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Bautista’s Return Could Fire Up Jays For Home Stretch



PHOENIX — If you want to analyze the various ways the non-waiver trade deadline can affect a team on the bubble, you only need to compare and contrast what happened to the Toronto Blue Jays the past two years.

Heading into the 2014 deadline, the Blue Jays were in a strong position. During the first half of the schedule, they had commanded first place in the AL East for 40 consecutive games before being overtaken early in July by Baltimore.

Still, they were 10 games over .500 and only 2.5 games out on July 31, the day of the trade deadline. The players were expecting something to happen that day, a deal of some sort to prove that ownership was on their side.

That hope was greeted by the sounds of silence. His hands tied by a rigid budget, Alex Anthopoulos did nothing.

The air immediately went out of the Blue Jays balloon. They lost four games in a row, six of their next seven and 17 of their next 24. By Aug. 19, they were nine games out and just playing out the string.

Fast forward to July of 2015. For most of the year, the Jays had hovered around .500. Win a few, lose a few. Despite their prolific offence, they simply could not seem to make any headway. On July 28, they were sitting a game below .500 and had fallen into fourth place in the division, eight games back of the AL East-leading Yankees.

On that day, Anthopoulos pulled off the trade that brought Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to Toronto for Jose Reyes and a bundle of prospects. Three days later, Anthopoulos shocked the baseball world by dealing for pitcher David Price. By the time the trade deadline came and went, the Jays had made two more deals to bring in Mark Lowe and leadoff man Ben Revere.

It was as if a bolt of lightning had crackled through the Blue Jay clubhouse. They won 14 of their next 15, including 11 in a row. Within those 15 days, the Jays ate up all the ground between themselves and the Yankees, taking the division lead for good on Aug. 25 on their way to their first playoff appearance in 22 years.

So, now, here they sit in 2016, once again well-positioned, less than two weeks ahead of the deadline. Prior to Tuesday’s game in Phoenix, the Jays sat 10 games over .500, right on the heels of the Orioles and Red Sox.

As always at this point, they have needs. Another solid starter would provide a much-needed security blanket for the rotation. One or two effective relievers would shore up a bullpen that has been, at times, inadequate.

Whether GM Ross Atkins is able to deliver on those needs is uncertain. He has to be able to match up with another club and that is not always possible. Other clubs don’t always need what you have to offer, and vice versa. The market for pitching is thin and the buyers far outnumber the sellers.

But the Jays do have at least one ace up their sleeve. Even before the clock strikes midnight on the trade deadline, perhaps as soon as next Monday, they will be welcoming back Jose Bautista after a five-week stint on the disabled list, and that is the kind of gold-standard addition that most teams are not going to have a chance to make.

“We’ve been able to do well, even without Jose,” manager John Gibbons said. “Ezequiel Carrera has really stepped up, but to get Jose back, it’s almost like going out and trading for a seasoned bat, a superstar.”

Bautista is a superstar with plenty at stake. He’s in the final year of his deal with the Blue Jays and, over the six years since he signed it, he has dramatically outplayed his contract. At 35, he’s looking for a multi-year deal that will take him past his 40th birthday but, for a variety of reasons, his production is down this year.

Even before he went on the DL with turf toe back on June 16, Bautista had been battling some nagging injuries, yet continued to play through them. At other times, he has sacrificed some of his own comfort level for the good of the team, especially when he volunteered to bat leadoff at a time when the Jays needed some spark at the top of the lineup.

This year, as much as at any time in his career, he has proven his value as a player ready to put the team goals ahead of his own.

“He is such a big part of this team,” Gibbons said. “It will be a real boost to see him out there again. I know he’s anxious to get going.”

When he comes back from the toe injury, those personal goals and the team goals will be as one. To this point, his numbers are modest by his standards. He’s hitting .230 with a dozen home runs and 41 RBI. He still has a healthy OPS at .815.

If you had to pick a player who could deliver big numbers over the final two months of the season, there aren’t many you would bet on ahead of Bautista.

He will be, presumably, fully healthy and that’s rare for any regular player at this time of year. He has a long track record of delivering big production when important things are on the line. And there’s little doubt he’s personally motivated to leave a statistical impression over his final 60-some games before he becomes a free agent.

Beyond that, Bautista shares the same hunger as his teammates to complete the job they began last season.

For all those reasons, the Blue Jays might just be sitting on the biggest bargain of the trade season and they won’t have to give up a thing to get him.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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