Capitals

Verlander the next obstacle for slumping Yankees

201210151539563620259-p2.jpeg

Verlander the next obstacle for slumping Yankees

DETROIT (AP) There were times this year when Justin Verlander took the mound while his team was reeling a bit - and the right-hander's presence was Detroit's best shot at snapping out of a momentary funk.

Now, the hard-throwing ace is in a different situation. Led by Verlander, the Tigers' rotation has been absolutely terrific this postseason, and his job is simply to keep this remarkable run going against the slumping New York Yankees.

``I think pitching, much like hitting, is contagious,'' Verlander said. ``Guys go out there night in and night out and see guys have a good game, and the next day he wants to have a good game, so on and so forth. And I think that's what we are feeding on right now.''

The Tigers won the first two games of the AL championship series in New York, holding the Yankees scoreless except for one brief uprising against closer-in-limbo Jose Valverde. With the exception of Valverde, no Detroit pitcher has allowed an earned run since Game 3 of the division series against Oakland.

Verlander takes the mound Tuesday night in Game 3 of the ALCS. The reigning AL MVP won both his starts against the A's, throwing a shutout in the decisive fifth game.

``As a rotation, right now things are going well,'' Verlander said during Monday's off-day. ``It is nice to see us get rolling as a group, and hopefully we can continue it through the World Series.''

Detroit's starters have posted an 0.94 ERA in the playoffs this year. The postseason record for a starting staff pitching at least seven games is 1.05, set by the 1920 Cleveland Indians, according to STATS LLC.

Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez are off to that type of start this year.

Detroit's pitching display has gone hand in hand with New York's horrendous slump. Derek Jeter is out for the year after breaking an ankle in Game 1 of this series, and the Yankees desperately need their other stars to start hitting. Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher are a combined 12 for 107 - for a .112 batting average - in the playoffs.

Add catcher Russell Martin, and five regulars are below .200, hitting a combined 17 for 133 with 42 strikeouts - 25 more strikeouts than hits. They have a combined seven RBIs, four of those by Cano.

``We can't score seven runs, eight runs in one at-bat,'' first baseman Mark Teixeira said. ``It's momentum. When things are going bad, they can be really bad, but when things are going good, we're capable of putting up a whole bunch of runs.''

The Yankees have actually had a decent amount of success against Verlander. He faced New York three times this season, and the Yankees won twice. Phil Hughes, who will start Game 3 for New York, pitched a complete game against Verlander in a win over the Tigers on June 3.

``Obviously Verlander is a great pitcher, but he is human and we know we can score off him,'' Hughes said. ``I just have to do a better job than he does. It's going to be a challenge, but, like I said, I'm looking forward to it.''

In his most recent start against the Yankees, on Aug. 6, Verlander struck out 14 in eight innings.

``You want to face familiar pitchers, even if he happens to be the best pitcher on the planet,'' Teixeira said.

With the starters pitching brilliantly, Detroit's big concern right now is the bullpen. Valverde allowed the Yankees to tie Game 1 with four runs in the ninth, and although the Tigers won 6-4 in the 12th, Detroit manager Jim Leyland needed to change plans a bit. He used Phil Coke to close out a 3-0 win in Game 2, and the left-hander pitched the final two innings.

Coke may be a viable option against a New York lineup with plenty of left-handed power, but it's clear the situation is still in flux.

``I am just going to play it out and see what happens, see what kind of matchup there is,'' Leyland said. ``Find out who they have coming up, who the matchup will be, probably go from there. I am hoping that Valverde in the very near future is ready to take back over. As I said, that is pretty important that we have him.''

Of course, if Detroit's rotation keeps up its record pace, the pressure on the bullpen could be minimal. Can the Yankees possibly hit this poorly for another few days? Leyland is skeptical.

``We're just hoping we can keep the Yankees from swinging the bats too good,'' Leyland said. ``You are certainly concerned about it because they are just too good. They are too good of hitters and you know they will break out at some point. You just try to shut them down to the best of your ability and scratch out a few runs. The runs are pretty much at a premium so far.''

