Cooperstown Legends: Carl “Yaz” Yastremski

I was watching Sports Century on ESPN Classic. It featured the storied career of Carl Yastremski. Yaz spent his entire 22-year career with the Boston Red Sox. A local product who grew up in Southampton, New York he played for Bridgehampton High School. He hit .512 during his high school career. After attending Notre Dame where he had scholarships for baseball and basketball, Yastremski signed with the Red Sox in 1958.

Three years later, he made his major league debut. At age 21, he was considered Ted Williams’ replacement. Patrolling left field at Fenway Park, it wasn’t easy right away. During his first six seasons, he batted .293 and averaged 18 home runs, 65 extra base hits and 83 RBI’s. Respectable numbers. He was already a great defensive player winning two Gold Gloves. But still not what Teddy Ballgame expected. Criticized for not always hustling, Yaz rededicated himself before the 1967 season. Adding a better workout regimen along with a different batting stance that allowed him to become a dead pull hitter, he exploded at age 27. A special year that saw him lead the American League in batting (.326), homers (44) and RBI’s (121) to win the Triple Crown along with AL MVP.

Putting ’67 in perspective, Yastremski paced the junior circuit in 10 offensive categories including hits (189), runs (112) and total bases (360). He also finished with 79 extra base hits and led the Red Sox to the pennant. They lost in seven games to the Cardinals. He did his part hitting .400 with three dingers with five RBI’s. Amazingly, Boston only made the postseason once more losing the World Series to Cincinnati in 1975. Despite some talented teams, Yaz never won a Series. The most heartbreaking year was 1978 when the Yankees came back and stunned them in a one game playoff at Fenway. They held on for a 5-4 win with Goose Gossage getting Yastremski to pop up for the final out.

Throughout his entire career spent with one team, Yaz played in 3,308 games and recorded 3,419 hits. He hit .285 with 452 homers and 1,844 RBI’s. How great was he? Yastremski was an All-Star 18 times during an era when it wasn’t as common for hitters to put up big numbers. In fact, he had three 40-homer seasons and knocked in over 100 five times. He won three batting titles (’63, ’67, ’68) including his first at 23 in only his third year. He hit .321 and led the league with 183 hits, 40 doubles and a .418 on-base percentage. He was a player who reached base finishing better than .400 OBP six times. He also drew over 100 walks half a dozen times including four straight from ’68-71. His career OBP was .379. Known as one of the greatest defensive left fielders, he won seven Gold Gloves.

After finally calling it a career in 1983, he was elected as a first ballot Hall Of Famer in 1989. Voted in in his first year with Johnny Bench, Yastremski received 94.6 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writer’s Association. He received 423 votes while Bench got 431.

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Clock strikes midnight on Blake

 

One Final Bow: James Blake says goodbye to tennis fans at Louis Armstrong after losing his final singles match. Associated Press/Darron Cummings

One Final Bow: James Blake says goodbye to tennis fans at Louis Armstrong after losing his final singles match.
Associated Press/Darron Cummings

The clock struck midnight literally on James Blake. Playing in what turned out to be the final match of his career, the local favorite lost in five sets to Ivo Karlovic. He led the giant server by two sets but couldn’t hang on for one more victory- falling 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-2 before an emotionally charged Louis Armstrong.

In many aspects, it was a poetic script for the 33-year old Yonkers native who played an entertaining style. Blake may never have won a grand slam but he always gave 100 percent every match and appreciated his time on the court. A year after Andy Roddick bowed out, another popular American leaves the sport. He did it with class always taking time to thank the fans who supported him. That included his player’s box who were always in his corner win or lose. As he pointed out to ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez after the match, Blake will get to enjoy the rest of his life with those people. This is a man who gets it. He was given a second chance following a rough time in his life.

It was in 2004 that he suffered a broken neck and partial paralysis after tripping into a net post on clay. Ironically, he was practicing with Robby Ginepri. The two would be intertwined a year later when both made improbable runs at the U.S. Open. For Blake, it was a sad time. His father passed away in July 2004 succumbing to stomach cancer. Miraculously, he recovered in 2005 giving him a second chance. As a wildcard, he upset Rafael Nadal and beat Tommy Robredo en route to an all-American quarterfinal showdown against Andre Agassi. He took the first two sets but never could put away Agassi, who came back to edge him in a tiebreak. A memorable five set epic that’ll never be forgotten. A year later, he pushed Roger Federer in another exciting quarter but fell to the eventual champ in four sets.

