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.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A trip down memory lane: Twins v. Yankees

The old saying in sports never gets old for me: That's why they play the games.

It's used in the context of upsets and underdogs. Just because a team is Goliath when it comes to odds, stats and analytics, doesn't mean Goliath will win. They play the game to find out.

I bring this up in reference to the AL Wild Card game set for Tuesday night in the Bronx between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. Just based on a few random buzzings I've heard about this game, there's an attitude out there that suggests they shouldn't even play. I mean, the Yankees are just going to the American League Division Series. The Wild Card game is just a formality. (I write that with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Please re-read accordingly.)

The numbers and the history between these two teams in the postseason, and regular season as well, point toward an obvious David and Goliath situation. Or a curse, if you believe in that kind of thing. Or, as Minnesotans like to harp on, there's the standby: "Minnesota sports. We can't have nice things."

Looking at the past
Ok, so let's look at some of the history. The Twins were an AL Central powerhouse in the 2000s with six division titles but just one postseason series win. They've been swept out of their last three ALDS appearances (2006, 2009, 2010). The Twins are 2-15 in the postseason since 2003, 2-12 against the Yankees (Oakland swept the Twins 3-0 in 2006.). The Twins last postseason victory came in game 1 of the 2004 ALDS to the Yankees - 13 years ago, so maybe that's lucky. Their other postseason victory was also game 1, in 2003.

The Twins beat the A's in 2002 in five games before losing in the AL Championship Series to the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Angels (or were they just Anaheim back then?). It was a great showing for a team that would win back-to-back-to-back division titles. But the success really stopped there.

The playoff format was slightly different, so the Twins kept facing the Yankees because Boston was also in the postseason. I believe the rule was the wild card winner could not face their division winner in that first round. The Twins didn't end up with homefield advantage much either (2006, 2010).

Good starts turn into late losses
In 2003, the Twins beat the Yankees 3-1 to take a 1-0 series lead. They couldn't get the offense going and were outscored 16-6 in the 3-1 series loss. The next year brought some late/extra inning heartbreak. Johan Santana pitched seven innings for a 2-0 Twins shutout in New York in game 1, with Shannon Stewart hitting an RBI single and Jacque Jones hitting a home run.

The Twins had leads in the series. Justin Morneau and Corey Koskie tied game 2 in the 8th with RBI knocks. Torii Hunter homered in the 12th inning as fans got excited about heading to the Metrodome up 2-0 in the best-of-five series. Instead, Alex Rodriguez doubled in the bottom of the inning off Joe Nathan to tie the game, then Hideki Matsui provided the game-winning sac fly. The Twins lost 7-6 in 12 innings, making a 1-1 series feel like a deficit.

In game 4, the Twins were up 5-1 through seven innings before the Yankees tied it with a three-run homer from Ruben Sierra in the 8th. The winning run scored on a wild pitch from Kyle Lohse in the 11th inning for a 6-5 loss and another series loss to the pinstripes.

More heartbreak in the later years, too 
I've written about 2006 before and how heartbreaking that was for fans. Used to the routine, the two teams met up again in 2009. It was another sweep, with game 2 being the big disappointment. The Twins had a 3-1 lead in the 9th after RBI singles from Nick Punto and Denard Span in the 8th. But Nathan couldn't close it out, giving up a single to Mark Teixeria and homer to ARod to tie the game. The Twins lost in 11 innings, 4-3, with a walk-off homer from Teixeria.
2006.


The last time the Twins were in the postseason was 2010. They hosted the Yankees this time, so everyone hoped it would be a different outcome. Unfortunately it left a bigger feeling of emptiness with another 3-and-out. The Twins were outscored 17-7 and couldn't solve legendary closer Mariano Rivera as he notched two saves. Phil Hughes (that's right) earned the win in game 3 for the Yankees.

