How the Baltimore Orioles can win the World Series next year

How the Baltimore Orioles can win the World Series next year

I know, I know. The Baltimore Orioles are bad. They’re 13-30 one game into their four-game weekend set with Boston. That’s the second-worst record in Major League Baseball. What am I doing talking about them winning it all next season?

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Hey, it’s not like worst-to-first doesn’t happen now and then. The Amazing Mets pulled it off in 1969. Kirby Puckett’s Minnesota Twins managed it in 1991. The Red Sox fired Bobby Valentine, hired John Farrell and did the deed in 2013. It’s at least a generational thing. Of course, that could mean it’s too soon for the O’s, but there’s another interesting trend that suggests they might have a chance, even though it isn’t something a sane person would put money on right now.

David Price looked like his normal pre-All Star self in the first game of the current series. He pitched the full nine innings against Baltimore. Manny Machado ruined his bid for a complete-game shutout by crushing a two-run shot with two out in the ninth. The Bosox were already up six when the shortstop took Price yard for his 14th of the season.

If Buck Showalter was Rich Renteria, we might be talking about his job being on the line. That is the difference between owning a 1517-1432 record and being 151-213. The O’s boss has roughly ten times the experience of his Chisox counterpart.

While that experience counts him in good stead, it can also work against him. With Showalter, what you’ve seen in the past seems to be what you get in the present. He can lay the foundation for a contender but can’t seem to build the roof. Maybe we should be talking about the team cutting ties with the skipper.

In his first three seasons with the Yankees, the then-30-something maverick led the Bronx Bombers to fourth, second, and first-place finishes in the American League East. He did it by relying more on the farm system than free agency. When the team fell back to second in his fourth season, George Steinbrenner panicked, firing Showalter and hiring Joe Torre. The former catcher and first-baseman took Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada et al to a World Series title in his first campaign.

Even though the expansion Diamondbacks wouldn’t begin play for two seasons, Arizona immediately hired Showalter to help them design their minor league system. Again, the club improved in his second season, winning 100 games before falling to the Mets in the playoffs. A regression to 85 wins in his third season left him looking for work again while Bob Brenly delivered the franchise’s only World Series title on the strength of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling’s pitching, and Luis Gonzalez’s clutch hitting.

Another manager wins a World Series on the back of Buck Showalter's good work.

Following another three-year hiatus, Showalter spent four seasons in Texas. Once more, the best year was the second, although the Rangers never rose above third in the AL West during his tenure, and successor Ron Washington needed another four years to build the Arlington club into two-time American League champions.

The first of those pennants coincided with Showalter’s arrival at Camden Yards. After short spells with his previous clubs, Baltimore has shown more faith in the 61-year-old. This is his eighth campaign yet, despite CEO Peter Angelos’ trust, Showalter hasn’t taken his game or the Orioles’ to the next level.

It’s been the same old Buck in Baltimore. The first season was a write-off followed by a strong 93-win second year. Predictably, year three was a step back. Angelos stuck with Showalter, though, and the manager produced his best season in year four, going 96-66. Then, he failed to maintain that level. The O’s played .500 ball in 2015, won 89 the next season and 75 last year. With this season’s woeful start, the pattern of one good season, one bad isn’t even sustainable anymore.

Manny Machado's bat is the one good thing about the Baltimore Orioles in 2018.

Despite a decent roster, the Orioles don’t look like bouncing back in 2018. Machado is the only player producing. He’s on the early-season AL MVP radar with a .339 batting average, 14 HRs, 40 RBI and 26 runs scored. He’s earning a base on balls for virtually every strikeout (23:24) and sports a ridiculous .418/.661/1.079 line. The problem is the rest of the order is letting him down.

Centerfielder Adam Jones is not getting on base enough. In a season where pitchers are walking more batters than ever, Jones is hitting .253. He hasn’t drawn enough walks to boost that number by 20 points. His on-base percentage is only .271. Compare that with the 79-point bump Machado is providing.

Slugger Chris Davis has a pitiful .248/.275/.523 line, his batting average below the Mendoza line. Mark Trumbo has better numbers but just 60 plate appearances. Showalter is showing the same misplaced faith in Davis that the owner has in him.

Meanwhile, Tim Beckham and Anthony Santander are on the 60 and 40-day DLs respectively. Colby Rasmus is on the 10-day version. Caleb Joseph has been sent down to Norfolk.

The pitching is no more encouraging. The staff is carrying a 5.09 ERA and 1.496 WHIP. They’re 10th in the Al in walks, 11th in strikeouts. The busier rotation is the movement between the DL and active status.