In sports, there are winners and losers. Blake is a winner at life. He always handled himself well. A former Harvard student, he came out with an autobiography in July 2007 appropriately entitled Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything And Won Back My Life. It reached number 22 on the New York Times Best Seller List. His is a story of inspiration. Someone who kept battling and reached No.4 in the world two years after his career looked over. Instead, he lasted a long time and went out on his own terms. Blake took one final bow at his favorite tournament in front of the New York crowd. A fitting way to go out.

Even when after he blew a two set lead, Blake had one more trick up his sleeve. Against Karlovic, you can’t lose serve. If you blink first, the set is over. For Blake, it looked like the end when he was broken in the sixth game of the fifth set falling behind 2-4. That meant two holds of serve for the Croatian giant and he’d be in the locker room. He hadn’t gotten a sniff on Dr. Ivo’s serve the whole set. From seemingly nowhere, a resilient Blake won the first three points setting up three break chances. When Karlovic saved all three, you figured it was over. But Blake won the next point with a forehand put away at the net and then converted on his fourth break to get back on serve.

But Karlovic got the first two points in Blake’s next service game putting him back on the ropes. With Karlovic six points from victory, the three-time slam quarterfinalist won the next four points holding for 4 all. Nothing separated the two. Ultimately, Blake forced a deciding breaker. Much like the match he played against Agassi eight years earlier, he was in a tiebreak one final time. Unfortunately, Karlovic grabbed a double mini break and cruised from there. As fate would have it, the big man served his 38th ace on match point. It was close enough for Blake to challenge. But just by his expression, you could tell he didn’t believe it. The replay confirmed that it caught the edge ending his professional singles career. Blake is still entered in doubles with American Jack Sock.

“That ovation makes me realize that everything I did. Every bit of hard work it took to play in front of you all was worth it,” an emotional Blake told the crowd to cheers. “I am lucky enough to be able to still think of this as a happy moment.”

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Djoker and Vika move on

 

Neither Novak Djokovic nor Victoria Azarenka had any trouble in the night session. Both easily advanced to the second round posting convincing straight set wins. In the first match, the number one men’s seed cruised past Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. Djoker had too much for his opponent using only 82 minutes to prevail. He served 10 aces, hit 28 winners and only committed nine unforced errors. Exactly the kind of virtuoso performance you come to expect from the deadly accurate top ranked Serb.

It wasn’t as though Berankis wasn’t hitting the ball hard. He was bashing it but the ball kept coming back from the human backboard. Nole came up with better angles and also let Berankis beat himself. Despite 16 winners, he had 27 unforced errors. A talented player for sure, the 23-year old needs to become more consistent to break into the top 100. Currently ranked 112, he fell under .500 (13-14) for the year. His best career slam result has come down under where he made the third round in 2011 and 2013. His high water mark for singles was No.67 achieved on May 6 this year.

During his on-court interview with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert, the cool Djokovic was patient enough to find out who his next opponent will be. None other than German Benjamin Becker. Best known for ending Andre Agassi’s career. No relation to Boris, the veteran advanced over Czech Lukas Rosol in four sets. He plays hard but doesn’t pose a threat to Nole. Djoker has a pretty manageable draw with classic underachiever Grigor Dimitrov bowing out. The beau of Maria Sharapova, who skipped the Open due to an injured ego- continues to disappoint at the majors. By losing in five sets to Joao Sousa, it marks the third consecutive year he’s been dismissed in the first round in Queens. So much for his 29th ranking. The 22-year old Bulgarian is a mediocre 77-72 for his career.

Azarenka followed up Djokovic with a brilliant performance of her own double bagelling poor German Dina Pfizenmaier in 55 minutes. The match didn’t take long but full marks to the 21-year old Pfizenmaier for continuing to give a maximum effort. She tried valiantly to get a game off Azarenka but was denied 11 times on game points. A stat ESPN tracked thanks to a request from analyst Mary Joe Fernandez.

Vika was just too mentally tough. She came up with all the shots in the win defending brilliantly and going on the offensive. She didn’t have to end many points finishing with one less winner (14) than Pfizenmaier (15). The difference was the No.2 seeded Belarussian’s calm demeanor during key points. She finished off 10 of 12 points at the net and broke Pfizenmaier six times. A strong returner, Azarenka converted 61 percent against her opponent’s serve.

The pumped up two-time Australian Open winner next faces Canadian vet Aleksandra Wozniak, who edged Vesna Dolonc 7-5, 7-6 (5). With Sam Stosur and Dominika Cibulkova going out, it looks like cruise control for Vika. Unless Petra Kvitova gets hot, it should be a cake walk to the semis.

