Sunday, April 15, 2018

April baseball is filled with blizzards and down time

The backyard.
It's April 15, and it hasn't stopped snowing for two straight days. Hello, blizzard of 2018.

This also means that the Minnesota Twins haven't played much baseball lately. They beat the White Sox at home on Thursday, the start of what was supposed to be a four-game series at Target Field. Instead, the final three games of that series were postponed (not canceled; there's a difference) because of inclement weather. In this case, "inclement weather" means there was a gigantic blizzard that hit the Twin Cities.

First, Friday was a mix of cold temps, sleet and rain that contributed to the game getting called off for the night. At that point (and even earlier in the week), everyone pretty much figured Saturday's game wasn't going to happen, with the snow arriving later Friday night. Yes, Saturday was also postponed as of that morning.

Sunday was initially questionable, because who wants to postpone three games in a row? But as the feet of snow kept falling, they canned Sunday's contest late Saturday afternoon. The White Sox could head out for their next road series in Oakland (enjoy!) while the Twins flew down to Puerto Rico Sunday afternoon to prepare for their two-game series there against Cleveland this week.

Oh, and last Sunday's game was postponed, too. That was against Seattle, a day after the coldest game in Twins history was played. The Twins already have four postponements on their schedule - and again, it's only April 15. The season just started.

Of course, it's been a very odd start to the season, thanks to the weather. When they've played, the Twins have been good. Jose Berrios has pitched well; he tied his career-high with 11 strikeouts in the first-and-only game against the White Sox. Joe Mauer reached the 2,000 hits milestone that same night, and it was cool for him to accomplish the milestone in front of the home crowd on a chilly April evening.

They opened the season in Baltimore on March 29 and lost in extra innings, but they recovered to win the series. They split a couple games in Pittsburgh, where the weather wasn't much better than Minnesota with heavy snow flurries and wind for the game-two night game.

The Twins won their home opener on April 5 to start a 10-game homestand with a few home runs in a 4-2 victory over the Mariners. Technically, the homestand is a season-long 12 games, since the Puerto Rico games are considered home games for the Twins. Still, having the Twins play 10 games in April to start their home schedule is kind of asking for the baseball-weather gods to screw you over.

With spring really not arriving at all so far, temperatures have been frigid for the brave fans who venture to the outdoor ballpark. Note: I will not get into a stadium debate in this blog. The coldest game in Twins history was 27 degrees at first pitch. The Twins lost to Seattle 11-4 that day. Technically, it was series split since the finale was postponed.

April 7, 2018: The coldest Twins game in history.
When the Twins start play in Puerto Rico, they'll hold a 7-4 record with 11 games played in 19 days. That will be the fewest number of games played in baseball, I believe. Let me also point out that the Twins aren't the only ones that have had weather issues this season. On April 15, no team from the American League Central finished a baseball game.

There are plenty of off days to start anyway. With each team's home opener in a cooler city, there's an off day after the opener. So, the Twins had two off days after they played the first games in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Then there was the off day after the home opener. They also have two off days built in around the Puerto Rico series.

It's just a strange start to the season, for all involved. First, they started the season in March. Then it's just been tough to get into a rhythm with so much cold weather and days without a baseball game. Because even when games have been played, the only relatively nice weather the Twins have experienced was in Baltimore. They came home to host the Mariners and then took two-of-three games from the defending-champion Houston Astros the beginning of last week.

Of course, there's nothing anyone can do about the weather. We just have to react to it and try to plan accordingly. In baseball terms, that usually means making up games with doubleheaders and taking away previously-scheduled off days to get the games in later in the season.

It's disappointing because the start of the baseball season is exciting. Opening Day is always fun and full of anticipation. Players are looking to get started on the right foot with their seasons individually. Teams hope to gain some momentum on their way to a division title or playoff berth at the end of 162 games. To borrow from a quote in car racing, you can't win a race on the first lap (April for baseball), but you can lose it.

It's just frustrating to not get the season started without a bunch of weather getting in the way. Here's to hoping better weather and more victories are in the future!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A closer look at my own personal March Madness

One of the things I often tell people when discussing my work is that I love all the different things I get to do. It's true. I stay busy with a variety of different assignments and beats from a variety of different media outlets. Plus, there's the social media side of things, too.

It's never more evident than this time of year when tournaments are plentiful and the baseball season is on the horizon. There's basketball, hockey, even some state swimming/diving. I enjoy staying busy trying to cover as much as I can, or as my schedule will allow.

This past week, I started out with some spring training updates from home for the Twins. It hasn't been the best week for the Twins in terms of wins-losses and plays in the field, but it's spring training, and I don't think there's been this level of optimism with a Twins offseason in a very long time. Safe to say the anticipation of the season and building on last year's wild-card playoff game is pretty high.

