Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Twins, despite some home run success, remain on the losing track

The month of August started out so promising.

The Minnesota Twins won a few games, and they were doing something that's not exactly a traditional Twins trait: Hitting home runs. At one point a few weeks ago, they led all of baseball in home runs hit since June something-or-other. Max Kepler hit three in one game, for crying out loud, before going into a homer drought until the final day of the month. Brian Dozier has also swung a hot bat since late June.

In some ways, the homer total is one of the only good things about the ball club. They won a pair of games in Atlanta Aug. 16 and 17, giving themselves a five-game cushion on baseball's worst team for most of the season. After Aug. 30, these two feisty teams were tied in the Major League basement at a whopping 49-83. That's because the Twins dropped a dozen games after leaving Turner Field for the final time. (The Braves will move into a new ballpark next season.)

The Twins lost again to wrap things up in August, and a Braves win meant Minnesota found itself alone in that basement. 13 straight games. That's the longest losing skid of any MLB team this season by at least a couple games. It's the second-longest, single-season losing streak for the Twins since the ball club moved to Minnesota in 1961. That year, the Twins also lost 13 straight games. The 1982 squad holds the franchise record with 14 consecutive losses.

The team from 1982 keeps coming up this season when it comes to losing stats. They must have been pretty bad, too. #BeforeMyTime

These are some tough times for the club
When teams struggle, and we know that all teams do at some point, there's that saying, "finding new ways to lose." That's been the case lately. Whether it's giving up an inside-the-park home run (officially scored as a triple with an error) to lose the lead and then the game to the Blue Jays, or a pitching staff that just can't get the job done, it's always something.

There have been a few outfield collisions the past couple weeks. Shortstop Jorge Polanco and left fielder Robbie Grossman - nearly twice in one game. Eddie Rosario and Grossman. The latest was Danny Santana, playing center field, and Grossman. That one over the weekend turned out to be costly. Santana, who left the game the next inning, suffered a shoulder sprain. He's done for the season.

Fundamentals, kids. Talk to your teammates in the field so you know who's going to catch the baseball.

Bunting is another aspect of the game that has really plagued the local nine all season. I don't know that I've ever seen more fouled-off bunt attempts, poorly-executed bunts and especially bunts popped up for outs by one team in a single season. Then there's the situations. Bunting at a time that isn't ideal, when you look at the runners on base or number of outs. Like a red-hot hitter trying to bunt. I'm not sure if it's that coaches giving the go-ahead, or players trying to make something happen on their own, but it's frustrating to watch. People keep talking about how weird it is because manager Paul Molitor was such a good bunter as a player. It's gotten to the point where I just cringe when I see anybody bunt anymore. Ever.

Still, good things are happening, too
Let's get back to some positives though.

Dozier really turned his season around after a tough April and May. He couldn't buy a home run, it seemed. But in August he reached the 30-homer mark, plus he set career highs in home runs and RBI for a season, breaking the highs he set just last year. He smacked 24 extra-base hits in August, a franchise record for a calendar month. He hit 13 homers in August, the second-most all-time in Twins history, up there with the likes of Harmon Killebrew.

It's just a shame that Dozier's success with the bat hasn't been enough to turn the team's season around. Hey, he matched his August homers with the Twins current losing streak. That takes some talent, right?

With the trade of shortstop Eduardo Nunez, Jorge Polanco has found a comfy spot in that position with the Twins. Though he didn't play shortstop in the minors at all (weird, I know), he's done alright there. A couple errors here and there, but the Twins have plenty of those to go around.

Polanco was called up at the end of July and has been a fairly consistent hitter. He started out with a 12-game hitting streak. Welcome back, kid. Overall since his latest call-up, he has hits in 24 of the 28 games he's played. He's driven in 13 runs (There's that number again.).

1 month left. Finish it off, fellas.
Other than that, there are a lot of things that just aren't going well. Starting pitching has been a struggle for those not named Ervin Santana. Top prospect Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey were both sent down to the minors after their continued struggles. The overworked and heavily-relied upon bullpen has had its own problems, including injuries. Tommy Milone, Trevor May and Buddy Boshers all went down the same week, actually.

