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Without quick resolution, instability could increase Blue Jays’ health risks –



TORONTO — Life in the grind can sometimes make it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and amid the mad scramble to find the Toronto Blue Jays a place to call home this summer, that bigger picture is far too important to miss.

Their looming July 29 ‘home’ opener, now less than a week away, is an albatross that becomes heavier and heavier each moment without a resolution. There’s a toll for players, stress for coaches as they try to map out routines and work schedules, an immense burden for the front office, ambiguity for visiting clubs, and loads of anxiety for Major League Baseball.

To say the pressure is on doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

The under-discussion option of staying in Washington July 29-30 and playing host to the Nationals there, and then flipping the subsequent July 31-Aug. 2 series with the Philadelphia Phillies to Citizens Bank Park, would buy everyone some time, right up to the Blue Jays’ Aug. 11 date with the Miami Marlins. Maybe it’s the breathing room everyone needs.

Still, the real risk here isn’t to the sanctity of the baseball schedule or the damage to the Blue Jays’ chances this summer — both of which take hits the longer this drags on — but to the health of players, coaches and staff who may end up on the road for three straight weeks amid a raging pandemic.

Not good.

The main fault of Major League Baseball’s impressively thorough back-to-play protocol is the amount of travel in it, the primary factor that the Canadian government cited in rejecting the Blue Jays’ plan for regular-season games at Rogers Centre on Saturday, and prompted the State of Pennsylvania to turn down a joint proposal with the Pittsburgh Pirates to tenant at PNC Park on Wednesday.

Consider their reasoning:

“Based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety,” said Marco Mendicino, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship. “Of particular concern, the Toronto Blue Jays would be required to play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high.”

“To add travellers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams,” said Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.

The underlying message there is a fear players will vector COVID-19 from one region to another, an issue exacerbated by the Blue Jays visiting the coronavirus hot spots of Florida and Georgia in the next two weeks, but also playing clubs who have been there, too.

Despite that, critics described the decisions as politically motivated or alarmist. There’s a case to be made for both, and I examined the issue about a month ago.

At the same time, there’s sound reasoning for caution, as well, as Dr. Andrew Morris, medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai Health System/University Health Network and an infectious diseases professor at the University of Toronto, explained.

“There are several things that in infectious disease we have known forever,” he said. “One is you get people congregating together, you’re going to have spread. Two is respiratory infections are very transmissible, just like this, and they are more transmissible than people ever believe that they are. And three, when you have lots of mixing, it’s bad for epidemiology, so when you have people moving all over the place, that is a bad policy for infectious-disease management. 

“The reason why a virus that came out of Wuhan, China is all over the world,” he added, “is because of migration patterns.”

Now, take away any periods spent at a proper base that gives players a break from road life — needing to find meals, entertainment, social connections and other basic necessities away from home — and it increases their chances of both contracting and spreading disease.

That’s why the barnstorming possibility first suggested by ESPN’s Buster Olney, where the Blue Jays would play their entire home schedule as the host team at the stadium of their opponent, is a reckless idea.

If they used the 60-game road trip plan, the Blue Jays would never be in one spot for more than four days until Sept. 7-17, when they are set to host the Yankees and Mets and then visit the Yankees. Such a schedule is not only a competitive disadvantage, it’s a threat to both the Blue Jays and public health.

So, for the good of the Blue Jays and the communities they visit, a proper home needs to be found for them, one that gives them an opportunity to spend time sheltering safely when they’re not at work.

To that end, the club is revisiting its previous groundwork looking into Baltimore’s Camden Yards, while Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, home to the Blue Jays’ triple-A affiliate, remains a reluctant emergency fallback that needs substantial infrastructure investment to meet both big-league standards and COVID-19 protocols.

The Blue Jays also looked into bouncing between Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, although a multi-stadium plan is less ideal because it means more temporary elements such as third clubhouses are needed.

If the logistical issues can be cleared up — and they are plentiful at any big-league park — the Orioles’ home schedule matches up well with the Blue Jays’ home schedule. The only conflicts are July 29-Aug. 2 and Aug. 14-16, but figuring out where to set up an alternative clubhouse, where to locate the clubs and ensuring all protocols are followed requires time that no one has.

Team president and CEO Mark Shapiro made clear Saturday, following the Canadian government’s decision, that his team’s health and safety would be the top priority, but the situation now is no longer fully under his control.

Opening day starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, again providing a voice of reason, emphasized how the uncertainty of where the Blue Jays play was a collective challenge for the whole organization, not just players, but added, “we just have to remember that we’re going to grind for two months instead of an 162-game season. If we can rally together and work as a team, we should get by fine.”

“This is something we’ve never had to deal with in the past, but honestly, this season is all about (the challenges) that we experience and overcoming them,” he continued. “It’s going to be difficult but I trust my teammates and I think we’ll be able to rally around just because it’s an unprecedented season.”

There’s little doubt about that, and manager Charlie Montoyo pointed to the health challenges his endearing son Alex has faced his entire life as perspective for the Blue Jays’ current woes, saying, “I’ve gone through worse, so it could be worse.”

Still, both he and the rest of the coaching staff have been “communicating with the players, talking to them and staying positive,” he said. “You have no control over what’s going on, just play the game, play to win and keep going. We’ll see where we’re going to play. Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control. That’s what we’re mainly saying to all of them. And they’ve been really good. They really have. They deserve a lot of credit.”

More than credit, they deserve a home, and their plight is a reminder of how hard staging a season amid a pandemic is going to be. Major League Baseball and the players decided to make it even harder by adding a travel element to the mix, and now health officials in both Canada and Pennsylvania have said thanks but no thanks.

That’s quite troubling from a baseball perspective. In terms of health and safety, it may be even worse.

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Blue Jackets in tough spot after epic collapse: ‘We can’t live in the past’ –



With five minutes left in Friday night’s Game 4 it was all falling into place for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Leading the high-powered Maple Leafs 3-0 in an elimination game, the Blue Jackets had the hub hosts on the ropes and seemed on the way to another huge playoff upset. The hardest part seemed to be in the rear view mirror. Columbus had survived a second period push when the Leafs held an edge in shots (16-13), 5-on-5 scoring chances (7-6) and high danger opportunities (2-0). Toronto’s expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 in the second frame was 65.63, and yet Columbus scored the only goal and were up 2-0 after 40 minutes.

With just under six minutes to go in the third, Boone Jenner scored to increase the lead to three and that should have been what buried the Leafs.

And then history happened.

Watch Sunday’s series-deciding Game 5 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets on Sportsnet and SN NOW. Coverage gets underway at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.

“I just think we obviously sat back,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said the morning after. “It wasn’t what went wrong, we just allowed a team to get some energy off of one goal and just didn’t have that push back we needed. A couple of unfortunate bounces with empty nets and that’s the difference in the game. It’s unfortunate because we played a really good hockey game up until that point.”

Columbus was doing everything they’d hoped. They were frustrating Toronto’s lineup of elite shooters, making it hard for them to get the puck to the middle for the best opportunities. Rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins, starting his first post-season game after coming on in relief in Game 3, had made 57 consecutive saves without allowing a goal across the two games and had settled right in. Toronto had only five shots in the first 15 minutes of the third period.

At 16:03 of the third and with the goalie pulled for a Hail Mary attempt, William Nylander scored to give the Leafs a glimmer of hope, although that felt like a parcipitation ribbon goal — just happy to not get shutout. Fifty-one seconds later John Tavares scored a beauty under the bar. Now, suddenly, it was a one-goal difference and a comeback could be completed with one lucky bounce, which Toronto got when Pierre-Luc Dubois’ empty net shot was caught in the outside of the net instead of going in. What were the odds of Columbus’ best player in the series missing in that moment?

And of course, Toronto tied it in the final minute, then won it in overtime, becoming the first team in playoff history to blow a three-goal lead and lose one night, then rally from a three-goal deficit to win the next.

Columbus was that close to winning this series and having a few days off until starting their next. Now, they have to regroup in a day and try to fend off the Leafs’ potent — and now re-energized — attack all over again for 60 minutes on Sunday. How does a team recover from being so close to a series win, and blowing it in such shocking fashion?

“Every day is a new opportunity to learn something,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “It’s a tight series. We’ve seen two pretty good comebacks in the last two games. It’s a great series in my opinion. It’s a battle and just have to get ready for Sunday because it’s another one there.

“Nobody expected this to be easy.”

Yes, Toronto was able to rebound from its own blown three-goal lead in Game 3, but it took nothing short of a miracle to pull off. Columbus’ situation is similar, but different in that they had this thing closed out. They had the upset in their hand. They may even have started thinking about the next round a little. And now, very quickly after such a huge letdown, they have to regain a confidence and mindset that brought them so close to an impressive series win.

Unlike Toronto, the Blue Jackets probably don’t have the runway to be second-best for much of Game 5, nor the spread of offensive weapons to pull off the four-minute flurry Toronto just did. Columbus must start Game 5 with the same intensity and team-wide commitment they’ve had throughout. These are pros of course, but that will be the mental challenge on Sunday.

“There’s things you always want back, even in wins,” Foligno said. “You can’t dwell on things. It’s how you respond to adversity that’s going to allow you to have success. Especially in the playoffs. If there’s anything we’ve learned, that’s what makes good teams great in the playoffs — they respond the right way. I have full confidence our team will respond the right way.

“Our group’s resilient…this isn’t going to faze us. There was an upbeat group at breakfast today.”

That resilience will be put to the test, especially if defenceman Zach Werenski is either unable to go, or slowed by injury. Werenski, a huge part of Columbus’ success to this point, did not take a shift in the final half of the third period or at all in OT. Kekalainen had no update on Werenski’s status for Game 5.

With the series on the line for both teams in Sunday’s do-or-die, Toronto would seem to have all the momentum. They were buzzing down the stretch and in overtime, where they held a 14-7 shot advantage, and their best players had an extra jump that wasn’t always there earlier. There’s no excuse for the Leafs to come out flat.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

But Columbus? How do you recover from such a collapse, in an elimination game no less? Comebacks are the theme of this series so it’d be foolhardy to rule them out if they fell behind early, but we’ll get an idea of where this team is at mentally shortly after puck drop when we see what kind of push back they can bring, or if the Leafs are in total control.

It’s hard to think this loss isn’t weighing on the Blue Jackets players today. They’re human after all. There’s got to be a sour taste on Saturday, and somehow they’ve got to put it back together again by tomorrow night.

“The difference is going to be the team that wants it more,” Foligno said about Game 5. “I think you’ve seen both teams at their best of what they bring. For us, I think it’s going to be to try to get to that game faster than them and really that’s the difference in this series.

“We can’t live in the past.”

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Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets must ‘reset’ selves in Game 5 of Cup Qualifiers



With memories of one of the most crushing losses of his NHL career still fresh in his mind, Nick Foligno came down from his hotel room Saturday morning and was greeted with smiles from his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates.

The captain would not have expected anything different.

Less than 12 hours earlier, Columbus had blown a late three-goal lead in historic fashion and lost 4-3 in overtime to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Instead of wallowing in the frustration of missing a chance to eliminate Toronto, the Blue Jackets, the No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference, have set their sights on taking advantage of their second chance to finish off the Maple Leafs, the No. 8 seed in the East, in Game 5 on Sunday in Toronto, the conference hub city (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS, FS-O).

“This isn’t going to faze us,” Foligno said. “You know, there was an upbeat group at breakfast today, and we know we have a great opportunity in front of us. So we’re not going to let that go to waste just because it’s something that went wrong in one game.

“I mean, this is going to be how it’s going to probably go all playoff long. There’s things that are going to go wrong, and it’s how you respond and how you get ready for the next shift or the next game.”

To the forward’s point, the key to winning this series could be handling the emotions of Friday and approaching the series finale as a win-or-go-home game.

For the Blue Jackets, that means not getting too low after becoming the first team to lose a potential series-ending NHL postseason game after leading by three goals with less than four minutes remaining in the third period.

