Nationals

Knicks welcome Lin back to New York on Monday

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Knicks welcome Lin back to New York on Monday

NEW YORK (AP) Jeremy Lin was barely hanging on to an NBA job when he stepped on the floor at Madison Square Garden last February.

He returns Monday having proven he's a legitimate starter and sometimes star, capable of energizing a franchise and a fan base, a player who saved his team's season and was rewarded with a lucrative contract.

Linsanity was short but spectacular, and even the New York Knicks' locker room is filled with Lin admirers.

Yet on the court, his old team hasn't missed him at all.

``What he did was amazing. I mean, I was watching every game. He was hitting game-winners, he was doing all that. He was amazing,'' point guard Raymond Felton said. ``But it's time to move on. We're 18-5, whatever the record is, we're 10-0 at home, so no need to talk about that no more.''

Lin makes his lone New York appearance with the Houston Rockets, who threw big dollars at Lin in July and were maybe just as surprised as so many others when the Knicks let them have him. They could have kept Lin simply by matching the Rockets' offer, which was widely considered to be a foregone conclusion, and the big-market Knicks certainly could have afforded him.

Instead, they traded for Felton, and signed Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, and nobody can argue now. The Knicks are the best in the league in taking care of the ball - a Lin weakness even during his highest point - and they have the best record in the Eastern Conference with Felton and Kidd starting together in a two-point guard backcourt.

``I'm not taking anything away from what we had last year, those guys gave us all they had, but to win at a big level in this league you've got to have good point guard play. I think Jason Kidd and Raymond and Pablo have filled that void that we were somewhat missing last year,'' Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks were going nowhere without anyone to run former coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and just days from needing to cut Lin or guarantee his salary for the remainder of the season when D'Antoni turned to him in a Feb. 4 game against the Nets. Lin scored 25 points, was promoted to the starting lineup two nights later, and the phenomenon known as Linsanity was born.

The undrafted player from Harvard had been cut three times already and was so uncertain of his NBA future that he had slept on teammate Landry Fields' couch the night before his breakout because he had refused to get his own place with an unguaranteed contract.

And he became an immediate hit with fans around the world.

The first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent made a massive impact for the Knicks at the box office and merchandise stands, not to mention what he did for them in the standings.

A season's worth of highlights were packed into just a few weeks: the double-double in a national TV rout of defending champion Dallas; the 38 points to outduel Kobe Bryant in a victory over the Lakers; the 3-pointer in the final second to win a game at Toronto. He became a media sensation, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in consecutive weeks, and brought the Knicks more positive attention than they had received in ages.

Lin was quoted on the Rockets' website after their loss to Toronto on Sunday as saying he was looking forward to getting his return over with and getting some closure, and was asked what he anticipated.

``That's one of those things where I'm not going to try to guess what's going to happen because I have no idea,'' Lin said. ``Once the game starts I know I'm going to be focused on basketball. If I were to be realistic, there will probably be some nostalgia and reminiscing and thankful for those times because those were some great times, but at the same time it's the next chapter.''

D'Antoni was booed when he returned Thursday with the Lakers, but the Knicks think Lin has earned and will receive a huge welcome back.

``I think that he touched a lot of people who are going to be in the stands,'' said Steve Novak, one of Lin's best friends on the team. ``There's going to be some people come to see Jeremy, there's no doubt about it, because he did have an incredible run and touched a lot of their lives, and a lot of little kids got Lin jerseys and stuff like that. So I think it was tough when he left for all those people that have those jerseys and stuff, but they remember how much fun it was when he was here.''

It wasn't long. Lin ended up needing knee surgery in March that ended his season after just 25 starts. Woodson had insisted Lin would be back, even after Lin and the Rockets had agreed to a contract that was worth about $28 million over four years. The terms were then amended to about $25 million over three years, the final year worth nearly $15 million but would cost the Knicks more than twice that in luxury tax payments under the harsher penalties in the new collective bargaining agreement.

So they let him go, and so far Lin has had some solid moments, but few that indicate he could turn into a $25 million player. He did match his career high with 38 points in a recent loss to San Antonio and helped the Rockets rout the Knicks in Houston last month, but was averaging about 11 for the season while shooting under 40 percent from the field. He has been replaced by backup Toney Douglas, another former Knick, in the closing minutes of some close games.

That's far below the 24.6 points and 9.2 assists he averaged in those first 10 games from Feb. 4-20, when he was the biggest story in basketball. That's what the Knicks expect fans to remember on Monday night.

``He did an excellent job of bringing a lot of cheer. He brought a lot of great vibes to the city and just the arena in general. I had a fun time playing with him,'' center Tyson Chandler said. ``So I don't know what his reception is, but whatever it is he's on the other side now, so he has to pay for that.''

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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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