For the moment, there is time to exhale, breathe deeply, and exhale again.
The Toronto Raptors were never likely to make a significant move before the NBA trade deadline passed Thursday afternoon.
But now the focus can be entirely on the group at hand, the one that has a chance to win a franchise-record 60 games, the one that has the third-best record in the league.
From Toronto’s point of view the biggest deal of all is the one that’s not going down, at least for now.
The New York Knicks no longer have a job opening with Masai Ujiri’s name on it.
All indications are that the Knicks have opted to replace former president Steve Mills with prominent player agent Leon Rose.
The move should temporarily quell the fevered speculation around the possibility of Ujiri bolting – either to the Knicks, where there no longer appears to be an obvious job available, or anywhere else at the moment.
That Knicks owner James Dolan was so easily distracted from his widely-reported determination to lure Ujiri to dig New York out of 20 years of dysfunction is telling.
Basically Dolan is going to Dolan.
“You can give him all the advice, all the guidance, all the background and he’s still going to do what he wants to do. He moves to the beat of his own drum,” a source familiar with the Knicks’ search told me Tuesday when the rumours bubbled up again.
Even if the wheels were being greased to ease Ujiri to the Knicks at some point – and multiple league sources have confirmed to me that the Raptors executive has seen the Knicks as a viable destination, depending on timing – there was always the possibility that Dolan would veer into another direction, and he did.
It probably didn’t help that Larry Tanenbaum — Raptors minority owner and chairman of the NBA board of governors – was not about to make it easy for the Knicks to poach the architect of the Raptors’ success.
Whether that involved Tanenbaum appealing directly to Dolan or to NBA commissioner Adam Silver or both, the sense is Raptors ownership was emphatic: there would be no cooperation from them to make Ujiri’s exit at any time in advance of the natural end of his contract in the summer of 2021 any easier.
Faced with the possibility of massive demands for compensation, obstacles to granting permission to talk, and the message that the tampering radar would be on full, Dolan has apparently chosen the bird in the hand rather than waiting to see when Ujiri could be flushed out.
Back in Toronto there remains some toothpaste to push back in the tube, however.
The immediate question is if and when Ujiri will sign a new deal with the Raptors – the only measure that would put to rest speculation on his long-term future with the team he is poised to lead to the playoffs for the seventh straight season, this time while defending an NBA title.
My understanding of the situation is that though there have been some preliminary discussions between Ujiri and the ownership group at MLSE, nothing has changed in the past month regarding the Raptors president’s desire to not address his contract status until the summer of 2020 at the earliest and maybe all the way to 2021. That doesn’t mean MLSE won’t get a chance to pitch him on a new deal, but there’s no guarantee Ujiri won’t push his decision as far out as possible.
Why was ownership slow off the mark in initiating contract talks with Ujiri?
That he had two years left on his deal, a championship bonus to spend and the principals were all embarking on a compressed, post-championship summer schedule is the best explanation I’ve come up with.
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Ujiri certainly has no incentive to push things along in the meantime. The longer he waits the more his leverage will build. Not only will he be entering the final year of his deal in 2020-21, all his top basketball staff are in the same boat.
Not that he should need it, but it’s impossible to navigate NBA waters as successfully as Ujiri has over his career without understanding the benefits of negotiating from a position of strength.
But considering how strong a relationship Ujiri has with Tanenbaum (“he’s like a son,” the Raptors chairman said in the championship dressing room back in June when reports of the Washington Wizards’ play for Ujiri surfaced), it’s interesting to speculate about what might be holding Ujiri back even now with the opportunity in New York apparently past.
One clue could be the future status of the eight-member MLSE board and what kind of company Ujiri would be signing up to spend the prime years of his career with.
Since being recruited from the Denver Nuggets – where it should be pointed out, Ujiri passed on opportunities to sign an extension and worked through to end of his contract before leaving for Toronto – in 2013, Ujiri has enjoyed a charmed corporate existence.
The Raptors are owned by MLSE, which in turn is owned by Tanenbaum (25 per cent) and Rogers Communications and BCE (37.5 per cent each), and which owns the Maple Leafs, Toronto FC and Scotiabank Arena among other properties.
As it relates to the basketball operation, Ujiri’s reporting structure has been fairly streamlined.
Tanenbaum could always be counted on to be in his corner. Tanenbaum was in the bidding to bring the NBA to Toronto in the early 1990s. The 2019 title was a dream come true. He has always been all in.
Over the years, Bell chief executive officer George Cope became a staunch ally too. Cope played basketball at the university level and is a passionate and knowledgeable NBA fan. The potential for basketball’s growth in Toronto and Canada didn’t have to be explained to him. Moreover, as one of the driving forces behind the Bell Let’s Talk Day initiative to raise funds and awareness around mental health, he could appreciate Ujiri’s passion for his Giants of Africa Foundation.
With Tanenbaum and Cope in his corner, Ujiri could feel confident that his vision for the basketball operation could unfold relatively seamlessly. The Raptors’ new practice facility, the addition of the G-League franchise, a commitment to reward staff and to go into the luxury tax when needed are all evidence.
But Cope retired as Bell CEO last month and his term on the MLSE board is up this summer.
Will the incoming Mirko Bibic replicate his predecessor’s basketball passion?
If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.
Given that the Rogers side of the ownership group haven’t been as directly tied in with the day-to-day operations of the team, it makes sense that Ujiri might be looking for reassurances that the new-look board of directors will share his vision and passion, neither of which come cheap.
For the first time since Ujiri came to work in Toronto there is some uncertainty.
In that same vein, the status of Tanenbaum could be worth watching.
Tanenbaum is 75 and in robust health, but it’s fair to wonder if his influence within MLSE is forever. Is there a timeline during which a change of control could be required? What would MLSE look like then?
More broadly: after a period of aggressive expansion and a fairy tale championship, you can assume Ujiri would want to feel confident about MLSE’s future ambitions and their willingness to compete in a world where payrolls crack $200-million and beyond.
Do they want to stand out? Not just in the NBA, but beyond?
Suggesting that Ujiri would be satisfied working for a nice Canadian NBA franchise that won a title once and is content to string together a few winning seasons here or there is to suggest you don’t understand the man.
And on that subject, how much do they really value the charitable work he does? Enough to make a donation and provide some back-office logistical support as they do now?
Or enough to help him make it as big as Ujiri wants it to be? To have a presence throughout Africa, rather than a handful of countries? To help grow the sport and move the needle across the continent?
The trade deadline is over and the Raptors can now get on with the business of winning games and positioning themselves for what is looking like a spirited title defence.
For the moment, concerns about Ujiri’s immediate status have passed.
But in the meantime, MLSE will need to figure out what kind of organization they are and what kind of basketball franchise they want to have when the time comes to talk about the future with their most forward-looking employee.
Catch your breath, things are just getting started.
Five takeaways from Toronto Blue Jays' Game 1 loss to Tampa Bay Rays – TSN
1. Shoemaker yanked early but pitching plan worked
Much was made of the Toronto Blue Jays’ decision to push ace Hyun-Jin Ryu to Game 2 and go with Matt Shoemaker as the Game 1 starter.
It was clear Shoemaker would be limited to some sort of pitch count and on a very short leash if things went awry, but the 34-year-old was brilliant across three frames, throwing 27 of 35 pitches for strikes, allowing just two hits, and keeping the baseball away from the barrel of Tampa Bay Rays hitters.
But three innings would be all Shoemaker would get before he’d be given the hook, throwing 19 fewer than he did in his return from a lat injury on Sept. 21, so it wasn’t a pitch count issue.
To lead off the fourth inning, manager Charlie Montoyo and the front office computers brought in lefty Robbie Ray to face right-handed hitter Randy Arozarena, who came in batting .400 with four home runs in just 20 at-bats against southpaws this season.
Arozarena promptly tripled and would later score on a Ray wild pitch, giving the Rays an early 1-0 lead.
After the game, Montoyo said they didn’t consider leaving Shoemaker in and the reason was Ray has been one of their best pitchers lately.
It was the only hit Ray would allow, but considering the lefty has allowed a 1.012 OPS to righties this season, bringing him in to face Arozarena when Shoemaker was dealing was a curious decision.
Shoemaker seemed to be unhappy in the dugout, and while Montoyo said that the original plan for his starter was one trip through the Rays’ batting order and two innings, the veteran right-hander expressed his competitive disappointment with the early hook, saying he thought he’d go four or five innings, but wasn’t really sure.
“It’s playoff baseball,” Shoemaker said. “Physically, I felt great. I wanted to go seven, eight, nine innings. That’s just how we internally compete. Of course, I wanted to keep going, but I had an idea of the plan, somewhat, going into it.”
Despite that, an overall line of six one-run innings and just three hits allowed from Shoemaker and Ray makes the decision to push Ryu to Wednesday look like a smart one in the grand scheme of things.
2. Bats go cold
While the pitching decision got all of the attention pre-game and most of it early on in-game, as well, it was far from the reason the Jays are in a one-game hole and facing elimination.
The bats, however, were a different story.
Coming into the series, the Jays had quietly put together the seventh-best offence in baseball this season, scoring 5.03 runs per game, one year after finishing 23rd in baseball.
Against Blake Snell, it took until the sixth inning to get a hit, a leadoff single off the bat of 21-year-old DH Alejandro Kirk.
They’d threaten in the eighth inning, but ended up leaving six men on base on the night and could never really solve Snell.
When the Jays’ bats were hot this year, they weren’t chasing as many pitches out of the zone, but that’s exactly what they did Tuesday.
Montoyo’s club struck out 12 times and could only muster one extra-base hit, an eighth-inning double by Cavan Biggio.
3. Snell completely dominant
The 2018 Cy Young winner ended up only going 5.2 innings, but those frames were completely dominant as he carried a no-hitter through five innings.
Coming into the game with a career 2.81 ERA across 13 starts against the Jays, everyone knew it was a tough assignment, but Snell had four pitches working and ended up getting 18 whiffs from Toronto hitters on just 82 pitches.
Snell’s curveball was swung through eight times on just 27 pitches, while the lefty’s four-seam fastball got five whiffs, the changeup got three and his slider got two more.
The 27-year-old didn’t even have his peak velocity, but he could still dial it up close to 97 mph when he needed it.
One of the clear separators between these two AL East teams is the rotation, and what a luxury it is for Rays manager Kevin Cash to be able to follow Snell with 6-foot-8 flamethrower Tyler Glasnow in Game 2 on Wednesday.
It’s not getting any easier for the Jays.
4. Ryu now needed to stave off elimination
When the Jays hatched their plan to have their ace sandwiched between two games that are expected to be heavy bullpen days, they obviously envisioned Ryu taking the mound with a chance to sweep the series in Game 2.
But that won’t be the case, so the Jays will send their $80 million southpaw to the mound to help them try to stave off elimination and force a Game 3 on Thursday at Tropicana Field.
After the season the 33-year-old just put together, the Jays are expecting — and will need — another ace-like performance from Ryu, who posted a 2.69 ERA this season, the lowest single-season mark for a qualified starting pitcher that spent a full season with the Jays since Roy Halladay’s 2.79 mark back in 2009.
Ryu was hands down the club’s MVP this season, accumulating 1.9 fWAR, the most of any player regardless of position, and the Jays went 9-3 in his 12 starts.
Without him, the Jays are not a postseason team.
And if he doesn’t perform Wednesday, the Jays won’t be a postseason team any longer.
5. Wild-card roster features handful of surprises
Through all of the injuries the Jays had to endure this season, the biggest loss in the end may be Jordan Romano’s freak finger injury in late August.
The Jays thought the 27-year-old Markham, Ont., product had a chance to make it back for the postseason, but he was left off Tuesday’s wild-card roster when it was announced.
GM Ross Atkins said Romano is closing in on a return, but the fact he hasn’t pitched in a game since Aug. 29 made them hesitant to throw him into the postseason fire.