For the Maple Leafs, it means not getting overconfident and thinking the series has shifted in their favor.

It’s a message Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe has been drilling into his players.

Keefe understands the euphoria of such a rousing win can’t simply be siphoned out of the Toronto dressing room. The raw joy he witnessed from his players after the game was at a level he’d never experienced since replacing Mike Babcock on Nov. 20.

Those emotions are real, they’re tangible, and they can be used as motivation in Game 5. But only if they are tempered, Keefe said.

“[The win] was a huge boost for us,” Keefe said Saturday. “It gives us great positive momentum. The enjoyment that I saw from our team is beyond anything I’ve seen from us. The moment reflected that.

“But while we have to bring that momentum forward with us, we have to realize that this is a new game and we have to have a better start than we did yesterday. And we have to recognize the opposition is going to reset themselves. Both teams are going to leave it all out there tomorrow.”

Video: TOR@CBJ, Gm4: Maple Leafs stage comeback, win in OT

It looked as if Toronto’s season was over when defenseman Morgan Rielly was stripped of the puck at his own blue line, leading to Boone Jenner‘s goal at 14:18 of the third period that gave Columbus a 3-0 lead. The image of a devastated Rielly, hunched over with a pained look on his face after the goal, appeared to be the symbol of a team that had once again seemingly underachieved in the eyes of their fans.

But a goal by Maple Leafs forward William Nylander at 16:03 ignited the stirring comeback. John Tavares followed with a goal at 16:54, and Zach Hyman forced overtime with 23 seconds left.

Auston Matthews scored on the power play at 13:10 of overtime to complete the comeback.

Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner, who had three assists, said the excitement made it difficult to sleep Friday night. “The adrenaline does keep you up a little bit,” he said.

Marner said he and his teammates are taking a pragmatic approach to Game 5 and that the lessons they learned from the experience will go a long way.

“We have to play smart with the puck,” he said. “We know their chances are coming off the turnovers we’re giving them on the odd-man rushes the other way. For our team I think doing well in our D-zone, staying tight, staying five-man …

“We can’t beat ourselves. We have to play the way we want to, forecheck fast, being physical on that first touch and getting to the net.”

For the most part, the Blue Jackets’ top defense pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski has done an admirable job of slowing down the Marner-Matthews-Hyman line, which has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in the series. But Werenski left Game 4 at 9:08 of the third third period, and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had no update Saturday.

As part of the NHL Return to Play Plan, a team is not permitted to disclose player injury or illness information.

The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the No. 7 seed from the East and face the Tampa Bay Lightning, the No. 2 seed, in the first round.

The loser of Game 5 will home dreaming of what might have been and have a 12.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery on Monday.

With or without Werenski, Kekalainen was asked how the Blue Jackets will regroup.

“Just getting ready for Game 5,” he said. “I mean, nobody expected this to be easy.”

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Haotong Li’s ball disappears



Haotong Li’s extended practice session didn’t lead to better results Saturday at the PGA Championship.

Li was the source of much fascination Friday after he was spotted working on the range more than five hours after posting a second-round 65 and vaulting into the lead at TPC Harding Park. The move suggested he either had 24 hours of nervous energy he was determined to defuse, or perhaps he wasn’t totally comfortable with his ball-striking. It seemed like the latter – on Saturday he shot a 3-over 73 to drop into a share of 13th place.

Despite an uneven start to his round, Li took the outright lead once again after a miraculous birdie on the 12th hole, during which he got a favorable carom off a tree back into the first cut of rough, then received another fortuitous kick over the greenside bunker from 242 yards away. Just off the green, he brushed in a 22-footer for birdie on the most difficult hole on the course.

Li’s luck appeared to run out on the next hole, however, after another errant tee shot. This time, his ball sailed way right and likely hung up in a cypress tree before being declared lost. Forced to return to the tee, Li made double bogey, then dropped two more shots on Nos. 14 and 16. He’s still only four back of Dustin Johnson, a week after beating only two players at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

Source: – Golf Channel

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