Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thankful for writing, and for those that believe in me

It's Thanksgiving. So, insert the obligatory comments about how quickly this fall has come and gone, how it has already felt like winter outside for a month and my annoyance with Christmas-everything starting in mid-October.

I also know that when life (read: the freelance sports reporter life) gets busy, sometimes the result is neglecting this space. I always come back, even if the posts are more spaced out than I'd like. Anyway, since it's the holiday and all, I started reflecting on everything I've done the past year. The sports I've written about, the profile stories, the Tweets, the baseball games. All of it.

So, I decided to put together a bit of a list here, which is much more reader-friendly than the Xcel spreadsheet I use to keep track of my assignments.

Here are some of the notable items I've covered and where my work has appeared this year, in no particular order. Most of these items below were opportunities presented to me from others who are colleagues, friends or have read my work. It's humbling to put it all together like this, and I'm grateful.

As always, thanks for reading.

Minnesota Twins social media. I was back for a third season on Twitter, and the Twins went from 103 losses to a Wild Card spot. It was another great season. Plus, this time we started a trail-mix tradition in the press box. I also helped out again with Twins Fest over the winter and even got to help with Twins Caravan for a week. For the first time, I went on the road, covering the games in Milwaukee.

State tournaments. It's worked out that I've become a regular on some of the state tournament beats for the Star Tribune. I've covered tennis (boys and girls), swimming (boys and girls), volleyball, adapted soccer and hockey (girls).

Prep sports. I covered a variety of (mostly) hockey and basketball games for SportsEngine.com throughout the winter sports season last year. It was usually a couple games a week throughout the metro area focusing on lots of different teams. Live scoring, Tweeting, interviews and writing. Kudos to the local coffee shops and McDonald's where I could set up after games to write. I also write occasional feature stories on prep sports for the Star Tribune.

Gopher sports. This one was cool because I had the chance to cover a sport where I didn't have as much experience as some others. I wrote a couple columns a week about Gopher men's basketball for 1500ESPN.com. Just last week, I covered a regular season Gopher men's hockey game for the first time. I've covered the Big Ten Tournament before, but I think this was my first time covering just a regular old hockey game at Mariucci (excuse me, it's now 3M Arena at Mariucci).

Chicago Tribune-Pioneer Press features. I continued my work as a remote freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune's Pioneer Press. It's a lot of phone interviews (and sometimes confused coaches, until I explain) and working in the downstairs office at home. As a result, I wrote a piece that will stay in my proudest-clips file for quite some time: A profile about a swimmer named Tural Erel and his road to recovery after a beach accident. This took some extra work with interviews and writing, but I'm really glad my editor pushed me on this to get it done.

ZoneCoverage.com. In January, I joined some friends and local sports colleagues at a relatively new venture, ZoneCoverage.com, a local sports website. I mostly write about the Minnesota Wild, providing columns and writing about whatever else I want regarding the team. I also covered the boys' state hockey tournament last spring. This season, I've started writing game previews and recaps as well.

USAHockey.com (via Red Line Editorial). Some more remote features for this national website. A lot of fun profile work here, and I enjoy telling some of these great stories from those in the hockey world. This fall, I touched base with some hockey programs in Houston, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. I also wrote some features about the USA Hockey Sled Classic.

National Institute for Social Media. I wrote a guest blog post this past summer about how Twitter has changed a sports reporter's job.

The Athletic. If you haven't heard of it, The Athletic is a new subscription-based sports website with plenty of local and national content. Michael Russo went from the Star Tribune to The Athletic as a Minnesota Wild beat writer. As the site has grown, he's brought on a bunch of local freelance writers to cover the Twins, college sports, Vikings, etc. He asked me to join the freelance ranks. I wrote a St. Cloud State hockey preview and a feature on Krissy Wendell. I already like the freedom of the word count, plus it's another great place to tell some great stories.

Minnesota Hockey Magazine. I've worked with this publication in the past, and I wrote a story about youth hockey for their magazine this fall about Warroad - Hockeytown USA.

Children's books (via Red Line Editorial). This was probably one of the most exciting and worthwhile experiences of the last year. I'm now a published author with two books out: Women in Sports Media and Women in the Olympics. I have two more that are in the publishing process. It was definitely a learning experience, especially with the sports-media book, which touched close to home for me. I was overwhelmed by the support of family and friends when I shared a photo of the sample books I received on social media.

