watch for prior to first pitch.

Watch every game of the 2020 World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers on Sportsnet and SN Now.

Roberts gets another chance to pull the right strings

The last time Tony Gonsolin started in this series, he lasted just 1.1 innings in what ended up as a bullpen day for the Dodgers in Game 2.

Manager Dave Roberts claims things will be different in Game 6, declaring Gonsolin a “starter” as opposed to an “opener.” Roberts did couch it a little, though.

“I’m going to watch him pitch and then we’ll see what we do after that,” Roberts told reporters Monday. “… I want to go as long as he possibly can, that’d be great.”

Considering Roberts pulled Clayton Kershaw after 85 pitches in Game 5 when he appeared to be cruising, it’s hard to imagine the 25-year-old Gonsolin having a long leash. The bullpen is fully rested after Monday’s off day, giving Roberts his full complement of weapons.

Game 2 didn’t go so well for Roberts as he watched a number of decisions backfire en route to a 6-4 Rays victory. Now the ever-unconventional manager has another chance to flex his strategic muscles and deliver the franchise’s first title since 1988.

Snell must be sharp from the jump

Los Angeles was aggressive from the opening pitch over the weekend, striking for at least one first-inning run in each of the past three games. It will be crucial for Snell to come out of the gate and put a zero on the board to prevent his opponents from building any quick momentum.

Snell was able to limit the Dodgers to two runs over 4.2 innings in Game 2 while striking out nine, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. The left-hander walked four batters and gave up plenty of hard contact. Five of the seven balls put in play against him came off Dodger bats at 95 m.p.h. or harder.

The 2018 Cy Young winner will need to be extra careful this time around, as it’ll be the Dodgers’ second look at him in six days.

MVP Watch

If the Dodgers do indeed take care of business in Game 6, three players stand out for World Series MVP honours, each with a different storyline attached.

The rejuvenated young star: Corey Seager

It wasn’t too long ago that Seager was considered one of the game’s rising superstars. His 2018 season was limited to just 26 games due to Tommy John surgery but his 2020 campaign has put him back in the mix with baseball’s elite.

His regular season was phenomenal — he posted a .943 OPS — and he’s been even better in the playoffs. After winning NLCS MVP, he’s still raking in the World Series with a .471/.609/.842 slash line. If not for the bizarre Rays win in Game 4, Seager would likely have already earned his second MVP trophy of the post-season. The race is Seager’s to lose at this point.

The franchise icon: Justin Turner

Turner has set a number of franchise records during this playoff run and stands as the Dodgers’ post-season leader in games played, hits, walks, RBIs and home runs. He’s been a hit machine during this World Series, as evidenced by his .364/.391/.818 batting line.

An 0-for-4 Game 6 from Seager and another big performance from Turner could easily tip the scales in the third baseman’s favour. He’s a free agent at the end of the year and winning World Series MVP in what could be his final game in a Dodger uniform would be extremely poetic.

The late-bloomer who became a hero: Max Muncy

Muncy was released by the Oakland Athletics at the end of spring training in 2017, prompting the Dodgers to sign him as a minor-league free agent. He’s become a star at the MLB level since his promotion in 2018 and finds himself entrenched in the heart of one of baseball’s best lineups.

Like Seager and Turner, Muncy has been on fire during the World Series, slashing .389/.522/.611. If he provides a clutch hit or two in Game 6 to clinch the title, it would be easy to make the case he deserves MVP.

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