State hoops: 3A quarterfinal
By Wednesday, I got set up at Williams Arena to kick off the girls' basketball state tournament with a Class 3A quarterfinal game between Alexandria and eventual-champion Robbinsdale Cooper. I'd seen Alexandria play a little bit during my time in Fergus Falls since they often played each other in the section tournament. Their coach Wendy Kohler is one of the most animated and fun to watch along the bench. Cooper had a storyline with fourth-year coach Kiara Buford, a former Gophers player who also won back-to-back state titles with St. Paul Central. Her younger sister Jada was just one of the stars on this year's Cooper team.

Sometimes quarterfinal games at the state tournament level can turn into blowouts, and I was glad this wasn't the case here. Alexandria held a lead for much of the first half before top-seed Cooper took over for a 58-51 victory. Afterward, Kohler was diplomatic in her comments about tournament seeding and saying she doesn't agree with it but respects the Minnesota State High School League. Her team was unseeded and faced no. 1 seed Cooper in the first game; Kohler advocated for a 1 through 8 seeding system, rather than the 1-5 system in place now.

Deja vu
Thursday, I had the same assignment from a year ago: The Class 3A, Section 6 boys' basketball section championship game. The opponents were the same, too, in 2-seed Orono and 1-seed and six-time defending state champion DeLaSalle.

This game between the Spartans and Islanders was played in front of a full house at Chanhassen High School that included Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino; he was there to watch two of his recruits face off against each other in Orono senior Jarvis Thomas Omersa and DeLaSalle senior Gabe Kalscheur. The teams were introduced as the six-time defending Class 3A state champion DeLaSalle and the Orono Spartans, "the home of the Class 1A boys' hockey champions." I thought it was an interesting touch.

The crowd was much bigger than last year, and I'm wondering if either school had a girls' hoops team playing at state at the same time, or if there was just that much more interest in the future-Gopher matchup. Either way, it was an outstanding section final, just like the year before when DeLaSalle won by three points.

The teams were tied at the half, giving an early indication of just how competitive they are against each other. It was a tight game of runs for most of the way, with the scoring staying close. That is until Orono opened up a 12-point lead with just a few minutes to play. I started preparing to write the "Orono upset" story. Related: I should have known better.

The Islanders came back down the stretch, thanks in large part to Kalscheur's clutch shots, including a trio of 3-pointers inside two minutes remaining that got his team within two points, within one and then tied the game with 13.9 seconds left. He just kept answering; he ended up with a season-high/game-high 38 points.

It sure looked like overtime was on the horizon (which is not very friendly for my print deadline, I think to myself selfishly). But as time was expiring, the officials called a foul on Thomas Omersa with less than a second left on the clock. It sent DeLaSalle senior Christian Dickson to the free throw line, and the two shots gave the reigning champs an 80-78 victory. A comeback filled with experienced players, and a heartbreaker for the Spartans who fell short yet again.

More girls' hoops, different venue
I was back on the state tournament beat by Friday evening, this time from the floor of the newly-renovated Target Center. I haven't covered much at this Minneapolis venue, so it was fun to be on the floor on press row getting a close look at the game. I had back-to-back games, covering the Class 2A semifinals.

First, it was Sauk Centre taking on Norwood-Young America. Team names are always fun from some of the schools around the state. I think Awesome Blossoms from Blooming Prairie is still my favorite, but Sauk Centre has the Mainstreeters. Sauk Centre had to come back from a halftime deficit in their quarterfinal win over Byron, and the coach mentioned after Friday's game how similar they two contests were, at least at the start.

They were tied at the half 23-23 but used a 16-2 run in the second half to take control and coast to a 54-45 win to keep their perfect season alive. For NYA, their coach mentioned after the game that they've been to state three of the past four years, and Sauk Centre has ended their championship hopes each time (twice in the quarterfinal before this year's semi loss).

In the second game, the defending-champion Roseau Rams needed a comeback victory to beat Maranatha Christian Academy (a team that moved up from Class 1A and making its ninth straight state appearance overall). Maranatha led by five points at the half and used free throws to keep pace early in the second half when both teams when for a long time without a field goal. Kacie Borowicz just couldn't miss in the home stretch, and she scored a season-high 40 points.

The Rams won 78-66 to get a rematch with Sauk Centre in the title game.

All the sports 
Those were just my experiences with sports. So many other things happened (in no particular order, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something):

  • Gophers women's basketball won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2009 
  • Gophers men's hockey will not make a trip to the NCAA tournament after a perfect storm of events
  • St. Cloud State lost the NCHC Frozen Faceoff
  • A 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time ever 
  • Everyone's bracket is busted
  • Two girls' basketball teams finished with undefeated seasons (Sauk Centre in Class 2A and Eastview in Class 4A)
  • Minnesota United kicked off its season
  • The Wild swept the season series against the Vegas Golden Knights
  • The Vikings wined-and-dined and signed a quarterback, but I don't think much has been written about that
  • Legendary race car driver and IndyCar team owner A.J. Foyt is apparently O.K. after a second attack by killer bees on his Texas ranch
  • IndyCar kicked off its season last Sunday with a race in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sebastian Bourdais, who sustained severe injuries in a horrific crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during 2017 Indy 500 qualifying, won the race.
  • Tennis from Indian Wells

They don't call it March Madness for nothing. Next up: Bring on baseball season!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Like sports? This is your time.

It's tough to find a busier time of the sports year than late February and early March. Well, I suppose it depends on what sports and levels you follow, but there are plenty of options.

Let's see, there's spring training for Major League Baseball. Pitchers and catchers reported on Valentine's Day this year before the game schedule got going. The start of baseball season can be something that sneaks up on you, especially for those that live in wintry wonderlands like Minnesota. It's always fun to have the anticipation of the season ahead - even if the lineups feature a lot of high-numbered jerseys.

Hockey and basketball are still in full swing with their regular seasons. Plus, teams have trade deadlines and playoff pushes to think about, which keeps fans interested if their team is any good. The Wild just won their season-high fifth game in a row and have moved into third place in the Central Division in the NHL - before losing to the league's worst team in Arizona. The Timberwolves are trying to end a lengthy playoff drought.

The NFL is in that brief in-between period following the Super Bowl and before the draft. Oh wait, the Scouting Combine is this week. Never mind. Football really doesn't seem to have an offseason.

Racing, hoops and tourneys
In the racing world, the Daytona 500 to kick-off the NASCAR year is already behind us. This year, Danica Patrick, with her beau Aaron Rogers in tow, crashed out to end her NASCAR career. Don't worry; she'll be at the Indianapolis 500. Speaking of IndyCar, the open-wheel drivers start their season in St. Petersburg, Fla. on March 11. (One of these years, I've got to change some priorities and make a Florida trip with a St. Pete-spring training combo.)

Of course, the true March Madness goes back to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The bracket-busting is just around the corner, also a time when work productivity goes down as basketball fans stream games and check the scores online. It's also the one time of year when people pretend to be hoopster fanatics, even though they haven't watched a single minute of a college basketball season. But hey, sports can be a social event, so it's all good.

This time of year is also filled with high school state tournaments. It starts with girls' hockey, the one tournament in February that really can catch you off guard in a "already?" kind of way. On the bright side, it starts weeks of playoff games with section and state tournaments for all the other winter sports. Actually, I'm forgetting the skiing which comes before girls' hockey, but that's not something I've covered so it's out of sight, out of mind. Not to diminish the sport by any means.

From the sports I've covered, it's developed into a bit of a routine of what to watch. There's girls' hockey, then boys' swimming and diving (wrestling is the same weekend), the most prestigious boys' hockey tournament in the country, followed by the girls' and boys' state basketball tournaments.

This year had one other sporting event to the mix: The Olympics.

The world comes together for sports
Every four years, the Olympics come around for some winter entertainment, too. I remember when the Olympics would come on TV as a kid. It was a little different then without a billion cable channels and social media to keep the world over-updated on all the events happening. Anyway, I remember my parents encouraging me to watch the Olympics because they only came around every few years - and I could watch Rugrats any time.

It was always fun to watch them. There are so many events that are unique to the Olympics. For instance, how often do you watch ski jumping or speed skating on TV?

I didn't get to watch as much as I would have liked, a result of covering so many sports myself. I kept up the most with women's hockey, probably because I covered Team USA in December when they played Canada in St. Paul. Oh, and if you haven't heard, goaltender Maddie Rooney played for Andover, Minn. (!), plus I wrote a story about her during her senior season. #humblebrag

Anyway, I watched most of the first couple games which started at 1:40 a.m. Central time. The night owl in me didn't mind. I caught the third period, overtime and shootout in the gold medal game against Canada before writing something up for ZoneCoverage.com.

That was probably the best moment of the Olympics for Team USA. Well, that and then the men's curling gold medal later in the week. I know that was a huge feat as well; I just still am not well versed in the curling rules and strategy, so it was hard to get into it. (I was also falling asleep after covering the girls' state hockey tournament for four days.) But all the congratulations to the Minnesotans who led the way.

I also watched some figure skating and some other random ski/snowboarding events. I saw Shaun White win his gold. I watched the USA figure skaters take bronze as a team. I started thinking about what a difficult journey it must be to get to the Olympics and then win a medal. This competition isn't like the Stanley Cup or World Series that happens annually.

These medals are given out for performances every four years. That's a long time to train, practice and sacrifice for just one shot at victory. And what if you mess up? What if you're not at your best that day? To me, it's almost unimaginable how much goes into these performances, physically and emotionally. Let alone the fact that I don't know how these athletes do it. The heights, the strength needed, the ways your body has to move and bend.

I applaud them, because I couldn't even manage a cartwheel after years in dance classes.