Month: April 2019

Mandel’s Musings: Mets’ Wheeler and Yankees’ Sanchez Are THE KEYS to 2019 Success

There are certain players on certain teams that are considered bellweather perfomers. On the Yankees, players like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luis Severino are needed and expected to play up to the backs of their baseball cards for the Bombers to have any chance of winning a championship. On the Mets, the expectations of excellence falls on the shoulders of Michael Conforto, Robinson Cano, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. Without those four achieving at high levels. the Mets have no chance to compete for a division title, let alone a World Series championship.

Which brings us to the other key players on the major league roster. The ones who are unpredictable, yet, so talented that if all of their bio-rhythms were in place, their mental and physical health were steady, and they played up to their talent, it would put both of these teams squarely in the race for the big trophy at the end of the season.

Sanchez banged out three homers for Yanks, yesterday

For the Mets, one of the keys, perhaps, THE key to their success in 2019 is Zack Wheeler, currently the number three guy in their pitching rotation.

For the Yankees, it is Gary Sanchez, the sometimes moody catcher with Hall of Fame skills but not always Hall of Fame focus and concentration.

Yesterday’s games showed us just how crucial these two players are to the fortunes of these teams.

The Mets know what they will be getting from deGrom and Syndergaard when they start games every fifth day. The question mark remains Wheeler, who was the second best pitcher in baseball from the All-Star break through October in 2018.

Wheeler, who was a number one draft choice, sixth overall pick, by the San Francisco Giants in 2009, has always been viewed as a potential ace, with a 98 mph fastball with movement, sharp breaking ball, and a flexible, live arm that could take the mound every scheduled outing and dominate opposing teams.

Sanchez, who broke into the majors and made himself an immediate Hall of Fame candidate after his first half season in 2015, has had more ups and downs in his still-young career than any future Hall of Famer should go through. Most of those downs have been of his own making, through not being able to understand or accept the tough love former manager, Joe Girardi, the old catcher, tried to impart to Sanchez the finer points of the game, especially, defensively.

Girardi was fired, some say, because of his relationship with Sanchez, in an era of players having more power than a manager.

But yesterday, we saw what Sanchez, still only 26, can do with a bat in his hand. In an era when any offense from a catcher is welcome but not necessarily expected by major league teams, the “San-chize” hit not one, not two, but three home runs in Baltimore. He drove in six runs. And, the Yankees had another cakewalk against the sad Orioles, 15-3.

He now has six homers in the season’s first 10 games, and looks to be a happy player.

Oddly, after the game, no one expressed shock at yesterday’s output from the young slugger. His teammates have seen him do this before, in bunches, as a rookie and in his second year. Last year, he hit .188. Nobody seems to know why yet, most baseball observers still consider his hitting talent to be the best in the Yankees lineup.

The dilemma with Sanchez is, we know he’s one of the scariest hitters in the game, when he has access to his full compliment of physical and mental capabilities. The question is, how do the Yankees keep him happy and thriving?

With Sanchez bashing, the Yankee lineup, is one in which nobody can be pitched around. It becomes a nightmare for opposing pitching staffs and it will lead to a season of fastballs for everybody, 1 thru 9.

Yesterday, Wheeler pitched against the Washington Nationals in a style reminiscent of the first eight years of his career. He lost his command on his fastball and curve, he lost his control, walking a career-high seven batters in five innings. He generally looked lost out there, a huge disappointment to a Mets organization that has been re-structured from top to bottom by new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen. But still, at the major league level, this team is programmed to be dependent on its pitching arms.

Without Wheeler pitching with some semblance of his talent level, the Mets will turn into a version of the old Milwaukee Braves slogan, “Burdette and Sain, and pray for rain” from the 1950s:

“deGrom and No (Syndergaard) and pray for snow.”

Right now, the Mets are praying for the light to go on again for Wheeler. If it doesn’t, you are looking at Stephen Matz and Jason Vargas needing to pick up the pace to about 15 wins apiece. A tall order which almost guarantees a disappointing season for the Mets.

