Welcome to April
Time to buy some peanuts and crackerjacks. Baseball season is officially back, and so are the fans. Ballparks, here we come.
Baseball is Back!
Throwing Out the First Pitch for the 2021 MLB Season
Baseball season is officially back. The 2021 MLB Season throws out the first pitch this afternoon to lead off a return to the traditional 162-game season. Spring training is over. The players are ready. Fans are back in the stands. Let’s play ball!
3 Strikes: Storylines for the 2021 Season
1. The First Shot at Fan-Filled Games
Major League Baseball was only just beginning spring training in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic struck down the sports world. The delay until June brought never-before-seen challenges in trying to finish the season with regional schedules, 7-inning doubleheaders and empty arenas that have scarred sports atmospheres for over a year. Today, that changes. Most stadiums across the country will allow roughly 25-50 percent capacity this week. On Saturday, Globe Life Park — the home of the Texas Rangers — will be the first American pro sports event at full capacity (100%) in over a year.
2. Young Stars Ready to Swing Big
If you’ve been following Major League Baseball the last two years, you’ve undoubtedly seen a youth movement starting to take over. While names like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts have been the game’s biggest stars in their primes, a group of youngsters age 22-23 are emerging as the torch-bearers of the league moving forward. The main four — Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres), Juan Soto (Nationals), Ronald Acuna Jr. (Braves) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) — now have star power around them that could translate to a deep postseason run. If you like young and exciting baseball players who are breaking the unwritten rules, these four guys are must-see TV.
3. The Shift in the Balance of Power
Every offseason roster shuffle brings in a new era for new teams in the pennant race. That couldn’t be more true after an offseason of drama across the league. We’ll have our eyes on a number of new additions from AL to NL, including the biggest winners of the offseason — Mets, Cardinals, Blue Jays, White Sox and Padres. The additions of Francisco Lindor (Mets), Nolan Arenado (Cardinals), George Springer (Blue Jays) and an all-around haul in San Diego and Chicago could see these five teams atop their respective divisions.
Los Angeles Dodgers (+350)
New York Yankees (+550)
Chicago White Sox (+900)
San Diego Padres (+900)
Atlanta Braves (+1000)
New York Mets (+1000)
Yankees vs. Blue Jays (1:05 pm ET)
Let’s play ball!
Locking Down Lindor
New York Mets & Francisco Lindor Agree to 10-Year, $341 Million Extension
The deal we’ve been waiting for… The Mets and newly acquired SS Francisco Lindor finally agreed to a contract extension on the eve of Opening Day, a source told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The deal is reportedly worth $341 million over 10 years making Lindor the third-highest paid player in MLB history behind the Angels’ Mike Trout ($426 million) and the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts ($365 million). It’s also $1 million more than Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres) in total money despite four less years.
Mets Making Moves
When hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen purchased the Mets for $2.4 billion in September, he vowed to spend, and spend big, to return the team to glory. After acquiring Lindor from the Cleveland Indians this offseason, the four-time all-star still needed to sign an extension or walk next year in free agency. Cohen just delivered on his promise.
The signing also signals a new era in Mets baseball. Even the richest contract in the history of the franchise isn’t half as expensive as Lindor’s deal (David Wright, $138 million).
Cohen sent out a tweet last night that read, simply: “You’re welcome.”
Nets Nab Control of the East
Nets Take Sole Possession of 1st in the East for the First Time Since 2003
A franchise under construction, from New Jersey to a Brooklyn rebranding, finally looks like a finished product once again. Despite all the controversy surrounding Brooklyn on Wednesday with Kevin Durant’s Instagram meltdown and James Harden’s hamstring injury, the Nets beat the Rockets (120-108) to snatch the top spot in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 18 years. For reference, that 2003 club featured Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, and they went to the NBA Finals.
The Nets (33-15) stole the nod from the 76ers (32-15) with eight wins in their last ten games. Meanwhile, Philly has lost two straight without Joel Embiid, and Brooklyn could be destined for the No. 1 seed in the East come playoff time.
Other NBA Highlights
One day after an emergency plane landing that had players shaken up, the Jazz outlasted the Grizzlies (111-107) for their seventh straight win. They got it done on Wednesday without all-star Donovan Mitchell, and they still hold the best record in the NBA (36-11).
Devin Booker was the high-point man in the NBA on Wednesday night with 45 points (17-for-24, FG) in the Suns’ 121-116 win over the Bulls. That’s four in a row and eight of the last ten for a Phoenix team sitting 2nd in the West.
The Mavericks were winners over the Celtics last night (113-108) thanks to 36 points from a red-hot Luka Doncic. Doncic shot 11-for-15 in the game, including 7-for-11 from deep. It’s the third time this month he’s hit six-or-more trifectas while shooting above 50 percent.
It’s finally over. The Sabres ended an 18-game losing streak by firing six goals on the Flyers last night (6-1). Buffalo’s month-long blunder spanned 36 days, and their .271 win percentage is flirting with a top-10 all-time worst record in NHL history.
TENNIS: Osaka Swept in Miami Open
Maria Sakkari shocked the tennis world on Wednesday by sending Naomi Osaka packing from the Miami Open quarterfinals (6-0, 6-4). It was one of Osaka’s worst losses in her career, and it came at the event closest to her Florida hometown.
️ SOCCER: Germany Stunned in WC Qualifiers
North Macedonia shocked Europe with a 2-1 upset over Germany in the World Cup Qualifiers on Wednesday. Eljif Elmas struck the tiebreaker in the 83rd minute to hand the Germans their first loss in World Cup Qualifiers in 28 years.
The Final Four matchups in the men’s NCAA Tournament are set. No. 1 Baylor will take on No. 2 Houston and No. 1 Gonzaga will face No. 11 UCLA in Indianapolis on Saturday. So who has the advantage? (USA Today)
MLB is debuting a ball this season that’s supposed to decrease the distance of deep fly balls and by extension, quite possibly the volume of home runs. Yet the data from spring training appear to tell a different story. (The Ringer)
We’re a couple of weeks into the 2021 edition of free agency, and while quite a few players remain unsigned, we have a good idea of how each team fared. The grades are in. (Bleacher Report)
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Johnny On The Spot
Win or Lose, This Won’t Be The Last of UCLA’s Johnny Juzang
On the first day of April, only four teams remain in the NCAA Tournament. That means March is behind us, but the madness isn’t over… And neither is UCLA’s historic run.
The Bruins made NCAA Tournament history on Tuesday night as the second team ever to go from the First Four play-in round all the way to the Final Four. How they did it was as magical as any Cinderella story to date. This March Madness takeover by UCLA’s star player, a transfer turned tourney hero, has been one fun ride.
You might know next-to-nothing about Johnny Juzang, but you should get used to the name.
Juzang is an L.A. underdog story on all accounts. The son of black and asian parents, he rose to basketball stardom out of Studio City, California, just a short drive north of Hollywood. The 6-foot-6 guard with undeniable scoring abilities garnered top-30 college recruiting status in the 2019 class. He could go anywhere in the country, but he chose Kentucky and quickly vanished into the background.
In the 2020 season, the Wildcats’ star backcourt featured two guards now in the NBA — Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley — and Juzang’s freshman season was not what he had in mind. So he transferred home to play for UCLA, head coach Mick Cronin and a storied program that needed revitalized.
Sometimes being home, near family and friends, helps bring out the best in all of us.
Away from the one-and-done Kentucky challenges, Juzang had the opportunity to be “the guy” for the Bruins. Eventually, he would be.
Earlier this season, Juzang became the first UCLA player to score 50 percent of the team’s points since Reggie Miller (1996) when he scored 32 in a 64-61 win against Washington. That remarkable stat happened again on Tuesday when Juzang poured in 28 in UCLA’s 51-49 win over Michigan. In a game where buckets were hard to come by, Johnny on the spot carried his team to victory.
As is customary, a scoring guard catching fire in the NCAA Tournament is The Underdog formula. And if UCLA had a formula for winning, it’s getting the ball to Johnny.
Only a sophomore, Juzang is just getting started, and he’s getting better every game. He averaged just 10.9 points per game in his first ten games of the season, but that scoring output skyrocketed to 20.8 by late February. In the NCAA Tournament, he’s averaging 21.6 ppg and shooting 47.7 percent.
With the end of the road looming, the irony storyline runs deep. And there’s nothing more ironic than seeing Juzang lead UCLA to the Final Four while Kentucky sits at home after failing to make the tourney.
The Bruins’ underdog run began by sleighing 11-seed Michigan State and 6-seed BYU. A fortuitous bracket path led them to 14-seed Abilene Christian, and then came the real challenge — an overtime win against 2-seed Alabama and a two-point nail-biter to stun 1-seed Michigan.
One of the most storied programs in college basketball is back in the Final Four for the 18th time. But the irony storyline keeps going… Next up is undefeated Gonzaga taking aim at the first perfect season since Indiana’s 1976 team. But sometimes we forget the teams just before ’76. Say, a team with four undefeated runs to a national championship — UCLA (1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973).
Want more irony? The last two teams who entered the Final Four with a perfect season still intact were Kentucky (2015) and UNLV (1991). They both lost before reaching the title game, and both Final Fours were held in — you guessed it — Indianapolis.
In UCLA-Gonzaga, west coast legacies hang in the balance, and there’s only one player who can give the 11-seed underdog a fighting chance on Saturday. His name is one to remember.
Win or lose, this won’t be the last of Johnny Juzang.