Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Durant: Goodbye OKC, Hello Golden State

The moment the buzzer sounded after the Oklahoma City Thunder failed to put the Golden State Warriors out of their misery in the Western Conference Finals, allowing the defending champs to overcome a 3-1 deficit and make it to their second consecutive Finals appearance, Kevin Durant was as good as gone. But where he would decide to take his talents was anybodies guess, with meetings scheduled with the Warriors, Spurs, Clipppers, Celtics, Heat and of course the Thunder. Sure the idea to team up in the Bay Area with Steph Curry and company was a logical one, but we didn't think it would actually happen. Whether it be financial problems or just plain old chemistry issues due to adding yet another superstar to a squad that already has three, KD to Golden State -- the team that just handed him and the Thunder franchise arguably their most crushing defeat, wins the Durant sweepstakes and hands Oklahoma City yet another punch to the gut. But hey, at least Durant was courteous enough to announce his decision on the Fourth of July, making it easier for the pyro's living in Oklahoma to burn their jersey's.

With the salary cap increasing by $24 Million this offseason, the timing was perfect for the Warriors, enabling them to acquire another superstar talent to add to their already star-studded lineup. After setting a record for the most wins in a regular season with 74, the Warriors now have a chance to be even greater than they were in 2015-16, thanks to the signing of Durant. Not to mention Oklahoma City, one of Golden State's biggest threats out west, is now hampered with the departure of their former MVP. With the signing of Durant who agreed to a 2 year, $54.3 Million deal with a player option after the first year, now come the lofty expectations of delivering a championship, something Durant has come close to, four years removed from his only NBA Finals appearance, but has yet to accomplish. Anything short of back-to-back titles for Golden State in 2015-16 was already deemed a failure considering their record-setting regular season, but the pressure to deliver a title will be even higher this coming season. After blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for the first time ever, head coach Steve Kerr knew work needed to be done and adjustments needed to be made in order to climb back to the hilltop of greatness and become champions once again. Landing Durant was their answer. 
While many criticized LeBron James in the summer of 2010 for making the unpopular decision to leave the Cavs for the sunny beaches of Miami, Durant's decision has also had its fair share of critics, but nowhere near the magnitude of LeBron's. In some ways it's worse and in others it's not quite on par on the hate-o-meter and here's why. James' decision was not only criticized because he left his home state of Ohio, but because the manner in which he made it. As if announcing in front of a live television crew that he would take his talents to South Beach didn't rub people the wrong way, his WWE-like introduction alongside best friend Dwayne Wade and All-Star teammate Chris Bosh where he told the world they would win "not five, not six, not seven..." NBA titles, sealed the deal for most people. But Durant isn't leaving the area in which he was born and raised in, nor was he brought up and brought in to be the savior out of high school like James was.

As for a few reason's it's just as bad if not worse, Kevin Durant is all Oklahoma City fans have ever known. Since being drafted in 2007 by the Thunder, known then as the Seattle SuperSonics, OKC fans have watched Durant grow and develop into one of the game's elite players right before their very eyes. He now leaves them to chase a ring, joining the enemy in the process. And unlike Cleveland's situation when LeBron left, the Thunder are the only major sports franchise in the city (hell, in the state for that matter) which is why they've been so loyal and invested in the team since relocating from Seattle. Durant's contributions inside the Oklahoma City community will never be forgotten, but I think it's safe to say he'll be showered with boo's every time he touches the ball when the Warriors pay a visit to Chesapeake Arena next season. To their credit, the Thunder franchise and their fans were a little more prepared for life after Durant than Cleveland was when LeBron left the Cavs. It wasn't for a lack of help as was the case in Cleveland, but with former Sixth Man of the Year James Harden long gone and both Durant and Serge Ibaka now out the door, the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder will be an entirely different team than the one that made it's lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012 as the reigns are now handed to Russell Westbrook who's departure from the franchise may be next.
With the future of fellow superstar and teammate of Durant's for eight seasons, Russell Westbrook also uncertain, who will become a free-agent following next season, Durant wasn't exactly promised that his sidekick and partner in crime would be there after next season had he re-signed long-term with OKC. While the possibility of Durant returning to the Thunder the same way LeBron did the Cavs, could present itself say if Golden State wins a title in Durant's first year with the team, he may want to consider being a Warrior for the long haul seeing as they have the potential to be even better than the Heat were when James, Wade, Bosh and Ray Allen teamed up in Miami. With Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green all under the age of 29, younger than Wade was when Miami's super team was formed in 2010, Durant could be part of a dynasty for many seasons to come if he chooses to stay with the Warriors past this season. With an Olympic gold medal, Rookie of the Year Award, four NBA-scoring titles, seven All-Star appearances and an MVP Award to show for, the only thing missing in Durant's trophy case is an NBA title. And for the first time in his career, he'll be on a team that's the odds on favorite to win it all and add to that case heading into the season.

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Giants Month in Review - June 2016

Entering the month of June, the Giants looked to continue their winning ways after a red-hot month of May. But they would be greeted rather rudely right out the gates as their All-Star outfielder and emotional voice and leader of the team -- Hunter Pence, was forced to leave a game against the Braves after straining his hamstring on a routine run to first base. The news would only get worse as an MRI the following day revealed Pence had torn the tendon in his left hamstring and would require surgery, putting him on the shelf for 8 weeks and further hampering a Giants outfield that was already without Angel Pagan. With Pence leading the team in RBI's and second in both home runs and batting average at the time of his injury, any panic of the Giants' continued dominance simply vanishing wasn't exactly far-fetched, but it wouldn't be the case as they would do just fine without him.

Needing to take advantage of a relatively easy schedule with the exception of a three game stop in St. Louis to face the Cardinals and hosting the Red Sox and Dodgers in five, the Giants would do just that. After splitting the final two games in Atlanta, the Giants would take the first of three in St. Louis before losing the next two and returning home to host visiting Boston and Los Angeles. In a short but exciting 2-game set against the Red Sox, the Giants would split the series before taking two of three from the archrival Dodgers. With a slow 3-5 start to the month, it wouldn't be long before the Giants once again caught fire and stringed together their second 8-game winning-streak of the season thanks to sweeps against the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays. Seeking their first 9-game win streak since 2004, the Giants seemed destined to win their ninth straight seeing as they had won 10 consecutive games started by ace Madison Bumgarner. But the streak would come to a halt after suffering a tough 1-0 loss in the series-opener against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. However, the Giants would avenge Bumgarner's tough-luck loss by winning the next three in the steel city to take the series, 3 games to 1. Despite suffering the loss, Bumgarner would set a career-best streak of allowing 2 earned runs or fewer in 12 consecutive starts, while also tying the longest streak in the MLB this season for the most consecutive outings allowing 1 earned run or fewer with six.
But with another road trip coming to an end, the Giants would once again return home shorthanded as the injury bug bit once more. Just days after second baseman Joe Panik sustained a concussion in Tampa Bay, third baseman Matt Duffy suffered a strained left Achilles during the series in Pittsburgh as both would join Pence on the DL. Not all injury news was bad, however, as Angel Pagan returned to the lineup as well as Sergio Romo who began his rehab stint with Triple-A Sacramento and is expected back in the coming days while recovering from a strained elbow flexor tendon in his throwing arm. He'll be welcomed back to the club with open arms as the Giants bullpen has struggled mightily this year as is likely to be addressed. While a power bat is also needed and on their list, adding a relief pitcher or two might be forthcoming as baseball's trade deadline looms exactly a month from today (July 1).

Playing host to the Phillies for three games, San Francisco and Philadelphia would split the first two games before the Giants took the series and won the finale in walk-off fashion with their MLB-leading 7th walk-off victory of the season. But they would fail to close out the month strong, losing three of four against the lowly Bay Area rival Oakland A's who took both games in San Francisco for the first time since 2008 and handed the Giants only their second loss in AT&T Park history when scoring 11 runs or more in a high-scoring 13-11 shootout. With the series shifting to Oakland for two, the Giants dropped game three before salvaging the fourth and final game with a 12-run outburst. In the win, the Giants became the first team since the 1976 Chicago White Sox to forego a designated-hitter and hit with the pitcher. But considering Madison Bumgarner doesn't hit like your typical pitcher and was rumored to be interested in participating in this year's Home Run Derby, it wasn't as questionable a move by manager Bruce Bochy as one would think. And considering it was Bumgarner who sparked a 6-run third inning with a lead-off double to center field, I'd say it was a good decision after all.
June also saw Giants skipper Bruce Bochy claim his his 800th win as manager of the team, joining Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson as the only managers in MLB history to win 800 games with two different ball clubs and just the fourth to reach 800 wins with the Giants. With his team currently 50-31 on the season after finishing 17 and 10 in June and sitting in first place 6 games ahead in the NL West, San Francisco has extended their division lead another game and a half in June and are only one win behind the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers for the most in baseball. After a dominant month of May, right-handed pitcher Johnny Cueto logged another stellar month in June, his only blemish being a 6-run, 6-inning outing against the Phillies in which he logged a no-decision to the tune of a 2.67 ERA in the month with 3-wins and no losses. One of those wins coming against the Milwaukee Brewers who he has now recorded eight straight victories against, the longest winning streak against any single opponent of his career. Cueto will also kickoff the month of July for the Giants who will make a pit-stop in Arizona to take on the D-Backs for three games before returning home for a 7-game homestand against the division-rival Rockies followed by another meeting with the Diamondbacks prior to the All-Star break. From there, Bochy and company will hit the road for eight games against the Padres, Red Sox and Yankees before returning home and closing out the month against the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals. GO GIANTS! 

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Monday, June 20, 2016

LeBron, Cavs Dethrone Champs in Decisive Game 7

Cleveland sports fans rejoice! For the first time in 50+ years, it doesn't suck being a sports fan living in Cleveland now that the Cavaliers have pulled off the unthinkable by winning three straight against the vaunted Golden State Warriors to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy and bring Cleveland its first championship (of any kind) since 1964. With their backs against the wall, LeBron James and company rallied to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. Against a Golden State team that compiled the best regular season record of all-time no less. Although they needed a little bit of luck and perseverance to get the job done, it took an all-time great series from LeBron James to complete the comeback as the one they call, "King James" registered only the third triple-double ever in an NBA Finals game 7 and became the first player to ever lead a series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. While many including myself thought LeBron James was on the decline, he proved otherwise with what just might go down as the greatest series performance in an NBA Finals. Though he only had 27-points in the decisive game 7, he logged 41-points in games 5 & 6, including a 41-point outburst by both James and teammate Kyrie Irving as the two became the first duo in Finals history to each score 40-points or more in a single game.

LeBron did it all as evident of his statistical dominance. His most remarkable feat of the night, however, just might be the chase down block he had on Andre Iguodala. With the game tied at 89-89, Golden State appeared to be on their way to a 2-point lead with just under two minutes remaining when Steph Curry and Iguodala had J.R. Smith all alone on a two on one fast-break. And then out of the shadows soaring from behind, racing in full speed was James who swatted both the ball and any hopes the Warriors had left, like he's done so often throughout his career. But this time was different. It was almost as if Golden State had the air knocked out of them following what I'll always refer to as, "the block heard round the world." The play that will go down as one of the greatest defensive plays in NBA Finals history rattled the Warriors who were unable to score a another basket. Lock down defense by the Cavs coupled with poor shot selection from the Warriors doomed the defending champs who suddenly went dry from the floor and failed to score a single basket in the final 4 minutes and 39 seconds. The shots that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson couldn't seem to miss during the regular season, suddenly stopped falling when it mattered most on the biggest of stages and under the brightest of lights as the two combined to shoot a woeful 12-for-36 from the field.
Following their inability to closeout the series at home in Game 5, the pressure on Golden State only mounted more and more after each failure, meanwhile the confidence inside the Cavs locker room only grew. But with a Game 7 to be played on their home court, even the Warriors never worried too much and they didn't have much reason to, seeing as no home team had failed to reign victorious in a game 7 since 1978 and the Warriors hadn't lost three straight games all year. But with a chance to deliver the state of Ohio its first ever NBA Championship, something he's dreamed of doing since entering the league in 2003, LeBron made it his sole mission to deliver on that promise, playing like a man possessed as Golden State's first 3-game losing-streak of the season came at the worst time possible. His teammates also came through in the most trying of times, whether it was Kevin Love's lock down defense on Steph Curry in crunch time with just seconds remaining or Kyrie Irving's clutch three-pointer in the final minute that broke a tie and gave Cleveland the lead for good. It all amounted to a 93-89 victory that resulted in the Cavs becoming only the fourth team to ever win it all in the same year in which they replaced their head coach mid-season when assistant coach Tyronn Lue took over for the departed David Blatt who was fired in late January.

Had it been the Warriors who won in the franchise's first ever Finals game 7, it might have been Draymond Green who we're talking about and praising here. While I could spend plenty of time criticizing the league's questionable decision to suspend Green for his tussle with James and use that as the turning point as to why Golden State collapsed or Cleveland came alive, I'm not going to discredit the Cavs for pulling off their remarkable comeback. After missing Game 5 due to a suspension for having committed four flagrant fouls during the playoffs, Green came out firing on all cylinders in game 7, lighting up the first half and knocking down 11 of 15 shots, including 6 of 8 from behind the arch and finishing an assist shy of a triple-double with a game-high 32-points. However, it wasn't enough as his blazing start fizzled out down the stretch. The loss now begs the question, where do the Warriors go from here? With Harrison Barnes expected to test the free-agent market and likely out the door with a huge payday coming his way, could fellow free-agent Kevin Durant be the answer? Would he even be a good fit in Golden State where there's already two prolific scorers in place? Sure he's shared the same court as Russell Westbrook and James Harden who have evolved into some of the best scorers in the league, but those were both two players he developed alongside since debuting in the league. While those questions are yet to be answered and remain as possibilities at this point, what we do know is that coach Kerr's team can't be any better during the regular season than they were in 2016, nor do they need to be since they won't be chasing a meaningless record this time around and can actually rest down the stretch if need be. They've also proven that they are in fact beatable as evident by what happened in the Finals.
Now that the Warriors have failed to highlight their record-setting regular season with a championship, will their historic run now be remembered in the same light as the New England Patriots' 18-1 run in 2007 when they failed to finish the season perfect and were upset in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants? Yes or no, one thing is certain -- that they'll no longer be considered the greatest team of all-time, simply because they couldn't capitalize on their home court in a deciding game 7. As for the champs and their leader who continues to cement his legacy among the game's all-time greats, the adage of Cleveland being a bunch of losers can now be lifted as their championship drought has finally ended some 56 years later. Also worth noting is that LeBron is officially a free man now that he's delivered on his promise. If he decides he wants to leave the Cavs to pursue other endeavors like playing for the Lakers or Knicks, the city of Cleveland could never hate him or burn his jerseys like they did the first time he left them for the sunny beaches of Miami, simply because he brought the starving city of Cleveland a title. Not that I think it'll happen, but if it did, he's earned the right to do whatever he pleases without the state-wide witch hunt and death threats. Personally, I think he's there to stay and isn't quite finished with how he plans to leave Cleveland's trophy case looking when his career is all said and done.

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Giants Month in Review - May 2016

Entering the month of May in a tie with the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in NL Western division, the San Francisco Giants managed to separate themselves from their division foes by catching fire and winning an MLB-best 21-games in May. With temperatures starting to heat up across the country, so has the Giants pitching staff, led by ace Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. And though the Giants finished off the month of May strong, they did struggle early on before leap-frogging their way up the power rankings. 

After salvaging the third and final game of a three-game series against the reigning NL Champion New York Mets to begin the month, the Giants took two of three on the road in Cincinnati, including a Game 1 match-up which featured Giants newcomer Johnny Cueto toeing off against his former ball club. Though he wouldn't get the win and would be touched up for a season-high 6 earned runs in the outing, the Giants reigned victorious, 9-6. Next up, San Francisco would return home for a 4-game set against the Colorado Rockies where they would receive a rude awakening. A week after allowing the Mets to pile on a franchise-record 12 runs in a single inning, Giants pitching would be snake bitten for a second time as the Rockies set a club record by scoring 13 runs in a single inning. Colorado would go on to pummel the Giants, 17-7, tying a record for the most runs scored by an opposing team in the 17-year history of AT&T Park. Ultimately splitting the four-game series against the Rockies, the Toronto Blue Jays were next in line to pay the Giants a visit, taking the first two games before dropping the series finale as the Giants won in walk-off fashion thanks to a bases-loaded walk to Buster Posey in the 13th inning. 
The walk-off win would be the start of an 8-game winning-streak for San Francisco as they pulled off back to back road sweeps against the Arizona Diamondbacks (4-games) and San Diego Padres (3-games), as the Giants completed their first undefeated road trip of 7 games or more since 1913. Also, the 4-game sweep of the D-Backs would be the first by the Giants in Arizona since 2010. In the first two games in San Diego, Bumgarner and Cueto registered back to back complete games with each pitcher allowing only one run. It would mark the first time the Giants have had consecutive complete-game wins by starting pitchers versus the same opponent since August of 1995 (Mark Leiter & Terry Mulholland). Following their successful road trip, the Giants would return home to face off against the Chicago Cubs and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrietta who had not lost an outing in over 20 consecutive starts. And while the Giants were unable to find an answer for Chicago's ace as San Francisco had their 8-game winning streak snapped, they did bounce back by taking the series victory, winning two of three before pulling off another three-game sweep of the Padres. During their 8-game win-streak, the Giants never scored more than 5 runs as the starting rotation carried the load by logging a 1.34 ERA in 60 2/3 innings and limiting opposing hitters to a .189 batting average.

After struggling for much of the season and looking like a ghost of his former self, former ace and workhorse Matt Cain finally began to turn the corner and find his groove after stringing together three straight solid starts as he logged both his first win in nearly a year (6 innings, 1 earned run against the Cubs), ending a dry spell of 8 straight losing decisions, the longest streak by a Giants pitcher in three years, and his first hit in over two years (a 2-run double off of Jon Lester). But just when the Giants began getting steady production and gaining faith in their fifth starter, Cain was forced to hit the 15-day disabled-list after straining his hamstring in the second inning of a road outing against the Rockies which resulted in him being replaced in the rotation by rookie Albert Suarez. The Giants would eventually go on to lose the game before taking the next two in Denver, including a 10-5 victory in the second game of the series in which Buster Posey connected for a pair of 3-run home runs to tie a personal-best 6 RBI. The Giants rallied from a 5-4 deficit in the 8th by scoring six runs on eight hits in the frame, the most hits in a single inning by the Giants since August of 2012 against the Padres. The sizzling offense would continue on into the following day for the Giants as they tallied 8 doubles in the series finale, matching the most two-baggers in a game during the San Francisco era as they went on to win, 8-3.
With the month of May coming to a close, the Giants would make their final trip to Atlanta's Turner Field to take on the Braves who will be playing their home games in a new ballpark located in Cobb County come 2017. After dropping the first of four games by a final of 5-3, the Giants answered with a 4-0 shutout victory in a game started by pitcher Jake Peavy who celebrated his 35th birthday by tossing 7-shutout innings of 1-hit ball before the bullpen did the rest. Peavy and company held the Braves to just one hit for only the fifth time since Turner Field opened in 1997. As for the offense, Peavy also collected a hit and scored on an RBI triple by outfielder Denard Span who tallied three hits in the win and is beginning to heat up, having collected hits in 10 of his last 23 at-bats. The Giants finished the month of May winning 16 of their last 19 games while posting an overall record of 21-8 and are now 12 games over the .500 mark, having already surpassed their season-high of 11 games over .500 a season ago. Bruce Bochy's ball club currently stands 4.5 games above the Dodgers for first place at 33-21 on the year, good enough for the second best record in the National League behind only the Chicago Cubs (35-15) and third overall after the Boston Red Sox (32-20).

Highlighting San Francisco's dominance in May was the efforts by the Giants pitching staff led by Bumgarner who went 4-0 with an ERA of 1.05. But it would be Cueto who amassed an ERA of 2.08 in May and was awarded NL Player of the Week honors for the second time of his career and his first since August of 2014 after allowing only 1 earned run and 8 hits in his 15 innings of work against the Padres and Rockies. With only two complete games in all of last season, Cueto has already surpassed that total with three this year. His dominance against division foes has been exceptionally well as his 2.35 career ERA against Colorado is the lowest among active pitchers with at least 10 starts against the Rockies. And then there's the three straight complete games he's tossed against the Padres this season, a feat that hasn't been done in a single-season since Felix Hernandez did it against New York Yankees in 2009. Samardzija also finished with a strong month of May despite a hiccup in his last outing in Atlanta, compiling an ERA of 2.08 in six May outings. Cain and Peavy didn't share the same kind of dominance as their peers, but did pitch to the tone of a much better May than April as they both saw their ERA's nearly cut in half. 
With the Giants kicking off the month of June by finishing the second half of their 10-game road trip with two more games in Atlanta before a 3-game set in St. Louis, the team will enjoy a day off before returning home to host the Boston Red Sox for a pair of games before welcoming the Dodgers and Brewers for three games each. The Rays, Pirates, Phillies and Athletics will round out the remaining list of opponents for Giants as they look to continue their winning ways on into June. GO GIANTS!

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest 

Monday, May 2, 2016

San Francisco 49ers 2016 Draft Recap

"With the seventh pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select... DeForest Buckner, defensive-end, Oregon." Those were the words of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell when it came time for the 49ers to announce their first pick in last week's Draft. In need of a player that can apply pressure on the defensive side of the ball, San Francisco addressed the need with the 6-foot, 7-inch defensive-end that was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. Drawing comparisons to 2-time Pro Bowl DE Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals, the 291-pound Buckner tallied 18 career sacks in his collegiate career with the Oregon Ducks and will now be reunited in San Francisco with his good friend Arik Armstead who the 49ers selected out of Oregon in the first round of last year's Draft and coach Chip Kelly who recruited him out of college to play for the Ducks. As if the familiar faces weren't enough to make him fit right at home, he also fits the Niners' system as a five-technique player.
Adding a player with the strength and measurables like that of Buckner figures to improve a 49ers defensive attack that ranked 29th a season ago. Looking to fill the void left by the tandem of Justin Smith who retired before last season and Aldon Smith who the Niners cut ties with after numerous off the field incidents, GM Trent Baalke is hoping the duo of Armstead and Buckner can evolve into an even younger version of the tag-team simply nicknamed, the "Smith brothers." One of the bigger surprises on day 1 of the Draft would come at pick 28 when Trent Baalke and company made a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, trading back into the first round and acquiring the 28th overall pick which the Niners would use to select Stanford Guard Joshua Garnett. San Francisco would also acquire the 249th overall pick in the trade, while dealing their 37th, 105th and 187th overall picks to K.C. With offensive-line being one of if not the biggest areas of concern for San Francisco heading into next season, they went out and grabbed the best guard in the class according to some analysts who also labeled him the best interior run-blocker, with 2015 first-team all Pac-12 and 2015 first-team AP All-American honors to show for it.
The next two picks on the 49ers board would be used to take a pair of cornerbacks as San Francisco ranked 27th in pass defense a season ago. With no picks in the second round following the trade with the Chiefs, the Niners had to wait until round number three to hear their name called again as they used the 68th overall pick to take Will Redmond, CB out of Mississippi State who could've gone as early as a late first-rounder had it not been for a torn ACL he suffered in practice. He would be the first of three corners taken by the Niners with Rashard Robinson of LSU (4th round, 133rd overall) and Prince Charles Iworah of Western Kentucky (7th round, 249th overall) being the others. Robinson, who's been touted as being one of the best press corners in the draft, shined in the little playing time he received during his career at LSU due to a suspension. Without those off the field issues, scouts say he could've gone in the first two rounds. Instead, the Niners snagged him in round 4, 133rd overall as a great value pick. Another pick that was praised by NFL analysts for the value was that of Appalachian State defensive-end Ronald Blair who was named 2015 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and was made a Niner with a 5th round pick, 142nd overall. ESPN had him rated on their top 100 list and as a potential third-rounder.
With QB protection being a major problem for the 49ers a season ago, Kelly and Baalke took a pair of offensive-tackles in the 5th round and were criticized by fans on social media for not addressing the need much earlier, nabbing Georgia Bulldog John Theus (145th overall) and Fahn Cooper out of Ole Miss (174th overall). Theus, who was named first-team all-conference, started three of his four years at Georgia including his freshman year as the starting right tackle which is quite the feat given he comes from an SEC school and has played against some of the toughest talent the collegiate level has to offer. With the pair of picks to join Garnett, the 49ers selected three offensive linemen in the same draft for the first time since 1998. Three of San Francisco's final four picks would be used to draft a quarterback, running back and receiver, all of which taken in the 6th round. First on the list would be Louisiana Tech QB Jeff Driskel who was taken 207th overall. A former top-rated QB coming out of high school, Driskel transferred to Lou Tech after his successful stint with the Florida Gators was cut short after suffering a broken leg and later benched. The athletic QB with dual threat ability isn't expected to compete for a starting job anytime soon, but if anybody could turn him into a serviceable signal caller for the future, it's Chip Kelly. For what it's worth, Driskel recorded the fastest time in the 40-yard dash among QB's, clocking in at 4.56 seconds.
Kelvin Taylor, son of former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, would be next on the list. 6th round pick, selected 211th overall, Taylor was a former teammate of Driskel's at the University of Florida where he starred as the Gators' go-to back his junior year in 2015, rushing for 13 touchdowns and over a thousand yards while never fumbling in his 486 carries and 510 touches. With Carlos Hyde expected to bounce back this season from an injury-plagued 2015, Taylor could be Hyde's backup come Week 1 as a nice change of pace speedster to compliment the much tougher running style of Hyde. And last is wide-receiver Aaron Burbridge, selected 213th overall out of Michigan State. Named Big Ten Receiver of the Year in 2015 as well as first-team all-conference for the Spartans, Burbridge had himself a breakout season his senior year and served as Spartans QB Connor Cook's go-to target, leading the Big Ten in both catches (85) and receiving yards (1,258). With Anquan Boldin now a free-agent, Burbridge might be the one called upon to fill in for Boldin assuming the team has moved on from their top receiver of the past three seasons.
Something else this draft tells us is that coach Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke aren't exactly ready to throw in the towel on quarterback Colin Kaepernick just yet considering they didn't seem to be in a rush to draft a quarterback in the earlier rounds like many had predicted. Instead, they seem just fine with their current quarterback situation which is expected to be fought for between Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. While there's still speculation that he could be released before the start of season, I'll put my money on him still being on the team come kickoff. Trade talks were more than talked about between the 49ers and Denver Broncos, but Kaepernick's unwillingness to take a paycut ultimately deterred Broncos vice-president John Elway and the reigning Super Bowl champions from finalizing a move as they traded up in the draft to take their quarterback of the future in Memphis' Paxton Miller instead. As for the position of need that the 49ers didn't address in the draft, Baalke elected not to select a single linebacker. We'll see if that decision comes back to haunt him.
Like every year, it's always fun keeping an eye on those players drafted heading into their first year, especially those taken in the later rounds as their journey to NFL begins or if they make the team at all. It's also a time for those struggling teams (like the 49ers) to help dig themselves out of the hole and build to help better their future. There's no denying that this was the most significant draft in years for San Francisco as the franchise is still looking to recover from a handful of unexpected retirements and an ugly fallout with one of the game's premier coaches. Now in a new regime under head coach Chip Kelly, the 49ers are in need of a spark to help the franchise's rise back to prominence and regain its rich winning history.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Walton lands Dream Job with Lakers

With a vacancy in their head coaching position, the Los Angeles Lakers have found their man. After finishing the past three regular seasons with the worst record in franchise history and diminishing win totals of 27, 21 and 19, the Lakers are ready to start off on a clean slate. And they'll be doing so under newly hired head coach Luke Walton. Name sound familiar? That's because it wasn't long ago that Walton was on the court playing for the Lakers where he spent nine years as a fan favorite. And now both Laker fans and the front-office are hoping that will continue as he returns back to the Lakers bench, only this time with a suit and tie on instead of a jersey.

Hired to become the 26th head coach in franchise history, Walton, son of NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, joins a long list of names of former Laker players who later went on to coach the team. Impressive names with the likes of George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Jerry West, Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Kurt Rambis and most recently -- Byron Scott who was relieved of his duties after just two seasons. Thus making Walton the eighth former Lakers player turned coach. However, of the seven others before him, only three of those names have finished their tenure with a winning record. And only two if you're counting a full season's worth of work. With Walton being the eighth Lakers coach to have also donned the purple and gold as a player, it's safe to say the Lakers prefer to keep it in the family by hiring one of their own. And hopefully this one works out better than the last one did.
After capturing only 38 combined wins in two seasons under Scott, the Lakers are hoping to have much more success under Walton who was twice named coach of the month this season while filling in for Steve Kerr as the intern head coach of the Golden State Warriors, whom he led to a 39-4 record, including a blazing 24-0 start. Following Kerr's return back to the Warriors bench after recovering from back surgery, the Warriors went on to assemble the greatest regular season in NBA history, finishing with an all-time best record of 73-9, narrowing the 72-10 mark previously held by the team that Kerr coincidentally played for -- the '95-'96 Chicago Bulls. Because of the accomplishment, Kerr would be named Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season, while many believed the award should've gone to Walton or at the very least share the award with co-Coach of the Year honors. Unfortunately for Walton, that wouldn't be the case. But at least his time in the driver seat helped skyrocket both his stock and interest in landing a head coaching job.

Two years removed from being a part-time assistant coach in the NBA's Developmental League, Walton, who becomes the youngest active head coach in the league at just 36 years of age, will now takeover the most winningest franchise in the NBA. Having grown up in Southern California and later playing for the team he lived just a stones throw away from, the hiring of Walton could be the perfect fit in L.A. Or it could be another Byron Scott-type disaster that we were more than excited for at first, and later ended up hating. At first glance, Walton doesn't seem like the type of hire you'd make when looking to help develop players which is exactly what the Lakers are in need of with their crop of young players led by Julius Randle and DeAngelo Russell. Then again, Walton could be the perfect man for the job, knocking it out of the park and proving us all wrong. The truth is, only time will tell. And whether or not the Lakers organization might not want to admit it, regardless of who it was they decided to hire, the next man for the job was going to need plenty of that to help get the Lakers back into winning form -- time. Entering year three of the Lakers current reconstruction, the front-office will have to show patience with Walton, something they showed very little of with Byron Scott calling the plays. And with Walton reportedly agreeing to a five-year deal, four of which guaranteed at an amount not yet made public, they appear to be understanding.
Smart move or not by Walton with many believing he jumped the gun and should've returned to Golden State for at least another year, he might not have had the opportunity to land his dream job again if he chose to wait it out another season. Sure leaving an organization that is currently atop the basketball world in both popularity and excitement, not to mention has the talent to become a dynasty, seems hard, but jobs like the one Walton just agreed to take don't come around too often. Though it was only a small sample size, we've seen how well Walton can coach a roster full of stars and talented players in their prime including the league's MVP, now lets see how well he can coach a bunch of youngsters still looking to make a name for themselves and whether or not he can help guide the Lakers franchise back to prominence as they look to end their dry spell of missing the playoffs for a franchise worst three consecutive seasons. And with a young team in hand already, the Lakers are expected to get even younger as they hope to strike gold in this month's NBA Draft Lottery and perhaps even in free-agency after striking out in each of the last three seasons.

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Giants Month in Review - April 2016

With Baseball season in full swing and the month of April coming to a close, that's one month in the books already for the San Francisco Giants. Entering the season with high hopes following the acquisitions of two of the most coveted arms in free agency in starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija as well as outfielder Denard Span, Giants fans have had a lot to be excited about. Not to mention it's an even year. And while things got off to a great start for the G-Men, Bruce Bochy's ball club has also had their fair share of letdowns in the opening month of the season.

Opening the season on the road for a three-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the newest members on the Giants wasted little time to make his presence felt as Denard Span became the first Giant to record 5 RBI's on Opening Day since a guy named Barry Bonds did it in 2002 against the rival Dodgers. Span sparked a trio of home runs in the eighth inning as Joe Panik and Buster Posey joined him in hitting back to back to back home runs, the first time the Giants had connected for three consecutive home runs in a game since July 20, 2006 when Bonds, Ray Durham and Pedro Feliz did so versus the Padres. Not since 1997 had a team accomplished the feat on Opening Day, however, as the Padres recorded back to back to back jacks against the Mets. San Francisco would go on to win the season-opener by a final of 12-3, the most runs on Opening Day by a Giants team in over 30 years, as Matt Duffy who was in the running for NL Rookie of the Year a season ago, added a homer of his own to bring the Giants within one HR shy of tying an Opening Day franchise mark set back in 1964 against the Milwaukee Braves. The Giants would end up taking 2 of 3 in Milwaukee as they failed to complete the sweep by dropping the series finale.
The Giants would kickoff their Home Opener much like they did the season opener, by scoring 12 runs in a 12-6 win over their bitter rivals -- the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hunter Pence's 8th inning Grand Slam put a damper on L.A's comeback attempt. San Francisco would end up taking three of four against L.A. to improve to 5-2. The Giants would set a franchise record for the most games with a home run to start a season with seven. The streak would continue heading into a 3-game set at Coors Field where the Rockies served the Giants some more home runs to add to their streak, while also handing them a pair of losses as the Giants were only able to win one of three games in Denver. In the lone win against the Rockies, the Giants would get a great outing from newcomer Jeff Samardzija who went 8 strong innings, allowing only 2 runs. Rookie catcher Trevor Brown also shined, hitting a pair of home runs, making him the first Giants rookie to hit home runs in his first three games of the season since Bobby Thompson (1947).

The Giants' streak of consecutive games with a homer to start a season would eventually reach 10 before ending at Dodger Stadium. And just like they did in Colorado, the Giants would drop 2 of 3 in L.A. While the 6-game road trip would come to an end for the Giants, unfortunately, their struggles would continue. With four games against the Arizona Diamondbacks to begin a 10-game home stand, the Giants would fall victim to a rare four-game sweep at home, only the second of its kind since the Giants moved to AT&T Park in 2000. In one of those losses, the Giants met a familiar foe in a different uniform as San Francisco faced off with Zack Greinke who was targeted by the Giants before signing a massive contract with the D-Backs during the offseason. Owning a record of 7-0 in 10 career starts against the Giants entering the meeting, the former Cy Young Award winner who struggled in his first two outings of the year and was tagged with a pair of losses before receiving a no-decision against the Padres, bounced back and continued his dominance against SF. Out-dueling Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, Greinke picked up his first win of the year with a 2-1 victory over the Giants. In the finale, Johnny Cueto had a chance to become the first Giants pitcher since Bill Swift in 1992 to win his first four starts. And while he would allow only 3 runs in the outing against Arizona, he would still be handed the loss as the Diamondbacks completed the sweep, handing the Giants their fifth straight loss and 8 of their last 9.
Looking forward to putting the dreadful AZ series behind them, the Giants welcomed the Miami Marlins who brought with them a familiar face that Giants fans would never forget -- Barry Bonds. Bonds who was hired by Miami skipper Don Mattingly to be the Marlins hitting coach, was welcomed back to AT&T Park with a standing ovation as a video tribute was played on the jumbo screen out in center field. It's possible that Bonds' presence helped wake the Giants bats as they took two of three against the Miami. Finishing the homestand with three games against the San Diego Padres, the Giants would string together their first sweep of the season with a pair of 1-run wins before erupting for 13-runs in the series finale. In game 2 of the three-game set, Johnny Cueto would go the distance to pitch a complete-game shutout, striking out 11 Padres batters and out-dueling James Shields in the 1-0 victory. For Cueto, the win would also be the 100th victory of his career as he became only the 12th Dominican-born pitcher to log 100 career wins. Having gone at least 7 innings in each of his five starts this season, Cueto has fit in quite nicely with his new ball club and seems to be back on track after a disappointing second half to the season after being traded to the Royals in 2015.

With an off-day to travel across the country to visit the New York Mets, the Giants seemed to have left their bats at home as they were greeted by the reigning National League champs with a 13-1 shellacking in the series-opener. Coming off his best outing of the season after three rough starts, Giants pitcher Jake Peavy couldn't get past the third inning as the Mets erupted for a franchise-record 12 runs in the third inning. Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes highlighted the scoring spree with a Grand Slam after Peavy was chased, having allowed 6 runs in the frame himself. The Mets wouldn't need to add anymore runs in the game but they did anyway, answering the Giants' only run (a solo home run from Angel Pagan) in the 7th inning with a run of their own. Hoping to bounce back in Game 2, the Giants put up a better fight in their second go around but saw their starting pitching struggle once again. This time it would be starter Matt Cain who ran into early trouble and was tagged for 4-runs in the first two frames before departing having allowed six runs thru six innings. The Giants would threaten the Mets late in the game as the New York bullpen allowed a pair of runs in the 8th before hanging onto the 6-5 win to closeout the month of April riding an 8-game winning-streak as Cain fell to 0-3 on the year. The Giants will have a chance to salvage the third and final game of the series on Sunday when ace Madison Bumgarner faces Mets fire-baller Noah Syndergaard.
The Giants finished the month of April with a record of 12-13 and remain in a tie for first place of the NL West with the Dodgers who are enduring some struggles of their own having lost six straight. With the highlight of the Giants season thus far belonging to Johnny Cueto who's been nothing short of remarkable in his first five starts with the team, the former All-Star pitcher for the Reds will make his next start on the road in Cincinnati as the Giants continue their current road trip with a stop in the Queen City. The month of May will also see the Giants make trips to Arizona and San Diego for the first time this season before visiting the Braves at Turner Field for the final time as Atlanta plans to open their new stadium in Cobb County in 2017. As for their home games, the Giants will welcome the Rockies, Padres and Cubs as well as a rare visit from the Toronto Blue Jays. GO GIANTS! 

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Arrieta's Double-Shot of No

Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta is on top of the baseball world. As if hurling a no-hitter last season just 10 starts ago and winning the NL Cy Young Award wasn't enough, the ace of Chicago's staff has already began putting together an even more impressive encore with a dazzling start to the 2016 season. On the road in Cincinnati to face the Reds, Arrieta tossed his second career no-hitter and just the 15th no-hitter in the 141 year history of the Cubs franchise. While the Cubbies ignited the scoreboard with five home runs en route to a 16-0 shellacking of their opponent, the second-largest margin of victory in a no-no, it would be all about the reigning Cy Young Award winner who has been on quite the journey since being traded to the Cubs just three seasons ago where he's evolved into one of the game's best pitchers.

It's hard to believe the last few seasons Arrieta has had considering he was demoted to the Minor Leagues by the Baltimore Orioles back in 2013 after compiling an ERA of 6.63 in four starts which eventually led to the O's parting ways with their struggling starter. It's safe to say Arrieta has turned it around since then as he's now recorded 24 consecutive quality starts, riding an ERA of 0.86 in those 24 games. To put Arrieta's recent dominance into perspective, he's given up only seven earned runs over his last 119 1/3 innings pitched. And interestingly enough, both of Arrieta's no-no's have come on the road, falling one shy of the all-time mark set by Nolan Ryan who tossed three of his seven career no-hitters while a member of the visiting team. Though he did allow four walks in the game and struckout six, Arrieta also out-hit the Reds by collecting a pair of singles on his way to becoming only the third Cub to record a pair of no-no's, joining Ken Holtzman and Larry Corcoran. At the ripe age of 39 years old, it would be the first no-hitter caught by Cubs catcher David Ross who had announced during spring training that the 2016 season would be his last. It would also be the first time Cincinnati would be held hit-less in 45 years.
Not since Philadelphia's Rick Wise no-hit Cincy on June 23, 1971 had the Reds been held without a hit, ending a span of 7,109 games for the longest active streak during the regular season. In his age 30 season, Arrieta who improved to 4-0 on the year with the win and is only the fourth reigning Cy Young winner to toss a no-hitter the following year, has appeared to have learned from those struggles early in his career while a member of the Orioles and has benefited from a change of scenery to quickly help him rise atop the list as one of baseball's best pitchers and on the cusp of reaching elite status if he hasn't already. Favored by many to make it to and win the World Series this year, Chicago is off to a 12-4 start to the season and is out to an early lead in the NL Central division standings. After falling short to the New York Mets in the NLCS a year ago, Joe Maddon's ball club appears poised and hungry for another run at a National League pennant with none other than Arrieta leading the way.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Mamba Out After Historic Final Game

With the Los Angeles Lakers in the tank machine for another season, I told myself one thing -- I wouldn't watch Laker basketball this season. But with it being Kobe Bryant's final season, the player I grew up idolizing, it's been just as hard not to watch my favorite player in his final year as it's been hard to watch them suffer another disappointing season.

With the Lakers playing terribly to the sound of their worst record in franchise history (17-65) and Kobe in his farewell tour, this season was supposed to be about the young guys -- rookie DeAngelo Russell who was selected second overall in this year's Draft and last year's first round pick Julius Randle who is basically a rookie himself, having missed all of last season with a broken leg aside from playing just 14 minutes in the season-opener. And with both players getting their much needed playing time to get their feet wet and help their development in the league, everything was going as planned. And then the news broke of Russell secretly videotaping a discussion with Laker teammate Nick Young. The conversation which touched on the subject of Young hooking up with numerous women and cheating on his fiance Iggy Azalea soon made its way onto social media. What was meant to be a joke on Young evolved into a prank gone wrong, making matters worse and adding salt to the wound that's been the Lakers' season.
So when it came time for L.A.'s final game of the season on Wednesday, Laker fans were more than relieved that the nightmare season was finally coming to an end. And then we were forced to accept that it was the ending of an era and that the career of one of basketball's all-time greats was coming to a close. The last time we would see Kobe Bean Bryant take the court in a Laker uniform. What was being referred to as "Mamba Day" began bright and early in downtown L.A. as Laker fans flocked outside of Staples Center to show their respects to "the greatest Laker in franchise history" as Magic Johnson proclaimed. With tributes being made for Kobe all season long and gifts given from opposing teams since he announced his decision to hang 'em up back in November, nothing came close to what the home team did for their beloved superstar as video messages were played on the big screen all night long. And then came the game that needed to be played. With enough celebrities in attendance for it to be an award show, the pressure on Bryant coming into the game was insurmountable. And with an 0-for-5 start from the field for Kobe, the jitters showed early on. It would soon wear off, however, as Kobe put on a show and treated us all to a spectacle in a way that only he could.

