All-Star Break Optimism
Not too long ago the Pittsburgh Pirates were like nine games behind first place and in last place. With the All-Star game tomorrow, Major League Baseball is at their halfway point and all the sudden the Bucs are right back in the playoff hunt. Having gone 6-4 in their last 10 but taking two out of three this past weekend from the second place Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh is right in the thick of the National League Central division race just 2 ½ games behind the Chicago Cubs.
When play resumes next weekend, the Pirates will be in Chicago with a fantastic opportunity to shake up the division by playing the Cubs. At this time last season, at the halfway point, the Buccos were 48-49 and in fourth place, nine games back from the division lead. Now they head into the Home Run derby tonight finding themselves at 44-45 and razor close to the Cubs. Milwaukee maintains second place ½ game out and the Cardinals stay head of the Pirates but just by ½ game as well. Cincinnati sits in the basement 4 ½ games back.
What’s special about this season so far is how well some of the Pirates starters are performing. The first name that comes to mind is that of Bryan Reynolds who came to Pittsburgh in the Andrew McCutchen trade with the San Francisco Giants back in 2018. This is Reynolds’ first year in the bigs and he is making it count. He’s one of four Pirates regulars hitting over .300 and for this rookie, he finishes the first half of the season with a .342 mark and has been tearing the cover off the ball as of late.
He only has seven home runs, but Bryan Reynolds has scored 38 times, has 76 hits in 222 at-bats, and has knocked in 33 RBIs. But it’s that average that is impressive and his timely hitting. Then there is the replacement for Jordy Mercer, Kevin Newman who made his debut last season with 31 game appearances and he hit just .209. But in 2019 Newman is hitting at a .327 clip at the break and his numbers are close to that of Reynolds.
Newman has had 73 hits in 223 at-bats, scored 25 runs and knocked in 33 as well. His home run number is one short of the rookie Reynolds. Then there is veteran Melky Cabrera. A former Cleveland Indian, the Tribe had sent him to the minors but he opted for free agency last October and the Pirates snatched him up this past February. Debuting with the Yankees in 2005 and having played for the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and lastly with Cleveland, Cabrera is a lifetime .286 hitter but for Pittsburgh, he’s hitting .312. He replaced Cory Dickerson in the outfield as Dickerson has struggled this season after a solid campaign in 2018.
When the Pirates sent Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros in January 2018 and in return received Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, many thought sending the Bucs ace to another team would hurt the team. Quite the contrary. Moran is hitting .294 while playing the hot corner and has hit 10 home runs with 49 ribbies. Musgrove has been up and down with a 6-7 record and a 4.15 ERA but has struck out 83 while walking only 23.
On the mound we have Steven Brault. Thus far in 2019 he has won three of four decisions and struck out 53 batters in 60 2/3 innings. But at the plate his bat has done well. In 21 plate appearances, Brault has had eight hits which is good for a .381 average. But perhaps the two biggest offensive stars aside from Bryan Reynolds are Josh Bell and Adam Frazier.
Bell heads into tonight’s Home Run Derby and a chance to win $1 million. But at the plate this year he is absolutely tearing it up. Bell is hitting a cool .302 but leads the major leagues in RBIs with 84. That places him 13 ahead of the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and 17 ahead of the Angels’ Mike Trout. Think about this for the moment, the all-time record for runs batted in for a single season is 191 set by Hack Wilson in 1930. That leaves Bell 107 behind when the Pirates resume play this Friday. But if he can match his first half total then he would finish the season with 168 RBIs which would tie him with Hank Greenberg and Babe Ruth for 9th most in history for one season. With 168 runs batted in, if Bell reaches that total he would fall one short of tying the legendary Jimmie Foxx for 8th place and just two behind Chuck Klein’s 170 also in 1930.
As Josh Bell tries to put them out of the park tonight, in 2019 he has hit 27 regular season dingers. That is four short of the National League leaders Christian Yelich and three behind Bellinger and Pete Alonso. Mike Trout has just a single home run more than does Bell so far. Bell is also just one run behind in runs scored with 69 trailing again, Bellinger. Bell has the third best slugging percentage in the N.L. Adding to his hit total are 30 doubles which leads the team and three triples.
Adam Frazier is having a decent season with a .287 average and has 89 hits. Forgotten in this first half success is Starling Marte who is quietly hitting .270 and leads the team in stolen bases with 13. Marte is hitting .279 and has 12 round trippers as well as knocking in 45 runs and scoring 54 of his own.
What might lead to the Pirates falling short of a post-season appearance may be their pitching. Their team ERA of 4.91 is 23rd best in the MLB. They’ve given up 468 runs while scoring only 432. However, their team average of .271 is third best behind Boston and Minnesota. Musgrove leads the pitching staff with six wins but he has a losing record with seven losses. The star on the mound has to be Felipe Vazquez. Originally with the Washington Nationals where he got his start in 2015 before being traded to the Bucs in the Mark Melancon deal.
When that trade was made you may remember him as Felipe Rivero, but the young pitched changed his name to “Vazquez” simply because he wanted the same last name of his sister who is one of his biggest supporters. Again, thinking Melancon was a bad deal, it’s quite the opposite. Melancon spent the remainder of the season with the Nationals in 2016 when he was dealt there then moved to the San Francisco Giants where he remains.
Since leaving Pittsburgh, Melancon has had just 14 saves in the last three seasons including this year. So far in 2019, Vazquez already has 20 with a superb ERA of 2.11. He has struck out 60 in 38 1/3 innings and has a 2-1 record. So it remains to be seen if the Pirates can get better starting pitching in the second half and if the offense can maintain the hot bats at the plate. Are they good enough to be a playoff team? Most experts think not because of the starting rotation. I believe they can win this division but I don’t think they are good enough to overtake the Dodgers.
Stealing the Show
So if you are an MMA fan and watched UFC 239 Saturday night, you got your money’s worth. While the main event saw Jon Jones defend his light heavyweight title against Thiago Santos, the star of the card was without any doubt Jorge Masvidal. Scoring the fastest KO in UFC history of just five seconds over Ben Askren, it was more his commentary and actions following the fight that instantly made him a media and fan darling.
Mixed with humor, downright frankness in his conversation, and his strategy for beating a way overrated Askren, the other fights despite some fantastic finishes, take a backseat to what Masvidal accomplished. Ben Askren may easily be the most disliked fighter in UFC history and Masvidal knew it. Prior to the fight he admitted he had fans come up to him asking him to not just beat the former Olympic wrestling champion but to punish him.
The fight goes down as a five second fight but only because the referee had to rescue Askren after Masvidal’s crazy, insane, and ridiculous knee to the head of Askren that took a few more seconds to wave off the fight. So in reality, it was more like a two second fight. But what makes me laugh and makes it more obvious of how stupid and untalented an MMA fighter Ben Askren is, comes down to Masvidal claiming all week that all the former amateur wrestler does is “He's not a guy that fights, you know. He puts his face in another man's crotch and he hopes to God that the guy'll get tired, and that's how he wins. I can't relate with that. My crotch ain’t for dudes.”
So knowing that Askren’s strategy is to shoot Masvidal enters the Octagon with a smile and his hands behind his back all the way up until the ref said “fight.” I ask you, if you are Ben Askren and you look across and see a guy standing there with his hands behind his back, does that not tell you something is not right? That your opponent does not look ready to fight? I’ve never not once seen a fighter in MMA stand across just before the opening bell with his hands behind his back.
So as Masvidal rushes to Askren, this moron goes for the shoot just as Jorge had predicted and expected. Some are saying it was a lucky flying knee that knocked Ben Askren out cold (and I mean STIFF), but that’s utter bullshit. He planned the flying knee, had practiced it in training, and accoring to Dustin Poirier the night before the fight, Poirier was told by Masvidal he was going to open with it.
If you see a fighter bull rushing you like that, should you not take a step to either side to avoid anything coming? Not for Askren who put his head down and if you watch the replay, you will see Masvidal lining up his knee and watching it so it would land perfectly. Than as an insult to injury he would land two more punches to the the unconscious Askren’s head for good measure. Masvidal said later that “I was hoping the referee would trip or something because I wanted to get a couple more shots in.”
Fans are taking the extra shots as uneccessary but they were not. In MMA you fight until a referee steps in. Masvidal did nothing wrong but more did very right and granted anyone who does not like Ben Askren or believe in his abilities a favor because hopefully he will now realize he is not cut out for the UFC and if I was Dana White, I would not sign him to another UFC fight. He got lucky and received a gift against Robbie Lawlor and anyone in the top 10 of that division would easily beat Ben Askren.
Before the fight, Askren was asked how he would beat Jorge Masvidal and his reponse was “anyway I want.” Yea right. Five seconds later and you look like a complete loser and idiot. Masvidal took it a step further after rendering Askren unconscious by kneeling down next to the curly haired “Funky” one and like they do in pro wrestling, gave him a three count slap of the canvas counting him out. Then he went to a different part of the Octagon and curled up like he was going to sleep. PRICELESS.
What is more priceless are some of the things Masvidal said which were HILAROUS. Check out these absolute gems.
What I really like about Jorge Masvidal is that he’s a real person. Nothing phony about him, he has a fighter’s attitude, the type that makes a fighter great. If you don’t have any inch of a killer instinct in your attitude, you will not become a great fighter. Don’t get me wrong, you can be highly skilled and still achieve greatness without being an animal, and Jon Jones might be that kind of fighter. But for Masvidal, it’s kill or be killed which made this fight such a joke and an utterly huge mismatch.
For the record, I had Masvidal by KO in the first our second round. Never would have I guessed five seconds! Oh yes, there were other fights on the card! Two championship fights in fact. Before I get to the main and co-main events, three other fights worth mentioning.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Arnold Allen
It’s time for Melendez to hang it up. He was outclassed, outworked, and a loser by decision to Arnold Allen, a fighter hardly anyone knew prior to the fight. Melendez appeared to be a shadow of himself and I was surprised he didn’t announce his retirement. I had predicted this with the veteran fighter to win which he did not. Melendez is not far behind B.J. Penn for consecutive losses as this was his fifth in a row. For the record, Penn has lost seven in a row. Both men need to find new careers.
Diego Sanchez vs. Michael Chiesa
Sanchez gave the oddest interview ever the day before the fight then went out and was rendered useless by the grappling Michael Chiesa who fought a very intelligent fight never giving the raging lunatic in Sanchez a chance to get off with any offense. Sanchez spent three rounds trying to find a way to get off his back and it might be time for Diego to call it a day as well.
Solid grappling and riding time of an opponent may not be the most exciting way to win but it’s effective and it worked to perfection for Chiesa. I thought given Sanchez’s style he would score a stoppage but Chiesa surprised many with the result. While Diego Sanchez is one of the most popular and well like fighters in the UFC, in his last 10 fights he has been terribly inconsistent losing half of those bouts.
Luke Rockhold vs. Jan Błachowicz
Rockhold might be the second most disliked fighter next to Ben Askren. The now “model” and sometimes fighter has had several terrible losses by knockout and now comes another crushing one at the hands of Poland’s Blachowicz who hit Rockhold so hard he broke his jaw. Even Dana White concluded in the post-fight news conference that it might be time for Rockhold to model full time. I scored a perfect prediction on this one picking Blachowicz by KO in the second.
Rockhold has now lost three of his last four with only the victory over David Branch mixed in and all three losses were by KO. This one, to Yoel Romero and a devastating knock out at the hands of Michael Bisping. After 21 pro fights Luke Rockhold has now lost five and all five have been by KO.
Amanda Nunes vs. Holly Holm
When these two women entered the Octagon for this championship bout, watching with my wife I turned to her and said that Holm looked very tight, nervous, and not loose. Across from her stood the champion, Amanda Nunes who appeared loose and ready to go. Right there you knew the former champion Holm was in trouble. Nunes had said she wanted to defeat Holly Holm at her own game which is with kicks and sure enough, just the same way Holm ended Ronda Rousey’s reign Nunes scored a perfect head kick to Holm and she went down and out. A few more strikes to finish the show didn’t matter because Holm was in lala land.
Since beating Rousey, Holm lost the title in the next bout getting choked out and unconscious by Miesha Tate and has lost four of her last six since losing the title including three title bouts. Ahhh…time to quit Holly. My pick on this one was the champ but not until the second or third round and by KO or submission.
Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos
Now what was the headliner of the night turned out to be the least exciting fight on the main card. Unfortunately in the first round the challenger Thiago Santos injured his knee while trying to throw a kick. From that point on, he was not as effective a fighter as he normally would be. Bravely he fought on while it was obviously the champion Jon Jones was having an off night evident by the many missed elbow, strikes and wheel kicks. Neither fighter was ever seriously hurt by any strikes and the leg kicks by both had an effect that left both men leaving the Octagon with a limp.
The fight went the distance and as I had predicted it was Jones but decision, but unanimous it was not. A split decision surprised many and angered Dana White who said later there was not way Santos should have won on any card. That’s just another sign of what I’ve been saying for years that Dana White is the ABSOLUTE WORST president of any professional sport. No matter what the outcome of a fight he should stay NEUTRAL in his words. It’s ridiculous and by earning a split decision, Thiago Santos if 100% healthy and didn’t have a mobility problem because of the knee most likely wins this fight.
A man that is supposed to be the greatest pound-for-pound fighter and best light heavyweight ever, looked nothing of the sort. In fact, he looked beatable. This result should become a rematch for both men in their next fight. There can be no other matchmaking for either man. This is a fight that needs to be run back.
Often in the UFC when there is a “stacked” card, many times it just doesn’t deliver. This one did. The main card was outstanding even though the main event lacked power. It was more of a chess match but it still was worth watching. The other fights had fantastic endings and as my wife and I were calling the main card, it was a lineup of “scumbags.” Guys and girls you just wanted to see lose and lose in a bad way because of the trashing talking and arrogance as well as cockiness. So down went those scumbags in Luke Rockhold, Ben Askren, and Holly Holm. The only one that didn’t lose that we don’t care for is Jones but I think his time will come eventually.
If you are wondering why I put Holly Holm in that mix it’s because she is cocky, over confident, and in reality, she might be a great kick boxer, but almost to the degree of a Ben Askren, she is NOT a well rounded MMA fighter. Certainly not in the championship form. For the record, the only bonuses granted for the night were all “Performance of the Night” awards and the cash bonuses went to Amanda Nunes, Jorge Masvidal, Jan Błachowicz and Yadong Song.
Through the Nets
In that National Basketball Association over the weekend, the Brooklyn Nets instantly made them a serious threat to unseat the Toronto Raptors at least as Eastern Conference champions. That’s because they have signed the following players to a contract or obtained in a trade:
The 2019-2020 season is already shaping up to be a very intriguing one given this year’s draft class and the incredible player movement from team to team.
Congratulations to the U.S. women’s soccer team winners of the 2019 World Cup as they defeat Netherlands 2-0 on goals by Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle. The American women have now defended their World Cup title and have won four of eight attempts at being the world’s best team in the sport.
Shades of Pete Rose and Ray Fosse
Back in the 1970 All-Star game, Pete Rose ran over catcher Ray Fosse dislocating his shoulder and altering his career. We had a very close replay of that type of base running this weekend.