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Pablo Sandoval crushes three homers in Game 1 victory

I heard an interview with Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander before Game 1 where he was talking about what the fans wanted to see from him. It was something about fans wanting to see him pump fastballs past hitters instead of nibbling the corners, and that would be his approach. Well, maybe the long layoff hurt him and the Tigers, or maybe he should avoid worrying about what fans want in terms of pitching advice, as the Tigers got thumped in Game 1 of the World Series.

Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval hit three homers in a row, two off of the mighty Verlander, as he joined Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols as the only hitters to hit three homers in a World Series game.

It’s been a crazy postseason in baseball, and anything can happen, but this was a great start for the Giants.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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World Series kicks off tonight

The World Series kicks off tonight with an interesting pitching matchup, as Justin Verlander takes on Barry Zito in game one between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. Verlander is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, pitcher in baseball. He’s also rumored to be dating Kate Upton. So life is pretty good for the guy right now. Meanwhile, Barry Zito has revived his career. He was once a dominant pitcher, but then several years ago the Giants didn’t even put him on the World Series roster. Now he’s starting game one. And that’s how it often goes in baseball. Pitchers at the top of their game can lose it, but you never know when or if they might get it all back. Zito is one of those guys.

The Super Bowl is great, but there are few experiences like a World Series game. There’s all sorts of excitement in each city, with tons of memorabilia for sale as everyone wants something to remember the event. Also, this stuff can be worth something in the future as well. Things like programs are very valuable, and even third party stuff can be cool. All sorts of entrepreneurs try to cash in. Taking their ideas to a printing company or using UPrinting online brochure printing and then selling their creations on the side of the road. Of course you have to be careful. You have to respect the MLB trademarks, so if you’re selling your own creation without an MLB license, it better be completely original and not infringe on MLB trademarks.

Every year a hero emerges, and that’s where creative entrepreneurs can do cool stuff with nicknames, etc. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to attend one of the games in San Francisco or Detroit. And pick up a cool thing to remember the experience!

MLB Playoff Predictions

This may well be my last post for a while on The Scores Report, so I figured what better way to go out than with some way-too-early playoff predictions? I’ll forecast each of Major League Baseball’s six division winners as well as each league’s two wild card teams. You know, so all my readers can come back and mock my wild inaccuracy in two months time.

Below, you’ll find the name of my predicted champion with their current record and place in the standings in parentheses. Also inside the parentheses is the percent chance that team will win their division (DIV) as well as make the playoffs in some fashion (POFF) as calculated by coolstandings.com and showcased on ESPN’s Hunt for October.

AL East: New York Yankees (72-52, First Place, DIV: 74.9, POFF: 96.5)

This is one of the easier predictions to make, as despite losing three straight to the White Sox, the Yankees hold the American League’s best record. As good as the Rays are, they’re simply not going to catch up with  the boys from the Bronx, especially with ace C.C. Sabathia returning to start on Friday.

AL Central: Detroit Tigers (66-57, Second Place, DIV: 31.0, POFF: 55.7)

This one’s a real toss-up between Detroit and the first place Chicago White Sox. The way I see it, the Tigers have been seriously underperforming. They should have been on top of the division all year, instead the AL Central race has turned into a competition to see who can be the most above average.

Although Chicago’s being given a 69 percent chance to win the division (83.3 percent to make the playoffs), for me, that’s the Tigers. They’re only two games back in, and 16 of the 39 contests left on their schedule are against teams with winning records. Detroit will play nearly a quarter of their remaining games, nine, against the Kansas City Royals, against whom they’re 7-1 so far.

The Tigers and White Sox will face off seven more times this year, and those games will be the key to the division. Both teams have a bit of extra incentive: there’s a solid chance that the one that comes in second place won’t make the playoffs at all, what with the Rays, Orioles, and A’s playing as they have.

AL West: Texas Rangers (72-51, First Place, DIV: 84.9, POFF: 96.2)

This may be the lone lock among these predictions. The Rangers are looking to return to the World Series for the third straight season, and I’d bet they’d like to win one after losing to the Cardinals and Giants in the past two championships. Will the third time be a charm?

We’ll see, right now we’re just talking about winning the division, and as of now, the Rangers have an AL-high 84.9 percent chance to do that. The Rangers have without a doubt the league’s best offense. They lead the league in runs scored (627), average (.277),  and on-base percentage (.340), while trailing only the Yankees in slugging percentage (.444). Lucky for Texas, the Angels have fallen off hard of late, and while the A’s have been quite a surprise, it’s unlikely they’ll close their five-game gap.

AL Wild-Cards: Tampa Bay Rays (69-55, Second Place AL East, DIV: 23.3, POFF: 79.1), Oakland Athletics (65-56, Second Place AL West, DIV: 13.2, POFF: 55.0)

The Rays will ride into the first AL wild-card spot with relative ease on the backs of their pitching staff. They’re tied for the best team WHIP (1.20) and batting average against (.232) in the majors and rank second in ERA (3.27).  Plus, they’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams as of late, winning seven of their last ten.

The second spot is much tricker. The O’s have been perhaps the season’s biggest surprises, but I just don’t seem them making it given the strength of the AL East. Instead, it will be another team with a vowel-based nickname, the Oakland A’s, who have games with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit, New York and Texas remaining on their schedule. Ironically, they’ve only got losing records against the worst two teams on that list, Minnesota and Seattle, so they’ll just have to keep doing what they have been. Having recently acquired shortstop Stephen Drew from Arizona, the A’s aren’t going to just lay down and die.

NL East: Washington Nationals (77-47, First Place, DIV: 87.7, POFF: 99.7)

I’ve been saying it all year, the Nationals are doing it right. It’s been rumored that the team would shut down Stephen Strasburg after he reached around 160 innings, although GM Mike Rizzo has consistently said there is no set limit and that he alone would make the decision. Strasburg has 145.1 under his belt thus far, and the team recently announced that he’ll be sitting for two or three starts. We’ll see what the 24 year-old ace is able to do in the playoffs with all that rest. For now, John Lannan will take his spot in the rotation.

With the team six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and holding the best DIV and POFF scores in the majors, they’re unlikely to miss Strasburg too much.The fact is they’ve got the league’s best pitching staff with or without him. Sure, Strasburg is a huge part of their league highs in ERA (3.23), quality starts (79), WHIP (1.20), and batting average against (.232), but baseball is a team sport, and the Nats aren’t going to fall off the map without him on the hill every fifth day.

NL Central: Cincinatti Reds (76-49, First Place, DIV: 87.5, POFF: 98.1)

Even without Joey Votto, the Reds have won seven of their last ten. Only the Nationals have a better record than Cincinatti, and that’s why only the Nats have a higher probability of winning their division or making the playoffs. But the Reds have a bigger lead in their division (8 games over St. Louis and 8.5 over Pittsburgh) than any other team in baseball, and nothing’s going to stop that train from rolling.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers (67-58, Second Place, DIV: 23.7, POFF: 30.6)

Much like the AL Central race, this one is going to be impacted in large part by the six games the Giants and Dodgers play against each other. Sure, L.A. is a game behind the Giants. And yes, they just got finished losing three straight to San Francisco. But losing Melky Cabrera is going to take a toll on the Giants over their next 38 games, although the effects may not have manifested quite yet, so I’m still picking the Dodgers to take the NL West crown.

NL Wild-Cards: Atlanta Braves (71-53, Second Place NL East, DIV: 12.3, POFF: 89.4), Pittsburgh Pirates (67-57, Third Place NL Central, DIV: 3.7, POFF: 35.7)

Much like the Rays, the Braves are going to have a relatively easy time taking the first NL wild-card spot. Atlanta is better than the record, if that even makes sense considering only four teams have better records. Unfortunately for the Braves, one of them is the Washington Nationals.

The second NL wild-card spot and final pick on my list is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although they’ve got a fairly tough schedule moving forward, the Bucs will also play Milwaukee, Houston, and Chicago. Pittsburgh is going to have tough time moving ahead of division rival St. Louis and contending with the rest of the pushing and shoving going on for the last NL playoff spot. To be honest, this one is more of a hope than a prediction. I mean, the last time the Pirates made the playoffs was 1992. When else should the Bucs get their luck back, if not exactly twenty years later? If nothing else, their fans deserve it. So does Andrew McCutchen, who’s likely to be the NL’s most valuable player.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

The All-Star Game Counts, But Do We Act Like It?

It’s the tenth anniversary of the travesty that was the 2002 MLB All-Star Game. You know, the one that ended in a 7-7 tie and led to the decision that from then on, the winning side in the game would receive home-field advantage in the World Series. Prior to 2003, the year the rule was implemented, home-field advantage alternated between the AL and NL from year to year.  It’s one of three separate but inarguably connected rule-based controversies that dog the “Midsummer Classic” year in and year out. The second being that popular fan vote decides the starting hitters for each side. The third is that all 30 teams must have at least one representative in the game.

The rules are linked because what was formerly an exhibition game meant to showcase baseball’s best and brightest (in other words, a money-making scheme) now has actual value. As such, many take issue with the game’s starters being decided based on fans clicking mouses and sticking mini pencils through holes. Equally many argue that requiring a player from each team often leaves superior players off the rosters, which detracts from the notion that the contest spotlights the game’s best.

It’s impossible to gauge the impact of playing the first and last two games of the World Series at home. In the nine years the rule has been in effect, the American League has won the All-Star Game seven times. The AL won the game every year from 2003-2009, but its representatives were only champions in four of those seven years. The rule’s effects were minimal, if it had any, as the World Series never saw a seventh game. But in the past two years, the National League has had home-field. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants quickly won their first two home games, and had the Rangers playing scared en route to a 4-1 series victory. Last year was the first time the Series went seven, and the St. Louis Cardinals won the game, and the series, at home.

Even if it is impossible to truly gauge the effects, if you’re a fan of a contending AL team, does it sit right with you that Billy Butler might be in a position to decide if your team gets home-field advantage with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth? Or if your team’s in the NL, that Huston Street (who has only pitched 21 innings this season) might have to get that final out? Those are just some examples of the possibilities of the “one from each team” rule. Let’s take a look at who the fans chose, and decide whether they deserve to be starting, or in some cases, even playing.

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Genius La Russa has a rough night

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter cant get control of a ground ball against the Texas Rangers during the fifth inning of game five of the World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas on October 25, 2011. The Rangers defeated the Cardinals 4-2 and lead the series 3-2. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

The fiasco with the bullpen was bad enough, but Tony La Russa really blew it in the ninth inning. Tom Verducci explains:

In the seventh inning, either Pujols called his own hit-and-run play and didn’t swing, or Craig saw a sign that wasn’t there, or the moon was in the phase of Aquarius, but somehow the Cardinals gave up a runner at first (Craig was thrown out), which immediately allowed Washington to intentionally walk Pujols. It gets worse. In the ninth, trailing 4-2, Craig was on first base with no outs while Rangers closer Neftali Feliz had a full count on Pujols, who represented the tying run. La Russa ordered Craig to run on the pitch. Pujols, after two foul balls, chased ball four — a 99 mph fastball off the plate — swung through it and Craig was thrown out for double play.

Here is La Russa’s explanation in full:

“Yeah, I trusted Albert could put the ball in play. In fact, the two swings that he fouled the ball off with the second baseman going over, the hole was there and all of a sudden it was first and third and nobody out and the last pitch, the guy has a very live arm and it sailed on him and he missed. I liked sending him and having a chance to open that inning up, and it didn’t work.”

Think about what La Russa is saying here. Pujols represents the tying run, and yet La Russa is talking about him as if he is Nick Punto. He is thinking about Pujols — who two days earlier joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only men ever to hit three homers in a game — hitting a groundball through the right side of the infield with Kinsler covering second base. A groundball to second base with Pujols finally getting a chance to swing the bat as the potential tying run! Do you know how many opposite field singles Pujols had this year in 651 plate appearances? Eleven. Less than two percent of his plate appearances. And that counts all opposite field singles of any kind, including line drives, not just seeing-eye ground balls through the vacated second base hole.

Do you know how many times Pujols hit a homer this year? Thirty-seven — or more than three times more often than he hit opposite field singles.

Really, my head hurts trying to figure out what La Russa did to this game but mostly how he tried to explain it away. It was like being stuck in a gigantic corn maze. Blindfolded. At midnight. After getting spun around 38 times. Every explanation led to another turn that led to another dead end or false exit. The bottom line is he lost the game having a matchup he didn’t want — a left-hander pitching to red-hot Napoli — and he lost his last opportunity by getting a runner thrown out who, while down two runs, didn’t mean anything. I’ve never seen a game even close to this one and I hope never again to have to try to explain one like it.

Watching the game, I was stunned to see Pujols swinging at that last pitch, trying to protect the runner. One swing and the game would have been tied. This is a classic case of a manager over-thinking a situation. Earl Weaver would have sat back and let his horse take his swings.

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