Red Sox Start Gauntlet Feeling Squeaky Clean

After a tremendous run of play against bad teams, the Red Sox entered a gauntlet stretch of their schedule. They have resurrected their season from 9-games under .500 to now 11 games over .500 in a short span of time thanks to a 20-4 record since June 1, but that’s only relevant if they can beat good and great teams in the next month. During this stretch that began on June 24th, the Sox play AL East opponents (except the 5th place Orioles) 20 times in 26 games, including a 17-straight game stretch wrapping around the break, all 3 AL East teams with at least 40 wins and 8+ games over .500 as of today. This is without a doubt a season defining place in their schedule and thus far, they’re putting on a show. They started off against the red hot 36-29 (at the time) Cleveland Guardians on the road and pulled out the brooms, sweeping the 3-game set. There isn’t a better way to start a tough patch in the schedule than to take care of business against a quality opponent on the road, but now comes the even bigger test.

Starting Monday, the Red Sox travel north of the border to take on the 40-32 Toronto Blue Jays. That alone would be a tough task for any team, but when you factor in those players who can’t travel to Canada thanks to their vaccination status, it becomes an even taller task. Tanner Houck has emerged as the Red Sox closer and has proven to be reliable in that role (6 for 6 in save opportunities), but will be unable to travel with the team and leaves a hole in the late-game bullpen for the Sox. Jarren Duran has finally had another chance at the highest level and has made it difficult for the Red Sox to take him out of the lineup as he’s hitting .327 and has accumulated 4 stolen bases in 13 games this year. His speed on the base-paths is a potential game-changer for the Sox, but for arguably one of the most important series of the season thus far, he’ll be watching on TV with Houck. On the minor-league side, Ryan Fitzgerald would seem like a good replacement for the Canada trip, but he is also unvaccinated and can’t travel. In a series that could very well be the difference in playoff seeding come October, the Red Sox are in a tight spot with roster management.

Moving on from Toronto, life only gets harder. The Sox will host the depleted but still tough Tampa Bay Rays for 3, then host the hottest team in baseball, the New York Yankees. The Yankees are having a historic start to the 2022 season despite getting no-hit by the Houston Astros this week. They are 53-20 as of Monday morning, on pace for 117/118 wins and are getting strong performances across their roster. If you’re looking for a silver lining as a Red Sox fan, the Yankees are just 4-4 in their last 8 games with 2 losses against the Astros, 1 against Tampa and 1 against Toronto. They have looked like they may be settling back to just being a great and elite team, rather than a historic one, although I’m not putting my money on a huge regression (maybe just a small one). As if we couldn’t get enough of the rivalry, the Red Sox then head to Yankee Stadium for a 3-game set after a 4-game set in Tampa against the Rays. Where the Red Sox sit at the All-Star break and how legitimate of a playoff contender they are, will in large part be shaped by Tampa and New York over the first 2 weeks of July.

After the All-Star break, things don’t really calm down until August and even then, just barely. The Sox play Toronto for 3 following the break, then the Guardians for 4 at Fenway, followed by a 3-game set with the 1st place Milwaukee Brewers. Following a 3-game road set with the Houston Astros, the Red Sox have a small respite, playing 4 in Kansas City against the lowly Royals before a date with the 42-32 Atlanta Braves and then another 3-game set with the Yankees (with one game against the Orioles sandwiched between series). I don’t need to spell out the entire schedule for you, although I got pretty close, but just know it’s going to be a brutal next 4+ weeks for the Red Sox. If they can perform at a high level and beat elite opponents, the trade deadline becomes even more intriguing. What moves would the Sox be willing to make if they genuinely feel they can contend for a title? On the flip side, struggling against divisional opponents may make the trade deadline a much more low-key affair.

While sweeps are fantastic, to me this next stretch is about series wins and splits. Expecting this team to sweep opponents the caliber of the Yankees is a bit unrealistic, but taking 2 out of 3 or splitting a 4-game set is not unreasonable and would be very telling. The Sox are not likely to catch the Yankees at this point, but the focus should be on the 1st Wild Card spot and the path there is series wins, especially against their closest opponents in the standings (Toronto and Tampa Bay). If the Sox continue to win series and the Yankees were to significantly stumble, anything is possible if you hang tight. With the Red Sox potentially having some pitching reinforcements arriving back from injury in the next few weeks (Chris Sale and Garrett Whitlock), things could continue to roll on into August and beyond. After spilling tons of metaphorical ink about the Red Sox woes the first 2 months of the season, things look quite different now for the home town team. Will we still feel optimistic in a few weeks?

UConn Baseball with a Super Feeling

For the 1st time since 2011, the UConn Huskies baseball team is headed to the NCAA Super Regionals. While some are shocked by their NCAA Regional victory as a #3 seed, fans of this team knew a Super was a strong possibility in 2022. After spending much of the year in the top 25, reaching as high as #13, the ridiculous strength of schedule and RPI metrics not only put the Big East Champs out of the opportunity to host a regional, they pushed them down the line to a #3 seed. With a chip on their shoulder they traveled to Maryland with a singular mission: win at all costs. Now, after going 3-1, including 2 wins against hosts #15 Maryland, Jim Penders and his team are playing next weekend.

The Huskies kicked off the weekend against #2 seed Wake Forest (and RPI #6 in the country). They were tasked with slowing down the powerful bats of the Demon Deacons who hit the 4th most HRs this season with 122. UConn ace Austin Peterson through 6 strong innings, allowing just 2 runs and striking out 11. The Husky offense beat up ACC Pitcher of the Year Rhett Lowder for 7 runs and 11 hits in 6.1 innings and looked to be on their way to an easy W. Unfortunately, nothing is easy in the postseason. The UConn bullpen struggled, as Devin Kirby allowed 4 runs and Wake tied the game at 7 in the 8th inning. Thanks to a Ben Huber RBI double and a shutdown bottom of the 9th from closer Justin Willis, the Huskies pulled out a huge 8-7 victory, keeping them in the winners bracket.

Following the Maryland spanking of LIU in their first game 23-2, it was a matchup against the hosts for UConn. While Wake Forest was #4 in the country in HRs, Maryland was #2, only behind the #1 overall team in the country Tennessee. UConn was tasked with holding down an offense that scores in bunches in their small home park. The Huskies got a tremendous start from their #2 starter Pat Gallagher, a 7 inning, 2 run, 6 K performance, shutting down the Terrapin offense. It was a 2-2 game in the bottom of the 7th when UConn added 3 runs thanks to a Matt Donlan 3-run bomb. The Huskies added 4 insurance runs in the 8th to hit double digits, which turned out to be useful as Maryland mounted a 3-run 9th, but fell short as UConn won 10-5. The 2nd straight win sent Maryland to an elimination game and put UConn in the driver’s seat to win the regional.

Thanks to their 2-0 record, UConn had to be beaten twice in order to be eliminated from the regional. After Maryland dispatched Wake Forest in the afternoon elimination game, the Sunday night pressure was on the hosts. The rematch between the Terrapins and Huskies was an epic battle. Maryland came out of the gates hot with a HR and 3 runs in the first. They added a 4th run in the 5th and seemed to be asserting themselves. Then came a huge 4-run 6th for the Huskies, tying the game. Maryland plated 2 in the 7th and UConn once again countered with 2 in the 8th. The game was hanging on every pitch and despite opportunities for both teams, the game dragged into extra innings. With pitching limited Maryland was able to string together some baserunners and ultimately win on a walkoff in the bottom of the 11th inning. The hosts had life and it all came down to one game with the winner going to the Super Regionals.

Monday night started with a bang for Maryland as they scored one on a big HR in the top half of the 1st. The bottom half however, could not have been much better for the Huskies. A depleted Maryland pitching staff started Andrew Johnson, who did not allow a hit in 2/3 of an inning, but walked 4 and ultimately was charged with 4 runs. His replacement, Sean Heine, allowed the first hit of the game for the Huskies and one of the biggest hits of the season, a Matt Donlan grand slam. The Huskies walked away with 6 runs on 1 hit, and were on their way. UConn added 1 in the 3rd and 2 in the 4th to go up 9-1, but with this prolific Maryland offense, you just felt that wasn’t enough. After allowing 4 in the top of the 5th thanks to some shaky Husky defense, they added one more in the bottom half to bring the lead to 5, 10-5. After adding 2 in the 7th and 1 in the 8th, Maryland was only down 2 with 3 outs remaining. UConn was the beneficiary of a correct, but rarely called runner interference call in the top of the 8th that wiped a run off the board and kept the game at 10-8. Closer Justin Willis got a huge groundball out to end the inning after the call and that halted Maryland’s comeback attempt. Maryland fans will be talking about that call for years and rightfully so. After UConn added another insurance run in the bottom of the 8th, closer Justin Willis absolutely dominated the Terrapins, striking out the side to send the Huskies to the Super Regional.

The weekend was a phenomenal display of what UConn Huskies baseball represents. The pitching staff was tough and gritty against incredibly impressive and powerful offensive opponents and the lineup hit top to bottom. An asset for this team, the starters shined for the most part and showed off their depth in 4 games, something that separates good teams from great ones. The Huskies offense grinds at-bats and despite not having the overall power of a Wake or Maryland, have guys who work counts and get big hits when they need them. The lineup produced 1-9 throughout this weekend with guys like SS Bryan Padilla stepping up and driving balls all over the field and even 9-hole hitter Zach Bushling coming through with clutch hits and RBIs. The lineup puts pressure on opposing pitchers to make good pitches and jumps all over mistakes. They are not to be overlooked.

The program Jim Penders has built at UConn is nothing short of remarkable. To take a school in the Northeast and make them a perennial NCAA Regional contender against all odds is something to admire. UConn is now in a position to continue proving people wrong and upsetting opponents next weekend and perhaps beyond. Let’s go Huskies!

Celtics Continue Trend of Bad After Good

Since the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs, the Boston Celtics have won 2 series and are 2 games into the NBA Finals. The trend of losing after a W continued on Sunday night with a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. During the 16-game span following the Brooklyn Nets sweep, the Boston Celtics have won back-to-back games just twice. Following a loss, the Celtics are 6-0 and have generally come out strong and with energy, but following a W the last 3 rounds (within a series), they are just 2-5 including 3 losses at home. The uneven play is completely baffling and Sunday was a prime example of the team forgetting their identity. They fall back into old habits with limited ball movement and as a group they struggle to get anything going for stretches at a time. From the latter part of the 2nd quarter on, the Celtics looked like the under-.500 group from November, not the well-oiled machine that has them in the NBA Finals.

Prior to the series, if you had told me the Celtics would be 1-1 and take a game in San Francisco, I would have been delighted by that result. While it’s not surprising the Celtics continued their L after a W trend, the way they got completely outplayed and embarrassed in game 2 is just bizarre and frankly, on brand. The lockdown defense and offensive ball movement that has helped this team get to the NBA Finals shows up for periods of time, but then for some reason, things fall apart. In a number of the games, it’s been the struggles of Jayson Tatum on the offensive end that has led to turnovers and forced drives/shots, but last night, it was a full team failure on both ends. From the start, there were too many lost possessions, either because of bad turnovers (7 in the first quarter) or drives into traffic that led to low-percentage shots. The Cs stayed in the game in the 1st quarter thanks to 6 3s (3 each for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), but too many times the poor offensive possession led to poor defense, as the Celtics gave up too many good looks to the Warriors. The Warriors missed a bunch of layups and close shots in the 1st quarter and honestly should have been up by a lot more than 1 after 1.

