Archive for HJ Sports

Meaningful Baseball in August

The lead is down to a half of a game. After leading the AL Central by as many as 11.5 games, the lead is down to simply one half of a game. With 42 games to go, the Minnesota Twins chalk up a 72-48 record while the Cleveland Indians come in at 72-49.

Chances like this don’t come around every year. We should know this as Twins fans since they have only made the playoffs one time since they opened Target Field. Teams rise and fall sometimes at the drop of a hat and may have short opportunities to go all in to try to win the World Series, or at least a playoff series.

The Twins have shown how good they can be. Their hitting is among the best, if not the best, in the entire MLB. They are going to shatter the team home run record and will be in the top five in almost every major hitting statistic.

However, the pitching is a slightly different story.

It is not like the pitching has been among the worst in the league. Minnesota is currently 8th in the MLB in team ERA which at a glance would seem respectable. However, when Houston is 4th and more importantly, Cleveland is 3rd, this becomes more of an issue.

At the deadline, fans pleaded with the organization to go get some pitching help. Go get a starting pitcher that can win a playoff game and an experienced reliever or two that can help the Twins in tight situations.

The response was weak. Minnesota traded for Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson, two above average relievers who certainly would help, but probably wouldn’t be the difference between a first round exit and a series win.

According to Aaron Gleeman on Twitter, the Twins bullpen has the worst Win Probability Added at -3.38 in baseball since the All-Star break. That is twice as bad as the next worst AL bullpen.

What about our new additions, surely they can’t be included in that? Well, after Romo blew a lead on Wednesday and Dyson blew a couple leads earlier this month, relievers Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Sam Dyson, Ryne Harper, Trevor May, Zach Littell, and Cody Stashak all have a negative WPA.

While it is disappointing that the Twins didn’t do more to compete this season, that doesn’t mean they are dead in the water. After surrendering the division lead for the first time since  April after losing three of four to Cleveland, the Twins currently are in first place again.

The reality is that the Indians are just really freaking good. After starting the season 29-30, Cleveland has stormed back going 43-19 over the past few months, winning at a 70% clip.

Now the Twins and Indians will be in a battle for the division right down to the wire. The winner gets the division and the right to play the Astros while the loser will have to play the Tampa Bay Rays in a one game wildcard for the right to play the Yankees.

There is a lot at stake in the last two months of the season. Usually by now fans have shifted their entire focus to Vikings football as there haven’t been meaningful baseball games in August. It should be exciting to see how things finish. I just wish the Twins were fully equipped to go to battle.

Watertown-Mayer volleyball standout, Paige Thibault commits to the University of Virginia

WATERTOWN – Whatever time of the year it may be, you can bet that Watertown-Mayer junior Paige Thibault is around the game of volleyball. After cracking the varsity team as an eighth-grader, Thibault has emerged as not only one of the top players in the area, but also the state.

Driven by the love of the game and hard work, Thibault has always had a goal of playing at the collegiate level. Her hard work and dedication throughout her impressive career has paid off, as she recently committed to play Division I volleyball at the University of Virginia.

“It feels awesome,” Thibault said about making her college decision. “There’s all these people congratulating me. A lot of people don’t know all the hard work that athletes put in that no one sees. To finally get recognized for it, and have it pay off, it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Thibault has helped the Royals reach back-to-back state tournaments over the past two seasons, but her work doesn’t stop there. Throughout the entire offseason, Thibault is working on her game and skillset, which is a big reason she will be able to continue her volleyball career after high school at the Division I level.

“It’s just exciting because I know how much she works in the offseason,” W-M coach Andrea Raser said. “She plays volleyball year-round. This is something that she’s wanted to do since I’ve known her. For her to actually get to do that, and have that come true because she worked hard for it, it’s awesome.”

Thibault certainly puts the time and effort into her craft. Whether in the weight room or on the court, Thibault strives to get better every day, not only for her, but for her team, as well.