Overall, it’s a bleak picture. So, why do I think the Orioles can win it all next year? You may have noticed what happens to teams after Showalter leaves. The Yankees and Diamondbacks both earned trips to the White House. Texas took longer but won two pennants under Showalter’s replacement. Like Meatloaf said, two out of three ain’t bad.

Admittedly, I’m grasping at straws, but sometimes you just need to get out of your own way. Peter Angelos has had seven years to see that Buck Showalter has nothing more to offer. If he decides to let him go while there are still talented, hopeful pieces for a new man to work with, there’s a 67% chance the club can put a championship run together.

And why not? It’s not like the Orioles are going anywhere now.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

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What does the early win line tell us about the 2018 NFL season?

What does the early win line tell us about the 2018 NFL season?

Vegas released its early line on total wins for all National Football League teams earlier in the week. It makes for interesting reading. Here’s a look at the numbers sorted by division.

NFL total wins for 2018

Overview

You can draw some broad conclusions by looking at the overall numbers.

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The bookies love the NFC. Especially the NFC North and South.

Overall, the early line on total wins [not ATS] favors the blue half of the league 133 wins to 125. Given every team plays a quarter of its games against opponents from the other conference, basic math says sports books think the NFC will go 36-28 against the AFC.

Given each division plays 64 games [ four teams times 16 games], 32 is the .500 win total for divisions. The NFC has three divisions above that mark and one right on it. The AFC North and East are the two teams below it.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how early predictions have each division shaking out.

AFC East

New England’s line is the highest in the entire NFL. They’re tabbed to win 11. That’s because the handicappers expect them to beat up on a weak division. Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets are all pegged to lose at least ten.

AFC North

Pittsburgh is the favorite, as usual. Baltimore and Cincinnati will battle to finish second but likely cancel each other out in the wildcard race. That’s if you buy into the 5.5 win line for the Browns.

Cleveland went 0-16 in 2017. They had a good draft but will it bump them up to 5-11? The club hasn’t won five games in the last three seasons combined. The Ravens or the Bengals could be a good pick for the over.

On the other hand, if you think the Browns are going to rise from the ashes, you should be looking at the under for one or two of their division rivals.

AFC South

This has long been the most competitive foursome in the AFC and the experts are respecting that again. What they don’t respect is Andrew Luck’s chances to be his former self after coming back from a shoulder injury. Quarterbacks do have to throw the ball, after all. That isn’t easy with a bad wing. Doctors will tell you that recovering strength after shoulder surgery is a time-consuming process. The Colts are definitely the bet on which the South hinges.

AFC West

The strongest division in the conference. Early odds have the Chargers settling into their temporary LA digs at the StubHub Center, home of MLS side LA Galaxy. That suggests there are doubts Andy Reid can sustain the momentum in Kansas City and that Jon Gruden will have a major impact in his return to coaching after more than a decade away.

Nate Gerry feels good about winning Super Bowl LII with the Philadelphia Eagles.

NFC East

Vegas is sold on the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Philadelphia is second only to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the betting line, despite their win in February. The Cowboys at 8.5 is an interesting pick. It expresses doubt about Jerry Jones’ project. There’s reason to worry. Will Allen Hurns be an upgrade on Dez Bryant? Can Geoff Swaims and Rico Gathers step up following Jason Witten’s move to the Monday Night Football booth?

There’s not much love for Washington or New York. I Kill Giants is probably a staple in the DVD collection for children of division rivals.

NFC North

The Black and Blue Division is set to flex its muscle in 2018. Minnesota and Green Bay are the only division rivals both rated as ten-game winners. With Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers behind center respectively, why not? Matthew Stafford and Detroit are the dark horses again, while the Bears continue to hibernate.

NFC South

This is an even tighter race than the North. Three teams, New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina, are all expected to win at least nine. There’s no love for Jameis Winston and the Bucs, though. Tampa just hasn’t done much to improve a 5-11 team.

NFC West

It’s a similar story to the South in the Pacific time zone. There’s affection for Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo in LA and San Fran respectively. There’s even some fondness for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks? Sam Bradford and the Cardinals come in; the room goes quiet. When you consider how Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer experienced a renaissance in the desert, Bradford looks like something of a sleeper pick for Arizona. On the other hand, you weren’t as likely to wake up to find Warner and Palmer on the DL.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Yes or no. Black and white. Over/under. We live in a binary world where it’s most comfortable to think there are two sides to every story. If there are more, it’s easier just to say “it’s complicated.” So, let’s keep it simple by saying there are two narratives for Game 2 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

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The overriding train of thought after Boston’s blowout win in Game 1 is that Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens is just too smart for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers. Beat writers are comparing him to an NHL coach. He has no stars but has brought his team together as a unit too formidable for LeBron James to take down on his own.