To the Warriors credit, they came out significantly more aggressive in game 2 and the Celtics, like previous rounds, couldn’t adjust and punch back. They let Draymond Green dictate the intensity and pressure without an answer, despite being a team that likes to play aggressively. Most could have predicted Golden State was going to press more and push back on the Celtics after their embarrassment of game 1, but the Cs seemed surprised by it and couldn’t figure it out, despite playing in 2 previous series where defensive intensity was at the center of play. The Celtics seemed more interested in getting a foul call than playing sound basketball at times. The body-language turned in the 3rd quarter and it seemed like the Cs just forgot how to play Celtic basketball. I have been a big fan of Daniel Theis in his tenure with the team, but his play this postseason has been tough to watch at times and for the 6th straight game, he posted a negative point differential. He one nice block but allowed numerous offensive rebounds for the Warriors and was caught lost under the basket a handful of times rather than finding a body to box out. I have a lot of concern if Robert Williams is unable to play or limited at any point in this series, which is a possibility given the knock he took on his knee in game 2 and his questionable status before both games 1 and 2.

Ultimately, if the Cs continue the trend of winning after a loss, they will win the series in 7, but that’s a lot to ask given the Warriors home court advantage. The team needs to come together, have a classic rebound game on Wednesday night in Boston and then figure out how to not get run out of the gym in game 4. The Celtics have the talent, athleticism, and coaching to win the NBA title, but if we see stretches like we saw in game 2 throughout the rest of the series, they’ll be cleaning out their lockers without the ultimate prize in hand.

.500 and in Playoff Position for Red Sox

Before the season, celebrating the Red Sox reaching the .500 mark would have seemed ridiculous. After watching the first 2 months of the season, this is certainly a benchmark worth noting and perhaps, celebrating. Sunday night is the first time all season, since the Red Sox were 0-0, that the hometown team has reached that .500 plateau thanks to a 3-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics. What’s even more interesting than that accomplishment? If the season were to end today, thanks to the struggling Los Angeles Angels (losing 11 straight), the Red Sox would claim the 3rd AL Wild Card spot. Over the last 30 days, the Red Sox postseason odds have jumped a whopping 43.2% and they now sit at a 55.6% chance to make the postseason, including an 18.4% bump just in the past week (Baseball Reference). Despite the awful start to the season and the seemingly endless struggles, the Red Sox are in the drivers seat with 108 games remaining.

On May 11th, the Red Sox were 11-20, 9 games under .500 and 11.5 games back in 5th place the AL East behind the Baltimore Orioles. To say the vibes were bad and the morale was low amongst fans was an understatement. The offense was struggling and the pitching staff was doing everything they could to keep the Sox in close games, but as Jon Madden would say, “You can’t win a game if you don’t score any points.” Since the walkoff 5-3 loss in Atlanta on May 11th, the Red Sox are 16-7 (.696), averaging 6.7 runs per game, and have a team batting average of just a tick under .300 (.297). Compared to the first 31 games of the season, that’s an astronomical improvement. The first 31 games of the year resulted in an 11-20 record, 3.5 runs per game, and a team batting average of .229. The Red Sox are getting contributions up and down the lineup and have seen several batting averages emerge from the depths of the .100s. During the most recent stretch, Franchy Cordero has been a nice surprise, collecting 6 of his 18 RBIs on the season in the Oakland series while Kike Hernandez has raised his average from .161 to .210 by grabbing at least one hit in 20 of his last 22 games (26 total hits with 3 HRs).

As much as some writers want to complain about the pitching staff (I’ve been known to spill some ink on occasion), the overall pitching numbers have remained quite steady all season. The only two numbers that have changed with any significance from the first 31 games to the past 23 games are K’s per game, which have dropped from 9.1 to 7.7 (Garrett Whitlock as a pitch-to-contact starter is the major contributor to that) and BBs per game, which has improved from 3.3 to 2.4. The team ERA was 3.77 the first 31 games and was 3.67 the past 23 games and overall the team has allowed 0.1 more runs per game the past 23 contests. Yes, the Red Sox need a closer and yes, the bullpen has struggled at moments, but overall, they have consistently done their job on a team constructed to score runs in bunches. On top of that, Chris Sale is on the road to a return and will be a huge plus for this team in the rotation and bullpen (whether he moves to the bullpen or remains a starter and a current starter is bumped there). He likely won’t be the ace of the staff, at least to start, but a mostly healthy Sale in any capacity is a bonus at this point. I said it from the beginning of the season and will continue to beat the drum: if the Red Sox offense can score 5+ runs per game regularly, they will win at an extremely high rate and will be a tough out in the postseason. It’s not rocket science.

Now that the Red Sox have reached the .500 plateau and are in the drivers seat for a postseason spot, they need to assert their strength and continue to win (obviously). There is a TON of season left and a near infinite number of scenarios to play out, but even being close to this position on June 5th is incredible. It just so happens the day following their rise into the 3rd AL Wild Card spot, the Red Sox begin a 4-game series with the Halos in Anaheim, the team 0.5 game behind them in the standings and struggling mightily. The Red Sox have a chance to put some distance between them and the Angels if they can pull off a big series win, and if they take 3 of 4, can ensure a winning record on their road trip despite still having a 3-game set in Seattle to close it out. The elusive .500 mark is great if they can blow past it and begin to put the rest of the league on notice, but useless if it’s the top of the mountain. Here’s hoping it’s not the destination, but a marker on the path to the top.

Huge West Coast Swing for Red Sox

After splitting a short 2-game set with the Cincinnati Reds, the Red Sox said goodbye to the friendly confines of Fenway Park after a 7-game home stand and 13 of the last 16 at home. While the home stand had a few signs of life with 3 series wins (of their 4 total on the season), including a 4-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners, it ended with some disappointing results against the Baltimore Orioles and Reds. Now the Red Sox head off on a 10-game swing in California with hopes of an above-.500 record when they return to Boston. With the calendar flipped to June, the urgency to turn around the 2022 season has ratcheted up a notch and the next stretch of series will be a true tell on whether the season is salvageable. Where will the Sox be when they return home on June 14th? Let’s take a look.

