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Unheralded Espinal emerging as key all-around contributor for Blue Jays – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Through a long and grinding season, Santiago Espinal hardly ever seems overwhelmed.

But playing in Toronto for the first time was one of those rare moments.

“It almost drew tears from me— It did draw tears from me, I won’t lie to you,” Espinal said, in Spanish, from Seattle. “For me, that was something so special and I will never forget it. Fifteen thousand fans felt more like a million.”

Espinal ended up making arguably the defensive play of the year in that 6-4 win against the Kansas City Royals on July 30. It was also his first ever home game with the Toronto Blue Jays — an unforgettable moment in a season that’s been filled with them for the 26-year-old major-league sophomore.

Espinal has carved a role beyond the Blue Jays bench, emerging as the team’s primary third baseman as Cavan Biggio continues to deal with back and neck injuries.

His work ethic and preparation have been pivotal in earning Espinal the trust of Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. As a 2016 10th-round pick who didn’t make the big leagues until last year, he appreciates the importance of being ready for the call – whatever it may be.

“It hasn’t been easy, getting here,” Espinal said. “It’s about a lot of dedication and a lot of work, especially mentally. In this work, the mind must always stay positive. Ninety-nine per cent of the work is mental.

“Thankfully, I’ve always kept myself steady, always positive, to come in every day and play and stay ready for whatever opportunity the team will give me.”

His patience has paid off.

It was back in 2018 that Espinal joined the Blue Jays in a relatively quiet trade that sent Steve Pearce to the Boston Red Sox.

After toiling in the minors for two years, Espinal finally made the major leagues in 2020, mostly as an up-and-down utilityman on the Blue Jays bench. The majority of his reps last year came at shortstop, but with the addition of Marcus Semien, third base offered Espinal the best chance to crack the lineup in 2021.

As Biggio struggled with injuries and at bats opened at the hot corner, Espinal took the step from bench player to everyday guy.

The Dominican native has enjoyed a successful stretch since his last triple-A stint in mid-July, making the highlight reels for his defence while batting .287 with a .346 on-base percentage and 14 RBI over 72 games this season – including a three-hit performance in the Blue Jays’ Sunday win against the Seattle Mariners.

“Most of the times I’ve spoken to Charlie, I’ve told him that I’m ready for whatever they need from me,” said Espinal. “Whether that be fielding, hitting or running … I always tell him, ‘don’t be afraid to tell me what you need.’ And he has trusted me.

“That’s a good thing, that he knows I will always be ready for whatever the team needs.”

Espinal has had his issues with right-handed pitchers, and his .174 batting average in August is certainly a point of concern. But he’s still hitting .333 against lefties and has tacked on three stolen bases to those numbers.

Though he lacks the power some third basemen provide, Espinal can be an above-average contact hitter, giving the Blue Jays a chance to bring back to the plate the scary-talented top of their lineup. All of that as the No. 8 or 9 hitter in the order.

“He’s been outstanding,” Montoyo said of Espinal. “He’s ready to play whenever you play him. This guy, you can not play him for a week and then play him again and he does a great job. He’s had a great year. He’s part of our success.”

Patience and a positive mindset doubtless are attributes the Blue Jays could use at the moment. After dropping the three-game series against the Mariners over the weekend, Toronto now finds itself four-and-a-half games out of a wild-card spot in the American League.

After their off-day on Monday, the Blue Jays begin a two-game series against the Washington Nationals, looking to build on the momentum of their win on Sunday. After that, a home series against the subpar Detroit Tigers awaits – along with a chance to gain some ground on the chase for October baseball.

But Espinal isn’t thinking that far ahead.

“We should tackle the day in front of us,” he said. “We can’t be in a hurry, we can’t think about tomorrow or in the future and only think about what’s happening now. (On Friday), we lost, but that’s in the past. Today, we’ll go again and we’ll play the game that we play.”

That has been the message across a young and talented roster still working to pay their dues – and likely facing an uphill climb for the rest of the regular season.

Through the rough stretches, Blue Jays teammates have found solace in the clubhouse.

“Every day, we’re always pushing each other forward and helping each other out,” said Espinal. “The communication among our players is tremendous, and it’s something we appreciate.

