Orioles

Kentucky, fans revel in Big Blue Madness

201210122105759263197-p2.jpeg

Kentucky, fans revel in Big Blue Madness

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Repeating his take that Kentucky fans are crazy during Big Blue Madness, Wildcats coach John Calipari also acknowledged their justification to go wild.

And as a group of Wildcats legends raised the school's eighth national championship banner to the Rupp Arena rafters Friday night, so did fans' enthusiasm.

Calipari marked the start of practice by recognizing the latest contribution to Kentucky's proud tradition, hoping it motivates this year's squad to continue it.

``I came here to win national titles for you,'' Calipari said as a capacity crowd at Rupp roared.

Kentucky's latest recruits appeared ready to do that.

A capacity crowd was introduced to much-heralded big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin. Transfers Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow also debuted.

Cauley-Stein's White squad held off Noel's Blue team 56-55 in the scrimmage.

Kentucky opens Nov. 9 against Maryland.

``This is about celebrating the start of the season, but we're still going to celebrate the 2012 national championship,'' Calipari said. ``We're here to celebrate the tradition of this program.''

The celebration of Calipari's first championship as Wildcats coach and expectations for this year's freshmen contributed to an electric atmosphere. Fans went crazy when the arena went dark at 7:30 p.m. and music blared to the entrance of Kentucky's women's team.

They were followed by T-shirt giveaways, 3-point shooting contests and a cheerleader performance that built anticipation for the Wildcats' first practice.

Calipari and his players delivered, whipping up the crowd by entering to smoke machines and hip-hip music, with Goodwin emerging as the team's best dancer so far.

``I will say this: if we were in a dance contest, we're winning,'' Calipari joked.

After introducing of group of Kentucky legends including Jack ``Goose'' Givens, Ron Mercer and Vernon Hatton - who raised the bar with all eight banners - the Wildcats played a tighter than expected scrimmage.

Noel and Cauley-Stein showed their athleticism on both ends, eliciting cheers with dunks and blocks. Poythress displayed his ability to play several spots, and Goodwin offered glimpses of his ball-handling skills.

It ended two hours later with a video recounting the Wildcats' path to the men's championship, Calipari's brief mission statement and players saluting a crowd that had been waiting for this night for a while.

Nearly 600 tents were pitched outside Memorial Coliseum for distribution of free tickets on Sept. 22, which were gone in half an hour.

Michael Gibson was among those camping out the previous four days, something he's done for ``about six, seven years'' by his count. It paid off: he was fourth in line, getting his four allotted freebies and giving them to friends despite a bunch of lucrative offers from Wildcats faithful.

``People were offering money right off the bat,'' said Sturgill, wearing a blue ``Tent City Starts Here'' T-shirt. ``I just wanted to see what they'll have. It's going to be a fun night.''

Jody Sturgill was a popular man walking around the concourse, mainly because of the blue Darth Vader costume. The padded outfit has served him well, getting him tickets to many games; several members of the Wildcats' women's basketball team even autographed it.

Rather than camp out like most fans, Sturgill got up in line at 2 a.m. that Saturday morning (without the costume) and got four tickets to his 15th Madness.

``I probably could've stood outside and gotten tickets because folks love the outfit and a lot of them are Star Wars fans,'' the 41-year-old said between posing for pictures. ``But I just decided to get tickets the normal way. I wasn't going to miss this.''

Others just used connections.

Tickets for Leslie Delk's two previous visits to Madness came from his uncle and former Wildcat Tony Delk, most recently in 2010. This time he tapped former Kentucky graduate assistant coach Brandon Weems, who hooked him up with a couple of lower bowl seats near the concourse.

``I could've called him (for tickets), but my friend Brandon came through,'' said Delk, who manages a local sportswear store. ``I had to be here for this one because they'll probably hang the (championship) banner.

``This is exciting and having it in the evening is more convenient. But even if they held it at noon, it would still be electric. We're UK. We're obnoxious.''

Seventh grader Morgan McDonald was planning a party before her father surprised her and friend Halle Cline with tickets to their first Madness.

``He just asked, `What are y'all doing tonight?' and gave us tickets,'' McDonald said. ``I changed my mind about the party.''

Women's volleyball opened the festivities, the first time a match was held at Rupp. About 8,000 saw Kentucky sweep Mississippi State by 25-18 scores.

Spotlights and loud music followed to introduce Kentucky's women, coming off their second Elite Eight appearance in three years. And Wildcats coach Matt Mitchell again showed guts in his dance impersonation by channeling MC Hammer, working the baggy pants and sideways moves, albeit slowly and carefully.

``I just want to thank Hammer,'' said Mitchell, who mimicked Michael Jackson last year.

Quick Links

What exactly did the Orioles get in return for Manny Machado?

yusniel_diaz.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

What exactly did the Orioles get in return for Manny Machado?

So, the Orioles made some headlines earlier this week. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but minor league pitcher Asher Wojciechowski exercised his opt-out clause and is no longer with the organization. Please keep Orioles fans in your thoughts during this trying time.

As everyone reading this is undoubtedly already aware, the Orioles *also* made a trade yesterday, sending 26-year old superstar Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In return for their once-in-a-lifetime talent, the Orioles received a whopping five prospects from the Dodgers’ minor league system.

Yusniel Diaz, OF, 21

It’s fitting that this trade is being compared to the Erik Bedard trade, which was also a five-for-one, because Diaz could be a poor man’s Adam Jones. He’s not the prospect Jones was, but he could end up being a really nice player.

Talent evaluators are split on his ultimate ceiling. Some describe him as a bona fide stud, and others leave him off their top 100 lists. I’ve seen him ranked as high as 31st overall (by Baseball Prospectus), which, if accurate, is a terrific main piece in a package for a star rental. 

Most consider Diaz’s main flaw as a prospect to be his in-game power, though anyone watching the 2018 MLB Futures Game would be confused by that, as he became the second player ever to hit multiple home runs in the game. It’s possible that more power develops as he matures, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first player to hit for more power once reaching the Majors, but for now, it’s not a strength. I wouldn’t expect him to top 20 home runs in most seasons.

His bat-to-ball ability is his clearest strength, as he projects to consistently hit for a high average. His batting eye, while formerly a weakness, has become a strength in 2018, as he’s actually walked more times than he’s struck out (a rarity in this day and age). That will play well with O’s fans who are tired of seeing their players challenge strikeout records.

Dean Kremer, RHP, 22

Kremer isn’t a major name, which is a disappointment for O’s fans and one of the reasons their haul felt so uninspiring. Compared to more highly-touted prospects like Dustin May, Kremer looks like the team settled.

That said, he’s currently sporting the best K/9 ratio in the minors, and could end up being a diamond in the rough. He’s come a long way since being a 14th-round pick two years ago, and you have to wonder if the Orioles’ much-maligned pitching development can pick up where the much more successful Dodgers instructors left off.

Kremer is also notable for being the first Israeli-born player ever drafted in Major League Baseball.

Rylan Bannon, IF, 22

Bannon was an 8th-rounder last year and is having somewhat of a breakout this season. He’s leading the league in home runs, though playing in a notorious band box of a home park is skewing those numbers.

Bannon is undersized, but has a reputation of a good, if not elite, fielder. He’s a third baseman, but will likely spend some time at second as well. If the power breakout is real, he could end up a solid starter for the Orioles down the road. Again, that’s about all you can hope for in trades of this nature.

Zach Pop, RHP, 21

Pop has been described as potentially a future “right-handed Zach Britton,” which every O’s fan would take in a heartbeat. Of course, he’s not ranked like a future All-Star, as even in the weaker Orioles farm system he’s likely no better than around 25th. 

Still, the filler players in big trades like this are just lottery tickets, and considering his lack of pedigree, Pop seems like a relatively “safe” pitcher with projectability. He strikes out a lot of batters and gets a lot of ground balls, and at the very least can likely become a decent middle reliever.

Breyvic Valera, IF, 26

In a best-case scenario, Valera becomes the Orioles’ Ryan Flaherty replacement. If you squint, you can see somewhat decent upside in each of the other returning players, even despite their modest prospect rankings, but Valera is a clear utility player. 

He gets on base and hits for contact well enough to stick around and has proven capable of defending multiple positions, so there actually might be a spot for him at the end of the Orioles bench.

Overall

This trade has been described as anywhere from adequate and somewhat deflating to a great haul O’s fans should be excited about. Four of the five players have decent ceilings, though the chance of all four (or even just two of them) reaching those ceilings is highly unlikely. It’s just the nature of baseball.

Ultimately, this trade will be judged on the success or failure of Yusniel Diaz, who is the clear centerpiece of the package. Whether or not he succeeds will be partially up to him, and partially up to the front office and player development team.

If this trade is the beginning of the core for the next competitive Orioles team, then it’ll have to be considered a success. If these players each bust out of the league, then it was still the correct decision to trade Machado instead of settling for draft pick compensation, but it will still sting all the more for O’s fans seeing Manny soar to new heights elsewhere.

Quick Links

Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

usatsi_10910276.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has walked all over back-to-back years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

At times during the first half of the season, relief pitchers felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said.

On a more tricky note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said.

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run.