OHL Commissioner David Branch discusses upcoming season
October 30 2020
TORONTO — Three months ago, the Toronto Blue Jays barely had a home.
Now, they have a spot in the postseason.
Call it entertaining.
Call it fortunate.
Call it a good stepping stone.
Call it the start of a Cinderella run.
You can call it whatever you want, and assess it in many different ways.
But in the shortened 60-game sprint with expanded playoffs, the Blue Jays did what they needed to do to become one of eight American League teams to move on, and despite what looks to be an uphill battle against one of the best teams in baseball in the Tampa Bay Rays, there’s both belief internally and lots of daily evidence across baseball that absolutely anything can happen in a three-game series.
Based on how this season has gone for a young and inconsistent ballclub that authored a seemingly endless string of comeback wins, followed by a seemingly endless string of lopsided defeats, in order to clinch their first postseason berth since 2016, expecting the unexpected when the playoffs start next Tuesday is probably the smart bet.
These are the Buffalo Blue Jays, after all, and this is the year 2020.
“Man, I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” manager Charlie Montoyo said amidst the post-game celebrations at Sahlen Field.
“I think the pressure’s off. Honestly. Just go and play and have fun and enjoy it.”
It’s hard to quantify chemistry, but this team has been quarantining together since the month of July began and they believe that’s played a large role in their ability to persevere through adversity.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve had is chemistry,” said Cavan Biggio, a jack-of-all-trades, heart-and-soul player who has been tremendously important to the success of this Blue Jays team on a night in, night out basis. “We’ve been a tight group of guys this whole time. You can make it as bad as it is or as good as you want. Going into our situation, not being able to play in Toronto and coming to Buffalo and playing on the road for the first couple of weeks, we could have easily looked at it as if, ‘Man, our backs are up against the wall, it’s okay if we don’t win this year, it’s kind of a crazy year.’
“The way we took it is we’re here for each of us in that locker-room and I think it’s shown over the longevity of this long year with injuries and guys going down and guys stepping in and picking it right up.”
Things didn’t look good when Ken Giles went down on the opening weekend of the season, and Montoyo shouldered the criticism for leaving his star closer on the mound as he winced in pain.
It really didn’t look good when Bo Bichette was lost to a freak knee injury in the middle of August, and Nate Pearson followed with an elbow injury a few days later.
Instead, the Jays took off, going 11-5 to close out the month of August after the Bichette injury.
An extremely inconsistent month of September has followed, but the Jays had done enough to convince GM Ross Atkins to make a push at the deadline, and while they in no way mortgaged the future for an underdog run, that faith has been proven right in the end.
“We have the pieces and we have the depth, but most importantly I think our chemistry is pretty special,” Biggio reiterated.
“Kind of the cool part about this team is we’re never really out of a game,” he added.
It’s the eighth trip to the postseason in franchise history, and this one is truly unique.
From an ongoing pandemic to a 60-game season to significantly expanded playoffs, this October is much, much different than any other and the Blue Jays have without a doubt been beneficiaries.
But when you look at the big picture, it can’t be ignored that the Jays took a leap from a 95-loss team to one that is now guaranteed to finish with at least a .500 record with three relatively meaningless games to go in the regular season.
The offence has gone from one of the league’s worst to top 10 in baseball, averaging around five runs per game.
They paid Hyun-Jin Ryu $80 million over four years to be an ace and he delivered, posting a 2.69 ERA and the Jays went 9-3 in his 12 starts.
Without him, they aren’t a playoff team.
Talent-wise, Biggio, Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and now Alejandro Kirk form a lineup core that’s only getting better.
Biggio can see that a mile away.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface on what we’re going to be able to do at this level,” Biggio said. “To see it coming out this early on in our careers, it gives us a little glimpse of what we could end up doing in the future.”
Bichette saw it coming together quicker than many imagined back in February.
Before the pandemic. Before expanded playoffs.
“I expect us to compete,” Bichette said to open spring training. “I expect us to do really well. We have a lot more talent than people realize. I don’t think people are taking into account that some of our guys are going to take steps forward and become really impact players.”
The question now is how many more steps forward do they have in them this season?
They’ll start to answer that next week.
A.J. Hinch might be getting another chance.
The Detroit Tigers and the former Houston Astros bench-boss have made progress in finalizing a deal, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney.
The Tigers have made progress in finalizing a deal with A.J. Hinch to be their next manager, although the agreement is not yet completed.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 30, 2020
The report comes just a few days after Hinch’s season-long suspension stemming from the Astros sign-stealing scandal concluded when the World Series ended on Tuesday night.
Hinch spent five years as manager in Houston, going 481-329 in the regular-season and claimed a pair of American League pennants.
The Astros captured the 2017 World Series under Hinch, and registered three straight 100-or-more-win seasons.
At the age of 35, Hinch was named the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks and spent parts of two season there in 2009 and 2010.
He was fired after losing 123 of his 212 games.
Hinch had a seven-year playing career as a catcher in the MLB and suited up 27 times for the Tigers in 2003.
His career also had stops in Oakland, Kansas City and Philadelphia.