“I wish one day everyone could see, but in the clubhouse we’re all in it together.”

More than a solid hitter and a soothing clubhouse presence, Espinal has turned himself into one of the best third basemen in MLB, defensively. With soft hands and an accurate arm, he has committed just four errors over 72 games this season — after posting just two in 23 games last year.

“Every time a batter sends it toward third, we feel like he’s going to end the play,” said Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera. “Defensively, he has a natural ability. Since he came over from Boston, we could see his ability. But he’s worked very hard and he’s gotten even better.”

Sooner or later, Biggio will find his way back to health and into the Jays lineup, which will most likely mean Espinal will see fewer reps. His overall numbers may also take a hit as the season progresses, since playing more frequently means facing more righties.

If and when that happens, Espinal should be prepared for it, too.

“Even when he’s not playing, sometimes he’ll go the whole game with his glove on, because he knows he may get called into the game at third,” said Rivera. “He’s always looking for ways to help the team, always attentive to the game we’re playing.

“He’s always ready.”

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'Canadian tuxedo' no more: Lululemon replaces Hudson's Bay as Canada's Olympic clothier – CTV News

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TORONTO —
Canada’s Olympic team appears to be putting their meme-worthy formal wear to bed after announcing a partnership with Lululemon to provide their clothing for the next four Olympic Games.

The Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee announced on Thursday that Lululemon is the new “official outfitter” for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, in a deal that extends to the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

“Supporting these incredible athletes as they prepare to compete on the world’s largest sporting stage is a privilege,” Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald said in a news release.

“Through this partnership, all of us at Lululemon are honoured to play our part to inspire, unite and transform the world through sport.”

Lululemon takes over the contract from Hudson’s Bay Co., which had been outfitting Canada’s athletes since the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy.

During the Tokyo Olympic Games, Canada’s athletes wore a “Canadian tuxedo” jean jacket for the closing ceremony that New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff described as “the gang that comes after you if you say you tried watching ‘Schitt’s Creek’ but couldn’t get into it.”

In 2018, the outfits given to Canada’s winter athletes included a red and black flannel shirt, similar to what a stereotypical lumberjack would wear. 

While many of Lululemon’s designs are still to be announced, the apparel company has unveiled a “future legacy bag” in support of the Canadian Olympic Foundation and Paralympic Foundation of Canada, as well as a teaser image that includes a red puffy jacket and red athletic wear.

“This is a partnership that will provide high-quality and stylish gear for Team Canada and also seek to promote and support sport for people of all abilities,” said Karen O’Neill, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

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MLB playoff push: Blue Jays can’t afford to cool down in wild card race – Sportsnet.ca

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Wednesday’s loss to Tampa Bay escalated from disappointing to dramatic with a single pitch when Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ryan Borucki hit Rays batter Kevin Kiermaier square in the back with an eighth-inning fastball, breathing new life into “cardgate.”

While tempers flared on the diamond with several heated exchanges between managers, players, and umpires, tensions rose in the playoff standings.

The Rays’ decisive 7-1 victory saw them clinch a playoff berth that for them was never in doubt, while the Blue Jays finished Wednesday outside the playoff picture after watching the New York Yankees defeat the Texas Rangers to temporarily break the two teams’ tie and grab sole possession of the American League’s second wild card spot.

After a red-hot September that saw Toronto’s offence propel it into the post-season picture, the club’s playoff pursuit has been slightly cooled thanks to two losses to the Rays. Thursday brings a fresh four-game series against the Minnesota Twins and an opportunity to fire up the offence once again.

Here’s a closer look at where things stand in the MLB playoff picture…

If the playoffs began today
The top teams in each division make the playoffs. In addition to the six division winners, the top remaining two teams per league qualify as wild cards for a total of 10 playoff teams.

The wild card teams in each league face off in winner-take-all games for the chance to advance to the LDS against the top seeded division winner. Meanwhile, the remaining two division winners match up against one another in each league.