If the Jays advance, Romano will likely be available, but that doesn’t help Montoyo match up with the Rays’ power bullpen in this series.
One surprise addition to the wild-card roster was first baseman Rowdy Tellez, who was able to do enough in live BP sessions over the past couple of days to convince Jays’ decision-makers he was ready, and then went out Tuesday in Game 1 and dumped a pinch-hit single into centre field.
With Alejandro Kirk giving Montoyo a DH and pinch-hit option with some pop from the right side, Tellez gives the Jays one from the left side.
One not-so-surprising omission from the roster was veteran right-hander Tanner Roark, who despite a 6.80 ERA this season is still owed $12 million in the final year of the two-year, $24-million deal the Jays gave him last winter.
Blue Jays’ Game 1 loss hinges on lifeless offence, not pitching moves – Sportsnet.ca
TORONTO – Keep debating the merits of the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching strategy all you like, but for Game 1, at least, it worked. Matt Shoemaker and Robbie Ray combined for six innings of relatively uneventful one-run ball, and if ace Hyun-Jin Ryu pitches similarly with his team’s season on the line Wednesday everyone will be thrilled.
That isn’t what cost them their first post-season game since 2016, and it won’t be what costs them the series.
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The more glaring concern coming out of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays is the way lefty Blake Snell overpowered Toronto with a fastball that averaged 95.3 mph, and mixed in his secondary weapons to induce 15 swings out of the zone that led to a foul ball or a miss.
Relievers Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks also got the Blue Jays to chase, and the departure from the more-disciplined approach is something they’ll need to address before stepping in against Tyler Glasnow with win-or-go-home stakes.
Shoemaker, pitching for the first time since throwing three strong innings against the New York Yankees on Sept. 21, shoved right out of the gate, and was so in control that he needed only 35 pitches to skip through three innings on two weak hits.
That’s why he had to be calmed in the dugout when pitching coach Pete Walker and manager Charlie Montoyo told him he was done. He eventually calmed, perhaps when reminded that this is certainly what looked like the club’s predetermined plan, and Ray took over.
The first batter he faced, Randy Arozarena, ripped a leadoff triple, and after a Nate Lowe strikeout, Ray ripped off a full-count slider to Willy Adames for ball four that just barely squirted through catcher Danny Jansen’s legs as he slid over to block it.
The ball rolled away just far enough for Arozarena to scamper home for a 1-0 lead.
Ray settled in from there with two shutout innings and the Rays were held quiet until the seventh, when Joey Wendle worked a one-out walk off A.J. Cole, who served up a middle-middle cutter that Manuel Margot lined over the wall in left.
The Rays got creative with their pitching deployment, too, pulling Snell with two outs in the sixth despite him allowing only one hit and a walk while striking out nine.
Alejandro Kirk led off the sixth with a single, but was stranded by Castillo, who put on a pair with one out in the seventh. That’s when the Rays turned to Anderson, who got Teoscar Hernandez and pinch-hitter Joe Panik to end the threat.
Toronto finally broke through in the eighth, as pinch-hitter Rowdy Tellez – a surprise addition to the post-season roster – singled, Cavan Biggio doubled and Bo Bichette brought Tellez home with a sacrifice fly. Randal Grichuk followed with a liner to Adames at short, placed well by the Rays, for the final out.
Fairbanks triple-digit fastballed his way around a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. double in the ninth to close things out.
The decision to go with the Shoemaker/Ray tandem over Ryu in Game 1 is among the most polarizing in recent Blue Jays playoff history. A good comparable came in Game 4 of the 2015 AL Division Series, when then-manager John Gibbons pulled R.A. Dickey with two out in the fifth and a 7-1 lead over the Texas Rangers, bringing in David Price in a call that locked in Marcus Stroman as the starter in the decisive fifth game.
While few understood that call, before that game Gibbons watched the Kansas City Royals rally from a 6-2 deficit to stave off elimination with a 9-6 win over the Houston Astros, and was determined to not give the Rangers any life.
This time, the Blue Jays were dealing with vastly different circumstances, facing an opponent eight games better than them in the standings and deeper on a number of levels. That prompted the club to holistically examine how to attack a three-game series – a first for Major League Baseball – and they determined that “in this scenario, Game 1 seemed much less significant than in a traditional scenario, significantly different,” Atkins said.
“We viewed the advantage (in) being able to put our most consistent piece in the middle of those potentially 27-plus innings, as we thought through our strategy, with the added benefit of getting an extra day rest for Hyun-Jin Ryu, an extra day of rest for Taijuan Walker, and then giving our bullpen the chance to be its strongest on Game 1 and Game 3.”
That bucks conventional thinking, fuelling the debate. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, teams that win Game 1 are 126-49 in the series, regardless of round or length, which is why Ryu seemed like an automatic, if he didn’t physically need an extra day.
The Blue Jays and Ryu both said that wasn’t the case, but part of their calculations was that an inability to bring the Game 1 starter back again in a best-of-three – as opposed to making two starts in a longer series – minimized some of the incentive. Another factor was that pitching in Game 2 would still allow Ryu to pitch the opener of the division series, should they get that far.
Also, the Blue Jays felt that if the Rays stacked their lineup with left-handed bats against Shoemaker, putting in Ray would force them to surrender platoon advantage against the lefty, or the righty relievers to follow him later.
Cleverly, Rays manager Kevin Cash countered that by only stacking left-handed batters – Yoshi Tsutsugo and Brandon Lowe – in the first two spots of the order, alternating righties and lefties from there. They only made one move during Ray’s three innings – hitting Hunter Renfroe for Tsutsugo in the fifth.
These types of machinations are part of why the Blue Jays hired Montoyo, after first pursuing his staff-mate on the Rays in Rocco Baldelli, who instead opted for the Minnesota Twins’ managerial opening.
Montoyo brought with him a window into the Rays’ highly respected methodology, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Blue Jays sought to emulate it.
“That’s one thing I got in every interview I did, it was about the opener and the Rays and the things that they did,” Montoyo said. “So it wasn’t only Ross, it was also with the other teams that (I) interviewed with because credit to the Rays, they’re so creative and what they do is different. At first it looks like, ‘What are they doing?’ But they’re not afraid to take a chance. And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re trying to be creative playing one of the best teams in baseball. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
In terms of giving themselves a chance, it worked, but in the way it really matters, the final result, there’s going to be little solace in that for the Blue Jays.
GameThread – Wild Card Game #1: Jays at Rays – Bluebird Banter
The Blue Jays have somehow made it to the postseason, and as someone who wasn’t around here during the 2015 and 2016 runs, I’m thrilled to be here for this one (as strange as it is).
We have some added info and updates:
Blue Jays liked matchup of switch-hitter Jonathan Villar vs. Blake Snell over lefties Travis Shaw or Joe Panik, per manager Charlie Montoyo.
Montoyo has a six-man bench with a third catcher, so would expect plenty of pinch-hit, pinch-run maneuvering as game progresses.
— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) September 29, 2020
At 21 years, 328 days, Alejandro Kirk is the second youngest starting DH in post-season history, behind only Claudell Washington, who was 21 years 35 days in the 1975 ALCS. #BlueJays
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) September 29, 2020
Atkins said Jordan Romano was able to throw hard, throw his slider but team felt it would be unfair to throw him into playoff environment in late inning role, having not faced batters outside of live BPs
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@kaitlyncmcgrath) September 29, 2020
Nate Pearson could be used in Game 1 and 3. Or Game 2. But Atkins didn’t rule out a back-to-back scenario for Pearson if he only faced one batter or threw a low-pitch, efficient inning, for example
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@kaitlyncmcgrath) September 29, 2020
Here are today’s lineups. Kirk will DH, Villar gets the start at 2nd Tesocar bats 6th.
Will this series make it to a game 3?
Nope, Jays in two
Nope, Rays in two
105 votes total
How many innings will Matt Shoemaker pitch tonight?
95 votes total
Who will have the best offensive night tonight?
94 votes total
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