Familiar foes, new setting
So now here we are. The Twins and Yankees meet again. The Twins went 2-4 v. the Yankees during the 2017 regular season, including two wins at home and then getting swept in New York a couple weeks ago. Yes, rookie superstar Aaron Judge homered off Twins pitching. It will be Twins ace and veteran pitcher Ervin Santana, a 16-game winner, versus the Yankees ace Luis Severino. The Twins got to him early on in New York, before the Yankees won that game 11-3.

Santana started out in perhaps the best way possible this season, hardly allowing runs and recording more complete games than the rest of baseball. His ERA came back to earth a bit the rest of the year, but his veteran presence on the mound makes him the go-to guy. Jose Berrios is also available out of the bullpen; he got the victory in relief the other night against Detroit as the Twins skipped his start in the rotation.

Miguel Sano returned to the team over the weekend, getting some at-bats after missing more than a month with a shin injury. Put a bat in his hand, and he's still a threat to knock one out of the park. Guys like Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton (with his defense, especially), Jorge Polanco and Brian Dozier have all stepped up in the second half to provide an offensive spark.

This isn't the same team
The encouraging thing about this Wild Card game is it's just one game, and this is a completely new Twins team. The Twins don't have to win a series against the big, bad pinstripes; they just need one win. Anything can happen in one game, so that's reason enough to not count the Twins out.

Again, this Twins team is not the same one that got knocked around in the last decade. Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins are the only two players still on the roster from the 2010 squad. Paul Molitor is the new manager. One would think that should help with the mental side of things when it comes to this matchup, although maybe that's really more in the heads of fans at this point.

This 2017 Twins team has already accomplished something no other team in baseball has ever done: Make the postseason a year after losing 100 games. This season, the Twins have never fallen off the cliff, even during tough stretches. They grabbed one of two AL Wild Card slots and celebrated their postseason berth after such an improbable feat.

To me, it isn't a lock to choose one team or the other to win this game. You can analyze it all you want, but just because there's all this bad history going against the Twins doesn't mean it will continue. It's a new decade, a new group of guys in the clubhouse.

We'll just have to watch them play the game.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Twins clinch AL Wild Card spot, completing improbable comeback season

What a difference a year makes. 

Yeah right. I definitely have a more creative lede than some cliche. The story really writes itself: The Minnesota Twins clinched a spot in the postseason late Wednesday night. They did it with many of the same players on the roster from 2016, the team that lost 103 ball games.

The most impressive thing about this? The Twins are the first baseball team to ever lose 100 games and then make the postseason the next year.

The Twins are headed back to the postseason for the first time since 2010, Target Field's inaugural season. Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins are the only players still on the squad from that season. This 2017 Twins team earned the second AL Wild Card spot. Not that this matters too much, but it's the first Wild Card berth for the Twins.

Talkin' magic numbers once again
It seemed like a near certainty for a while now, but there's just something about officially clinching that gives you all the sports warm and fuzzies. Plenty of suds soaked the visiting clubhouse in Cleveland during the late-night celebration. It brings back memories of the 2000s when the Twins won their string of AL Central Division titles.

The Twins had a magic number of 1 headed into play Wednesday night, needing a win or an Angels loss. Unfortunately, the Twins and their bats was no match for Danny Salazar on the mound for the rolling Indians (a team that's lost just three games in the past month or so). The Twins finally managed a couple hits in the 9th, with a two-run homer off the right-field pole from Jorge Polanco, but the Indians won 4-2.

So, the Twins didn't get to celebrate on the field. They probably didn't care a couple hours later though. Instead, they went back to the clubhouse to watch the end of the Angels game v. the White Sox in Chicago. Naturally, the Angels tied up the game 4-4 and it went to extra innings. Nicky Delmonico hit a two-run homer in the 10th, and it was time to pop the champagne.

The little team that could
Fox Sports North stayed on with their coverage after the game and through the celebration. They talked with Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Falvey mentioned the word "resiliency" for this team, because he said he couldn't think of another word for this group of guys.

It really is true. Fans could have written off this team (and maybe they did) more than once this season. The awful series against Houston in May. The dreadful road trip out west just before the trade deadline. There was some frustration from players when the front office dealt closer Brandon Kintzler at the deadline in a throwing-in-the-towel move.