If the post-season began today, these five American League teams would qualify:

Wild-card game: Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees

No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays (x) vs. winner of wild card game
No. 2 Houston Astros vs. No. 3 Chicago White Sox

And these five National League teams would qualify:

Wild-card game: Los Angeles Dodgers (x) vs. St. Louis Cardinals

No. 1 San Francisco Giants (x) vs. winner of wild card game
No. 2 Milwaukee Brewers (x) vs. No. 3 Atlanta Braves

(*x = playoff berth clinched)

In striking distance
In the American League, their series loss to the Rays means the Blue Jays are no longer in the post-season window but rather just outside of it, going from being up on the Yankees for the second wild-card spot heading into Wednesday’s action to being one win back of New York by night’s end. The Red Sox are two games up on New York, meanwhile, giving them a little bit of breathing room in that first wild card spot.

Behind the Blue Jays are the 83-69 Seattle Mariners, who aren’t out of the running but are 2.5 games behind New York.

Meanwhile, the National League is looking much more locked up with three teams having officially booked their playoff tickets. The Cincinnati Reds are the closest to the final (and only) wild card spot available with a record of 78-74, but hope is dwindling as they’re 4.5 games back of St. Louis. The same applies to the Philadelphia Phillies, whose identical record and win percentage (.513) has them still alive — barely! — in this race.

Playoff odds report
Objectively speaking, here’s where the Blue Jays stand in relation to their closest adversaries, according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference:

Blue Jays’ FanGraphs odds: 51.4% | Blue Jays’ Baseball-Reference odds: 68.5%

Yankees’ FanGraphs odds: 49.4% | Yankees’ Baseball-Reference odds: 33.1%

Red Sox FanGraphs odds: 96.2% | Red Sox Baseball-Reference odds: 94.3%

Next up
The Blue Jays will look to bounce back from their first series loss in a month when they send Steven Matz to the mound to open up a four-game stint in Minnesota while the Twins counter with Michael Pineda. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Red Sox embark on a three-game series Friday, which we’ll all be watching closely.

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Seven burning questions entering the Maple Leafs' 2021-22 training camp | Maple Leafs Hotstove – Maple Leafs Hot Stove

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Welcome back! I hope everyone had a nice summer and was able to get outside and enjoy some fresh air after what felt like an extremely long winter.

Naturally, that’s a great segue to the Toronto Maple Leafs


Training camp has officially started, and a new season is on the horizon.

It goes without saying at this point, but the pressure facing the Maple Leafs‘ core players, coaching staff, and management group is greater than it has ever been. They need to advance in the playoffs this season. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that jobs are on the line.

Adding to the tense situation is a disgruntled fanbase that probably won’t be forgetting about five straight first-round exits for the entire regular season. The team is also returning to a difficult division featuring several high-end teams.

The Leafs have a lot of questions to answer this season, and training camp should start providing us with some clues as to how they plan to approach the 2021-22 season.

Here are seven storylines to monitor over the next few weeks.

Will they spread out their talent to create three lines and some depth?


Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

In the offseason, I did a deep dive on the lopsided Leafs’ forward ice-time distribution. In a nutshell, the Leafs are asking their top players to play more than any successful Cup team in the last 12-plus years. In the regular season, Mitch Marner led all forwards in the league in average time-on-ice per game, which still feels a little crazy to write. Is this upcoming season going to be more of the same?

The loss of Zach Hyman is particularly notable in this sense. Not only did he play a ton as well, but he gave the Leafs a credible winger to play heavy minutes on the top line against the opponents’ best. Nobody the Leafs signed this summer credibly gives them an option to replace him.

The new additions are fine gambles — and they will probably even hit on a signing or two — but it doesn’t make them options to play against the Bergeron line, Point line, or the Barkov line for 20+ minutes a night. To some degree, the Leafs’ coaching staff really should try to create three lines, and that means one of their top four forwards would have to play on a de facto third line of sorts.

In that sense, it’s almost strange to picture the Leafs loading up the top six when each of their top two lines would have a clear weak link. In the case of a first line playing 22+ a night, there would be a gigantic leap of faith with the player in this spot, who would be playing well above his head based on previous results (unless, maybe, Ondrej Kase actually stays healthy).

