The last thing you want to happen in an exhibition game between top rookie prospects? For one of your top prospects to go out with injury.
SEATTLE — Quick, who leads all MLB position players in fWAR since 2019? No, not Mike Trout. Not Mookie Betts, not Ronald Acuna Jr. Not Xander Bogaerts, Juan Soto or Alex Bregman.
It’s Marcus Semien and his 13.8 WAR running away with first place — a half win ahead of Trout, who’s missed substantial time this season with a calf issue, and nearly a full win ahead of Bogaerts in third — trailing only Jacob deGrom’s 14.5 if you include pitchers.
Considering Semien was worth only 1.2 fWAR in 2020, as he toughed out 53 games while playing through an oblique issue, this is no small feat. The question begged by the one-year, $18-million, prove-it contract he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays over the winter was whether or not he could again be the player he was as an MVP-finalist in 2019. More than 500 plate appearances into his 2021, and second only the near-mythical Shohei Ohtani in extra-base hits after hitting his 27th homer of the season Sunday, it’s safe to say Semien’s answered it.
And his contributions haven’t come solely on the field. Carrying a well-earned reputation as one of the game’s most diligent workers, Semien’s been a dependable, veteran example for MLB’s youngest position player group, leading the Blue Jays in games played and plate appearances, while modelling how MLB’s best endure the rigours of a six-month season, finding ways to remain productive through slumps, injuries, and setbacks. You couldn’t ask for a better mentor for the early twenty-somethings playing to his right and left to learn from.
That’s never more evident than on the second leg of a west coast road trip during the dog days of summer, as the Blue Jays completed a run of 25 games in 24 days on Sunday. Even as the club held optional batting practices prior to each game with the Seattle Mariners, Semien was still among the first on the field for early work throughout a hot, hazy weekend. And Bo Bichette and Santiago Espinal, young infielders still establishing themselves in the majors, were right there with him.
Fielding close-range groundballs from their knees to focus on their hands. Working on turns at second. Drilling footwork, rhythm, timing. That’s the daily, assiduous work of a quiet professional that leads to a sterling career like Semien’s.
They’re opposite profiles, Espinal and Bichette. Espinal the gifted defender with little pop who might just hang around in the majors for a few years thanks to his glove alone. Bichette the exit velocity monster who’s bat forced him to the game’s highest level, while his ultimate landing spot defensively remains an open question.
But Espinal keeps finding ways to contribute offensively in a part-time role, coming up with three singles Sunday to raise his season line to .298/.355/.399. And Bichette’s made clear and evident strides at shortstop since committing six errors through his first 18 games of the season. He’s made only 14 over 85 games since. And you can bet having Semien’s steadfast, calm influence to his left every night has played a large part.
“I’d say Bo’s pretty calm, too, you know,” Semien says. “But I think it’s important to stay level-headed. Whether that means being calm or just being yourself — whether you fail or succeed. That’s something I can bring to this team.
“These guys have played in some big games in their careers. Last year’s playoff experience helps. This is a long season, though. This is 162 games. It’s something I’ve done for many years now. So, I think that these guys are well equipped to be successful throughout the whole season, as long as we know there’s going to be ups and downs. You just work hard to get out of those slumps as quickly as you can.”
For Semien, his daily defensive routine goes all the way back to his third MLB season — his first as Oakland’s starting shortstop — when he was suffering through defensive struggles that made Bichette’s look mild. He can even remember the day. It was May 22, 2015 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Oakland was playing Tampa Bay. And when Semien stepped into Tropicana Field’s dingy visitors’ dugout prior to that night’s game, Ron Washington, the former Texas Rangers manager, was waiting for him.
“Look, the fact is this,” Washington told him. “They say you can’t play shortstop. I think you can. And I can help you do it. But you’ve got to want to be helped.”
Semien wanted to be helped. The night prior to that conversation, he’d sailed a throw to first that should have ended an inning, his 16th error through his first 42 games. He’d bobbled two other routine grounders. He had errors in eight of his last 11. He was dejected and everyone could see it. That included Oakland’s President, Billy Beane, and GM, David Forst, who were on the phone with Washington four days prior, offering him a unique position on the club’s coaching staff in which he’d work directly with Semien on his defence. The two met for the first time in that Tropicana Field dugout and spoke for an hour. Semien looked Washington in the eye and said he’d do whatever it took.
So, Washington laid out what was going to happen next. Every single day, four-and-a-half hours prior to first pitch, Semien would meet Washington on the infield dirt for shortstop reconstruction. They were going to break his game down to its fundamental elements and put it back together. They were going to drill the basics for weeks, months at a time — however long it took to get it right. And they weren’t going to hide the process. Washington was going to train Semien like he was a little leaguer, like he was just learning to play the game, out in the open on the field every day, where everyone could see. Cameras would roll. Media would ask questions. And Semien would commit wholeheartedly to the most humbling process of his career.
“That was part of the mental side of it. How you face adversity. How you deal with the mental stress,” Washington says. “It was starting from scratch. He was playing a position that he didn’t know how to play. We had to break everything down and we had to learn how to play the position.”
They’d start with the hands. Kneeling on the infield dirt, Semien would field close range groundballs to either side of his body with a variety of gloves. A miniature one that encouraged him to secure the ball in the pocket rather than letting it rattle around; an entirely flat one like a dinner plate, designed to force him to use his free hand to secure the ball.
Then they’d isolate his knees and hips, as Semien got up on his feet and turned perpendicular to Washington, fielding a series of short-distance grounders to both his forehand and backhand from a stationary position. Next, the feet, as Washington fired groundballs from a longer distance that Semien had to go get, critiquing his technique after each approach.
About 20 minutes later, he was ready to start throwing. Shorter tosses while charging in, long ones from the hole, double-play pivots. Footwork, rhythm, timing. Reads, jumps, angles. Every. Single. Day.
Washington remembers a rainy Sunday morning in Cincinnati — classic get-away day game after a night game — when the infield was covered while a storm passed overhead. Thinking they wouldn’t be able to do any pre-game work, Washington laid down on a couch in the coach’s room to try to catch a quick nap. Five minutes later, Semien knocked on the door asking when he wanted to start their fielding routine.
“He’d cleared out a bunch of screens and equipment from the indoor batting cages and set up an area where we could work,” Washington says. “He found a way to do what he needed to do no matter what the conditions were. And right there I knew that this was a really special kid.”
It didn’t happen overnight. Semien led MLB with 35 errors in 2015, eight more than any other player. He was sixth with 21 a season later, Washington’s final one with Oakland before taking a third base coaching job with Atlanta.
But even without Washington, Semien kept working. Every single day. Off-seasons, too. He kept chipping away at it, kept repeating that pre-game routine over and over, until one day the compound interest started rolling in. He put up 11 DRS in 2018 — it was -8 in 2015 — and was named a Gold Glove finalist. He committed only 12 errors over 161 games in 2019, finishing a gold glove runner-up again.
That dramatic improvement was why the Blue Jays were never concerned about Semien shifting to second base — which he last played in 2014 — when they signed him. He’d already rebuilt his defensive game from scratch once.
And if there was even a shred of reservation, it was wiped away as soon as the club saw how natural he looked at it early in spring. How he made all the reads; how he knew the angles; how he was feeding the ball to Bichette on double plays like he’d been doing it for years. Through his first 102 games as Toronto’s second baseman, he’s committed only five errors. He’s second among MLB second basemen with 10 defensive runs saved and first with 7.6 UZR/150.
“And that is not by chance,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins says. “You can tell a lot of time and energy went into it before he even got to Florida this spring.”
He’ll never stop. And for a club with a young infield like Toronto’s, you couldn’t ask for better behavioural modelling from a veteran. To wit, Semien and Bichette were out for early work with Luis Rivera, Toronto’s infield coach, most mornings this spring, perfecting double play approaches and building chemistry. Semien was impressed to see Rivera already had the array of different-sized gloves Washington used with him on hand.
And Bichette’s begun working with them now, too, as he tries to develop as a shortstop at the big-league level just like his new double-play partner did. At 23, Bichette remains a work in progress defensively. But for an example of how far effort and consistency can take a guy, he need only look to his left.
“It comes down to high work ethic. And that’s what Marcus brings. He’s a tremendous leader. He influences everyone around him,” Washington says. “Just watch — there in Toronto with all those young kids around him? Just watch how those kids improve. Because Marcus wants it. He wants it bad. And those young kids in Toronto — suddenly they’ll want it bad, too. And they’ll just keep getting better and better. It’s going to work. And Marcus is going to be a big part of why it does.”
The three-run homer launched by Teoscar Hernandez in the fourth inning provided the Blue Jays with enough runs to defeat the Minnesota Twins on Saturday in Toronto, and the blast pushed him past Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the team lead in RBI.
The 6-2 victory also restored the Blue Jays (83-65) to the second wild-card spot in the American League by a half-game over the New York Yankees.
The Yankees (83-66) were thumped 11-3 at home by Cleveland. The Boston Red Sox (85-65) held on to the top wild-card spot with a 9-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles.
Hernandez has 106 RBI, two more than Guerrero, who has an outside chance at the AL triple crown. He’s first in batting average (.318) and homers (46), and now fourth in RBI, eight behind Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez.
