How Do They Keep Hitting the Baseball?

At Fenway Park last week, the Mariners took the first game of three from the Red Sox. In doing so, they got a win against the best hitting team in the American League — and in fact in all of baseball. The Mariners are currently ranked second in the AL behind Boston, and fifth in the Major Leagues.

A year ago, if you’d told me I’d be able to write that paragraph this season, I would have laughed out loud. Now, in the Mariners’ 40th season in the Major Leagues, I have the pleasure of doing so.

My editor, who continuously nags at me on Facebook about my lack of baseball writing, wondered… why. Why is this Mariners team hitting so well? How did Franklin Gutierrez hit two home runs and drive in six runs in that game? Why is Robinson Cano, recovered from offseason surgery, having such a great season? How has this team hit 101 home runs — and how is it that they’re the only team in the Majors to have five players with double digits in the Home Run column? The answer, my friends: Edgar Martinez.

Continue reading How Do They Keep Hitting the Baseball?

Max Lajoie will always be my first

Max Lajoie trading card
My first trading card credit, Leaf Metal card #BA-ML1, defenseman Max Lajoie of the Swift Current Broncos.

Not so long ago, I was tapped by Leaf Trading Cards to shoot photos for their junior hockey series.

I have dozens of dynamic action shots I’m super proud of, but the first one that got picked up for a set is this rather pedestrian still shot of draft prospect defenseman Max Lajoie. There are three more pics that are coming in a subsequent set, including two of Vancouver Giants Ty Ronning and Ryan Kubic; this one, however, will always be my first trading card credit.

Thanks, Leaf, and thanks, Max Lajoie!

San Jose will win the Stanley Cup

The San Jose Sharks are going to win the 2016 Stanley Cup. Guaranteed.

Here’s why:

Sasquatch has gradually eaten Brent Burns since his entry to the NHL.
The evolution of Brent Burns, as documented by the makers of Making a Murderer.

1. Their beards are badass.

It all started with defenseman Brent Burns. When he entered the NHL a decade ago, he looked like any other surfer dude who learned that lettering in hockey meant a lifetime of babes, beer and ridiculous bling, dude. By 2013, well ahead of the hipster beard virus, he was a bloody X-File. Since coming to the Sharks, he’s found a new level for his game to go where he used to keep his shaving kit. Where his career high was previously 46 points (in 2010 with Minnesota), he’s racked up 48, 60 and 75 points in the last three seasons respectively. This guy has turned from a fair to middling blueliner with silly facial hair into a Norris Trophy candidate whose knowledge of beard oils and combs is sought out by superstars — like Joe freaking Thornton. Between the two of them and Joe Pavelski’s penchant for wearing his heart over the C on that uniform, the Sharks look like the American Civil War has risen again.

2. They know how to rebound from weird shit.

The Sharks may just have the oddest history in hockey. Remember, this is a league that features the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Down Goes Brown outlines it well here. Each individual playoff loss is all right; only one team wins it all each year, after all. But by the time the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead against the Kings in 2014, they had dealt with own goals, traitorous stanchions and backroom deals that robbed them of first overall picks. (Canucks fans know about this feeling: imagine the 70s with Gilbert Perreault in the ol’ stink-in-rink jersey! Now give Eric Lindros to the Sharks in their inaugural season, and you get the idea.) After this collapse, Joe Thornton was stripped of his captaincy — which had been originally stripped from Patrick Marleau — and demoted to the rank and file.

This team has come back hungrier and hotter, bigger and badder from every single one of their misfortunes. Look for them to bounce off that Game One loss with a BONINOBONINOBONINO moment of their very own.

3. They’ve got a couple of milk hot dogs on their team.

Geno with a Thornton
Thornton’s beard is now a meme. That’s a good thing.

Kevin Bieksa famously referred to the Sharks with this colourful metaphor back in 2011. Frankly, he was right. From captain Pavelski, through beardsville, on down to Tommy Wingels and Brenden Dillon, this squad has proven to be a serious bag of dicks to opposition teams. It’s no surprise they’re the team to survive the shithot battles of California — they’re big, they’re bad and they have all the feels. Even Evgeni Malkin has grown a Thornton in honour of the Sharks first Cup final appearance.

It ain’t just chinrats and attitude. The Sharks play the wall as well as any team in the league. They have three lines that will eat up the boards and spit out scoring chances like SCA fanatics chewing organic, fair trade fake tobacky. Where Pittsburgh likes to skate and make things pretty, San Jose grinds you into paste, smears you into their beards and shoves your puck into the blue paint. They’ve got some genuine superstars in the mix as well. Thornton is an Art Ross winner. Marleau has over 1,000 points. Burns had 75 points this year. Pavelski is one of the most dangerous playoff performers of this generation.

Roll the Jaws soundtrack, boys and girls. Those Penguins are done for.

Prediction: Sharks in seven.

 

Last time: Pittsburgh will win the Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh will win the Stanley Cup

Nick Bonino
Nick Bonino and his poor man’s beard will take the Cup. Guaranteed. Photo cribbed from the nest in Brent Burns’ face.

Don’t let the weather forecast fool you. There’s a cold wind blowing in Pennsylvania these days, and it’s guaranteed to land the Stanley Cup right into Pittsburgh for the fourth time in franchise history. Here’s why:

1. Well, duh. They won Game One.

If NHL.com can be believed, the team winning Game One of the final has gone on to win the Cup over 78% of the time.  To be exact, since the best-of-seven format was adopted in 1939, 54 of 69 teams have followed a Game One win with a championship parade.

 

The Pittsburgh Penguins create their own traditions, dang it.
May 26, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly (L) presents the Prince of Wales trophy to Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (14), center Sidney Crosby (C), and center Evgeni Malkin (71) after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to win the Eastern Conference Championship in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2. The Pens are bloody fearless.

When Pittsburgh waved buh-bye to the Tampa Bay Lightning after Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, captain Sidney Crosby didn’t hesitate to touch the Prince of Wales trophy. Where others quail at the prospect of physical contact with a silver bowl not named Stanley, Sid skated right up to Bill Daly and grabbed hold of that bad boy and passed it around like a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged at a young Republicans convention.. Don’t get me wrong: Crosby is hella superstitious; nobody on the team touched the Wales trophy when they advanced to the final in 2008. After losing to Detroit, however, they decided to switch it up the following year. In 2009, Crosby & Co. hoisted the bejesus out of ol’ man Wales, and that’s when they won their third Cup. A new tradition was born.

3. Nick Bonino

The Anaheim Ducks wrote him off, and the Canucks tossed him overboard. Hell, even  in Pittsburgh, Nick Bonino only had 29 points this season. But in the playoffs so far, he’s racked up nearly a point a game and ignited Phil Kessel on perhaps the best third line in this man’s NHL. His game-winner on Monday night wasn’t the prettiest goal you’ll ever see, but young Saint Nick picked a damned good time to put a dagger into the San Jose Sharks.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t include this outstanding call of that GOLAZO by Hockey Night in Canada’s Punjabi play-by-play crew:

He’s not known as a shooter, but he rifled a wicked wrister through Martin Jones with three minutes left in a tight contest. Bonino’s gone from also-ran to core player in a remarkably short period of time in Pittsburgh. Look for the man Raffi calls Boninophone to win whatever Unsung Hero award they give away in Pens land after the lift Lord Stanley’s greatest beer mug.

4. The Pens play a deadly north-south, firewagon brand of hockey.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are able to play on the wall — Glenn Healy is fond of running film that shows off Sid’s low centre of gravity and upper body strength — but they much prefer to skate the puck up the middle of the ice.  When they’re on, boys and girls, these two can create magic out there. Crosby is hungry right now. He knows a Cup this year will cement his legacy as one of the truly great leaders of this generation. It’s a banner that’s drooped since Jonathan Toews and Drew Doughty have put the Blackhawks and Kings on their backs over the past few years, so Sid is doing everything in his considerable power to shuck the “not a playoff performer” label he’s managed to acquire since consecutive final appearances in ’08 and ’09.

As long as the puck is moving back and forth, the Pens will scrub the Sharks into scoreboard submission.

Prediction: Pens in 6.

Coming up tomorrow: San Jose will win the Stanley Cup.

2016 Campaign Opens vs. the Rangers with #boomstick…and some early-season dugout clearing?

cano.jpg

Welcome back to baseball, Major League style. Spring training is over, the games that matter (all 162 of them) have begun, and the Mariners find themselves at .500 going into today’s series finale with the Rangers.

Starting the season in Arlington Monday, the Mariners had a nine-year Opening Day win streak on the line. Unfortunately, despite a one-hitter from Felix Hernandez, the Ms lost 3-2. The King issued an uncharacteristic five walks in six innings, and was hurt by two Mariners errors, both in the fifth, which led to the Rangers’ three runs. This was the first time since 1913 when a team lost a one-hitter on Opening Day. Sometimes it feels like the Mariners are apt at being first in categories where one really would rather not lead.

Fortunately, the middle game of the season-opening series with the Rangers had a much better outcome. FOUR Mariner home runs (following two on Opening Day), including a Nelson Cruz #boomstick shot in the fourth, and three (that’s right, three) in the eighth inning off former Mariner Tom Wilhelmsen.

The eighth also featured the Mariners, including new manager Scott Servais, coming out of the dugout after Wilhelmsen appeared to intentionally hit new Mariner catcher Chris Iannetta. Wilhemsen wound up giving up five runs to as many batters in that inning, so he must have been frustrated. But the real story here was the quick response from Mariners players and Servais, who were quickly out of the dugout and yelling at the Rangers. Sure, baseball isn’t hockey, and no punches were thrown, but the passion and fire on display were a welcome contrast to some previous Mariners teams.

Other good stuff: Luis Sardinas hit his first home run yesterday. Robinson Cano now has two home runs, including a monster first-pitch solo shot off Wilhelmsen yesterday.  And the Mariners bullpen threw four innings of one-hit ball, holding the Rangers scoreless after Iwakuma’s exit at the end of the fifth inning.

I told some guy who keeps nagging me about writing Mariners articles here that I think two keys to the season are how 1) Cano comes back from his injuries last year, and 2) how the bullpen performs. It’s very very early going, but so far both of those things look good.

Mariners FanFest 2016: Ziplines, Whitesnake, Kyle Seager…and more!

[Author’s note: yeah, this is what happens when I put a post into draft and then forget about it. Without further ado, we take you back to January…]

This weekend Safeco Field hosted the latest edition of the annual FanFest event, a way for season ticket holder wannabes to take a look at their prospective seats…and for all of the rest of us to have some fan hanging out at the ballpark.

Although the line was longer than I wanted to wait through, the zipline in right field proved quite popular (Yogi’s “no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” is rather apropos). The kids enjoyed walking around the basepaths, snapping photos in the dugout, and knocking whiffleballs over the fence in left field.

The Q&A and autograph sessions with Mariners past and present were popular as always. Jay Buhner and Dave Valle enjoyed some time with Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs, but the highlight today had to be Charlie Furbush, who donned an epic hairpiece and shared some of his best karaoke moves with the fans. Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” was good, but Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” really stole the show, despite some technical difficulties. A brief Kyle Seager appearance (Seager: “Who’s your favorite Mariner?”, Furbush: “You!”) generated a lot of applause as well. Furbush definitely seems one of those guys it would be fun to have a beer with; not sure I could keep up with his singing talents, though.

Every year, as we get close to the start of spring training, fans find themselves searching for signs of hope. Will this be the year the catching improves, the starting rotation holds together, the bullpen solidifies, the infield and outfield defense is where it needs to be, and the hitting is timely? We’ll have more on those subjects soon, but at least from the players at FanFest today, there appears to be some of that impossible-to-quantify team chemistry brewing at Safeco Field this year.

Monday Night Heists

Whitecaps Wednesday

Usually, Whitecaps Wednesday is a time of celebration and mirth and, given the recent results of this town’s MLS squads, one would tend to assume that this week would be no different. However, after an introduction like that, one would need be on their sixth pint not to grasp that this week will indeed be different. Ladies and gentlemen of this fine city: we have a thief in our midst.

News (officially) broke yesterday that a large number of boots had been pilfered from the Whitecaps training facility overnight Monday. Head coach Carl Robinson is none too pleased about it, as relayed to us in the tweet below by the gracious and assiduous @Harjournalist.

32. Thirty-two. THIRTY-TWO! PAIRS! 64 boots in total. You could dress a starting lineup three times over with a different pair of cleats each time, especially if you have that weird goalkeeper on your team who insists on wearing one boot. One could presumably use that number of cleats in place of sandbags in case of a flood.

Continue reading Monday Night Heists

Searching for Starters

It’s a testament to the talent within the Whitecaps’ roster that four integral pieces of their makeup will be unavailable for this evening’s matchup versus the Houston Dynamo. Blas Pérez, Kendall Waston, Cristian Bolaños and Tim Parker will all be on international duty for their respective countries, and as such, allow for the depth of the squad to be truly tested. I’m looking forward to it.

The absences represent a both a significant challenge and a significant opportunity for the club; Parker and Waston have formed into a top central-defensive pairing in MLS while Pérez’s influence on a game was noticeable during last week’s victory in Seattle. He appears to be the solution to the oft-quoted lone striker issue that has afflicted Octavio Rivero with frequency since his arrival to Vancouver last summer. Bolaños, for his part, has yet to  fully adjust to the North American game but has shown flashes of brilliance, including the heady-run that drew Vancouver’s first PK against the Sounders. Nevertheless, he is another one of Robinson’s preferred starter and his absence represents an opportunity for someone else to accrue some quality minutes.

Kendall Waston dives for a ball inside the box. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Whitecaps FC will be without minute-muncher and central defender extraordinaire Kendall Waston versus the Houston Dynamo. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Continue reading Searching for Starters

Sigi Schmid Doesn’t Agree With You

Whitecaps Wednesday

Sigi Schmid, the rotundiest of all MLS head coaches, disagrees with you, and me, and the 21,000 (now more) soccer fans that pack BC Place whenever we have the chance to swear at the Seattle Sounders. Sigi Schmid likes boring soccer. Or, at the very least, “easy” soccer. Those are the only reasons I can possibly fathom for him announcing his desire to “…not play the Whitecaps 100 times” this season.

Now, I’ve always been a selfish kinda guy. I mean, I’m nowhere near Trump levels of selfish and/or pigheadedness and I like to think I’m actually quite compassionate in my own way. But I’m a fellah who likes what I like, will do what I like and I’m gloriously unapologetic about that.  That’s more or less why I don’t have money-burning and time-sucking children. And one thing I do like, is Sounders vs Whitecaps.

Sounders' Head Coach Sigi Schmid aims to disappoint you. - Photo borowed from mlssoccer.com
Sounders’ Head Coach Sigi Schmid aims to disappoint you. – Photo borrowed from mlssoccer.com

Continue reading Sigi Schmid Doesn’t Agree With You

Is Mattocks gone at last?

Darren Mattocks has been as divisive a figure as they come in Whitecaps MLS history. Okay, not Donald Chump divisive — maybe not even as controversial as Camilo — but darn it, Mattocks is up there. With every midfield giveaway, ol’ Darren takes lumps like a mook in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. With every missed net, Southsiders scream at this guy with the relish usually reserved for casual fans who leave before the final whistle.

Darren Mattocks contemplates yet another lost opportunity during a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Darren Mattocks contemplates yet another lost opportunity during a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Mattocks has been linked to trade rumours and transfer talks ever since the 2013 off-season, when he announced on Jamaican TV that he would score 20 goals per season in the MLS, and that “every team in MLS wants me”. My favourite quote: “Vancouver don’t want Darren to leave as yet.”

Well, buddy has scored all of 12 goals since then — he’s never beaten his career high of seven, which he scored in his rookie season — and just about every Caps fan has begged Darren to get the hell outta Dodge at some point. He’s been collecting close to $300K every season to underperform, sulk about less playing time and miss golden chances when he is on the pitch. So, uh, yeah. Today’s rumour piece on VanCity Buzz is ripping up social media round these parts.

Now, he’s been on the block before, and supporters have wound up stunned to see him outlast better players and favourites, like Camilo and Gershon Koffie. Our own Russell Arbuthnot was among the levelheaded pundits who saw the acquisitions of Blas Pérez and Masato Kudo this off-season as a slam dunk reason to cut the fricking cord, already. If he does finally leave the blue and white behind, the club is rid of a player with delicious speed, but also of a drama queen whose attitude has been little but poison the past four years.

Darren Mattocks of Vancouver Whitecaps FC attempts to get round Portland Timbers defender Pa Modou Kah in MLS action. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Darren Mattocks of Vancouver Whitecaps FC attempts to get round Portland Timbers defender Pa-Modou Kah in MLS action. If rumours be true, then they’ll have switched jerseys real soon. (Oh yeah, Kah came from PDX! Remember that?) Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The only downside to Mattocks moving as per this rumour? We’ll still have to see him moping on the bench a couple of times a season with the Timbers-heavy schedule MLS gives the Caps every year. Worst case scenario, Mattocks finally finds the form he displays for the Jamaican national side, and lights it up against Vancouver whenever Portland comes to town.

This deal hasn’t been completed yet, but whoa Nellie, will there ever be some beer-flavoured sighs of relief in supporters groups if and when it gets done.