Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 17, 2017

Leishman Turns Boston Debacle Into Chicago Triumph

When last we saw Marc Leishman he was taking 40 shots to complete his walk around the back nine of TPC Boston in the final round of the Dell Technologies Championship. The 33-year old Australian had arrived at the first tee on Labor Day sharing the 54-hole lead with playing partner Justin Thomas. Leishman vaulted into sole possession of first place by the turn, scorching TPC Boston’s front nine with six birdies to go out in 30. But as the bogeys piled up on the more demanding inward half of the golf course, he sank back down the leader board just as quickly. By the time he arrived at the 18th green, Leishman’s round had descended into slapstick. From thick rough in front of the putting surface, he shanked a chip shot through the legs of an NBC cameraman standing to his right.

In his eighth season on the PGA Tour, Leishman has recorded a pair of wins, the most recent earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That’s enough for his name to be recognizable to close followers of the Tour, though he readily acknowledges that he still flies under the radar to casual golf fans. His closest brush with real golfing fame came at the 2015 Open Championship. At soggy St. Andrews Leishman and Zach Johnson both came from three shots back in the final round to catch Louis Oosthuizen and force a four-hole playoff. But he immediately bogeyed the 1st hole while Johnson and Oosthuizen were both making birdies. In the end Leishman was just one more applauding spectator when Johnson lifted the Claret Jug.

Sunday at the BMW Championship, the penultimate event in the Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, the question for Leishman was not about what happened two years ago and an ocean away, but rather the far more recent debacle outside of Boston. For after hacking his way home at the Dell, Leishman returned to action at the BMW and immediately made his presence known. He birdied three of his first four holes on Thursday on his way to an opening 62 to seize the first day’s lead at 9-under par. Leishman followed that up with nearly as good a round on Friday, settling for a 7-under par 64 that left him three shots clear of fan favorite Rickie Fowler and fellow countryman Jason Day.

In Saturday’s third round Leishman saw his lead reduced to one before he had played even a single hole, when ahead of him Fowler nearly drove the green on the short par-4 opening hole and then sank a curling 24-footer from just off the putting surface for an eagle. But Fowler couldn’t follow up on his flashy start, making ten straight pars before dropping a shot at the 12th. In the end, he signed for a 1-under round of 70, the exact score recorded by Day and Patrick Cantlay, Leishman’s next closest pursuer.

With his closest competitors stuck in neutral, Leishman expanded his lead going into Sunday. Playing with Day, he went out in 1-under 34 thanks to three birdies offsetting a pair of bogeys, then birdied the par-4 13th and par-5 18th for a 3-under 68, moving him to 19-under par through 54 holes.

The final birdie by the straight-hitting and unassuming Leishman was instructive. Day, the 2015 PGA Championship winner and former world number one who is still in the top ten in the rankings, outdrove Leishman by a good forty yards on the reachable par-5. But he then hooked his second into a greenside bunker, where it plugged near the lip. From an awkward stance and impossible lie, Day did well to splash the ball onto the green, twenty feet from the hole. Leishman’s approach with a longer club was straight, as they almost always are, and rolled just through the green. From there he chipped close to the hole for the tap-in birdie, while his better known and longer hitting but more erratic companion settled for a par. That exchange gave Leishman a comfortable five shot edge; with one round to play any remaining doubt about the outcome centered on his recent collapse.

Golf is a game that requires both perfect memory and absolute amnesia. The sport’s top practitioners hone their skills through repeated practice, training their muscles to respond in exactly the same way every time the club is swung. But the mental aspect of the game is every bit as important, and it is there that memories can often do more harm than good. Like baseball, golf is one of our games that is as much about managing failure as it is about reveling in success. The greatest golfer of his time, Tiger Woods has won just over 25% of the PGA Tour events in which he has played, meaning of course that almost three-quarters of the time he has come up short of victory. And Woods’s winning percentage is phenomenally high!

So Leishman’s job on Sunday was to keep his mind clear of any thoughts of his most recent final round, to avoid any moment of self-doubt when a shot went astray. He helped himself with a birdie on the opening hole, and showed his resolve when after recording a bogey on the par-4 5th hole he immediately bounced back, holing a 25-footer for birdie on the 6th. He turned in 2-under 33, with Fowler and Day keeping pace but not charging. Rather it was Justin Rose, who started seven shots adrift, who came barreling through the pack.

But when Rose closed to within two late in the round, Leishman more than held his nerve. Two weeks after closing with back-to-back bogeys, this time he sank a long birdie putt on the 15th, a short one on the 16th, and added one final birdie at the last to balloon his final margin back to where it had started, five shots. With the win, he jumped to fourth place in the FedEx Cup standings heading into next week’s Tour Championship, where each of the top five players can win the Cup and its $10 million bonus by winning the tournament. Given a second chance, Marc Leishman forgot about failure and by doing so captured the biggest win of his PGA Tour career.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 14, 2017

A Tale Of Two Teams

It is the nature of sports fans everywhere to live in the moment. So in Cleveland there are faithful followers of the local baseball team already staking out their viewing locations for the championship parade; while out west in the City of Angels habitués of Chavez Ravine grimly gird themselves for the end of days. It’s a Dickensian moment for the Great Game, for as the English author wrote, “It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

While baseball was already being referred to as our national pastime when Charles Dickens penned that line in 1859, any thought that he somehow foresaw the bipolar runs by two division leaders so many decades later is the progeny of a wild imagination. And for all the excitement and the dread that currently pervade Progressive Field and Dodger Stadium respectively, it’s entirely likely that the same can be said about the present mood of both sets of fans. For the whole scope of the longest season remains a far better barometer of playoff success than any partial snapshot, even one taken in the closing stages of the regular campaign.

As this is written Cleveland has run off 21 consecutive wins, setting an American League record for the longest winning streak with a 5-3 triumph over the Tigers on Wednesday. Cleveland actually trailed in that contest, a situation that hasn’t occurred all that often during a stretch in which Terry Francona’s team has dominated in every aspect of the game. But after Detroit took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 1st, Cleveland struck right back, plating three in the bottom of the opening frame on a home run by Jay Bruce. That quick response added to one of the many amazing statistics related to the streak. Cleveland has now led at the end of 185 of the 189 innings played since last losing.