After grabbing back a little momentum on Wednesday night in the 2nd game against the Reds, the Sox are now 24-27, 3 games under .500. Losing 4 of 7 against two mediocre teams to end the home stand really put a damper on what appeared to be a turning of the tides. Getting back to the .500 mark is proving to be a challenge for this group, despite having one of the top performing offenses in baseball. The Red Sox led baseball in average, slugging percentage, and OPS in May but saw their pitching staff show signs of concern. This was everyone’s concern in the offseason, a strong offense with a weak pitching staff, but the script was flipped in April. The lack of an actual closer since they moved Garrett Whitlock to the starting rotation has been an achilles heal for this team.

Looking at their opponents in California, the Red Sox should be able to take care of business and definitely win the road trip against 3 struggling teams. They play 3 against the 20-33 Oakland Athletics to begin the trip and anything less than a series win or sweep would be a massive disappointment. It’s still a hair too early to call this series a must-win, but it’s pretty damn close. The As are coming off a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros in Oakland and 1-6 in their last 7 games. The Red Sox are facing 2 of the As best pitchers in games 2 and 3 in Paul Blackburn, who is a surprising 5-1 with a 2.15 ERA on the season and Frankie Montas, who has a tough 2-5 record, but a strong 3.20 ERA this season. Realistically, I see the Sox taking 2 out of 3.

The Sox then head to Los Angeles for a 4-game set with the Angels. They have been scuffling as of late, losing 8 of their last 10 and 7 straight, but have a 3-game set against the lowly 22-29 Philadelphia Phillies before facing the Sox. The Angels will have a chance to get themselves back on track and come into the Sox series with more confidence. It appears that the Shohei Ohtani will pitch in the Red Sox series, so that’s always a challenge, but frankly they have been underperforming as a team. If they continue to underperform, the Red Sox could do some damage. The Sox should at least split the series, but if they can find a way to win 3 of 4, that would be a huge momentum booster.

The Sox wrap up the trip with 3 in Seattle against the 22-29 Mariners. Another surprise disappointment, the Mariners have really struggled this season and the Red Sox have already done some damage against them with a 4-game sweep at Fenway earlier in May. For what it’s worth, the Mariners are 5-5 in their last 10 and have a winning record at home (12-10), but it’s another series that the Red Sox should, and need to, win. A bright spot for the Mariners and someone the Red Sox will likely see, is starter Logan Gilbert. The 25-year old is 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in 10 starts this season. He has 60Ks in 59 innings and has a WHIP of just a tick over 1. Offensively, 1B Ty France has been mashing the ball, hitting .347 with 7 HRs on the season in 229 plate appearances. This should be another series win, taking at least 2 out of 3.

Overall, the road trip consists of 2 very winnable series against the struggling As and Mariners bookending a split/winnable series against the struggling Angels. West Coast swings are always tough given the time zone changes and travel, but with a day off leading into the trip, there are no excuses. If the Red Sox want to remain in the 2022 competitive conversation, this trip needs to result in 6+ wins, 2 of 3 from the As and Mariners and at least a split with the Angels. If they can somehow squeak out 7 wins, then the Sox will come home to Boston with at least a .500 record for the first time all season. Is that too much to ask?

Celtics Survive and Advance, But Not Without Concerns

The Eastern Conference Finals began as a series of big swings and injuries and it ended with a tightly contested game 7. Despite the oft-heard commentary that the Celtics led wire-to-wire, the game was anything but a guarantee for the green and gold. Yes, they did lead from start to finish, but not without intense drama down the stretch. The final 3 minutes of the game consisted of a desperate comeback from Miami and a complete lack of offense from the Celtics. The game seemingly hinged on a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt with just 17 seconds remaining that would have given the Heat their first lead of the contest. Thankfully, the shot bounced out and the Cs were able to hang on by their finger nails and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals vs the Golden State Warriors.

After dispatching the Heat, the Celtics have completed their “revenge tour” through the Eastern Conference. Prior to this year, the previous three teams to eliminate them from the postseason were the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat. Now the Celtics can say they were responsible for beating all three teams enroute to their 22nd Finals appearance. The Cs are now just one step away from hanging banner #18 in the TD Garden rafters. As a franchise, the Celtics have been very tough to beat when they reach the Finals, losing just 4 times in those 21 appearances, but they haven’t been there since the 2009-2010 season when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. This is obviously an entirely different squad from 12 seasons ago when the big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen owned the parquet. The last time the Celtics were in the finals, the core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were in middle school and Smart was early in his high school career. The old man on the team, Al Horford, was in his 3rd season in the NBA that year with the Atlanta Hawks. Now, 141 playoff games later, he’s in the NBA Finals for the 1st time in his career.

Despite being one step from the pinnacle of professional basketball, the Cs aren’t without a few significant concerns. Against the Bucks and Heat, the Celtics had multiple instances of difficulty when trying to close out games. With a pass-first point guard in Marcus Smart, the offense grinds to a halt when the team tries to milk the clock in late-game situations. The Cs need to continue to play their aggressive attacking style, even when they are in situations to kill the clock. No offense to Smart, but he should not be taking the final handful of shots without running the offense when trying to close out a game. The ball needs to run through Tatum and/or Brown and then if it ends up back with Smart or someone else for a shot after a good offensive possession, great. I can almost guarantee the Cs will be in similar situations in the Finals and if they play the way they did in Miami, you can kiss the banner goodbye.

