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Why Blue Jays’ Grichuk is struggling despite numerous offensive gains – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – A deep dive into some Statcast data reveals some interesting things about Randal Grichuk at the plate three weeks into the season.

The Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder has dramatically cut back his chase of pitches outside the strike zone, from 33.3 to 24.2 per cent. He’s swinging at four per cent fewer pitches, too, down to 46.3, and when he does offer at a pitch, he’s making contact more often, as his whiff percentage is down from 28.1 to 21.8 per cent. His strikeout rate is also down, from 25.8 to 22.9 per cent, while his walk rate is up from 5.6 to 10.4 per cent.

Even with small sample size caveats applied, good stuff, all of it, and in theory, all those improvements should add up to a more productive hitter in the box. But to this point, Grichuk has barely delivered replacement-level production, his gains undermined by an alarming drop in average launch angle, from 16 to 4.1 degrees, which in turn has pushed his groundball rate up to 46.6 per cent.

Put another way, as he plugged one hole on his boat, a new leak sprung up somewhere else.

“I’ve been trying to lift the ball more – in a smart way, not in a bad way that’s going to create swings and misses, or foul balls during the game,” Grichuk explained before Saturday’s game was suspended by rain after 3½ innings with the Tampa Bay Rays up 1-0. “I’m trying to let the ball get deep and still trying to put it in the air.

“The exit velo is still there with the chase rate being down, which is a big key thing because a lot of guys can chase less but not hit the ball as hard, by being patient and being passive. I still want to be aggressive, while limiting my chase rate. I think I’ve been hitting the ball hard, just not getting it in the air. Positive game (Friday) putting the ball in the air in three at-bats and we’ll see day-to-day what it looks like.”

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In his one at-bat Saturday before a menacing storm reminiscent of Mordor pounded Sahlen Field and flooded the dugouts, Grichuk beat a change-up from Ryan Yarbrough into the ground for a routine out at short.

He’s due up second Sunday when the game resumes, as the teams will finish off the full nine, followed by a seven-inning series finale in which the Blue Jays and Rays can each add another player.

Anticipating the threat of rain, manager Charlie Montoyo wisely avoided Thomas Hatch, instead using Wilmer Font for an inning behind starter Chase Anderson, who again worked three innings as he builds back up after starting the season on the injured list.

“I didn’t want to lose my long guy, so we switched it, let’s get Font in there, so that way we don’t lose the innings,” said Montoyo. “Now Hatch is a full-go (Sunday).”

Grichuk is intent on getting himself into full-go mode, as well.

Through 13 games he’s batting .273/.347/.341 and when juxtaposed against his career slash line of .244/.294/.480, it illustrates the push and pull of where he’s at right now. The gains in average and on-base percentage are heartening, for sure, but the Blue Jays handed him a $52-million, five-year extension last April for his thump, and the goal is to better combine the two.

“He’s been more disciplined, he’s making more contact, not slugging as much, so I think that’s going to turn into good at-bats and he’ll start hitting for power pretty soon,” said Montoyo. “I see that coming because his approach has been pretty good the whole time.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Grichuk has been tinkering with both his approach and his swing since the off-season, when he spoke with hitting coach Guillermo Martinez about how most good hitters have their contact point with the ball more over the plate.

Their thinking was that adapting there would help on multiple fronts.

“Looking at my contact point in previous years, I’ve gone out and got (the ball),” said Grichuk. “Letting the ball get deeper is mechanical but approach-based, too: Understanding how to use the whole field, why you use the whole field, what’s a positive take, a positive swing, late in the count. All that and mechanics-based is why I’m chasing less while still hitting the ball hard.”

Grichuk’s first homer of the season Friday – a 364-foot shot off the bat at 97.6 m.p.h. on a fat Ryan Thompson slider – was also his first extra-base hit of 2020. That swing looks quite a bit like the stroke he used last year when he hit a career-high 31 homers, but he says, “there are some differences.”

“I’m trying to catch the ball a little bit deeper the proper way, not just by letting it get deep,” he added. “I’m trying to let my body move properly to catch it deeper. There is some of that that may be putting the ball on the ground more than I would like, but that’s why I’m playing with it. I played with it in summer camp, I played with it in spring training, I talked about and worked with Dante [Bichette] a lot, I’m still doing that and working with [Martinez], too. Hopefully something clicks mechanically and I can repeat it day in and day out.”

This season, Dan picks an issue, trend, news item or story from around MLB, and digs in on it with a guest. And he does it five times a week for about 15 minutes a day. Enough time to inform and entertain, but also get fans back to all the sports going on.

NOTES:

• The last time the Blue Jays had a rain delay during a home game was July 24, 2003, when a thunderstorm hit in the sixth inning shortly after stadium operators had started closing the roof at the dome. A crowd of 18,348 went scurrying for cover and both teams took shelter in the clubhouse during the 26-minute delay as the lid sealed up and field was readied. The Chicago White Sox ended up winning the game 4-3 in 13 innings as Frank Thomas drove in the go-ahead run.

• More high praise for Bo Bichette, this time from Grichuk: “It’s an advanced approach. He does a good job of being able to hunt pitches, guess pitches and he sticks to them. Obviously his swing is as sweet as a right-handed swing can get, he lets the ball get really deep and he uses the whole field. He has an understanding of how to use the whole field, which his dad probably instilled in him at a young age. I’ve said it for months, since last year, I think he has a very good chance of being the best Blue Jays hitter ever. I know that’s a bold statement but with his approach and his swing at such a young age, it’s next level.”

• As Ken Giles slowly resumes throwing, do the Blue Jays still have a defined closer? Charlie Montoyo wouldn’t say whether it’s still Anthony Bass or Jordan Romano, instead hinting he’ll examine each situation individually, rather than run a more structured back-end. “We know for sure they’re going to be at the end of the game,” said Montoyo. “It all depends on when the game is on the line, but usually it’s going to be 7-8-9 when I use them. They’re both good. Whenever they come in, it’s high leverage. You might see Romano one day, Bass the next day.”

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Lightning, Stars ready to make history in unprecedented Stanley Cup Final – NHL.com

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It was Media Day at the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper wore a gray Cup Final sweatshirt in front of a black Cup Final backdrop as he answered questions at the JW Marriott in Edmonton. Maybe on video it looked normal.

It was anything but.

At one point, Cooper heard the voice of Edmonton Journal writer Jim Matheson, whose plaque hangs at the Hockey Hall of Fame as a winner of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for bringing honor to journalism and hockey. Cooper couldn’t see him.

“Jim, did you ask that question on the other side of the fence?” Cooper said. “Are you close by?”

They laughed together, but separately.

Matheson was at his condo, 10 minutes from the hotel meeting room the Lightning and the Dallas Stars used to preview the Cup Final on Friday. Game 1 is at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the best-of-7 series, on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

[RELATED: Complete Stanley Cup Final coverage]

No media were in person at Media Day, just as no media have been in the bubble and no fans have been in the stands this postseason because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Normally, reporters crowd around each other and their subjects at Media Day, jostling for position, shouting questions. This time, whether close by or across the continent, they did what they’ve had to do for months: ask questions via video conference.

“It’s different,” said Stars center Tyler Seguin, who had been through Media Day at the Cup Final with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and 2013. “Someone just said to me outside that this probably must be better, just having to go in a room. But honestly, you definitely miss those days. … There’s so much media and cameras in your face, and that atmosphere’s buzzing. It’s definitely surreal.”

Surreal is an understatement.

After the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association came up with a Return to Play Plan with an unprecedented 24-team postseason tournament.

Twelve teams from the Eastern Conference went into the bubble in Toronto on July 26. Twelve teams from the Western Conference went into the bubble in Edmonton the same day. Now, 55 days later, we’re down to two finalists.

At the time of year we should be playing the preseason, we have two southern American teams playing the Cup Final in a northern Canadian city.

This is historic.

You have to go back 70 years to find the last time Cup Final games were played at a neutral site. In 1950, thanks to a scheduling conflict with a circus at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers hosted the Detroit Red Wings in Games 2 and 3 of the Cup Final at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. At least there were fans in the stands.

Video: Stars, Lightning set to battle in Stanley Cup Final

You have to go back 101 years to find the last time a Stanley Cup series was disrupted by a pandemic. The Montreal Canadiens played the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in Seattle in 1919, but the series was halted after five games due to the Spanish flu. With the series 2-2-1, the Cup was not awarded. Multiple players got sick. Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall died.

Which brings us to what’s most important.

The goal all along has been to keep everyone safe and award the Stanley Cup with integrity. As of Monday, no one in the bubble has tested positive for COVID-19. As of Friday, we’re eight to 13 days from the Lightning or the Stars hoisting the Cup, and the debate isn’t whether this championship will be legitimate. It’s whether this will go down as the hardest to win in NHL history.

“It’s definitely been a weird season, obviously with everything that’s been going on,” Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said. “It’s been a long season considering we were off for four months, I think. But yeah, we’re grateful that we have this opportunity to play here in the bubble, that we’re still playing hockey for the Stanley Cup.”

Grateful is a good word. None of this has been ideal, not for the media and fans unable to be there, not for the teams and staff isolated from the world to put on the show. But the show has gone on, and we’re set for an emotional finale. After all this, who wants to go home from the bubble without the Cup?

“Usually, we know, we’re dealing face to face with all of you, so everything about that is different,” Stars coach Rick Bowness told reporters at Media Day. “But when it comes right down to it — and this is what we tell our players — this is the game, man. We’ve got to focus on the game. We’re here to win the Stanley Cup.

“All of these things outside of it have changed. It’s all different. But we’re used to that now. We’ve been here for almost eight weeks. But the most important thing is, when you stay focused on the goal, then the goal is the same regardless of the circumstances.”

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Stars underdogs against Lightning to open Stanley Cup Final – Sportsnet.ca

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The Dallas Stars will look for a fourth straight win when they take on the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final as +135 underdogs on the NHL odds at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Dallas has enjoyed somewhat of a Cinderella run in this year’s NHL playoffs, and will make its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years when the team hits the ice for Saturday night’s matchup at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

The Stars needed six games to get past the Calgary Flames in the first round before stunning the favoured Colorado Avalanche in seven games in the second round. And it wasn’t until they took a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final that they emerged as steady favourites on the NHL playoff series prices. Now poised to challenge for their second Stanley Cup win in franchise history, the Stars are once again pegged as underdogs on the series prices, sporting +165 odds.

Defensive-minded physical play has been key to the Stars’ playoff success. With goaltender Anton Khudobin rising to the occasion, the Stars limited Vegas to just nine total goals in their five-game clash, and they have allowed an average of just three goals per game since the start of the first round. That has paid dividends for totals bettors taking the under, which went 4-0-1 during the Western Conference Final.

The Stars will need to maintain their stingy play against the high-powered Lightning, who are -155 favourites for Game 1 on Saturday at betting sites. Tampa Bay returns to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2015 after disposing of the New York Islanders in six games. Like Dallas, the Islanders powered their playoff drive with a defensive game plan that limited the Lightning to two or fewer goals in three of the six games in the series.

The Lightning have shown glimpses of their vast offensive potential during their current 12-4 run. And with leading scorer and Conn Smythe Trophy hopeful Brayden Point back in the lineup after missing Game 3 and Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, Tampa Bay enters Game 1 as -190 chalk on the series prices to win their first Stanley Cup title since 2004.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Tampa Bay is the team’s shaky performance against the Stars this season. The Lightning dropped a pair of one-goal decisions to Dallas, putting the brakes on a dominating five-game win streak in head-to-head matchups in which they had outscored the Stars by a wide 25-8 margin.

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Lightning book ticket to Stanley Cup final after OT win knocks out Islanders – CBC.ca

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Five years after socially distancing from the Prince of Wales Trophy and losing in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning got their hands on and arms around it to embrace their Eastern Conference championship.

Anthony Cirelli scored in overtime and Tampa Bay beat the New York Islanders 2-1 in Game 6 of the East final Thursday night and go back to the Cup Final for the first time since 2015, where it’ll face the Dallas Stars. Injured captain Steven Stamkos, who wouldn’t even stand near the trophy then out of superstition, walked on to the ice to accept it along with the Lightning’s entire travelling party.

“It didn’t work last time, so we tried obviously touching the trophy this year,” alternate captain Victor Hedman said. “That was a no-brainer for us. We’re not superstitious but obviously didn’t touch it last time, so this year we did. That’s the end of it. We won one trophy and now we’re going for the next one.”

Stamkos, Hedman, Alex Killorn and Ryan McDonagh were the first players to shake deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s hand inside the NHL bubble that has had zero positive coronavirus test results. It mattered to the team’s leaders to have Stamkos there even though he hasn’t played since February.

WATCH | Cirelli’s OT goal lifts Lightning over Islanders:

In his daily recap, Rob Pizzo break down an event-filled Game 6 in the East, and previews the Dallas-Tampa Cup final. 3:40

“We wanted all the team captains up there and wanted Steven a part of it,” McDonagh said. “He’s been a huge part of this run even without playing. Definitely a special moment for that group and then to get the whole team involved: great moment.”

Players and coaches screamed with joy after taking a team photo with Daly. That came minutes after they streamed on to the ice to celebrate Cirelli’s goal 13:18 into overtime.

Tampa Bay ended each of its three series victories in overtime. Winger Patrick Maroon, the only player in the final in back-to-back years after winning with St. Louis in 2019, deadpanned, “My finger nails are gone.”

Only New York lasted more than five games, pushing the Lightning to their limits before their talented core got them into the final.

“We got close,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “We could see the mountain top, but we couldn’t get to the mountain top.”

‘Emotions are so high’

Now the Lightning are four wins from that mountaintop despite being without Stamkos all post-season and missing top centre Brayden Point for two games against the Islanders. They can thank defenceman Hedman for scoring his ninth goal of the playoffs, Nikita Kucherov for playing 28:22 and Andrei Vasilveskiy making 26 saves while his teammates peppered Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov with 48 shots.

And Cirelli, who came back from an injury scare to score the Lightning’s biggest goal in years.

“The emotions are so high,” Cirelli said. “We worked all year. Our goal is to be playing for the Stanley Cup. We’re here now. I think it’s every kid’s dream to be in this situation. I think we’re excited and we’re ready to go.”

Cirelli appeared to injure his right knee on a collision with Islanders captain Anders Lee in the second period. He returned in the third, and coach Jon Cooper said Cirelli was “doing it basically on one leg.”

“Trying not to disclose injuries but it was pretty clear on that,” Cooper said. “For him to come back was pretty remarkable.”

WATCH | Stars eliminate Golden Knights to reach Stanley Cup:

In his daily recap, Rob Pizzo breaks down a crazy game 5 in the Western Conference Final.  3:02

Tampa Bay is trying to win its first championship since 2004. It’s the first time in franchise history the Lightning didn’t play a seven-game series in the conference finals.

It wasn’t easy getting to this point against an opponent willing to rope-a-dope, block shots and wait to pounce on chances. The Islanders got their break in Game 5 to prolong the series when Tampa Bay defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk fanned on a shot to pave the way for Jordan Eberle’s double-overtime goal, but they were on the wrong side of it Thursday.

“We had a chance to win,” said Varlamov, whose 46 saves were a single-season playoff career high. “Disappointing, of course. We want to go to the final and I think we had a chance to go to the final and play there, but we lost. Season’s over.”

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