Bulls

The factor that could decide the World Series

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The factor that could decide the World Series

From Comcast SportsNet
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Mike Adams has already fielded plenty of phone calls this week, usually friends or family members wishing the Rangers reliever luck against the Cardinals in the World Series. The boldest of them even try to score tickets to Game 1. Adams admits that he doesn't have much experience handling all the fanfare -- this is his first playoff trip in seven big league seasons. But he certainly knows how to answer the phone. The one in the bullpen has been ringing nonstop. Yes, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are the homer-hitting stars. C.J. Wilson and Chris Carpenter are the staff aces in the spotlight Wednesday night. But it's the guys in the bullpens, the ones who have been called on so often to bail out Texas and St. Louis in their march through the playoffs, who could ultimately decide who wins this World Series. "How many championships do you find where the bullpen is going to be critical to the outcome?" Adams asked, genuinely seeking an answer. "Not many." No kidding. Texas starters are lugging around a 5.62 ERA in the playoffs. Wilson has been hammered in each of his three starts. Yet those guys out in the bullpen have jogged in every time manager Ron Washington has dialed their number and promptly pitched out of trouble. In knocking off the Detroit Tigers to win the AL pennant, Texas became the second team since best-of-seven series were introduced to have relievers earn all four wins. The Cardinals joined the club the very next day when they beat the Milwaukee Brewers to punch their World Series ticket. Tony La Russa called on his bullpen 28 times in the NL championship series, and St. Louis became the first team to win a postseason series without a starter reaching the sixth inning. "That's the thing about Tony, he's not afraid of pitching anybody in any situation," said left-hander Marc Rzepczynski. "When that phone rings, we're all ready." It's no surprise relief pitching has been such a focus this postseason. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels learned the importance of it last year, when he watched his relief corps collapse in the World Series. They were pounded for three runs in the eighth inning of Game 1 against San Francisco, allowed seven runs in the eighth inning in Game 2, and gave up two more runs in the last three innings of Game 4. The Giants bullpen, by comparison, allowed three runs total over five games. So, Daniels traded for Adams and fellow right-hander Koji Uehara just before the July 31 deadline, and added left-hander Michael Gonzalez from Baltimore at the end of August. Uehara has struggled in the postseason, but Adams has been excellent, and all Gonzalez did in the AL championship series against Detroit was allow one run over 7 2-3 innings. He wound up earning two wins, becoming only the fifth reliever to accomplish that in an ALCS. "You know, it was obvious that we had some weakness in the bullpen as the season started and progressed until the trading deadline," Washington said, "and then it got us two pieces to help settle down the bullpen, and put people in position where they always knew where they would pitch when an opportunity presented itself in a ballgame. And from that point on, we began playing the type of game we knew we were capable of playing." If those late acquisitions were the turning point for the Rangers bullpen, the Cardinals' success can be traced to an Aug. 24 team meeting. St. Louis was floundering back then, well out of playoff contention, when it gathered behind closed doors and decided to start playing every game like it was a one-game playoff. That meant using the bullpen as much as necessary, whenever necessary, even at the risk of burning it out. Not even a baseball lifer such as La Russa could imagine how they would respond. The bullpen was responsible for just six losses from Aug. 1 on, five coming in extra innings. St. Louis put together the NL's best record over the final month of the season as it chased down Atlanta in a dramatic wild-card race, with only three losses credited to all its relief pitchers. The Cardinals' starters are averaging about five innings per postseason outing, roughly the same as their Texas counterparts, which means La Russa has been on the phone just as much as Washington. "That's the thing that I'll probably remember the most about this season," La Russa said. "It's the most interesting story on our team, except for the heart we showed coming back, as to how much of a weapon the bullpen has become." Especially considering where it came from. The Cardinals blew the second-most saves in the majors this year, but most of those came with a vastly different set of guys. Nobody seemed able to nail down the ninth inning early in the year, and it took a while for everyone to finally grow comfortable in their roles. That includes Jason Motte, who has grown nicely into the closer job. He has a 1.47 ERA since the All-Star break, and just four of the 32 runners he's inherited this season have scored. "It doesn't matter what inning it is, we go out there and do our job," Motte said. "The last month and a half of the season, we've had to win. And we went out there with the attitude, not to freak out, not to tense out. And it's worked."

27 Days to Opening Night: Lauri Markkanen's best rookie Game Score

27 Days to Opening Night: Lauri Markkanen's best rookie Game Score

The performance matched the venue.

Lauri Markkanen made quite the impression in his first game at Madison Square Garden, tallying 33 points (a career-best), 10 rebounds, eight 3-pointers and a pair of steals.

Markkanen made 10 of 22 from the field and went 8-for-15 from beyond the arc. He also made all five of his free throws and threw a hammer down on Enes Kanter.

It was arguably his best game of the year, and Basketball Reference’s Game Score agreed. We’ll safely assume he tops that at some time this season.

Previous Countdown to Opening Night posts:

38. Bobby Portis' career-high in points

37. Michael Jordan's career-best PPG in 1987

36. Lauri Markkanen's 3-point FG% as a rookie

35. Michael Jordan's PPG in 1988, his first MVP season

34. Wendell Carter

33. Scottie Pippen

32. Kris Dunn

31. Michael Jordan's 50-point games

30. Michael Jordan's career scoring average

29. Teams afraid of Zach LaVine putting them on a poster

28. Bulls' over-under win total in Las Vegas

Change of plans? Adam Boqvist could start season with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Change of plans? Adam Boqvist could start season with Blackhawks

That was quick. 

Hours after we wrote how Adam Boqvist has been flying under the radar this training camp because his NHL timeline could still be 2-3 years away — something even he admitted after the Blackhawks drafted him No. 8 overall in June — he put on a strong showing in his second preseason game on Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings playing on the top pairing and leading the team in ice time (22:15). 

His offensive skill is evident. So is his general skating ability. What really stood out was how he defended, particularly a 1-on-1 rush against the speedy Andreas Athanasiou.

This is the play that got Blackhawks fans excited. This is a player who has the ability to speed up his timeline if he takes advantage of this next year of development, which won’t begin in London on Friday after coach Joel Quenneville told reporters following Thursday’s contest that his debut with the Knights in the OHL is being put on hold because they want a longer look at him.

In fact, Quenneville didn’t rule out the possibility of Boqvist making the Blackhawks straight out of camp.

"I think as we've gone through camp and see him play through the games, we're watching him," Quenneville said. "We've been pleased with him. It's almost like, when you come to camp, we want to watch these guys. They make those decisions for us with how they play and it's been a positive one."

But that doesn’t mean he’d necessarily stick around for the full season.

Because he’s 18 years of age, Boqvist is eligible to play in up to nine games before getting sent to his respective junior team without burning the first year of his entry-level deal. He’s a slide candidate next year as well. It’s what the Blackhawks did with Ryan Hartman, who appeared in five games in 2014-15 and three games in 2015-16 before securing a full-time spot in 2016-17. That's the likely scenario if it were to reach that point.

It's hard to imagine the Blackhawks breaking in each of their top-two defensive prospects in Henri Jokiharju and Boqvist at the same time. And for Boqvist, you certainly don't want to waste any years of his entry-level contract when he could be using that time to truly develop so he could hit the ground running when he does enter the league on a full-time basis.

Perhaps the back injury to Connor Murphy, who is expected to be out until December, allowed the Blackhawks to view Boqvist's situation in a wider lense. Or maybe this was the plan all along.

Regardless, the Blackhawks may get a glimpse of the future quicker than they thought and it’s added a little excitement to training camp and the anticipation of Opening Day.