Friday, September 15, 2017

A little bit of everything in Twins' record-setting night

Sports can bring about the unexpected, which definitely makes the games worth watching. You can predict all you want. It doesn't compare to the real thing.

At the start of their homestand Tuesday night, the Minnesota Twins did something that no other team had done before in the history of baseball. That's right. In the history of baseball, not just "since year xyz.." They hit seven home runs in the first seven innings of their romp of the San Diego Padres.

The home runs accounted for 12 of the 16 runs in the Twins 16-0 shutout of the Padres, their second such blowout victory in just a couple weeks. They also beat the Royals 17-0 the last homestand. Both games had Kyle Gibson on the mound, and he pitched well. Tuesday, he surrendered just four hits and didn't walk a batter through six innings. The bullpen finished it off with three hitless innings. 

The pitching was an afterthought though. Let's get to the real excitement: The homers. 

1st inning: Brian Dozier, solo, 370 feet to right
2nd inning: Jorge Polanco, two-run shot, 396 feet down the left-field line just staying fair 
3rd inning: Jason Castro, two-run shot, 355 feet clearing the wall in left
4th inning: Eddie Rosario, two-run shot, 393 feet to the bullpen
5th inning: Jason Castro, solo, 409 feet to left for his 2nd of the game
6th inning: Eduardo Escobar, solo, 427 feet over the right-field seats and to the plaza
7th inning: Kennys Vargas, 3-run shot, 430 feet to the second-deck in right-center 

(Distance estimates via the Twins.)

It was also the first time the Twins have ever hit seven homers in a game at Target Field (history that goes back a modest few years to 2010). Since they hit a homer in seven innings, they obviously also scored in all seven innings as well. Not exactly something you see every day either. 

Vargas, who came into the game at first base for Mauer as the September-baseball, blowout-game subs entered the game on both sides, absolutely crushed his home run to the second deck in right-center. It came with two men aboard and was the final scoring of the evening. 

The Twins were unable to hit another homer in the 8th. It was a boring 1-2-3 inning. Gabriel Moya made his Major League debut in the 9th to complete the shutout. 

Everything seemed to happen in the same game. Since Brian Dozier hit his 29th home run a few games back, I've been waiting for his 30th to note his special place in Twins history. He's the fifth Twin to hit 30 home runs in consecutive seasons, joining Harmon Killebrew (of course), Bob Allison, Gary Gaetti and Justin Morneau. 

Dozier's homer was another leadoff homer, his 8th of the season and 27th of his career, which extends his team record. 

Niko Goodrum, also into the game later on, got his first Major League hit with an infield single in the 7th after starting 0-for-10 in his career. The crowd, no doubt on adrenaline from the powerful night at the plate, gave Goodrum a standing ovation as he walked back to first-base bag with a shy smile on his face.

They had the defense covered, too. Zack Granite made a spectacular leaping catch against the center field wall after he came in to replace Byron Buxton. It definitely took away an extra-base hit, if not a home run, from the Padres. 

It's nice to see Buxton isn't the only one the Twins can rely on for some of these highlight-reel catches. I expect many Gold Gloves in Buxton's future, and I think he has a strong case for one this year. Joe Mauer better join him with a Gold Glove at first base.

A complete turnaround the next night 
Predictably after a team completes a homer-fest the night before, the Twins struggled to get anything going at the plate Wednesday against the Padres. Luckily, the Padres didn't do anything either, until an 8th-inning home run tied the game at 1-1.

The Twins got their run when Rosario doubled in the second inning, then scored trying to take third and the wild pitch was thrown away into left field allowing him to score. The Twins had chances late in the game. Mauer singled to start the 6th, but another sacrifice bunt went to waste as he was stranded at third base went the inning ended.

They loaded the bases with not outs in the 7th with a couple singles, one off the pitcher, and a hit batter. In keeping pace with the odd game, Robbie Grossman hit into a 6-2-3 double play before Dozier went down swinging. It seemed like a a game the Twins would lose late after failing to capitalize on opportunities.

It went to extra innings, with the help of Matt Belisle's good work in the 9th and 1-2-3 frame in the 10th. Mauer had his third single of the night with one out in the bottom of the 10th. With two outs, Rosario stepped to the plate. He promptly ended the game by crushing a pitch to the right-field plaza, much like Escobar's homer the previous night.

Twins won 3-1 with their fourth walk-off victory of 2017, second on a home run (Mauer had the other) and first walk-off hit for Rosario. He was mobbed at home plate with water and a bubble-gum bucket.

Up next: 
For the weekend, the Twins welcome the Toronto Blue Jays to town. They're in last place in the AL East, but they seem to have the Twins' number in recent meetings. The Twins did take 2-out-of-3 from the Jays across the border late last month.

Going forward, the Twins still hold a lead for the second AL Wild Card spot, chasing the Yankees by a couple games and ahead of a few teams like the Angels and Royals. Quite the turnaround to be talking about the postseason a year after the Twins lost 103 ball games - a different kind of record.

I didn't get this draft posted earlier, and since then the Twins completed another walk-off victory Thursday night. This time, Byron Buxton hit a home run in the 10th inning to give the Twins a 3-2 win. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Let's hope this is just the beginning for a new chapter in women's tennis

It was not a three-set match. Nor was it a nail-biter. There was not much suspense in determining a winner. But the women's U.S. Open final still ended with a great moment between American foes and friends, No. 15 seed Madison Keys and unseeded Sloane Stephens.

The Saturday-afternoon match ended with a shot into the net from Keys. On the other end of the court, it wasn't a display of emphatic or vocal emotion. Stephens looked up toward her box seemingly in disbelief. She had just won her first grand slam in her first trip to a final, beating Keys 6-3, 6-0.

As she made her way to the net for the customary handshake with her opponent, the two friends embraced for a long few moments. Tears were shed. They had both fought nerves at the beginning of the match, each stepping onto the big stage in Flushing Meadows for the first time. Not to mention there's the pressure of it being the U.S. Open, the slam in their home country.

When I watched them hug at the net, I could feel the relief. The happiness for Stephens. The disappointment for Keys. And still, the accomplishment for both of them. I certainly hope this is the start of something great for them and the women's tennis landscape in general.

Expect the unexpected
It was a much better women's tournament than I expected. As I outlined in my preview, the women's draw had some key players like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka out. Plus, players seem to get upset a lot. That still happened; No. 2 seed Simona Halep lost in the first round to Maria Sharapova, the qualifier on the comeback tour.

I did make mention of Keys and Stephens in my previous post, also mentioning that it's anybody's guess as to the two women that would step up to compete for the title.
"A couple other Americans that fans are familiar with: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. Keys is seeded at No. 15 while Stephens is unseeded. I'm still waiting for these two in particular to raise the level of their game to carry the torch for American women's tennis. It just hasn't worked out that way so far."
In the past, Keys and Stephens haven't always matched the pressure of the slams. They've bowed out in early rounds when they had a higher seed next to their names. This time though, they just kept winning.

The semifinal matches were already historic. Stephens beat Venus Williams; Keys beat CoCo Vandeweghe. The all-American affair marked the first time since 1981 that it was four American women left standing at the U.S. Open. I think I also saw that with Stephens' win, she's the first American female winner of a grand slam not named Williams, since Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open in 2002.

Women's tennis scene has been the same for a while 
That isn't some insignificant statistic. Women's tennis for the past decade or more has been dominated by the Williams sisters. Sure, there were others in there. Capriati had her time. Then there was Lindsay Davenport - now the coach for Keys. But I keep waiting for someone else to step up and dominate; Venus had re-surged as a 37-year-old, and sister Serena, with a ton of titles, is 35 and just had a baby. They've had plenty of success, but in sports, that doesn't last forever.

I've seen some flashes in the pan over the years. The big one that comes to mind is Melanie Oudin, who made it to the quarterfinals of the Open in 2009 when she was just 17 years old. She beat Sharapova in her prime. But she wasn't heard from much again, going through some health issues before officially retiring from tennis last month.

So, I figured Stephens and Keys could fill the void. They've had their share of upsets though. I wasn't sure if they'd be here to stay, or if they'd be players you'd hear about getting bounced in the first round more often than not.

Of course, maybe the expectations were too high. After all, Keys is just 22 years old, Stephens is 24. Still plenty of time for these gals to have their spotlight in tennis. That's what makes this tournament so encouraging. In the semi against Venus, it took Stephens three sets in an odd match. Stephens cruised to a first-set win as Venus seemed out of sorts. Venus took the second set without any trouble. In the third set, Stephens dug deep and pulled off some spectacular shots to give her the edge for the 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory.

Focus on the bigger picture, not the final Xs and Os
Again, the final match wasn't the thriller everyone might have expected. Keys just had too many unforced errors while Stephens hardly made any. Keys seemed to find her game again down 4-0 in the second set, but she let three break chances slip away.

The specifics of the match really weren't the story though. There are the rankings, of course, with Keys ranked No. 16 in the world and Stephens 83 - apparently the lowest rankings for the two players in the title match at the U.S. Open since computerized rankings were a thing. But even more amazing is the fact that both players were injured earlier this year.

Oh, and they each had surgery. They both sat out the Australian Open in January. Stephens had surgery on her foot that month. She was ranked No. 957 in the world on Aug. 1. Keys dealt with a wrist injury and a pair of surgeries.

If you like rankings drama, consider that with the win Stephens will be ranked No. 17 come Monday. From 957 a littler more than a month ago to 17. Numbers aren't my strong suit, but I'd say that's pretty good.

Sure, there was no Serena in this tournament. No Azarenka. Both players with slam titles under their belts. I'm still encouraged by what I saw from Keys and Stephens throughout the tournament. I'd like to think it will give them both a confidence boost to keep improving their games so Stephens can add more slam titles to her list, and so Keys can be hungry to come back and win a slam, too.

I wouldn't mind seeing these two in a few more grand slam finals over the next few years.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Previewing the U.S. Open: Key injuries, withdrawls could leave the door open for new champions

The Minnesota State Fair started on Thursday, which typically signifies the end of summer as some depressed Minnesotans prepare for the long winter ahead, the start of school and a new year filled with activity. There's something else that falls at the same time to also mark the end of the summer: The U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It starts Monday, complete with the opening ceremony which includes Shania Twain as she is apparently heavily on the comeback tour with her career. That don't impress me much. (groans)

2016 U.S. Open champions:

Stan Wawrinka def. Novak Djokovic 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 (both are not in the tournament this year because of injuries)

Angelique Kerber def. Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4

2017 top seeds:

Men - Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic

Women - Pliskova, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki

Women's draw: Wide open
The women's side of the draw is missing a very obvious competitor: 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, who is expecting a baby, and Victoria Azarenka. For the past few years, the grand slams have usually been Serena's to lose. She's been that dominant and the rest of the field just hasn't had a breakout star in a while.

Azarenka, a two-time U.S. Open finalist, will not make the tournament because of an "ongoing family situation," according to CNN. She had a baby boy last December and at this time is unable to take her son Leo out of California while legal issues surrounding his custody are resolved.

With those two out, it is anybody's guess who will step up for the women's title.

Typically, the excitement surrounding first-round matches has to do with upsets. If a top seed goes down, that's obviously a big deal. Other than that, with so many matches going on to start, it's pretty standard to see a lot of straight-set matches with the seeded players moving on. Upsets aren't uncommon, though.

Sharapova is back 
With the women's field so wide open, there's actually a very intriguing first-round match: No. 2 seed Halep versus the 2006 U.S. Open champ, Maria Sharapova. All eyes will be on that match to see if Sharapova can mount a comeback into the sport. It will mark her first Slam match in 1.5 years.

Sharapova served a 15-month doping suspension where she was kicked off the tour after testing positive for a newly banned substance at the 2016 Australian Open. She's ranked No. 147 currently and was given a wild card slot for the U.S. Open this year. She has five career slams under her belt.

Muguruza is the only one of the top five women's seeds to have a Grand Slam title under her belt. In the absence of Serena Williams, she's a possible favorite to win the tournament.

Speaking of that tennis name, Williams, the resurgence of elder sister Venus has gotten fans excited about her game once again. The 37-year-old American is the No. 9 seed and has won at Flushing Meadows twice before.

A couple other Americans that fans are familiar with: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. Keys is seeded at No. 15 while Stephens is unseeded. I'm still waiting for these two in particular to raise the level of their game to carry the torch for American women's tennis. It just hasn't worked out that way so far.

As for the No. 1 seed Pliskova, this is her first time holding that top spot at a major tournament after checking in at the No. 1 WTA ranking after Wimbeldon. She might have a little unfinished business, finishing as last year's runner-up at the U.S. Open.

Women's side versus men's side are two different tales
So, just how wide open has women's tennis been this year and in the past? Well, Pliskova is the fourth women to hold the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open in the past eight years.

That's quite a contrast to the men's side of the game, which has a group known as The Big Four in Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal. At least one of those players has been the No. 1 seed at each U.S. Open since 2004.

Perhaps the story on the men's side is injuries. As stated above, Djokovic is out this tournament, so it will be the Big Three. He is taking the rest of the year's tennis season off because of an elbow injury. There are a few other key names out. Defending champ Wawrinka had surgery for a knee injury. No. 11 in the world Milos Raonic and 2014 U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori are out with wrist injuries.

That might carve a path for some lesser-known names to go further in the tournament. In addition to the top seeds, here's where a few of the popular Americans stands: John Isner, No. 10 seed; Jack Sock, No. 13 seed; Sam Querrey, No. 17 seed.

Look out for the top three
If there's one thing you can bet one this tournament, it's that Isner, however far he goes in the tournament, will end up in a tiebreaker. Or probably multiple tiebreakers. I'd expect the semifinalists to include Federer, Murray and Nadal. As the seedings dictate, anything short of a semifinal for those three will be an upset and disappointment.

With a slight similarity to the Venus story, it's been fun to watch Federer continue to dominate. Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title earlier this summer. Federer is 36 years old but hasn't shown significant signs of age slowing his game down, as you might expect in the later years of an athlete's career. He's still thought to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

Nadal is known for his success on clay, winning titles at the French Open. A few years back, the men's rivalry was mostly just between Federer and Nadal before Murray and Djokovic really came into the spotlight. Nadal looks to win his third U.S. Open, adding to his titles in 2010 and 2013.

So, there you go. Just a little preview of this year's end-of-summer tennis tournament in Flushing. The nice thing about this slam is that there aren't really any big time-zone issues if you want to watch the matches live. Enjoy!