Saturday, May 28, 2016

100th running of the Indianapolis 500 has some compelling stories

The spotter's guide.
When something is celebrating No. 100, it's obviously a big deal. It's no different for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

It comes with absolutely no shortage of stories either. When I started thinking about what to write leading up to the race, my list of ideas kept getting longer - and I'm just a blogger. I can't imagine what it must be like for beat writers covering the event (which would be so cool, by the way).

In this entry, I've put together some briefs about a few of the drivers in the 33-car field for this historic race. I picked a few of the big stories and some drivers at random. Take a look around the series, the track, pit road, the stories are endless. I just scratched the surface. I also included the starting grid below.

James Hinchcliffe: This story writes itself, really. Hinchcliffe nearly died last year after hitting the wall during a practice session at Indy. A piece of debris went through his thigh causing him to almost bleed to death. He made a remarkable recovery and is back in a race car this season. He said that was one of the first questions he asked when he woke up in the hospital: When can I get back in a race car? Coming back to Indy was emotional enough, but Hinch took it a step further and put himself on the pole for the 100th running of the Indy 500, with a four-lap average speed of 230.760 mph. Twenty-one previous Indy winners have started from the pole. What an awesome final chapter to this story if Hinch could secure the victory, too.

Marco Andretti: This would be one of the most thrilling victories in quite some time. It would be 47 years in the making, too. 1969 was the lone Indy 500 victory for anyone named Andretti. That's when Mario Andretti - Marco's grandfather - won for the one and only time. Second-generation driver Michael never won. Neither did Jeff or John. Marco got close as a rookie 10 years ago, finishing second in one of the tighest finishes ever. Out of his 10 Indy 500s, he's finished in the top 10 six times and five times in the top five. He'll start from the 14th position Sunday.

Graham Rahal: If you like even-numbered history, a Rahal victory would make you happy. It was 30 years ago that Graham's dad, and now team owner, Bobby, was the Indy 500 champion. Graham will have a tough task though, starting from the middle of row nine in 26th.

JR Hildebrand: He's got some unfinished business that dates back to 2011. He had the lead on the final lap, but as he perhaps got a little greedy and passed slower traffic in turn four, he spun and hit the wall. He was literally on the home stretch when he made the mistake. He'll start from the outside of row five in spot No. 15.

Stefan Wilson: He's a rookie in this race. That's not the compelling story with him though. He's carrying on a family tradition - and his brother's memory. Justin Wilson, who raced in eight Indy 500s, died last season after a piece of debris hit his head during a race at Pocono. It marked another devastating blow to the racing community. No doubt Stefan wants to do well in his racing career, for his big brother. Stefan starts back in 30th.

Takuma Sato: One of just a few Japanese drivers to ever start at the Indy 500. He was oh-so-close to victory in 2012, running tight with Dario Franchitti. On the first turn of the last lap, they touched wheels and Sato was sent into the wall while Franchitti took the checkereds. Sato would be the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500. He's already the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race, with a victory at Long Beach in 2013. He starts 12th on the outside of row four.

Mikhail Aleshin: The Russian already left a mark on this year's race, making the Fast Nine during qualifying. He'll start from 7th, and he'd be the first Russian to win the race.

Pippa Mann: Not long ago, the Indy 500 had four women drivers in the starting field. The women have recently lived (unfairly) in the shadow of Danica Patrick. This year though, Mann is the lone woman in the field. The Brit will make her sixth start in the 500, looking for a better finish. She ended up 20th in her rookie attempt, her best result. She starts from near the back this time, too, on the inside of row nine.

Helio Castroneves: He's been trying to make history since his win in 2009, giving him three Indy 500 victories. As I've written in the past, I don't think he won in 2002. Controversy reigns. The record books have him with Ws in 2001, 2002 and 2009 however, so he's been chasing history to try and be the fourth driver to win four Indy 500s. He still runs with the successful Penske team, which can never be counted out, and will start on the outside of row three.

Matthew Brabham: Another driver with a strong family tradition behind his name. The Australian/American rookie's grandfather, Jack Brabham, was a three-time F1 world champion. Matthew's dad, Geoff, and uncles David and Gary were all racers, too. Matthew raced in Australia, the Pro Mazda series, Indy Lights in 2014 and 2015, and Formula E in 2014-15. He's making his first start at Indy, with perhaps some family pressure on the line. He starts 27th.

2016 Indianapolis 500 starting grid:

Row 1: James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay
Row 2: Townsend Bell, Carlos Munoz, Will Power
Row 3: Mikhail Aleshin, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves
Row 4: Oriol Servia, Alexander Rossi (R), Takuma Sato
Row 5: Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand
Row 6: Charlie Kimball, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan
Row 7: Sebastien Bourdais, Ed Carpenter, Gabby Chaves
Row 8: Max Chilton (R), Sage Karam, Conor Daly
Row 9: Pippa Mann, Graham Rahal, Matt Brabham (R)
Row 10: Bryan Clauson, Spencer Pigot (R), Stefan Wilson (R)
Row 11: Jack Hawksworth, Buddy Lazier, Alex Tagliani

(R) = Rookie

Former winners in the field: Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Dixon, Montoya, Kanaan, Lazier

Through 2013 (97 races), here's where the winners have started. (Thanks to my dad for going through and putting this list together.):

Row 1: 42 wins
Row 2: 18 wins
Row 3: 8 wins
Row 4: 6 wins
Row 5: 8 wins
Row 6: 4 wins
Row 7: 5 wins
Row 8: 2 wins
Row 9: 2 wins
Row 10: 2 wins
Row 11: 0 wins

Friday, May 27, 2016

The closest finishes in Indy 500 history, part 2

So, we've already had a couple of the closest finishes to date in the history of the Indianapolis 500, 1982 and 1992. Each race is special and unique on its own, but there's just something about these close ones. How much more exciting or nerve wracking can it get?

In part two of the closest finishes in Indy 500 history, I'll take a look at, 2006 and 2014.


IMS in 2011.
This looked like a possible storybook ending for the Andretti family. Second-generation driver Michael Andretti led the field around the track behind the pace car with just a few laps to go. His son, rookie 19-year-old Marco, was close behind. The restart came with five laps remaining - five laps standing between Michael and that elusive Indy 500 victory.

The green dropped, and Marco quickly passed the couple of lapped cars in front of him to get close to his dad. Next thing you know, he easily passed the old man and put himself into the lead. A rookie leading the Indy 500 as the laps wound down.

It really looked like he had it won. But with Andretti luck, longtime race fans couldn't believe it until the checkered flag flew. Much like how family matriarch Mario Andretti seemed to feel watching from pit lane. Looking at him on the broadcast, you just got the sense that Mario was extremely nervous - because he knows how many times this race has broken his and Michael's hearts.

Mario even gave a "calm down" gesture to a woman standing near him who was giddy with excitement late in the race. In hindsight, it's a cool moment to watch again because you really feel for all the hard luck the Andrettis had at Indianapolis.

So, Marco's in the lead. Then here comes Sam Hornish Jr., driving for the ulmighty Roger Penske. Hornish Jr. was closing in fast on Marco. In the last couple laps, he tried to make a pass inside on Marco but didn't have enough room to make it stick. As happens with failed pass attempts, he lost some ground and it again looked like that was his chance to overtake Marco.

After the final time through turn four and then onto the main stretch, Hornish Jr. was right on top of Marco's rear wing. He came around the inside of Marco, who held his line and did not make an attempt to block, and passed him just before reaching the yard of bricks. It was a difference of 0.0635 seconds.

Victory for Hornish Jr. and Penske. Another heartbreaking defeat for the Andretti clan.

For any other rookie driver, it would have been much easier to relish in the amazing race he had, get excited about second place and the bright future. Since it was Marco however, there was that lingering feeling that it was as close as he'll ever get to victory lane, simply because of the history.

Some people don't believe in jinxes, curses etc. That shouldn't have anything to do with it, they say. That may certainly be true. It's still just mind boggling that with all the races and laps led from Andretti drivers, they still have one victory in the Indy 500. Compare that to the Unser family, with nine wins between them.


Ryan Hunter-Reay at Indy in May 2014.
The second-closest finish in Indy history currently belongs to the 98th running of the great race.

Race officials had a hand in making this an exciting finish, too. The Indy 500 finished under the caution flag the past four years, and then a crash with less than 10 laps to go this time around threatened the finish once again.

This time though, they threw the red flag, stopping the race until the track was cleared of all the debris and clutter. Ryan Hunter-Reay and his teammate Marco Andretti were up at the front, with Helio Castroneves in between them. At stake for Hunter-Reay? His first Indy 500 win. For Castroneves? Looking to add his name to elite company as a four-time Indy 500 champion.

It was truly a race to the finish as the green flag fell once again. Hunter-Reay and Castroneves exchanged passes, and Hunter-Reay's winning pass that stuck was a daring one. His car was nearly on the infield grass when he snuck by Castroneves for the final time.

As they crossed the line, just 0.0600 seconds separated Hunter-Reay and Castroneves. Hunter-Reay could finally add his name to the long list of Indianapolis 500 champions. He started the race in the 19th spot and ended up in No. 1. That hadn't been done since 1954.

Related: The closest finishes in Indy 500 history, part 1

The closest finishes in Indy 500 history, part 1

A race to the finish line. Whether it's a quick sprint between runners or a lengthy 500 miles in an IndyCar, there are bound to be some close finishes along the way. That's true in the case of a few of the Indianapolis 500s as well.

Four of them stand out in my mind: 1982, 1992, 2006, 2014. Technically, they're four of the closest Indy 500s in history, so there's a reason why their stories are so compelling. I'll take a look at the first pair, 1982 and 1992, in part one.


Gordon Johncock's winning car in 1982.
At the time, this was the closest finish in the race's storied history. The famous call from broadcaster Jim McKay: "He's making a move. ... No! No! Not quite. Gordon Johncock has won the Indianapolis 500! He won it by less than a car length!"

0.16 seconds, to be exact.

It was Johncock's day as he took the checkered for his second Indy 500 victory. The other came in 1973. Polesitter Rick Mears did his best to chase him down, making for an exciting final few laps. With just four laps to go, the gap was 2.9 seconds. He was clearly closing in.

As they came to the straightaway on the final lap, Mears got close enough to Johncock that he was right on top of him. He veered out toward the inside to try and make a pass, but he was too late. Johncock crossed the yard of bricks before Mears could complete the pass.

Only the 0.16 second-margin stood between Mears and his second Indy 500 win. It's amazing, too, because if he would have pulled that win off, he could likely be the only driver to ever win the race five times. That's playing the "what if?" game though.

Mears had his days in victory lane - four times total - in 1978, 1984, 1988 and 1991.

The race started out wth plenty of tense moments and carnage that made the 1982 race memorable as well. Just as the field came to take the green flag to start the race, front-row starter Kevin Cogan's car seemed to zig zag right and then a hard left, taking Mario Andretti's car with him to the inside wall. The crash had a ripple affect through the field and brought out the red flag.

"How in the world could this have happened?!" was McKay's call after the crash. If you watch the video, it really was an odd looking crash. I'm not sure if the cause of the crash was ever clearly determined. Mario and A.J. Foyt both blamed Cogan for the incident, and were pretty outspoken about it. Foyt's car was damaged in the crash, so he set to work on it in pit lane.

Cogan claimed something broke on the car. He never won an Indy 500, and his reputation after the 1982 race was somewhat damaged.

Al Unser Jr.'s winning car in 1992.
Had it not been for another strike of the Andretti Curse late in the race, the closest finish ever might have never happened.