Follow me on Twitter @hlrule to follow along with the sports I cover and my latest writing.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Homers and pitching the name of this World Series

Some people have compared this year's World Series to the 1991 seven-game classic between the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. It's hard for me to make a true comparison, since I don't recall the '91 Series, but the Minnesotan in me says that is still better than this contest between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers. It's all about loyalty.

Anyway, this year's series has just about everything - including a Game 7 on tap for Nov. 1. It doesn't get much better in sports than a winner-take-all game 7. The Dodgers won Game 6 at home by a 3-1 margin Tuesday night. Two teams that won 104 (Dodgers) and 101 (Astros) games during the regular season will play for one shot at the championship.

I'd like to go through and write about all the clutch home runs in this series, but that seems impossible. There have been a record number of homers hit in this postseason, with one game to go.

Take Game 5 the other night in Houston in a 2-2 tied series. It ended in 10 innings and five hours, 17 minutes after the first pitch. The Dodgers jumped out to an early 4-0 lead off Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, and it looked like the pitcher's duel with Clayton Kershaw wasn't meant to be.

Except that was far from the whole story of the game. The Astros tied the game 4-4 with a three-run homer from Yuli Gurriel in the fourth. Then, Cody Bellinger put the Dodgers back in front with a three-run homer in the next half inning. 7-4 Dodgers lead. Jose Altuve answered back in the bottom of that inning - the fifth - with a three-run homer of his own. 7-7 game.

George Springer made a poor decision in center field in the seventh, diving for a ball that should have been a straight-up single. Instead, the ball got by him allowing the go-ahead run to score and the hitter to end up at third base. So naturally in a game like this, Springer came up the next inning and hit a home run to tie the game on the very first pitch he saw. 8-8 game.

To keep it short here, Alex Bregman hit a walk-off single. The final score was 13-12 in 10 innings, with the Astros winning. Eleven total runs were scored from the seventh inning on.

This game, and the series, must be tough to watch for fans of either team. Fingernails are probably bitten off by now. But for the average baseball fan like me, this series has been so fun to watch. With Game 5, I was all in - for most of the night. Once the game hit the later innings and double-digit runs, I grew weary of the constant run scoring and therefore lack of pitching.

Pitching is a different animal in the postseason
The completely different way pitching is managed in the postseason is catching up with baseball. During the 162-game season, the rotation is typically five starters with plenty of rest in between. The bullpen is managed in a way to give guys rest when they need, like not pitching in four straight games, for example. Closers pitch the ninth inning and look to get three outs; this also varies slightly with extra innings and the occasional four- or five-out saves.

That seems to go out the window in the postseason. Staff aces pitch on three days rest. Other starters come out of the bullpen in the mid-to-late innings to help out. Six-out saves are routine for closers.

I can see the benefits here. Managers want their best pitchers in key situations to get outs. That makes sense. But at the same time, they're asking guys to do more than they have all season, so it shouldn't be shocking when home runs are given up, saves are blown and pitchers given in to the pressure.

It's happened with Ken Giles for Houston, who is throwing batting practice. Kenley Jansen for the Dodgers is a dominant closer, but even he's faltered this postseason.

However the pitching is managed, it hasn't necessarily taken away from some great baseball throughout this postseason.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

It was all about that 1st inning in Wild Card loss for the Twins

"The Twins just can't beat the Yankees" is a tired narrative. Sure, it might be correct considering the Twins are 2-13 against the New York Yankees in recent postseason memory. I just think to leave it at that doesn't tell the whole story of the 8-4 Twins loss in the AL Wild Card game Tuesday night.

It's one ball game, and the Yankees were the better team, so they won. Pretty hot take right there, I know. But this wasn't like the Twins v. Yankees games of old where it ended with a late-inning homer or extra-inning heroics from the Pinstripes. Even if it's still a loss.

The analysis of why the Twins lost can go many directions. I think it comes down to the first inning (yes, which lasted 45 minutes). The big concern for the Twins coming in (OK, at least for their fans) was hoping the offense could do something, especially early, against the Yankees pitching which started with their ace Luis Severino and includes a dominant bullpen.