Archives: 2009: A 24-Year Old LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, One Year from Free Agency

Mandel’s Musings: Knicks Fall Again to James and Cavaliers

New York – Lebron James took his show on the road tonight to play in front of a jam-packed Madison Square Garden that included several players from baseball’s world champion New York Yankees, this town’s role models for what a winning franchise looks like. In stark contrast, James and his Cleveland Cavaliers were matched up on the court tonight with New York’s leading role model for a losing franchise, the New York Knickerbockers, who continued their dreary early-season play in what may turn out to be the dreariest of seasons as they were blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 100-91.

Blown out? A nine point differential? Yup, it was a blowout, not including a late Knicks run in the final five minutes of the game. The Cavs led 40-21 at the end of the first quarter, 63-40 at the half, 77-58 at the third quarter mark and led by as much as nineteen with six minutes in the game and seats emptying quickly until the Knicks went on one of their too little, too late frenetic paces of steals and three point shots being drained before they ran out of game clock. This game was never in doubt.

What is in doubt, however has been the status for next season and into the future for the Cavs’ still-young superstar, James. As usual when the Cavs come to town, the conversation veers from the game itself to the more important question-and-answer game of “Will He or Won’t He” starring LeBron James. While this magical player continues to dominate every game he plays in, the buzz going around this arena remains about whether the Cleveland superstar, playing with an expiring contract, will opt to leave his Ohio roots and decide to play out the rest of his career under the bright lights of Broadway.

At halftime, Yankees pitcher, C.C. Sabathia, here along with several of his championship teammates to bask in the warm embrace of Knicks fans dying to cheer for a winner, ventured the opinion that James would indeed, take his next act to New York.

“I’ve told him there’s no better place to be a winner than in New York,” said the former Cleveland Indian hurler who got to know James as a high profile athlete in that town. “If I’m a betting man, I would say he will be here in New York next year.”

James scored 19 of his 33 points in the first quarter as this game became a huge snoozefest through three and a half quarters. His performance could only make Knicks fans swoon and sigh in a wishful manner.

James came to play on the night the Garden crowd was feted not only with the presence of baseball champions who play to the north of the arena, somewhere up in the Bronx, but with celebrities from many walks of life. Ah, to be young and rich and an admired athlete in the city that never sleeps.

“I got an opportunity to say congratulations to C.C. (Sabathia), A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), Robinson Cano, and Joba Chamberlain,” said James after the game. “Obviously, it was an unbelievable season for those guys and they deserved it.”

James smiled at the thought of being a champion in a city like New York and an arena with the history of Madison Square Garden.

“There is a lot of tradition in this building,” he said. “A lot of great players have been through this building that have laid down a lot of statistical things as individuals and as teams. It is a great building. To be a part of that and be able to play the game of basketball at a high level is great.”

You could almost sense the sighing and wishful thinking may be a two-way street, with James imagining himself as a star in the Big Apple.

“It is a humbling experience for myself,” said James. “You grow up in a city like Akron, Ohio. It is a really, really small city. For me, as a kid, you always wish and dream to be on the NBA level. Now that I am here playing for my hometown team and then be able to go on the road to showcase my talent to people who appreciate the way I play the game of basketball at a high level is humbling. I thank the New York fans. It is great that they really respect the way I play the game of basketball.”

“It’s the atmosphere, here,” he continued. “A lot of stars in the building. It’s humbling to know that you have guys like the Yankees come out and J. Z. You see some of the Giants out here and John Legend and Chris Rock. You almost feel like you’re a performer sitting on the stage and they’re watching you perform.”

You can just tell this kid can imagine himself on the biggest stage of all, lighting up the old arena in a way it hasn’t been lit since Patrick Ewing’s heyday, maybe even further back to the Knicks championship teams of 1970 and 1973.

“When I was a kid, I visualized playing for all the NBA teams,” James said. “There’s a lot of great individual NBA players that I would love to play alongside of and try to contend for an NBA championship. At the end of the day, a max contract doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all about winning. When that day comes next summer, I want to put myself  in a position where I want to win. If I feel a team is capable of winning, I’ll make my decision like that.”

That has to make Knicks fans sink a little, hearing that winning is James’ sole objective in determining where he’s going to play next year. Winning hasn’t exactly been part of the Knicks tradition over the past 36 years or so. That 1973 championship was the franchise’s last.

The Cavaliers are in an interesting position as far as LeBron’s future is concerned. Many of their players, including James, Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, have expiring contracts this year so the feeling is this particular Cavs team won’t have the same look next year, either.

Cavs guard Daniel Gibson had an interesting take on the Cavaliers’ position, given the fact so many of the Cavs’ players have expiring contracts. I asked him if the team’s approach to this season has a little more urgency to it because of the potential of having this team ripped apart after this season.

“I never thought about it until you just asked me,” Gibson said. “We approach it as, right now, he’s still a Cav so we’re not thinking about next year. For us, we need to take care of business right now. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next year in this league. Every year you play basketball, you play for the ultimate goal. The fact that he’s potentially leaving next year, I don’t think any of us are thinking about it.”

Ilgauskas took an interesting position.

“I can see coming to New York to play if you’re leaving a team to play for the Yankees, already a winning organization,” said the seven-footer they call Z. “But, coming to New York to play for a struggling team like the Knicks? I’d rather stay in Cleveland where I know I have a chance to win.”

Somehow, I don’t think the Knicks will be trying to sign Ilgauskas anytime soon.

Knicks fans will have to hope when next July comes along, and LeBron is sitting on his porch in Akron, Ohio pondering his next career move, he’ll think about what he can accomplish in an offense devised by Knick coach, Mike D’Antoni, a man most NBA players would take a discount in pay to play for because of his wide-open offensive schemes.

At this point, as we watch the Knicks record fall to 1-5, it’s about the only thing they have left to dream about.

Follow Scott Mandel at www.sportsreporters.com

Mandel’s Musings: Yankees, Missing Table Setter, Still Haven’t Fixed Lineup Issues

It’s early, of course, in the 2019 season but the New York Yankees, one of baseball’s favorites to win the World Series this year are looking very much like last year’s team, which fell short in the playoffs for one major reason. Their lineup of home run hitting sluggers was unable to put bat to ball when they faced top of the line pitching rotations like the Astros or the Red Sox.

This season, so far, has that same feel, know what I mean?

The Yanks’ lineup remains the most fearful in the game. From one through nine, a healthy Yankees’ batting order will do damage to most American League pitchers over the course of a season. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks, and Gleyber Torres will all hit more than 20 homers this year. Hell, they’ll all probably hit more than 30.

The question is, how many of these bashers will also hit .280 or better and strike out less than 100 times?

The Yankees dilemma this year is the same as it was last year. Hitting homers in batches, as the Bombers did in 2018 (266 – a major league record) puts fans in the seats, even bringing back the early-arrival fans who enjoy watching these very large men take their pre-game batting practice hacks but, it doesn’t win championships.

But, who are the table-setters?

Nothing wrong with power, in this age of weight-training, protein drinks, and any other enhancements used in professional sports. But, even in 2019, championship teams must possess lineups that include a smattering of hit-to-contact types so the bashers can get big, sweet fastballs to swing at with runners on base. Opposing pitchers prefer to pitch off the plate to big swingers, who tend to feast on fastball strikes but without ideal bat control, can be fooled by pitches that expand the strike zone to include breaking balls in the dirt. Base runners force pitchers to throw strikes, a good scenario for big swingers like Judge and Stanton and Sanchez.

But, who are the table-setters?

The Houston Astros’ second baseman, Jose Altuve, has, at 5’6″, 160 pounds made himself into a superstar by getting on base, not striking out, and making opposing pitchers jittery when he’s taking leads off first.

The Red Sox have Mookie Betts, who also knows how to make contact and does so to all fields with power, despite his diminutive body-type.

Guess which teams won the past two World Series? If you answered the Astros and the Red Sox, you’d be right.

I’m not saying the Yankees should have held onto a popular player of theirs from the past two seasons, Ronald Torreyes, but let’s just say, by getting rid of a “Torreyes-type,” they no longer have a diminutive contact hitter in their lineup who rarely strikes out. Brett Gardner is going to be 36 during this season, and never was a hit-to-contact type with a high on-base percentage. Tyler Wade has a lifetime batting average of .164. D.J. LeMahieu, a solid acquisition during the off-season, doesn’t fit the profile of an Altuve or a Betts, either.

Yesterday, the Yankees beat the lowly Orioles, 8-4. Their offense, third in the American League in strikeouts and at the bottom of the league in stolen bases, has been slumping for several games now.

Once again, the Yanks were in their collective offensive funk against Alex Cobb, the Orioles starting pitcher who will NOT be in the running for the Cy Young award, until the sixth inning. Cobb was treating this Yankee lineup as if he was pitching for the Astros or the Red Sox, in post-season games.

Baltimore, on paper the worst team in the sport, had a 4-1 edge going into the sixth inning, the Yankees lone run coming on, you guessed it, a home run by Gleyber Torres. Other than that, against Alex Cobb, zilch.

It wasn’t until the sixth inning when the pinstripes exploded against the putrid Orioles bullpen for four runs, on, yes, a solo home run by Sanchez and a three-run homer by Torres, his second of the game, coming after two singles by Bird and LeMahieu.

Image result for jose altuve
Altuve is the perfect table-setter for the Astros

Here’s the thing about home runs. They come in bunches and practitioners of the art of home run hitting tend to be streaky. They will hit 10-15 in a month, then, nothing but ground outs and strikeouts for a few weeks. Nobody seems to know why that is. It’s one of baseball’s mysteries that keeps this game interesting. But, it doesn’t help a team when most of its lineup is comprised of precisely those kind of bashers who have their hot and cold streaks during the season, but are especially cold during the playoffs, when the strikeouts and ground outs are almost a guarantee.

Note to Yankees’ General Manager, Brian Cashman: The Yankees will not win a World Series without scrappy, speedy guys with high on-base percentages to set the table for their sluggers.

Where have you gone, Ronald Torreyes?

SportsReporters’ NBA 2019 Mock Draft – Smile Knicks Fans

2019 NBA 1st-Round Mock Draft

1. New York Knicks: Zion Williamson, PF, Duke

2. Phoenix Suns: Ja Morant, PG, Murray State

3. Cleveland Cavaliers: R.J. Barrett, SF, Duke

4. Chicago Bulls: Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech

5. Atlanta Hawks: Cam Reddish, SF, Duke

6. Atlanta Hawks (from Dallas): Rui Hachimura, SF/PF, Gonzaga

7. Memphis Grizzlies: Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt

8. New Orleans Pelicans: Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas

9. Washington Wizards: De’Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia

10. Minnesota Timberwolves: Coby White, PG/SG, North Carolina

11. Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga

12. Charlotte Hornets: Keldon Johnson, SG/SF, Kentucky

13. Boston Celtics (from Sacramento): Sekou Doumbouya, SF/PF, France

14. Orlando Magic: Romeo Langford, SG, Indiana

15. Miami Heat: Bruno Fernando, C, Maryland

16. Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Porter Jr., SG, USC

17. Detroit Pistons: P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky

18. Oklahoma City Thunder: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, SG, Virginia Tech

19. San Antonio Spurs: Bol Bol, C, Oregon

20. Indiana Pacers: KZ Okpala, SF/PF, Stanford

21. Boston Celtics: Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky

22. Boston Celtics (from Los Angeles Clippers): Talen Horton-Tucker, SF, Iowa State

23. Utah Jazz: Tre Jones, PG, Duke

24. Portland Trailblazers: Daniel Gafford, PF/C, Arkansas

25. Cleveland Cavaliers (from Houston): Naz Reid, C, LSU 

26. Philadelphia 76ers: Ty Jerome, PG/SG, Virginia

27. Brooklyn Nets (from Denver): Jordan Nwora, SF, Louisville

28. Golden State Warriors: Matisse Thybulle, SF, Washington

29. San Antonio Spurs (from Toronto): Cameron Johnson, SF/PF, North Carolina

30. Milwaukee Bucks: Dylan Windler, SF, Belmont

Duke’s Krzyzewski, 73, Did Not Coach His Team Like a Hall of Famer

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 44-year career is legendary in every conceivable way. He took a moribund Duke program in 1980 and firmly entrenched it among the all-time elite basketball schools in the history of the sport.

But, this year, 2019, Coach K dropped the ball.

Despite five NCAA Championships, 12 Final Fours, 12 ACC regular season titles, and 15 ACC Tournament championships, the questions about Duke’s icon are beginning to creep into the whispers among people who cover the sport and, take part in it.

It’s likely that no team Krzyzewski has had in his career contained the high-end talent of this edition of Duke, with three likely top-five picks and four projected first-rounders. Which is why No. 2 Michigan State outslugging No. 1 Duke, 68-67, in the Elite Eight on Saturday will haunt Krzyzewski.

In the one-and-done era, the best and biggest practitioners of the policy have been Krzyzewski and John Calipari, from Kentucky. These two have not run away from the concept of recruiting the very best players in America, most of whom have zero concern with academics or education.

Their sales pitch has essentially felt like, “come to our campus, to our program, to me, the shaper not of men but of NBA basketball players and leave nine months later. You’ll make more money in your first NBA contract at age 19 than 99% of the world earns in a lifetime.”

When asked about the missed opportunity this roster will come to represent, Krzyzewski didn’t flinch.

“To me it’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s not a [disappointing] year. Like, there’s a big difference. Like, this team put themselves in a position to go for it and had a chance for it. And, so, it’s disappointing that they didn’t get there. But I’m proud of them.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski pauses while answering questions at a news conference after losing to Michigan State in a NCAA men's East Regional final collage basketball game in Washington, Sunday, March 31, 2019. Michigan State won 68-67. (AP Mark Tenally}
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski pauses while answering questions at a news conference after losing to Michigan State on Sunday. (AP)

Williamson could well go down as the last truly transcendent college basketball star.

Williamson all but said he’s leaving for the NBA after the game, which is about as obvious as the color of the White House. The same is expected for Barrett and Reddish, who’ll both be gone in the NBA’s top five.

The caliber of Duke’s young talent failed to overcome the roster’s lack of depth and the inconsistency bred from injuries. And on Sunday, after 16 lead changes and seven ties, Duke couldn’t overcome a Herculean effort from Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston and a clutch 3-pointer from Kenny Goins to win the game with 34 seconds left.

Fittingly, it was Winston dribbling out the game’s final seconds as Duke failed to foul trailing by a point. Winston sprinted away from Williamson, the final snapshot of a day where they just couldn’t keep up with his 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and just one turnover.

Krzyzewski kept going back to Winston – the MSU star junior’s experience, his decisions, his resolve. Krzyzewski heaped infinite praise on Winston, calling him, “the best guard we’ve played against.” He doubled down on nearly a half-century of coaching to say Winston had “as good a performance as any player has had against us.”

When Duke won the national title in 2015, it highlighted Krzyzewski’s coaching paradigm shift. That team featured Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, all of whom skipped through Durham for a year before ending up being picked in the top 25 of the NBA draft.

At that Final Four, Krzyzewski bristled at the notion of Duke mimicking the blueprint of Kentucky’s program. But in reality, they stole Kentucky’s gameplan and got better at it, with this team’s 32 victories and No. 1 overall seed the supposed culmination of an evolution.

“This season has been a movie, honestly,” Williamson said amid the last cluster of cameras he’ll face in a college locker room. “Lights, camera, action, basically. Like ever since we arrived here on campus.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 31: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts in the locker room after his teams 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson (1) of the Duke Blue Devils reacts in the locker room after his team’s 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans on Sunday. (Getty)

The one-and-done era essentially began after the NBA stopped allowing high schoolers to enter the league following the 2005 draft. In that time, Villanova’s model of building through veterans, defense and a culture of player development has proven more successful.

To decree this season a failure would be too bold. But it was clearly a missed opportunity, and perhaps Coach K’s last chance to coach a juggernaut to the national title. There will never be another Duke team under Krzyzewski with as much high-end talent as this one, which will fill Krzyzewski with as much regret as any loss in his career.