Michael Andretti was trying desperately to win his first Indy 500 and the second for the Andretti name, since dad Mario only won once in 1969. Michael started the race on the front row in the third position. It was an abnormally cold May day, which likely was a factor when pole sitter Roberto Guerrero tried to warm up his tires on the pace lap and then spun out. His day was over before the drop of the green flag.

That left the door open for Michael, who dominated the race that afternoon. He led 160 laps and it looked like he'd finally get that Indy victory. Then with 11 laps to go, he slowed on the track with some kind of fuel pressure malfunction. His day was over.

Meanwhile, that put Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear into the front of the field with the caution out for Michael. It would suddenly be a race of the final seven laps, after the restart. The difference between first and second place could often be a huge gap. This time, Goodyear - who started the day from the back row in spot No. 33 - was chasing Little Al just behind him.

It was sure to make for an exciting finish. I just don't think anyone realized how close, how historic and how exciting it would be. Goodyear got a good draft on Unser Jr. coming out of turn four on the final lap. He was right behind Little Al on the main straight, he moved back and forth slightly behind. Then Goodyear came out toward the inside to make a move and try to pass for the lead at the last second, pretty similar to the Johncock-Mears situation a decade earlier.

Goodyear hadn't led a lap in that race, but he was trying to get the lead on the only lap that mattered. He couldn't get it done. Unser Jr. won by a nose - literally. The margin of victory, or defeat in Goodyear's case, was all of 0.043 seconds. It was, and remains, the closest finish in Indy 500 history.

For Unser Jr., the win continued the dynasty of his family. His dad Al Unser Sr. had already won the race four times; his uncle Bobby drank the milk three times. '92 was Little Al's 10th Indy 500, and he entered with zero Indy victories to his name. During the victory lane celebration, he said, "You just don't know what Indy means..."

It turned out to be the first of two Indy 500 wins for Little Al. He won again in 1994.

For Goodyear, it was as close as he'd come to victory lane for the famous race. He also finished second twice. Nothing could compare to this epic finish though. He ran the Indy 500 11 times and is on the long list of drivers who have never won. Had he won in 1992, he would have been the first driver to come from the last starting spot on the grid to win the race.

Related: The closest finishes in Indy 500 history, part 2

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

List of Indianapolis 500 winners

Indianapolis 500 winners:
1914 winner: Rene Thomas

1911: Ray Harroun
1912: Joe Dawson
1913: Jules Goux
1914: Rene Thomas
1915: Ralph DePalma
1916: Dario Resta
1917-18: No race; World War I.
1919: Howdy Wilcox
1920: Gaston Chevrolet
1921: Tommy Milton
1922: Jimmy Murphy
1923: Tommy Milton
1924: Lora L. Corum
1968 winner: Bobby Unser (No. 3). 1967 winner: A.J. Foyt (No. 14)
1925: Peter DePaolo
1926: Frank Lockhart
1927: George Souders
1928: Louis Meyer
1929: Ray Keech
1930: Billy Arnold
1931: Louis Schneider
1932: Fred Frame
1933: Louis Meyer
1934: Bill Cummings
1935: Kelly Petillo
1936: Louis Meyer
1937: Wilbur Shaw
1938: Floyd Roberts
1939: Wilbur Shaw
1940: Wilbur Shaw
1941: Floyd Davis
1970 winner: Al Unser Sr.
1942-45: No race; World War II.
1946: George Robson
1947: Mauri Rose
1948: Mauri Rose
1949: Bill Holland
1950: Johnnie Parsons
1951: Lee Wallard
1952: Troy Ruttman
1953: Bill Vukovich
1954: Bill Vukovich
1955: Bob Sweikert
1956: Pat Flaherty
1957: Sam Hanks
1958: Jimmy Bryan
1959: Rodger Ward
1960: Jim Rathmann
1961: A.J. Foyt
1962: Rodger Ward
1963: Parnelli Jones
1964: A.J. Foyt
1974 winner: Johnny Rutherford
1965: Jim Clark
1966: Graham Hill
1967: A.J. Foyt
1968: Bobby Unser
1969: Mario Andretti
1970: Al Unser
1971: Al Unser
1972: Mark Donohue
1973: Gordon Johncock
1974: Johnny Rutherford
1975: Bobby Unser
1976: Johnny Rutherford
1977: A.J. Foyt
1978: Al Unser
1979: Rick Mears
1980: Johnny Rutherford
1981: Bobby Unser
1982 winner: Gordon Johncock
1982: Gordon Johncock
1983: Tom Sneva
1984: Rick Mears
1985: Danny Sullivan
1986: Bobby rahal
1987: Al Unser
1988: Rick Mears
1989: Emerson Fittipaldi
1990: Arie Luyendyk
1991: Rick Mears
1992: Al Unser Jr.
1993: Emerson Fittipaldi
1994: Al Unser Jr.
1995: Jacques Villeneuve
1996: Buddy Lazier
1997: Arie Luyendyk
1998: Eddie Cheever Jr.
1984 winner: Rick Mears
1999: Kenny Brack
2000: Juan Pablo Montoya
2001: Helio Castroneves
2002: Helio Castroneves
2003: Gil de Ferran
2004: Buddy Rice
2005: Dan Wheldon
2006: Sam Hornish Jr.
2007: Dario Franchitti
2008: Scott Dixon
2009: Helio Castroneves
2010: Dario Franchitti
2011: Dan Wheldon
2012: Dario Franchitti
1989 winner: Emerson Fittipaldi
2013: Tony Kanaan
2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay
2015: Juan Pablo Montoya

1992 wnner: Al Unser Jr. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500: Track history and traditions

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the mecca of motorsports. Whether you prefer oval tracks, road courses, open-wheel racing or stock cars, you have to respect the tradition of Indianapolis. As race fans, all the history behind the Indianapolis 500 should give you goosebumps, or at least feverish excitement.

This Memorial Day weekend, Sunday, May 29, will be the day for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Man, that's cool. Take note of the wording here, because it's important. It is the 100th race, not the 100th year. The first Indy 500 was in 1911, but there were some gaps with off years taken during the World Wars.

Race fans, and even those that just tune in for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing every year, love the tradition of the month of May at Indy.

Yard of bricks
How it all started: The Brickyard
The speedway is a 2.5-mile oval (or more like a rectangle with rounded quarters) in Speedway, Indiana. It started with a 320-acre land purchse in 1908 - for $72,000. The track's infield is so big that it can hold Churchill Downs, Wimbledon, the Roman Coliseum, Yankee Stadium and the Rose Bowl.

The track started out as a dirt surface, but before the first Indy 500 the track became a surface of 3.2 million paving bricks. These would last longer and provide better traction. With a track full of bricks, IMS became known as The Brickyard.

As the years went by and the sport advanced, higher speeds started pulling up the bricks. Parts of the track were paved over with asphalt in 1936. Most of the remaining bricks were taken out after the 1961 race. Just one exception: The start/finish line remained a yard of 588 bricks. Those bricks remain today, and it's become a tradition for the winning driver and team to kiss the bricks after the big win.

A new era
As I mentioned, the race didn't run during the World Wars. Until I did some reading in "Black Noon," I didn't realize how bad the track was after WWII. IMS was in a shambles. Without a new owner and lots of TLC to the course and grounds, the storied history of the Indy 500 could have been in serious jeopardy.

Tony Hulman, a wealthy businessman in Indiana, bought the track after WWII - for $750,000. (I still can't wrap my head around these prices.) He put a crew together, thousands of people and many volunteers, to make the track shine again. Weeds were growing everywhere, trees popped up through the grandstands. Bleachers were replaced, improvements were made and they got the track ready for the 1946 Indy 500. The race has been run every year since.

Indy 500 - 2011
Racing particulars
The first race in 1911 took 6 hours and 42 minutes with an average race speed of 74.59 mph. In the past few years, the race has finished in around three hours. The fastest average race speed was 187.433 in 2013, followed by 186.563 in 2014. The winner in 1911 took home $14,250 for the win. In 2015, the lucky driver in victory lane after 200 laps also had nearly 2.5 million reasons to smile.

What a difference a century makes.

Three drivers have won the race four times each: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. Helio Castroneves has been on a quest for his fourth Indy 500 win since he last won in 2009. In addition, seven drivers have also won three times, including Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Dario Franchitti. The race has had a back-to-back winner five times.

A.J. Foyt's last race at Indy was in 1992, though his record-setting fourth Indy 500 win came back in 1977.

There's the repeated success for many drivers. There are plenty of talented drivers who never made it to the milk celebration, despite getting close: Paul Tracy, Scott Goodyear and of course, Michael Andretti.

IMS Museum
Drink of champions 
Speaking of the milk, people often wonder: What's the deal is with Indy 500 winners drinking and splashing milk around in victory lane? The tradition doesn't go back 100 years; 80 is pretty decent though. In 1936, Louis Meyer became the first driver to win the 500 three times. When the race was over, he asked for some thirst-quenching buttermilk. Yummy.

Times are still the same in some ways, with advertising, because a dairy company executive saw the photographs of Meyer slugging the milk. The light bulb went off and milk became the drink of choice for the 500 winner. The tradition actually died off after WWII but the new track owner got it going again starting with the 1956 race.

The rest is history. The celebrations have gone from a simple drink of milk, to drivers like Dan Wheldon and Franchitti swinging the milk bottle around and dumping the white liquid over their heads. I heard it's fun at the time, but the smell on the racing suit a few hours later wasn't exactly pleasant.

Borg-Warner Trophy
Borg-Warner trophy
Winners of the Indy 500 earn their place in history. They also have their likeness scultped onto the Borg-Warner trophy. In victory lane, you'll find the winner with the team, a bottle of milk, a wreath of flowers and the large Borg-Warner trophy. It's stands 52 inches tall without the bases and weights about 110 pounds.

The Borg-Warner was first presented to the winner in 1936. It has a square with each winner's face and includes his name and year he won. New bases have been added to the trophy to make room for more winners. The current base won't be filled to capacity until 2034.

The trophy resides at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum on the track grounds. By the way, if you never make it to a race at Indy, I'd recommend a track tour or at least stopping in at the museum. It's well worth your time to see a bunch of the Indy 500 winning cars on display.

Another cool fact about all the land at IMS? It has a golf course, the Brickyard Crossing. Four holes are located inside the track in the infield, with the other 14 holes bordering the track's backstretch, just to the east. The course originally opened in 1929.

It's one of those little known facts that many people don't know. So, you're welcome. Go impress your friends with this knowledge.

IMS has an abundance of history, tradition and stories to tell. Visiting the track or attending an Indy 500 is a great item for anyone's bucket list. There are plenty of good reasons it's dubbed the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Sit back and enjoy the show.

(Blogger's note: Thanks to the book "Black Noon" by Art Garner for being an inspiration and pointing out some of the details when it comes to the history of IMS.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fans can be excited about Bruce

The celebratory dust has settled after the Minnesota Wild announced Bruce Boudreau would be the next coach. I’m still excited about it. I think he will be a great help to this roller-coaster squad of players. This hockey lifer has a lot to offer, even if his hiring isn’t a fix-all, which I don’t think it is.

It’s no secret that the market for head coaches in the NHL was kind of slim pickings. I wasn’t really sure what to think. I thought the Wild would do the predictable thing and hire interim coach John Torchetti. Not that there’s anything wrong with him, but I think it was important that the Wild conduct a search.

Anyway, everything changed when Boudreau was fired from Anaheim after his team was ousted in – gasp! – game seven in the first round. Once he was available, he became the top coach for hire. Thankfully, Chuck Fletcher and the Wild realized that. Everything I’ve heard and read suggests Fletch went after Boudreau quickly and didn’t let up in the interest.

I thought for sure the snag in the plan was going to be the fact that Boudreau had family, a grandchild even, in Ottawa, another team that was on the hunt for its next fearless leader behind the bench. Maybe it was my jaded Minnesota sports fan outlook, but I just knew he’d take the job there.