Twins needed early scoring. They got it. 
I felt confident all the way that the Twins could make some noise with their bats. After all, they got to Severino a couple weeks ago for three early runs. Never mind that the Twins went on to lose that game 11-3. The Twins did what they needed to with the bats right away Tuesday night. Brian Dozier hit another leadoff home run, his 35th of the season and apparently the first postseason leadoff homer in Twins history. Dozier's energetic trip around the bases immediately sent a burst of energy through the dugout and undoubtedly fans all over Twins territory.

Eddie Rosario followed up with a two-run homer to make it a quick 3-0 lead. That's a pair of homers for two guys in their first career postseason plate appearances.


Eduardo Escobar singled and Max Kepler doubled to put runners at second and third with just one out in the inning. Advantage, Twins. That's when Yankees manager Joe Girardi lifted his ace and turned to his solid bunch of arms in the bullpen. Girardi was highly praised for this move after the game, though I thought it was a little over hyped. I understand why this was an unconventional move, but it's also a winner-take-all game, so the rulebook gets a bit skewed here.

Byron Buxton and Jason Castro each struckout to end the inning and leave two valuable runs in scoring position. It felt very much like a wasted opportunity, but it still wasn't so bad because the Twins still had that 3-0 lead.

A tale of two half innings
Then Ervin Santana came to the mound in the bottom of the inning. He walked leadoff batter Brett Gardner, and that unfortunately set the tone for the rest of the script. Rookie superstar Aaron Judge singled putting two runners on for Didi Gregorius. With a full count, a pitch from Erv got too much of the plate. The Derek Jeter replacement didn't miss, sending the ball to the right-field seats to tie the game with one swing. 3-3.

It seemed like a backbreaker at the time, and even morseo after the game. The Twins batters did everything right to get an early lead, and it was erased just like that in the bottom of the inning.

Santana, a pitcher who started the season with a near non-existent ERA and five complete games on the year, didn't have his best stuff. He last two innings, giving up a solo homer to pesky Gardner for a 4-3 Yankees lead in the 2nd. The Twins turned to Jose Berrios who went three innings and struckout four. He pitched alright considering the stage and situation. Unfortunately, he was tagged with the loss after a Judge two-run homer was the ultimate dagger for a 7-4 lead. The final run scored on a bases-loaded walk off the arm of Alan Busenitz.

An uphill climb versus the 'pen
The Twins couldn't solve the Yankees bullpen, which wasn't a huge surprise considering the success those arms had in September. As each inning passed, the task was tougher and tougher for the Twins to surge to a comeback.

Fans were treated to a Buxton highlight catch though, as he jumped up to snag a flyball against the center field wall. Unfortunately, he came out of the game a couple innings later with a back injury. There's always a moment of breath-holding when Buxton dives, leaps and crashes for his catches. They're great to see, but it's also potential for injury. Just be careful, Buck!


Buxton's replacement was Zack Granite, a native of Staten Island. His big moment of the game was forgettable. He hit a grounder and ran through - and over - the first-base bag. The fielder dropped the ball at the base, so Granite was alertly tagged out as he tried to scamper back to first base. Yes, this was not a proud moment. Though I would not agree that this was a major reason for the outcome of the game.

Tough ending to a great year 
It was disappointing that the Twins weren't able to move on to face the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS. It was disappointing to see this team lose to the Yankees in the postseason, yet again. It was also disappointing because so many didn't seem to even give the Twins a chance at all.

Still. You have to enjoy and applaud the 2017 Minnesota Twins season. They are the most improved Twins team in history, going from 59-103 to 85-77 for a 26-win improvement. It can't be said enough: They're the first team in MLB history to make the postseason a year after losing 100 games.

The Twins hit more than 200 homers this season, good enough for the third-best in Twins history. Guys like Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Dozier, Rosario and Escobar all had great seasons at the plate. Joe Mauer finished with a batting average over .300 and is a solid candidate for a Gold Glove at first base. Guys like Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger and Busentiz out of the 'pen turned into solid options for manager Paul Molitor.

There were walk-off wins, games with six and seven Twins homers, grand slams and overall just a winning atmosphere for a team that just wouldn't die. It was a great run in 2017. Remember that.