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Who’s Better? Yasiel Puig or Mike Trout

Baseball is still America’s past time. While it no longer has the appeal that it once did in the States, the world is still following the sport with kids in poorer countries playing it. There are still plenty of kids here who grow up hoping to live out their childhood dreams. We just don’t see it covered as much after the Little League World Series. That’s still an unbelievable tournament to follow. College baseball has gotten more exposure on ESPN and other networks. However, the minor leagues remain under the radar. The stars of tomorrow don’t just fall out of the sky. At least normally. There are two exceptions who already are making the headlines.

Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout are players to die for. They’re throwbacks to a different era when star players always ran hard out of the box and hustled 24/7. Too often, we’ve grown accustomed to players loafing and not busting it to first. The most glaring example I can think of is Robinson Cano. Cano is all world. There are few things the Yankee All-Star second baseman can’t do. He can hit and field. Cano is in his prime and in the final year of his contract. He signed on with Jay Z and appears to want to stay put in the Bronx. However, every baseball fan knows it’ll cost an arm and a leg for the Yanks to keep him. Even in a down year when the team isn’t likely to make the playoffs, Cano leads them in all three major categories. With three hits today, he raised his average to .300 with 22 homers and 75 RBI’s. Due to all the injuries, no Yankee comes close. If only the 30-year old from the Dominican Republic took the game more seriously. A star player shouldn’t be so lazy. How many times have we seen him not run hard to first or look lackadaisical in the field? But without him, the Yankees are doomed. They have no choice but to swallow hard and give him between $20-25 million per season. Hopefully, it won’t be eight years. Yankee brass knows full well how risky long-term contracts are. Look no further than A-Rod and even Mark Teixeira.

While we worry over how much it’ll take to retain Cano, fans in Los Angeles are blessed with two special players who are fundamentally sound along with the immense talent they possess. At only 22, Trout is already redefining the position of center field. In just his second year, the Vineland, New Jersey native continues to put up impressive numbers across the board. With a hit in three at bats in the Angels’ 8-4 win over the Yanks this afternoon, he remains second in the AL with a .330 batting average trailing triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera (.360). Trout has quietly gone about it while the Halos struggle. He has 21 homers, 78 RBI’s and 27 stolen bases including today with 32 doubles and eight triples and is easily one of the game’s most exciting players. His defense is equally as impressive making the ’09 Angels’ first round pick a five tool player who’ll be their building block for years while Albert Pujols declines. Close buddy John “JPG” Giagnorio believes Trout’s the best center fielder since Mickey Mantle. It’s still too early to say. Hopefully, he’ll stay healthy and remain consistent. Ken Griffey, Jr. remains my guy. Such a shame that the steroid era featuring cheats like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire overshadowed The Kid. At least baseball is finally trying to clean up the sport.

While Trout resides in the City Of Angels, Puig is equally impressive. The passion the 22-year old Cuban rookie plays with is aw worthy. Ever since he arrived in LA, the Dodgers have taken off. In 63 games, Puig is hitting .368 with 11 dingers and 27 RBI’s. The Dodgers are 45-18 in games Puig has played. He also has seven steals and a ridiculous arm in right. Both his supreme speed and defense were on display in the latest Dodger comeback. To make a long story short, they rallied from 4-0 down to beat the Mets 5-4 in 12 innings. Early on, Puiz threw a dart to nail Marlon Byrd at third. The throw was unreal. He threw an absolute missile to get Byrd, who challenged his arm for the extra base. Instead of a big inning, the Mets settled for one run. Ironically, Byrd would later hit a three-run homer that put the Mets up four. But the Dodgers stormed back with two in the sixth and a ninth inning pinch hit two-run homer from Andre Ethier tied it.

It was Puig’s hustle that was the beginning of the end for the Amazin’s. With one out in the 12th, his line drive snuck past shortstop Omar Quintanilla going off his glove into short center. Within the blink of an eye, a racing Puig forced an errant throw from Juan Lagares taking second. It was scored a double. Even with a good throw, it would’ve been close. Puig dove head first into the bag. A pitch later, he came around to score the winning run on Adrian Gonzalez’ opposite field double down the third base line. In those two moments- his dart to get Byrd and his flat out hustle to set up a walk off- he exemplified why baseball fans are so excited. He is a beast. At 6-3, 245 pounds, Puig is built like a linebacker. He plays the game with relative ease and has a flair for the dramatic. While he was limited to three hits and two runs in the three-game set by the Mets, Puig still impacted a Dodger sweep for their eighth consecutive win. The play of the Dodgers has bordered on insane. They’re an incredible 40-8 invoking memories of the 1951 Giants when they tracked down Brooklyn from 14 back.

At this very moment, Trout’s the more polished of the two. Having been through a full season already, the Jersey kid is more mature despite being a year younger. He also is extremely disciplined at the plate improving his on-base percentage (OBP) to .425 from .399 in 2012. Including today, Trout’s walked 74 times and struck out 95. In his first full year in the majors, he hit .326 with 30 homers, 83 RBI’s and 49 steals. So, his power and speed are a little down but that’s to be expected on a bad team. The Angels are also without Howie Kendrick and Mark Trumbo has regressed into a feast or famine free swinger. Combined with Hamilton’s under performance, it’s no wonder the Angels find themselves 12 under .500.

If there is an area Puig must improve upon, it’s his plate discipline. He’ll go fishing for pitches out of the zone. He’s whiffed 64 times in 242 at bats. He’s taking more pitches walking eight times this month to raise his total to 23. Nobody can argue with the results. He’s 89 for 242 with 47 runs scored and 17 extra base hits (15 doubles, 2 triples) to go with his 11 homers. As he matures, he’ll become even more dangerous at the plate. For now, the state of California boasts the game’s future stars. They’ve already arrived.

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Mickelson wins British Open

It was a memorable final day for Phil Mickelson. He shot a 66 to win his first British Open. Mickelson birdied the final two holes including a perfect putt on 18 that clinched it. He finished minus-3 for the tournament and called it one of the best days he’s ever had. A week after winning the Scottish Open, he made Scotland his personal driving range.

“I can’t explain the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment,” an ecstatic Mickelson expressed to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in the clubhouse after birdieing four of the last six holes to win the third leg of the grand slam. “Today was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played.”

Considering that he trailed leader Lee Westwood by five strokes entering Sunday, it’s one of the most remarkable displays. Most of the focus centered around Tiger Woods, who entered the day two strokes back with Adam Scott. Many expected Tiger to finally get the monkey off his back and break his major drought. Instead, he fell apart finishing with a 74 for two over. That’s 17 straight majors he’s failed to win yet he’s ranked number one in the world. It appears to be psychological. Meanwhile, Mickelson bounced back from another heartbreaking runner-up at the U.S. Open. He’s finished second six times. Phil was three over before the final 18. No wonder nobody gave him a chance. Today, a strong willed Lefty showed resiliency to bounce back for his fifth career major.

“The whole day [Jim Mackay] and I stayed in each shot trying to give ourselves the best chance possible,” Mickelson said. “You need luck but you have to have the right bounces. When I made those putts on 13 and 14 that was amazing. You have to make those putts.”

He did. That included a brilliant approach that kept rolling setting up a crucial birdie on 17. When he drove it, he yelled “Come on,” as if to will the ball to keep going. He nearly eagled it narrowly missing. The birdie put him two ahead with only one hole left. It was his day. He proved that by taking his time to go over the final putt with his caddie MacKay. Then just put enough touch on the 14-footer to sink it to a nice ovation. The best part was his hug for his wife and kids who were there lending support.

”This is such an accomplishment for me because I just never knew if I’d be able to develop the game to play links golf effectively,” Mickelson said. ”To play the best round arguably of my career, to putt better than I’ve ever putted, to shoot the round of my life … it feels amazing to win the claret jug.”

A great day for golf. Good for Phil!

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Yankees lose, Mets win on Opening Day

Jon Niese did it all for the Mets highlighting an Opening Day 11-2 win over the Padres.

Jon Niese did it all for the Mets highlighting an Opening Day 11-2 win over the Padres.

 

Opening Day brings enthusiasm for every baseball fan. That includes the Astros, who actually posted an 8-2 win over their new division rival Texas last night. Even if I don’t consider the ESPN Sunday Night game the true start of the season, Houston is 1-0 and Texas is 0-1. Meaning the Astros were first in the AL West. April Fool’s Day indeed. Everyone wants to believe that a new year can bring hope. April baseball normally doesn’t matter. But it’s always nice to get off on the right foot.

The Mets did it by erupting for 11 runs on the Padres in an 11-2 win at Citi Field. The Yankees didn’t, getting trounced 8-2 by the Red Sox in the Bronx. It’s still funny to see both New York teams open at home at the same time. If you stayed home and channel flipped, it was the best of both worlds. But at the same time, annoying. Even as a passionate Yankee fan, I like to watch the Mets occasionally. They have an interesting ball club that features a nice rotation including flame thrower Matt Harvey, Opening Day winner Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. Eventually, we’ll see Zach Wheeler, who starts in Triple-A Las Vegas along with catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud. It should be fun to follow them.

For the Yanks, it was weird seeing no Derek Jeter. He’s back in Tampa rehabbing. Meanwhile, injured stars Curtis GrandersonAlex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira all were in the dugout. Most of the attention centered around Mariano Rivera. The legendary all-time saves leader received a rousing ovation during player introductions in what will be his final season. It’s hard to believe this is really it for Mo. Once, he was the bridge to John Wetteland in ’96. Then, he took over the closer job and became the greatest modern day reliever. When we do see him out there, the support will be overwhelming. It is indeed special to root for Rivera, who still dons the familiar #42 commemorating the memory of Jackie Robinson. The Robinson family loves that he’ll be the last player to ever wear 42. In a year where the movie Jackie Robinson is out, it seems fitting.

As for the baseball, the Yanks fell behind early against Boston. The Red Sox used a four-run second off losing ace C.C. Sabathia. Ironically, it was the plate discipline of newcomer Jackie Bradley, Jr. that led to CC’s demise. He dug out of an 0-2 hole to work a walk that loaded the bases with one out. Bradley’s speed allowed Jason Inglesias to get an RBI infield hit for the game’s first run. Ex-Phillie Shane Victorino followed with a two-run single and Dustin Pedroia added an RBI single for a 4-0 lead.

The Yanks’ only offense came from catcher Francisco Cervelli. The former Staten Island Yankee delivered a clutch two out single that plated new Yankees Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells. But the story of the day was runners left on base. The Yankee Pinstripes stranded 21. That included a frustrating seventh. Trailing 5-2, they had first and second with no one out for the middle of the order. But Eduardo Nunez took a called third strike, Robby Cano struck out swinging and Youkilis also K’d to end the threat. The Sox put the game away by taking advantage of a Cano miscue to score two of their three runs in the ninth off Joba Chamberlain. Astonishingly, Jacoby Ellsbury was credited for a two-run single even though Cano botched the play. Victorino added his third RBI.

Jon Lester went five for his first win. He wasn’t great but worked in and out of trouble, allowing two earned on five hits with two walks and seven strikeouts. Sabathia also lasted five, giving up all four in the second while walking four and fanning five. He threw 102 pitches and admitted afterwards that he couldn’t put away hitters. But his elbow felt fine. Obviously, the Yanks need better from CC and the pitching staff until they get healthy. Cano must come through. His failure today was a sinking reminder of last October. He did have a hit but needs to deliver. Youkilis looked odd without his trademark mustache and goatee. He doubled in four at bats and made a nice play in the field to cut down a run at the plate. He played first instead of third with light hitting Jayson Nix getting the start at the hot corner.

For the Mets, it was a happy recap. Especially for Niese, who along with pitching into the seventh, was perfect at the plate. The southpaw is now the ace by default after the crushing news to Johan Santana which probably ended his Met career. A shame. Niese acted the part going six and two thirds while permitting two runs on four hits. He walked two and K’d four. He got the job done including with the bat, finishing the day 2-for-2 with an RBI single. Indeed, Niese is batting 1,000. A pretty cool thing for the Amazin’s.

There were plenty of bright spots. Nine of the Mets 11 runs came with two outs. On a day where David Wright knocked in only one and Ike Davis took the collar in five at bats with the golden sombrero (4 K’s), they got contributions throughout. Ruben Tejada busted out of his Spring malaise with a big two out run scoring single. He had two hits and two runs scored. Six different Mets had multi-hit games including newcomers Collin Cowgill (grand slam), Marlon Byrd (2-5, 2 RBI’s) and John Buck (2-4, 2 R, RBI). Second baseman Daniel Murphy also went 2-for-5 with a two out RBI. He batted second behind Cowgill, who GM Sandy Alderson brought in from Oakland.

The Met outfield today was Lucas Duda in left, Cowgill in center and Byrd in right. It’ll be a question mark all season. Kirk Nieuwenheis is on the bench and spark plug Jordany Valdespin can fill in in left and at second. Valdespin had a big Spring to make the team. He can handle the bat and has speed but must be more consistent to play under Terry Collins. Collins will likely shift guys in and out based on match-ups and who’s hot. At least they boast a strong infield with All-Star Wright and Davis carrying the lumber at the corners.

The Mets didn’t sell out their home opener. Part of it’s due to uncertainty from a skeptical fan base that wants to see a winner. Newsflash. It takes time. Patience is the key. At the very least, they have some building blocks for the future. Pitching should be a strength. Harvey goes in Game Two Wednesday with Gee to follow. That’s a solid front three with Jeremy Hefner the No.4 by default. Shaun Marcum is already on the DL, leaving them a little thin. How soon will we see Wheeler? For the time being, the Mets get off to an ideal start on a day Wright was named captain.

 

A couple of quick Opening Day Notes:

-Bryce Harper hit a homer in his first two at bats in the Nats’ 2-0 shutout of the Marlins. Harper is in line for a big year. Thirty homers and 100 RBI’s should be within reach on a team that’s the NL favorite. We’ll see if they can live up to the hype.

-Clayton Kershaw broke a scoreless game between the Dodgers and Giants by going yard off George Kontos. The Dodger ace led off the eighth by clubbing his first career home run that just cleared the center field fence. Kershaw dueled with Giants ace Matt Cain, who tossed six scoreless (8 K’s). Kershaw is still in the game having permitted just three hits while fanning seven. He’ll get a chance to complete it.

-A two-run homer from Anthony Rizzo lifted the Cubs past the Pirates 3-1. Jeff Samardzija (8 IP 0 R 9 K’s) out-dueled A.J. Burnett (5.2 IP 3 ER 10 K’s) for his first win. Hard to believe he’s their Opening Day starter.

-Justin Verlander K’d seven over five after signing a record seven-year $180 million extension with Detroit. The Tigers lead the Twins 3-0. Verlander is arguably the best pitcher. But long-term deals for starters are too risky. Most pitchers don’t last. Look at what happened to the Mets with Santana and Pedro Martinez. Remember that awful contract the Dodgers gave out to Kevin Brown? I’m not a fan of it. So, how much do you think Kershaw will get?

-Speaking of absurd, the Giants signed NL MVP Buster Posey for nine years, $167 million. He’s a catcher. There’s no way he’ll live up to it. He’s already a hero in the Bay area. Eventually, Posey will shift to first.

-UPDATE: The Dodgers tacked on three more to take a 4-0 lead. Kontos is charged with all four runs.

-UPDATE II: It’s a final. The Dodgers shutout the Giants 4-0. Kershaw goes the distance. He was spectacular, needing only 85 pitches (57 strikes) to blank San Francisco. Final line: 9 IP 4 H 0 BB 7 K

Two other quick hits:

-It’s always a joy to hear Vin Scully call a game. He is the best ever. And he still does it solo, using those adjectives to describe the national past time.

-Kevin Burkhardt is still working the field for SNY. Hard to believe no one’s hired him for a better gig. But he still got to interview Emmy Rossum between innings. Never a bad thing as Keith Hernandez noted during the Mets telecast. Hernandez was mustache free. Another oddity.

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The Final Hurrah For Big East

It doesn’t get much better than the Big East Tournament if you’re a college hoops fanatic. It’s hard to believe that this is the last time we’ll see the greatest conference together. Big games are being played at Madison Square Garden. Ask any player or coach and they’ll tell you how much it means to play on the biggest stage. For them, it’s a dream come true. A chance to create a lasting memory under the bright lights.

I’ve been a St. John’s fan my entire life. Raised on the 1985 Final Four team of Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, Mark Jackson, Willie Glass and Bill Wennington along with legendary coach Lou Carnesecca, it was in my blood early on. I can still recall the pain of losing to Patrick Ewing and those big bad Hoyas of Georgetown under John Thompson. They couldn’t beat them. Had they, no doubt they win the school’s only national title. Instead, I’m left reflecting back to rooting for a bunch of upstarts from Villanova with Rollie Massimino roaming the sidelines with that ear to ear grin. His team couldn’t miss that day. One for Cinderella which is what March Madness is all about.

This time of year is special. No matter who you pull for, it’s sensational and “awesome baby” with a capital ‘A’ as ESPN enthusiast Dick Vitale says. I’m a big fan of him because he sees the game for what it really is or should be all about. Not our beloved brackets with money being tossed around like Rihanna. But about the game and the college athletes who work hard to get here. Some schools have already punched their tickets, including local flavor LIU and Iona, who hopefully won’t have a repeat of last year. You want to see them make the Field of 64 when the real games begin. I don’t count the play-ins. Sorry. That isn’t a first round. But to the kids who play in it, do whatever it takes to make it.

As you can tell, no tournament is better. Not even the Stanley Cup playoffs. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love hockey. It just doesn’t compare. It’s one and done. Either you survive and advance or you go home. Maybe that’s why I put more emphasis on the conference tournaments. If you win your conference, that’s a great accomplishment. We may not have made the Final Four in ’86 but Berry blocking Pearl Washington’s shot to give the St. John’s Redmen that Big East championship meant everything. I listened to it on the radio with Dad and we celebrated like kids in our house. This was before cable. The incredible joy is something I can still feel as I write this. I’m one of those people who can go back to a particular moment and replay it. I still smile thinking about it just as I hurt remembering how close they were a decade later against Ohio State. That damn Scoonie Penn.

If you are like me, then you know what I mean. A team that included Ron Artest, Lavar Postell, Erick Barkley, Bootsy Thornton and Reggie Jessie along with Anthony Glover which fell short of reaching the Final Four. That was a heckuva of a team. The greatest moment being Thornton dropping 40 on Duke including that stepback three at Cameron when me and buddy Brian Sanborn were in Atlantic City. You better believe it mattered.

The Big East means so much to me. It’s part of this city. How I wish the Johnnies had a better finish and were still part of it today. Instead, they’re basically done after falling to former Manhattan coach Jay Wright and Villanova, who are chasing the NCAAs. Hopefully, they’ll make it. They have some pretty good wins including beating Louisville at home with Berkeley Carroll’s own Mikey Andria and Olivia Wilson making ESPN. If they don’t, it would be a crime. It’s about these kind of game where one more win can wrap it up. Also, when you have a good coach like Wright saying how sometimes he wished ‘Nova could win the Big East over the NCAA’s, it tells you how significant it is.

Remember that shot Ray Allen made to beat Allen Iverson for Coach Calhoun and UConn? Or Taleik Brown draining one from the Bronx to clinch it for the Huskies. And of course, that six overtime epic with Syracuse outlasting Connecticut. Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. Two coaches who were an integral part of what made the Big East so tough. There are so many memories. Calhoun with a front row seat for Kemba Walker‘s show that didn’t end until the Huskies won it all. And the Gerry McNamara shooting clinic where he carried the Orange to glory a year after Carmelo Anthony led them to their only NCAA championship. It didn’t matter that they got picked off early. This tournament is special. Just as others around the country are.

It’ll be sad when it concludes. Thirty-one years of being together. Next year, they separate. Syracuse and UConn move on while the Catholic Seven keep the Big East name along with new members Butler, Xavier and Dayton. You’ll still have St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, Marquette and DePaul. There just won’t be some of those classic match-ups with Syracuse, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. Of course, Louisville exits but they were never really a Big East school. Notre Dame became one even though I still view them as an independent from the time they and the Miami Hurricanes had all those battles on the gridiron. Amazing to think Miami has been in the ACC as long as they have and now Notre Dame might follow them.

The games are still special. Whoever wins will etch their name in history.

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The Difference between the Celtics and Lakers

Kevin Garnett takes flight in the Celtics' 116-95 win over the Lakers.Copyright Getty Images

Kevin Garnett takes flight in the Celtics’ 116-95 win over the Lakers.
Copyright Getty Images

 

Tonight, the Lakers visited the Celtics in Beantown, renewing the NBA’s greatest rivalry. For many years, we’ve seen the best of both illustrious franchises. Even though I can’t stomach either, it is always a battle between two teams who hate each other.

The Lakers have played better since Dwight Howard revealed a torn right labrum that’s kept him out recently. Urged on by critical teammate Kobe Bryant with Pau Gasol sidelined over a month, Howard returned to Hollywood’s lineup. Maybe they’re better off without him. The Lakers were blown out by the Celtics 116-95, snapping a three-game win streak. They lost by 21 to fall four games under .500 (23-27). They currently sit 10th in the West and trail eighth place Houston by three and a half games with 32 left.

Howard had an ineffective game, finishing with nine points, nine rebounds and four turnovers in 28 minutes. Dwight “Stage Fright” fouled out and clanged five of six free throws. Ironically, in an interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that appeared on Sports Center, he admitted that he thinks about all the critics who say he can’t make them when he’s at the charity stripe. Howard even said he was a ninety percent free throw shooter in high school. Let’s repeat that. NINE-TY PER-CENT!

Everyone who’s seen Howard knows he’s a disaster at the line. A career 58.2 free throw shooter entered shooting 49.6 percent. For all those stat masters, that percentage dropped. In 44 games this season, he’s fouled out four times. The Lakers are 1-3 in those games, losing their last two. Ironically, he fouled out in his Hollywood debut in the season opening loss to Dallas. If you care to remember, Los Angeles lost their first three in the Howard Error Era. In what’s been a chaotic season full of turmoil, the purple and gold have been over .500 three different times with their last at the end of 2012. By our count, the Lakers are 21-23 with Dwight and 2-4 without him.

While the feud between Kobe and Howard grows, here are the Celtics minus one of the best point guards in Rajon Rondo. All they’ve done is win their first six minus their floor leader, improving to 26-23. They rank seventh in the East. A half game better than Milwaukee. You want to see how they did it tonight? By sharing the ball. In a game six different Celtics reached double digits, half a dozen also dished out at least three assists. A total team effort from a more desperate club who’s playing for the postseason. Here’s the breakdown:

Assists     Rebs     Pts

Pierce, Paul                  7            24

Bradley, A.                     5            10

Garnett, K.                     5            15

Lee, Courtney                5            13

Bass, Brandon   1              4             8

Green, Jeff         1               3            19

Terry, Jason       3              4            15

Barbosa, L.         3               5             0

Collins, Jason    1                1              2

Wilcox, Chris     0                9             8

Melo, Fab            0               0             2

 

Team Totals:      25            48           116

 

The Celtics as a team had 25 assists and only turned the ball over nine times. By comparison, the Lakers had 16 assists and 12 turnovers. If you’re curious, Kobe didn’t drop one dime, finishing with 27 (9-15 FG) and four turnovers. A mystifying line. Steve Nash paced LA with five assists and Steve Blake handed out three. Darius Morris was the only other Laker to record more than one. Unselfish basketball was the difference.

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Hey Francesa, Leave ‘Dem Kids Alone

Birthday boy Mikey Andria enjoys the college experience during Villanova's big upset of Louisville.

Birthday boy Mikey Andria enjoys the college experience during Villanova’s big upset of Louisville.

 

Villanova upset Louisville last night 73-64. It was an exciting win for the Wildcats in front of a pumped up home crowd who stormed the floor. Apparently, this was too much for WFAN radio host Mike Francesa. He began his show Mike’D On by trashing excited students who dared to celebrate their school’s big victory on ESPN.

Apparently, Villanova students shouldn’t have stormed the court due to the Cardinals’ home loss to Syracuse on Saturday, which snapped an 11-game winning streak. Last I checked, Louisville was ranked No.1 before losing a close game against the Orange, who boast future lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams. It wasn’t a lock they’d win in the most competitive conference, the Big East. The Cards only had two losses entering Tuesday’s game against a ‘Nova team that entered 11-7 (2-3 in Big East).

The Wildcats aren’t what they once were. They were unranked and facing a top five team who has championship aspirations. Yet Francesa continues to moan about this. He’s wrong. It’s college athletics. Why shouldn’t excited kids such as Mikey Andria experience the excitement of campus life? Basketball is a huge deal. Especially in the Big East. Don’t forget that games such as yesterday are going to come to an end when Villanova leaves the conference along with other Catholic institutions like St. John’s and Seton Hall to form their own league.

If it was Francesa’s alma mater St. John’s, he’d say nothing. I went to St. John’s too and love when they pull off a big upset like last week against Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden. Fans should be able to express themselves. They’re in college. Four of the greatest years. If I went to a game now and sat in a student section on top of the court, you better believe I’d be part of the celebration.

It was nice to see Villanova get a huge victory and see them mobbed by classmates. Stick to football Francesa.

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Isner pulls out of Australian Open

American hopes dwindled. At least on the men’s side, don’t expect much in the first tennis grand slam of the year. The Australian Open is three days away with first round matches starting Sunday night on ESPN. That’s really a day later down under.

That’s because top American seed John Isner was forced to pull out of the Australian due to an injury. The biggest server in the game is suffering from bone bruising in his knee. The No.14 ranked player will miss the slam, leaving Sam Querrey as the top highest ranked American left at No.22. Isner tried to play through the pain at the last Australian warm up at the Sydney International. After losing to fellow American Ryan Harrison in straight sets 6-4, 6-4, he decided he couldn’t play on. Prior to this week, he skipped the Hopman Cup.

So, this didn’t come out of left field. This time, injury is Isner’s latest disappointment. Last year, he reached the third round. Despite his monster serve and forehand, Isner remains a work in progress. He’s only made one grand slam quarterfinal and this latest setback isn’t the start he wanted to a new season. Following the Australian are some key hard court events before the clay season this Spring. Hopefully, he won’t be out a long time.

The Australian Open released its draws. Unfortunately, both Harrison and Querrey are in defending champion Novak Djokovic’s quarter. If Harrison wins his first round, he’ll likely meet Djokovic in the second round. Djokovic faces Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round. He’s projected to face Querrey in the Round of 16 if the talented American can get through a section that features No.15 Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka along with veteran American Brian Baker. It looks like it’s lights out for our country.

Sadly, only five male players are representing the stars and stripes thus far with veteran James Blake one of several Americans trying to come through qualifying. UPDATE: He lost to Donald Young in the second round. This is the harsh reality without Andy Roddick, who retired at last year’s U.S. Open. He lost to Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro in four sets. Roddick was our last grand slam winner when he won his only major at the ’03 Open here in NYC.

Other American hopeful Mardy Fish will miss the Australian with a heart ailment. He’s the hardest working player we have but is a giant question mark for 2013.

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