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Semien’s impact with Blue Jays being felt both on and off field – Sportsnet.ca

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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.

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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.”

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Canada coach John Herdman disputes Croatian counterpart's account of skipped post-match handshake – The Globe and Mail

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Canada head coach John Herdman during a World Cup match against Croatia, at the Khalifa International Stadium, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 27.The Associated Press

Canada coach John Herdman is disputing his Croatian counterpart’s account of why there was no handshake after their World Cup game.

Herdman had antagonized the Croatian camp with a heated postgame message to his players after Canada’s opening 1-0 loss to Belgium at the soccer showcase. Asked in a pitch-side interview what he had said in a postgame huddle to his players, Herdman replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff – Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

That prompted a stern lecture from Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic on the need for respect. And after Croatia beat the Canadians 4-1 Sunday, Dalic was asked if he had a chance to shake hands with Herdman following the final whistle.

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“I did not see the other head coach after the match,” he said through an interpreter. “When I lose I always congratulate the winner. He was not there and that’s his way of doing things. He’s obviously mad. He is a good coach. He is a high-quality professional. But it will take some time for him to learn some things.”

Herdman, whose postgame news conference preceded Dalic’s on Sunday, disputed that account Wednesday when asked about it.

“Look, we shook hands before the game. So that happened,” he said. “At the end of the game, the usual process – no different than [with Belgium coach] Roberto Martinez. You shake hands with the coach, then you go shake hands with the referee.

“When I turned round, [Dalic] was already off down the touchline, which is his right to do. He’s celebrating. He’s just beaten Canada. It was a big celebration for him. He was off and I couldn’t get to shake his hand. I went into the field, shook the ref’s hand, shook players’ hands. And didn’t get to see him.

“That moment’s gone. We’re into process now – team huddle, see your fans, flash interviews, calm yourself down so you don’t say anything and move on.”

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Argentina coast past Poland 2-0 to top World Cup Group C – Al Jazeera English

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Second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez cap a return to form for the South American giants.

Argentina coasted past Poland in a 2-0 victory on Wednesday night to top Group C and confirm their place in the last 16 of the World Cup, signalling a return to form for the South American giants after a poor start to this year’s tournament.

Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez’s second-half goals capped a dominant display by coach Lionel Scaloni’s charges at Stadium 974 – which was packed to the rafters with tens of thousands of raucous Argentinian supporters – to set up a clash with Australia on Saturday.

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After a goalless first 45 minutes, Mac Allister got on the end of Nahuel Molina’s cross just one minute into the second period and, despite making weak contact, he saw his shot creep over the line with Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny beaten.

The second goal was the result of patient buildup play which saw Argentina shift the ball around before Enzo Fernandez made a defence-splitting pass for Julian Alvarez, who found space in the box and smashed it into the top corner to effectively kill the game in the 67th minute.

Poland were lifeless throughout but managed to also squeeze through to the knockout phase on goal difference at the expense of Mexico, who beat Saudi Arabia 2-1 in Group C’s other match.

They will meet defending champions France in the last 16 on Sunday.

Argentina's Alexis Mac Allister scores their first goal
Mac Allister opened the scoring for Argentina immediately after half-time [Issei Kato/Reuters]

Messi misses from the penalty spot

The first half’s defining moment came in the 39th minute when Argentina captain and talisman Lionel Messi failed to convert from the penalty spot on his record-breaking 22nd World Cup match, one more than the late Diego Maradona managed for La Albiceleste.

Poland were up in arms when Argentina were awarded the penalty after a VAR check for a foul on Messi when Szczesny’s glove brushed his face as the Paris St Germain forward rose up for a header at the far post.

But Szczesny was up to the task and despite the Argentina fans raising the decibel levels inside the arena, he kept his composure and guessed correctly, diving to his left and using one hand to swat aside Messi’s effort.

Not to be deterred, Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace to Poland all throughout the game with his dribbling ability and vision.

His glittering performance stood in stark contrast to that of Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski, who was deprived of service and virtually anonymous for the duration of the match.

Messi, 35, has admitted this will likely be his last World Cup outing while Lewandoski, 34, has said he is unsure if he will make it to the 2026 edition in North America but would like to do so.

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Maple Leafs extend win streak to five games as Marner enters record book – Sportsnet.ca

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