“She works hard,” Raser said. “She’s in the weight room anytime. She doesn’t just do volleyball. She does everything else to be a better teammate. Not just because she wants great things, but she wants her team to do great things. She’s willing to put herself out there to make her team better.”

Thibault and Raser have been together since Thibault joined the varsity her eighth grade year. While she’s not only grown as a player over the past three seasons, Raser has also seen her mature more and more while becoming a go-to player and leader for the W-M volleyball program.

“Especially around here, part of our culture is that we look to leadership a lot,” Raser said. “She’s a leader on the court, but she’s also a huge leader off the court, as well. The girls can go to her if they have questions. They look up to her. Not just as a volleyball player, but as a person and a teammate, too.”

With three seasons of varsity experience already under her belt, Thibault is excited to have her future decided. While the idea of being recruited can be exciting, there’s a feeling of relief for Thibault after making her decision.

“It’s a big relief,” Thibault said. “I’ve been working through this process for a few years now. It’s just a weight off my shoulders knowing that I’ve committed. I don’t have to worry anymore about talking to more schools. It’s just kind of stressful.”

Thibault had her mindset on making a decision on a college sooner  rather than later. With her decision made, that frees her up to put all her focus on her high school season as the Royals are once again a top team in Class AA.

“Now, I can get more focused on my school seasons,” Thibault said. “I just won’t have the stress of everything weighing down on me all the time. I’ll be able to put 100 percent of my focus on the high school season.”

While Thibault has made her decision, there were some other choices that were appealing to her. Several other Division I schools out of state were recruiting her, but Virginia was simply the perfect fit for her.

“There were a few more out-of-state schools that I was looking at, like Loyola in Chicago and Stoneybrook in New York,” Thibault said. “It’s always heartbreaking to say no to other schools, but Virginia was just the perfect school for me. It was the perfect fit. Everything worked out well.”

While taking part in a camp, Thibault got to truly experience the University of Virginia. At the end of the day, it checked off everything Thibault wanted in a school, and the decision became clear.

“I love the coaches and the players,” Thibault said. “I got to meet them at a camp. The campus is beautiful. There’s lots of students there, and I kind of wanted that big college vibe that everyone wants to go to. It’s just what I was looking for.”

Another aspect that drew Thibault in is the idea of playing at Memorial Gym, which opened back in 1924. That makes Memorial one of the oldest gyms in the country.

“The gym was super cool,” Thibault said. “It’s actually one of the oldest gyms in the country. I get to play in the oldest gym, so that’s just super cool. That’s another piece of Virginia that I liked.”

With her decision made, Thibault now turns the page to her junior season. After the Royals lost several key seniors from last year’s team, Thibault will not only be a go-to hitter at the net this season for W-M, but will also need to be the leader on and off the floor. While that role might be new to Thibault, her coach has no worries that she’ll be able to handle it.

“She’s going to step into that role naturally,” Raser said. “The best thing about her is her consistency. She’s consistent in what she says, what she does, and how she plays. I think her leadership and consistency is going to be a huge thing for us this year.”

It may be a new role for Thibault this season, but she believes she is ready for it, too. After Janessa Berrios went down with an ACL injury last season, Thibault became a leader and go-to player for the Royals down the stretch. This year, she’ll begin the season as that go-to player and leader.

“It’s going to be awesome to take over the leadership role,” Thibault said. “I think I’m a good fit for that. We have a great team this year with great personality on the team. Even with our seniors gone from last year, I think we’re going to be very successful this year.”

Thibault’s mindset coming into this season is very clear. With new players coming in and stepping up, she knows she needs to do whatever she can to help the Royals make another run to the state tournament this season.

“I’m just working on being a good leader for my team this year,’ she said. “That’s my main focus. There’s the volleyball stuff too, but I’m focused on leading my team this year. I know that they’re going to need that from me.”

Follow Herald Journal Sports Editor Kip Kovar on Twitter.

Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports 

Vikings Football is Back

Training Camp for the Minnesota Vikings has been in full swing the past couple of weeks. The first preseason game takes place tonight as Minnesota travels to New Orleans to take on Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints.

The preseason is mostly boring to watch. The games mean nothing to the fans for the most part and the quality usually isn’t the best. Many of the positions are usually already determined and it consists mostly of players fighting for back end roster spots or a chance to be on the practice squad.

In honor of the Vikings releasing their first unofficial depth chart for the 2019 season ahead of tonight’s game, let’s take a look at some players to watch and position battles to keep in mind that will make watching a preseason game more interesting.

Perhaps the most exciting position battle to watch is at wide receiver. Even someone who hasn’t seen a football game before probably knows that Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are Minnesota’s bonafide studs. However, behind them, things get rather interesting.

The Vikings will keep four or five receivers on the roster. Currently, Jordan Taylor and Chad Beebe are slotted in as three and four while first round pick Laquon Treadwell is battling Jeff Badet, Brandon Zylstra and more to make the squad.

The once highly thought of draft choice has fallen out of favor in Minnesota and things might finally be nearing the end. Treadwell has been given every chance to succeed and yet finds himself in a battle just to make the team. Tonight could be a strong indicator as to which way the Vikings are leaning if Beebe, Taylor, Badet or Zylstra stand out. The writing could be on the wall for Treadwell.

Another battle going on is at the quarterback position. I think it is safe to say that Kirk Cousins is the starter, but there is some intrigue as to who will be his backup. Most teams only carry two QBs with one on the practice squad, so someone is likely to be cut.

First, we have the 5th year guy out of Oregon State in Sean Mannion who was signed in the offseason to vie for the backup spot. Second, we have Kyle Sloter who has been with the Vikings on the practice squad the past two seasons and has been in the good graces of the coaching staff during his time in purple. Lastly, we have the rookie QB out of Washington Jake Browning, who the Vikings feel very optimistic about.

With Cousins on the sidelines for much of the preseason, these three quarterbacks will have plenty of opportunities to show why they belong on the roster (or why they don’t).

The last area to watch that should be entertaining will be the new rookies on offense. The Vikings brought in two promising guys on offense early in the draft this past year. They used a second round pick on tight end Irv Smith Jr. out of Alabama and a third round pick on running back Alexander Mattison out of Boise State.

Smith Jr. and Mattison are almost guaranteed to have roles within the offense this year, albeit mostly as backups. Mattison is slotted in as the number two running back behind Dalvin Cook and Smith Jr. is currently behind Kyle Rudolph.

However, the rookies will get their chance to shine during the preseason and will receive plenty of valuable reps to help them start to figure out their place in the NFL. With Cook’s injury history and Rudolph’s age, Smith Jr. and Mattison will definitely play meaningful minutes over the course of the season.

Although it is only the preseason, I can’t be the only person to be excited that the NFL is back. And even though it is a Friday night, I probably will be glued in on the TV. Finally, Minnesota Vikings football is back.

This Week in Minnesota Sports

This week, we are taking a glance at all things happening in Minnesota sports.

Wild Fire GM after just 14 Months

After just 14 months as the General Manager of the Minnesota Wild, owner Craig Leipold has fired Paul Fenton. The search for a new GM has already begun as training camp is barely over a month away.

Fenton, known for his spectacular skill as a scout, did not live up to expectations in other aspects of the job. Leipold noted that Fenton lacked the skills necessary in “the organizational, the strategic, the management of people, the hiring and motivating of departments.” So basically every skill required to be a GM, Fenton was bad at.

There were plenty of red flags before and during Fenton’s tenure that should have given Leipold some warning. For example, Fenton went through the entire draft and free agency period without an analytics department. That’s not good.

He also blew a hole in the roster by trading away Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter and had soured many of the players, coaches and staff members. Leipold is currently calling all of his players, reassuring them of a collective vision, and looking for a GM with his pants around his ankles.

After 6 straight playoff appearances, the Wild currently are the laughing stock of the NHL.

Twins make Two Trades at Deadline

Leading the AL Central by three games over the Indians and only four games back of the Astros for the best record in the League, it is no surprise that the Twins were in the thick of things when it came to the trade deadline.

Minnesota was looking to bolster their pitching staff heading into the final stretch of the season. Although they weren’t able to add high end talent, they did add two valuable pieces to the bullpen.

First, the Twins added Sergio Romo, a 36 year old reliever with World Series credibility. He is a proven quality arm who has been pitching well this season and has a career ERA of 2.90. Romo is exactly the kind of reliever who can pitch in a high pressure playoff situation.

Second, right at the deadline, the Twins were able to acquire reliever Sam Dyson from the Giants. Dyson is 4-1 this season with a 2.47 ERA and is another reliable arm that should be able to help Minnesota make the final playoff push.

However, these moves seem to pale in comparison to what the other American League contenders did. The Astros were able to trade for starting pitcher Zach Greinke. Houston now has three of the top ten pitchers in the AL in their starting rotation.

The Indians also made a big splash, adding 49 home runs to their lineup in outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes.

The Twins aren’t in a position that they need to go all-in on just this season as their core should stay in tact for a while. However, as one of the best teams in baseball, there comes a point where it is worth trading prospects for players that can help you win now. The Twins missed on that front this season – let’s hope it doesn’t cost them a playoff series.

Fun Series with Yankees exposes Twins’ Weakness

This past Monday night, I attended my first Twins game this season. My buddy Luke invited me along and there wasn’t a second of hesitation. This is despite the fact that since I live in Litchfield, I knew that meant that I’d get home around midnight and would be a little tired Tuesday at work. Plus, my wife is out of the country right now, so what else did I have going on?

I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch two of the best teams in baseball kick off a series that might be a preview of a playoff matchup in the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins. I was not disappointed.

The game was about as thrilling as a Monday night game in the middle of July can be. In the top of the first, we witnessed the first triple play in Target Field history, which was only the 13th in franchise history. We also saw back-to-back home runs from Jorge Polanco and Nelson Cruz. Talk about a way to get a crowd energized from the get-go.

From there, there was a lot of action as both the Yankees and Twins filled the bases many times and hit a combined 8 home runs for the game. In the end, Minnesota pulled off the win 8-6.

Tuesday night was even more thrilling for fans. I went to bed with the Twins up 9-5 going into the 8th inning assuming our lead was safe… I should have known better. New York put up five runs in the 8th and the Twins answered with two of their own to put them up 11-10.

The Yankees put up another two runs to take a 12-11 lead and again the Twins matched to tie the game at 12 and send it into extra innings. New York scored two more in the top of the 10th inning to take the lead. In the bottom of the 10th, it took a diving catch by former Twin Aaron Hicks with the bases loaded and two outs to seal the deal, a thrilling end to an exciting game.

Wednesday was more of the same; an exciting game with an unfortunate result. The Twins lost 10-7.

This series proved a couple things to me and fans across the state of Minnesota. First, the Twins are a legitimate team. That shouldn’t have really been a question based on the season, but this slug-fest with the Yankees showed that the Twins should have their eyes set on advancing in the playoffs.

Second, they really do need some pitching help. Scoring 8 runs, 12 runs and 7 runs seems fine and dandy in July, but it’s less exciting when you give up 6 runs, 14 runs and 10 runs. Playoff baseball tightens up big time and good pitching really matters.

There are two reasons to build up a good farm system. First, to improve your team in the long-run when you suck. Second, to trade those assets for pieces to help you win a World Series when you are good.

The Twins have spent the past 10 years sucking and building up prospects. Now, those talented prospects like Sano, Buxton, Kepler, Rosario, Polanco, Berrios and more are in the MLB ready to make a playoff run. It’s time to sacrifice some assets in order to get players that can help them right now.

Lastly, good baseball is plain fun to watch. It is easy to rip on the sport when your team only sniffs 80 wins one time in 10 years and the year they do, it seems like a fluke. Fans are excited about what this team has accomplished thus far and optimistic about what they can do in the remainder of the season… although after losing this series to the Yankees, maybe fans are experiencing some flashbacks to the past 20 years of losing to New York.