Detroit managed to keep this one close, at one point creeping to within a run of the home team, before a 7th inning Roberto Perez solo shot padded the lead. For that the Tigers deserve at least a bit of acclaim. During the streak Cleveland has outscored the opposition 139-35, tallying ten or more runs in six games, while the pitching staff has completed seven shutouts. The +104 run differential is not just the largest over any 21-game stretch in franchise history; it’s the fourth highest margin over that many games in the history of the majors.

As Cleveland went into the American League record books, topping the 20-game streak of the 2002 Oakland A’s, forever commemorated in the book and subsequent movie “Moneyball,” the Los Angeles Dodgers were finally proving that contrary to the worst fears of their fans, they had not entirely forgotten how to win a game, or even two. Tuesday night Clayton Kershaw picked up his 17th win of the season by scattering eight hits over six innings of work as L.A. topped the Giants 5-3. One night later Yu Darvish was even better, allowing just three singles in seven innings as the Dodgers beat their archrivals 4-1.

The two victories were the first back-to-back wins by L.A. in nearly three weeks. In that awful interim, the Dodgers first dropped five straight, recorded a sole victory, and then lost eleven games in a row. They lost to good teams like the Diamondbacks and bad ones like the Padres. L.A. dropped five one-run games in that miserable stretch, while also getting blown out by scores of 8-1, 9-1, and 13-0. On August 25th the Dodgers were 91-36, on pace to threaten the single season win mark of 116 games. By the time Kershaw and Darvish stanched the bleeding this week, they were more concerned about losing home field advantage in the playoffs to the Nationals than going into the record books.

Be it because or despite their recent streaks, both Cleveland and Los Angeles are right where most analysts expected them to be as October approaches, namely comfortably on top of their divisions. Cleveland’s hot play has helped the team get there after a middling start, while L.A.’s tailspin hasn’t hurt their place in the standings all that much thanks to a torrid stretch earlier in the year. Back in deep winter, the initial computer projections by Baseball Prospectus had Cleveland atop the AL Central with 92 wins and L.A. leading the NL West with 98. With Cleveland 13 ½ games in front of Minnesota and the Dodgers 9 ½ up on the Diamondbacks, both teams are now given a 100% chance of winning their division title by Fangraphs. Both should finish with a few more wins than that initial computer projection made last February.

But does the recent play of either presage their postseason performance? Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, the sabermetric mavens have produced a detailed analysis that says every win counts more or less equally, whether it occurs in September or April. In other words, a team’s overall body of work is a better predictor than what happens in the final few weeks.

That’s confirmed by looking at last year’s postseason participants. While no team matched either Cleveland’s or L.A.’s extremes, the best of the bunch over the final month was Boston, with a record of 19-10. But the Red Sox were swept out of October by Cleveland in the ALDS. At the other extreme Toronto was the only playoff team to post a losing record over the final month, going 13-16. But the Blue Jays won the Wild Card play-in game and swept Texas in the ALDS, making it all the way to the ALCS before finally succumbing to Cleveland. And the last team standing was the franchise with the best overall body of work, the 103-wins in the regular season Chicago Cubs.

Recent history and statistical analysis aside, in the short series that make up the playoffs strong starting pitching has always been the true key to success. Dickens would surely note that these last weeks have been the best of times in Cleveland, the worst of times in L.A. But were he a fan he’d also know that once the playoffs begin it’s a whole new season, with Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw likely to be far more important to the fate of their franchises than anything that happens in September.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 10, 2017

Metrics And Opinions As MLB’s Awards Season Approaches

With the passing of Labor Day the longest season has moved into its final weeks. As the schedule winds down, this is the time of year when attention normally focuses on the pennant races in each of the Great Game’s six divisions. Only this year most of those are races in name only, much like Secretariat’s 31 length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes was technically a horse race. As this is written three of the six division leaders have double-digit advantages over their closest pursuer.

Even the Dodgers, a team that once appeared destined to set a record for regular season wins, remain nine games in front of the Diamondbacks despite a recent tailspin that has seen L.A. drop ten in a row and fifteen out of sixteen. Although it’s highly unlikely that Arizona will capture the NL West, the Diamondbacks have all but secured the first of the National League’s two Wild Card tickets to the postseason.

So while the chase for the remaining Wild Card spots and the longshot chances of the Yankees catching the Red Sox and either the Brewers or Cardinals overtaking the Cubs will provide a bit of drama, the roster of playoff teams for this season looks to be coming into focus earlier than usual. What is less settled though are some of the individual awards that will be voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Once this year’s final regular season game has been played, designated members of the BBWAA will cast their ballots for each league’s MVP, Rookie and Manager of the Year, and Cy Young Award winner.

Speculating on the winners of those awards has long been a favorite parlor game for fans and pundits alike, and this year it’s more entertaining than say the “battle” for the NL East crown, which ended this weekend when the Nationals clinched, just ten days into September. Of course fans tend not to be the most objective observers. Here in New England Red Sox loyalists will be outraged and indignant if Chris Sale’s first season in a Boston uniform is not rewarded with the AL Cy Young.

But after he notched his 15th victory of the year on Wednesday night, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber now leads the majors in the popular Wins Above Replacement metric with a 6.8. ESPN maintains a Cy Young predictor table that uses a formula developed by sabermetrics guru Bill James and the sports network’s Rob Neyer. That formula has Sale and Kluber in a virtual tie, which may be an indication of how close the AL vote will be. In the National League, the formula rates Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen above both Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, the two pitchers generally thought to be the most likely candidates for the NL award. But formulas aside, many of the BBWAA’s voters look askance at voting for a relief pitcher.

Back before the All-Star break, Yankee fans dreamt of right fielder Aaron Judge sweeping both the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in the junior circuit. But after winning the Home Run Derby Judge’s bat went ice cold until this weekend, when he had a two-homer game in Texas. While he’s still the strong favorite for top rookie honors, voters are likely to look elsewhere for MVP candidates. Perennial contender Mike Trout is putting up his usual stellar numbers, but may have missed too much time with a thumb injury. At the Bleacher Report website, the writers like Houston’s dynamic second baseman Jose Altuve, who appears headed for his third batting title.

The NL MVP race may be the closest of them all. A case can be made for Scherzer, although just as some voters won’t consider a reliever for the Cy Young, there are those who contend that pitchers “have their own award” and so shouldn’t be in the running for the MVP. Among position players Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, and L.A.’s Cody Bellinger, who is the likely NL Rookie of the Year, are all candidates. The analysts at My Top Sportsbooks  put Arenado in the lead, and just the other night he smacked a three-run 1st inning home run off Kershaw that helped power the Rockies to a blowout win over the Dodgers. But Goldschmidt’s Diamondbacks are the hottest team in the National League right now, and their late season surge may be what voters remember.

For while these awards honor individual achievement, top performances tend to stand out a little more when they are in the service of a winning team. Consider the case of Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins outfielder has been blasting the cover off the ball. His 54 homers are 15 more than any other slugger, and his OPS is fourth best in the majors. At his current home run frequency, Stanton still has a chance to beat what many consider to be the “true” single-season homer mark, the 61 that Roger Maris hit in ’61. But Miami is seven games below .500 and playing out the string despite Stanton’s heroics, and outside of Marlins Park no one is touting him as an MVP candidate. In the end the Great Game is a team sport, and the one prize that’s most cherished is still a World Series title.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 7, 2017

At TPC Boston, More Than One Winner

When the PGA Tour’s Dell Technologies Championship, the second of four events that comprise the season-ending FedEx Cup Playoffs, played out over the sprawling eighteen holes of TPC Boston during Labor Day weekend, much of the coverage and most of the thousands in attendance understandably focused on the battle for the winner’s check of $1.575 million and the 2,000 FedEx Cup points that accompany it.

That contest went to 24-year old Justin Thomas, who overcame a slow start – he managed only an even par 71 in Friday’s first round – before playing his way into Monday’s final pairing with scintillating play on the weekend. Thomas played bogey-free golf on Saturday and Sunday, recording four birdies in his second round 67 and then setting a record for the FedEx Cup playoffs by returning a scorecard with a dozen threes on it for the third round. That included eight birdies, all on par-4s, that gave Thomas a score of 63 despite having played the par-5s in just even par.

At 12-under par Thomas shared the 54-hole lead and Monday afternoon’s final tee time with Australian Marc Leishman. They were one stroke ahead of Paul Casey and two clear of Jordan Spieth, who made up the penultimate group. That meant the eventual winner had a prime view as first Spieth and then Leishman tore up TPC Boston’s front nine. With three birdies and an eagle the former went 5-under on the first four holes to claim the lead early in the final round. But he was soon overtaken by Leishman, who like Spieth needed just 30 strokes to reach the turn. At that point Thomas, whose normally fine 32 on the front side seemed merely workmanlike compared to what the other two were doing, found himself tied with his good friend Spieth and two behind Leishman.

The back nine is the sterner test on a course that has been reshaped several times since it opened in 2003, and that is where the Dell was decided. Spieth was 2-over on the inward half, finding trouble when his approach shots began going consistently well right of his intended target. Leishman struggled even more, dropping five shots to par in a closing 40. Among the leaders only Thomas mastered TPC Boston’s final nine holes, sinking birdie putts at the 13th and 15th to offset a lone bogey at the par-3 11th. The result was a closing 66, good for a 17-under total and a comfortable three shot victory.

Less than a year ago, to the extent he was known at all Justin Thomas was the poster boy for Ralph Lauren golf clothing, with one PGA Tour win to his name. On Labor Day he won his fifth event of the season, a number that includes his first major at last month’s PGA Championship. Along the way Thomas shot a 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii last January, and set a new record for lowest score in relation to par at the U.S. Open with a 9-under par 63 at Erin Hills in June. With two tournaments left to play Dustin Johnson with four wins and Spieth who also has four including a major, are still in the running for Player of the Year. But either probably needs to win in Chicago or Atlanta or claim the FedEx Cup to overtake Thomas, who is now known for a lot more than high-end clothing, for the honor.

As much as he was the center of attention for the week and even the entire PGA Tour season, Justin Thomas’s was not the only story of note coming out of the play at TPC Boston. Between the playoff format of steadily shrinking fields and the deadline for qualifying for both the U.S. and International teams for the upcoming Presidents Cup matches, golfers with no shot at winning the Dell still had much to play for.

The field of one hundred at TPC Boston shrinks to just seventy for the BMW Championship, and only the top thirty in FedEx Cup points go on from there to the Tour Championship. Fan favorite Bubba Watson started the week in 72nd place, and appeared to have squandered any chance of continuing his season when he stunned fans by hurriedly missing a short par putt at the end of his second round. The closing bogey left him at 3-over, seemingly one shot outside the cut line. But as the final groups finished up the cut bumped up by one. Given a reprieve Watson failed to utilize it, losing two more strokes to par over the final two rounds. His finish far back in the pack actually dropped him three spots in the FedEx Cup standings, ending his season.

Three other players were more fortunate. Stewart Cink, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and Emiliano Grillo all moved into the top seventy based on their performances at the Dell. Looking ahead to the Tour Championship, Patrick Reed, Gary Woodland, and Bill Haas all moved into the top thirty, at the expense of Xander Schauffele, Charles Howell III, and Sergio Garcia. But at least those three have one more week to improve their lot, unlike Watson or the three players knocked out of the BMW’s field by Cink, Cabrera-Bello, and Grillo.

The 22nd place finish by the young Argentinian Grillo, largely on the strength of a final round 66, also caught the attention of Nick Price, captain of the International squad for the Presidents Cup. The ten automatic qualifiers for the two Presidents Cup teams are determined by cumulative FedEx Cup points earned over a two-year period, with current year points counting double.  His Dell result moved Grillo to 11th in the final International team standings. On Wednesday Price named Grillo as one of his two captain’s choices for the matches to be played at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey at the end of the month.

U.S. team captain Steve Stricker was also a close observer of the play at the Dell. Charley Hoffman began the week holding the last automatic spot for the Americans, but wound up even par for the tournament, in a tie for 47th. Kevin Chappell finished two shots better, in a tie for 35th. Once the Dell’s results were final and the event’s points distributed, Chappell edged Hoffman by less than a point.

Poor Charley was left to deal with that disappointment for less than 48 hours, before Stricker made him one of his two captain’s picks. With his other selection the U.S. skipper tapped Phil Mickelson. This will be the 23rd consecutive appearance for Lefty in the two biennial team competitions, the Presidents and Ryder Cups. Without a PGA Tour victory since his win at the 2013 Open Championship, Mickelson might have been a more controversial pick prior to the Dell. But at TPC Boston he turned in four solid rounds in the 60s, finishing in a tie for 6th at 11-under par.

It was a result good enough to give Stricker all the justification he needed to put the veteran on the team. Justin Thomas may have been the obvious winner last weekend, but he was by no means the only one. Mickelson and several others may not have lifted the tournament’s Wedgewood jasperware trophy, but they had plenty of reasons to smile as they left TPC Boston.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 3, 2017

Stacy Lewis Wins, For Her City And Herself

In the wake of the terrible devastation Hurricane Harvey inflicted on Houston and surrounding coastal areas of Texas, athletes and sports teams have done their part in the national response to the tragedy. J.J. Watt, the Texans’ star defensive end, announced on online fundraising drive with an initial goal of $200,000, half of which Watt donated himself. In less than 24 hours more than half a million dollars had been donated, so Watt kept raising his sights. As this is written the fund’s goal is now $20 million, with more than $18 million already in the bank. Watts’ team donated $1 million to a relief fund sponsored by the local United Way, and that was quickly matched by the NFL. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander gave $4 million as well.

Support was not limited to Houston or even Texas teams and players. In but one example, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox put aside their bitter rivalry to jointly raise money for the relief effort by auctioning off team and game-used memorabilia from their weekend series at the Stadium.

Then there was Stacy Lewis. Although born in Ohio, the future LPGA star grew up in a Houston suburb, and still calls the area home. Last summer she married Gerrod Chadwell, the coach of the women’s golf team at the University of Houston. This week, as the 32-year old prepared to tee it up in the Cambria Portland Classic, Lewis tweeted the following: “It has been so hard being away from home and my family the last week. It’s been even harder watching what my hometown is going through. The pictures and the stories unimaginable. My home and family have been extremely lucky but many others have not been so lucky. I will be playing this week at the Portland Classic and will donate 100% of my earnings to Houston and the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I can’t wait to get home to Houston and help my hometown recover!”

It was a generous gesture; one that could be expected to produce between $35,000 and $40,000 for the relief effort, based on the average check Lewis cashed in nineteen previous tournaments this year. LPGA purses are but a fraction of those on the men’s tour, and while she remains one of the Tour’s leading members and the third highest American in the Rolex World Rankings, Lewis in recent years has not been the golfer who dominated the women’s game just a few years ago. She won her first major in 2011, then won four times in 2012. Lewis notched three more victories the following year, including her second major with a dramatic final round rally at the Women’s British Open. She also ascended to the top of the world rankings in 2013, and is still just the second American woman to do so. Another three wins followed in 2014, the last a one-shot victory over a trio of competitors at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

And then the winning stopped. There was no dramatic change in Lewis’s game. She ended 2015 ranked third in the world, exactly where she had been at the close of the previous season. She had six runner-up finishes that year and fourteen top-tens, but her earnings dropped from more than $2.5 million to just under $1.9. Last year she earned less than half that amount, and for the first time since 2012 her scoring average crept above 70. Lewis arrived at the Columbia Edgewater Country Club for this week’s tournament with six top-ten finishes in 2017, including a second place showing that brought to an even dozen the number of times she had been runner-up since her last victory.

Despite the victory drought and the fact that her world ranking had dropped to eighteenth, Lewis professed to being happy with the new balance in her life that came with finding a partner. Still to close followers of the LPGA, it seemed unlikely that her competitive fires, which had so recently burned white-hot, were completely banked.

Lewis opened with a 2-under par round of 70, which left her in a tie for 33rd place, four shots adrift of first round leader In Gee Chun. It was a round like many of Lewis’s in the past two years – six birdies attested to her ability to convert scoring chances, but two bogeys and a double spoke to a few too many loose shots. But mindful of the commitment she had made to her waterlogged city, on Friday Lewis showed a renewed level of determination. Her second round scorecard had seven threes and a pair of twos, as she recorded eight birdies without dropping a shot. The 64 sent Lewis soaring to the top of the leader board, tied with Chun and Brooke Henderson. On Saturday she played nearly as well, again making eight birdies against a long bogey for a 65 that left Lewis three shots clear of her closest competitor with one final turn around Columbia Edgewater’s eighteen remaining.

Closing out a victory, especially one to end a long drought, is never easy. On Sunday Chun put Lewis to the test. Starting in third place, four shots back of the leader and playing with her in the final threesome, Chun matched Lewis’s 33 on the front. Then as Lewis made par after par, Chun birdied the two par-5s on the back nine, the 10th and 12th holes. When she rolled in a twenty-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th Chun had whittled the lead down to a single shot.

But Lewis held her nerve. She saved par from off the green at the 17th, and then found the putting surface with an approach from a fairway bunker at the last after Chun’s approach rolled through the green. The challenger did manage to get up and down, but Lewis’s first putt from forty feet settled a yard from the hole, and her final stroke with the flat stick was steady and true. When her ball found the bottom of the cup Houston relief efforts were enriched by $195,000, an amount immediately matched by KPMG, Lewis’s primary sponsor.

No one would have blamed Lewis had she withdrawn from the tournament and flown home to her stricken city. But after three years without a win, the former world number one had a different idea. For her city and for the competitive fire that still burns inside her, Stacy’s idea was an immensely better one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 31, 2017

Playing Precisely To Form At The U.S. Open

The final Grand Slam tournament of the year is well into its first week at the sprawling USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. From the season-opening Australian Open to the red clay of Roland Garros to tradition-steeped Wimbledon and finally on to America’s national championship out at the farthest reaches of Gotham’s number 7 subway line, each of the four tennis majors offers a grand stage for the sport’s elite to showcase their talent. But in the most literal sense the U.S. Open is the biggest Grand Slam tournament of them all. Its $50 million in prize money is from seven to more than ten million dollars greater than the purses at the other three Grand Slams, and Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest tennis-specific venue in the world. With a seating capacity of nearly 24,000, Ashe is more than fifty percent larger than its counterparts in Melbourne, Paris, and London. On Tuesday that greatest of tennis stages was the setting for three matches that mirrored the current career status of the headline player in each.

First on the court for the second day of the U.S. Open’s fortnight was women’s top seed Karolina Pliskova. The 25-year old from the Czech Republic ascended to the top of the WTA rankings a little over a month ago, capping a steady rise that began with her breakthrough season in 2014. That year she won twice and reached three other finals, climbing more than forty spots in the rankings to finish the year at 24th. By the end of 2015, a year in which she reached a tour-leading six tournament finals, she had moved to just outside the top ten. Last year she reached her first Grand Slam final, losing in three sets to Angelique Kerber on the same court where she now opened play against Magda Linette of Poland.

As befits a top seed, Pliskova dispatched Linette in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1. But the match, which took nearly an hour and twenty minutes, was much closer than that lopsided score would indicate. After breaking Linette’s first service game for a 2-0 lead in the first set, Pliskova was immediately broken in turn, winning only one point in the next game. And while the world number one steadily improved her advantage, three of the next four games went to deuce, as the unheralded challenger refused to go quietly.

Pliskova finally closed out the first set, then she again broke Linette early in the second, this time racing out to a 3-0 lead. But after Linette held for 3-1, the underdog took the first three points of the fifth game. With three break points in hand Linette appeared on the verge of climbing back into the set. Instead Pliskova fought her way back to deuce. From there each player went up a point three times, only to have the game go back to deuce on each of the first five advantage situations. After fending off a total of six break points in the game, Pliskova finally prevailed when Linette missed with a forehand. With that the fight finally went out of the challenger, and just seven minutes later the top seed ended the match with an ace.

The tough battle hidden behind the score was appropriate, for Pliskova faces a daunting task to retain her ranking. As the Open began eight women had a mathematical chance to leave Flushing Meadows as the world number one. The best odds belonged to Simona Halep, who could still claim the top spot despite losing to Maria Sharapova in the first round, if all seven other contenders are beaten no later than the third round. Pliskova on the other hand must reprise her finals appearance from last year to have a shot at staying atop the rankings.

Any ranking can be ephemeral, as last year’s women’s champion Kerber knows all too well. She followed Pliskova onto the stadium court where last year she held both the winner’s trophy and the number one spot. Since then her game has declined, steeply so this season. In 2017, she not only has yet to win a title, she is 0-9 against opponents ranked in the top twenty. The defending champion and former number one has fallen to sixth, and her descent continued Tuesday, when against 19-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan Kerber seemed overmatched. The teenager plays a power game that is the embodiment of modern tennis, smashing lightning-fast groundstrokes from behind the baseline while disdaining approaches to the net.

Kerber stayed with her through seven games, though it was clear that Osaka was dictating the play. Finally, serving at 3-4 to even the first set, the defending champion succumbed to the young challenger’s power. After serving out the first Osaka breezed through the second set, stroking twenty-two winners to just nine for Kerber. The now former champion managed to hold serve just once in the second set. Osaka’s impressive 6-3, 6-1 triumph will send Kerber tumbling out of the top ten for the first time since 2015. Where and when she regains the confidence needed to stop her freefall is an open question.

Yet free falls can be stopped, as Rafael Nadal has shown. Just two years ago, hampered by injuries and poor play, Nadal dropped out of the top five in the men’s rankings for the first time in a decade. By the end of 2016 he was barely in the top ten, and while he was just thirty, only a year older than rivals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, it was fair to wonder if thousands of clay court sets had taken their toll on the legs of a player who turned professional at the age of 15.
But the Spaniard was already doing the hard work of rebuilding his form. While he failed to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2016 for the first time in a dozen years, he did win the bronze medal in singles and the gold in doubles at the Rio Olympics. Then this year he won in Monte Carol and Madrid, reached the finals at the Australian Open and won the French for a record tenth time. Just before arriving in Queens Nadal reclaimed the number one spot in the rankings, nine years after he first stood atop the world of men’s tennis.

Nadal’s first set against 85th ranked Dusan Lajovic was a reflection of his struggle to return to the top. Playing deep behind the baseline to give himself more time, Lajovic broke Nadal in the third game. He continued his impressive play, thwarting efforts by the number one seed to return the favor until he was on the brink of winning the first set. Then, serving for the win at 5-4, Lajovic ran into Nadal at his best. Rafa ripped a backhand winner for the first point, and went on to break Lajovic at love. The set eventually went to a tiebreaker, with Nadal prevailing 8-6.

Having slogged his way through the first, the new world number one then played up to his ranking, as if finally able to revel in his achievement, in the next two sets, eventually moving into the second round with a 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2 victory.

There’s a lot of tennis to be played in front of the massive crowds that always fill the grounds at Flushing Meadows before the men’s and women’s champions are crowned the weekend after next. Angelique Kerber will have long since departed by that time, and there is no guarantee that Karolina Pliskova and Rafael Nadal will not have joined her. But at the beginning of this U.S. Open, on tennis’s biggest stage, all three wound up performing exactly as one would expect.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 28, 2017

Dressed Like Amateurs, Mariners Play The Part

Blame it on the uniforms. Major League Baseball’s first annual Players Weekend is in the books, and despite the grumbling from old-school traditionalists the event appears to have passed without lasting damage to the Great Game. The concept, jointly announced earlier this month by MLB and the Players Association, was to enhance baseball’s appeal to young people during the weekend that coincided with the final games of the Little League World Series. That enhancement took the form of colorful uniforms, more typically seen at youth league games. All teams wore multi-toned pullover jerseys, multi-hued socks and special caps, and players were also allowed to wear custom-designed cleats and use colorful bats and gloves. One sleeve of the jersey had a patch on which the player could write the name of a mentor and, as a final touch, the back of each player’s jersey bore a nickname. This was in place of the usual last name on the jersey of most teams, or in the case of the New York Yankees traditionally no name at all.

The result was a visual spectacle quite different from what is usually on display from thirty teams at fifteen ballparks across the land on any other weekend of the longest season. In the Bronx, the visiting Seattle Mariners wore aqua jerseys with contrasting electric blue sleeves that matched their hats. The Yankees wore dark blue jerseys with the team name in script across the chest instead of the traditional interlocking NY. Their jerseys had contrasting gray sleeves that matched each player’s cap. Most jarring for long-time Yankee fans was the presence of anything other than a number on each player’s back. But from “Kraken” for Gary Sanchez to “All Rise” for Aaron Judge and everything in between, including “Gardner,” decidedly not a nickname for outfielder Brett Gardner, a vocal opponent of the whole idea, on this weekend the Yankees’ uniforms included names, at least of a sort.

The goal of Players Weekend was entirely worthy. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred worries quite publicly about finding ways to connect with a young generation growing up with their faces buried in smartphone screens and ever-faster entertainments. Still one needn’t be a hardened cynic to wonder just how much having teams play dress-up for three games is going to result in the formation of lifelong bonds with ten-year old’s. But what it did without question was create one more massive marketing opportunity for MLB, with everything from official jerseys at $200 down to caps at $35 and tee shirts for the bargain price of $30 available on-line and at team stores for every franchise.

Still with all parties rushing to declare Players Weekend a great success, the operative phrase in its description is “first annual.” Fans can surely look forward to this becoming a regular part of the Great Game’s calendar. Only time will tell if that means more games like the one that took place Sunday at The Stadium, where the Seattle Mariners, dressed like Little Leaguers or perhaps a bunch of beer-guzzling middle-aged softballers, played down to their appearance.

The Mariners actually led 1-0 when the Yankees came to the plate in the bottom of the 1st. In the top half of the inning Seattle batters had managed three straight hits off Masahiro Tanaka, who would settle down to throw seven innings without allowing another run. The home half of the 1st started innocently enough for Andrew Albers, making this third start of the year for Seattle, when he got Aaron Hicks to hit a soft popup to shortstop Jean Segura for the first out. It would be fifteen long minutes before Mariners’ defenders made another smooth play.

Starlin Castro doubled to right, and then Sanchez lined a single to left, where Ben Gamel moved in to play the ball on the first hop. But it bounced off his glove and rolled toward the outfield wall, allowing Castro to score and Sanchez to race to second. After Judge walked, Didi Gregorius lifted a routine pop fly to short left field, where Segura, Gamel and center fielder Guillermo Heredia all converged. But with no one taking control, the ball bounced off Segura’s glove for the second error of the inning, loading the bases. Then Chase Headley sent a grounder to third baseman Kyle Seager. The nickname on Seager’s back was “Corey’s Brother,” and in that moment he may have wished he could hide permanently in the shadow of his younger sibling, the Dodgers’ phenom. Seager bobbled the ball between glove and throwing hand, and by the time it fell harmlessly to the infield dirt a run had scored and everyone was safe.

The action, if it can be called that, paused while Seattle’s pitching coach paid a visit to the mound, and for a moment it looked like the trip might restore order. Albers fanned third baseman Todd Frazier on five pitches. But then Jacoby Ellsbury sent a drive into the gap in left center. As Yankees raced around the bases Gamel ran down the ball and threw to Segura, the cut-off man. The Seattle shortstop booted the throw for the fourth Mariners’ error, and after retrieving the ball threw wildly to home for their fifth miscue of the inning.

After Ronald Torreyes plated Ellsbury with a relatively routine infield single the Yankees led 6-1. Center fielder Heredia was finally able to execute a routine catch on a fly ball from Hicks for the third out, but New York was on the way to an easy 10-1 win.

The forgettable half-inning was the first time in three decades that a major league team had committed five errors in a single frame. Apparently unwilling to miss out on the frivolity, the Yankees managed a pair of their own fielding miscues before the score went final. New York manager Joe Girardi wisely got himself ejected in the 3rd inning to avoid having to witness any more of the spectacle. It was a game worthy of the Bad News Bears, though perhaps not the best marketing tool for those garish Players Weekend jerseys.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 24, 2017

At Long Last, Danny Deals

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday, so the next post will be delayed until Monday.

It only seems like it’s been forever that fans of the Boston Celtics have grumbled about general manager Danny Ainge’s apparent unwillingness to trade any of his ever-growing stockpile of draft picks and young players for someone who might immediately make the Green one of the NBA’s elite franchises, ready to compete with Golden State and Cleveland for a title. The reality is that it was just four years ago that Ainge started retooling the Celtics and building his war chest of potential.

It began with the trade of aging superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for a roster of future draft selections spread over multiple years. Ainge has since executed several more deals that, while involving less high-profile stars, also resulted in the Celtics accumulating future Draft Day choices. But at every trade deadline and in every offseason, as the faithful who pack TD Garden for Boston’s home games waited for news that Ainge had executed a blockbuster trade that would change the team’s fortunes, they instead heard only of those deals around the edges, and of a general manager who was biding his time.

Then last season coach Brad Stevens managed a team without a true superstar to the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and through the playoffs to the Conference Finals. There the Celtics were dispatched with relative ease by LeBron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a series that reminded the denizens of Causeway Street that despite the regular season record of wins and losses, their team was not yet among the NBA’s elite.

Since then Ainge has taken apart the Celtics’ roster, and on Tuesday he capped an extraordinarily busy offseason with the megadeal for which fans have long pined. Boston sent point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and one of those much-heralded draft assets, a first round pick for next June to Cleveland in exchange for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, the hero of the Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA Championship.

The deal was set in motion last month when, in the wake of Cleveland’s third successive trip to the NBA Finals, Irving went public with his request to be traded. The 25-year old was the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft after a single season at Duke, and was the face of the Cleveland franchise for the first three seasons of his professional career. Then in 2014 prodigal son LeBron James returned to the Cavaliers, promising a title as he did so. James delivered on that promise at the end of the 2015-16 season, though it was Irving who hit the winning 3-pointer against Golden State in Game 7 of the Finals.

In demanding a trade Irving made it clear that he longed to once again be the focal point of a team, something that no player will be, no matter his skills, if he’s wearing the same uniform as James. As a member of the Celtics the dynamic playmaker and prolific scorer will get his wish, while being surrounded with what should be an impressive supporting cast. Big man Al Horford, signed by Boston last year, is like Irving a four-time All-Star. Small forward Gordon Hayward, signed as a free agent at the beginning of July and up until this week Ainge’s prize offseason acquisition, is being reunited with Stevens, who was his college coach at Butler. And 19-year old Jayson Tatum, taken by Boston with the number three pick in the recent Draft, turned heads at the NBA Summer League.

