From Comcast SportsNetJohnny Manziel ran for almost 1,700 yards and 30 touchdowns as a dual-threat quarterback his senior year of high school at Kerrville Tivy.Who would have thought he'd be even more impressive at Texas A&M when pitted against the defenses of the Southeastern Conference?On Tuesday, Manziel picked up another major award for his spectacular debut season. He was voted The Associated Press Player of the Year. As with the Heisman Trophy and Davey O'Brien Award that Manziel already won, the QB nicknamed Johnny Football is the first freshman to collect the AP award.Manziel's 31 votes were more than twice that of second place finisher Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's start linebacker. He is the third straight Heisman-winning quarterback to receive the honor, following Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton.Manziel erased initial doubts about his ability when he ran for 60 yards and a score in his first game against Florida."I knew I could run the ball, I did it a lot in high school," Manziel said in an interview with the AP. "It is just something that you don't get a chance to see in the spring. Quarterbacks aren't live in the spring. You don't get to tackle. You don't get to evade some of the sacks that you would in normal game situations. So I feel like when I was able to avoid getting tackled, it opened some people's eyes a little bit more."The 6-foot-1 Manziel threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,181 yards and 19 more scores to help the Aggies win 10 games for the first time since 1998 -- and in their inaugural SEC year, too.Ryan Tannehill, Manziel's predecessor now with the Dolphins after being drafted eighth overall this season, saw promise from the young quarterback last year when he was redshirted. But even he is surprised at how quickly things came together for Manziel."It's pretty wild. I always thought he had that playmaking ability, that something special where if somebody came free, he can make something exciting happen," Tannehill said. "I wasn't really sure if, I don't think anyone was sure if he was going to be able to carry that throughout an SEC season, and he's shocked the world and he did it."After Manziel sat out as a redshirt in 2011, Texas A&M's scheduled season-opener against Louisiana Tech this year was postponed because of Hurricane Isaac. That left him to get his first taste of live defense in almost two years against Florida.He responded well, helping the Aggies race to a 17-7 lead early using both his arm and his feet. The Gators shut down Manziel and A&M's offense in the second half and Texas A&M lost 20-17.But Manziel's performance was enough for Texas A&M's coaching staff to realize that his scrambling ability was going to be a big part of what the Aggies could do this season."The first half really showed that I was a little bit more mobile than we had seen throughout the spring," Manziel said. "Me and (then-offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury sat down and really said: Hey we can do some things with my feet as well as throwing the ball.' And it added a little bit of a new dimension."Manziel knew that the biggest adjustment from playing in high school to college would be the speed of the game. Exactly how quick players in the SEC were was still a jolt to the quarterback."The whole first drive I was just seeing how fast they really flew to the ball and I felt like they just moved a whole lot faster," he said of the Florida game. "It was different than what I was used to, different than what I was used to in high school. So it was just having to learn quick and adjust on the fly."He did just that and started piling up highlight reel material by deftly avoiding would-be tacklers to help the Aggies run off five consecutive wins after that.His storybook ride hit a roadblock when he threw a season-high three interceptions in a 24-19 loss to LSU. But Manziel used it as a learning experience, taking to heart some advice he received from Kingsbury."He just told me to have a plan every time, before every snap," Manziel said. "Make sure you have a plan on what you want to do and where you want to go with the ball.""I feel like as the year went on, I just learned the offense more and knew exactly where I wanted to go, instead of maybe evading the blitz and just taking off running for the first down instead of hitting a hot route or throwing it underneath to an open guy and doing things a lot simpler and cleaner."The Aggies and Manziel rebounded from the loss to LSU by winning their last five games, highlighted by their stunning 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 10.By the time Manziel wrapped up a 253-yard passing and 92-yard rushing performance to lead Texas A&M to the victory in Tuscaloosa, you could hardly call him a freshman anymore."You keep growing and growing every week," he said. "By the time I played Alabama I had a much better grasp of the game than I did in the first one."The 4,600 yards of total offense Manziel gained in 12 games broke the SEC record for total yards in a season. The record was previously held by 2010 Heisman winner Newton, who needed 14 games to pile up 4,327 yards. The output also made him the first freshman, first player in the SEC and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.Manziel, who turned 20 two days before taking home the Heisman, has been so busy he hasn't had a second to step back and digest the historical significance of his accomplishments this season.He's far more concerned with helping the Aggies extend their winning streak to six games with a win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4 in the Cotton Bowl."I think it will happen after the bowl game and after the season is completely over," he said. "I'm just ready for it to die down a little bit and get back into a practice routine where we get better and hopefully do what we want to do in the bowl game."He'll have to do it without his mentor Kingsbury, who left A&M last week to become coach at Texas Tech, where he starred at quarterback not that long ago. Manziel said is happy Kingsbury got to return to his alma matter, but is still adjusting to the idea of playing without him."I'm the happiest guy on the face of the earth for him," Manziel said, speaking from California where he appeared on the "Tonight Show" Monday evening. "I think he deserves it with how hard he's worked this year to get us where we were. It's bittersweet though, because I'd like him to be here for the entire time that I'm here."Manziel is eager to get back on the field for the Cotton Bowl and is focused on helping the offense pick up where it left off in the regular-season finale."Even though Kliff Kingsbury's not here anymore, we just need to continue to get better and do what we do," Manziel said. "Push tempo, go fast and be the high-flying offense that we have been all year."
This AL Central race is going to be fun.
It looked like the Minnesota Twins might have blitzed right past the White Sox in the season’s first weekend, issuing a 14-2 clubbing on their way out of Chicago in the decisive third game of that series. The White Sox went on to Northeast Ohio and dropped the first two of that three-game set against the Cleveland Indians, and a 1-4 start threw some chilly Great Lakes water on the preseason thought of the South Siders running with the class of the division in this season’s 60-game sprint to October.
But the White Sox turned their 1-4 start around with a six-game win streak. And after a 2-0 nail-biter of a win over the Indians on Friday night that reshuffled the standings, the Pale Hose have now won their last five games against division foes, including a pair against these Clevelanders.
The intensity’s been there all week. After a sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the first three of the White Sox four games against the Milwaukee Brewers had a distinct playoff-style feel to them, well pitched, closely decided contests that struck as the most intense games the White Sox have played in years.
Be it the compressed nature of this season’s schedule or the fact that these White Sox are finally equipped to compete for a division title, this is unlike anything that’s graced the South Side in some time.
“We're treating every game like a must-win,” White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease said Friday night. “These games definitely don't have the same feeling as Game 15 of a 162-game season. We're coming to the ballpark to win every day."
When it comes to the Twins, atop the Central standings with 10 wins — one of only two major league squads to hit double digits to this point, even with back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Royals — it seems the White Sox will have to win a few more home run derbies the likes of which we saw in that opening weekend.
But runs have been somewhat scarce for the White Sox after they scored a combined 20 runs and banged out a total of 35 hits in winning the final two games of that series last weekend in Kansas City. They’ve scored just eight times in their last four games combined. There’s more than one way to win a game, of course, and as injuries continue to make the White Sox dugout look like the Tune Squad bench late in that game against the Monstars, the South Siders have figured out a few others besides blowing up the scoreboard.
Friday night’s playoff feel brought the Indians’ sensational pitching staff to Guaranteed Rate Field, and Aaron Civale was just about as good as he was against the White Sox last week in Cleveland. He didn’t pile up the strikeouts this time, but he still pitched seven innings of one-run ball, the lone run he gave up coming home on a first-inning double-play grounder.
Cease, somewhat miraculously, countered with five shutout innings of his own despite putting nearly the entire city of Cleveland on base. He walked five guys, including issuing four leadoff walks, hit another and allowed a couple of hits. Thankfully for Cease and the White Sox, though, he also came up with multiple clutch, inning-ending double-play balls, and the defense was excellent behind him and a trio of relievers, the first two of which had as much trouble keeping the bases clear as Cease did.
You want playoff-style drama? Scatter the bases with potential runs every inning and watch the pitchers dance their way out of one jam after another.
That’s not going to fly on a regular basis, obviously, but it sure made for some heart-pounding baseball, which is — as anyone who was pulling double duty with playoff hockey Friday night knows — fun.
“I can't expect those kinds of results if I'm going to have that many base runners all the time,” Cease said. “Fortunately, we were able to get out of here with a 'W,' but it's not something that's going to be sustainable. So I have to do a better job of getting ahead and not doing that.”