The games lately has just been so predictable, too. They often have the vibe of the beginning of the season, when it was pretty tough to have confidence that the Twins would pull out a win. Leads get blown, if they're obtained at all. Plus, in games where the bats are alive and well, the pitching fails them. And vice versa. Big Erv pitched a gem of a game in Kansas City during the losing streak, but the Twins lost 2-1 because they could find the hitting shoes.

We've reached September, which is always hard to believe since we want to hang onto summer. There's a month of baseball left for this team. We'll see how they finish it out. Don't forget: They're still in the process of hiring a general manager to replace the fired Terry Ryan.

It should be quite the offseason and spring training next year.

Friday, August 19, 2016

IndyCar returns to Pocono a year after Wilson's tragic crash

The IndyCar Series returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, a little less than a year since last year's race when the sport lost another great driver: Justin Wilson.

It's always difficult to reflect back on the drivers the sport has lost. This near-anniversary comes on the heels of the death of Bryan Clauson, who died Aug. 7 after a midget race crash in Kansas. Clauson, 27, had a large racing resume as a USAC champion, and he also started three Indianapolis 500s.

With Wilson's crash last year, he was the victim of a freak accident, in my mind. Sage Karam hit the wall, sending car parts flying in the air. It happens all the time. Except in this case, his nose cone came down right on Wilson's helmet, knocking him out and causing his car to hit the inside wall. He was in a coma and died the next day, Aug. 24, 2015.

Driver safety is still top priority 
As race fans, we'd like to think the sport is as safe as it has ever been. When you compare it to the measures in place from decades past, I think this is still true. SAFER barriers are in place, HANS devices are mandatory and safety crews have no doubt saved lives with their responses on track.

Still, losing one driver is losing one too many. And at the same time everyone involved with the sport knows it's a risk every time drivers strap into the car. It's a weird balance, really. After Dan Wheldon died in 2011, I remember seeing a video clip of him where he'd previously talked about this possibility of dying in a crash. He said something like: "Could it happen to me? Absolutely. Do I think it will? No. But at the end of the day, when you're number's up, it's up."

Not only do we have Wilson, Clauson and Wheldon recently, but drivers James Hinchcliffe and Dario Franchitti barely escaped some horrific crashes. Franchitti's 2013 fence-catching wreck in Houston left him seriously injured, enough that doctors told him he would not be able to race again. Hinchcliffe is just an amazing story; he crashed at Indy in 2015 and nearly bled to death on the historic oval, which has claimed the lives of many over its historic century.

So where is Hinch? Back in a race car, of course. He worked extremely hard to get back for the 2016 season. So hard that he wrote a storybook ending for himself at Indy, grabbing the pole position for the 100th running of the Indy 500 this year.

Drivers do what they love 
I've heard people refer to this need for speed as an addiciton for drivers. Obviously I can't speak from their perspective, but I can understand it as best as I can from the stands. They love what they do. Racing is what they were meant to do, so it's worth the risk.

I wrote a similar blog like this last year after Wilson's death, trying to explain and justify why racers race. A lot of the same thoughts are still true. I guess I just want to keep the reminders fresh. Auto racing is a sport that still is not that popular, and I think tragedies like this heighten that, because that's the only time people hear about the sport, when a driver's death makes the news.

This weekend, IndyCar drivers will have two drivers on their minds: Wilson, who would have turned 38 on July 31, and Clauson, since this is the first race they've run since his death earlier this month. They'll be thinking about them, then they'll go into race mode, pushing the emotions out of their mind when they turn laps on track. That's the mindset they have to create for themselves as they continue to fuel their passion.

RIP #BadassWilson.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Olympics have been more than just fun and games

The Olympics happen every two years, alternating between the summer and winter game. It's about traditions, stories and making your country proud. There's excitement becuase you have no idea what will happen - even when you think you do.

Call me a cynic, but it seems these summer games in Rio have been overshadowed by a few things, like the TV coverage from NBC, safety in Rio, spoilers and plenty of controversial remarks and hot takes. Full disclosure here: I haven't watched a ton of the Olympics this time around mostly because I'm working during the primetime coverage. However, don't underestimate how informative your Tweetdeck can be when it comes to following the action. I follow enough news accounts and sports peeps that I can basically keep up with the play-by-play of what's happening, plus get plenty of video clips and GIFs, too.

Coverage and spoiler alerts
That leads in to the whole spoilers debate. It's 2016 and social media is as prevelent as ever. The days of not getting spoiled on the results that will be shown in the primetime slot are over. You'd have to avoid all media outlets and all social media if you don't want to know. Even then you risk overhearing a conversation at the gas station about something that happened at the games (This happened to me for one of the Minnesota Twins playoff games once.). It's just the way it is. In a 24/7 news cycle with loads of competition, news stations and papers will report on results as they happen. Sure it's kind of a bummer, but just accept it and move on.

Then there's the coverage itself. 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on NBC each night of the most noteworthy events for the day. I'm no expert on how this is selected, but you'll generally get swimming, track and field, and gymnastics as the big three. I've noticed that at least at the past couple Olympics, they break up the taped coverage, I'm sure as a way to get people to watch the entire four-hour block. So the coverage might start off with a good chunk of team gymnastics events, then show some swimming before heading back to the gymnasts to see how the medals are dished out.

Other than that, there have been a lot of critical takes about the coverage. Too many swimming premlims shown, skipping out on medal ceremonies, going over the allotted four-hour time slot (which makes no sense for taped coverage), showing in-studio interviews with athletes rather than show more events. And so on. Then there's the Ryan Seacrest variety hour after the late local news. No thanks.

Controversy reigns
Again, I'm not TV exec, but it seems I've seen way too many stories with a controversial focus, some justified and some not. It started with an NBC executive making a comment essentially saying that more women watch the Olympics than men, and women care more about the journey than the results because they aren't sports fans. That's a paraphrase, but it pretty much takes care of the point. It was not a good job of getting his point across, whatever that was.

USA gymnast Gabby Douglas has been ripped to shreds online because she was the only one on her team who didn't stand with her hand over her heart while the national anthem was played during the medal ceremony after her team won gold. She stood there respectfully on the podium. There's no law that says you have to put your hand over your heart. Let her savor that moment how she wishes.

Then people were upset because apparently she didn't cheer adequately enough for her teammates during the all-around competition. This comes from people in the United States, where cheering, applause and especially standing ovations have lost meaning, in my opinion. So, I guess because she didn't stand and cheer with a smile on her face throughout the competition, she was being a poor sport or something. I just think it's a shame that these issues have taken such a focus.

Simone Biles is one of America's sweethearts in these games, dazzling us all with her nearly flawless performances in her gymnastics routines. Then I heard about one of the NBC commentators referring to her parents as "not her parents," because she was adopted by her biological grandparents. Probably not the best choice of words, and then it sounds like he tried and failed to defend his words via Twitter. But again, just too bad this is something that happened and gained attention.

Take a moment and enjoy it
Anyway, I've enjoyed watching what I could of the Olympics. I always enjoy the gymnastics and swimming events. I've missed most of the diving for some reason, which is also fun to see. The gymnastics team from Team USA does not disappoint. As has been said, it's often hard in sports to live up to such high expectations, but they did. So Biles only got a bronze on the balance beam. She's still amazing.

Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte competed in what I hope will be their last games. They are phenomenal swimmers. I say their last games because I hope they can go out on top. If they were to come back, I could see it pressing their luck. Lochte already fell off a bit this time around. I compare Lochte being in the Phelps era to  Andy Roddick in the Roger Federer era.

No matter your thoughts on the Olympics, your favorite sports or what you like to watch for, it's still an exciting event that comes around for a couple weeks every four years. Enjoy the good stuff, and take the rest with a grain of salt.