They went on some modest losing streaks but always came back with a solid series or by beating a team with a better record.

One of the fun things to watch with this team is their home-run power. The Twins have hit 83 home runs since August 8, the most in baseball. They have 202 homers for the season, which ranks in the top five all-time for the Twins. They have four players with 20-homer seasons; Max Kepler needs one more homer to reach 20 to make it five players for the first time in team history.

So many great storylines this year 
Sometimes, you point to a moment or a player that is the biggest reason for a turnaround. The list is pretty lengthy with this club. The front office didn't end up trading Brian Dozier in the offseason like some thought might happen. He's not on the home-run tear of late in 2016, but he's still come on strong in the second half and leads the team with 33 homers. His biggest one came late in Tuesday's game with the Twins down by a pair of runs. He went opposite field for a three-run homer to right to give the Twins the win.

There's Ervin Santana, a veteran pitcher who also wasn't traded away. He has complete games, shutouts and plenty of solid outings to his name this season. He was nearly unbeatable early in the year with a nonexistent ERA.

Youngster Jose Berrios has come around on the mound, too, settling his nerves after last season and turning into a go-to starter in the rotation tagged as a future ace. Kyle Gibson has made a complete turnaround this year after being sent to AAA; all he does is lower his ERA lately. The bullpen has come through in key moments, with some rookie faces, too. Matt Belisle has found a home as a closer. Guys like Taylor Rogers and Alan Busentiz are reliable arms.

Joe Mauer is having one of his best years yet, hitting .300+ and playing Gold-Glove defense at first base. He's probably saved his infielders some errors on the scoresheet. Polanco came back from a dreadful start at the plate to hit homers and drive in runs. Eduardo Escobar has filled in well at third base in the absence of slugger Miguel Sano (he's been out since mid-August with an injury).

The outfield is pretty well set with Eddie Rosario-Byron Buxton-Kepler. Rosario has a great arm and also had his best season at the plate, whacking away at homers. Buxton's offense was slow early on but has really come alive. To me, it doesn't matter anyway because his defense outweighs everything. His speed allows him to cover practically the entire field by himself, resulting in highlight-reel catch after catch.

Enjoy the journey 
This year has been so much better than the last. The Twins starting winning games. They held the division lead for a while before settling in to the wild card race. If they took a lead in a ball game, their pitchers held the lead and the offense went to work adding runs. Just this month alone the Twins have hit double-digits in runs seven times, including 17-0 and 16-0 shutouts. They've hit six homers in a game more than once, plus a seven-homer game at Target Field, setting a park record.

No matter how the Twins clinched, or who they play (not going there right now), or the debate about whether the wild-card game is considered the postseason, the jump from 2016 to 2017 for these Twins is one to enjoy. It's hard to believe too many people expected this at the start of the season.

What a fun ride.

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!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Business trip to Miller Park

I'm not sure how it's already approaching the end of August. Summers will just always fly by, right? I wish it went like that for the long winters we have. Those seem to drag on and on. But, it's still baseball season. So I'll focus on that and a recent road trip.

Miller Park during Twins batting practice Aug. 10, 2017.
Anyway, it's been a nice turnaround of a season for the Minnesota Twins. They held a first-place lead in the AL Central division for a good chunk of the season early on, then have been one of the many teams in contention for a Wild Card spot. In some ways, I see some comparisons to the 2015 season, where there was a bit of over-achievement going on. We all know that last year was tough to stomach with the 103 losses in a 162-game season. This year has been refreshing to watch.

Maybe this is a weird thing to admit as a sports follower, particularly with baseball, but I don't have a huge bucket list of ballparks I'd like to visit. I've heard about people checking different parks off their list and doing cross-country trips with baseball being the main item on the agenda. I do have a few IndyCar tracks I'd like to visit though. I think that's just a product of going to races since I was little - and we always had to travel because there wasn't an IndyCar track in the Twin Cities. Major League Baseball has always been in my backyard though, so to speak.

