TORONTO – As Corey Kluber gave the Toronto Blue Jays a glimpse of what might have been in the present, top pitching prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Alek Manoah offered them an intriguing look at what might lie ahead in the future.
The juxtaposition between the two was front and centre in Wednesday night’s 4-1 Grapefruit League victory by the New York Yankees.
Kluber, the two-time Cy Young Award winner working his way back after consecutive seasons lost to injury, was an off-season target for the Blue Jays before he signed with the Yankees on a one-year, $11-million deal — a high-risk, high-reward add with the potential to impact the AL East landscape.
He struck out three batters over two perfect innings that he described as “pretty solid” afterward, pleased primarily to be getting game-reps in a competitive setting, while adding “obviously it was a bonus that it went well.”
That the outing came against an opponent that represented a path not taken over the winter didn’t seem to matter to the 34-year-old, who didn’t offer much about the level of consideration he gave to the Blue Jays.
“Any of the teams that were interested in me, I (don’t think) I closed the book on them by any means,” he said. “I listened to everybody and tried to gather all the information we could and came to the decision we did in the end. I don’t think that changes the way I would have approached tonight, whether they would or would not have been interested this off-season. Either way, you only play for one team and the other 29 of them are the opponents, so trying to go out there and do the best I can for my team and my teammates.”
The same went for Woods Richardson and Manoah on that latter part.
Even though neither has pitched above A-ball, both promising right-handers have fast-track repertoires, displayed over a combined four innings of one-hit, one-walk work against a regular-season-quality lineup.
Woods Richardson, a 20-year-old who served as part of the return for Marcus Stroman, got the start and as he listened to the Yankees lineup being announced – D.J. LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez, Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich – it struck him that, “they’re actually in the box, you’re not watching guys on TV no more, you’re actually facing them.”
Quickly he reset, throwing mostly a four-seamer that averaged 92.7 m.p.h. and topped out at 94.6, and a curveball that generated two whiffs, including a third strike on Stanton in the second. Not bad for his Grapefruit League debut.
“It was just don’t try to do too much and be myself on the mound, you know?” Woods Richardson said of his self-talk as he took the field. “You might have seen me head-bobbing and shaking my head. It was just trying to be myself as much as possible and be as comfortable as possible. And yet, even though the adrenaline is coming in, anticipation of the game is coming, I still had to take a deep breath, get on the mound, attack the strike zone and just be myself.”
Manoah, the 23-year-old first-rounder in 2019, picked up right from there.
After Bruce’s single to lead off the third, Manoah struck out Dietrich on a 97.8 m.p.h. fastball that was his hardest of the outing (he averaged 96.8) and then induced a LeMahieu double play. Manoah opened the fourth by hitting Judge, but then struck out the side by catching Hicks looking at a slider, freezing Stanton with a sinker and getting Torres on a slider in the dirt.
It was big boy stuff, something Manoah said he was prepared for after the Blue Jays “threw me into the sharks” during live batting practice by pitting him against George Springer, Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette and Rowdy Tellez.
“For me, that was a really exciting moment to be able to throw against a Silver Slugger, MVP finalist and guys who played in some big games,” he said. “When I went into that outing I was extremely amped up. The location of my pitches wasn’t as great. So tonight going in, I was able to use some of that adversity and some of that experience and, ‘Hey, we’re going to face a good lineup tonight, but stay within yourself, your stuff is good, your stuff plays, go out there and just compete, man. Just have a good time and whatever happens, happens. … That was the headspace.”
Similarly impressive is how both young pitchers weren’t content to simply soak in the atmosphere, instead trying to leverage every bit of the opportunity before them.
Even before taking the mound, Manoah closely watched the Yankees hitters, “looking for tendencies.”
“Are guys watching the ball all the way into the mitt? Are they swinging at first pitches? Are they biting on sliders? What what kind of approach are they having?” he continued. “That kind of will tell me how the day is going to go for me. If I got guys that are going to swing at first pitches, hey, we’re going to throw that sinker in there and let’s get some ground balls. If we’ve got guys [who] are going to spit a little bit, hey let’s get more of the plate, let’s get them in a count where we’ve got them handcuffed a little bit, 1-2, 0-2.”
Woods Richardson also made a point of watching Kluber dice up the Blue Jays, focusing on the way “he attacked the zone and the way he could (use) his pitch selection to control the strike zone, and get guys to miss, and just to see how a former Cy Young winner operates. It was cool to match up against him for my first outing.”
Emma Raducanu lives to play another day at Wimbledon – The Globe and Mail
Despite all the hype, Emma Raducanu’s first-ever arrival on Centre Court on Monday afternoon took everyone by surprise.
It had been that sort of day to start this year’s Wimbledon. It rained for most of the early afternoon which meant everything was running late. Matches continued under the roof at the big court, but the opener, Novak Djokovic, found himself up against someone who hadn’t gotten the memo. South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo played like he expected to win. If you turned your head just so, it seemed for a moment like he could.
By the time Djokovic got Kwon under control, three hours had passed and the crowd was in need of relief. When Raducanu emerged onto Centre Court 10 minutes later, there were more people in line for the toilets than there were in the stands.
Sensing the shambling nature of her entrance, the remainers leapt up to give her a standing ovation. Raducanu waved her hand at them distractedly.
This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on something that’s difficult to predict, like the scheduling of live outdoor events or tennis careers.
Raducanu, who won a surprise U.S. Open last fall and then nothing since, plays like someone who feels every eye in the place on her. Between points, she wanders off to the back wall to have a little chat with herself. During breaks, she stares ahead blankly while breathing in and out hard enough to light a fire. You just know this is a person who has really gotten into meditation, and not for fun.
Who could blame her? Right now, there may be no young athlete on Earth who feels more pressure to perform in one particular place.
Raducanu won on Monday because she sort of had to, didn’t she? Which is not to say that she won with much elan. She wore down Belgian puncher Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4.
What was it like that first hour? To say the first set was played at a snail’s pace would be a calumny on snails. It’s one thing to play turgid tennis. It’s another to do it on a cool late afternoon at a place where they serve champagne for breakfast. You could see heads around you in the stands nodding.
But having gone through that set-long crucible of boredom, Raducanu perked up in the second. The crowd was back and the air was lighter. Then Van Uytvanck did the neighbourly thing and gave up.
Afterward, Raducanu was more than pleased. She positively glowed. She celebrated like she’d won something that mattered, which I guess she had.
“I felt the support the minute I walked out those doors,” Raducanu said, though she hadn’t really.
“Thank you to everyone who’s been here supporting …” she said, though that wasn’t totally correct either, since she made only a medium-sized dent in this tournament last year.
“ … through the tough part as well.”
Well, that is right.
Since winning the U.S. Open, Raducanu’s career has split into two streams.
First, there is her personal brand. That is rated AAA by multinationals everywhere. Raducanu is that unicorn in sports marketing – an athlete who looks like they were designed in a computer, talks like they are a normal human and emotes like your new best friend. However the tennis turns out, she will make a fortune selling things for as long as she is willing to drag herself onto a court, and probably long after.
Then there’s the tennis. That hasn’t gone so well. Pernicious injuries and false recovery starts have blighted the past nine months. After the worst of it was over on Monday, Raducanu likened it to her gap year (only, I suppose, more painful and more profitable).
This sudden rise and fall has an almost direct parallel with Canadian 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu also introduced herself to people by winning a major and also immediately fell into a thicket of injuries.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that in Canada, we’re willing to wait on our tennis stars. In this country, not so much. The British tabs have spent weeks playing up Raducanu’s Wimbledon – only her second – like it’s her last chance to win this thing.
A national injury watch was launched after she bailed out of her only match at her only warm-up tournament three weeks ago. The all-clear was announced on Saturday.
It’s not clear if Raducanu’s fit to play here, or ‘fit’ to play here. But she’s playing, however slowly.
“Looking forward to hopefully coming out and playing in front of you guys again,” Raducanu said afterward.
Maybe the “hopefully” is a verbal tic. Or maybe she actually meant it like it reads.
This is the unbearable heaviness of being British (and good at tennis and playing at Wimbledon). It is an unfair ask, until you consider the rewards being dangled for success. Win here, however young you are, and you can hire someone to write your obituary now. Unless things go very wrong, the first few paragraphs won’t change much.
What you are struck by is how much Raducanu seems to enjoy interacting with a crowd, but not while she’s playing. Every pro finds her zone, but few need to visibly grind so hard to stay in it. It speaks to a young person who senses keenly – maybe too keenly – what’s at stake.
“I’m going to play like a kid who just loves playing tennis,” Raducanu said over the weekend. She didn’t. She played more like someone trying to squeeze the racket handle to splinters.
But one win means there will be no disaster. If she loses now, she can blame her fitness – which would be more of an explanation than an excuse. The important thing is that she cemented one positive memory on the most recognizable surface in tennis.
So having done the minimum, Raducanu sounded less like a star doing PR and more like what she is – a teenager of remarkable self-possession trying to figure out how to be famous.
Her voice trembled only a little and only once, when she told the crowd, “I’m just so happy to stay another day.”
How Colorado’s patience, intangibles challenged a Tampa offence with no answer – Sportsnet.ca
Over the years of their recent post-season success, which has included a pair of Stanley Cups and appearances in five of the last six Conference Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning morphed from Team Speed & Skill, to Team Intangibles. They’ve gone from the high-flying offensive team that put others on their heels, to the positionally-sound defensive juggernaut that basically said to their opponents: “See if you can beat us, because we sure as hell won’t beat ourselves.”
