Author Archives: William Martin

Nashville Stand Up

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The early 1990’s saw the National Hockey League expand to the Southeast Region of the United States. In 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning joined the NHL, while the Florida Panthers would follow suit in 1993. And in 1997, the Hartford Whalers would relocate to Raleigh, North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes. The Panthers would enjoy some early success as they appeared in the Stanley Cup Final in 1996 as Floridians came out to support them. The NHL would continue to expand in the Southeast which saw the Nashville Predators join the league in 1998 which was followed by the Atlanta Thrashers beginning play in 1999.

It took the Predators some time as they were attempting to build a fan base in Music City. And by 2004, the Preds reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Six of the next seven years would see the Predators reach the playoffs, and they were able to win their first playoff series in 2011. But after Nashville missed the postseason in 2013 and 2014, Barry Trotz who up to that point had been the only head coach of the Predators was let go.

Peter Laviolette

Trotz would be replaced by Peter Laviolette who already had a stellar track record which included leading the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Championship in 2006, and leading the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. Laviolette would build off of what Trotz had started, and in the process he has taken the Predators to new heights.

After a 41-29-12 regular season, the Preds entered the Stanley Playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference where they would earn a date with the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. The Blackhawks have been the gold standard in the National Hockey League this decade as they’ve won three Stanley Cup Championships. However when the Predators faced the Blackhawks, it was Nashville who appeared to be the perennial Stanley Cup Champ.

The Preds would sweep the Blackahawks and in the process they would outscore them 13-3 in the series. Nashville wasn’t done there as they would take down the St. Louis Blues in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals which set the stage for a meeting with the Anaheim Ducks. And although that the Ducks became the favorite to win the Western Conference Title when the Blackhawks were eliminated, don’t count the Predators among those who were impressed.

After Nashville went on the road to win Game 1 against the Ducks, they dictated the pace throughout the remainder of the series. The Preds never trailed in the series as far as victories went, in spite of the fact that they lost center Ryan Johansen to a leg injury after he led them in points (61) and assists (47) during the regular season.

But after blowing a lead in Game 4 which allowed the Ducks to tie the series at 2-2, Nashville responded by going to Anaheim and securing a 3-1 victory which put the Predators on the cusp of heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. And with the electricity being so thick at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for Game 6 that you could cut it with a knife, the Preds were up for the challenge.

Left winger Austin Watson and center Colton Sissons got the scoring going for the Predators in the first period as they each scored a goal to give Nashville the 2-0 advantage.

After Ducks right winger Ondrej Kase scored a goal in the second period to cut the Preds lead in half, they would respond when Sissons scored his second goal of the game early in the third period to make it 3-1 in favor of the home team as the miracle appeared ready to happen.

However the Ducks are a resilient team as they would scored a pair of goals in less than four minutes to tie the score at 3-3 while quieting the crowd at the Bridgestone Arena.

But this Predators team simply would not be denied as Sissons sealed the deal by scoring his third goal of the game. And once the Ducks pulled goalie Jonathan Bernier late in the game in order to have an extra skater on the ice, Nashville was able to take advantage by scoring a pair of empty net goals which secured the Western Conference Title as they brought it home in front of their home fans.

The Predators will undoubtedly enter the Stanley Cup Final as the underdog in the Stanley Cup Final as they’ll take on the Pittsburgh Penguins who are the defending champs, but don’t expect Nashville to be fazed.

The Preds weren’t given much of a chance against the Blackhawks whom they swept. They were written off again versus Blues and the same could be said about their encounter with the Ducks. But that is why you have to step on the ice and play as there is no such thing as paper champions.

The Predators are led by a head coach in Laviolette who now joins Dick Irvin, Scotty Bowman, and Mike Keenan as the only head coaches in the illustrious history of the National Hockey League to lead three different franchises to the Stanley Cup Final. Laviolette knows how to do it in a non-traditional hockey market which can be traced back to his time with the Hurricanes. And if anyone thinks that Laviolette is going to let his team slow down in the Stanley Cup Final because Johansen is not there, think again.

