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.”
Canada’s Auger-Aliassime falls to Ruud in National Bank Open quarterfinals – Sportsnet.ca
Felix Auger-Aliassime stood at the back of the IGA Stadium hardcourt with one hand on his hip and a look of astonishment on his face.
Casper Ruud managed to get his racket on an overhead smash late in Friday’s quarterfinal at the National Bank Open, the return floating over Auger-Aliassime’s head and inside the baseline.
Auger-Aliassime scrambled back but his shot found the net. Nothing was working for him on this day — not even the tennis equivalent of a slam dunk — in a 6-1, 6-2 rout that lasted just 74 minutes.
“(My) first two matches were good, some positive things,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I never thought it would be ending like this today.”
The sixth-seeded Auger-Aliassime entered play without dropping a set this week but he came out flat on an overcast afternoon. Ruud, the No. 4 seed from Norway, wrapped up the first set in a brisk 36 minutes and took the partisan crowd out of the match.
Auger-Aliassime, from Montreal, made 21 unforced errors to just eight for Ruud, who advanced to his third Masters 1000 semifinal of the season.
“It was a perfect day for me at the office,” Ruud said.
Auger-Aliassime was the last Canadian remaining in the draw. Ruud who will next play No. 8 Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, a 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-1 winner over Nick Kyrgios.
Auger-Aliassime was hoping to become the first Canadian to reach the semifinals at this ATP Tour event since Denis Shapovalov in 2017. The last Canadian to win this tournament was Robert Bedard in 1958.
“It’s super disappointing to lose any tournament like this and especially here,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Unseeded players were scheduled to play in the evening quarterfinals. American T
In a match between two unseeded players, Britain’s Daniel Evans defeated American Tommy Paul 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to advance.
Evans will next play Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta, who defeated British qualifier Jack Draper 7-6 (4), 6-1 in the last of Friday’s quarterfinal matches.
Auger-Aliassime couldn’t get on track despite regular urging from the near-capacity crowd. He was shanking more shots than usual and his mistakes came at critical times.
With a powerful forehand and effective two-handed backhand, Ruud was clinical in his attack and relentless with pressure. Auger-Aliassime was forced to his heels and had to settle for a defensive style.
The Canadian gave up two quick breaks in the second set before finally holding serve to get to 1-4.
“To right away lose my service game, then another one … from three-love, it really felt like the worst possible outcome today,” Auger-Aliassime said. “At that point it gets really tough.
“I tried my best, but he was also getting more and more comfortable and confident, so then things get much more difficult.”
Earlier in the day, Hurkacz took advantage of two double-faults by Kyrgios early in the third set for the first service break of their match. He rolled from there to end the Australian’s nine-match winning streak.
“Nick is a super opponent, he can make every single shot,” Hurkacz said. “He doesn’t really have that many weaknesses, if any. I was just trying to serve (well) and stay aggressive.”
There was no wasted energy from Kyrgios, who played like he had a cab waiting outside the venue.
He’d usually bounce the ball just once and go right into his service motion. The pace of play agreed with Hurkacz, a six-foot-five right-hander who matched the Australian’s power game.
Both players had break opportunities but tiebreakers were needed to settle the first two sets.
Kyrgios, who dispatched defending champ and world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the second round, slowed in the third set and his serve lost some of its zip.
“I’m not a machine, I’m a human,” Kyrgios said. “My knees were sore, my back was sore, my abdominal (area) was sore. I was trying to stay moving, but I just stiffened up.”
Kyrgios entered play with wins in 15 of his last 16 matches, with the only defeat coming to Novak Djokovic in last month’s Wimbledon final.
The semifinals are set for Saturday and the final of the US$6.57-million tournament goes Sunday. The winner will earn just over $915,000.
Three Stars from Day 4 of WJC: Lysell, Sweden dominate all-European action – Sportsnet.ca
Sweden made its presence felt in an all-European matchday at the 2022 World Juniors.
The Junior Crowns established their dominance in Group B with a convincing 6-0 win over Austria. They will fight for a first-place finish in the group stage with the United States on Sunday.
Without two of their best young forwards, Red Wings eighth overall pick in 2022 Marco Kasper and Canadiens second-rounder Vinzenz Rohrer, Austria struggled against the Swedes. The good news for the Austrians is that there is no relegation in this rescheduled version of the World Junior Championship.
Slovakia salvaged their disappointing run in Edmonton by clinching their spot in the quarterfinal round.
The Slovaks — without the top two picks in the 2022 Draft in Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec — fell 5-4 against their Czech rivals then 11-1 against Canada earlier in the tournament. In their third game on Friday, Slovakia were held up by Latvia but finally took a 3-2 win in a shootout.
The loss means that Latvia will finish in the depths of the tournament. The Latvians can find solace in the fact that the country stood up to Slovakia and at least snagged away one point from their European counterparts.
Here is a look at the top performances from Day 4 of the World Juniors:
3rd star: Isak Rosen, Sweden
Sweden had yet to score on the power play at Rogers Place yet but Rosen rose to the occasion with one goal and one assist.
After a first period where the Swedes had 21 shots but only one goal, Rosen added a second goal to his tournament tally and broke their power play drought.