The price for Irving was high. Zizic is a 20-year old seven-foot center who’s on that long list of future potential that Ainge has been carrying around in his pocket. Drafted by Boston a year ago, he spent last season playing in Europe with the Celtics’ permission. The 2018 first-rounder is Brooklyn’s pick, one of the many gifts that are still giving from the Pierce-Garnett trade. While it’s likely to be a lottery pick, the Nets appear to have improved their own roster so odds are it won’t be the overall first choice in the draft. Crowder is a physical player who gave Boston some strength in the middle and whose offense noticeably improved over the last two seasons. The big get for Cleveland is Thomas, the diminutive point guard who was Boston’s offensive catalyst and a fan favorite. But the gamble for new Cavaliers GM Koby Altman is that Thomas is coming off a hip injury that took him out of last year’s playoffs. He’s also one season away from free agency, and has made it plain that he expects a maximum contract to be his reward.

Thomas’s likely contract demands and the bit of uncertainty over his injury, along with the fact that Irving is three years younger and three years away from a new contract, were all good reasons for Ainge to deal Thomas despite his popularity with Boston’s fans. Of course, the best reason of all was that Irving has the superstar potential that for all his grit Thomas lacks.

The great unknown, as with every splashy offseason deal, is whether that potential will be realized. Clearly Ainge believes it will be. Explaining the decision to acquire Irving, to trade the long-term potential that Zizic and the 2018 pick represent for the immediate potential of a franchise-altering player, Ainge said that “for all he’s accomplished, we believe his best years are ahead of him.” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck backed up Ainge, calling Irving “a transcendent talent” and adding “we want this team to go for banner eighteen, and we need the best possible players to do that.”

If Irving, Hayward and Horford form a new Big Three and that eighteenth championship banner is raised to the TD Garden rafters in the next year or two, Ainge will be hailed as a genius. If Boston continues to end season after season looking up at the likes of Golden State or Cleveland or in time some other franchise, fans will doubtless render a less kind judgment. But they’ll never again be able to complain that Danny wouldn’t deal.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 20, 2017

Individual Drama Behind USA’s Solheim Cup Rout

There was precious little doubt or drama about the overall outcome of the 15th edition of the Solheim Cup, the biennial team competition between golfers from the United States and Europe. After the underdog Europeans took a 2 ½ to 1 ½ lead in Friday morning’s foursomes, Team USA steamrolled to a 4 to 0 sweep in the afternoon fourballs. It was the first American sweep of a session in the history of the Solheim Cup. Their dominance was underscored not just by the result, but also by the fact that the Europeans never led at any point in any of the four matches.

The three-point lead after the first day of play confirmed what was apparent on paper, namely that Team USA was far more accomplished than Team Europe. World number two Lexi Thompson was the top ranked player on either squad, and the only golfer in the top ten of the Rolex Rankings, which are dominated at the top by players from Asia. But five of the twelve members of the American side arrived at Des Moines Golf and Country Club with world rankings in the top twenty-five, compared to just Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist at #13 and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda at #21 for the Europeans. Until #27 Jessica Korda was forced to withdraw because of a nagging forearm injury, the lowest ranked American was 25-year old Austin Ernst, a Solheim Cup rookie currently sitting at #57 in the rankings. After Suzann Pettersen in turn became an injury casualty for the Europeans and was replaced by Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, nearly half of Team Europe’s twelve members had lower world rankings than Ernst, with two players ranked outside the top 100.

Ernst, with one LPGA victory on her resume, was one of Juli Inkster’s two original captain’s picks. Given a third selection when Korda withdrew, Inkster tabbed 31-year old LPGA veteran Paula Creamer. It was the second straight Solheim Cup that Inkster had taken Creamer as a captain’s selection, and while there was general support for the choice two years ago this time there were plenty of doubters. Since her dramatic victory at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010, Creamer has but a single LPGA victory and that win, at the 2014 HSBC Women’s Champions, is now more than three years distant. She has tumbled all the way to 112th in the world rankings.

But the American captain knew that Creamer had the highest winning percentage in Cup matches of any member of Team USA. With experience in the six previous Solheim Cups, she also provided a veteran presence in the locker room and helped to mentor Team USA’s three rookies. Inkster sent Creamer out with the rookie Ernst once on Friday and twice more on Saturday, and the pair won two of their three matches. Then on Sunday Inkster slotted Creamer into the second of the twelve singles matches and her pick looked even smarter when the Pink Panther defeated Georgia Hall 1-up to record the first full point for the Americans on the final day.

By the time Nordqvist and Thompson teed off to start the Sunday singles, Team USA retaining the Cup was a virtual certainty. Friday evening’s three-point advantage swelled to five by the end of play on Saturday, when the Americans took three of a possible four points in the afternoon fourballs after the two sides split the morning foursomes. Large deficits have been overcome at previous Solheim Cups, most notably two years ago when the United States trailed by four points after two days before rallying on Sunday to shock the Europeans at Golf Club St. Leon-Rot in Germany. But that year too the American squad was the better team on paper, and they were no doubt energized by a late Saturday afternoon rules imbroglio involving Sweden’s Pettersen and Alison Lee, the sole American rookie.

Team Europe had no such motivating event this year in Iowa, and no team had ever made up five points on the final day, least of all one that on paper was so outmatched. Ultimately each side won five singles matches while two were halved. The 6-6 Sunday scoring made for a final tally of 16 ½ to 11 ½ in favor of the Americans. Since 2002, when the Cup went to its current format of four foursome and four fourball matches on each of the first two days followed by twelve singles on day three, this was the largest margin of victory for the Americans in their six wins. However, two of the three European triumphs in that time were by even larger margins, a seven-point edge in 2003 in Sweden and the 18-10 rout at Colorado Golf Club four years ago, the only time the United States has lost on home soil.

But if the ultimate outcome of this year’s Solheim Cup seemed both preordained on paper before the first ball was even struck and equally certain on the golf course from Friday evening on, there was still plenty of individual drama. Inkster’s selection of Creamer as Team USA’s injury alternate was the first such piece. Even before Creamer’s singles victory the American captain felt sufficiently vindicated by her choice’s play that she used a Saturday evening press conference to say to the doubters “shame on you.”

Then Sunday’s opening singles match turned into one of the most dramatic in the history not of just the Solheim Cup, but of any of golf’s team competitions. Both Inkster and European captain Annika Sorenstam chose to send their best player out first, so it was Thompson versus Nordqvist. The former’s sparkling resume makes it easy to forget that she is just 22, but there was no doubting that she was a very nervous young woman at the start of the round. She missed an easy three-footer to lose the 1st hole, then shanked a wedge at the 2nd. Another short putt went astray at the 3rd, and when Nordqvist rolled in a birdie putt at the par-5 4th hole, the world number two was 4-down after as many holes. First assistant captain Nancy Lopez and then captain Inkster walked with Thompson on the 5th fairway, encouraging her to stay in the match.

Whatever they said had a positive effect, with Thompson steadying herself and trading wins with Nordqvist at the 5th and 9th holes to make the turn still 4-down. Then, after shooting 2-over par on the front nine, Thompson took over the match by playing the next seven holes in 8-under par. Birdies at the 10th and 11th cut the lead to two, then Thompson’s gap wedge third shot from 112 yards on the par-5 13th dropped into the hole for eagle. Two holes later she sunk a long curling putt for another eagle on the par-5 15th hole, erasing what had once looked like an insurmountable deficit. Fittingly enough for this back and forth battle between two stars, Nordqvist struck a brilliant approach shot at the 18th to set up a birdie that left the match all square.

Close to two hours after Thompson’s stirring rally for a half-point, Lizette Salas came to the 18th hole 1-up on England’s Jodi Ewart-Shadoff. When Salas knocked in a four-foot putt to halve the hole she won both her match and the clinching point for Team USA. As her caddy wrapped an American flag around the 28-year old daughter of Mexican immigrants, fans who had heard all week about the depth of Team USA were reminded of its breadth. In these fraught political times, it was the best possible climax to America’s triumph at the Solheim Cup.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 17, 2017

A Half-Century On, Honoring The Impossible Dream

They are half a century older now; most of their heads are gray and most of their waistlines are thicker. Yet when seventeen members of the 1967 Red Sox stood behind the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park on Wednesday evening and the applause and cheers poured down from the stands at the old ballyard, for those fans old enough to do so it was easy to recall that incredible golden summer now five decades gone. It was the Summer of Love in San Francisco, with as many as a hundred thousand hippies descending on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. But a continent’s width to the east, in Boston it was the summer of the Impossible Dream, with a record 1.7 million fans, more than the previous two years combined, passing through Fenway’s turnstiles to witness their team’s improbable run from the cellar to the mountaintop. It was the year that those aging men, then filled with the vitality of youth, won over a city and in so doing gave new life to a franchise.

When that season began even the hardiest Red Sox fan could not have foreseen how it would unfold. Boston had last won the American League pennant in 1946. The team had not finished within ten games of the league lead since 1950, and had suffered through eight losing seasons in a row, coming in ninth in the ten-team league both of the previous two years. As befits a team as hapless as the Red Sox were in those years, attendance had withered, topping a million only once in the preceding eight seasons. Owner Tom Yawkey was threatening to move the team out of Boston, and more than a few disillusioned Red Sox faithful would have said “good riddance” if he had.

There had been minimal changes to the roster that ran up 90 losses in 1966, with the major off-season move being the hiring of Dick Williams as manager. But it was the first big league posting for Williams, then just 37 years old, so expectations were understandably low when Boston opened at home in mid-April. Barely more than 8,300 showed up to watch Jim Lonborg record his first win of the season, 5-4 over the White Sox. Fewer than half that number were on hand the next day when Boston reverted to form, falling 8-5. When the team then traveled to the Bronx and lost three of four to the Yankees, who were in the midst of their own period of wandering in the baseball wilderness, another miserable season appeared to be underway.

But for close observers there were some early signs of hope. The one win over New York was delivered by the arm of 21-year old rookie pitcher Billy Rohr, who came within one strike of a no hitter. After the quick road trip Boston won six of seven, and finished April with a winning record. They were still above .500 at the end of May and again one month later. If not exactly world beaters, the Red Sox were at least in the top half of the AL standings for the first time in years. On July 1st Lonborg won his tenth game against just three losses. Young outfielder Tony Conigliaro, a fan favorite as a Massachusetts native, was on his way to becoming the youngest player in AL history to reach the 100 home run threshold, and Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s most recognizable star, was having a season at the plate that would go down in history.

The Red Sox played twenty-nine games that July and won nineteen of them. A team that began the month having a respectable year ended it in the thick of the pennant race. That race, early on with as many as four other teams and in the longest season’s closing days with the Tigers and Twins, went all the way to the final weekend. As Boston piled up victories through the summer months the once empty seats at Fenway started to fill, and fans who had all but lost hope had reason to believe once again.

The year was not without adversity. On August 18th Conigliaro came to the plate in the 5th inning, facing California Angels’ right-hander Jack Hamilton. In the days when batting helmets were little more than hardened ball caps, a Hamilton fastball rode up and in and caught Conigliaro full in the face. Struck just above his left cheek bone, the Boston outfielder was knocked unconscious. He did not return for a year and a half, and his early promise was never fully realized. But as if in tribute to their fallen comrade the Red Sox won that game and the next seven that followed.

The season’s final weekend arrived with the Twins at Fenway for a two-game set, while in Detroit the Tigers were playing back-to-back double-headers against the Angels. On Saturday, the Red Sox won 6-4, erasing Minnesota’s one game lead in the standings. Detroit and California split their pair, leaving the Tigers a half game back. On the regular season’s final day, Lonborg outpitched Dean Chance in a matchup of twenty-game winners. After the Red Sox won they waited for news of the second game in the Motor City, where the Tigers had taken the first half of the twin bill. When word came of the Angels 8-5 victory, the 92-70 Boston Red Sox were champions of the American League.

Lonborg won the Cy Young and Yaz the MVP and the Triple Crown, the last man to achieve the latter for the ensuing forty-five years. But those Red Sox came up short against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1967 World Series, losing in seven games. Boston would taste defeat in the Fall Classic again in 1975 and bitterly so in 1986. More recent fans in attendance on Wednesday, familiar only with their team’s great success of late, including three championships in the past thirteen years, might have wondered why such a fuss was being made over a group of gray-haired retired players before the game against that same franchise from St. Louis.

Spoiled by success, those fans cannot possibly appreciate what it must have felt like to the Red Sox faithful in that magical year. The year when after season upon season of disappointment, a team and its fan base was transported without warning to the loftiest reaches of the Great Game. When he was introduced as Boston’s new skipper Williams, then many managerial seasons away from his eventual Hall of Fame induction, promised that his team would “win more ballgames than we lose.” A modest goal, but set against Boston’s history at the time, it seemed audacious. Until Williams and the 1967 Red Sox went out and did that and so much more, by making an Impossible Dream come true.

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