Facing the Utah Jazz who were eliminated from playoff contention earlier in the day with a victory by the Houston Rockets who claimed the eighth and final seed, Utah didn't have a whole lot to play for aside from having the chance to sweep the season series versus the Lakers for their first time ever. Utah jumped out to an early lead and maintained control of the score for nearly the entire game until the Black Mamba rose to the occasion and took over late in the fourth quarter like he's done so often in his memorable 20 year career. During a timeout discussion with former teammate Shaquille O'Neal, Shaq challenged Bryant to go out by scoring 50-points. Kobe would do him one better by scoring 60. Trailing by as many as 10 points with just over 2 minutes remaining, Kobe outscored the Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter including 13 unanswered while making a series of tough shots both in and outside of the three-point arch. While it was Kobe who stole the show and went on to score the most points in NBA history by a player in his final regular season game, the most important part of all for Bryant is that he did it in a winning effort as the Lakers prevailed, 101-96. As we've learned over the years, Bryant isn't one who takes losing lightly and that hasn't changed one bit over the course of his 20 year career.
Kobe shot 22 for 50 from the floor and became just the fourth player to ever attempt 50 field goals in a game. Say what you want about him taking the amount of shots he took, but understand that this one was for the fans who were forced to pay for tickets three and four times more than face value to sit in the nosebleeds if they wanted to see the iconic player in person one last time. Not to mention his teammates fed him the ball on just about every possession and encouraged him to shoot the ball. And even then, Kobe didn't disappoint, giving his supporters one last performance worth celebrating and putting an exclamation point on the storybook ending to the career of one of the game's all-time greats. A performance that had to have made the late Dr. Jerry Buss smile from the heavens above. Just to put his remarkable night into perspective, no Hall of Fame player had even scored 30-points in their final regular season game. Kobe who will undoubtedly join them and is a future Hall of Famer himself, scored twice that mark. It would be the sixth 60-point performance in his illustrious career and his first in over seven years.

With the future of the franchise unsure at this point moving forward, it's worth noting that a new era of Lakers basketball is on the horizon with Kobe out the door. With a chance to better their squad and help make the recovery from this rebuilding mode a bit easier heading into June's Draft, the Lakers will be in on just about every major free-agent on the market. But nailing the Draft is what's most important of all as Los Angeles will enter June's Draft with a top-three protected pick which will likely be used to select one of either LSU's Ben Simmons, Duke's Brandon Engram or Oklahoma's Buddy Heild. That's if they don't fall out of the top 3 spots or trade the pick. While Kobe's playing career comes to a close, his legacy will live on forever and his impact as a basketball icon and a global ambassador for the game will never fade. Bryant, a 5-time NBA Champion and former league MVP, is the Michael Jordan of his era and is the reason many players in the league today play the game of basketball. No one player made the game an international phenomenon quite like Bryant has and his name and number will be seen adorned L.A.'s Staples Center for many years to come as they sold a reported $1.2 Million worth of Kobe Bryant merchandise on Wednesday, a single-day record for any arena.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Scoreless in San Diego

The San Diego Padres are bad. How bad you ask? They just kicked off their 2016 season in the worse way possible -- by being swept in shutout fashion by the rival Dodgers. This all happened in their own park no less as San Diego was outscored 25 to 0. We all knew heading into the season that the Friars were going to be bad this year, but nobody could've expected this. Making matters worse for San Diego, Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda homered in his second career at-bat, while pitching in his Major League debut. That's right, the Dodgers' pitcher has accounted for more offense than the entire Padres lineup combined.

Regardless of how much credit first-year skipper Dave Roberts deserves for his team's blazing start considering how bad the Padres are, it's one hell of a way to kick start your managerial career. L.A. became just the second team in modern-day Major League history to record three straight shutouts to open a season, joining the 1963 St. Louis Cardinals. The 27 consecutive scoreless-innings to start a season is also a Dodgers franchise-record, breaking their previous best of 23 set back in 1974. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw began the scoreless streak by hurling seven innings of 1-hit ball (no surprise there) before handing it off to the bullpen. Offseason acquisition Scott Kazmir followed suit in his National League debut by giving the Dodgers six solid innings in which he also only allowed one hit, followed by Maeda's memorable outing on both sides of the plate. With a 4-game slate against the arch-rival Giants (2-1) taking place in San Francisco starting Thursday, the Dodgers (3-0) will need five more scoreless frames to tie the Cardinals' record of 32 consecutive innings without allowing a run and six to set a new record. Pitcher Alex Wood will be asked to keep the streak alive for the Dodgers as San Francisco hopes to counter by turning to veteran hurler Jake Peavy.
As for the Padres who now own the dubious record previously held by the 1943 St. Louis Browns who went 26 innings without scoring a run to start a season, San Diego will have to sleep on it for at least another day as they've got an off day on Thursday. However, I do like their chances of scoring at least one run when they take the field again as they open a 3-game series on the road at Denver's Coors Field where a pitcher's earned run average goes to die and balls fly out of the park more so than anywhere else. But hey, it's not all doom and gloom if you're a baseball fan living in San Diego, as the city will play host to this year's MLB All-Star game in July. Though it's still a few months away, the Mid-Summer Classic might be the only time that San Diego baseball fans will be treated to some offense generated by the home team this season.

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