Pekka Rinne

The Predators have a solid team which includes a goalie in Pekka Rinne who is hot right now. Rinne is averaging 1.70 goals against during the postseason as it always important to have a net minder between the pipes. For years P.K. Subban has been one of the top defensemen in the National Hockey League. But surprisingly after seven years with the Montreal Canadiens, Subban was traded to the Predators last summer in exchange for defenseman Shea Weber who had become an icon during his 11 years in Nashville. And as good as Weber was for the Preds, Subban has helped give Nashville a new lease on defensive intensity. Players such as Sissons and center Filip Forsberg have been providing the scoring for the Predators in the playoffs as it has been a total team effort.

So now as we’re set to embark on Memorial Day Weekend, the folks in Nashville who are best known for their barbecue and country music will have a front row seat for the National Hockey League’s biggest spectacle. The Predators were born into existence in 1998 after the Tennessee Titans of the National Football League paved the way in Music City in 1997 after nearly four decades as the Houston Oilers. And now the Preds are just four victories away from having the hockey world eating out of the palm of their hands. And even though that a Predators Stanley Cup Championship wouldn’t be a first in the Southeast Region as both the Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup, it would still be special as this band of brothers has come out of nowhere to shock the hockey world.

Source: Hockey-reference.com

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On Cruise Control

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The Golden State Warriors are heading back to the NBA Finals, while the San Antonio Spurs are attempting to pick up the pieces.

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A World Series Hangover

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When the 2016 Major League Baseball season concluded, the Chicago Cubs were able to do something that no one in their current fan base had previously been able to enjoy. The Cubs World Series Championship marked the first time that they had won it all since 1908 and thus they became rock stars within the Windy City. Every place that the Cubs went they were adored and given the red carpet treatment. The love affair with the Cubs would continue this year in spring training as they were selling out the majority of their exhibition games. And when the regular season began last month, the Cubs were able to raise their World Series banner, while also receiving exquisite World Series rings. But one of the questions that I posed in my baseball preview for this year was whether or not that the Cubs would have a World Series hangover here in 2017; and right now it appears that they just might.

Through 43 games the Cubs find themselves with a record of 22-21 which is good for third place in the National League Central. And after the Cubs won a combined 200 games over the last two regular seasons, they are going to have to put in some work this time around.

The talent is still in place for the Cubs to be successful as they have the likes of starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and third baseman Kris Bryant who is the reigning National League MVP, while Joe Maddon is still the manager of this team. But after the Cubs spent this past winter hearing how good that they were from passers by along with the media constantly discussing them, they must now accept the fact that they’re going to play 162 World Series games this season just to make it back to the postseason.

In winning 103 games last year, the Cubs won the National League Central by 17.5 games, while they also went 50-25 within the division. This season the Cubs are 15-11 versus the N.L. Central and it appears that they’re going to be in for a dog fight as the teams within the division have improved in the hopes of overtaking Chicago.

The Cubs were able to win their series last week against the Cincinnati Reds whom they swept, but the same could not be said about their previous three series. The Cubs were swept at home by the New York Yankees, while they also dropped series’ versus the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. And when you peel back the surface and take a look into the organs and infrastructure of the 2017 version of the Cubs, the key ingredient that is missing for them is hunger.

Joe Maddon

When Maddon joined the Cubs in 2015 after nine years as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, he was the perfect person to lead this team that was young, hungry, and playing with house money as they all were attempting to establish themselves.The Cubs were the sweethearts in 2015 as they secured a wild card berth and made it to the National League Championship Series before being swept by the New York Mets. The Cubs would use the loss to the Mets as hunger for last year, but where will that extra desire come from this year?

The Cubs team earned run average of 3.94 is fourth in the National League, but that number is deceiving. Arrieta is 5-3, but his earned run average is 4.80, and he has been unable to get past the sixth inning in any start since April 9 as this is a far cry from a man who won the N.L. Cy Young Award in 2015. Starting pitcher Jon Lester was 19-5 last year with an earned run average of 2.44, but this time around he is 2-2 with an ERA of 3.57. In allowing relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to leave as a free agent to re-join the Yankees, the Cubs didn’t skip a beat as they acquired relief pitcher Wade Davis from the Kansas City Royals. Davis already has 9 saves, but he could have more if the Cubs starters were handing him the ball with a lead in the ninth inning.

Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo

The Cubs offense is surprisingly a middle of the pack unit in spite all of their firepower. Last year the Cubs were the modern day Murderers’ Row as they decimated opposing pitching staffs. Bryant is off to another solid start as he is batting .296 with 10 home runs and 22 runs batted in. Rizzo has 8 homers and his 24 runs batted in lead the team. However Rizzo has not been consistent at the plate which is illustrated in his .222 batting average. Outfielder Kyle Schwarber is a power threat, but his batting average is south of .200. The Cubs are not getting quality production from youngsters such as infielder Addison Russell who is only batting .216, while even a dependable veteran in utility man Ben Zobrist has yet to get it going as he is only batting .252. And after the Cubs gave outfielder Jason Heyward $184 million over eight years, his signing could be one of the worst free agency deals in the franchise’s history as the oft-injured right fielder is only batting .255 with 3 homers and 17 runs batted in this season.

But little did we know of the impact that outfielder Dexter Fowler had on the Cubs lineup over the last two years. Fowler was the Cubs table setter over the last two seasons, however Chicago allowed him to hit free agency and he joined the rival Cardinals, while leaving Chicago without a guy to generate some life for their offense which is showing up this season.

The Cubs are in third place in the National League Central, but they aren’t far off of the pace as they’re only 2.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs definitely have a run in them due to the fact that at some point their offense should be able to get clicking and the same is true in regards to their starting pitching staff. And even if the Cubs can’t get it going, I expect their president of baseball operations in Theo Epstein to use all of his resources to make deals in order to get this team back to the postseason.

The taste of victory was very sweet for the Cubs last year, but now that their appetite has been satisfied, will they have enough left for another helping of success this season?

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2017 Major League Baseball Quarter Pole

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New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2017 Major League Baseball season.

 

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Setting A New Standard

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It’s getting very hard to find new adjectives to describe what Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is doing on the baseball diamond. Trout is only 25-years of age, but he is already a two-time American League MVP, while he won the A.L. Rookie of the Year in 2012. Trout has a career batting average of .308, while he is on pace to hit at least 25 home runs for the sixth consecutive year. Trout continues to amaze in the field as well as his wizardry in the outfield has not been consistently seen like this since the days of Ken Griffey Jr. And although that Trout is only 25, his numbers already are putting him in line to one day be enshrined into Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Trout is off to another solid start here in 2017 as he is batting .348 which is third in the American League, while he also has 13 home runs and 30 runs batted in. Trout continues to be in that rare air of player as he has gone yard in five of the Angels last six games, and when you show up to park to see him perform (whether it is batting practice or the game) you’re typically in for a treat.

Trout calls Orange County home, but right now he finds himself on the big stage as his Angels are visiting the New York Mets. Trout is originally from Melville, New Jersey which is less than three hours away from Flushing. Trout grew up as a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies who happen to be one of the Mets biggest rivals, and he has the ability to turn Citi Field into his own playground.

Trout possesses all of the tools in his arsenal to succeed as there is nothing that he cannot do on the baseball diamond. And after Trout’s last two seasons flew under the radar due to the fact that the Angels simply didn’t have a good team around him, his 2017 campaign could be magnified since the Halos currently possess a winning record.

The past few years have seen Trout consistently compared to Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper in regards to who is the best player in Major League Baseball, but for my money Trout has the edge. As good as Harper is and can be, he has not been consistent from year-to-year like Trout has. Trout was able to burst onto the scene in 2012 and he has never looked back as comparisons to himself and Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle are pretty accurate being that he is the face of Major League Baseball.

Another American League MVP Award for Trout would make him the first, three-time winner since Alex Rodriguez. But unlike Rodriguez, Trout’s reputation is squeaky clean as he does not have a steroid cloud hovering over him which makes him a marketing goldmine; especially in Southern California.

There is absolutely nothing that Trout can’t do on the baseball diamond which is further magnified by the fact that he typically leads Major League Baseball in WAR (wins above replacement) each year. It’s also scary good that Trout is only 25-years of age as I do believe that he has yet to reach his ceiling.

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Struck While The Iron Was Hot

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After nearly 25 years of futility, the Kansas City Royals broke through to win 86 games in 2013. The Royals won the American League Pennant in 2014 before taking home the World Series Championship in 2015. But immediately following their World Series victory, the Royals would take a step back in 2016 as they went 81-81 and things have gotten worse for them this time around.

The Royals currently are 17-23 which has them in last place in the American League Central as they are 4.5 games behind the first place Minnesota Twins. Even when the Royals won the World Series in 2015, they weren’t a team an offensive juggernaut as they relied on timely clutch hitting to compliment their pitching staff. But as the Royals pitching staff has a team earned run average of 4.24 which is tenth in the A.L., while they are near the bottom of most of the major offensive statistical categories, if has been difficult for them to stay afloat. And although that there is still plenty of time for teams to turn things around for the 2017 Major League Baseball season, that might not be the case for the Royals who are dealing with a harsh reality.

Kauffman Stadium

Kansas City is one of the smaller media markets in Major League Baseball and the Royals team payroll of $155 million on Opening Day this year was 15th in the league. But the foundation of the Royals mini dynasty began to erode immediately after they secured the final out of the World Series in 2015 versus the New York Mets.

Starting pitcher Johnny Cueto and utility man Ben Zobrist were each acquired by the Royals prior to the trade deadline in 2015. Both players were expected to only be rentals once Kansas City’s World Series run came to an end which was the case as Cueto landed a six-year, $130 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, while Zobrist joined the Chicago Cubs to the tune of a four-year deal for $56 million. The exodus continued in Kansas City following the 2016 Major League Baseball season as designated hitter Kendrys Morales would join the Toronto Blue Jays, starting pitcher Edinson Volquez would sign with the Miami Marlins. Outfielder Jarrod Dyson was traded to the Seattle Mariners, while relief pitcher Wade Davis was shipped to the Cubs. But the biggest blow of them all for the Royals came on January 22nd when starting pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in an automobile accident in his native Dominican Republic. And now the only key components that remain from the Royals championship team are first baseman Eric Hosmer, catcher Salvador Perez, third baseman Mike Moustakas, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon. But the reality of the Royals being a small market has once again set in as with Cain, Hosmer, Escobar, and Moustakas are all set to become a free agents at the conclusion of this season as the end of the line is near for a team that enjoyed a meteoric rise.

And this is the reality of the current landscape in Major League Baseball as with free agency, it is difficult for teams to keep their core players for a long time; especially in the smaller media markets such as Kansas City. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane has been the godfather of this as he’s been notorious for trading players prior to them hitting free agency in order to stock pile prospects in his minor-league system. But unlike Beane whose Athletics have not reached the World Series since 1990, Royals general manager Drayton Moore was able to develop his players, while making the right moves to bring Kansas City the World Series Championship in 2015. Of all of the Royals pending free agents, only one will probably still be in Kansas City when 2018 rolls around. And if the Royals continue to struggle this season, Moore will definitely be ready to wave the white flag prior to the trading deadline.

So when the Royals entered the playoffs in 2014 as a Cinderella wild card that got hot en route to defeating division winners in the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles to win the American League Pennant before bowing out to the Giants in seven games in the World Series, the Royals represented the underdog. However when Kansas City won it all in 2015, they were an established team full of players who were hungry to win it all after barely missing out in the previous year. But now it appears that it will be back to the drawing board for Moore as the chemistry and depth that was there for the Royals in 2015 has faded rather quickly.

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We Have Liftoff

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After the Houston Astros made the World Series for the first and only time in franchise history in 2005, they faced a steady decline. The Astros bottomed out by having three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 2011-2013. But by 2015, the Astros found themselves back in the postseason. The Astros would win 84 games last year, but it wasn’t good enough for them to make the playoffs. However a few tweaks to the Astros over the winter by team general manager Jeff Luhnow have them as the team to beat in the American League West here in 2017.

The biggest move that the Astros made in the off-season was to acquire veteran catcher Brian McCann from the New York Yankees for his ability to call a game behind the plate. And McCann’s presence in Houston is paying off.

Dallas Keuchel

After posting 20 victories in 2015 en route to winning the American League Cy Young Award, Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel took a step back last year. Keuchel was coming off of leading the A.L. in innings with 232 and was never able to get on track. However with McCann calling games for Keuchel this season, he has resumed his post as one of the better pitchers in Major League Baseball. In eight starts Keuchel is 7-0 with an earned run average of 1.84 which has been highlighted by a complete game performance versus the Cleveland Indians on April 25 where he surrendered a pair of runs. And in each start that Keuchel has made this year, he has given Astros manager A.J. Hinch at least six innings.

Journeyman starting pitcher Charlie Morton is in his first year with Houston and he has been another hurler who has benefited from McCann calling games as well as the as the Astros potent offense. Morton’s single-season career-high for victories came in 2011 when he won 10 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But here in 2017, Morton is already halfway to matching that total as he is 5-2 with an earned run average of 3.97. And if having to deal with the Astros starting pitchers isn’t enough for opponents, they then have to face relief pitcher Ken Giles whose 10 saves so far in 2017 are tied for the second most in the American League.

Offensively the Astros are one of the best units in baseball as they are first in the American League in batting average (.275), hits (377), and runs batted in (198), while they are second in home runs (53), and runs scored (196). Second baseman Jose Altuve has lead the A.L. in hits for each of the last three years and he’ll once again be in the running. Altuve is batting .295, and he’ll pick it up soon to get his average back above .300 where it has been in each of the last three years. Shortstop Carlos Correa continues to build off of winning the A.L.’s Rookie of the Year Award in 2015 as he is off to a hot start this season by batting .294 with 5 home runs and 23 runs batted in. And just as important that it was for the Astros to acquire McCann, picking up a pair of veterans in outfielder Josh Reddick and designated hitter Carlos Beltran for their lineup has been huge.

Reddick and the Astros agreed to a four-year deal for $52 million in the off-season as he has given Houston a true professional in every sense of the term in their lineup. Reddick is going to show up ready to play each day and that mindset blends in nicely with a team that simply keeps finding a way to win games. And as for Beltran, he was the guy who got away from Houston in 2004, but he has found his way back there.

In 2004, the Astros acquired Beltran from the Kansas City Royals and he went on a tear to help Houston make the playoffs. In 90 games with the Astros in 2004, Beltran hit 23 home runs, but he turned it up to another level in the postseason where he hit 8 homers in just 12 games. This production led Beltran to being a very sought after free agent as he would agree to a seven-year deal for $119 million with the New York Mets. Beltran has contributed to each team that he has played for during his Major League Baseball career, and with a career batting average of .281 to go along with 424 career home runs, he is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. And even though Beltran’s physical skills have diminished now at the age of 40, his two decades of Major League Baseball experience is coming in handy for the Astros.

Reddick and Beltran have joined a solid lineup that includes utility man Evan Gattis, infielder Yuli Gurriel who recently defected from Cuba, and infielder Marwin Gonzalez to give the Astros their best hitting lineup since the days of the “Killer B’s” which featured Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and Derek Bell.

At 29-12, the Astros have the best record in Major League Baseball. The Astros currently have an 8.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers for second place in the American League West as they are 17-6 within their division. Houston served notice this past weekend when they took three out of four games on the road versus the New York Yankees who had been the hottest team in baseball.

The Astros hot start has put Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch in a good position as even though it still might be too early for them to think about it, but they could be buyers in order to enhance their team.

In 2015, the Astros pushed the eventual World Series Champion Royals to the limit before bowing out in five games in the American League Divisional Series. This time around the Astros can build off of that as youngsters such as Correa, Keuchel, and outfielder George Springer have more experience.

The 2017 Major League Baseball season is far from over, but things are shaping up to be very good for the Astros.

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