“This guy is pretty damn good for an old guy,” said Taylor, who shot an 81, one of nine players who shot in the 80s on the windswept day in Bermuda.
“He fought back and he made the cut, and not many 64-year-olds can do that in the world,” he said. “It was fun to watch him play.”
Funk is the oldest player to make the cut on the PGA TOUR since 65-year-old Tom Watson five years ago in the RBC Heritage at Hilton. The only other players 64 or older to make the cut since 1970 were Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead.
“And then Funk. You throw that in there, it doesn’t sound right, does it?” Fred Funk said. “I don’t know whether I compete, but making the cut was big.”
It wasn’t easy on a day like this, where the wind was so strong it was difficult to stand up, especially on some of the holes along the ocean.
“Today was really hard,” Armour said. “We didn’t know whether to say get up, get down, what to tell it. We couldn’t judge the distance very well and we had some balls going sideways out there and my ball doesn’t usually go sideways. And it would just get up in the wind and it would go 20 yards further left or right than you wanted it to.”
That made the performance by Clark even more remarkable, although the wind finally caught up with him when he took bogeys on the par-5 seventh and the par-3 eighth to fall back into a tie with Armour.
Clark wasn’t caught up in the late bogeys, especially the last one.
“We all were hitting 6- and 5-irons into a par 3 from 160, and I missed about a 5-footer,” Clark said. “It’s bound to happen. If I didn’t bogey those, it would be one of the best rounds of my career. But it’s pretty hard to play a round with 30 mph wind and not make any bogeys.
“I’m not looking at those last two bogeys,” he said. “I’m up there in contention, and that’s all that matters.”
The best round of the day belonged to Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who not only shot 66, he played bogey-free. He was three shots behind, while Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington used all his Irish experience in the wind for a 71 — two birdies, two bogeys, 14 pars — and was four shots behind.
The Ontario Hockey League intends to make its return on Feb. 4, but how that return will look in practice may need to be different from what fans and players are accustomed to.
On Friday, shortly after the Ontario provincial government reaffirmed its stance that bodychecking and deliberate physical contact would not take place during sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, OHL commissioner David Branch said the league will follow the results of scientific studies in crafting its return-to-play plan, but did not align his position fully with the province’s mandate.
“If there’s studies that really, clearly state that body contact is a contributor to the spread of the virus, then obviously we’ll have to look at it,” Branch said during an appearance on Sportsnet 590 THE FAN’s Writers Bloc. “But we’ve not looked at it yet.”
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister of sport, made clear in her Friday announcement solidifying the bodychecking ban, and in subsequent follow-up Tweets on the topic, that the mandate was an important part of playing sport during the COVID-19 era — and was not negotiable.
“Not just in the OHL, not just in hockey in general, but in all sports,” MacLeod said during a speech delivered to the Empire Club of Canada. “We’re in a very serious game right now and the reality is we have to take those public health precautions.”
According to Ontario’s “Framework For Reopening Our Province Stage 3,” a publicly available document released by the province that outlines best-practices for individuals and organizations during this stage of Ontario’s pandemic response, “prolonged or deliberate contact while playing sports” is not permitted.
“Our public health officials have been clear,” MacLeod wrote on Twitter. “Prolonged or deliberate contact while playing sports is not permitted. We will continue to work with [the OHL] on a safe return to play.”
OHL Commissioner David Branch discusses upcoming season
October 30 2020
The document goes on to say that in team sports where body contact between players is an integral component of the sport, or commonly occurs while engaged in the sport, those sports will not be permitted unless the way they’re played can be modified to prevent prolonged or deliberate physical contact.
“I suspect [the OHL] will have to modify their play until there is a vaccine or at the very least public health clearance that we have contained the spread of COVID-19,” MacLeod said on Friday.
In the summer, Ontario hosted the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, using Toronto as one of its hub cities, and did not require rule changes that would prevent prolonged or deliberate physical contact. The success of the NHL’s model — a sequestered bubble to limit exposure and remove travel risks, rigorous testing and contact tracing — would be challenging, if not impossible, for a league like the OHL to afford.
Ontario’s confirmation that bodychecking in the OHL would be subject to its reopening mandates comes as daily, reported COVID-19 cases hover near all-time highs.
Over the past seven days, the province has seen a daily average of nearly 900 new cases, according to publicly available tracking data.
“This isn’t politics and hockey,” MacLeod tweeted. “It is a global pandemic and we are guided by healthcare policy to mitigate against the spread of a deadly virus.”
It is not clear at this time how the policy banning “prolonged or deliberate physical contact” would impact other, non-bodychecking elements of hockey games such as battles for the puck along the boards.
Earlier this month, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League resumed play without any modifications to its rules. Its schedule has been disrupted by several COVID-19 outbreaks among teams, as well as provincial restrictions on travel.
The challenge the league experienced, in part, helped solidify Ontario’s decision that bodychecking cannot take place, MacLeod said. According to Branch, that policy decision has not factored into the OHL’s return-to-play planning to this point.
“We haven’t even contemplated that, quite frankly,” Branch said. “At the end of the day, so much of what we’re attempting to do is provide the opportunity for our players to get back on the ice. We have to take them into consideration here and what’s best for their development, their ongoing development.”
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