The onslaught of high-caliber Cleveland pitching continues the rest of the weekend, and who knows if the White Sox will be able to solve it as they barely did Friday. Zach Plesac, who stymied the White Sox with 11 strikeouts in eight shutout innings last week, is up Saturday. Then it’s a heck of a pitching matchup Sunday, with Lucas Giolito facing off against current AL Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber, who’s struck out 35 hitters in his first three starts of the season.
That game ought to be another dandy, and with a frequently showcased rivalry between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals waved off this weekend, the White Sox will step into the nationally televised spotlight Sunday night, the perfect spot for such a pitching matchup and a division race that’s heating up like this one is. The White Sox swapped spots with the Indians on Friday, into second place and two games back of the Twins. The Indians are just two and a half games behind the division leaders.
“Both of those teams are very good clubs,” White Sox outfielder Adam Engel said of the Twins and Indians. “Two totally different makeups, they win games differently. We have a pretty balanced attack ourselves. It’s fun playing good baseball against good teams.
“The Indians, it seems like every time they come to town or we go to Cleveland, we are facing some pretty good arms. Makes it fun. You just have to stay disciplined, stay really focused in your work. It always feels like you’re going to be part of a good baseball game.
“Those are two tough teams, and hopefully we can keep playing them well.”
Obviously, everything’s felt different this season. There are no fans in the stands, COVID-19 is constantly threatening the completion of the campaign, and a brief ramp up to Opening Day has made for a high number of injuries across the league.
But there’s a different feeling on the South Side, too, for much more positive reasons. This team has been talking about its high expectations for months, and they’ve got a roster that looks capable of living up to them. While an expanded playoff field gives the White Sox a pretty good chance of reaching the postseason, they’ve still got their eyes on the biggest prizes, and the first one of those is the Central crown.
They’ve played just 14 games. But it sure feels like a pennant race.
“I don’t remember ever really watching scoreboards so closely as a team through the first couple of weeks in the season,” Engel said. “We come in off the field and we want to see what’s going on around the league, or we’re announcing what scores are postgame for different teams. You control what you can control, and you want to win as many games as you can. But we’re all keeping our eyes on the scoreboard, and I’m sure it’s like that league-wide.
“Everybody kind of feels like they’re in it right now, and 60 games, this is going to be a heck of a season. I’m excited that we’re playing good baseball right now. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
The biggest storyline of Blackhawks training camp 2.0 was Corey Crawford missing the first 12 days because he had tested positive for COVID-19. He showed up on the final practice day in Chicago, which was exactly one week from the start of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Edmonton Oilers.
The Blackhawks did everything they could to get him ready for Game 1, but you knew it would take him a while to get back into top form. And it has.
In the first three games against the Oilers, Crawford allowed 13 goals on 92 shots for a save percentage of .859 and had a minus-5.68 goals saved above average, according to Natural Stat Trick, which ranked dead last among all goaltenders.
But when the Blackhawks needed him most in Game 4, Crawford delivered.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion turned aside 41 of 43 shots for a save percentage of .953 in Friday’s 3-2 series-clinching win against the Oilers, including all 18 in the third period, a handful of which came from high-danger areas.
"He's a huge part of our team and he played real well today," Dominik Kubalik said. "I thought he was our best player."
To take it a step further: Crawford stopped 16 of 18 shots from the slot and had nine saves from the inner slot, which is the third-most in a game by any goaltender this postseason, according to Sportlogiq. The Oilers had an expected goals for rate of 4.33 but scored only twice, which means Crawford saved the Blackhawks 2.33 goals.
It was a vintage performance between the pipes for No. 50.
"Obviously it wasn't the best scenario," Crawford said of having just one week to get ramped up for the qualifying round. "I would have liked to have had a few more weeks of practice and see more pucks coming into the series. But it is what it is. I think I felt way better each game, playing each game and just seeing different scenarios and situations. Once you get more of that, just the better you feel. Tonight was obviously better."
Despite turning in a terrific outing on Friday, Crawford admitted “there’s still some work to do” before he feels like in peak form. But if he gets there in time for the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks could be a dangerous underdog team.
"I was able to kind of hide back there until I started feeling comfortable," Crawford said. "Still don't think I'm at the top of my game, but it was definitely better today."