The Austrians forgot about the winger near the right faceoff circle. Fabian Lysell located Rosen with a cross-ice pass of his own and the young winger bagged in the one-timer on one knee.
Rosen later told Swedish media that this was an important goal for his country after they spent the pre-tournament and the first game of the WJC without scoring on the power play.
The Buffalo Sabres prospect is known for his strong shot but he also has quite the passing ability. Rosen used his physicality to impose himself and get Sweden another goal.
The 19-year-old dispossessed Austria’s Tim Geifes along the boards and then found his captain Emil Andrae with a swift cross-ice pass to notch his country’s fourth goal of the game.
Rosen will cross the pond to North America for the first time for the upcoming season. The wingers will play for the Rochester Americans of the AHL and be yet another addition to the young Sabres pipeline.
Honourable mention: Slovakia’s Adam Sykora blew away the few fans in attendance with a flash of brilliance to get his country levelled 1-1 in the first period. He skated his way past a defenceman then made a give-and-go play with Jakub Demek to fool Lativian goalie Bruno Bruveris.
Slovakia will try to channel the relief from their shootout win against the high-flying Finns on Sunday. On their end, the Latvians will hope to hold another close game on Sunday against Czechia.
2nd star: Emil Andrae, Sweden
A defenceman with two goals in a single game is always worth mentioning. Emil Andrae returned to the ice after a season-ending injury with HV71 and helped his team find another gear in the second period.
The 54th overall pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2021 was touted as a blueliner that can play on both sides of the puck and proved it against Austria.
Sweden’s captain scored twice in the span of 1:05 to keep the Austrians at bay and secure the victory.
The five-foot-nine defenceman took advantage of Rosen’s forced turnover to score his first goal. Andrae found himself in a perfect position to utilize his heavy wrister on the power play.
Andrae added his second goal from the point with another wrist shot directed in traffic to get Sweden up by four goals. The captain chipped in a late secondary assist in the third period to finish the game with three points and a plus-2 differential.
1st star: Fabian Lysell, Sweden
On an all-European afternoon, Fabian Lysell made his experience of North American ice felt. The winger made sure to remind hockey fans that the Boston Bruins drafted him in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft.
Lysell finished the game with one goal and one assist. He joins his teammates Rosen and Andrea as Sweden’s leading scorers with three points each.
The winger may have missed a penalty shot but he bounced back admirably with a goal a few seconds later.
From a very tight angle, Lysell found the tiniest bit of space above Austrian netminder Sebastian Wraneschitz’s shoulder to score Sweden’s fifth of the game.
The winger showed that his game isn’t too far away from the NHL and that he doesn’t mind getting his nose dirty. The Swede, who is used to North American ice playing for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, crashed Wraneschitz’s net early on in the game in an attempt to kickstart Sweden’s domination.
Lysell and his country-mates will need to keep the pace up as Sweden looks to take on the Americans on Sunday and the surprising Germans on Monday.
Joshua Roy off to a hot start at the World Juniors – Habs Eyes on the Prize
The Montreal Canadiens have several prospects in action at this summer’s World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton. In today’s episode of Habsent Minded Extra, I’m taking a look at how fifth-rounder Joshua Roy has become a key member of the powerhouse Canadians in their quest for gold.
He has played most of his minutes so far on the top line with Mason McTavish and Connor Bedard. That trio has been relied upon to drive offense for the team so far, and while their initial contest against Latvia was somewhat lukewarm, they exploded against Slovakia on Thursday night.
In a selfless act, Roy gave up a chance at a breakaway and his first goal of the tournament by passing to McTavish, and insisting that the latter take his attempt at notching the hat trick, which he did.
#GoHabsGo Joshua Roy is an exemplary teammate.
Foregoes a breakaway and dishes to Mason McTavish, and points to the net, letting him know he doesn’t want it back and wants his linemate to go for the hatty.
He gets the hatty. pic.twitter.com/Sv1nPXHVm9
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) August 11, 2022
With the game well in hand for Canada in the third period, head coach Dave Cameron brought out the line blender. This saw Roy shifted down in the lineup to play with Islanders prospect William Dufour, and Senators prospect Zack Ostapchuk. An eyebrow raiser at first given Roy’s performance, but it yielded results almost immediately.
Roy scored his first goal of the tournament, and added an assist on an Ostapchuk goal to finish with four points against Slovakia, tying him for second in tournament scoring behind McTavish.
Whether that line blending sticks or not, Roy showed in this game is that he can produce wherever they put him in the lineup. With Dufour and Ostapchuk, he actually gets to play more of a similar trigger-man role that he’s used to in Sherbrooke, and it may even help his overall production.
His selflessness, and acceptance of a checking and puck retrieval role with the top guns means they can put him right back on that top line as well. After barely missing out on the roster for the ill-fated December 2021 tournament, he has established himself as a versatile tool for team Canada.
That versatility should earn him plenty of playing time for the remainder of this tournament, and could make him a no-brainer for a big role with the team when they reconvene in December for the next one.
Click the play button below to listen to my full thoughts on Roy’s hot start ahead of tonight’s game against Czechia.
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