Another concern is around ball control and not making mistakes. There were stretches of the last 2 series when Tatum and Brown were turning the ball over with insane regularity and seemed to be forcing the action which led to more mistakes. Tatum made a number of poor decisions and at times would drive to the basket when their wasn’t a lane, play for contact and a foul rather than finishing the shot, and then complain to the refs when the foul never came. He seemed to be easily thrown off his game when not getting the foul calls and it would take him a while to get back on track. In the Miami series, Tatum was averaging 4.7 turnovers per game and had 3 games of 6+ in the 7 game series and all three of those were losses. Brown also had 7 turnovers in their game 3 loss and 4 in their game 6 loss. If the Cs can take care of the ball and make smart decisions, they are really difficult to beat.

My final issue is around offensive rebounding, especially against smaller lineups. The Heat had a significantly smaller lineup on the floor the majority of the time and the Cs were allowing 11.5 offensive rebounds per game in the series and 40 total rebounds per game, while they were only pulling in 8.5 offensive rebounds and 43.8 rebounds per game. Against a lineup that is significantly smaller, allowing 11.5 offensive rebounds per game is a killer. Even worse, they allowed a total of 40 offensive rebounds in games 4-6 (13.3 per game) and were out-rebounded in 4 of the 7 games in the series, including 2 of their 3 losses. The Cs will have a tougher time with the Warriors on the glass, but if they can limit 2nd chance possessions for the Warriors, their odds of winning the series will increase exponentially.

Now that the Cs have a few days to rest before the finals kick off on Thursday night in San Francisco, I’m hopeful that the pre-game injury report will be more of a formality than a must-see headline. Nearly every game of the Heat series involved more than a few anxious moments as the inactives were announced, for both teams. It was constant chatter around if Marcus Smart and/or Robert Williams would play and be healthy enough to contribute significant minutes. If the entire group can remain healthy for this series, then it will be a lot easier for Ime Udoka to lengthen his rotation and give the starters more rest throughout games. The bench has been terrific for the Cs when the starting 5 is Williams, Horford, Tatum, Brown, and Smart. Having Grant Williams and Derrick White ready to play substantial minutes off the bench and Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis able to spell guys for a handful of minutes a game, it quickly becomes a pretty deep team.

I’ve been saying this for a few months now and will continue to say it: If the Celtics play their best basketball, they can beat anyone in the NBA, including Golden State. The Warriors are a formidable opponent, but the only way the Cs lose the series is if they beat themselves, which has happened too many times this postseason. They’ve matched up against defensive-minded teams the last few rounds and will see another solid defense in the Warriors. The Warriors are a better offense than the Heat and Bucks, but I think the Cs matchup well against their defense. This series has a strong potential to stretch into 6 or 7 games and the longer the series goes, I think the more likely the Cs win.

My Prediction

The Cs split the first 2 on the west coast and ultimately win #18 in 6 or 7 games. I think Robert Williams and Al Horford will have a big impact inside and on the glass, while Jayson Tatum carries the momentum from game 7 against the Heat and proves that he’s a superstar on the biggest stage going toe-to-toe with Steph Curry it the top scorer department. A healthy Marcus Smart will show everyone why he won defensive player of the year and we’ll see significant contributions off the bench from Grant Williams and Derrick White once again. The key takeaway from the series will be that the Cs outlasted the Warriors enroute to the NBA title.

Hotter than Hot, The Story is Just Beginning

The first 6+ weeks of the 2022 season have been awful for the Boston Red Sox. They plummeted to the bottom of the division and until this past week, struggled to win more than a single series. Now things appear to be pointing in a more positive direction and the flashy signing on offense for the Red Sox this offseason is at the heart of the offensive explosion. Over the past 5 games, Trevor Story has started to show the Fenway faithful why Chaim Bloom wanted him in the lineup every day. He has amassed 8 hits and 5 HRs in 5 games, including 4 HRs in his last 2 games, including 12 RBI over that span. He’s also been patient at the plate, drawing a walk in 6 of his last 7 games while striking out just 2 times. A rough start to the season for Story has now begun to turn around.

Over his career, entirely with the Colorado Rockies until this year, Story is a .270 hitter (including this year’s struggles) with 164 HRs. He was aided a bit by the thin air of Coors Field in Denver, but generally is a decent average, bigger power bat averaging 34 HRs per 162 games. As recently as May 15th, Story was hitting an abysmal .196 with 2 HRs in 112 at-bats, which is a HR every 56 at-bats. That’s a far cry from his numbers prior to this year, with a HR every 17.9 at-bats and obviously a significant drop in average (-.076). No matter how you slice it, that’s bad and is not because of the change in uniform or home ballpark. In just the past 5 days, Story has improved his average to .231 with 6 HRs, now with a HR every 21.7 at-bats. Its a sure-fire sign that he’s finally starting to settle into Boston after changing teams and uprooting his life in Colorado.

I certainly don’t expect Story to continue this insane run of power for an extended period of time, but it’s a true glimpse into the impact he can make in the lineup, not just defensively. He’s not going to hit for .300+ every year, but can carry the offense with his power for stretches of time. As he begins to hit, it puts tremendous pressure on the opposing pitcher knowing that there is another dangerous bat lurking besides Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and JD Martinez. If he can correct the ship and be even a .250 hitter with 25-30 HRs a season, that’s 4 big bats who can all easily hit 20-25 HRs, if not more, anchoring the lineup. If Bobby Dalbec or Triston Casas, when he eventually gets the call, can also live up to their potential, this lineup could have 5 guys in that boat. That becomes a scary order to face.

Ultimately, I’m just happy that Story is finally able to take a breath and contribute to the box score. Boston fans are passionate and can be ruthless at times and even in his short tenure, he’s felt the good and the bad. He was booed on multiple occasions at Fenway just a few weeks ago and the last few nights has felt the warmth and love. He was clearly pressing early in the year, trying to prove he was worth the big contract and now has the opportunity to settle down and just do what he does best, play baseball. We’re seeing more smiles and a seemingly more relaxed Story in the batters box, which is good for everyone involved. As he continues to grow into his role with the Red Sox, Story has the potential to be a fan favorite given his calm, down-to-earth personality. Hopefully, the early bumps and bruises are in the rearview mirror.