Border battle series
Before I get off on a racing tangent and lose some readers, I mention these other ballparks because I took my first working road trip to watch Twins baseball. The Twins and border-battle rival Milwaukee Brewers had a split four-game series earlier this month Monday-Thursday, August 7-10 (I am *not* opening that can of worms about the schedule here.). Monday-Tuesday in Minneapolis, Wednesday-Thursday in Milwaukee.

Miller Park with the roof open and sun shining.

So, after the Twins swept the first two games, I tossed my suitcase and backpack in the trunk of my car on Wednesday morning to head over to Miller Park for some more baseball. I was going to watch the games anyway, so I might as well watch them in person since I'm so close, right? I had only seen Miller Park driving by many years ago when it was being built. I've also driven by Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the only other MLB park I've visited.

I had my audiobooks I got at the library to keep me company on the drive. It was a little different to drive a trip like that on my own. I love road trips, but I'm usually in the back free to read books and relax.

I didn't have too much down time in MKE, but before Thursday's game I took a walk along the Riverwalk downtown, got a brew at Water Street Brewery (opened 30 years ago before breweries popped up everywhere), ate some cheese curds, visited the Pabst Mansion and even made a stop at the Cheesecake Factory for some dessert, because this girl has a sweet tooth.

It's Miller Time 
I heard from people before I left that Miller Park, first open in 2001, looks cooler from the outside, like a big space ship or something. As I took the exit off the freeway and got a glimpse of the stadium, I could see why that's a thought.

The park has a retractable roof, which sounds like heaven considering the Twins have had to play six doubleheaders and endured a bunch of other delays this season and last thanks to the weather. I got to experience the roof being open for the entirety of game one. The next day, the roof started out in its closed state with a threat of showers in the area. The roof was opened mid-game, to the cheers of the crowd.

The view of Target Field with the downtown skyline as the backdrop really can't compare with just the open sky of Miller Park. Minnesota wins that battle. Miller Park definitely felt more enclosed, which makes sense with a building that has an optional roof on it. I was stuck by all the windows when you look out to center field. There just isn't the fan seating out there, but there were plenty of seats in the steep upper decks behind home plate and down the baselines.

It was a little different covering a game there, since I've only worked at Target Field or at home on the couch. But it was really just like any other baseball game. Luckily, the Twins swept the mini-series so I wasn't left twiddling my thumbs. Bartolo Colon, the 44-year-old turned fan-favorite, went seven scoreless innings for a 4-0 victory the first night. Brian Dozier hit a homer to left. Colon looked like he wanted to hit one as well with the cuts he took as a batter under the National League rules.

Then it was a major-league debut for Dietrich Enns the next night. He only went 2.1 innings but gave up just one earned run as the Twins went on to win 7-2. The Twins had a couple 3-run innings in the second and third. They took advantage of a fielding error and scattered some RBI singles. Enns got his first hit, an infield single. The Twins added a couple sacrifice flies, too.

Twins rolling, for better or for worse 
The games completed a 4-game sweep of the Brewers as part of a 6-game winning streak for the Twins, a season-best.

With any 162-game season, there are bound to be tough losses, rough stretches and injury setbacks for teams. To say a season is a roller coaster for a team is probably pretty cliche. It can also be pretty true. The Twins have beaten teams this season when they might have been considered the underdog in that game. They've put together win streaks. Then again, they've also lost a few games to opponents lower in the standings then themselves.

It doesn't always make sense, but the Twins keep coming. They don't show any signs of going away. With two Wild Card slots in the American League - and a bunch of teams competing for them - I wouldn't be surprised to see the Twins in the mix until the final weekend of the season, just like we saw in 2015.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The busy, fun, wide world of sports

It's the last day of July. In the sports world, it's an interesting time of transition. The past couple weeks are some of the quietest around in the overall sports realm.

