Taking Out the 2022 Garbage – Red Sox Edition

The best thing I can say about the 2022 Boston Red Sox season is that it’s over. This season has been a failure-to-launch, swervy dumpster-fire that was chock-full of underperformances and roster shortcomings. The worst part about the season? It was good enough to keep you thinking they had a chance to turn things around until late August/early September when in reality it was over before it started. In the end, the Sox were only 8 games out of a Wild Card spot and finished with 78-wins, 5th in AL East. On it’s surface, 78 wins puts them middle of the pack in the MLB in 2022, but with a $220+ million payroll, that’s the worst spot to be. It’s baseball’s version of purgatory: not bad enough to get a high draft pick while also being too low to make the postseason. Oh and just to add insult to injury, the Red Sox are once again above the luxury tax threshold in a lost season.

What I will remember most about this season is inconsistency, fundamental errors, injuries, and aggressive under-performances. The entire season was clouded from day one by a lack of an extension for Xander Bogaerts and no long-term deal in place for Rafael Devers. All of the headlines around opening day included the failures of ownership and management to get the deals done and led to a negative team vibe to begin the season. I don’t care how well you compartmentalize, the failed negotiations involving one (or two) of the most beloved members and leaders of the team is going to impact the play on the field. It’s even worse when every single press conference brings up the failed negotiations and the media ran stories constantly about the situation with Bogaerts and Devers.

Now that we can officially close the door on the past 6 months, it’s a good time to reflect on the year that wasn’t and look ahead a bit. Here are my 5 takeaways from 2022 with an eye towards 2023. Now we enter arguably the most important offseason for the Red Sox in a long time.

1. The Hottest Seat in Baseball

When Chaim Bloom took over the Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer role, he said his goal is to “build as strong an organization as possible in all aspects so we can have sustained long-term success and so we can compete in championships year in and year out.” His first mission was to build up the farm system after Dave Dombrowski lit it on fire in pursuit of a championship (not complaining about the 2018 World Series title) and it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t had a tremendous impact in that area. The Red Sox were at, or near, the bottom in farm system rankings when he took over and in just a few short years (including a COVID-shortened season), they are now just looking up at the top 10 in 11th place. The main problem with building the farm system to this point? Not focusing on the MLB team enough.

Despite the effort to build the farm system, Bloom has failed to make any significant impact at the MLB level. He’s made a few nice moves along the way, but coming into the 2022 season everyone could see the massive shortcomings of the pitching staff. Bloom decided to pick up scrap-heap guys with a hope for some success later in the season and didn’t do what one in charge of a $200+ million payroll should do: sign top-tier free agents. He brought Trevor Story in later in the offseason after his market thinned out, but didn’t go and get the free agents they needed and certainly wasn’t aggressive in building the roster at the MLB level. Even worse, Bloom couldn’t make up his mind at the trade deadline and instead of making some trades to reset the luxury tax threshold, he balked and put himself and ownership in a terrible spot with no postseason baseball to fall back on.

If Bloom doesn’t completely rebuild the pitching staff, add some offensive reinforcement with the likes of JD Martinez probably gone, and re-sign Bogaerts, he’s likely without a job in 2023. Boston is a town with unreasonably high expectations and right now it’s being run like Bloom’s previous employer, Tampa Bay. I’ve been a supporter of Bloom since he signed in 2019, but my patience is rapidly running out and I’m not the only one. Do you think ownership will stand for another year of this mess? I don’t think so.

2. Goodbyes Aplenty

If you watched any of the final series against Tampa Bay at Fenway, you saw one goodbye after another. The end of the 2022 season seemed to mark the potential end of a number of Red Sox greats, both on the field and in the booth. The great Dennis Eckersley stepped away from the broadcast booth after 50 years in the game of baseball as a Hall of Fame player and, for my money, Hall of Fame broadcaster. His honest, unfiltered commentary in a language all his own was an absolute joy to listen to each and every night. There were always stories and self-deprecating comments about his career as a player and when Jerry Remy was in the booth with him, it was must-see. He brought an energy and a passion every night, even in a difficult season to watch like 2022. He rubbed people the wrong way sometimes with his straight-shooting commentary but no one loves the game more than Eck. To me, the story Will Middlebrooks told on Name Redacted Pod sums up who Eck is as a person. Middlebrooks said that Eck didn’t want to be honored on the field for his pending retirement because the last time he was on the field was to catch Jerry Remy‘s first pitch in the 2021 Wild Card game. He wanted that to be the last time he was on the field.

The other goodbye that feels pretty solid was to J.D. Martinez. The 34-year old will become a free agent after 5 years in Boston and it’s unlikely the Red Sox make a run at resigning him. The 5-year, $110 million contract he signed in February of 2018 goes down as one of the best in Red Sox history. En route to a World Series title in 2018, JD had one of the best seasons ever in a Red Sox uniform when he hit .330 with 43 HRs and 130 RBIs along with 37 doubles in 150 regular season games and added 15 hits, 3 HRs, and 14 RBIs in the postseason. He followed 2018 with another impressive season hitting .304 with 36 HRs and 105 RBIs and 33 doubles. What’s not to like about that production at the plate? Without JD in 2018, it’s unlikely that the Red Sox raise another banner at Fenway Park and for that, I’ll be forever grateful. Despite his power struggles this past season, JD broke his 2021 career best doubles number with 43 and went out on top, hitting 2 HRs in the season finale.

The 3rd goodbye is one I hope doesn’t come to fruition: Xander Bogaerts. When Alex Cora pulled him in the 7th inning of game 162 to allow the fans to appreciate his accomplishments in possibly his last game in Boston, it was emotional. In 2009, as a 16-year old kid, Xander was drafted by the Boston Red Sox and hasn’t looked back since. He made his MLB debut in August 2013 and despite playing in only 18 regular season games, was on the postseason roster, hitting .296 with 2 RBIs in 12 postseason games. Since that point, Xander has grown into a steady leader who has gained the respect of all his teammates. He’s amassed 1,408 hits and 156 HRs with the Red Sox, while hitting at a .291 clip. The 4x All-Star, 2x World Series Champion, and 4x Silver Slugger Award winner is as beloved by the fans equally as much as his teammates. The seemingly meaningless grand slam he hit in the penultimate game of the 2022 season felt like a farewell nod to fans, despite most, myself included, still holding out hope he returns. If offered a fair contract now, I hope that Xander will re-sign and stay a Red Sox for life but with Scott Boras as his agent, he’ll probably wait until free agency opens where massive numbers begin flying around. Lots of teams will be chomping at the bit to sign a leader on the field and in the clubhouse.

On top of the big three potential departures, it’s likely that this Red Sox team will look completely different in 2023. We expect to be saying goodbyes the entire offseason as players are traded or leave via free agency. It may be a long, cold winter.

3. Catching Duo of the Future

When the Red Sox sent Christian Vazquez across the hall to the Houston Astros at the trade deadline, it became clear there was a changing of the guard at the catcher position in Boston. Bloom called up oft-talked about prospect Connor Wong and traded for Reese McGuire to fill the slots before DFA’ing fan favorite and the co-inventor of the laundry cart celebration, Kevin Plawecki. With an entirely new catching tandem, the Red Sox were already turning the page on 2022 and thinking about the future. Wong is a 26-year old catcher who after a successful collegiate career with the University of Houston, has been working his way up through the minors, first with the Dodgers and then coming to Boston in the Mookie Betts trade (alongside Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs). Wong has been stuck behind the catching duo of Vazquez and Plawecki and now has a chance to show the Red Sox what he’s worth. In 27 games down the stretch, he hit .188 with 1 HR and 7 RBIs for the Red Sox, not exactly lighting the world on fire even though it was a small sample size.

While Wong’s call-up wasn’t a surprise, addition of Reese McGuire was a bit surprising. McGuire played in 141 games in 4 seasons with Toronto and his .248 with 9 HRs, then 53 games with the Chicago White Sox and hit .225 with 0 HRs, so naturally you expected him to hit .337 with 3 HRs and 12 RBIs in 36 games with the Red Sox, right? It was a bright spot for the Red Sox down the stretch and it appears he may have earned himself a regular spot in the catching rotation going forward. It was nice to watch him have success but to say I have concerns going forward is an understatement. Was the 36-game sample representative of what he can and will do going forward or is it more likely an aberration? If he drops back to his low-.200s average with little to no power and Wong doesn’t turn it around, that’s a big drop-off from having Vazquez behind the dish each night.

I like both Wong and McGuire but having two light-hitting catchers who are only decent defensively as your tandem isn’t ideal. There was a lot of talk about Vazquez coming back to Boston next year as a free agent after he was traded, but with 10 other more pressing positions to address, I’d be surprised if the Red Sox open the wallet for him. I’ll be keeping my eye on what the Red Sox do going forward and see if they dabble in the catching market this offseason.

4. Pitching Health, or Lack-Thereof

Entering the 2022 season the pitching staff had a ton of question marks and frankly, it’s only worse today. The season began with an injured Chris Sale and an injured addition of James Paxton, both expected at the time to be gone for more than half of the season and ended up missing the entire season (basically). The Red Sox also took a flyer on Michael Wacha who was trying to revive his career after a few rough statistical seasons and Rich Hill who was 41-years old and the tank was mostly empty. Wacha excelled in Boston and will hopefully stick around while Hill was a rollercoaster ride. The opening day rotation was shaky at best, with Nathan Eovaldi as the ace, Nick Pivetta as the #2, followed by Tanner Houck, Wacha, and Hill.

The bullpen was/is even thinner. The opening day bullpen included Phillips Valdez, Jake Diekman, Austin Davis, Hansel Robles, Ryan Brasier, and Hirosaku Sawamura, all six were either DFA’d or sent to the minors during the season and as a group, were terrible at points. The other three members of the bullpen were Matt Barnes who was struggling majorly until the final month of the season, Garrett Whitlock who is a stud in the ‘pen but ended up in the rotation as a mediocre starter for a bit, and Kutter Crawford who spent time in the rotation and was solid during the season. Before injuries and unexpected circumstances the bullpen was already in trouble. They injuries piled on and the thin bench was lit on fire and burned to the ground. It was a poor display of roster construction in 2022 that has now led to an even bigger job rebuilding going into 2023.

The bright spots of discovering John Schreiber as a more than viable late-inning guy, the return of late-inning Matt Barnes very late in the season, and the rise of Brayan Bello in the rotation helps when thinking about 2023. If Houck recovers well from the back surgery, he could return to a high-leverage role and if they keep Whitlock in the bullpen (which seems unlikely), I feel better about the bullpen in 2023 even though there are a LOT of roles to fill. The rotation on the other hand, is still a massive problem. To plan for 2023, you have to act as if Chris Sale will give you nothing because odds are he won’t pitch a ton. Who else is in the rotation other than Brayan Bello and Nick Pivetta? Rich Hill, Eovaldi and Wacha are free agents. Hill is probably going to retire or leave, Eovaldi will cost a pretty penny to re-sign, and Wacha will hopefully re-sign here. Kutter Crawford showed some promise but the Sox are still missing top end arms. There are a ton of holes to fill, even if Whitlock goes back to the rotation. Who are the Red Sox starting in the #1 and #2 slots?

5. Stability in the NESN Booth

This season for NESN was an unpredictable revolving door of commentators in the booth. We saw fan favorites Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar take turns behind the mic as well as a plethora of combinations with Dave O’Brien, Dennis Eckersley, Will Middlebrooks, Mike Monaco, and Tony Massarotti. After the passing of Jerry Remy and the retirement of Eck, there has never been a more important time to have a stable booth going into 2023. Just like the Red Sox as a team, the NESN team needs to have steady voices you hear most nights and only mixing in a new person or two on occasion as a guest or fill-in.

After listening to all of them this year, my choice is clear: Mike Monaco and Will Middlebrooks with the occasional 3rd add-on or fill-in of Youk. Monaco’s energy and enthusiasm for the hometown team is contagious in a way not heard in Boston since the departure of Don Orsillo. He hangs on every pitch and knows how to call the big plays to get you excited. A perfect compliment to the play-by-play voice of Monaco is a player who lives and breathes the game of baseball: Middlebrooks. He got very few chances to show his stuff this year in that capacity, but thrived in his pre and post game work. I found myself engaged by his casual banter and knowledge of the game, as well as his ability to tell a story. He has the edge for me thanks also to the ease in which he has conversations and can fill dead air, which during slow or long games is critical (and what made Orsillo/Remy so fun to watch).

Youk is a close 2nd for color commentator for me, but I’m just not sure he’d ever commit to a full season schedule. I’d love to see him as the 3rd man in the booth when possible. He had a comforting presence and familiar voice along with plenty of stories from his playing days, albeit not quite as smooth and natural as Middlebrooks. He did have a significantly longer look than Middlebrooks, which makes me think it’s his job to turn down. Either way, my only hope is that NESN makes a decision rather than continuing the live auditions for another season. I can’t stand a season of 12 different booths without the voices of Orsillo, Remy, and Eck to hold it all together.

The Bailey Zappe Hype Train

Going into Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the New England Patriots had a steep hill to climb. Their QB1 was out with a high-ankle sprain and the reigns of the offense were handed off to career backup QB2 Brian Hoyer. Generating any offensive movement was likely to be a challenge, especially at Lambeau, one of the toughest places to play in all of football. Then came another blow, when Hoyer went down with a head injury (believed to be a concussion) on the Pats 2nd offensive drive in the 1st quarter thanks to Packers LB Rashan Gary absolutely owning DT Isaiah Wynn and getting a clean hit on the QB. In a flash, 2022 4th round draft pick, rookie QB3 Bailey Zappe was forced into an incredibly difficult spot for his first NFL snaps under center. The 23-year old took his first official snap of his NFL career in the shadow of his own endzone, the loudest area of Lambeau Field. Being thrown into the fire doesn’t even begin to capture the situation for the young QB.

Zappe ultimately performed about as well as one can expect for a QB who has likely had very few reps with the starting offense and was playing in a hostile environment. The offensive play-calling clearly leaned more conservative with Zappe under center and several of his first throws were on the run, off-balance, and in the ground short. He was strip-sacked right before halftime thanks to holding the ball a bit too long but regrouped in the 2nd half and did a solid job of stabilizing the offense and not making any game-altering mistakes. He made a nice 25-yard throw to WR DeVante Parker towards the end of the 3rd quarter for a TD to give the Pats the lead 17-14. The officials missed a delay of game on the play, but frankly the officials missed so many calls throughout that it was hard to keep track of all their mistakes. After a Green Bay game-tying FG, Zappe led the Patriots down the field for a 7-play, 66-yard drive ending in a RB Damien Harris 5-yr TD run to give them a 24-17 advantage. He made another nice throw for 21 yards to WR Nelson Agholor on that drive that set the team up inside the 10.

After Green Bay tied the game at 24, the Patriots offense went incredible conservative while the Pats defense stepped up and shutdown the Packers offense. In his first game as an NFL QB, Zappe had led the Pats to OT on the road against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. After exchanging punts thanks to 3-and-outs for both teams, Rodgers did what he’s done his whole career and marched the Packers down the field, setting up a game-winning FG as time ran out in OT for K Mason Crosby. It resulted in the 3rd loss of the season for the Patriots and an abysmal 1-3 record, but if there is ever a time for moral victories in football, this was it.

The fact the Patriots were even competitive in this game is huge for Zappe’s confidence. The Packers were favored by 9.5 points prior to the game with Hoyer as their starter and I’m guessing would have been 12-15 point favorites if the odds makers knew Hoyer would go down in the 1st quarter. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t always pretty, but Zappe finished 10-15 for 99 yards, 1 TD and 0 INTs and a QB rating of 107.4. Other than the L, that’s more than you can ask for from a young QB who was thrown into the lion’s den. Regardless of how this week transpires for Hoyer and if he remains in concussion protocol or not, Bailey Zappe should have another chance to prove himself on the biggest stage against the Detroit Lions at home this Sunday. This time, with a week of preparation and taking snaps with the starters in practice.

Zappe was reportedly on the Patriots radar during the entire draft this past year, with hopes he would be available in the 4th round when they picked. The Western Kentucky product transferred from Houston Baptist for his senior year and was the 2021 Conference USA MVP and ranked 2nd in the NCAA in pass completions and 1st in pass attempts last season. He finished with the 9th highest completion percentage in 2021 (69.2%) and led the country in passing yards (5,967) and TDs (62). Zappe led the Hilltoppers to a 59-38 victory in the 2021 Boca Raton Bowl over Appalachian State and took home the MVP trophy thanks to a 6 TD, 422 yard performance (33 for 47). While his competition wasn’t nearly the level of many of the top QBs drafted last year, he was able to produce at the FBS level with insane regularity. At 6’1″, 220lbs, Zappe isn’t the tallest QB and has plenty of room to grow his game, but that’s to be expected this early in his career.

From the Patriots perspective, they have to be happy with how Zappe handled himself in the game but also in the post game. He was calm and steady as he took questions from the media, giving credit to his teammates and owning a few things he could have done better. He talked about the game, but also seemed to be turning the page to the next opportunity which felt like the perfect fit in the Bill Belichick system of handling the media.

The future is uncertain for Bailey Zappe with QB1 Mac Jones on the road to recovery, but this was a really nice debut for the young kid. The more time he gets to prepare and learn behind veterans like Hoyer, the more he will continue to improve and perhaps get himself ready to be an NFL starter, whether in New England or elsewhere. For now, he’s taking it week-by-week and is focused on the Lions.

Heart and Will Get UConn Back in the Win Column

For most, watching a UConn football game is torture and not worth the time or energy. Thanks to several season ending injuries to key offensive players in game one, any promise of a strong season for UConn was over before it began and made the already steep hill to wins an even more difficult climb. Despite all the struggles and now 12 players with season ending injuries, the Huskies are looking to prove themselves and establish some momentum moving forward. On Saturday afternoon, they did just that with a 19-14 victory at home over Fresno State. They entered the game as 23.5 point underdogs and pulled off an improbable victory that is sure to inject confidence in the very young group taking the field right now. Despite all the adversity and the incredible inexperience on roster, Jim Mora’s Huskies aren’t about to roll over and die.

Even for a diehard UConn sports fan like myself, I have found it difficult to carve out time to watch football the last few seasons. While I’ve seen parts of most all games, it’s a serious, and sometimes tortuous existence following this program. What I used to consider appointment television, regardless of the product on the field, has now become painful viewing. I’ve been worn down from all the years of complete trash play. Almost every game against an FBS opponent features 20+ point underdog status (often more like 40+) for the Huskies and I’ve found myself rooting for the Huskies to beat the spread more often than actually rooting for a win. Frankly, it’s significantly more likely they beat the spread most weeks than even come within 2 or 3 touchdowns of their opponent.

As I would any other week, I went into this past week against Fresno State with the same routine: check the spread as soon as it’s available. My first reaction, “Oh, it’s only a 23.5 point spread this week, maybe UConn will only lose by 3 touchdowns.” There is no better time to be wrong than when underestimating the team you love. The Huskies showed grit, determination, and a lack of quit against the Bulldogs and thanks to some good play, and some lucky twists and turns, found themselves with a chance to drive down the field and take the lead late in the 4th quarter. True Freshman QB Zion Turner led the Huskies on a long drive downfield, including a 40-yard pass to WR Kevens Clercius, resulting in the game-winning TD. It was the first time this season we’ve seen Turner step up in a big way in a huge spot.

The W was significant in a plethora of ways. It was UConn’s first win against an FBS opponent in nearly 3 years (UMass in 2019) and was a statement that despite injuries and low expectations, the Huskies were going to come into each game prepared and fight like hell, even with the odds massively against them. Additionally, now with 2 wins on the season, the Huskies have matched their season best number since their 3-win 2017 campaign with 6 games to go. While I’m not expecting a ton more victories given some challenging opponents in their near future, Saturday proved that this team has a chance to hang in there and who knows, maybe even win another game or two this season. Most importantly as a fan, this is the first time in a very long time to have a glimmer of optimism.

Jim Mora came to UConn knowing that a rebuild and turnaround was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time. He was dealt a brutally tough hand in year one with his starting QB and WR1 going down for the season in game one and then subsequently losing starters all over the field over the next few weeks. Despite all those factors, he’s kept his team ready and worked hard to get his young players up to speed and playing, many earlier than expected. It’s only win #2 and the first against an FBS opponent, but it’s a confidence builder and an achievement to be proud of as a head coach given all the challenging conditions.

Hopefully, this is just the first step in a significant rebuild for UConn over the next few years. #BleedBlue

An Ode to Cooperstown

It’s been awhile since I’ve taken time to write, primarily because it’s been tough to watch baseball lately. The Red Sox are a dumpster-fire with a depleted lineup and thin pitching staff and there are only so many ways you can say that this season is not living up to the expectations (understatement of the year). While the Red Sox were finding new and innovative ways to be embarrassed, it was the perfect time to visit the center of the baseball universe: Cooperstown, NY. It had been a number of years since I had the privilege of visiting the hallowed halls of the museum and surrounding area and this year seemed like the perfect opportunity to be in town for my first ever induction weekend. With all the hype and anticipation I was prepared to be disappointed, but was in fact blown away with the entire weekend of events and the passion with which the sleepy, quaint town in upstate New York embraces their baseball history and welcomes tens of thousands of visitors.

Lake Otsego – Photo by Brian Phair

For those who don’t know, Cooperstown is set on the southern shore of Lake Otsego and has a quintessential New England town main street lined with little shops and restaurants. At 25 Main Street, in the heart of downtown, sits the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum which is located around the corner from where most believe baseball was invented. The 3-story building is jam packed with artifacts and tchotchkes from every era of baseball and everywhere you look, you’ll find a new piece of information with a different artifact. For Red Sox fans, there are tons of artifacts represented, everything from Bill Mueller’s bat when he hit 2 grand slams in a game in 2003 to the cleats Curt Schilling wore in the bloody sock game in 2004 to a bat used by Christian Vazquez in the 2018 World Series (the first bat made by the Cooperstown Bat Company to be used on the highest stage) to the original contract Babe Ruth signed with Boston in 1917, just to name a few. Whether you are knowledgeable in baseball history or just a casual fan, there is something for everyone throughout the winding floors of the museum.

Curt Schilling’s cleats from the bloody sock game in 2004 – Photo by Brian Phair

The buzz around town during induction weekend was incredible. The streets were lined with fans wearing jerseys, t-shirts and hats representing almost every single MLB franchise. Former players and hall of famers were signing autographs up and down Main Street (for a price) at the various sports memorabilia shops. As we walked onto Main Street for the first time on Saturday morning, one of the first people we saw was Pete Rose. While obviously not a Hall of Famer thanks to some, let’s just say poor decisions, Rose was taking advantage of the massive crowds to give out autographs and take pictures with fans. Throughout the weekend, former players and Hall of Famers were out and about taking in the atmosphere. There were obviously a ton of Red Sox fans in town to see David Ortiz get inducted into the Hall of Fame and as one might expect, the Dominican community came out in force.

While the weekend as a whole was amazing, the parade of Hall of Famers on Saturday evening was by far the highlight. Watching around 50 Hall of Fame players get paraded down Main Street in the back of pickup trucks was a sight to see. Everyone from 84-year old Juan Marichal to 51-year old Jim Thome had the chance to wave to the tens of thousands of fans waiting to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Some of the players got off the trucks and signed autographs for fans, even on a hot an humid night. Cal Ripken Jr. was a signing superstar, going up and down the rows of fans signing while sweat was dripping off his head and face. Standing across the street from the Hall of Fame where the parade ended gave us the opportunity to chat and engage with Hall of Famers in an experience I will not soon forget. Being a few feet from Ken Griffey Jr, Trevor Hoffman, Pedro Martinez, Cal Ripken Jr, Jim Thome, and others was incredibly special and an experience you just can’t get anywhere else. Watching some of the greatest players of all time take moments to chat and engage with young fans reminded me how unique the sport of baseball is and how taking a step back to appreciate the beauty of the game is important.

Cal Ripken Jr. in the parade of Hall of Famers 2022 – Photo by Brian Phair

The induction ceremony on Sunday was an extraordinary experience filled with cheers for the inductees and boos for Commissioner Rob Manfred. Despite brutal heat and humidity and a threat of torrential thunderstorms, a crowd of 35,000 people were there to witness the induction of 7 new Hall of Famers: Bud Fowler, Minnie Minoso, Buck O’Neil, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, and David Ortiz. While the main reason I travelled to Cooperstown was see Big Papi’s induction, I learned more about the other 6 inductees throughout the weekend and I felt a sense of pride to be there supporting their induction as well. It was a deserving class of men who all had significant impacts of the game of baseball in every era of the game (1800s-today) and for most of them, this honor was a long time coming. A great example of the long wait was Gil Hodges, who had a really strong MLB career and played in 7 championships, winning 2, but is most known for being the manager of the 1969 Miracle Mets championship team. Until recently, managerial accomplishments didn’t factor into a person’s induction into the Hall of Fame and that was a barrier to his entry despite the achievement being worthy of recognition. Now, Hodges has taken his rightful place in Cooperstown.

Another great example is Jim Kaat. A pitcher who appeared in 25 different MLB seasons, Kaat always felt he was a good player, but not to the level of Hall of Fame. His steady and extremely long career ended in 1983, but he was never given proper recognition because there was always an emphasis on the numbers, not the longevity (although his numbers should be enough for him to be inducted). The 3-time all-star won 16 consecutive gold gloves as a pitcher and started 625 games (17th most all time). His 25 seasons in the game were the most ever by a pitcher when he retired, now 3rd behind Nolan Ryan (27) and Tommy John (26). After his playing career was over, Kaat coached and stayed connected to the game, becoming a broadcaster in the late 1990s and still continuing that work today. Kaat was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame through the Golden Era Committee, which looks at players who were not elected in their 15 years of eligibility and has a 16-person voting panel. Many around the game believe this honor is long overdue for someone so influential on the game of baseball. *Some might know Kaat for his recent hot-water when he called Nestor Cortes Jr “Nestor the Molester” on a broadcast in June 2022. He apologized and it was settled, but he received some unwanted headlines leading up to his induction.

Overall, I was incredibly impressed with the way the Hall of Fame handled the induction weekend (with the exception of needing more porta-potties at the ceremony). With the threat of weather in the forecast, they sped up the ceremony (despite it still being very long) and handled the crowds well. Regardless of whether you want to join in with the large crowds and pomp-and-circumstance of an induction weekend or just visit the sleepy town on another summer or fall weekend to see the Hall of Fame when it’s much quieter, you’ll be happy you made the trek. Despite the long ride from the Boston area, I’ll be planning my next trip to Cooperstown very soon.

David Ortiz during his Hall of Fame induction speech – Photo by Brian Phair

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.