And yet again, beat themselves they did not.
Beleaguered as a team can be, Tampa Bay laid back and stayed patient, even when it seemed like their opponent was taking it to them. They’ve had the ultimate trust in Andrei Vasilevskiy, as they should, and it forced opponents to get frustrated, open up, and give them just that extra chance or two that has allowed the Lightning to score and prevail. Like Tiger Woods in his prime, sometimes the size of their well-earned reputation forced others to beat themselves.
Still, at some point you have to be able to create some offence to win games, and as they got more injured, that became a bigger challenge. They didn’t have Brayden Point as they did in Round 1, where a Bolts team on the ropes saw him go directly to the Maple Leafs crease and finish a rebound goal to keep their Cup hopes alive. That obviously hurt them.
Beyond that, though, they didn’t have the depth scoring come through as it has in past years, and they simply couldn’t dial it up on offence and remain as defensively stout as they knew they needed to be against an offensively-gifted Colorado Avalanche team. This time, that was the Avs’ reputation coming into play. Each of Alex Killorn (19:16 TOI per game), Anthony Cirelli (also 19:16), and Brandon Hagel (14:21) played in all 23 playoff games for the Lightning, and they combined for just five goals. Killorn, who scored 25 in the regular season (and had eight in 19 playoff games last year), was blanked with zero. So many players had to turn their attention solely to the little details of defending and positional play, and they excelled at it. But it came at a cost.
I reference Tampa didn’t have that same depth offence as they had in the past, because we all remember the Cup-winning Bolts teams getting huge goals from their third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, but it’s worth noting the crucial difference: Colorado wasn’t Dallas and they damn sure weren’t Montreal, not even close. The depth guys on the Lightning this year were faced with a much different chore than Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow. The Avalanche were extremely well-coached throughout this playoff run, and they recognized Tampa Bay’s weakness: they didn’t have another offensive gear to kick it into, so they leaned harder on that struggle.
The Colorado Avalanche all but stole the game plan from Tampa, which was to play smart and positional and choke the life out their opponent, all while saying “The burden of creating offence is on YOU, and you’re going to have to go through every last one of us.”
“Offensively-gifted” or not, the Avs’ scoring was stunted down the stretch of the series, but it was a concession they were willing to make knowing Tampa Bay’s inability to create. Here’s the most telling stat of the series and why I leave the Final fixated on positional patience. If the Bolts were sitting back and waiting for the Avs to get desperate, open up and make mistakes in this series, here’s what they got off the rush:
A hot bowl of nothing.
Over six Stanley Cup Final games the Avalanche had more rush chances than the Bolts by an average of six per game (per Sportlogiq). Six extra rush chances, which in the end was the difference, wasn’t it?
The Stanley Cup game winner comes off a rush where Artturi Lehkonen makes an unbelievable off-hand one-time shot that finds the top corner, which maybe you’d call a bit “lucky” because who knows how many times out of 10 he could place that puck there again. But in very hockey fashion, it’s not luck, because they created enough chances to “get lucky” like that. As it always goes in hockey’s big picture, making your own luck is a reason to love teams like the Avs who create chances in volume.
There’s been much said about the Lightning’s injuries and their inability to be at their best in this Final, but let’s not pretend the Avs were at max capacity. Andre Burakovsky was hurt, Valeri Nichushkin was hurt, and hell, Nazem Kadri had his trainer tie his skates and played in an oven mitt (and scored an OT winner). Sammy Girard was too hurt to get in a game in the Final.
Even with their injuries, the Avalanche played with a maturity the Lightning’s other opponents could not. Colorado got the better of the Bolts to open the series, then Tampa went into full lockdown mode, playing for low scores and hoping to lean on their experience and again, patience. In Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 the Avs scored just 2, 3 (with overtime), 2, and 2 goals. But instead of starting to cheat and stretch and open up to generate more against a goalie that could’ve frustrated the heck out of them, they recognized that for Tampa to win, they’d have to score too.
The Lightning are getting deserved love as “Team Intangibles” this year, and they certainly played great and blocked shots and proved themselves to be warriors. But don’t let the Avs’ demonstration of those same things get lost.
That’s coaching, that’s leadership, that’s playing (and sometimes losing) enough big games to see that forcing plays and taking chances can bury you in the post-season. You have to trust that it will come, you have to trust the plan, and when offensively talented teams get to that point, they’re almost impossible to beat.
This Final was two teams that were “almost impossible to beat,” and as a result, the series was delightful to watch. The Avalanche used all their tough experiences of the years past to give their opponent jack squat in the biggest moments of the season, and they finished the playoffs losing only four times the whole way through.
The Lightning were worthy foes, for sure, but the Avalanche are deserving champions.
What a Stanley Cup Final.
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