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Russell Martin Narrowly Avoids Ejection, Then Powers Blue Jays Past Rays with late-inning Heroics



That’s about all it would have taken for Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin to get rinsed by home plate umpire Pat Hoberg for arguing over a third strike in the fourth inning of Sunday’s series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Hoberg had rung Martin up on a pitch he felt was not a strike and the two men argued briefly at home plate. As Martin walked away still arguing, Hoberg took notice and seemed to be coming to a moment of decision.

In that instant, manager John Gibbons jumped into the fray and took one for the team, making sure it was himself, and not his star catcher, who got ejected.

“It shows he has our back, and that’s all you can ask for from your manager,” Martin said. “He weathered the storm, took the heat for everybody and kept some guys in the game — myself included — while he was doing that.”

That moment would become huge later on when Martin was green-lighted on a 3-0 pitch with a runner on base in the eighth inning of a 3-3 tie. He hammered the ball into the left field seats for what turned out to be a game-winning two-run homer.

The 5-3 victory also prevented the Jays from absorbing their first three-game losing streak in two-and-a-half months, sending them to New York for a three-game series against the Yankees on a high note.

“We get on the bird and have a happy flight,” Martin said. “Any time you can come back and score some runs to win a game, it feels good. It took some heat off Happ. I felt like he threw the ball pretty well. They were just fighting him.”

Martin was referring to his batterymate, J.A. Happ, who had his second-worst outing of the year Sunday, lasting only 2.2 innings and needing 85 pitches to get eight outs. He was fortunate to get out of the game trailing only by a 3-1 score.

“I give (the Rays) credit,” said Happ, who ended up with a no-decision, leaving his season record at 17-4. “That’s a good team, but at the same time, I wasn’t as sharp as I can be. I didn’t make it very easy on myself, either.”

Relievers Danny Barnes and Scott Feldman knit together 3.1 innings of scoreless relief, but the Jays were having a tough time getting anything going against Tampa Bay ace Chris Archer.

Down 3-1 heading to the seventh inning, the Jays were able to get Archer out of the game and then made short work of reliever Brad Boxberger to tie the game on a clutch two-run single by Devon Travis.

That set the stage for Martin’s heroics. With Kevin Jepsen on the mound for Tampa Bay, Dioner Navarro walked on five pitches. Dalton Pompey came on to run and stole second base on the first pitch to Martin.

Two pitches later, Martin had the green light on a 3-0 count and didn’t miss it. It landed about 10 rows deep in left field for his 17th homer of the year.

“Typically you’re looking for a pitch out over the middle of the plate and that’s what I got,” Martin said.

“There’s only one pitch, one spot and if it’s not there, you take it. If it’s there you’ve got to let it rip and it ended up in my happy zone.”

It was Happ’s worst outing since these same Tampa Bay Rays flayed him for eight runs in two innings during a 13-2 slaughter back in May. Remarkably, he was able to hold the Rays to three runs, and the bullpen picked him up. Barnes, Feldman, Joaquin Benoit, Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna combined for 6.1 scoreless innings and by that time, the Jays had turned the tide in their favour.

“That was huge that the bullpen was able to keep us in the game,” Happ said. “Dev and Russell got two huge hits for us. It was a great team win.”

After Archer fanned Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson to start the game, Edwin Encarnacion doubled to the wall in right-centre. He then scored when Navarro leaked a single between first and second base. On the throw to the plate, Navarro strayed too far off first base and was caught off the base for the third out, but only after Encarnacion had scored to make it 1-0.

It was obvious right from the start that Happ didn’t have it. Logan Forythe and Kevin Kiermaier each singled, then Forsythe scored on Evan Longoria’s double. Kiermaier later scored on a sacrifice fly by Matt Duffy to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead after the first inning, which saw Happ use up 30 pitches.

Somehow, Happ got through the second inning unscathed despite issuing a pair of walks and giving up some more hard contact. Once again, he squandered a lot of pitches and needed 61 to get the first six outs.

It didn’t get any better in the third inning. He got two fly ball outs to start, then yielded three consecutive singles, with Corey Dickerson driving in Duffy for Tampa’s third run, signalling the end of Happ’s day.

In the seventh inning, with one out, Tulowitzki singled to right-centre, ending Archer’s day. Brad Boxberger came out of the bullpen and immediately yielded a single to Michael Saunders and a walk to Kevin Pillar.

That loaded the bases for Travis, who ripped a single between short and third, scoring both Tulowitzki and Saunders to tie the game.

Now that August has turned to September and the stakes begin to grow with each passing day, you might think these moments could become too big for a young player like Travis. Not so.

“When things get tough, I just follow the example of our big dogs — guys that have been doing it for a long time,” Travis said. “When you walk into this clubhouse, you would never know what happened the day before. I just take after them and understand that every day is a new day.”

The last time the Blue Jays lost three games in a row was more than 50 games ago, on June 18, 19 and 21. The first two losses were against Baltimore and the third was to Arizona. Since that time, they haven’t lost more than two in a row.

“After you lose two in a row, you definitely don’t want to lose three in a row and get swept by a team,” Martin said. “We were able to pull it off and now we’re looking forward to getting to New York.”

At the end of the day, Osuna got his 30th save of the season — but on this day, the true save might have gone to Gibbons.

“No question,” said acting manager DeMarlo Hale. “Gibby did his job. He kept all our guys in the ballgame, let them play and let them win it.”
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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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