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Big crowds turn out for Stan Musial visitation

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Big crowds turn out for Stan Musial visitation

ST. LOUIS (AP) Standing outside the Cathedral Basilica as thousands filed inside to pay their respects, Stan Musial's grandson was thankful.

``Just seeing all this,'' Brian Schwarze said, ``and I got to play catch with him.''

``I mean, he was my grandfather. But I really do believe I'm starting to understand somewhat what he meant to the whole community,'' he said.

Many visitors seemed to treat Thursday's six-hour public visitation as if it was Stan the Man's final game day, decked out in team attire and ignoring bitter cold for the chance to get one last glimpse.

In an open casket, Musial was clad in the red jacket he and other Cardinals Hall of Famers wore for special occasions, a harmonica in his pocket and a red tie dotted with tiny Cardinals.

The same tie that retired high school teacher Randy Pierce proudly pointed out he was wearing, too.

``My wife for my last birthday gave me a big photo of President Obama giving Stan the Presidential Medal of Freedom,'' Pierce said. ``It's signed by Stan, so I've got the important one.''

Musial, a three-time National League MVP, seven-time batting champion and 24-time All-Star, died Saturday after years of declining health. He was 92.

Fans turned out in droves to pay respects to a superstar who never acted the part, always making time for one more autograph, or to shake one more hand.

``Sometimes, it was like `All right, Grandpa, we've got to get going,''' Schwarze said. ``My mom would be yelling at him when she was a little kid like, `Time to go!' and he was like `Hold on, I've got some fans still.'''

Family, close friends and perhaps some of baseball's biggest names will be back at the cathedral for a funeral on Saturday. Thursday was for the fans.

A half-hour before the visitation, hundreds lined Lindell Boulevard leading to the steps of the cathedral. An hour into the six-hour visitation, a church spokeswoman said 1,400 people had filed through.

When a bell chimed once as the doors opened, 68-year-old Evelyn Bourisaw, dressed in a red coat, exclaimed, ``Time to play ball!''

Among the first to go in were Audrey Kissel, 86, and Erma Bergman, 88. The two were kindred spirits of Musial, not only of his generation but also former ballplayers. Kissel played second base and Bergman pitched in a women's professional league during World War II, popularized in the movie ``A League of Their Own.''

Both handed out personal baseball cards depicting them in uniforms that featured skirts and summarized achievements and listed nicknames - Kissel was known as ``Pigtails'' and Bergman as ``Bergie.''

``He was a very lovely person,'' Kissel said.

Don Raisin, who's worked with Cardinal team mascot Fredbird since 1985, said one of his prized possessions is a ball autographed by Musial, Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, who played in the outfield together.

``It was always exciting when you knew he was going to be at the ballpark,'' Raisin said. ``It's not going to be the same on opening day.''

Rope lines steered mourners toward the casket in a corner of the church.

Myron Schumacher, 71, noted that he was born in 1941, the year Musial broke into the big leagues, and was at the original Busch Stadium in 1963 for Musial's final game.

``He was amazing,'' Schumacher said.

Retired car salesman Bill Sanders, 64, was like many fans, as taken with Musial's good-natured ways as his considerable baseball prowess. Sanders noted that not once in a 22-year career did Musial get tossed out of a game.

``All of his statistics were absolutely staggering, plus he was a true gentleman,'' Sanders said. ``He even liked the umpires.''

Certainly his baseball accomplishments were plentiful: a .331 lifetime average, 475 homers and 3,630 career hits (1,815 at home and an equal number on the road). He helped the Cardinals to three World Series championships in the 1940s and another after his playing days ended - he was general manager of the 1967 team that beat the Red Sox in seven games.

The GM job was short-lived, but Musial was a frequent figure at Busch Stadium, showing up for most opening days and many postseason games, sometimes playing the harmonica, always striking a pose of that unusual, corkscrew left-handed batting stance.

Though in ill health, Musial always perked up when he got to Busch Stadium. He smiled and waved during his last public appearance, a parade lap of the warning track before Game 4 of the NL championship series last fall.

``His fans always did give him energy,'' Schwarze said. ``He could turn it on.''

Even near death, the harmonica Musial learned to play while passing the time on long train trips during his career was another source of energy.

``He was playing the week before he passed - a lot better than I've ever played it,'' Schwarze said.

Did he still play the ``Wabash Cannonball?'' ``Yes, absolutely,'' Schwarze added. ``He always said he knew more songs but I think he knew about six songs on the harmonica and had about six jokes.''

``The No. 6 really goes through his whole life.''

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

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Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Tuesday was the first night that mattered without Sean Doolittle. Sunday and Monday blowouts made being without the closer moot. Stephen Strasburg’s dominance -- seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts, no earned runs -- paired with the offense’s sudden dormancy to produce a 1-0 game going into the eighth inning Tuesday. It was time to take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen without Doolittle. 

Fluctuating Wander Suero was brought in for the eighth. He loaded the bases without recording an out. Daniel Hudson was called in to fix the mess. He allowed a sacrifice fly and three-run homer. Nationals lose, 4-1. 

This is not a panic-in-the-streets loss by any means. The offensive numbers were bound to level -- for a night and beyond. It was, however, a reminder things don’t automatically improve after the struggling closer is extracted from the equation. Washington did not bring in high-end closers with extensive track records at the trade deadline. It acquired three arms which were improvements over the in-house options. All had closed before. None were paid to do so for a competitive team.

Davey Martinez faced a wrinkle when deciding how to deploy his relievers in Pittsburgh. Hunter Strickland’s weight-lifting accident broke his nose. He tweeted about the incident, said he was ready to pitch, however, the manager likely preferred to leave Strickland resting his readjusted schnoz in the bullpen. Which meant Suero came in.

Suero has become a split personality on the mound. He either uses his cutter to saw through an inning with surprising effectiveness or is a mess instantly endangering the game’s outcome. Of his 58 appearances, 42 have been scoreless. Doesn’t feel like it. Why? Because Suero has allowed two runs or more in eight of them. That’s plenty to skew a reliever’s ERA. His is back up to 4.97 after Hudson’s failure to limit inherited baserunners from scoring, which he had done expertly this season. Just two of 32 inherited runners (six percent) had scored against Hudson this year. Three came in Tuesday.

There is one other aspect here to note: When Doolittle went on the injured list Sunday, Martinez was asked repeatedly about his usage. His most common answer referenced the simplistic fact “Doolittle is the closer” with little explanation beyond that. Doolittle pitched more than an inning in seven of his 54 appearances this season. He was rarely brought into the situation Hudson was Tuesday.

That usage showed more flexibility. The best pitcher available was brought in at the most crucial point to face the toughest part of a light-hitting lineup. This was done on occasion, and partly, with Doolittle. Tuesday, it was sent out the best arm to try and hold the situation, then figure out the rest. This strategy pervades baseball. It just caught up in Washington.

It also didn’t work. 

So, night one without Doolittle was a failure. Recent nights with him had run a similar course, too. There are at least seven more to go.

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