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Sexy matchup on the mound for Yankees, Tigers

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Sexy matchup on the mound for Yankees, Tigers

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW YORK (AP) -- The New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers are set to open the playoffs the same way they began the regular season: Justin Verlander vs. CC Sabathia. Game 1 of the AL division series offers about as good a postseason pitching matchup as you can get. "It's funny. The season has kind of gone full circle," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "We started in March with Verlander and CC opening day and now the playoffs. It should be fun." Verlander, who went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, looms as one of the biggest first-round obstacles for the Yankees. Of course, the Yankees have an ace of their own in Sabathia, who goes against a Tigers lineup that carried Detroit to a 30-9 finish. The Yankees have been coasting since wrapping up the AL East. The last time these teams met in the playoffs -- the 2006 division series, which Detroit won 3-1 on its way to an AL pennant -- it was the Tigers who came in cold after losing their last five. This year, The Yankees finished by being swept in Tampa Bay and losing their last four. "A whole new season starts tomorrow for everybody," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. No more setting up rotations, no more bench players starting and no more protecting key relievers -- as Yankees manager Joe Girardi did by not using Mariano Rivera, David Robertson or Rafael Soriano against the Rays. Everything counts now. But first, maybe a little sleep would be good. The Yankees flew back from Tampa Bay after playing 12 innings in the regular season finale, a game the Rays won on Evan Longoria's homer that put them in the playoffs as the AL wild card. The Yankees watched the drama unfold and flew home for an all-too-early workout. "Man, I got home at 4:30. I don't even know what I'm saying right now," a bleary-eyed Derek Jeter said. "It's not fun yet." It should be soon enough with Sabathia and Verlander going up against two loaded lineups. "Hopefully, it's a good one," Sabathia said. "We've faced off a lot, me playing in that division for a long time. He's had one of the best seasons for a pitcher ever, I think." In Game 2, it's New York's Ivan Nova vs. Doug Fister, with Detroit's Max Scherzer and Freddy Garcia slated for Game 3. If there's a fourth game, Girardi plans to bring back Sabathia on short rest. Leyland has said he won't pitch Verlander on short rest in the first round, even if Detroit is facing elimination in Game 4. While most of the attention has been on Verlander, a near lock for the AL Cy Young and a strong candidate to be the first starting pitcher to win the AL MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, Fister has been even better since the Tigers traded for him in July. Fister is 7-0 with a 0.65 ERA in his last eight outings. Fister, picked up in a six-player deal with Seattle on July 30, has gone 20 innings without walking a batter. He and Verlander are a combined 14-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 16 appearances since Aug. 16. Of course, Verlander has been doing it all year -- he's 22-2 since throwing a no-hitter against Toronto on May 7. "There's not really a chance to sit back and kind of let it soak in," Verlander said. "Once the last pitch is thrown -- hopefully, after we have won a World Series -- I can sit down and look back and enjoy it. For right now, I'm focused on Game 1." The Tigers also have some pop in their lineup. While not as daunting top to bottom in the order as New York, Detroit features AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. And catcher Alex Avila has been a revelation, with 19 homers and a .295 average. The Yankees, of course, have Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Teixeira slugging away at the heart of their order. A-Rod will hit behind Cano in the postseason, swapping their usual order from the regular season. And then there's former Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson, who had a career year with 41 homers. "I've seen his numbers, and they're amazing," Verlander said. Not that it will matter Friday night, when everyone's stats are reset to zero and what happens from then on is all that counts. It's almost here. "I'm not excited yet," Jeter said. "The excitement starts tomorrow."

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 21 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.