The Twins currently sit at 62-40, holding a two game lead over the surging Cleveland Indians. The trade deadline is next Wednesday, so fans are expecting some new arms to be brought into the fold to help this team make a playoff push. And really, after having the worst record in the league over the past 10 seasons, they owe us. Trade for some pitchers and let’s play some baseball in October.

KOVAR: A look back on one of the greatest no decisions in baseball

Around the world of amateur baseball, the name Tony Kley is a familiar one. He was the 2015 Class C State Tournament MVP, and is arguably one of the greatest amateur baseball pitchers this state has ever seen.

Throughout Kley’s amateur baseball career, there’s been plenty of highlights; winning a state title in 2015 as a draftee with Plato, winning CRVL MVPs and Pitchers of The Year, and many more. When you’re as good as he is, there’s plenty of memorable moments.

In the years of covering the Winsted Wildcats, I have one memory of Kley that sticks out like no other. It wasn’t when he helped lead Plato to the state title. It wasn’t one of his many dominating seasons in the CRVL.

It was simply one game he pitched. In that game I’m talking about, he didn’t get the win on the mound. He also didn’t get the loss. Instead, he earned a no decision, and in my opinion, it’s one of the best no decision performances I’ve ever seen or heard about at any level in baseball.

Let’s set the scene. It’s the 2016 CRVL playoffs and the Winsted Wildcats are set to square off with the Mayer Blazers in a best-of-three-game series. There was no doubt who would get the start in Game 1 for Winsted, and you could even say there was little doubt of who would get the win with Kley on the mound. The Wildcats were one of the top teams in the CRVL all season long, while the Blazers were at the bottom of the league. It seemed like an easy win on paper for Kley and the Wildcats.

Well, on the mound, it was an easy matchup for Kley, as he dominated the Blazers throughout. The only problem was, the Wildcats couldn’t score a run either.

In Game 1 against the Blazers, Kley had a no-hitter through eight innings. That no-hit bid was finally broken up after a single by Tanner Luebke.

It was the only hit Kley allowed in the game. A one-hit shutout should be good enough to get a win, right? Wrong.

After nine innings of play, Winsted and Mayer were still scoreless as the Wildcats were unable to pick up a single run to back up Kley’s dominant performance on the mound.

After dominating the Blazers through nine innings, Kley came out for the 10th inning and looked even stronger.

The Wildcats failed to score in the bottom of the 10th once again, ending Kley’s day as Brady Jenkins came out to pitch in the 11th.

Kley’s final stat line looked like this. He pitched 10 innings, allowed just one hit, struck out 21 batters, and still didn’t get the win.

Looking back at it now, it’s still crazy to think that those numbers weren’t good enough to get Kley a win. Instead, he had to settle for a no decision.

If that isn’t a weird enough ballgame, here’s how the game ended. The Blazers and Wildcats were still scoreless entering the bottom of the 12th inning. Mayer still had just one hit to their credit, and in the bottom half of the inning, the Wildcats finally pushed the winning run across that Kley deserved.

How did that winning run score? It wasn’t a walk-off hit. It wasn’t an error. It wasn’t even a live play.

With the bases loaded, Cullen Schultz was hit by a pitch, scoring Matt Elsenpeter and giving Winsted a 1-0 victory in 12 innings.

Kley had one of the most dominant pitching performances of the season for the Wildcats in that game, and they just couldn’t scratch across a run. Whenever Kley is on the mound, you have to love your odds of winning a game if you can score just a single run, as Kley was capable of shutting down any lineup with his electric stuff. It just wasn’t in the cards for him this time.

Looking back on that game three years later, it’s still crazy to think that a guy can throw a one-hit shutout in 10 innings with 21 strikeouts, and not get the win. I guess that’s part of the craziness and beauty of baseball and why we all love the game. After all these years, and covering hundreds of other sporting events, I can vividly remember a no decision in an amateur baseball game.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter.

Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports