Pitch clock coming for spring training games
By MIKE FITZPATRICK
AP Baseball Writer
Monday, February 18
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Major League Baseball is unilaterally starting the use of pitch clocks for spring training games, while brushing off complaints from players about the slow free agent market.
With the sport looking for ways to speed the pace of play, pitchers generally will have 20 seconds to deliver to the plate when teams play exhibition games in Arizona and Florida beginning this week. The intention is to get players and umpires accustomed to the clock in the event MLB makes the rule change for the upcoming regular season.
“We will start getting ready for the possibility that we’re going to use the pitch clock on opening day,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Sunday at spring training media day in Florida. “We have to get going.”
After the 2016 and 2017 seasons, players rebuffed management’s proposal for a pitch clock. Owners have the right to implement one this year without consent, but Manfred has been reluctant to initiate on-field modifications without agreement from players and their union head, Tony Clark.
“We’re still hopeful that we’re going to make an agreement with Tony on pace-of-play initiatives,” Manfred said. “I just think that whether it’s by agreement or otherwise, the only prudent course for us at this point is to be in a position to proceed if in fact we have an agreement or decide to do it … under our collectively bargained right to do that.”
MLB made a unilateral decision on clocks for the exhibition season.
“We were recently notified by the commissioner’s office that the pitch clock will be tested in spring games,” the players’ association said in a statement. “This is not the result of an agreement with the players’ association. Discussions regarding several on- and off-field issues remain ongoing.”
Manfred said the rules involving the clock will be “phased in” and won’t start immediately with ball and strike calls. But there will be a “functional” clock in Grapefruit League and Cactus League games. Management’s proposals have said a clock would not be used after foul balls.
Pitch clocks have been used in the high minors since 2015.
With spring training underway and exhibitions scheduled to start Thursday, several players around the majors have taken issue with a second consecutive slow market for free agents. They question why more teams aren’t trying to win.
“It would be nice to start with the facts on this topic. There has been no meaningful change in the distribution of winning percentages in Major League Baseball,” Manfred said. “Our teams are trying. Every single one of them wants to win. It may look a little different to outsiders because the game has changed, the way that people think about the game, the way that people think about putting a winning team together has changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.”
Two of the game’s biggest stars, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned — along with closer Craig Kimbrel and dozens of other accomplished veterans.
“There are 11 players who had a WAR (wins above replacement) above 1 last year that are unsigned. I believe that just like last year, that market is going to clear. At some point here in the next few weeks, those players are going to get signed,” Manfred said. “We negotiated a system that allows the market to operate and I have every confidence that for those players that I just described, that market is going to clear before we get to playing real games.”
The current economy for players is all part of the game, he insisted.
“I think it’s important to remember that the Major League Baseball Players Association has always wanted a market-based system. And, markets change. Particularly when the institution around those markets change. We’ve had a lot of change in the game. People think about players differently. They analyze players differently. They negotiate differently. Agents negotiate differently,” Manfred said.
“I think there’s lots and lots of offers out there and it’s a bilateral process. Players haven’t accepted those offers yet. That’s how a market works. So you know, we bargained for a market system, that market’s out there operating, and I don’t have any choice but to live with that right now.”
Manfred said just because clubs don’t spend big doesn’t mean they aren’t attempting to win.
He pointed out that Oakland and Tampa Bay, two low-payroll clubs expected to struggle in 2018, both had excellent seasons. The Athletics reached the playoffs with 97 wins, and the Rays won 90 games.
“I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be,” he explained.
That drew the ire of Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, who tweeted: “Agreed… finally we’re on the same page! Awesome! Removal of the luxury tax it is.”
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this rpeort.
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Tim Tebow says he advised Kyler Murray to follow his heart
By MIKE FITZPATRICK
AP Baseball Writer
Sunday, February 17
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) — Before picking football over baseball, Kyler Murray got some advice from another famous two-sport star.
One Heisman Trophy winner to another.
Tim Tebow says he told Murray to follow his heart when deciding between the Oakland Athletics and pursuing an NFL career. Murray, who won the Heisman last year in his lone season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, announced Monday he was fully committing to the gridiron despite being selected ninth overall in the 2018 amateur baseball draft.
After arriving Saturday at the New York Mets’ spring training camp, Tebow said he interviewed Murray a few months ago in his job as a college football television analyst and the two have gotten to know each other.
Tebow, a former NFL quarterback, won the 2007 Heisman Trophy at Florida.
“Kyler, I think he’s a really good young man, and I think this was a really tough decision for him,” Tebow said. “He loves two sports and I can really relate to that. And he went with something that he’s been really good at lately and dominating in. When we talked about it, and we did talk about that, I just gave him the advice to follow your heart. Whatever you’re passionate about.”
Tebow, now an outfielder in the Mets’ farm system, has made impressive strides as a baseball player since his NFL career with the Denver Broncos and New York Jets from 2010-12 ended. To the surprise of many, he became an All-Star at Double-A last season and is ticketed for Triple-A Syracuse in April to begin his third full season of professional baseball.
After the baseball draft last year, Murray agreed to a minor league contract with Oakland for a $4.66 million signing bonus.
The deal called for him to receive $1.5 million after approval last summer by Major League Baseball and $3.16 million on March 1. He must return six-sevenths of the money he received, or $1,285,714.
“You know what? Don’t do it for your agents, or your friends and sometimes necessarily even your family,” Tebow recalled telling Murray. “Do it for what’s on your heart, and don’t let other people define you. You’re going to have all these coaches that you look up to and everybody else that’s going to tell you what they think, but what’s most important is following your heart and your passion. And so, I don’t know, hopefully he did that.”
Murray hopes to be a high pick in the NFL draft, which begins April 25, and he could be. He is not a prototypical NFL quarterback, perhaps generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, but his combination of speed, passing skills and scrambling ability make him an intriguing prospect.
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Opelka wins New York Open for first ATP Tour title
By BRIAN MAHONEY
AP Sports Writer
Sunday, February 17
UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) — Reilly Opelka had climbed out of trouble all week, though this time his big serve alone couldn’t save him.
Technology did first.
Moments after an electronic review overturned what appeared to give his opponent a match point, Opelka pounded his 43rd ace to win his first ATP Tour title Sunday with a 6-1, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (7) victory over qualifier Brayden Schnur in the New York Open.
“I put myself in a good position throughout the whole match and third-set breaker could have went either way,” Opelka said. “That challenge honestly is probably the difference.”
A night after overcoming six match points to beat top-seeded John Isner in the semifinals, Opelka needed six of his own to finish off Schnur in the matchup for first-time finalists.
The 6-foot-11 Opelka hit 43 aces for the second straight match, making him the first player to hit 40 or more in consecutive best-of-three set matches since the tour began tracking aces in 1991.
But as powerful as he was with his racket, the pivotal point of the match came when he simply held it up in the air to signify a challenge.
Schnur had just hit what appeared to be an ace at 7-all in the tiebreaker that would have set up his first match point. But the review on the screen above the court showed it was just out.
Schnur, a rare player who doesn’t bounce the ball before his serve, then put his second serve into the net for a double fault. Opelka closed things out immediately after with the last of his 156 aces in the tournament.
“I tightened up at the wrong time,” Schnur said.
Schnur, who had never won a tour-level match before arriving in New York and making it into the tournament through qualifying, nearly pulled off a remarkable comeback after getting blown off the court in 18 minutes in the first set.
Opelka, a 21-year-old American who will climb more than 30 spots to a career-best No. 56 in the rankings, had to win second-set tiebreaks to win both his first two matches on the black courts of the Nassau Memorial Veterans Coliseum. He did so again in the semifinals against Isner, when they combined for 81 aces, the most ever in a three-set match.
Things appeared they would be much easier Sunday. Schnur opted to let Opelka serve first and won the first two points, then won only one more on Opelka’s serve in the set. Opelka had a 25-9 edge in points and 9-0 in aces in taking the set easily.
Even after a tougher second set, Opelka had two match points in the tiebreaker. But after only double-faulting once in the semifinals, he had a double fault on the second match point, and Schnur forced the deciding set.
Fighting the flu after playing in a lower-tier event last week in Dallas, the three-time All-American at North Carolina wasn’t even sure he’d give it a shot in New York. He ended up the final alternate accepted into the tournament’s qualifying draw, and played his way into the main draw after he was 0-5 previously in tour-level events.
He had upset seeded Americans Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey en route to the final but couldn’t close out the week with a victory and fought tears in the award ceremony.
“Obviously coming from Dallas I wasn’t even sure if I was going to show up here. I wasn’t feeling good, I was tired and just ended up coming here, and obviously making an ATP final blows my mind,” Schnur said. “It’s been an unbelievable week and I’ve soared to new heights in the ranking and things are going to change, but obviously it just sucks to go down the way it happened.”
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Canadian women beat US 2-0 to win inaugural Rivalry Series
By LARRY LAGE
AP Hockey Writer
Sunday, February 17
DETROIT (AP) — The inaugural Rivalry Series was created to give Canada and the United States another opportunity to put the world’s best female hockey teams on the ice together.
It went so well, there likely will be a sequel.
Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull scored, Shannon Szabados made 38 saves, and the Canadians beat the Americans 2-0 in front of 9,048 fans Sunday to win the three-game series.
“It always means a lot when you play these guys and there’s no love lost on the ice, so to get a win in their barn felt pretty good,” Jenner said.
Gina Kingsbury, director of women’s national teams for Hockey Canada, declared the event was a success in every way.
“We would love to see this repeat itself every year for sure,” Kingsbury said. “It would help generate excitement about our game outside of Olympic years.”
The Canadians beat their rivals nearly a year after the U.S. won Olympic gold in a shootout thriller and a few months after it won the Four Nations Cup against them.
They will meet again in April at the world championship in Finland.
“That’s the hardest part,” Alex Rigsby said after making 15 saves for the Americans. “You come off a loss and now we have to wait another six, seven weeks until we play each other again.”
The top U.S. and Canadian teams have not played regularly outside of the Olympics, world championship and Four Nations Cup, but that will change if the Rivalry Series becomes an annual event.
“It fits really well with our program,” USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said. “And, it’s good for us to have the NHL involved as well.”
The league supported the event that USA Hockey collaborated with Hockey Canada to conceive, making the arenas used by the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs available along with promoting the event. That likely helped an average of 8,725 spectators attend the first two games and for even more people to show up in the Motor City for a game that started at noon.
“We couldn’t be more thankful for the Red Wings and the NHL to help us out,” American forward Brianna Decker.
Fans filled almost the entire lower bowl of Little Caesars Arena where scores of girls in hockey jerseys could be seen and heard.
“There’s always more and more young girls watching and you can hear them in the crowd,” U.S. forward Dana Trivigno said. “You’re their role models and you’re what they aspiring to be. We’re just trying to create a path for them to follow and do the same thing.”
And as usual, the women helped their cause to market the game by playing highly competitive games.
The U.S. won the opener 1-0 on Tuesday in London, Ontario, and Canada evened the three-game series with a 4-3 victory Thursday in Toronto.
The Americans generated a lot of offense in the finale, especially during goal-mouth scrambles during a 21-shot second period and in the final minutes. Savannah Harmon had a goal for the Americans negated by a crease violation early in the third period when Trivigno made contact with Szabados.
“Canada plays a physical game so I was trying to get to the net and create some havoc in front,” Trivigno said. “I bumped off one Canadian and got into the goalie and couldn’t get off her quick enough. Unfortunately, that was enough to make it goaltender interference.”
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Grandal gets proactive about learning staff with Brewers
By ANDREW WAGNER
Sunday, February 17
PHOENIX (AP) — The ink was hardly dry on his $18.25 million, one-year contract with Milwaukee when Yasmani Grandal started working the phone, reaching out to as many new teammates as possible from his offseason home in Peoria. The Brewers’ new backstop wanted to get a running start when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.
He scheduled bullpen sessions with pitchers ready to work off the mound, and sat down to talk strategy with those that weren’t. He studied video of his new battery mates and even met with members of Milwaukee’s coaching staff.
When Grandal showed up to camp in Phoenix last week, he was ready to work.
“I didn’t want to spend a lot of time at spring training getting to know them,” Grandal said. “By the time we started, we’d already spoken, I had an idea of what guys wanted to do and different things like that.”
Grandal, 30, was a surprising signing for a team that appeared set at the catcher position with a combination of Manny Pina and Erik Kratz. Both are regarded as glove-first options, making catcher one of the few places Milwaukee could upgrade offensively.
The switch-hitting Grandal was a perfect fit from that perspective. He batted .241 with 24 home runs, 68 RBIs and an .815 OPS last season for the Dodgers.
His defense is also valuable. Though he’s struggled with passed balls — something the Brewers saw first-hand against the Dodgers last fall in the NL Championship Series — Grandal has long been regarded as one of the better receivers in the game and played a big role in helping Los Angeles’ pitching staff post an NL-leading 3.38 ERA. He’s been touted especially for his ability to steal strikes around the edge of the zone.
After working with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Kenley Jansen, he’ll take on a staff most notable for shutdown relievers Josh Hader and Corey Knebel.
“There’s the old line, ‘Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken,’ but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve it,” Grandal said. “I’m here to learn as much as I’m here to teach.”
He also provides Milwaukee’s coaching staff with a fresh perspective. Having stood in against Brewers pitchers during his seven-year career, he’s able to offer insight on what he’s noticed — and Grandal has said he picked up plenty from watching during their seven-game playoff battle.
Manager Craig Counsell said he’s been hesitant to offer insight at times, preferring to get Grandal’s outside opinion first.
“It’s almost an audit on our pitchers and our scouting reports, which is helpful for us,” Counsell said. “That’s a big part of where Yasmani can be a big help, especially here in the early going. The fact that he’s taken the initiative is what you hope for. It’s part of building the relationship with guys and he’s obviously going to be a very important part of their success.”
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Ready, Aim, Tweet; Brown fires at Roethlisberger, Tomlin
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Antonio Brown’s laundry list of issues with the Pittsburgh Steelers appears to include a problem with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership style and how head coach Mike Tomlin treated the Pro Bowl wide receiver during the regular-season finale against Cincinnati.
Brown, who has requested a trade, took to Twitter on Saturday to vent in what amounted to his first expanded public comments since a falling out with the organization that has left his future with the club very much in doubt.
Asked by a Twitter user about the root of his conflict with Roethlisberger, Brown responded “No conflict just a matter of respect! Mutual respect! He has a owner mentality like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know but they can’t say anything about it otherwise they meal ticket gone. It’s a dirty game within a game. #truth.”
Roethlisberger does not hesitate to take teammates to task publicly, a right the two-time Super Bowl winner says he has earned. While rarely overtly critical of Brown this season, Roethlisberger on one occasion declined to name Brown specifically when asked about the benefits of having a No. 1 receiver, instead naming just about every receiver on the roster.
Brown also called out Tomlin for the way he handled Brown during the course of the final week of the regular season. The team sent Brown home two days before the game and ordered him to get some rest and have his knee examined. Tomlin said afterward Brown did not have the exam and did not communicate with the team until early on the morning of the day of the game when his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, contacted Tomlin and said Brown would be available to play.
Brown arrived at the stadium in time but did not dress after the team made him inactive. He watched the first half from the sideline but was not around postgame after Pittsburgh won 16-13. The victory, however, did not help the Steelers extend their season. They missed the playoffs after finishing 9-6-1.
“After the coach tell the team I quit while nursing some bumps then invite me to watch the show with same guys thinking I quit,” Brown tweeted. “I can not stand with that! I’m the bad guy doe (sic) we miss post season think about it.”
Brown is expected to meet with Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II — who has declined to disparage Brown despite futile attempts to communicate with the nine-year pro — in coming days. Any such sit-down — if it even happens — appears to offer no chance at reconciling.
Brown tweeted he “Loves Steelers Nation everything to my heart” but said “no more” when asked any comeback might be in the offing.
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J.B. Holmes rallies to win a marathon finish at Riviera
By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
Monday, February 18
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A marathon finish was only part of the challenge facing J.B. Holmes. He also had to contend with a four-shot deficit against Justin Thomas on greens that were increasingly bumpy with so many footprints over nine hours, and wind that made Riviera tougher than ever.
With one good break, two big putts and plenty of help from Thomas on the back nine, Holmes won the Genesis Open on Sunday for his first PGA Tour title in nearly three years that earned him a trip back to the Masters.
So difficult was the final round of a 34-hole day that Holmes didn’t make a birdie over the last eight holes and closed with a 1-under 70.
“I knew it was going to be very difficult to shoot a low score,” Holmes said. “I needed some help from Justin.”
Thomas shot a 65 in the morning to complete the third round with a four-shot lead. Holmes says his caddie, Brandon Parsons, asked him at one point if he thought Thomas would get to 20-under par, a score only two other players have reached at Riviera.
“I was like, ‘You mean this round?’ He was playing unbelievable there that third round,” Holmes said.
Thomas played a big part in Holmes’ victory, however.
He took 19 putts in a wild back nine that featured three two-shot swings because of putting.
Thomas, who closed with a 75, three-putted from long range on the 10th as Holmes made birdie for his first lead of the week. Holmes returned the favor on the next hole when he turned birdie into a shocker of a bogey , three-putting from 3 feet.
And then it was back to Thomas, and what turned out to be the decisive moment.
Holmes missed the 13th green to the right and chipped to 12 feet. Thomas was some 65 feet away and lagged his putt to 8 feet. Holmes made the par putt , and not only did Thomas miss his putt for par, he lipped out the next one for a double bogey.
That took Thomas from one ahead to one behind, and he never caught up.
Holmes delivered another dagger with a 12-foot par save on the 16th right before Thomas made birdie to avoid another two-shot swing, and Thomas couldn’t convert birdie chances from 6 feet and 20 feet on the last two holes.
“To take two steps back with a double is huge because it was so hard to make birdies, especially with 14, 15, 16 coming up, three holes dead into the teeth,” Thomas said, alluding to the wind. “I’m sure he would say that was probably the biggest turning point of the round for him, and that putt on 16.”
Thomas said he struggled putting in the wind and it “showed a flaw in my game.”
“J.B. won. He played great,” Thomas said of his fellow Kentuckian, whom he has known since he was a kid. “It’s always a bummer to hand a tournament. I feel like I should have won that thing.”
Holmes, who finished at 14-under 270, moved up from No. 100 to No. 42 in the world, making him eligible for the World Golf Championships in Mexico City next week. But it’s been a long stretch, and he decided not to play. As for that invitation to the Masters?
“Let me think about it,” he said with a grin. “No, it’s always good to go back.”
Tiger Woods shot 65 to finish his morning third round, though he was never in range of winning. Woods closed with a 72 in the afternoon, and tied for 15th.
“I got tired,” Woods said. “I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I definitely felt it today. Wind, cold. I was at 10 (under) and I slipped four shots coming in. That’s the way it goes.”
He said he wouldn’t touch his clubs on Monday as he goes from cold air at sea level to Mexico City next week.
Maybe the biggest break for Holmes was at the par-4 seventh, when his wedge from a bunker didn’t clear the lip and buried into the grass framing the sand. He at first feared he couldn’t find it. Once he did, he was given relief from an embedded ball and escaped with a bogey.
Holmes and Thomas weren’t the only ones who struggled on greens. Adam Scott was right in the hunt until he missed six consecutive putts from under 10 feet that dropped him out of contention quickly.
Scott closed with a 76 and tied for seventh.
“You’re going to miss a few out there,” Scott said. “We saw some four-putts and three-putts, but you can’t miss every one for six straight holes. … If you look at J.B., why he won, he holed unbelievable putts and I didn’t today.”
Si Woo Kim had a 66, the low score of the final round, and finished third. Rory McIlroy almost got back in the game when he holed a bunker shot on the 16th to get within two shots, but he failed to birdie the par-5 17th and was fooled by the wind in making bogey on the final hole for a 69. He tied for fourth with Marc Leishman (68).
No one had a tougher time than Jordan Spieth, whose final round included a birdie, par, bogey, double bogey, triple bogey and quadruple bogey, the latter on the 10th hole when he hit four shots out of bunkers. He shot 81, his second-highest score as a pro.