By some miracle, and millions of dollars, Boudreau will now call Minnesota home. He’s coming back to some of his roots, since he was a player with the Fighting Saints.

Boudreau brings will him a ton of regular-season success. He’s got eight division titles in nine seasons with Washington and Anaheim. For a team like the Wild, that is accustomed to slumping its way into the No. 8 spot, this is refreshing news. To consistently be a top team in the league, the coach has to be doing something right. These division titles were really the biggest stats that stood out to me when I was reading about Boudreau.

Now, I get that being good in the regular season doesn’t always translate to being good in the postseason, especially in the NHL. One might not have anything to do with the other. Take this year’s playoffs as an example. Washington tore it up this year and now they’re done. So I get why there might be some hesitation about the winter versus spring success for Boudreau.

You know what though? I wouldn’t mind watching a Wild team that can get it together during the year. They don’t know what being a top team is like, so it could be a nice change to see that happen.

Seemingly the biggest knock on Boudreau’s coaching history is that he hasn’t had success in game sevens in the playoffs (1-6), or more general success in the postseason. Conversely, the Wild is a team that thrives in game sevens. Am I concerned about this? Not really. I think it’s a stat that stands out, certainly, though I’ve heard others dismissing it, too. Bigger fish to fry.

If you think about it, it’s one game. It happens to extend or end your season. It’s still just one game. Sometimes it’s a fluke goal, bad bounce or hot goaltender that beats a team. And ultimately, it’s the players on the ice, not the coach. I think Boudreau has done a pretty good job of addressing these concerns when he’s been asked as well.

Back to my earlier point about how the Boudreau hire is not a fix-all for this Wild team. The fact remains there is still not much wiggle room when it comes to the almighty dollar and player contracts. Much of the personnel will stay the same. Chuck Fletcher, whether you like him or hate him, is still the general manager. The Wild will still have a reputation of being a team that falls off a cliff at some point every year, until they can prove otherwise.

So yeah, it’s not the prettiest picture. As far as a coaching hire though, Boudreau was the best choice available. Fans need to rejoice in that. One of my favorite things during his news conference with the media last week was when he talked about the balance between friendly relationships with players versus being their coach. He mentioned that the players will need to do what he wants or ice time will be cut. That will definitely get interesting next year, especially with a guy like Ryan Suter, a minutes eater.

I think Boudreau will challenge and push these players. He’ll likely be tough, raise expectations and not expect some of the accustomed Wild antics, like slow starts and a lack the offensive mindset. Players will be held accountable.

There are still a lot of variables to a winning season. Right now though, fans can be excited.

This was originally posted at

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Twins update: No one saw this coming

Opening Day for baseball is like Christmas morning. It's a fresh start, and everybody's excited. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins haven't provided a whole lot to cheer about so far in this young season.

The Twins had a surprising run at the division title last year and were in contention until the final weekend. There was optimism coming into 2016, especially after a healthy and positive spring. It didn't mean the team would vault to the top of the standings, of course, but things were looking up.

However, no one saw this coming.

Here's where they stand
To catch you up, here are some of the notable items. The Twins started 0-9. They've won two games on the road, in Milwaukee and Houston. They've been huddled in the MLB basement with the Atlanta Braves for the worst records this season. At 8-25 through Wednesday's play, the Twins claimed the worst record outright. They lost a 16-inning game (which was very winnable) in Washington. They were clobbered 16-4 in Houston.

Byron Buxton, who's already proven his range and speed will be an asset in center field, was sent down to AAA because he wasn't hitting the ball. I'm not worried about Buxton; he's young and will come around. He also had way too many strikeouts, though he wasn't the only one. Especially early on, the Twins as a whole were swinging and missing at an alarming rate. Games where they registered 10 or more Ks was common place.

It seems Brian Dozier has yet to get back to his pre-All-Star Break form that we enjoyed last year. The starting rotation has been up and down.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this season has been the simple mistakes that seem to happen on a daily basis. It's happened in the outfield, on the base paths and in the infield, too. Miguel Sano ended a home game when he tried to stretch a double into a triple with two outs in the ninth. In a recent game in Chicago, Eduardo Nunez was easily doubled off the bag on a liner to center with no outs. He was already standing at third base.

Those are just a couple examples of the baserunning mistakes. No one seems to be too keen on Sano playing in right field, a position that's new to him. When a ball is hit his way, you're not sure what will happen. He could dive for a ball when he should let it drop in front of him. Eddie Rosario, despite his cannon-arm, hasn't always looked comfortable in the outfield this year either, and I'm not sure why.

Errors will happen. But what's tough to take about some of the mistakes that are happening is that they are so avoidable. And they're costly in games.

From healthy to hurt
The Twins felt pretty confident coming out of spring training with a healthy ballclub. That changed quickly. Glen Perkins went down early and is taking a long time to get back to throwing the baseball. Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson went to the DL on the same day, leaving the rotation in flux and bringing up Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios for his MLB debut. Trevor Plouffe, who finally got hot at the plate, had a stint on the DL with intercostal strain. Eduardo Escobar is hurt. Dozier sat out a couple games. Kurt Suzuki took a scary foul ball off his mask and had to be cleared of a concussion.

All teams go through various injury pains during the long season. It happens and isn't an excuse for the game results because you still have to play through the injury bugs. It's just too bad the Twins had to deal with it this early, especially when the season was already off to such a tough start.

Blame it on the rain
Weather hasn't been kind either - that's not an excuse for the play on the field, it's just a fact. Opening Day in Baltimore was delayed two hours because rain was coming. It didn't rain, then they started playing, it rained and there was another delay. It seems they've already had more rain delays at Target Field than all of last season. One of the games stopped in the 6th inning, delayed for a couple hours and then it was decided that the game would be called.

The weather was great last week, when the Twins were on the road. It rained all three days of this short homestand with Baltimore, leading to one postponement.

For the record, I don't think the Twins are blaming either injuries or the weather for their play this season. There just contributing factors to this season's story.

Bright spots
Certainly, there aren't a lot of things to get excited about right now with this team. But there are two things that stand out, and they go by the names of Joe Mauer and Byung Ho Park. Mauer has returned to his form of a few years ago at the plate, starting the season with a 28-game on-base streak that led baseball and ranked second on the Twins all-time list. He's mostly walked and singled, to the dismay of fans that always find something to complain about with Mauer.

Still, he has carried this team's offense with his strong on-base percentage. It's been nice to see.

For Park, the Korea Baseball Organization product already had a target on his back from a lot of fans who didn't want a repeat of the Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment. Park has already proven the doubters wrong. He leads the team in home runs with seven (#ParkBang!), which also leads American League rookies. He's provided some power on a team that doesn't have a lot of it. The only trouble is, he's hit those home runs with nobody on base, if you want to nitpick.

He's traded time with Mauer at first base and DH, which seems to have gone well.

Nunez has hit fairly well when he's been in the lineup, too. He just finished a career-high hitting streak of nine games.

The wins have been sparse, but they've had a few walk-off wins. Two in a row at home, in fact. So, that was fun. Oswaldo Arcia was the hero twice.

Cruel summer?
It's always important to remember that it's a long season. There are 162 games that all count toward a team's final mark in early October. But this trench the Twins have dug for themselves is mighty deep. After their loss Wednesday afternoon, they found themselves staring up at first place in the AL Central with a 14.5-game deficit. They're seven back of fourth place.

I'm not sure even a true optimist (which isn't me) could tell you that the Twins have much of a chance to dig out and make a run. Even a .500 record looks hard to achieve at this point. There's talk of another 90-loss season, a 100-loss season and shopping players right now. People were saying the season was over after the 0-9 start, after the first couple losses at home and at the end of April.

We'll wait and see if this team can put a few series wins together and come back from the brink just a bit. It will make for a much more entertaining summer.