Game 1 suggests there is some truth to that. The Celtics stormed to a 26-point halftime lead. The Cavs nearly cut it in half during the third quarter, the only frame in which they surpassed 20 points and Boston did not. Then Stevens made another adjustment and his squad ran away with the game in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Moore stopped LeBron James in Game 1 of the Cavs/Boston series. Can he do it again?

Marcus Moore held LeBron James to 15 points on 5/16 shooting, 0/5 from three-point land. In fact, almost the entire Cleveland team was colder than Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ stare. Only Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Jose Calderon shot 50% or better. Calderon only played three minutes. Rodney Hood contributed a passable 42%. The rest were in the low 30s or worse.

It was not pretty but poor shooting offers a different explanation. The Cavs had an off night. It happens. You’re free to believe that Stevens is the next coming of Steve Kerr or if you want to double down on that hockey analogy, Gerard Gallant, but having a good plan is only half the job. You must go out and execute it.

Ask yourself a question. Is Marcus Morris better than Draymond Green? Can he shut LeBron down for an entire series? The Warriors defensive specialist battled James in three consecutive NBA Finals. He won some battles but never completely derailed the L-Train.

Will Morris? Please. The 28-year-old is in his seventh season out of Kansas. One season was spent with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the former NBDL. If he can dominate the game’s best player for a full series, you’d have to wonder what took him so long to become an elite player.

No, LeBron is going to get his. He’s averaging 28.6 ppg in these playoffs. Even if he doesn’t go off, 23 points is both a bad night and an eight-point improvement for the King. Then, the question is whether his teammates can raise their games, as well?

Is Tristan Thompson the key to the Cavs/Boston series?

Pundits buying into the Brad Stevens narrative are calling for Tyronn Lue to bring Tristan Thompson in for Kevin Love. In small doses, Thompson was effective against Indianapolis. The matchup issues for Cleveland are similar. So, that’s an option.

If it works, the ball will be in Stevens’ court. He’ll make an adjustment to which the Cavs will have to respond. And that’s my point. A best-of-seven series isn’t decided in the first game. If it was, what would be the point of playing more? It’s about adjustments. Don’t toll the bell for Cleveland’s doom just yet. But don’t ring it for Boston’s demise either.

Expect a much closer game tonight.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Is Ozzie Albies the second coming of Andruw Jones?

Is Ozzie Albies the second coming of Andruw Jones?

In 1996, the Atlanta Braves were World Series Champions. They had beaten their American League clones, the Cleveland Indians, in six games the previous fall.

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The Braves were in the midst of a 15-year run as the National League’s dominant team. From 1991-2005 they would win the National League West [’91-93] or the East [95-05] a combined 14 times, at least 90 games 13 times, 100 in a half-dozen seasons, and go to five World Series [1991, 92, 95, 96, 99]. For all that, the 1995 Series was the only one they would win. From that perspective, the 1996 season began a long decline.

It didn’t look that way at the time. Exactly the opposite in fact.

While it was lefty Steve Avery’s final season with the team, the rotation appeared ready to dominate for years. John Smoltz, five seasons away from his conversion to the closer’s role, was the 1996 NL Cy Young winner. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were also on course for Hall of Fame careers.

There was speed and power up and down the lineup. Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Marquis Grissom, Ryan Klesko, Terry Pendleton, Jermaine Dye, David Justice, Luis Polonia. The Braves were going to score runs.

Bobby Cox’s coaching staff was formidable as well. First base, third base, and bullpen coaches Pat Corrales, Jimy Williams, and Ned Yost would all become major league managers in their own right. And Bobby always had Leo Mazzone’s company. The venerated pitching coach only stopped rocking in the dugout when he stood up to go to the mound.

That said, the best advertisement for the Braves’ future was a teenager who came up to the club late in the season to play left field. Andruw Jones was 19. He hailed from the Caribbean island of Curacao, off the Venezuelan coast, and he had some pop in his bat. In 31 games, he drove hit five home runs, drove in 13 runs, scored 11, stole three bases, and showed excellent range in the outfield.