We know that Matthews and Tavares will be the top two centers. Will Marner and Nylander be attached to their hips the whole time, as they have been since Keefe took over the bench? Will they swap Marner and Nylander at any point? Dare we ask, will one of Marner/Nylander be given a line of their own to shape a three-line Leafs attack?

Who will play left wing alongside Matthews and Tavares?


Nick Ritchie, new Toronto Maple Leaf
Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

As we just noted, we know who the top two centers are pretty well no matter what. We have a rough idea of who the right wingers will be (Marner, Nylander, Kase, possibly Nikita Gusev, and maybe even Spezza is rewarded at some point).

The left wing is a completely different story. Nick Ritchie is in the mix and has a reasonable pedigree. Michael Bunting is intriguing, but he is 26 years old and has 26 NHL games to his name. Alex Kerfoot can slot there competently, but the Leafs might not have a suitable 3C if he does. Mikheyev can handle good minutes defensively, but he might not score enough to justify significant ice time alongside a top-end center. And Nick Robertson has the pedigree of a player that can play in the top six someday, but whether or not the time is now is the big question.

It will be interesting to see how creative Keefe becomes with his line building. For example, will he try Nylander on his off-wing at all? He has played there before and has the shot to be dangerous in that spot. The team’s right wing depth is strong if Kase is healthy (again, a massive if). Bumping one over to the left side to push their right-wing talent up a ring on each line is a reasonable idea.

One last note here: The Leafs can also feasibly plan to start the game with certain lines — spreading out their talent and having players playing high up the lineup in the first few periods — before loading up to close out games. It is a reasonable strategy that can be sustainable if managed the right way, and it won’t lead to players playing 2, 3, 4+ minutes more than they should/are capable of.

Maybe a Nick Ritchie starts each game on the top line but is bumped down the lineup in the third period? When Keefe took over as the Leafs’ coach, he moved players around regularly. Last season, he got away from it.

To start this training camp, Keefe expressed optimism about the team’s improved depth. Let’s see how he manages it.

Who is the third line center?


David Kampf of the Maple Leafs
Photo: Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports

This is a bit of a conundrum. Alex Kerfoot struggled last season as the third line center but handled himself well alongside Tavares and Nylander on the left wing. He also played well at center beside Nylander in the playoffs. Maybe he just needs to play with a puck carrier such as Nylander, allowing him to use his speed to forecheck and create turnovers. He can easily be one of the two top-six left wingers, but whether he can adequately center a third line without a top player on his flank is a different question.

If it’s not Kerfoot at 3C, who are the other options? The Leafs gave Kampf a two-year, $1.5 million AAV contract and he is in fact a natural center. If it’s not Kerfoot, he seems to be the logical next man up. Kampf is good enough defensively, but can the Leafs use a player in that spot if he is only putting up 20 points over a full season? There is a certain level of productivity needed to justify the ice time, and 20 points is not it.

For some reason, Spezza is often mentioned in the center conversation, but he hasn’t been a full-time pivot for at least three seasons now. There isn’t much reason to believe he could suddenly shift back there at age 38 while his skating falls off. I don’t think the Leafs coaching staff is even remotely considering him as an option in this spot.

Pierre Engvall played 3C at times last season and can do it. The question with him — and it’s one Keefe seems keenly aware of based on his poking and prodding of the player — is which Engvall is showing up each night? When he’s on his game, Engvall is a good third-line center. When he’s not, he’s borderline unplayable.

Adam Brooks also flashed a little offensively. If the Leafs want to have an offensive third line, he’s certainly a candidate. Of all the options, he might actually have the highest offensive upside in this type of role. Can he handle the defensive responsibility of a third-line role (where he wouldn’t be nearly as sheltered as he was in the 4C spot alongside Spezza and Thornton)? Can he produce consistently enough to outweigh any lapses on the other side of the puck?

How will the forward group round out?


Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

By my count, the players guaranteed to start game one of the season in the top 12 are (in no particular order):

  1. Matthews
  2. Tavares
  3. Marner
  4. Nylander
  5. Kerfoot
  6. Ritchie
  7. Mikheyev
  8. Kampf (they didn’t pay him 1.5×2 just to sit him)
  9. Spezza

The final three spots are anyone’s guess. Keefe has consistently sat Pierre Engvall, so while I’d like to think he can be a contributor as a checker and possibly a center, history has shown us that Keefe has no problem making him a healthy scratch.