The 28-year-old Hernandez credits work on his mental game as the reason for his productive and consistent season. He’s not only been reliable at the plate but also in the outfield.
“He’s been the best hitter on a lot of teams,” Blue Jays starter Steven Matz said of Hernandez. “He’s easy to overlook with how good this lineup is. He’s been amazing.”
Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak, a seven-time Olympic medallist, was among 14,722 at the Rogers Centre. She threw out the ceremonial first pitch and tossed a strike.
The Twins appeared headed for a ninth straight win in Toronto dating back Aug. 17, 2017. They led 2-0 after the first inning on a two-run homer to right field by former Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson, who also belted a solo shot in Minnesota’s series-opening win Friday.
But Matz settled down after Donaldson’s homer Saturday to retire 16 of the next 17 Twins.
Matz has benefitted from the highest average of run support in Major League Baseball this season at 8.07 a game. He’s won his last four decisions. His 13th win matched Hyun Jin Ryu for the team lead.
“To be in a hole like that, you just want to make good pitches and put up zeroes,” Matz said.
“I just wanted to keep it close and wait for the bats to come alive.”
The bats perked up in the fourth. Minnesota rookie starter Bailey Ober (2-3) took a no-hitter into the inning. The home side got to Ober the second time through the Blue Jays’ order.
Marcus Semien led off the fourth with a solo shot to left field to become only the fifth second baseman in MLB history to hit 40 or more homers in a season.
Yesterday: 31st birthday<br>Today: 40th homer of the season<br><br>Not a bad weekend, huh? 🥳 <a href=”https://t.co/uaSwpoBN6f”>pic.twitter.com/uaSwpoBN6f</a>
Guerrero then walked, and Bo Bichette singled to centre. Hernandez lifted a first-pitch slider high into the sky that barely cleared the left-field fence for his 28th homer and a two-run advantage.
“I knew I hit it good, but just a little high,” he said.
Ober and OUT 💪<br><br>💣 <a href=”https://twitter.com/TeoscarH?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@TeoscarH</a> 💣 <a href=”https://t.co/9HaQgApXkQ”>pic.twitter.com/9HaQgApXkQ</a>
Toronto padded its lead in the seventh when Twins reliever Jovani Moran loaded the bases with walks to Alejandro Kirk, George Springer and Guerrero. Kyle Barraclough replaced Moran and was greeted with a two-run single to left from Bichette.
Bo adds mo’ 🙌 <a href=”https://t.co/E9JULud582″>pic.twitter.com/E9JULud582</a>
A two-out walk to Donaldson followed by a single to centre from Miguel Sano ended Matz’s day after 96 pitches and five and two-thirds innings of work.
Blue Jays reliever Trevor Richards finished off the sixth for Matz. Tim Mayza generated a one-two-three seventh inning and struck out Nick Gordon to begin the eighth.
Righty Adam Cimber finished off the eighth, aided by a brilliant play from Bichette. He went deep in the hole to his right to throw out Donaldson.
The last thing you want to happen in an exhibition game between top rookie prospects? For one of your top prospects to go out with injury.
That’s what happened with Dmitri Samorukov and the Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton’s 4-3 prospect game win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday night.
Early in the first period, after a couple on-ice collisions, Samorukov left the game. It was an ominous moment, all the more so because Samorukov’s season was cut short last year due a shoulder injury. He had just been cleared one week ago to return to the ice from injury. He had been the talk of the first few days of the Oilers rookie camp, impressing team insiders with his great skating and big body.
Winger Xavier Bourgault also took a nasty hit-from-behind into the boards late in the game, missing the final three minutes of the game.
There was no word on the extent of the Samorukov and Bourgault’s injuries at the time we published this post.
Samorukov is part of Edmonton’s Big Boyz Brigade on defence, Edmonton’s group of young and hulking d-man prospects , all of them well over six feet tall.
The group also includes Philip Broberg, Michael Kesselring, Markus Niemelainen, Filip Berglund, Phil Kemp and Vincent Desharnais. They should form the Bakersfield defence this year.
Kemp, Broberg, Niemelainen, Berglund and Kesselring all played in the rookie game.
Each of the Big Boyz Brigade got stronger as the game went on. The Oilers rookies came back from a 3-1 first period deficit to win.
Here are brief reports on each of the Big Boyz Brigade, with my account limited because I was unable to go over video to review the key plays.
Kesselring: He got beat to a rebound on one goal against and failed to block a shot on another. But as the game went on, he got stronger, playing on a pairing with Markus Niemelainen. Kesselring got his feet going and made a number of strong plays, winning, moving and shooting the puck.
Niemelainen: He reminded me a bit of Kris Russell in this one (though a much bigger version of Russell), in that he’s fast on his skates and defensive minded. He also won the puck a few times in his zone and was only able to dump it out, as opposed to making a good pass to get it out. But, overall, got the job done on defence, though he failed to cut out a pass on one goal against and was slow to his man in front of the Edmonton net on another.
Kemp: He scored two bad angle goals, one through a screen and one on a deflection, but he scored them because he jumped into the attack and put the puck at the net. What’s not to like? He did get beat down the wing on one dangerous Flames rush in the first. But he also jumped up a few times to pinch and keep the puck in the Calgary end. This was the best I’ve seen him as an Oilers prospect. After Samorukov went out, he paired up with veteran Yanni Kaldis, who made a few nice passes for assists on the power play.
Broberg: He looked bad on one early goal against, wandering behind the net, and taking himself out of position to stop a slot pass, which eventually ended up in the net. Other than that, though, Broberg played well. He skated miles and skated fast. He was Edmonton’s top d-man on the power play, making a number of good passes and even better pinches in that role. A super solid 2021-22 debut for the Oilers.
Berglund: He looked much, much, much better here than he had when I last saw him play in Sweden in the fall, when he was playing hurt. He too had a bad moment in the first, getting caught in the n-zone on a Calgary rush and goal. But he was Edmonton’s steadiest d-man in this game, shutting down the attack, moving the puck, invariably in position. It looks like he and Broberg will form Edmonton’s top partnership in Bakersfield to start the year.
EDMONTON — The defence turned the tide for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Saturday.
DeAundre Alford and Adam Bighill recorded defensive touchdowns as the league-leading Blue Bombers fought their way past the Edmonton Elks 37-22.
“Our defence, scoring two touchdowns for us, that is absolutely amazing when they are able to create turnovers like that and capitalize on them with points on the board,” said Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris.
“Our defence has been our backbone. They really flexed when we needed them to.”
Alford had two touchdowns in the contest.
“I think this is the best defence in the CFL and that we put everybody on notice that we are going to play fast and physical,” he said. “That we are going to do whatever it takes to win.”
The Blue Bombers (6-1) have won four games in a row while the Elks (2-4) have lost two straight and fell to 0-4 at home this season.
Elks quarterback Taylor Cornelius went 19 for 33 and passed for 243 yards with three interceptions in his CFL debut as he replaced Trevor Harris, who was placed on the six-game injured list with a neck injury.
“I thought he played really poised,” said Elks head coach Jaime Elizondo. “Listen, for having one day of practice, I thought he came out and showed some things that were really, really encouraging and I thought the guys responded really well to him.
“He didn’t get flustered. I know he’s going to be hard on himself with the mistakes he made. But those interceptions were a credit to the defence, they had some good breaks on the ball.”
Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros went 19 of 24 passing for 252 yards, a TD and an interception.
Winnipeg got off to a blazing start by scoring on its first drive, going 80 yards in nine plays, capped off by a 12-yard touchdown pass from Collaros to Darvin Adams.
The Blue Bombers doubled their lead on their next drive as Nic Demski ploughed his way through several defenders for a 21-yard rushing major to make it 14-0.
Edmonton got back into the game midway through the second thanks to a Christian Rector fumble recovery on the Bombers’ nine-yard-line, leading to a James Wilder Jr. touchdown run.
Winnipeg kicker Ali Mourtada missed a 28-yard field goal attempt before Edmonton’s Sean Whyte nailed a three-pointer from 44 yards out to make it 15-10 at the mid-mark.
Edmonton surged into the lead early in the third quarter with an unconverted 19-yard TD run by Wilder.
However the Bombers regained the lead as Alford picked off Cornelius and took it back 22 yards for the touchdown. A two-point convert made it 23-16 for Winnipeg.
Whyte responded with a 32-yard field goal before Mourtada missed his third field goal attempt of the game from 44 yards.
The Bombers defence did it again late in the third as Cornelius fumbled deep in his own end, leading to a three-yard scoop and score by Bighill.
After Whyte kicked a 19-yard field goal, Winnipeg put the game away with a one-yard TD plunge by Sean McGuire.
Both teams have a bye next week. The Elks’ next game will be in Ottawa on Sept. 28, while the Bombers will be in B.C. on Oct. 1. Winnipeg and Edmonton will then play each other again in a home-and-home series.
Notes: Two highly anticipated players made their Elks debuts: offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers and linebacker Derrick Moncrief… Winnipeg was trying its third place-kicker of the season with Mourtada making his CFL debut, relegating rookie Marc Liegghio to punting duties.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021.
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