It was in the Fall Classic where he made the greatest impression, however. In his first World Series game, the teenager hit two home runs and drove in five in the second and third innings to spark a 12-1 rout in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees would lose Game 2 as well before rebounding to sweep the next four,. Nevertheless, Jones became a fixture in the Braves outfield for the next 11 seasons before bouncing around the major leagues for another five, the last two with the Yankees. His major league resume reads more than 400 home runs and 150 stolen bases, a career 62.8 Wins Above Replacement, five All-Star appearances, the 2005 MLB home run and National League RBI crowns, and ten Gold Gloves.

That’s a tough act to follow. The Braves seem to have a pipeline to Curacaoan talent, though. Two players from the tiny island have followed Jones’ path to the big leagues.

Andrelton Simmons didn’t quite work out. His first full season at Turner Field held promise. The shortstop finished the season with 150 hits, 59 RBI, 76 runs, and 17 HRs. When his production dipped in the next two campaigns, the Braves traded him to the Angels in 2015. Last season, Simmons rediscovered his hitting stroke, setting new career marks for hits, doubles, homers, runs, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks. He also struck out more, although that was a fair price for the increased production. The 28-year-old has the talent to enjoy a solid major league career. It just won’t be with the Braves.

Last season, Atlanta mined their private Caribbean island for a third time, bringing away a second-baseman. Ozzie Albies made his debut on August 1st and quickly turned heads. In 57 games before season’s end, he cracked 62 hits, knocked six out of the park and collected 28 ribbies. His power was complemented by speed. Albies scored 34 runs and stole eight bases in nine attempts.

This season, he is proving it’s not a fluke. With teams coming up on the season’s quarter-pole, the 21-year-old infielder is third in the majors in run production, having scored or driven in 67. Only Boston’s Mookie Betts and the Yankees Aaron Judge, with 69 and 68 respectively, surpass the islander. Albies’ batting line reads .304/.564/.868.

He could certainly walk more, especially as pitchers are now pitching around him. His slugging percentage is seventh-best in the National League. It was fourth going into the weekend. It’s his turn to adjust now. The youngster must lay off pitches outside the strike zone to get on base more.

Couple Albie’s numbers with first-baseman Freddie Freeman’s power, though, and it’s little wonder the Braves are setting the pace in the National League East. Still young, Albies has the potential to be even better as he learns. If he does, people will start to look at Curacao less as the home of Andruw Jones and more as a baseball hotbed.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Is the Cleveland Browns draft class new hope or another false dawn?

Is the Cleveland Browns draft class new hope or another false dawn?

What is the most wonderful thing about the offseason? No matter what happened last year, you can let your imagination off the leash.

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Life is cruel, however. The first things to go after the initial meaningful game are hopes and dreams.

Occasionally, though, the unexpected happens. Everything falls into place. Hope is fulfilled, dreams realized, and your club goes all the way. In 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series. Three months later, the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.

In the latter case, a few thousand memes had to be revised to fit a new team.

If I were Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie, the first person I’d call would be Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam. The Browns were winless in 2017. They’ve only won four games in the last three seasons and had just two winning seasons since their reincarnation in 1999.

Hi Jimmy? It’s Jeff. Listen I’ve got all these old Super Bowl memes lying around that we can’t use anymore…

Of course, some aren’t transferrable.

Dad, what’s a Super Bowl ring? How should I know, son? We’re brown.

That doesn’t make sense. And can a color see its shadow?

On the other hand, Ned Stark is universal. You can put Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Minnesota, whoever, in there and it works. It could be leased out to baseball, basketball, and soccer trolls, too. Haslam would see a return on his investment. The Back to the Future meme offers double value. After all, Marty McFly’s mentor is Doc Brown. It’s a natural fit.

Getting good value might be a problem for Lurie, however. The Browns already have some existing inventory.

Right now, there is optimism in the Dawg Pound. Cleveland is a .500 team again at least until Week 1. There may be reason to hold out hope. The Browns had a strong draft, landing Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward in the first round, as well as Georgia running back Nick Chubb in the second. The team also acquired quarterback Tyrod Taylor from Buffalo, receiver Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins, and right tackle Chris Hubbard from Pittsburgh. Left tackle Joe Thomas retired but Vegas sport books have the Browns as early favorites in two games, Week 3 v the New York Jets and Week 15 when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town.

