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Braves' Laird preparing to open season as starter

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Braves' Laird preparing to open season as starter

ATLANTA (AP) Gerald Laird is not letting anything interfere with his time getting to know the Braves' pitchers.

Laird said he turned down an invitation to represent Mexico in the World Baseball Classic because he needs to work with Atlanta's pitchers the full spring training. He even reported for informal workouts with the pitchers this week at Turner Field.

Laird, whose mother is half-Mexican, signed a two-year, $3 million deal with Atlanta in November to be Brian McCann's backup. Laird is expected to open the season as the starter while McCann recovers from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

The Braves expect McCann to miss only about the first two weeks of the season. Laird, who started 51 games for Detroit last season, wants to make sure he's prepared for any length of time he's asked to be the starter.

``I feel like I can bring a lot when the starter goes down,'' Laird said earlier this week during his first day at Turner Field. ``I feel like I can fill in for a couple weeks, a month, whatever it takes. I knew the situation. When (McCann) comes back he's going to definitely help the ballclub. I can do whatever is needed to do. I can play every day, once a week or whenever they tell me to play.''

Laird said the spring training games will be crucial to the process of learning how to work with the Braves' pitchers.

``It takes a little bit. Catching in the bullpen only helps so much,'' he said. ``That's why when they asked me to play a little with Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, I decided not to do it. If I was an outfielder, I might have done it.

``Being a catcher with a new ballclub and getting to know the staff, I felt that was my priority. I felt coming in and out and not being here the whole time wouldn't have benefitted the staff. I want to stay and catch as many guys as I can because if I'm the guy for the first couple weeks or however long, I want to make sure I know what their tendencies are and what they like to do in certain situations.''

Braves general manager Frank Wren said team doctors likely will hold McCann out of action at the start of the season even if the six-time All-Star is hitting and throwing well in spring training.

``If everything goes well in spring training, I don't think it will be more than a couple weeks before he is ready to rejoin us,'' Wren said. ``I know that's probably two weeks too long for him, but we don't want to put him in a situation where he has any major setbacks.''

The Braves signed Laird after David Ross, who backed up McCann the past four seasons, signed with Boston.

McCann and Ross were a tandem at the position for four years.

``David Ross is a guy I've learned a lot from,'' McCann said. ``We had an unbelievable duo going there for a while. It's going to be sad seeing him gone. We brought in Gerald Laird who is a veteran guy with a great track record and we're excited.''

Laird, 33, made his major league debut with Texas in 2003 and spent six seasons with the Rangers. He has appeared in as many as 100 games only twice - with Texas in 2007 and with Detroit in 2009.

After playing on the Cardinals 2011 World Series championship team, Laird returned to the Tigers last season and made his second straight World Series appearance. He hit .282 with two homers and 11 RBIs.

Laird could be a key offseason addition for the Braves, but his signing was overshadowed by two other moves. The Braves signed outfielder B.J. Upton before last week's trade for Justin Upton.

Suddenly, Laird likes his chances to make a third straight World Series appearance. The Braves won 94 games last season before losing to St. Louis in the wild-card game.

``When I signed I was excited that we've got a really good club here,'' Laird said. ``They got beat last year in that play-in game but they were there. They're always a good club, they're always competing. The next thing you know we got B.J. and Justin. I'm really looking forward to it. We've got a chance to do something really special.

``I've been fortunate the last couple of years to play with some good clubs and play in the World Series. With what Frank has done here with the roster, I've got a good chance to win again. I'm just going to have fun and do my part and maybe it will work out.''

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Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

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NBC Sports Washington

Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

CHICAGO—Four fans were ejected from United Center on Saturday night for taunting Devante Smith-Pelly as the Capitals’ winger sat in the penalty box.

The fans, according to a team spokesman, yelled “basketball, basketball, basketball” at Smith-Pelly, who is black. Smith-Pelly was in the box for fighting in the third period of an eventual 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks.

The taunts were confirmed by an off-ice official, the spokesman said, and the fans were subsequently removed from the arena.

Smith-Pelly did not speak with reporters after the game but is expected to address the incident at the team’s next media availability. The team is scheduled to practice Sunday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Caps Coach Barry Trotz did not hold back when asked about the fans' comments.

“There’s absolutely no place in the game of hockey or our country for racism,” Trotz said. “I think it’s disgusting, and there’s no place for it. …It just shows ignorance.”

The Blackhawks responded on Twitter with an apology to Smith-Pelly, who is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

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USA TODAY Sports

3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise. Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Towes intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. Toews' interception led to a 2-on-0 in the second period. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal. He also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board. Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.