The NHL is pretty quiet after the draft and free agency opens, not much out of the NBA either. MLB is slugging around through the 162-game season after the All-Star Break. It's really the only mainstream sport in the spotlight. NFL teams just opened their training camps, signifying the unofficial/official starts to their seasons. Other than that, there's the WNBA, IndyCar, NASCAR, golf, tennis has a gap in between Slams after Wimbledon and before the U.S. Open.

But if there's an opposite of March Madness, these couple weeks in July are probably it.

If you want to throw high schools into the mix, there are probably various captain's practices being held for fall sports before (at least in Minnesota) official practices open up in two weeks. It's just another sign that summer is flying by and about over.

Summer is still busy, fun time for America's pastime
Of course, as I reference this as some sort of sports "down time," that's also not very true when it comes to baseball. It's grind time for that sport. Sure, there's the All-Star Break, but the Twins in particular have had a busy schedule leading up to that point. Something like 45 games in 45 days thanks to not many off days in June and a pile of doubleheaders after a soggy spring.

It's a busy, but fun, pastime for the summer. For my sports consumption, I try to take in what I can and get a variety. Still, there are sports everyone gravitates toward, even if they claim to follow everything. Me, I always say my three favorites are baseball, hockey and IndyCar racing. That's not necessarily in any particular order.

I also enjoy watching tennis. I'll even watch bowling once in a while when it's on during a bad-weather Saturday afternoon. I keep up with the NBA mostly on what I see through social media an news outlets. I'm not a die-hard when it comes to football by any means, but I like to keep up with the high school and college games locally. I'll tune in for some pro football; it's just not appointment viewing for me if I have other things going on.

Reasons behind the sports we love 
My sports coverage, particularly on the preps level, has grown over the years. Therefore, I've gotten the chance to watch and write about a variety of sports and athletes. Volleyball state tournaments are entertaining, I really enjoy covering swim meets and the only thing to complain about with a high school football game is the cold weather sometimes while I try to type in the press box.

So much of what we grow up with determines our interests and activities. I like IndyCar racing because my dad loves it. He also played tennis, got me started playing, and there you go. I understand swim meets and like that excitement since my brother took up the sport in high school.

If I have reasons and stories like that for my sports background, I know other people must have them, too. Maybe it's a family member or friend that got you hooked. It could be one game you went to that made you fall in love with a sport. Or maybe it's just that sports are so ingrained in our society that it's just natural to pay attention to them.

I'd love to hear other stories. Feel free to leave some thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

I still have thoughts

Someone recently mentioned they'd taken a look at my blog. That's always appreciated, of course, but it got me thinking about what I've written on this platform as of late. I say aloud something like: "It's turned into an IndyCar blog lately."

That was just off the top of my head. It's certainly true, though. My last seven blog posts here (except for the most recent one) have been related to IndyCar racing. The post before that - after I got done covering everything for March Madness - was written in early April. 

You know how sometimes you realize you say you're going to do something, mark an item on your to-do list or just make a note to get to it later? Then you realize months have gone by and you have no idea how? That's kind of what happens to me from time to time. 

Let me just say that I'm definitely still writing. For those that follow me on social media or know me personally, I would hope that doesn't come as a surprise. It's just that this isn't my only platform to share my work anymore. I also didn't make a format change to IndyCar-only for this blog.

I've shared my thoughts on the Minnesota Wild via stories and podcasts at ZoneCoverage.com. There was a lot to cover this season with some success, a disappointing playoff run and then all the excitement with the Expansion Draft for the new NHL team in Las Vegas. With the only true part of the hockey offseason right now, there hasn't been much on that front for a while, but I hope to start back up again strong in the fall.

Baseball is still the main gig 
As for the Twins, I guess I really haven't written much about them lately - in more than 140 characters at a time. See, I still watch all the games and comment on what's happening. I just use Twitter as my platform.

After losing 103 games last season, this year has been a refreshing change of pace. They've been a winning ball club (this last week aside) and managed to stay in the division/wild card races.