Three HRs on Thursday and a grand salami on Friday. What can Story do to top that on Saturday and Sunday? Who knows, but this is finally a team I’m excited to watch on a daily basis.

Signs of Life for the Red Sox?

After a season worst 5-game losing streak on May 8th and a string of 0 back-to-back wins since April 17th, the Red Sox finally realized the season was about to slip out of their grasp. Thanks to a favorable matchup against the below-.500 Texas Rangers, the Red Sox got over the hump and won their first series of the season since early April. The energy around the team perked up a hair as they faced Houston and despite getting absolutely clobbered thanks to a Nathan Eovaldi home run derby in game 2, they rode Nick Pivetta in the rubber match to secure a 2nd straight series win. This one was much more impressive, because it was against the Houston Astros, the 1st place team in the AL West. For the first time in more than a month, there are some small signs of life in the Red Sox clubhouse.

Over the last 9 games, the biggest difference for this team has been the offense beginning to wake up. We’re finally starting to see the production we expected, as they are scoring 5.75 runs per game during the stretch. Not surprisingly, in the 6 most recent wins, the Red Sox have scored 6.33 runs per game, while just scoring 2.67 runs per game in their 3 losses. It’s no secret, we’ve known this since well before the season began, the Red Sox will go as the offense goes. Besides the big three of Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and JD Martinez, the catalysts of the mini-run have been Kike Hernandez, who has at least 1 hit in 6 straight games, Christian Vazquez, who has 7 hits in his last 7 starts behind the plate, and Trevor Story, who despite not hitting for average, has drawn a walk in 5 straight games creating traffic on the bases. All three of those mentioned, plus the rest of the lineup besides the big three, are still struggling well-below their averages, but signs of life have led to more Ws and a glimmer of hope.

Unfortunately, despite finally winning multiple series, the Red Sox have fallen even further behind in the AL East thanks to the absolutely dominant New York Yankees. A 6-3 record is a nice turnaround for the Red Sox, but during that stretch they dropped 2.5 games further behind the Yankees. While the goal at this point can’t be to catch the Bronx Bombers atop the division, you have to expect the Yankees won’t continue on their .757 winning percentage tear and set the MLB record with 122 or 123 wins on the season. The goal needs to be winning the next 2 months to determine if a Wild Card spot is possible or if it’s just not their year and the trade deadline should become a sell-a-thon.

The big question for me despite the recent optimism: Is the season realistically still salvageable? The answer is yes-ish, but it’s going to take a herculean effort. As it stands after their win on May 18th, the Red Sox are 7 games below .500 at 15-22 sitting in 4th place in the AL East, a whopping 13 games behind the Yankees. Their winning percentage is an abysmal .405 and if you think about who is in front of them in the AL East, I think they realistically need to hit 90+ wins to make the postseason (although I know it’s possible for a team to make the postseason with win totals in the upper 80s). At this moment, the 3rd AL Wild Card would go to the Toronto Blue Jays, who are surprisingly just 20-18 with a .526 winning percentage. They are on pace for just 85 wins, but you have to expect that they will pick up the pace a bit and end up near or over 90 wins. If they go 70-54 to finish the season (.564), they will hit win #90. If that is true, they the Red Sox would need to finish the season with at least a .600 winning percentage just to touch the 90-win mark and that’s likely just fighting for the 3rd Wild Card and squeaking into spot in the postseason. It’s possible that the Los Angeles Angels falter also and drop to the 3rd Wild Card, but they have a .600 winning percentage on the season thus far and with two of the best players in baseball, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, will definitely be in the hunt. While a postseason run is not out of the question, to win over 60% of your games just to hang onto hopes of a postseason bid is a monumental task with 125 games remaining.

Before you come at me, I know there are about 1,000 variables and tons of uncertainty when projecting out potential scenarios, but in a season that has been anything but good to this point, it’s worth determining whether the Red Sox keep fighting or become sellers at the deadline. There are 68 games until the August 2nd trade deadline and ultimately the mark in the season when teams make decisions on whether to load up and make a run, stand pat, or sell. In a season with now 3 Wild Card slots per league, more teams will be competitive and in the race, which could be beneficial for teams looking to sell. The number of teams looking to buy will lead to higher asking prices and larger returns. For the Red Sox, if they win 60% of the 68 games in this stretch (that’s a big if), they will be sitting at about 66-49 and in a strong position to compete for the postseason and not be sellers. If they are winning closer to 55%, which would be the 6th highest winning percentage in the AL right now, then they are sitting at just 52-53 and are likely sellers focused on 2023. Just a percent or two can be the difference between loading up for a run and pointing toward the future. The worst place to be would be in between those two records, unsure of whether to buy or sell. Thanks to the awful start, the pressure is extremely high to have a shot at competing for the postseason come August.

Ultimately, while there are more glimmers of hope in the past week than most of the season so far, it’s going to be a tough road ahead if the Red Sox want to make the postseason. They are going to need their lineup to continually score 5+ runs per game and have their starters continue to perform well, with perhaps fewer of the duds Nathan Eovaldi put out there in game 2 of the Houston series, allowing 5 HRs in 1 inning. It’s unclear whether they will get support from James Paxton and Chris Sale this year and even if they do, when is an even bigger question mark. Perhaps we are seeing the page turn now and the Red Sox are ready to pull a Boston Celtics and emerge from the depths of despair to the sunshine of success, shocking everyone including me. I’m not holding my breath.

Celtics Show Strength and Wear Down Bucks in Game 7

If you are a fan of NBA basketball, the Celtics vs Bucks series had it all. It was filled with glorious comebacks, superstar performances, unlikely heroes, awful refereeing, and grueling defense on both sides. From the opening tip, the series was a test of wills and thanks to a deeper roster, the Boston Celtics were able to knock off the defending champs convincingly in game 7 to take the series. Now the Celtics will make their 21st appearance in the conference finals, the 2nd most of any franchise all-time. Let’s take a look at how the Celtics got here.

Heading into their conference semi-final date with the Bucks, the Cs absolutely crushed the Brooklyn Nets in a 4-game sweep. While Boston was obviously favored in that matchup, they faced some tough individual matchups. The Cs were able to shut down Kevin Durant at times and weather big scoring numbers from Kyrie Irving in order to take care of business. The Celtics defense showed that when they needed to clamp down, they could stifle the Nets offense and force them into a tough shot. In the NBA, it’s really hard to actually shut down a star with your defense, but if you can force a top-tier player into a tougher shot, it will benefit the team overall. That philosophy worked against the Nets, but against Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s easier said than done.

The Cs got slapped with a quick dose of reality when Milwaukee crushed them in game 1. Their defense was not good enough to limit Giannis (triple-double) and allowed 25 points to Jrue Holiday. The Cs got outscored in 3 of 4 quarters and after holding a lead early in 2nd quarter, never really sniffed it again. Behind a 30-spot from Jaylen Brown, game 2 was a reverse of game 1, with a 23-point Cs win to even the series and salvage a game at home. The Cs held Giannis to 28-points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, which for most players would be an epic performance, but not for Antetokounmpo. Game 3 was the first actual close game of the series, with an absolutely electric finish. After taking the lead with about a minute left for the first time since early in the 2nd half, a Giannis basket, Jaylen Brown miss, and Holiday basket led to a 3-point lead for the Bucks with 11.2 seconds left. After drawing a foul, Marcus Smart stepped to the line and hit the first free throw to bring the game within two. Down two, with one free throw to go and just 4.6 seconds remaining, Marcus Smart intentionally missed off the rim and a frantic series of missed shots and offensive rebounds ensued, ending with an Al Horford tip in coming just a fraction of a second after the buzzer leading to a 103-101 victory for the Bucks.

Game 4 was the Al Horford game. It’s arguably his best postseason game as a professional basketball player and potentially one of his best overall performances. Horford scored 30 points, secured 8 rebounds, distributed 3 assists and was a +20 in the 8-pt win for the Celtics. Horford was an absolute beast after Giannis gave him a long stare-down following a dunk that led to a technical foul on the Greek Freak. Horford was an absolute monster, taking over the game in a way we’ve really never seen before and it’s because of him that the series was tied after 4 and a best of 3. After a game 5 victory for the Bucks thanks to a disastrous final few minutes from Marcus Smart and a few great plays from Jrue Holiday, the Celtics’ backs were against the wall needing 2 straight Ws. If game 4 was the Horford game, game 6 was the Jayson Tatum game. Tatum was absolutely dominant in game 6 on the road, dropping 46 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and was a +21. The Celtics took a 10-pt halftime lead and never let the Bucks back in the game fully, holding the lead for the final 3 quarters. That setup a game 7 in Boston for all the marbles.

Looking back, the Celtics not tanking for an easier path in the postseason and the #3 seed, set them up for home court in game 7, which proved to be quite useful. The first half of the game was a difference in quarters, with the Bucks taking the first by 6 and then the Celtics punching back in the 2nd. Thanks to a game-changing shift late in the 2nd quarter, the game swung handily in the Cs direction. After a basket from Bobby Portis, the Bucks were up 43-42 with about a minute left in the first half. Grant Williams hit one of his 7 big 3s to take the lead at 45-43. After Tatum picked up his 3rd foul and Holiday missed a 3, the Cs had the ball with 25 seconds remaining. Brown missed a jumper with 8.4 seconds remaining and the Bucks had a chance to tie or take the lead before half, but Marcus Smart had a great defensive play, forced the turnover on Giannis followed by a foul on Giannis, his 3rd. Beyond that, Smart went up for a shot as Giannis fouled him, giving him 3 free throws. Smart hit all 3 and the Celtics walked into halftime with momentum, 3 fouls on Giannis, and a 5-point lead at home in game 7. While there was 24 minutes of basketball remaining, the court felt tipped in the Cs direction and the beginning of the 2nd half proved that as the Cs pulled further out in front after an 8-2 run and never looked back, crushing the Bucks by 28.

Now, the Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. The Celtics continue a revenge tour of sorts, since the last three teams to beat them in the postseason over the years have been the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and you guessed it, the Miami Heat. The Heat reached the finals by beating the Atlanta Hawks in 5 games, then shutting down the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games. The Heat have been led by Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game this postseason. In terms of scoring, the Heat have 5 players averaging double-figures in the postseason, besides Butler, Bam Adebayo (14.6), Tyler Herro (13.8), Max Strus (12.5), and Victor Oladipo (11.4) have all been contributing to the team’s 107.1 points per game. Most of that scoring is without Kyle Lowry, who has only played in 5 of their 11 games this postseason, but could potentially be back at some point against the Celtics. As of writing this, he is unlikely to play in Game 1.

The main thing that the Heat and Celtics both bring to the table is defense. This postseason, the Heat are 1st in points allowed per game and the Celtics are 3rd, which could make this a low-scoring battle of a series for both teams. During their 3 regular season matchups, defense at the forefront, so it will be interesting to see which team can create more opportunities on the offense-end with limited space.

Bring on the Heat!

42 Wins and Counting: UConn Baseball is Poised for a College World Series Run Behind Coach Jim Penders

Year after year, Coach Jim Penders has been defying the odds and making the oft-ignored UConn Baseball program a constant threat in the landscape of NCAA College Baseball. If you haven’t heard that UConn Baseball is having another impressive season and is on pace to come close to their highest win total in program history, then now you know. The #16 team in the nation, the Huskies have been mowing down opponents and sit with a 42-10 record with just 4 games remaining in the regular season. They have clinched the Big East Regular Season Championship and given all the odds stacked against the UConn program, the sustained success is something to be admired. Take a few minutes and learn about the success of the UConn Baseball program.

Penders is a husky through and through. He made his first appearance for the Huskies as a player in 1991 when he was on the varsity team. He was the co-captain his senior year in 1994 and led the Huskies to a 26-19 record, a Big East Tournament title, and an appearance in the NCAA Regionals. That season Penders hit .354 with 7 HRs and 46 RBIs, but thankfully for the UConn Baseball program, his connection to the team was not ending with graduation. In 1997, Penders became a graduate assistant and then was named a full assistant coach in 1999. When long-time coach Andy Baylock left the program in 2003, Penders took the reigns and hasn’t looked back. In his 3rd decade associated with the program and his 19th season as head coach of the Huskies, the impact Penders has had on the hundreds of players at UConn is amazing. While getting players drafted isn’t his only goals, Penders has had 21 players make a AA or higher roster and 10 players make an MLB roster in his tenure and since 2004, 58 Huskies have earned signing bonuses. Not bad for a New England baseball program.

Penders is the son of another coach in the CT area. His dad, Jim Penders Sr, helped UConn reach the College World Series as a player in 1965 and was the baseball coach for East Catholic High School in Manchester, CT (my hometown) from 1969-2012 and won four state titles in his amazing tenure. As if that wasn’t enough, his grandfather, Jim, was the head baseball coach at Stratford High School in CT from 1931-1968 and also won four state titles. On top of that, his brother Tom and uncle Rob are/were also baseball coaches, Tom with several universities including URI. While a parent’s profession doesn’t always dictate a career path for a child, its hardly a surprise that Penders followed in his family’s footsteps.

Overall, Penders is 646-424-5 in his head coaching career all at UConn. He is a 5-time conference coach of the year (4 in the Big East and 1 in the American) and has taken teams to the NCAA Regionals 7 times in 17 eligible seasons (one canceled due to COVID) and a Regional appearance is looking likely this season. Since 2010, UConn has missed the Regionals just 4 times, and Penders has even taken UConn one-step from the College World Series, losing in the NCAA Super Regional in 2011 to the eventual National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks (a team with current Red Sox player Jackie Bradley Jr in the outfield). The accomplishments are impressive on their own, but when you factor in the challenges stacked against UConn, it’s down right miraculous.

As a New England school, the most obvious disadvantage for Penders and UConn is weather. With the season beginning in February, some years it can be impossible to have any outside training because the fields are frozen or covered in snow. UConn has to play the vast majority of the first month of the season on neutral or away fields in warmer climates. The amount of travel early in the season is taxing and it’s certainly a disadvantage to not play at home for weeks on end. The weather both impacts the current roster and impacts recruiting. If you’re a baseball player looking at a prospective college and you know on day 1 that you need to spend the first month+ of the season on the road, it doesn’t help. Another disadvantage for success is actually the Big East Conference. The return to the Big East was met with cheers of joy for every sport at UConn except the baseball program. The level of teams in the Big East is frankly, not great. That greatly impacts their strength of schedule and any loss to a conference opponent is a big mark on their resume.

Despite those challenges, Penders continues to bring in quality people and players and has seen a number of former players reach the majors. With the exception of 2014, Penders has led his squad to 30+ wins in every season since 2009 (except the shortened COVID year) and with his 42nd win this year, he’s now reached that plateau three times in his career. The constant success has not change Penders one bit, with his calm demeanor and unassuming presence.


If you haven’t had the privilege of watching this season’s UConn Baseball team, you’re missing out. As with teams of the past 10+ years, they are fun to watch and play fundamental baseball. It can be tricky to find the game streams, but if all holds as expected, UConn will have some very high-profile games coming up in the NCAA Regionals and potentially beyond. This team certainly has the potential to be the 2nd team in Penders’ tenure to reach the Super Regionals, but there is a lot of work left to do.

As with many of the recent rosters for UConn, they are full of pitching talent. As of May 15th, their three primary starting pitchers, Austin Peterson, Enzo Stefanoni, and Pat Gallagher all had 13 starts and ERAs under 3. Peterson has been electric and has 112 Ks in 88.1 innings, which Gallagher has 84 Ks in 77.1 innings. Justin Willis has emerged as a reliable closer for the Huskies, when the games are even that close, securing 13 saves while striking out 34 in 18.1 innings. A shoutout to Jack Sullivan, who has appeared in 16 games for the Huskies over 18.1 innings and has a 0.49 ERA. As a pitching staff, they have a 3.14 ERA, 18 saves, and 507 Ks in 467 innings while holding opponents to a .242 average.

Not to be outdone, UConn’s offense has had it’s share of impressive performances. As with most UConn teams, there is some balanced-power, with solid averages. Erik Stock is having another nice season for the Huskies with a .400 average, 9 HRs and 49 RBIs in 210 at-bats. He’s joined by Ben Huber, Casey Dana, and Matt Donlan with 9+ HRs and as a team, they are hitting .300 on the season. They are helped on the base path by David Smith, who has 19 stolen bases on the season in 22 tries and with a .286 average, he’s getting on base with regularity for the Huskies. Overall their offense is very solid, if not amazing, but when you hit .300 and your pitching staff is only allowing opponents to hit .242, good things tend to happen.

What makes all of this even more impressive is who is missing on the roster. Reggie Crawford, pitcher and first baseman for UConn, was the #4 overall prospect heading into the fall when he was sidelined and forced to miss the entire 2022 season thanks to an arm injury that led to Tommy John surgery. Just imagine what this team would look like with one of their best overall talents.

I, for one, will be following and cheering hard for this great group of kids and coaches. They have had a tremendous year thus far and look to close out their final four regular season games on the road (1 at Bryant and 3 at Georgetown) on route to another Regional appearance. Let’s go Huskies!