Nationals

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Golden Gophers have been here before.

They've steamrolled through cushy nonconference schedules to crack the AP Top 25 and raise some optimism for the season. Then the Big Ten comes along and roughs them up.

This year, they say they're different. Well, they're about to find out.

No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) hosts 19th-ranked Michigan State (11-2) in the Big Ten opener Monday, with a chance to set a new tone. The Gophers have had just two winning records in conference play in the last 15 years. In the previous two seasons, they've gone 23-2 in nonconference play and 12-24 against the heavyweights in their conference.

And they know it.

``We've definitely got a lot to prove,'' senior forward Rodney Williams said. ``We finished, what, 6-12 the last two years? We want to come into the Big Ten season and start off the right way. Usually we come out with a loss in the first game, and that hasn't ended too well for us in the Big Ten season. So we want to come out and get this `W' right away and see what happens.''

With Trevor Mbakwe healthy, Andre Hollins emerging as a top-flight point guard and more depth than Tubby Smith has ever had at Minnesota, the Gophers head into the Big Ten opener brimming with confidence. They have the highest ranking since they went to the Final Four in 1996-97 and have a nice mix of athleticism on the perimeter and muscle in the paint to stand up to the rugged schedule that awaits.

Smith has ridden players hard in his first five seasons since coming to Minnesota from Kentucky, a demanding approach that hasn't always sat well with some of the Gophers. But in his sixth season, he appears to finally have the mix of tenacious defenders and mentally tough veterans that he's been looking for.

``This group has really made it a lot of fun coming to practice,'' Smith said. ``They're sort of coaching themselves, and that's what good teams do. It's kind of like in the classroom when the teacher shows up and people are so excited about learning and being around one another. It makes it easier to teach and coach.''

Mbakwe hasn't played in a Big Ten game in nearly two years while he's worked his way back from a torn ACL in his right knee. He came off the bench for the first 12 games but was re-inserted into the starting lineup against Lafayette last week, and he said he's getting close to being all the way back.

``I'm excited about going up against another top-20 team, especially one that's coached by coach (Tom) Izzo, one of the best coaches in America,'' Mbakwe said. ``We're excited. It's a New Year's game. It's a chance for us to really set the tone and send a statement out that we're serious this year. And we're all up for the challenge.''

This season could be the most challenging in the Big Ten in years. Six teams are ranked in the top 20, including three ahead of the Gophers.

``We start the Big Ten season off against Michigan State, probably one of the most physical teams in the country. You're playing against better competition, and we'll definitely have to limit our turnovers and stuff like that,'' Mbakwe said. ``We can't beat ourselves. The level of intensity picks up, and we're excited for the challenge.''

The Gophers are 1-4 in Big Ten openers under Smith and have lost four straight to the Spartans, who have shown a knack in the past of deflating Minnesota's balloon just when things started looking up. So in some ways, the schedule couldn't unfold any better for the Gophers.

They get a team that has owned them on their floor on the last day of 2012. If this season is going to be different, this game will go a long way toward showing it.

``We can definitely contend for a Big Ten title, and we know that,'' Williams said. ``We've just got to come out and prove that to everybody else.''

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AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

The gasps came again in New York on Wednesday, this time when Juan Soto ripped his hands in and then through a slider which meandered up and inside. The resulting fly ball went 466 feet to right field, confusing camera operators and announcers alike. Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, calling road games from Nationals Park, wasn’t quite sure where the ball went or landed because it left camera view. The Mets’ broadcasting crew had a better view in Citi Field. Ron Darling uttered a precise summary while the ball traveled: “Whoa.”

Soto hit a 463-foot home run two days earlier which drew similar awe. Darling said then he had never seen a ball hit to that part of Citi Field -- dead center beyond the iconic rising apple. And, what Soto is doing overall is rarely seen. He’s hit two of the five longest home runs in Citi Field since 2015 (Nos. 3 and 5, respectively) in three days. He tied Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Robinson with 60 home runs before turning 22 years old thanks to the two he hit Wednesday night. Only four players -- Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Matthews and Ronald Acuña Jr. -- have more before that age. Soto turns 22 on Oct. 25. He is being shorted 109 games this season because of the abbreviated schedule and his late start in it. Yet, he’s still chasing down history.

The short season makes comparison points for his future fluid. However, he is running steady with the early days of one player in particular: Mookie Betts. The far-away question for the Nationals is whether their paths when no longer under team control will go the same.

First, to now. Soto’s first home run Wednesday prompted a response from the official NASA Twitter account when it was asked to locate the launch to right field (“We'll look for it when we get back to the Moon in 2024. Cool?”). But, there was a detail attached to his second home run which may be more telling of his actual ability.

Left-handed Mets reliever Chasen Shreve was able to get Soto to rollover a fastball away for a double play in the third inning. Left-handed pitchers typically try for this precise outcome from Soto by pitching him outside. He often foils it by not taking the bait and instead taking a walk or pushing the ball the other way. Against Shreve, Soto left his principles: he swung at a pitch outside of the strike zone and did so with more of a hook swing than one designed to drive the ball somewhere between left-center field and right-center field. Stay through the middle and good things will happen. It’s a mantra for him. He vacated the idea, then pulled his helmet off at first base and bounced it off the ground following the double play.

He faced another left-handed pitcher in his next at-bat. Justin Wilson tried the same approach as Shreve. He was throwing away, but not far enough. A fastball caught the outside portion of the plate. Soto had cleared his head, drove through the pitch, and hit an opposite-field home run. That, more than distance, shows mental genius at 21 years old.

“He makes in-game adjustments better than any young hitter I’ve ever seen,” Davey Martinez said.

RELATED: SOTO BLASTS LONGEST HOME RUN OF HIS CAREER AGAIN

Now, to the future, via the past. Betts came up as a 21-year-old in Boston. Soto is 21. Betts played half a season at that age, moved to 19th in American League MVP voting the following year, then put his name among the elite his third season when he finished second in MVP voting. He also won a Gold Glove and went to the All-Star Game. Betts pulled together a 9.5 bWAR season in 2016 as a 23-year-old outfielder.

Soto finished second to Acuña Jr. in National League Rookie of the Year voting in his first season. He ascended to ninth in NL MVP voting as a 20-year-old via a 4.6 bWAR season. His current OPS is 1.444. It won’t last. And, this is not a full season to chase Betts’ MVP-runner-up numbers. It does indicate further ascension.

It is also another year of Soto’s service-time clock. The Nationals hold team control of Soto until 2025. Next year he will again make a pittance relative to his peers, when he receives a slight raise from the $629,400 he is making this year. The following year, 2022, he can start to cash in  via arbitration. His salary will progressively climb year after year from there -- with several chances to set a record for arbitration pay should his play be maintained.

The rub arrives in 2025. Soto can become a free agent that year. So can Victor Robles. And, Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who is loathe to do anything other than enter free agency with his clients.

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So, the Nationals will eventually be faced with a similar decision the Boston Red Sox needed to make with Betts: can they afford their star? If not, should he be traded?

Boston was in a bind. It dumped current cash (David Price) and future cash (Betts) in exchange for three prospects. In essence, it was an organizational reboot.

The Nationals don’t tend to operate that way. They have not been forced to rebuild since the initial buildup from franchise newbie to contender was completed. They also do not want to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax whenever possible, pick singular spots for big contracts and are yet to approach Soto about an extension. Needing to choose between him and Robles complicates the process further.

So, for now, maybe it’s best to watch the mammoth homers, listen to out-of-town announcers react with shock, then giggle at tweets from NASA. Four more years of Soto in Washington are guaranteed. Nothing beyond that is.

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Three home runs, Rio Ruiz flip, power Orioles to series victory and sweep opportunity vs. Phillies

Three home runs, Rio Ruiz flip, power Orioles to series victory and sweep opportunity vs. Phillies

With two outs in the eight inning and the Phillies threatening to tie the score, Andrew McCutchen hit a sharp ground ball to the left side of the infield. 

Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz dove to his left, corralled the ball, and as he was falling, flipped a backhand shovel that rolled to second base just in time for the final out of the inning. It was one of the Orioles' best plays, on offense or defense, all season long. 

The standout defensive play kept the Orioles ahead 5-4, a score they’d win by, in their second straight win over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. It was the team's second-straight series win.

“That was a huge play,” Chance Sisco said. “It was crazy. Just going into the hole, obviously, is a tough play. And then I don’t know what happened, he stumbled a little bit and fell to the ground. I don’t know what it takes just to get that ball out of his glove. Just a great play.”

Ruiz’s defensive play assuredly prevented a run, and with a bullpen that had to work big innings, that play’s significance cannot be overstated.

“He’s just reading the ball really well, his feet are great, he’s just playing outstanding defense at third base,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “That play that he made in the hole, that was game-saving and really won us the game.”

Ruiz had a good night at the plate as well, as he hit a solo home run — as did Anthony Santander and Sisco, to lead the way offensively for the red-hot Orioles.

RELATED: HOW SOON IS TOO SOON FOR THE O'S TO START THINKING ABOUT THE DEADLINE?

After falling down 3-1, they rallied to tie the game in the fourth inning then took the lead in the fifth. An insurance run, by way of Sisco’s home run, gave the Orioles a two-run lead entering the eighth inning. 

Then, they held on — aided by Ruiz’s absurd defensive play — to push their record to 9-7 with a chance for a sweep over the Phillies on Thursday.

Through 16 games of the 2020 season, the Orioles have already surpassed some people’s expectations of what figured to be a year without any notable or exciting games. 

Now, they’re just riding the wave.

“It seems like good teams have different guys on different nights,” Hyde said. “And right now, that’s what we have. We had some big hits tonight. Chance Sisco, Smitty. Middle relief is what won us the game, to me. We pitched well and we got enough runs to hold on.”

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