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Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman ‘Extremely Confident’ Heading Into Wild Card Against Orioles



TORONTO – Shortly after being announced as the arm the Blue Jays will ride with their playoff lives on the line, Marcus Stroman walked to the Rogers Centre podium on Monday afternoon the same way he carries himself on the mound — with a swagger.

“I’ve been in this position before,” Stroman said. “I’m extremely confident. I can’t wait for this task, and we’re pretty excited about the opportunity.”

It didn’t matter that the 25-year-old bundle of emotion hasn’t fared well against the Baltimore Orioles this season — and that may be an understatement — Stroman will always bet on himself.

That swagger and mound presence is exactly what Jays manager John Gibbons took into account when deciding whether to go with Stroman, his young starter drafted and developed by the organization, or Francisco Liriano, the veteran trade acquisition who pitched so brilliantly down the stretch, including 6.1 innings of scoreless baseball with 10 strikeouts against the Orioles last week.

For different reasons, the Blue Jays likely wouldn’t be in Tuesday’s one-and-done American League wild-card showdown against the O’s in the comfy confines of home without either of them, but Stroman’s appetite for the big stage and his clear desire to get the ball in exactly these types of situations was what swayed Gibbons.

“We considered all of that,” Gibbons said. “It’s a one-game shot and guys are going out there and competing. You might have some of your better offensive players facing whoever’s pitching for the other side and not have very good numbers — are you going to sit them, too? Some guys rise to the occasion and I’ve seen Stro do that many, many times. I think he’s the perfect guy.”

In four starts against the Orioles this season, Stroman is carrying an ugly 7.04 ERA and has given up 33 hits in just 23 innings, including four earned runs over seven innings in a loss to Baltimore last Thursday.

If he’s not the perfect guy early, Stroman won’t last very long, especially with Liriano and Marco Estrada, who started on Friday at Fenway Park, both available out of the bullpen in the all-hands-on-deck win-or-go-home scenario.

“With Estrada and Liriano, you can get some innings out of them, too, it’s not just a hitter or two, maybe,” Gibbons said. “If the game goes extra innings, you never know, or something happens to Stroman early on, you’ve got some coverage and, hopefully, it at least gets you to your go-to guys late.”

Around this time last year, bat-flips aside, Stroman was one of the poster boys for the emotion and energy of the Blue Jays playoff run, almost unexpectedly after returning from a torn ACL in the final month of the season.

The 5-foot-8 righty provided two solid starts in the ALDS win over the Texas Rangers, a team currently sitting at home awaiting the winner of Tuesday’s clash, and then won Game 3 of the ALCS despite giving up 11 hits in 6.1 innings against the Kansas City Royals.

“Been here before,” Stroman said. “I feel comfortable knowing we were at this last year and had to go through the entire thing. There’s no sense of panic.”

Coming into this season, the expectations were sky high, but Stroman struggled out of the gate with a 4.89 ERA in the first half.

Then something clicked, and Stroman turned things around in the second half of the campaign, pitching to a 3.68 ERA and striking out close to a batter per inning, despite a lack of run support.

“Yeah, I’ve definitely had an up-and-down year and battled a lot of adversity,” Stroman said. “I think I’ve done a pretty decent job at making adjustments throughout the year that were key for me and able to pay off down the stretch. I’m at a point now where I feel great, mechanics feel great, body feels great. I’m actually feeling at my strongest now, so I’m excited.”

Gibbons wasn’t the only manager with a mound decision to make, as Orioles skipper Buck Showalter decided to roll with veteran Chris Tillman, rather than use Ubaldo Jimenez who, similarly to Liriano, dazzled at Rogers Centre last week, throwing 6.1 shutout innings in an important win over the Jays, giving up just one hit.

While Tillman has held the Blue Jays bats at bay this season — he’s got a 3.63 ERA in four starts spanning 22.1 innings — it’s in stark contrast to his history at Rogers Centre, a venue the 28-year-old righty has been lit up on a number of occasions, leaving him with a 2-6 record, a ghastly 7.01 ERA, and 86 hits allowed over 68 innings in Toronto.

Tillman can’t really explain what’s changed this season.

“I don’t think I’ve gone out of my way to do anything different with these guys,” Tillman said. “It’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.”

Showalter is hoping his starter doesn’t crumble Tuesday in front of an amped-up swarm of Jays fans, but he pointed out there’s more to the game than just the starting pitcher.

“I think we look at a certain finality with the starter, but these games, usually, have a lot of things going on with them that everybody gets to play a big part in it if it’s a competitive game,” Showalter said.

It’s easy to say that with one of the best bullpens in the game, anchored by Zach Britton and his unhittable sinker, one that has led to an 0.54 ERA and Cy Young talk.

Built for the powerful AL East, both teams live and die with the long ball and both have struggled to score runs, at times, down the stretch.

Playoff baseball, however, tends to come down to starting pitching, and the starter with the better stuff Tuesday night may provide the difference between a trip to Arlington for another game Thursday and a long off-season.

“It’s gotta help that we know everything about Tillman, but they know a lot about Stroman, as well,” Gibbons said.

“If Tillman’s on, he’s going to be tough. If Stroman’s on, he’s going to be tough. That’s, really, the way the game works.”


1. There’s a whole lot of power

The Baltimore Orioles led the majors by a wide margin in home runs this season with 253 dingers. The Toronto Blue Jays weren’t far behind, finishing fourth in the long ball race with 221 souvenirs.

It may sound crazy to say a team will lose if it doesn’t hit a home run, but before the Blue Jays’ win on Saturday in Boston, they had lost their past 16 games in which they didn’t hit a homer, a stretch dating way back to July 25.

On one side, it’s Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop.

On the other, it’s Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin.

Despite the low-scoring nature of playoff baseball, don’t be shocked to see some fireworks.

2. Bullpen dichotomy

Buck Showalter’s bullpen in Baltimore is chiselled from steel and granite, while John Gibbons’ is a patchwork group that has been hanging by a thread over the past couple of weeks.

The Orioles feature the best closer in the game in Zach Britton, who is a perfect 47-of-47 in save opportunities this season, and while the Blue Jays boast a pretty good one in Roberto Osuna, the entire ’pen has been shaky down the stretch, the 21-year-old included.

Showalter’s relievers finished third in the majors with a 3.40 ERA this season, while the Blue Jays bullpen was 22nd with a 4.11 ERA, and they’re now without injured setup man Joaquin Benoit.

Having Francisco Liriano and Marco Estrada available will help, but it’s a clear advantage for the O’s.

3. Will Rogers Centre help?

When asked Monday if playing in front of a raucous Rogers Centre crowd will be a factor, neither manager could really pinpoint exactly when and where it helps.

Sure, both sides would rather be playing at home, but Showalter scoffed when asked if the Orioles will be intimidated by the environment.

If the Jays jump out to an early lead, maybe he’ll change his mind.

4. Who’s Soo?

The Blue Jays found out exactly what Hyun Soo Kim can do last week when he hit a ninth inning home run off Roberto Osuna to beat them 3-2.

In his first season in the majors, the 28-year-old outfielder was up and down, but his table-setting presence and .382 OBP is an important aspect for the Orioles and one the Jays must be wary of in front of the meat of the order.

5. What’s up with Josh Donaldson?

Overall, the reigning MVP has enjoyed another fine season, slashing .284/.404/.549 and hitting 37 home runs.

But since the 30-year-old complained of a bum hip a couple weeks ago, his at-bats have looked off and the power numbers haven’t been there.

The Jays need him to be his MVP self to go on any sort of playoff run.

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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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