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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Red Sox Sign Both Hanley Ramirez & Pablo Sandoval, Because Why The Hell Not?

Two out of the last three seasons, the Red Sox have finished in last place in the AL East. That's not acceptable by any means and the fact that they won the 2013 World Series in between is still nearly impossible to explain. With no salary cap in baseball, an extremely loyal fan base that pays the highest tickets prices in MLB and filthy rich owners, Boston has no excuse but to spend like crazy this offseason to regain their relevance both regionally and nationally.

The Red Sox took a big step forward in terms of wins in 2015 and beyond by signing both shortstop Hanley Ramirez and third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Ramirez, the former Red Sox prized prospect that was traded to Florida in the Josh Beckett deal (November 2005), is reportedly getting a four-year deal worth $88 million with a vesting fifth year worth an additional $22 million. The figures on Sandoval's deal aren't known yet but it is thought to be in the five-year and $90 million range.

Take a breath. The interesting part about this is that while Sandoval was rumored to be coming here for weeks, Ramirez's name wasn't mentioned at all until it was basically signed, sealed and delivered yesterday. They both come with issues: Ramirez has missed a bunch of games the last two seasons with the Dodgers due to various injuries while Sandoval's weight is a constant battle. Ramirez is willing to move away from shortstop which will probably be the case here unless the Red Sox trade Xander Bogaerts (no!). His defense at shortstop wasn't great anymore and as we've seen time and again, any schmoe can play a decent left field at Fenway Park. Sandoval is two years younger (30-28) than Ramirez and while he doesn't have the same tools, he has been a more consistent performer in the postseason (.344 average in 39 games) as he helped San Francisco win three of the last five World Series crowns.

Even before these two moves (the Red Sox will have a press conference to introduce them on Tuesday at 1pm), we knew that the team's biggest need was top of the rotation starting pitching. This certainly improves their lineup but they won't go anywhere without a true ace (Jon Lester?) and a solid number two (James Shields or Cole Hamels?). You worry a bit that both guys have played their entire careers in the kinder, gentler National League, plus they are each coming from California which couldn't be more different than Massachusetts.

The money and risk is worth it because this is the Red Sox who can afford to make high-profile mistakes. I'm not wishing that on them with these guys or predicting it but honestly, what do they have to lose at this point? Ramirez won the NL batting title in 2009 and led the NL in OPS last season (.283, 13 HRs, 71 RBIs, .369 OBP, .448 SLG). Sandoval's regular season numbers won't blow you away (.279 with 16 HRs, 73 RBIs, .324 OBP, .415 SLG) last season) but keep in mind the lack of protection he played with in the Giants' lineup and also what a pitcher's park AT&T has proven to be. Oh and third base was a black hole for Boston last season so anything would be an improvement over that.

There is no question that these two make the Red Sox way better than they were yesterday without them and isn't that ultimately what this is all about? Sure we might not be in love with the player (on paper at least) or the contract (remember it's not our money) but you have to appreciate Boston's attitude here: they are going for it, again, after some truly awful years that should rarely happen to them.

UPDATE 11/25: It's a five-year deal for Sandoval-the 2012 World Series MVP-with an option for 2020.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Penguins Beat Bruins 3-2 In Overtime On Malkin's 2nd Goal of the Game

It is a cold reality but I guess we should be somewhat content that the shorthanded B's were able to take a point against the juggernaut Penguins tonight at TD Garden. Playing with what feels like half a team that rightfully belongs in Providence, Pittsburgh (14-4-2) beat Boston (13-9-1) 3-2 in overtime at TD Garden on Evgeni Malkin's goal just 32 seconds in.

Brad Marchand returned after missing three games with an undisclosed injury but David Krejci and Chris Kelly remained out. Boston made the curious decision to send Seth Griffith back to Providence this afternoon while Matt Fraser was a healthy scratch. That meant that their first-round pick from this past draft, David Pastrnak, made his NHL debut at the ripe old age of 18 (he's the youngest player to appear in the NHL this season). He only ended up playing 7:53 so his contributions were understandably limited. Furthermore, it's hard to say what they wanted out of Jordan Caron (3:35) and Alex Khokhlachev (2:53) when they each played five total shifts in the entire contest.

You can only keep Sidney Crosby and Malkin in check for so long, even in the best of times, which made it utterly predictable that Crosby opened the scoring at 3:33 with a backhander on a rebound from Tuukka Rask (30 saves). Harvard's Craig Adams and Kris Letang had the assists on Crosby's ninth goal of the season.

Pittsburgh led 1-0 after the first period but Boston tied it early in the second on Milan Lucic's tap-in from Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg at 1:43. Lucic has been lost without Krejci so it was nice to see him pick up his fourth goal of the season on Eriksson's slick pass. The Bruins took the lead only 28 seconds later as rookie Joe Morrow scored his first career NHL goal. Marc-Andre Fleury (27 saves) was screened while Dougie Hamilton and Simon Gagne were credited with the assists on Morrow's wrister from the point.

The B's had not one but two possible goals called off upon replay this evening. In the first period, Patrice Bergeron hit the puck in with what was determined to be a high stick. That seemed like the right call but the second one was much more shaky. In the following frame, the puck deflected in off Soderberg's body before Lucic knocked the net off of its mooring. The refs ruled that Soderberg used his glove which was not obvious at all.

Malkin and Crosby took over even further as Malkin tied it at two. His low but hard shot beat Rask to the nearside at 9:42 of the second period on the power play for his ninth goal of the season. Letang and Crosby had the assists on that tally. After the scoreless third period, where the Penguins outshot the Bruins 12-4, all Pittsburgh needed was one rush in overtime to end it. Crosby went blazing up the left wing before firing a one-timer over to Malkin who caught Rask in scramble mode going side-to-side (who could blame him?).

Boston is now off until Friday (7, NESN) when they host Winnipeg (10-9-3). The trend for the Bruins so far this season has been to beat the bad and average teams and then to lose against the good ones. However, it's tough to see them topping many teams in their current state of disarray with all the injuries and underachieving individuals. The scary part is that after that they go to the West Coast for four games in six days including the dreaded California trio of Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.

This Is Getting Silly: Patriots Crush Another So-Called Contender-the Lions-34-9

At some point soon, maybe next Sunday in Green Bay, a team is going to challenge the Patriots. Until then, we can only bask in the glow of another beating. New England (9-2 overall, 6-0 home) destroyed Detroit (7-4 overall, 3-3 away) 34-9 this afternoon at Gillette Stadium. The Lions came in with the top-ranked defense in the league but they honestly didn't stand a chance as the Patriots picked up their seventh straight win. You'd have a hard time objectively arguing that the Pats are not the best team in the NFL at the moment for what it's worth (nothing).

Sock puppet Lions head coach Jim Caldwell and his penchant for kicking field goals down three touchdowns in the second half or even better, taking a timeout then choosing to punt on fourth down never stood a chance. It takes a little more balls and creativity to beat the Patriots at Gillette. We should have known that he was not the guy to get it done.

Tom Brady (38 of 53 for 349 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) spread it around to five different receivers who all had at least five catches, led by Brandon LaFell (9 catches, 98 yards), Julian Edelman (11 catches, 98 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 78 yards). The two unexpected x-factors on offense that came through today were their goal-line weapon Tim Wright who caught two more touchdowns and LeGarrette Blount (12 rushes, 78 yards) who ran for two scores in his return to New England. Last week's hero Jonas Gray never got off the bench as he served his punishment for showing up late to practice. As if you didn't know this already, Blount proved that they literally can put any bum off the street in there and odds are they will produce.

New England's defense continued to excel, holding the Lions to three measly field goals by disgraced ex-Broncos kicker Jason Prater. Logan Ryan picked off Matthew Stafford (18 of 46 for 264 yards, 1 INT) while Rob Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers each notched a sack. Reggie Bush didn't play for Detroit and Golden Tate (4 catches, 97 yards) was the only Lion to have any real success on offense. The normally unstoppable Calvin Johnson (4 catches, 58 yards) took a trip to Brandon Browner Island and he wasn't really heard from as you can tell.

Two Stephen Gostkowski field goals accounted for the other New England points. The scary part for opponents is that the Patriots weren't flawless: they punted five times (a 66-yard bomb by Ryan Allen was a key play in the first half) and Brady threw an interception. What I'm trying to say is that they could potentially play even better than this which sounds ridiculous. Granted it was 24-6 at halftime so you never thought they could lose. Danny Amendola had an 81-yard kick return for the Pats so you knew it was their day.

New England will go for the sweep of the NFC North next Sunday (4:25, CBS) at historic Lambeau Field in what should be the biggest game in the NFL this regular season. You know everyone will be calling it a Super Bowl preview so I might as well get that out of the way too. Similar to the Patriots, the Packers (8-3 overall, 1st in NFC North) have been on fire (7-1) since a shaky start (1-2). Aaron Rodgers is probably the leading candidate for NFL MVP so you have to enjoy it because games like this don't come around that often. Now all we need is a little snow and there potentially could be record ratings.

If You Haven't Already, It Is Officially Time To Jump On the Revolution Bandwagon

In case you haven't been paying attention (and you are excused if you haven't), it turns out that the Patriots aren't the only championship contender residing in Gillette Stadium this season. Haha no I'm not talking about UMass football, the Revolution picked up a huge road win today 2-1 at Red Bull Arena in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final vs. Red Bulls. They will meet again at Gillette on Saturday (3, NBCSN) where New England will try to get back to the MLS Cup (which they have never won in club history).

It is all about away goals so a 1-1 tie which is how it looked to finish would have been perfectly acceptable for the Revs. They have been the best team in MLS since they acquired Jermaine Jones (11-1-1) this summer so it was fitting that their prized pickup came through with a clutch game-winning goal in the 85th minute. Lee Nguyen, who should be the MLS MVP this season, drew Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, before sliding it over to his fellow USMNT midfielder to tap in.

New York definitely threw everything it had into this match, owning possession (60-40%) and taking way more shots (18-8) although only three more (7-4) landed on goal. The problem was that the Red Bulls hyped themselves up too much, as proven by their six yellow cards which is a total I've never heard of for one team in a close game. Star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips picked up one of the aforementioned yellow cards on a lazy challenge in the second half and it was particularly costly since he came in carrying one from the previous match. This means that he is out on Saturday, oops!

New England forward Teal Bunbury opened the scoring in the 17th minute with a curling laser worthy of inclusion on Sportscenter's Top 10 plays. It was from outside the box but Robles still had no chance to stop it. Jones had the assist on it. New York responded 10 minutes later as a scramble in New England's box left Bobby Shuttlesworth (6 saves) and his weird haircut with nothing left to do but retrieve the ball out of the net. The Red Bulls hit the ball off the crossbar before Wright-Phillips followed that with a header which went in.

The long layoff didn't seem to be much of an issue for either side so I doubt that the most important match of their season will suffer from being less than a week away. Expect New York to come out strong since they need at least one goal. By being calm and playing their game, New England should have a great chance to get through the second leg and advance to the MLS Cup the following Sunday. Later this afternoon, LA opened the Western Conference Final with a 1-0 win on their home turf over Seattle.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

No Other Way To Say It: The Canadiens Currently Own the Bruins & Rask

This is really far away but at this rate, the Bruins have to hope that they don't see the Canadiens again in the playoffs this spring because I think we all now how that will turn out, again. Montreal (16-5-1) is currently the best team in the Eastern Conference and they also have the most points in the NHL so you could make a logical argument that they are the top team period. The Canadiens improved to 3-0 vs. the Bruins this season with a nip and tuck 2-0 shutout by Carey Price (33 saves) tonight at TD Garden that clinched the season series. Their only other meeting is February 8 back in Boston.

Montreal snapped a six-game home win streak for Boston and they've outscored the Bruins by an aggregate score of 13-5 this season. This was one of those wins that felt way more dominant than the final score and shots on goal total (33-23 in favor of the B's) would indicate. The Bruins could have played for 180 minutes against Price without scoring a single goal, it was that pathetic. Of course, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara being out doesn't help but injuries happen so there is no point dwelling on them for too long.

The scary thing is that Tuukka Rask (21 saves) played about as well as he ever does against Montreal but he still fell short. In his career, he fell to 3-12-3 vs. the Canadiens which is baffling. This loss clearly wasn't his fault since the Bruins should be able to muster a couple goals at home, even in a back-to-back.

Montreal came in with the No. 27 power play in the league which is shocking, especially after Andrei Markov's seeing-eye shot from the point went through countless bodies in front and by Rask at 11:37 of the first period. It was the seventh time in the last nine games that Boston had allowed the first goal, not a trend that you want to see continue. Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec had the assists on Markov's second goal of the season.

The Canadiens doubled their lead midway through the second period at 8:59 when Plekanec was on the doorstep to sweep in a rebound. Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk had the assists. Boston tried to get some energy by fighting (Gregory Campbell vs. Dale Weise in the first period and Torey Krug vs. Galchenyuk in the third), something that even they rarely do anymore but that did nothing to noticeably spark them.

Chris Kelly was a late scratch for the B's as well with an injury picked up last night in Columbus which meant that Matthew Lindblad was forced to make his NHL debut. Boston wants to get all these young guys experience in the NHL but not at the same time while they're trying to stay afloat.

The Bruins have one final game before their Thanksgiving break: they host Pittsburgh (13-4-2) on Monday (7, NESN). The Penguins are off to their usual superb start but unlike the Habs, Boston typically has their number. We'll see if that holds true this time with so many important players out for Boston. That will be the first time that they meet this season.

Anything Goes On A Friday Night In Columbus

Being such a hopeless creature of habit, I will admit that I was completely thrown off by having the Bruins play on a Friday-something which happens about as often as Kim Kardashian covering up his gigantic ass. For two periods tonight at Nationwide Arena, Boston (13-8-0) was terrible as they fell behind host Columbus (6-11-2) 2-0.

Thankfully, the B's had just enough resiliency to rally in a bonkers third period and then eventually win 4-3 in a shootout. Nobody scored through six rounds so rookie Anton Khokhlachev ended it in the seventh with the lone goal in only his second career NHL game. It had all the makings of a trap game with Montreal and Pittsburgh waiting on the horizon not to mention Thanksgiving break.

Beginning tonight, Boston has three games in four days so head coach Claude Julien elected to sit Tuukka Rask in favor of rookie Niklas Svedberg (25 saves). The move was a no-brainer, even when Svedberg gave up a pair of soft goals in the first period. Ryan Johansen blocked Kevan Miller's shot in his own zone then skated on a partial breakaway before letting loose a shot that Svedberg got plenty of but couldn't keep from crossing the line at 9:52. Johansen's seventh goal of the season was unassisted.

Just 1:38 after Johansen's goal, the Blue Jackets went up 2-0 on Nick Foligno's deflection which actually went off his body. Jordan Leopold took the shot and Johansen had the second assist on Foligno's team-leading 10th goal of the season. Earlier in the frame, Patrice Bergeron's shot was swept off the goal line by a Columbus defenseman.

Svedberg's gaffes had nothing on Sergei Bobrovsky (38 saves) who breathed life into Boston by allowing one of the worst goals you'll ever see in the NHL. To the left of the faceoff dot, Dennis Seidenberg decided to put the puck on the net at 1:28 of the third period and somehow it went in despite not bouncing or doing anything wacky. Matt Bartkowski (who went to nearby Ohio State) and Chris Kelly received the joke assists.

That turned out to be the spark that the B's needed as they tied it at 9:33 on Matt Fraser's re-direct of Bartkowski's slap-pass. Fraser's third goal of the season (1st in 8 games) was also assisted by Bergeron who played it back to Bartkowski at the point. Before you could say full meltdown, the B's were up for the first time (3-2) 1:59 after Fraser's tally. Daniel Paille picked the perfect time to break his slump (1st goal in 37 games!) as he took advantage of the turnover created by Carl Soderberg.

Boston enjoyed that lead for a grand total of 1:15 since Jack Johnson (please read his tragic bankruptcy story) one-timed a pass from Johansen and Foligno. The Bruins quickly bounced back from that devastating goal as they outshot the Blue Jackets 7-1 in overtime. Bobrovsky made up for his poor play by owning overtime. The shootout went on for way too long with not enough goals but you can't argue with the final result.

Columbus is a train wreck so for that reason alone, Saturday (7, NESN) vs. Montreal figures to be way harder. Boston has suffered two humbling defeats (6-4 on Oct. 16 & 5-1 last Thursday) already this season in Montreal so they owe the Canadiens a beating at the Garden. It is a given that the atmosphere will be great, hopefully the game follows suit. Rask has to prove that he can beat Montreal and likewise, his teammates (looking at you Lucic) need to stay focused and not get caught up in the Canadiens' usual garbage.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

LeGarrette Blount Makes His Triumphant Return to the Patriots, Or Something

For a team that for the past decade plus has always prided itself on thinking outside the box and trying to be the smartest guys in the room, it was somewhat refreshing to see the Patriots make an obvious roster move that feels like a perfect fit. Running back LeGarrette Blount wasn't happy in Pittsburgh, so much so that he left the field early in their Monday Night Football win in Tennessee this week. Understandably, he was released by the Steelers and this morning the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal worth the veteran minimum plus incentives.

Jonas Gray has taken over the world this week after his unforgettable performance on Sunday in Indy. He's New England's starting running back for the moment but what if he struggles or god forbid gets hurt? Enter Blount who rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns last season with the Pats on 153 carries. He turned it up at the end of his only season with New England by rushing for 189 yards in the regular season finale vs. the Bills and then 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts in the playoff opener.

As always, the Patriots made this transaction with the future in mind. Stevan Ridley (out with a torn ACL), Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are all free agents next summer. That means that Gray and rookie James White were the only running backs under contract beyond this season before Blount re-entered the fold. To make room on the 53-man roster, defensive tackle Casey Walker was released although he could return via the practice squad (he still has eligibility for that).

Pittsburgh had signed Blount to a two-year deal last summer but predictably, neither he nor the team was content with his lack of production (65 carries, 266 yards, 2 TDs) and overall shitty attitude. However, he was behind his smoking buddy Le'Veon Bell who has become one of the best running backs in the NFL. In his last two games in Black and Gold, Blount's number was only called five times so you can see why he was upset (granted he dealt with it in his typical bozo way). If anything, that's good news for the Pats in the sense that he should be fresh and at 27 in his fifth NFL season, he figures to have a few more productive seasons left.