It's weird how the Twins have fared the past few seasons. After reaching the postseason in 2010, the inaugural season at Target Field, the Twins had some losing seasons. It looked like they were going on the upswing in 2015 though, with a bit of a surprising season in which they were in contention for a division title until the last weekend of the regular season. Instead, the Kansas City Royals won it and the World Series. Still, no one expected the Twins to have that kind of success. They overachieved.

That was why the results of 2016 were so disappointing. It seemed going in  that the losing seasons were going to be behind the Twins as they looked to build on the 2015 surprise. A far cry from what happened. The Twins started out 0-9 - with a bad omen of multiple rain delays in Baltimore on Opening Day - never recovered and stumbled to the worst record in baseball at 59-103.

After that performance, and a similar roster, the expectations weren't too high for 2017. But again, the Twins have surprised everyone. They spent a bulk of time before the All-Star Break in first place, or in second just behind the AL Champion Cleveland Indians. Part of this can be attributed to the weak division and an overall weak American League.

The Twins have played better, too. Byron Buxton is outstanding in center field, Miguel Sano nearly won the Home Run Derby in his first All-Star Game selection, Jose Berrios has figured it out, Ervin Santana has pitched extremely well. The Twins have won games this year with much better defense and clutch hitting. When they get a lead, they know how to hang onto it.

Anyway, the Twins season keeps me pretty busy, but I'm still working as a freelance writer. I write high school and general human interest features for the local suburban papers under the Chicago Tribune/Chicago Pioneer Press umbrella. All my work is done over the phone talking to sources before I write my stories.

Plenty of other stuff, too 
Plus, there are other odds and ends projects that come up with various outlets. I'm still involved with the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a freelance reporter for high school sports, which mostly include section and state tournaments.

I'll still continue to use this platform for whatever I see fit to write about that's timely. I didn't intentionally turn it into an IndyCar blog, but that's just what I've wanted to write about. The Indy 500 is always a big deal, whether I'm there in person or not, and we took another family trip to Road America this June, too.

I started this blog to keep writing after I graduated college. I knew I could always have this forum as a place to put my thoughts. That's what I'll continue to do.

So, that's a little bit of catch-up with me and what I've worked on over the past few months. As always, thanks for reading, following, retweeting and sharing. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Despite ever-changing journalism world, writers are valuable

I graduated with a journalism degree when the recession hit. It was also a time when the future of print journalism was in question (not that it's necessarily any more secure today). As I job searched, it was always interesting to discuss the field with others. Will newspapers go away? Will everything just be online? How will it change the job market? Discussion often circled to this point:

"There will always need to be writers."

No matter the medium, right? Well, for the first time, I'm questioning whether that sentiment will still ring true as much as it used to even a few years ago. Or maybe it's that the value will continue to decrease. Nothing can stop someone from putting a pen to paper, words on a word document, or maybe in the future, stories written out in some kind of microchip form sent directly to our brains. But will people read it?

There's a lot of thing at play here, but some recent events got me thinking about writing and where it ranks in today's instant-gratification, digital, visual world. Let's put the print journalism sector on hold for a minute for the purposes of this blog post - the changes and setbacks within that domain have been obvious in past years as things shifted online.

ESPN hits the industry hard 
In April, sports media giant ESPN laid off 100 employees, including a lot of writers for the company's website. Jayson Stark covered baseball for 17 years with ESPN and was let go. Columnist Johnette Howard and a bunch of NHL columnists - in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs - were also let go. SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh was set to return from maternity leave when she found out she was laid off.

It even hit the motorsports world, which is obviously something close to my heart. Dr. Jerry Punch, a reporter for 30 years with the network who covered plenty of IndyCar races and Indianapolis 500s in his time, was let go. So was Allen Bestwick, the most recent guy who called IndyCar races for ESPN/ABC. Both Punch and Bestwick finished out their time with this year's Indy 500 and dual IndyCar races at Detroit.

I remember reading the reactions on Twitter the day of the ESPN layoffs, from those let go and from media consumers. It's a tough part of the business that so many journalists (raises my own hand) have experienced.

Last week, I caught something on Twitter that I had to read over again to make sure I understood.



FoxSports.com is a website filled with video clips now. It looked a little odd when I initially scrolled through the page. So, more writers with a platform taken away in favor of a stronger focus on visuals.

Now, I'm not going to preach against videos. Compelling stories can be told through video images just as well as writing. I also know the value of social media and how much better engagement is with a post or Tweet that contains a GIF, video or photo rather than just text. GIFs are one of my favorite additions to the Twittersphere, in fact.

I'm also not here to crunch numbers about these layoffs and website shifts I mentioned. I'm not a business owner or manager for those entities who's starting at a bottom line within an always-changing market.

But what's happened here is significant enough for me as a journalist to take notice and write about it to share my thoughts. I am a writer in the sports side of things, after all. So, how are sports writers valued these days? Before, it was the writing for free or very little pay that was a concern of mine. But taking away the writing platform altogether seems to be going another step down the path.

Videos may be engaging and quick to view, but they certainly can't take the place of a good, well-written story. It's not about a debate between video or writing being better than the other. I still think there's room for both, especially for writers like me who thrive on the written word much better than verbalization. And Ken Rosenthal writing his thoughts in the form of Facebook posts is not the same thing as a story for a media outlet.

This whole topic is worth a conversation in the evolution of the world of journalism. It's likely a blip on the radar as the industry keeps adjusting to provide content and still make money. I hope so. Because I'd hate to think of a time when we don't need writers anymore.

A couple things for the road...
Writers always appreciate readers. So if there's a story you like or a writer you enjoy reading, then subscribe, share, comment, retweet and like. Good stories deserve to be told and shared.

My colleague Brandon Warne came up with an idea for writers to share some work they're particularly proud of over the past year. It's called Read It All day on Aug. 1. Check out the details below. I'd encourage writers to share their work.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Dixon pushes past Penske for Road America victory

Scott Dixon coming out of turn five during Friday practice.
The term "upset" is used quite a bit in sports. Usually though, it's not used much in IndyCar racing. I think the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday at Road America could qualify as an upset. Scott Dixon won the 55-lap race with a turn-one pass on a restart to take the lead for good and add another track to his winning career.

Dixon, the IndyCar Series points leader (now up 34 points) who walked away from a scary-looking crash in the Indy 500, came into the weekend having never led a lap at the sprawling four-mile road course in rural Elkhart Lake, Wis. Perhaps it's not too surprising when you consider that IndyCar stupidly left Road America off its schedule for a few years, returning just last season. I've never heard a race track praised more by drivers than Road America, except maybe the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everybody loves it.

The victory was also Dixon's first this season and No. 41 in his career. He's now won an IndyCar race in each of the past 13th seasons, extending his series record.

So why was it an upset? Well, the weekend was dominated by the four Team Penske cars (a good showing for their boss, Roger, who was not at the track for the weekend). In qualifying, it was Team Penske in the Fast Six, along with Dixon and Detroit-doubleheader winner Graham Rahal. Penske had been quick all weekend in their Chevrolet engines, and it just seemed like they'd dominate. They started 1-2-3-4 with Helio Castroneves, 42, earning his 50th pole.

Penske with the strong start 
It was unseasonably chilly, cloudy and windy on race day. Castroneves led the field to the green flag, with everyone sailing through turn one in one piece. That's always a victory in itself, to get through the first corner and then first lap without a yellow flag flying.

Castroneves led 24 laps before Josef Newgarden took the lead from his teammate. Then there was the first caution of the day. As Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato spun on the back part of the course, the field bunched up with Newgarden leading Dixon. The difference here might have been the tire strategy. Newgarden was on the primary black Firestones, while Dixon with his Honda-powered car had the softer alternates/reds. Wasting no time, Dixon took the lead from Newgarden with a pass in turn one on lap 31 of 55.

From there, Dixon widened his gap considerably the next few laps. A longer caution came out near the end of the race, but Dixon held on using his push-to-pass seconds wisely to hold off Newgarden. Castroneves rounded out the podium, followed by the rest of Team Penske with Simon Pagenaud and last year's winner, Will Power. Dixon's teammate Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones (making a very strong case for Rookie of the Year), Rahal, Max Chilton and Mikhail Aleshin rounded out the top 10.

The race that almost wasn't
Dixon won a race that his team wasn't sure he'd be able to run after Sunday's morning warm-up. He only ran one lap and dealt with fuel pressure issues. Whatever was wrong with the car, his Chip Ganassi Racing Team obviously got it all fixed up by the start of the race.

Then he went out and dominated in the last 24 laps, leaving Penske behind. That's where the upset comes in.

Still, Dixon is no stranger to victory. He races with one of the elite teams in the series, is a 2008 Indy 500 champion, former series champion and has 40 other race victories. He's also the eighth driver to win in 10 races this season, showing what a competitive field IndyCar boasts.

It's pretty cool to think about the past month or so for Dixon. From winning the pole for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, to getting robbed later that same night in Indy, hitting the inside wall and destroying his car during the race, then winning everybody's favorite road course.

There's a reason he's nicknamed the Ice Man.

On race day, watching from inside turn 14.

Other Road America tidbits:
-Visa problems for Aleshin. Russian driver for Schmidt-Peterson, Aleshin, had visa problems trying to get back into the United States after his stint in France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So, teammate James Hinchcliffe's buddy Robert Wickens filled in on Friday, driving the No. 7 car in two practice sessions. Aleshin arrived in time for Saturday morning practice, qualifying and a top-10 finish Sunday.

-Driver sightings. It's always fun to roam the paddock and see drivers and team owners, plus take a look at crews working on the cars. Here's who we saw this year: Will Power, Jame Hinchcliffe boarding his scooter, Conor Daly sitting in the team hospitality area, Helio Castroneves probably right before or after he helped a couple with their marriage proposal, retired driver/broadcaster Paul Tracy driving a golf cart toward the paddock, team owner Dale Coyne (Dad wished him "good luck," which he needed after his team's expensive crashes lately), Ryan Hunter-Reay (twice), Charlie Kimball dining at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake Friday evening, Takuma Sato, retired driver/team owner Bryan Herta, former IndyCar driver Max Papis and Carlos Munoz.

Tony Kanaan's 1998 rookie card
-Tony Kanaan's weekend. It's the 20th IndyCar season for Tony Kanaan, one of the series veterans along with Castroneves. Saturday, we saw him in the paddock, and he came over to sign one of my dad's photogrpahs he took of Kanaan on track. I pulled out the 1998 racing card for Kanaan, since I save all that time-capsule stuff. He signed it as well saying, "That's an old one!" Kanaan didn't have a great weekend, failing to get into the second group of qualifying, then connecting with Alexander Rossi and hitting the wall around the Kink.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Photo blog: Road America 2017

It's funny how many photos you take in the digital age. It used to be so easy to cruise through a roll of film taking photos of IndyCars at Road America. Now, you just fill up memory cards and internal phone storage.

It was a great weekend at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. for the Kohler Grand Prix festivities. We spent three days at the track, watching practice and qualifying sessions from different vantage points. So, I compiled a few of the better photos below (no cropping or editing to these). 

Cars on the track facing/driving toward the right are coming out of turn 12/Canada Corner. Cars facing left are headed up the hill after coming out of turn five. There are a couple bonus photos of the paddock as well. Thanks for viewing some of my photos! 

Mikhail Aleshin

Josef Newgarden

James Hinchcliffe

Scott Dixon

Tony Kanaan

Graham Rahal

Carlos Munoz

Alexander Rossi

Max Chilton (No. 8 car) slows out of turn five and lets his teammate Scott Dixon pass.

Simon Pagenaud

Team Penske paddock

Will Power

James Hinchcliffe

Tony Kanaan


Selfie: Road America start/finish line and flagstand.