Bunting is unproven, so while he will get a shot at some point, you can’t necessarily etch it in stone to start game one of the season.

As a respected veteran, Simmonds will likely get into the game one lineup based on pedigree alone, but you can also quite easily envision the team’s best possible lineup not including him (that said, a two-year contract with an NTC almost certainly guarantees Simmonds is playing in game one, if we’re being realistic).

Kase will be in there if he’s healthy, but I will not bet on that anytime soon given his history.

Gusev is on a PTO and has had some success in the league – given he’s competing against a number of players with inconsistent track records, it’s quite easy to see him making the team.

You also have Adam Brooks and Kurtis Gabriel in the mix. And then there’s Robertson, who is probably the biggest wildcard among the forwards. If he’s ready to play a full NHL season and contribute, the domino effect on the Leafs’ forward depth would be notable.

All in all, that’s eight players vying for the final three spots. This should be a good battle.

Will the top two pairings stay the same?


Toronto Maple Leafs, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev
Photo: Canadian Press

The Leafs were set-and-forget with their top four last season – Rielly paired with Brodie the whole time, as did Muzzin with Holl.

This year, they don’t have a veteran anchoring the third pairing. At some point, they have to start wondering about Muzzin’s injuries in the playoffs (two consecutive years of missing series-deciding games). Are they going to set the top four again and run with it, or are they going to move these pairings around at all?

Maybe an injury forces the team’s hand at some point during the season and they opt to keep the top four rolling as is. Maybe they get proactive and spread out the unit a little bit, trying out new combinations within the top four (Muzzin – Brodie, Rielly – Holl, for instance). Maybe they spread out the wealth among the entire top six, reuniting pairings in high-leverage situations (to close out periods, or in the final 10 minutes of a game, etc.).

Who wins the final spot in the top six on defense?


Rasmus Sandin of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

On defense, I’ll comfortably project that Rielly, Brodie, Muzzin, Holl, and Dermott are all locks to start the season. Perhaps the inclusion of Dermott might shock some, but he’s coming off of a quietly solid season and has now played over 200 games in the league. It would be unexpected to me if not one but two rookies completely bumped him out of the starting six.

That leaves Rasmus Sandin vs. Timothy Liljegren. On one hand, Sandin has the better pedigree and has played more in the NHL. On the other, the Leafs might like the handedness with the rightie Liljegren (and he has also been a good player in the AHL — I don’t want to take anything away from him there).

After Zach Bogosian departed, the Leafs left this open to competition (they also signed Alex Biega for depth), and it’s presumed the intention here is to give both young defensemen a real chance to crack the lineup. They will both play at some point. This one will be more about who seizes the opportunity when it’s presented.

This also bleeds into the previous point – it’s possible the Leafs want to pair up these young defensemen with veterans and decide to insulate them rather than having a kids pairing, even if they would be sheltered.

How will the goaltending tandem be managed?


Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Calgary Flames, Jack Campbell
Photo: Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press via AP

I’m really fascinated to see how this goaltending tandem plays out, particularly in this market.

Years ago, the Leafs ran a James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier tandem, which was actually a fairly reasonable duo on paper (in their first year together, the Leafs were 10th in 5v5 save percentage, although they dropped to 22nd in their second year). The whole time, there was a non-stop storyline around who should start and who was the better goalie.

Now, Petr Mrazek arrives in a fairly similar situation: brought in to split starts with an inexperienced goalie coming off a strong season and a good showing in the playoffs. Bernier was brought in to be the guy, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say the same about Mrazek, he is born in the same year as Campbell and is signed for the next three years. He’s not coming in to simply accept the back seat.

There are plenty of great examples of 1A/1B goalie tandems working – Mrazek himself just came from a situation like that! – but this is not Carolina. Who should start will be a story throughout the season.

How will the goalies handle it? How will Keefe manage it? Is there going to be a preference for giving the net to the goalie who performed really well last season, or the netminder signed to a fairly sizable three-year contract?

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