It’s encouraging to think the Browns might be competitive in 2018 but let’s not jump the gun. They’ve made exciting personnel moves in the past. Tim Couch never panned out. Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III. If anything, Baker Mayfield might deserve our sympathy. The Oklahoma quarterback has a different skill set than Griffin and more self-control than Manziel but is another unique personality. The team has already demonstrated it can’t deal with characters, preferring to cookie-cutter everyone in the squad.

Nor does the executive show patience or long-term thinking. Its five first-round picks in the 2017/18 NFL Drafts were courtesy former Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown’s draft policy. Building a club through the draft is a multi-season endeavour. It didn’t happen quickly enough for owner Jimmy Haslam. He fired Brown in December to resolve a power struggle between the executive and head coach Hue Jackson.

Cleveland Browns EVP of Football Operations Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson.

Brown wasn’t perfect as a GM. He took a gamble on Griffin’s injury history and lost. He traded away a second-rounder to Philadelphia that turned out to be Carson Wentz. As if the quarterback was guaranteed to enjoy the same success in Cleveland as he has in Philly.

Brown clashed with Jackson because his focus was on collecting draft picks rather than paying too much to free agents or in trades with other teams. The team is now benefitting from that policy and likely will for the next few seasons.

Like Jackson, Haslam is impatient. When he hired both Jackson and Brown in January 2016, it was his fourth franchise reboot in five years as owner. It’s easy to imagine the team struggling early, Jackson turning to Mayfield too soon in the young quarterback’s tutelage, the team struggling further, and Haslam initiating the search for a new coach before season’s end. It’s more fun to dream, however.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Yankees showing they have pitching depth to go with the sluggers

Yankees showing they have pitching depth to go with the sluggers

If you’re going to cherry-pick one statistic to rate a team in any sport, it should be goal/run/point difference. Some teams can score like nobody’s business but can’t defend to save their lives. Others are just the opposite. They can’t do anything with the ball but won’t let you have any fun, either. When the margin between for and against is wide, though, you know you have a team that can do it all.

The World Series champion Houston Astros have the league’s fourth-best record at 24-15 but are lapping the field in run difference. They have scored 86 more runs than their pitchers have allowed. That would suggest they run hot and cold, which is why you must be careful when picking cherries.

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On the other hand, the league’s two best teams are running neck-and-neck in run difference. They’ve also been playing a three-game series at Yankee Stadium that wraps up tonight. The Bronx Bombers [26-10] have taken the first two to wrest the American League East lead from the Boston Red Sox [25-11]. Aaron Boone’s squad is on an 8-game winning streak in which their hitting has largely covered for a slumping pitching staff.

The first two games were 4-0 shutouts over the typically potent Astros. In the first, 25-year-old lefty Jim Montgomery only lasted an inning. ‘Gumby’s’ injury was later diagnosed as a flexor strain in his elbow that will cost him 6-8 weeks. The bullpen covered for him with eight scoreless innings. In the second game, Luis Severino pitched a much-appreciated complete game shutout. He surrendered only five hits while striking out ten. From there, the bats took over.

Masahiro Tanaka couldn’t get out of the seventh, giving up three runs after pitching six scoreless innings in the series finale. The bullpen surrendered two more, but Yankee bats came alive in the ninth, ringing up three runs to come home to New York with three of the four games and an unbeaten start to May.

Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez can now rub elbows with Giancarlo Stantaon, as well.

Cleveland came to town to open the six-game homestand. The Yankees raked Terry Francona’s staff for 19 runs in the three games and needed most of them. Boone’s pitchers surrendered 12.

Things settled down a bit in the first game against the BoSox. Severino went six-plus, surrendering two runs and the Yankees eked out a 3-2 win. Both teams went to town in the second game but the Bombers prevailed 9-6. They’ll have a chance to extend the winning streak to nine while adding a small cushion to their division lead.

The unbeaten run is something of a surprise. Montgomery’s loss is hardly the Yanks’ only injury concern. First baseman Greg Bird has been nursing a broken spur in his ankle. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s plantar fasciitis and hip problems will keep him out until June. Pitcher Adam Warren will be out a couple of weeks with a back issue. Relievers Tommy Kahnle and Luis Cessa are also on the 10-day DL.

The Yankees have powered through, however. Opponents thought they’d have to deal with three sluggers coming into the season. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and new signing Giancarlo Stanton are all on nine home runs through the season’s first six weeks but shortstop Didi Gregorius leads the way with an even ten. The group has combined to position New York as the league’s most prolific hitters. They’ve scored 209 runs already. Boston is second with 200.

More importantly to their postseason hopes — I know, it’s early — is the pitching staff’s contribution. As Aaron Boone has had to reach into the minors to keep arms in the bullpen, Larry Rothchild’s group has remained stingy. They’ve combined with the starters to yield the American League’s third-fewest runs, behind the Astros and Red Sox. The Yankees’ ERA is a respectable 3.46, their WHIP 1.165.

The Yankees rotation is putting together solid numbers despite Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka's struggles.

Rothchild has some work to do with Tanaka and Sonny Gray. The Japanese star has decent numbers. In 46 innings he’s walked only ten. His WHIP is below the team average at 1.101. He is struggling to make the out pitch, however. Gray is a more alarming problem. His control is way off. The former Oakland ace has issued 21 passes in 33 IP and is allowing six runs per nine innings.

On the other hand, Severino is handling duties as an ace with aplomb and CC Sabbathia is rolling through lineups as the fourth man in the rotation. If Kahnle and Cessa return soon, the Yankees have a chance to open up some distance on the Red Sox.

The first step will be completing the series sweep tonight.

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Brad Marchand gets his licks in

Brad Marchand gets his licks in

Gambling isn’t exactly a societal norm in the United States. Unlike the United Kingdom, China, and other countries, it’s only legal in certain places, even when you’re online. That said, gamblers aren’t that different from other people. They fear the same thing: the outlier. Anything that throws a wrench in the works is an unwelcome sight.

The Boston Celtics weren’t too happy to learn that screws in point guard Kyrie Irving’s knee, placed there in 2015 to help a broken patella heal, had caused an infection that would rule him out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Gamblers had to revise their betting strategy for Celtic games. Could benchwarmer Terry Rozier step in to do a job? To date, the answer has been yes.

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The Celtics share the TD Garden with the NHL’s Bruins, who have an outlier of a different sort. Brad Marchand is a talented left winger with skills that make him dangerous in front of goal. Despite that skillset, Marchand has cultivated a reputation as an instigator, the player who gets in the face of the opponent’s best players trying to induce them into taking stupid penalties. He is so effective, he has become the second player in league history, after former Flyer, Oiler, and Bruin Ken ‘the Rat’ Linseman to be dubbed “Little Ball of Hate.”

For years, opponents have pressured the league to do something about Marchand’s penchant for ‘low-bridging’. He will bend low as he glides into an opponent, taking their legs out from under, risking serious injury.

The league has suspended him for the practice but hasn’t cured him. On Saturday, he low-bridged Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan. Body checks are legal in hockey but the operative word is body. Targeting the head or legs is outlawed because the only protection against injury is luck.

The hit on Callahan didn’t draw discipline from the league, in part because Marchand has developed a new tactic for antagonizing opponents. He kisses and licks them.

Yes, you read that correctly. The 29-year-old has become the creepy aunt with too much lipstick who terrorized nieces and nephews at holiday dinners. At least his gloves make it impossible to pinch the other guy’s cheeks.

Marchand debuted the practice in the Bruins’ first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. On two different plays in that series, he could be seen nibbling on Leo Komarov’s neck then pecking him on the cheek. The Finn is something of a pest himself and displayed remarkable restraint in ignoring Marchand’s advances.

After the Komarov episode, an inside source leaked to the media that the league had used a third party to communicate to the Bruins its opinion such behaviour was undesirable. The league later denied it had. Marchand was emboldened.

On Saturday, he went full tongue on Callahan’s face. The Lightning veteran had less patience than Komarov but officials intervened before matters could escalate further.

When asked about the second incident afterwards, Marchand claimed it was in response to Callahan’s aggression.

Well, he punched me four times in the face. So, you know, he just kept getting close.

The second episode drew reprehension from all corners. It was called “embarrassing”, “unacceptable”, and “disgusting.” The most echoed opinion came from Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

There’s no place in our game for licking.

Marchand has his good points. Among other causes, he’s been supportive of gender identity and LGBTQ issues. If his latest transgressions were an attempt to subtly expose bias towards both groups, it was effective.

Cooper and others, all men, expressed their discomfort with watching replays of the incidents. The league responded to their anger by speaking directly to the player. With the Bruins subsequently eliminated by the Lightning, he has vowed to rein in his more controversial behaviour. The likely translation is that he will seek new methods to upset opponents.

Meanwhile, for all their outrage, it’s easy to imagine that many among those who railed against the Bruin’s gamesmanship will go home, walk in the front door, and happily allow the dog overjoyed at their arrival to lather their face with affection, not considering for a moment that Fido’s tongue may recently have been in a place Marchand’s never has.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.