Quick Links

MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

LAS VEGAS—One of the more intriguing storylines of this year’s Stanley Cup Final centers on a couple of men who make their living behind the scenes: Brian MacLellan of the Caps and his counterpart with the Golden Knights, George McPhee.

They’ve known each other for 40-plus years, dating back to their time as bantam teammates in Canada. And, starting Monday, they’ll be on opposing sides, with hockey’s Holy Grail at stake.  

Caps fans, of course, are familiar with McPhee’s work. He served as GM in Washington from 1997-2014 and drafted 13 players who are currently on the Caps’ roster. McPhee was also the Caps’ rookie GM the last time the franchise appeared in the Final 20 years ago.

But here’s what Caps fans might not know about the connection that MacLellan and McPhee share:

  • They were born in a few months apart in 1958 in Ontario.
  • They captured the Canadian Jr. A championship as members of the 1977-78 Guelph Platers.
  • Both were on scholarship at Bowling Green from 1978-1982.
  • They played together with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.
  • And, finally, they worked side-by-side in Washington from 2000-2014. After working his way up from the scouting ranks, MacLellan replaced his managerial mentor, who had been let go following a disappointing season.

 

“It's kind of a weird experience,” MacLellan said. “We kind of have been texting back and forth how strange it feels to have this line up the way it has. It's a little awkward, but it's going to be a fun experience, I hope.”

At one point, MacLellan got choked up when talking about his relationship with McPhee, who’ll become the first GM in the expansion era to face a former team of which he served as GM.

“We played junior together and then we both went to Bowling Green on scholarships, so we lived together,” he said, fighting back tears. “It was fun.”

MacLellan also acknowledged that the two weren’t as tight—for a time, at least—after he replaced McPhee four years ago. McPhee also hinted at some strain, though he said the two men had dinner at the most recent GM’s meetings.

“Not as close, I don't think,” MacLellan said of his relationship with McPhee following McPhee’s dismissal. “A little bit of communication here and there. But I think it just took a little time for things to evolve. I think he needed a break from the game, needed a break from how it went down for him here and it just took time.”

When the two negotiated during last year’s expansion draft, which saw McPhee pluck promising you blueliner Nate Schmidt from Washington’s roster, MacLellan said the two old friends keep things “businesslike.”

“He was all business,” MacLellan said. “He wasn’t giving in on anything.”

Although McPhee drafted most of the core players who delivered the Caps to this year’s Final, MacLellan also deserves credit for getting this team over the second round hump. Among his first acquisitions were defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, a pair of vets that helped shore up a shaky defense. MacLellan also added forwards T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller via trade in recent seasons and, this year, added defenseman Michal Kempny, a particularly shrewd move that bolstered a blue line that needed a little tightening.

As weird as the next few days will be for MacLellan as he faces his old friend, it figures to even more strange for McPhee, who will look down from the GM’s suite on Monday and see not one, but two teams that he built on the ice. McPhee also pilfered a handful of current and former front office employees from Caps, including Goalie Coach Dave Prior, while building the Golden Knights.

Indeed, the history between MacLellan and McPhee runs deep. But for the next couple of weeks, they’ll put aside their decades-old friendship as their clubs battle for the NHL’s ultimate prize.
 

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

Quick Links

What winning the Stanley Cup would actually mean, a fan's perspective

What winning the Stanley Cup would actually mean, a fan's perspective

Just four more wins. It hardly seems possible.

For only the second time ever and for the first time in 20 years, the Capitals will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. And they could actually win it.

They’re not there yet. The Vegas Golden Knights have cruised through the playoffs thus far and continue to shock the hockey community with their postseason run. Washington’s players need to think about how to beat Vegas, not what happens after.

But while the players cannot and should not look ahead, for fans, it’s hard not to. It’s hard not to dream about that moment when Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup over to Alex Ovechkin.

Winning the conference is always a huge achievement that should be celebrated, but this year is different than 1998’s run. Back in 1998, the Caps played against a Detroit Red Wings team that is one of the greatest teams in NHL history. They were the defending champions after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers the year before. Washington suffered the same fate as the Flyers, losing in just four games.

This year is a battle between two more evenly matched teams. Picking the Caps to win this series is not outlandish or crazy at all. This year, they could actually do it.

So before the puck drops for Game 1 and all dreams are pushed aside for the realities of what may happen, allow a fan a chance to think about what seeing the Washington Capitals actually hoist the Stanley Cup would actually mean.

Breaking news: Washington is not Canada and the Capitals are not an original six team. Hockey is not ingrained in the culture of D.C. the way it is in Canadian cities or in places like Boston and Detroit. Unlike in Vegas where the success of the team in its inaugural season has caught the city by storm, the Capitals won only eight games in their first year. Eight wins doesn’t exactly help a team grow roots in the community.

If you’ve been a fan of the Capitals long enough, chances are you’ve seen some pretty tough times. There have been plenty of playoff disappointments in this team’s history even before the current era. There was also the rebuild that began before the lockout that saw a very bad team play in front of a half empty stadium for several years. And they would not have even gotten to that point without the “Save the Caps” campaign in 1982.

But through it all, that small group of hardcore fans kept coming back. Some may have wavered from time to time, but they came back because being a hockey fan is different than other sports.

It’s hard to be a sports fan in any city with an NFL team and not follow football. Football may not even be your sport, but there is almost on obligation to following it because coverage and interest in football is so prevalent. It’s hard to avoid.

You have to seek out hockey

Hockey at times has been viewed as more of a niche sport than mainstream. Before the age of Alex Ovechkin, if you were from Washington and you were following the Caps, it was because you loved both.

So why did those Caps fans keep coming back after so much heartbreak? Because despite all of the disappointing seasons we always walked away telling ourselves, this will just make it that much sweeter when they do win.

One day, it will all be worth it.

That’s why we watch sports, isn’t it? We watch with the knowledge that sometimes, our hearts will be broken but it’s OK because the good will always outweigh the bad. And the worse the bad times are, the better the good times will feel afterward.

We kept telling ourselves that for a long time, but admittedly some years were tougher to get past than others. It’s hard to keep believing when you’ve seen your rival beat you nine times out of 10 in the playoffs heading into this year’s postseason. It’s hard when a team cannot seem to overcome its playoff history despite having one of the best players of all-time on its roster.

When Ovechkin was drafted, the question we all asked ourselves was not whether he would bring a Cup to Washington, but how many? He brought new fans with him, he brought excitement with him, he brought validation with him…at least initially.

But with every passing year, doubt began to creep into our minds. The upset loss to Montreal in 2010 stung, but Ovechkin was still 24. There was still hope that one day, he would still win the Cup.

Now at 32 years old, many did not know what to expect from the Great 8 this year. When would decline start to show in his game?

Ovechkin is part of why we want the Cup so badly. We want to see the best player in this franchise’s history honored. We want to see the player who transformed hockey in Washington from niche sport to mainstream take his proper place in the sport’s history. No one wants to hear him described as one of the best players to never win a Cup because he should be remembered as one of the best players, period.

But that’s not all of it.

This is about all those times we told ourselves this would all be worth it someday. This is about how we used to cope with the sting of another postseason heartbreak by thinking about what it would feel like when it was finally our year. This is about how we stuck with the team when the stadium was half empty. This is about the blue jersey in our closet with the eagle on the front and the black one hanging next to it with the capitol building on the front. This is about all the 5, 12, 32 and 37 jerseys. This is about replacing Esa Tikkanen as our lasting Stanley Cup memory.

When the Washington Redskins have a rough year, those fans who can remember them think about those three Super Bowl wins. When the Washington Wizards fall short, those fans who can remember it think about the championship in 1978. Even if you’re too young to remember the Super Bowls or NBA championship, those banners still give your team a sense of validation. They have their little piece of history to be proud of.

That’s what this would mean. A Stanley Cup would be not just for the players, it would be for the fans who stuck it out through thick and thin, those fans who despite everything still supported their team. This win would be about the Capitals forever earning their spot in the heart of Washington sports alongside the Redskins and Wizards.

This would be about never having to tell ourselves again that someday all the love we pour into this team will pay off.

A Stanley Cup would mean finally getting to experience a championship and realizing, yeah, it was all worth it.

Let’s go Caps!

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS: