Categories
SPORT SPORT_MLB

MLB hitters slow out of the box to start 60-game season

NEW YORK (AP) — Two-time defending NL batting champion Christian Yelich has a long way to go if he wants a three-peat. The Milwaukee Brewers star is 1 for 27 to start the season, an .037 average that’s worst among qualified hitters.

Not by much. Houston’s George Springer is batting .048, and teammates Jose Altuve — another two-time batting champ — and Alex Bregman aren’t much better at .174.

It’s not just those big names. Coming off a condensed preseason camp for a 60-game season truncated by the coronavirus pandemic, hitters are stumbling out of the batter’s box.

“At this point, just like you see in spring training, the pitchers are a little bit more ahead of the hitters,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said Wednesday.

The league-wide batting average after Wednesday’s games is .229, down from .252 last season even though the National League adopted the designated hitter for this season. The all-time low for batting average is .237, set in 1968, “the year of the pitcher.”

Strikeouts are up for the 15th straight season — 24% compared to 22.4% in 2019, if you exclude pitchers from last year’s tally. Meanwhile, the home run rate is down a year after extra-slick baseballs helped produce a record 6,776 big flies.

It’s no sample size fluke, either. Batters have taken over 6,000 plate appearances.

And although hitters often start slowly in March and April, this collective slump is far worse than anything seen in recent years.

The reigning World Series champion Nationals have been among the clubs struggling most. The team has scored two or fewer runs in four of six games to start the season, and the Nationals were shut out through nine innings in one of the others before breaking out in extra innings.

The absence of Juan Soto, a star slugger sidelined since opening day by COVID-19, is part of the problem. But Martinez thinks the three-week summer camp is a bigger one. Not only was the preseason schedule half the length of a usual spring training, but clubs could only set up a few exhibition games to get ready for opening day.

“You can simulate all the games you want, but when the season starts, everything amps up,” Martinez said. “Guys are throwing a little harder. So these guys have just got to catch up and their timing’s got to catch up.”

The St. Louis Cardinals entered Thursday with only one hitter batting better than .250 — slugger Paul Goldschmidt, at .316.

Manager Mike Schildt also believes abbreviated preseason camps are a culprit, but not the only ones. Many indicators of the offensive struggles, including a rise in strikeouts and drop in batting average, are continuations of trends already underway.

“There’s multiple factors why pitching has been able to stay ahead of the curve, so to speak, over the last several years, with a lot of different reasons,” the reigning NL manager of the year said. “Clearly the shifts. A lot better clarity on how to pitch guys, the matchups, and, of course now, we have deeper bullpens that create more opportunities for different looks for hitters.”

The DH hasn’t helped, even as it’s created at-bats for sluggers like the Mets’ Yoenis Céspedes. NL players slotted into that position have hit just .210 with 14 home runs in 511 plate appearances — production that wouldn’t fly even for a second baseman.

Part of the problem might be that pitchers are throwing harder than they usually do at the start of the season. Average fastball velocity over the first week was 93.3 mph, compared to 92.9 in March and April each of the past three seasons, per FanGraphs.

Not that pitchers haven’t been affected by the unusual start. Houston’s Justin Verlander, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Texas’ Corey Kluber and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg have all been injured during the first week. There was concern that pitchers might get hurt ramping up without a full spring training.

Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell thinks hitters will find a grove eventually. He certainly hopes so: Yelich and the Brewers are hitting .198 as a team, one of four clubs stuck below the Mendoza line.

“I don’t think five games in probably is the right sample for that necessarily,” Counsell said.

Brewers general manager David Stearns does wonder if pitchers might hold their advantage throughout the season, but he needs more time to be convinced of that.

“It’s possible that because pitchers were maybe for the most part able to keep their arms going during the shutdown while it’s much tougher for hitters to see quality live pitching in a quarantined environment, that could have something to do with it,” he said. “If this keeps going for another couple of weeks, then maybe that’s the reason. But it also could turn on its head here pretty quickly.”

Categories
SPORT SPORT_NBA

James’ layup late lifts Lakers past Clippers, 103-101

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers showed some rust.

They knocked it off with time to spare.

Anthony Davis scored 34 points, James had the go-ahead basket with 12.8 seconds left and the Lakers moved closer to clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by topping the Los Angeles Clippers 103-101 on Thursday night in the second game of the NBA’s re-opening doubleheader.

James had 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists to help the Lakers move 6 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers in the West with seven games remaining. Kyle Kuzma added 16 points.

“It felt like a real game to me, two teams battling. … Can’t complain for the first game,” Davis said.

Paul George had 30 points and Kawhi Leonard scored 28 for the Clippers, who had an 11-point lead midway through the third in a game with deep ebbs and flows. The Clippers got that lead after a 26-5 run; the Lakers immediately rebutted with a 36-14 run to reclaim control.

And it still came down to the final moments.

George’s 3-pointer with 1:50 left cut the Lakers’ lead to 99-98. James muscled his way to a layup on the next possession, and then George hit another 3 to tie the game at 101 with 29 seconds remaining.

James followed his own miss down the lane for the go-ahead basket, then was brilliant on the last defensive possession — forcing the ball out of Leonard’s hands and covering George as his 3-point try at the buzzer misfired.

“We can’t have self-inflicted wounds and I thought we had too many of them,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose team — which remains short-handed with Lou Williams still in quarantine and Montrezl Harrell tending to a family matter — gave up 29 points off turnovers.

Thursday marked the NBA’s first game action in 141 days, the league getting back to work after the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown.

During the pandemic, a renewed discussion about racial injustice happened in this country — the conversation that surrounds this NBA restart. The courts have “Black Lives Matter” on them, and the Lakers and Clippers knelt together during the national anthem in a silent protest to demand equality. New Orleans and Utah did the same in the night’s opener.

James — who is going to win his first assist title — had five in the first quarter to get teammates going, and then his first basket of the restart came on a dunk early in the second quarter to put the Lakers up 37-24.

But for a stretch that basically spanned a full quarter, spanning the second and third periods, the Lakers couldn’t make a shot. They went 1 for 10 to end the half, then 0 for 9 to start the third and the Clippers took advantage.

They turned a 50-40 deficit into a 66-55 edge in the third. And then it was the Lakers’ turn to rally, slicing the Clippers’ lead to 77-76 going into the fourth.

“It was a good game,” Leonard said. “Still had fun out there. It was great to be back on the floor.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: The Clippers had won 11 of their last 12 games in the state of Florida. In both of those losses, Dion Waiters played for the winning side — the first being a game in Miami. … Leonard was charged with two offensive fouls in the first quarter, the first time in his career that happened.

Lakers: The Lakers got to the 50-win mark for the 33rd time in franchise history, and this is the 12th time that James has helped a team get to that many wins in his 17 seasons. … James’ 3-pointer with 8:30 left extended his NBA record of consecutive regular-season games with at least 10 points to 989.

CELEB ROW

NBA players are permitted to attend games in the bubble as fans — with their seats 6 feet apart to satisfy social distancing rules. Among those who attended: Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.

Categories
SPORT SPORT_NCAA

SEC goes to conference-only schedule, Sept. 26 start

The powerhouse Southeastern Conference reconfigured its schedule Thursday to include only league games in 2020, a pandemic-forced decision that pushes major college football closer to a siloed regular season in which none of the power conferences cross paths.

The SEC’s university presidents agreed on a 10-game schedule that eliminates all nonconference opponents and begins Sept. 26. The SEC championship game, originally scheduled for Dec. 5, will be pushed back to Dec. 19, 13 days before the College Football Playoff semifinals are scheduled to be played on New Year’s Day.

While some scheduling plans are still to be sorted out among Power Five conferences, it is growing more likely this season’s playoff teams — if there is a playoff — will be selected without the aid of nonconference games involving Power Five teams.

Each SEC team will have a midseason off week in this odd, truncated season and Dec. 12 will be an off week for the entire conference. The delayed start for the Southeastern Conference is two weeks later than what the Atlantic Coast Conference set for itself Wednesday, and creates 12 weeks to get in 10 games and determine participants for the SEC title game in Atlanta.

The regular season was originally scheduled to begin on Labor Day weekend, but there was concern among SEC officials the return of students to campus in the coming weeks will spike COVID-19 cases. Conference officials believe delaying the start of the season improves the SEC’s chances to launch.

“We believe these schedule adjustments offer the best opportunity to complete a full season by giving us the ability to adapt to the fluid nature of the virus and the flexibility to adjust schedules as necessary if disruptions occur,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said.

A schedule with new matchups still must be approved by athletic directors and will be announced later. The 14 SEC teams normally play eight conference games and four nonconference games, with seven teams in each division. The SEC is keeping its divisional format and each team will add two cross-divisional games.

“Some feathers may be ruffled, but gotta do what’s best for SEC,” Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek said.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced plans to play only conference games. The ACC on Wednesday announced a reworked 11-game schedule that left room for one nonconference game and made famously independent Notre Dame a member of a league for the first time in the 133-year history of Fighting Irish football.

The ACC wanted to allow four of its schools to maintain in-state rivalry games with SEC schools, but now Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, Clemson-South Carolina and Kentucky-Louisville have been canceled.

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said he lobbied to keep the game with the Seminoles.

“We ran out of Saturdays,” he said.

Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart said: “I fully support the SEC’s decision to move to conference-only games, though we are disappointed we won’t have the chance to compete with Louisville for the Governor’s Cup this season.”

The SEC’s decision puts all ACC nonconference games in doubt. The ACC had stipulated it would only allow its schools to play in their home states against non-ACC teams.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have yet to reveal detailed schedules, but both could come as soon as Friday. They are expected to start after Labor Day and likely land on a 10-game model.

Big 12 officials were holding out hope their 10 members would be able to play nonconference games, but options are dwindling. The SEC’s decision cancels LSU’s home game against Texas and Tennessee’s scheduled trip to Oklahoma in September.

Big 12 athletic directors are expected to meet Monday and could have a decision on a schedule then. The conference could try to keep some of its games against non-Power Five schools. Currently, Kansas (against Southern Illinois) and Oklahoma (against Missouri State) are slated to play Aug. 29.

The SEC’s move inward is yet another blow to Group of Five schools and those in the second tier of Division I football known as FCS. The SEC was scheduled to play three dozen home games against those schools, paying out millions of dollars that help keep programs running.

The SEC was set to pay about $36 million to Group of Five schools like South Alabama and Kent State, and another several million to FCS schools this season for providing a break from playing in the toughest conference in the country.

The SEC has produced 10 of the last 14 national champions and never missed the College Football Playoff, but coaches from other conferences often complain about the league playing only eight conferences games while others play nine.

“Playing 10 SEC games is going to be unique and different and it’s going to be a challenge,” Stricklin said.

During a 24-hour span in college football, Notre Dame football joined a conference and SEC teams decided they would play more games against each other.

If the pandemic relents and the 2020 season can be played, it might be the oddest in the history of college football.

Categories
SPORT SPORT_MLB

All quiet till Rios HR in 13th lifts Dodgers over Astros 4-2

HOUSTON (AP) — After a testy, noisy game in the series opener, all was quiet between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros on Wednesday night.

Until the loud crack of Edwin Ríos’ bat for a two-run homer in the 13th inning lifted the Dodgers to a 4-2 victory.

The teams showed no carry-over from a fracas the previous evening.

“Just playing those guys and everything that went on, obviously there’s a little edge,” Rios said.

No pitches were thrown above or behind any batters, nobody made any ugly faces and everyone remained in their respective dugouts, even as the game became the longest one so far in this pandemic-shortened season.

Rios took Cy Sneed (0-1) deep for a leadoff homer — it was a two-run drive under the new extra-innings rule that starts with an automatic runner on second base.

The Dodgers played without manager Dave Roberts, suspended one game for his part in Tuesday night’s heated matchup that saw the dugouts clear. Bench coach Bob Geren managed the team in Roberts’ absence.

Los Angeles used nine pitchers, but not Joe Kelly. The reliever was suspended for eight games by Major League Baseball after buzzing a fastball behind the head of Alex Bregman, then striking out Carlos Correa and mockingly taunting him by sticking out his tongue and pouting his bottom lip.

Kelly elected to appeal and can continue to play until the process is complete.

The Dodgers won both games in Houston in the first meeting between these teams since it was revealed the Astros stole signs en route to beating Los Angeles for the 2017 World Series title.

“You can tell with the morale in the dugout, everyone was more locked in and wanted to be out there,” LA starter Dustin May said. “We played well in both games.”

Both teams scored a run in the second inning and nobody scored again until an RBI double by Mookie Betts with two outs in the Dodgers 11th.

Correa tied it again with an RBI single with no outs in the bottom of the 11th.

Kiké Hernández started the 13th on second per the new extra-inning rules before Ríos got his first hit of the season after entering as a pinch-hitter in the 11th.

Dennis Santana (1-0) pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings for the win.

“We had a number of opportunties,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said after his team left 15 on base. “We just couldn’t push the run across.”

Cristian Javier gave a strong — and much-needed — performance in his first major league start for a Houston rotation that is without ace Justin Verlander indefinitely. The 23-year-old, who was Houston’s minor league pitcher of the year last season, allowed two hits and one run with eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.

“Javier was outstanding,” Baker said. “He had great composure and control.”

Corey Seager homered to the seats in right field with one out in the second to give LA a 1-0 lead.

Michael Brantley opened Houston’s second with a ground-rule double and scored on an infield single by Myles Straw with two outs.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: Ace Clayton Kershaw (back stiffness) won’t start on Friday, but will throw a bullpen session on Thursday, and Roberts said he expects him to pitch on before this road trip ends. The Dodgers play four games at Arizona starting Thursday and wrap up the road trip with a three-game series at San Diego.

UP NEXT

Dodgers: Right-hander Ross Stripling (1-0, 1.29 ERA) will start for LA on Thursday night in the opener against the Diamondbacks. Stripling allowed four hits and one run with seven strikeouts in seven innings in a win over the Giants on Friday.

Astros: Houston is off on Thursday before opening a three-game series at the Angels on Friday night with right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. (1-0, 3.00) on the mound. McCullers yielded five hits and two runs while striking out six in six innings of a 7-2 win over the Mariners on Saturday in his return after missing last season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Categories
SPORT SPORT_MLB

Yankees make most of schedule change, defeat Orioles 9-3

BALTIMORE (AP) — If the New York Yankees must adjust on the fly to a sudden change in the schedule, there’s no team they’d rather face than the Baltimore Orioles.

Baseball’s weird season reached another level of strange Wednesday night when New York stepped in for the Miami Marlins and ruined Baltimore’s home opener, hitting three home runs to back right-hander Gerrit Cole in a 9-3 victory.

Although the circumstances surrounding this Yankees-Orioles matchup was unusual, the result was not. The Yankees beat their AL East rivals for the 17th straight time since March 31, 2019, and for the 16th successive time at Camden Yards.

The Orioles were originally slated to launch the home portion of the abbreviated 60-game schedule against Miami, but the Marlins were ordered to take a hiatus after several players and coaches contracted COVID-19 over the weekend.

New York was scheduled to play Philadelphia on Wednesday, but the Phillies’ season was put on hold as a precaution because they were Miami’s opponent in the opening series.

So Major League Baseball thrust the Yankees and Orioles together while the Marlins and Phillies recover.

“I thought our mindset was really good,” New York manager Aaron Boone said of the team’s need to change direction without much notice. “I felt like our guys were good to go from the start. Getting here at a decent hour (Tuesday) night was important.”

So was the pitching of Cole, who signed as a free agent in December after a starring for the Astros.

Cole (2-0) gave up three runs and four hits in 6 2/3 innings to win his 18th straight decision, six short of Carl Hubbell’s record streak in the 1930s. He is unbeaten in his last 24 starts.

In the opener, Cole went five innings in a win over Washington. In this one, he was in full control until faltering a bit in the seventh after his pitch count eclipsed 100.

“I thought it was a big step forward,” Cole said. “I liked everything relative to my last start.”

Switching gears from the Phillies to the Orioles was made easier by catcher Gary Sanchez, no stranger to Baltimore.

“We adjusted well. Gary was a huge help in this situation,” Cole said.

After DJ LeMahieu homered off Asher Wojciechowski (0-1) on the game’s second pitch, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks both went deep in the third for a 5-1 lead.

“I thought Asher missed location with the pitches,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “All three were fastballs up or not located down. He got the ball into Judge, but he’s so strong.”

The result was another Yankees blowout win over Baltimore. New York has scored 428 runs against the Orioles over the past three-plus seasons, the highest total in the majors over the span against a single team.

Baltimore played without first baseman Chris Davis, who was not in the ballpark and “unavailable,” according to Hyde. The Orioles do not disclose positive tests for COVID-19, and Hyde would not explain the slugger’s absence.

Davis wasn’t the only one missing from Camden Yards. So were the fans, although this isn’t the first time the Orioles played at home in an empty stadium. On April 29, 2015, Baltimore hosted the White Sox in a locked ballpark because of unrest in the city over the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in police custody.

Dwight Smith Jr. homered for the Orioles, who managed only one hit through the first six innings.

WE OWN YOU

The Yankees have never had a longer winning streak against a team on the road, and their dominance of the Orioles is nearing record-breaking proportions. New York’s road run against Baltimore is two short of the big league record of 18, held by Boston against the Yankees from October 1911-June 1931.

FREE PASS

Baltimore’s Pedro Severino was twice called for catcher’s interference in the first inning, allowing two Yankees to reach base and leading to an unearned run.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Yankees: RHP Masahiro Tanaka (concussion) is scheduled to make his season debut Saturday against Boston. He’s been out since being struck in the head with a line drive in a simulated game on July 5.

Orioles: LHP John Means is expected to come off the 10-day injured list to make his first appearance of the season Thursday night. Means was poised to make his initial opening day start last week before experiencing arm fatigue.

UP NEXT

Yankees: LHP J.A. Happ makes his season debut in the series finale Thursday night. The 37-year-old is three strikeouts short of 1,500 for his career.

Orioles: Means was 0-2 with a 12.27 ERA in two starts against the Yankees as a rookie last year.

Categories
SPORT SPORT_NFL

Malcolm Jenkins doesn’t stop working to create change

Malcolm Jenkins is determined to walk his talk.

The three-time Pro Bowl safety and two-time Super Bowl champion has been on the front lines fighting for social justice and racial equality for years. He backs it up with action.

The latest plans are for the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation to expand its free digital curriculum, Power Pathway Academy. The e-curriculum program offers students exposure to a wide variety of potential careers for both college-bound and non-college bound students such as filmmaking, design, digital marketing, coding, advertising, music, apparel and more through an innovative micro-learning platform designed to engage youth on their devices through culturally relevant learning experiences.

“How do we effectuate change for more kids? How do we get more exposure and more people into our programs?” Jenkins said Wednesday in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press. “One of the ways that we wanted to do that was expand our programming onto a digital platform, a virtual experience that we could share with kids from anywhere, and not just the kids that were physically in our programs.”

Jenkins said he didn’t feel many schools adequately equip students, particularly those in underserved communities, with the knowledge or employability skills required for navigating toward high-demand jobs in a competitive and digital work force.

The coronavirus pandemic made the problem “exponentially worse” so Jenkins’ foundation is fast-tracking implementation of the program.

“We’re creating a curriculum that will teach kids how to become proficient in these digital tools, whether they’re going to college or whether they’re just going right into the work force, but also being able to tell stories of different people who’ve taken different career paths and made it work for themselves in this context and even myself,” Jenkins said. “I started a clothing company. I never went to fashion school, never went to business school. And so teaching kids that they can become entrepreneurs, they can find lanes for themselves outside of the traditional norms, because now nothing’s traditional in this new kind of COVID normal.

“We still need support, corporate sponsors to really help us provide opportunities not only for the kids in Philly, which is where this started off, but we really want to scale it on a national level. ”

Jenkins, the co-founder of the Players Coalition, has been working to do more than protest against police brutality and racism. He’s involved in various initiatives that impact systemic, social and civic change in the areas of police and community relations, criminal justice reform and education and economic advancement in low-income communities.

Jenkins and others players have enlisted the NFL’s help in providing funding to help their causes. More players are following his lead.

“If you’re an athlete anywhere on any level from youth leagues all the way to professional (sports), I think you can look around and see plenty of examples that will show you how much impact athletes can have when it comes to social change and bringing up social dialogue,” Jenkins said. “For a long time, I felt like one of the few who kind of tried to lift up this mantle. But now I’m very, very encouraged because you see this groundswell of athletes across different sports, across different disciplines, really stepping up to the table, organizing and really using their platforms in ways that I don’t think we’ve ever seen in this country, at least on this scale. And so it’s very, very motivating to know that there there is so much energy around guys educating themselves about what’s happening, but also pushing that education into forms of action.”

Jenkins has plenty on his plate as an activist, a businessman and one of the best football players at his position. He also joined CNN this summer as a contributor focusing on racial and social justice and his Listen Up Media company is producing a documentary series on the history of Black wealth in America. Jenkins became the first African-American professional athlete to be named a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Initiative on Global History.

Football remains his passion, even at age 32 and entering his 12th season in the league.

“I love giving back to the community and all of these other things,” he said. “But football is still a game that I love. And it’s really where I find my peace.”

Jenkins is back with the New Orleans Saints, the team that drafted him in 2009, after spending the past six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He became a team leader and fan favorite in Philadelphia, helping the Eagles win the franchise’s first Super Bowl following the 2017 season.

His departure paves the way for Carson Wentz to assume the primary leadership role on the team.

“He’s starting to come into his voice and I think with the exodus of leaders like myself and a couple other guys, it’s going to be interesting to see him now take that bigger role,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s going to be his time to really make it his team and he’s still surrounded by other good leaders as well, Rodney McLeod being one of them who I know will kind of step up to that mantle. But, it’s no doubt about it this is Carson Wentz’s team, and I think he’s ready, poised because he’s been able to really sit back and watch for (four) years now.”

Jenkins is hopeful the NFL will play its season despite concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s definitely not going to be 100% safe,” he said, “but I think we’ve done our best to really put in as many protocols and listen to the health and safety experts as we’ve tried to roll out our plan.”

Categories
SPORT SPORT_NBA

Game on: NBA finally set to see games that count again

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Games were canceled. Practice facilities were shuttered. A season ended unceremoniously for eight teams. The draft process was delayed, as was free agency. Some players tested positive for the coronavirus. Many more took to the streets and used their voices to demand justice and equality as racism and police brutality sparked a nationwide conversation.

The world has changed since the NBA stopped on March 11.

For 22 franchises, however, there is a goal that remains in place.

The NBA, at long last, is officially back. A re-opening night doubleheader inside the bubble at Walt Disney World awaits Thursday, when New Orleans takes on Utah before a matchup of the two teams in the Western Conference — the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.

There won’t be any fans in attendance, health and safety protocols that were painstakingly written in response to the coronavirus pandemic will be paramount, and teams can’t even shower in the arena after games. But after 20 weeks of waiting, wondering and worrying, the 2019-20 NBA season is ready to hit the restart button with a champion scheduled to be crowned in October.

“Nobody’s life is pretty much how they planned it to be at this point with the pandemic, so you take it for what it is,” Clippers forward and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard said. “Everybody is happy that a champion will be crowned this year, and if that’s the 2020 championship, then we want it. You know, that’s how I look at it. This is what the layout is, as far as to go out there and complete this journey.”

The field for the 16-team playoff bracket that will be finalized next month is already largely filled — 12 of the 22 teams at Disney have clinched spots and Dallas is on the brink of another one. It leaves three teams vying for two spots in the Eastern Conference, and six teams for one spot in the Western Conference.

For the front-runners like the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks and West-leading Lakers, the eight remaining games before the playoffs are about tuning up their games. For most of the other teams that have clinched berths, it’s about securing the best possible playoff seed. And for the hopefuls, it’s about finding a way to get into the field and stay at Disney at least a couple weeks longer than planned.

“We want to get back to work,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose Spurs will aim to become the first franchise in league history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances. “We want to do what we’re all used to doing. We want to do as much as we can, safely, to energize the country, to play the games we all love. And as long as we can do that safely, it’s a big win for everybody.”

Starting Friday and running through Aug. 14, there will be at least four and sometimes as many as seven games per day, spread out over a three-arena corner of the Disney complex. There will be many instances where three games are happening at once. And there will be days that have games running for more than 10 consecutive hours.

After no basketball for what seemed like forever, a hoops smorgasbord awaits.

“It’s the biggest and best AAU tournament ever,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said.

The biggest names are here: reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, LeBron James of the Lakers, scoring champion James Harden of Houston, plus the reigning Finals MVP and All-Star Game MVP in Leonard. Of the 25 players on this season’s All-Star rosters, 23 are at Disney and a 24th — Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis — may return if his injured left foot heals.

Toronto lost Leonard and Danny Green to the Clippers in free agency this past offseason — more than a year ago now. And then the Raptors laughed off suggestions that they wouldn’t be good enough to make the playoffs. They enter the restart holding the No. 2 seed in the East, looking every bit like a team capable of another very deep run.

“We’ve been through it,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “We never got the respect before the last couple months of last season. We’re not used to getting pats on the back or flowers, so it’s not really that different.”

There are eight teams not here — Golden State, which went to the NBA Finals in each of the last five seasons before sputtering through an injury-plagued year this season, among them. The others whose seasons ended March 11: Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Charlotte and Chicago.

Ratings for the games at Disney are expected to be big. Every game will be televised, as usual. A sprint to the playoffs is about to begin.

The longest timeout in NBA history is finally over. Game on, again.

“The intensity is going to start to pick up with the games just meaning much more,” Philadelphia forward Al Horford said. “This is the position you want to be in.”

Categories
SPORT SPORT_NFL

AP Sources: Bosa gets $135 million extension with Chargers

COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Defensive end Joey Bosa has agreed to a contact extension that will make him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

Two people familiar with the deal said the five-year extension is worth $135 million, which includes $78 million guaranteed at signing and $102 million overall. The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Tuesday night because the contract has not been finalized. ESPN was the first to report on the deal.

The deal eclipses the five-year, $125-million extension that Cleveland’s Myles Garrett signed two weeks ago. That contract included $100 million guaranteed for Garrett, a defensive end who was the top pick in 2017.

The Chargers confirmed Bosa has agreed to the extension but did not disclose financial terms.

Bosa was entering the fifth and final season of his rookie contract. There was some thought that he would hold out if an agreement had not been reached, but he reported to camp on Tuesday.

General manager Tom Telesco said on Monday that the Chargers were in a good position with salary cap flexibility to get extensions done. The players’ union had Los Angeles with $20.38 million in space, which was in the top 10 in the league, before Bosa’s extension.

The website Over the Cap also estimated that the Chargers would have the second-most cap space going into 2021, even if there is a reduction in how much teams can spend because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 6-foot-5, 280-pound Bosa was the third overall pick in the 2016 draft and has been selected to two Pro Bowls. He tied for second in the AFC last season with 11.5 sacks and has double-digit sacks in three of his four seasons. He was third among defensive ends and second in the AFC with 60 tackles, including 16 for loss. Bosa also had 25 quarterback hits and forced a fumble.

Last year, Bosa became the first Charger since Kevin Burnett in 2010 to record three straight multi-sack games.

Bosa’s extension also prevents the Chargers from having a messy holdout situation for the second straight season. Running back Melvin Gordon didn’t report until the fourth week of the regular season last year. Gordon signed with Denver during the offseason.

Categories
SPORT SPORT_MLB

MLB suspends Marlins’ season through weekend amid outbreak

MIAMI (AP) — Major League Baseball suspended the Miami Marlins’ season through Sunday, and the Philadelphia Phillies will remain idled by the coronavirus pandemic until Friday, while the rest of baseball forges ahead with trepidation.

“There’s real fear, there’s real anxiety for me, for all my teammates,” Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun said Tuesday. “I think we’ve found it very difficult to focus on baseball at all the last couple of days.”

In the wake of a virus outbreak that infected half the Marlins’ team, Braun said MLB players are constantly assessing whether they should keep playing. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said the season could be in jeopardy.

But MLB came up with a patchwork schedule for the rest of this week and said that among more than 6,400 tests conducted since Friday, there were no new positives involving on-field personnel from any team other than the Marlins.

In a statement, MLB said it wanted to allow the Marlins time to focus on providing care for their players and to plan for a resumption of play early next week. MLB also postponed the three remaining games in this week’s Phillies-New York Yankees series.

The Marlins remained stranded in Philadelphia, where they played last weekend. The Phillies-Yankees games were postponed “out of an abundance of caution,” MLB said, although no Phillies players have tested positive.

The Marlins received positive test results for four additional players, bringing their total to 15, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. The person declined to be identified because the results had not been publicly released.

Nine players on the 30-man roster, two taxi squad players and two staff members tested positive earlier.

The Marlins had been scheduled to play at Baltimore on Wednesday and Thursday. Instead, the Yankees will play at Baltimore on those days.

Miami’s three home games this weekend against Washington were postponed. Nationals players had voted against making the trip, manager Dave Martinez said.

“We all decided that it was probably unsafe to go there,” Martinez said. “It had nothing to do with the Miami Marlins. It was all about Miami and the state of Florida, this pandemic. They didn’t feel safe.”

The Marlins underwent another round of tests Tuesday, as their outbreak raised anew questions about baseball’s attempts to conduct a season.

“This could put it in danger,” Fauci said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I don’t believe they need to stop, but we just need to follow this and see what happens with other teams on a day-by-day basis.”

His comments came before word of the Marlins’ latest test results.

“Major League Baseball — the players, the owners, the managers — have put a lot of effort into getting together and putting protocols that we feel would work,” Fauci said. “It’s very unfortunate what happened with the Miami (Marlins).”

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, speaking to reporters in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, expressed reservations about sports such as baseball and football being played during the pandemic, especially in the wake of the Marlins’ wave of infections.

“It seems to me that when you have to travel, when you have to be in a hotel room and places that are different than you’ve been the day before, when you are in a position where you’re walking, going into an area where there is a high concentration of spread of COVID, all those things add up to a real problem,” Biden said, “and we’re not going to really overcome that until we follow science and get a vaccine.”

In Cleveland, Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria returned to the team Tuesday after awakening with some COVID-19 symptoms a day earlier and being isolated for 24 hours.

And everyone across baseball seemed to be feeling uneasy.

“It’s important that we are able to provide a source of entertainment and an outlet for people who are dealing with such a challenging time in their lives,” Braun said. “But at the same time, the health and safety should be the top priority for all of us at all times. …

“You think about all the hotel employees, bus drivers, pilots, flight attendants, anybody else all the Marlins guys might have come into contact with, and it’s obviously scary.”

The Marlins planned to remain in Philadelphia until at least Wednesday. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health said it was working with the Marlins and Phillies on contact tracing to contain the spread of the virus.

“All of our players, coaches and staff are, understandably, having a difficult time enduring this experience,” Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said.

Additional MLB rescheduling during the week of Aug. 3 will be announced later this week. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered up his state to any team needing a place to play.

While baseball deals with its logistical challenges, the NBA and NHL are resuming their seasons in bubble environments, with basketball at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and hockey at Edmonton, Alberta, and Toronto.

The NFL has opted not to create a bubble environment as training camps open this week.

“It might be that they have to go in a bubble,” Fauci said, “but I think they’re conscientious enough and want to protect their players and protect the personnel that they will do the right thing.”

Categories
SPORT SPORT_MLB SPORT_NCAA

MLB outbreak reveals college football’s vulnerabilities

Those working to get college sports up and running have been hoping the return of professional sports would provide valuable information that could aid their efforts to play through a pandemic.

A COVID-19 outbreak for a Major League Baseball team three days into its season forced two games to be postponed Monday and brought a glimpse of how difficult the task will be.

“We’re still learning things and this is a data point, there’s no doubt about that,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “We’re doing what our scientists and doctors are telling us to do. Move forward slowly and constantly re-evaluate.

“I think this will just be the new normal. There will be ebbs and flows and there’ll be disruptions.”

Like MLB — and unlike the NBA, NHL, WNBA and MLS — college sports will try to conduct their seasons outside a controlled, virus-free bubble. The first major college football games in an evolving schedule that should start to come into focus this week are a little more than a month away.

COVID-19 flare-ups have shut down voluntary workouts throughout July at about two dozen major college football programs, including Ohio State, North Carolina, Kansas State and Houston. Last week Michigan State and Rutgers both announced positive tests among players and staff led to 14-day quarantine for their entire teams.

Full-blown practices for teams trying to start their seasons around the Labor Day weekend will begin by early next week.

Greater challenges lie ahead and what happened to the Marlins could be an ominous sign, said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University.

“The biggest thing that I see is this is a demonstration of just how quickly COVID-19 can rip through a clubhouse and a team even in a sport like baseball where practices and games are pretty conducive to physical distancing,” Binney said. “It’s definitely alarming. You have to expect things would look even worse in a sport like football where the practices have contact, the games have contact and you have bigger rosters. Because the virus getting into a team is just a numbers game. The more people you have the more likely it sneaks in.”

The Miami Marlins outbreak rippled through baseball. Not only was their home opener with Baltimore postponed, but so was the Phillies’ game against the Yankees. The Marlins played at Philadelphia on Sunday after several players tested positive and the next day the total number of positive players and staffers was more than a dozen.

When the Marlins or the Phillies will play next is unclear.

Lucia Mullen, an epidemiologist and senior analyst at Johns Hopkins University, said there could be lessons to take from how soon those teams are competing again.

“The next kind of pinnacle that other sports should be looking at is did they find (the infected) fast enough? Were they able to find all potential cases and stop the spread there or have they been too slow in their testing, in their contact tracing, that someone slipped through and we’re going to see more and more cases pop up?” Mullen said. “Because if that’s the case, we’re not testing enough.”

Recent NCAA guidelines recommended testing college football players once a week during the season, within 72 hours of a game. The Power Five conferences are working on their own protocols which make a similar recommendation.

Whether that is enough to prevent outbreaks that shut down teams, especially when more students return to campuses and college towns, remains to be seen.

Clinical aspects aside, college sports could benefit from a few smooth weeks of MLB playing and NFL opening training camps, If pro leagues struggle to keep their teams operating, questions about playing with unpaid college students will arise.

Bowlsby said having worked on bringing back college sports since March he tries to avoid overvaluing singular events such as the Marlins’ outbreak.

“Any good news is welcome. Any bad news is not surprising,” Bowlsby said. “I didn’t have an emotional reaction to it. I think we learned something from it. I was not surprised at all that there were positive tests. There will be positive tests in other sports, too. There will be positive tests on campuses when students return and within athletics programs.

“If it gets to the point where it’s not at all manageable then we’ll have to adjust in real time. And that adjustment could be everything from changes in schedules, changes in current practices to a discontinuation of the activities.”