MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers

There is a lot that comes with having Yasiel Puig in your team. Yasiel Puig is not like most players. As LA Magazine published, becoming Yasiel Puig, Baseball Supernova was not an easy process. It took money and guts and tears and all sorts of help, if you want to call self-interested crooks “help.”

Being Yasiel Puig means attracting attention. It means, in its own way, loving attention. The Los Angeles Dodgers are much better off with Yasiel Puig than without him, I’m sure the 24 other men in the clubhouse would agree.

Already this season we’ve seen the bad side of Yasiel Puig. The off-field stuff and the lateness and the circus that follows the previous transgressions everywhere they go, blowing them up and inflating them beyond the true impact that have on his teammates.

For the rest of his career, people will question Yasiel Puig’s motives, his maturity, and his commitment to winning. This will go on for a long time because Yasiel Puig is going to have a long, long career.

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The truth is an elusive animal in late April around the NFL kingdom, a prized commodity few are motivated to share. Each year the posturing prior to the draft is rooted in deception, with the gamesmanship coming through leaked rumors meant to divert attention away from the real course of action.

That makes for a turbulent and blurry time. It’s all in good fun for you, the league viewer and consumer, because the rumor business is what drives the draft, along with the stereotypical finger guns blazing image of a general manager fleecing his peers. Kevin Costner forever.

Two extra weeks have made the rumor mud slinging even longer and greasier this year, and we’re about to enter the heart of it. The proverbial “how do you separate the signal from the noise?” isn’t the right question here. No, instead go with this: is there a signal at all?

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On Sunday night the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning were tied up at one in the second period of a fast-paced game. Down 2-0 in the series, the Lightning badly needed a win. And, it looked like they had just opened up a 2-1 lead on a chaotic flurry of a play when it happened: the ‘ol “safe” call from the ref. No goal.

Francis Charron ruled that Alex Killorn had interfered with Carey Price, and the game changed. Bolts captain Steven Stamkos took a knee to the grey matter shortly after (he returned in the third), the Habs scored not too long after that, and the Lightning are now down 3-0. It felt like the game swung on the moment below:

It’s never fun when reffing is the focal point in the midst of great playoff action, but it’s not so bad when they get the controversial call in question correct, as I believe they did here. Read the rest of this entry »

Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg

Ever since Chelsea were pitted against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League semi-final draw, coverage of both clubs has tended to focus on one man. Little wonder. The story of Thibaut Courtois, owned by Chelsea but enjoying a phenomenal season on loan at Atlético, would have been compelling enough even without the contractual clause which threatened to stop him from taking part.

The terms of the player’s loan agreement state that his parent club must be financially compensated – reportedly to the tune of £2.5m – every time that he appears against them in a competitive match. Atlético’s president, Enrique Cerezo, initially suggested that Courtois simply would not be able to play, saying: “it’s a number we cannot afford”.

But then Uefa intervened, ruling that the clause was unenforceable. The governing body “strictly forbids any club to exert, or attempt to exert, any influence whatsoever over the players that another club may (or may not) field in a match”.

Either way, it is telling that Chelsea would place such a high value on Courtois’s presence in the first place. They rate the 21-year-old very highly indeed. Increasingly, so does the rest of the world.

Courtois has been with Atlético now for three seasons, and his performances only continue to improve. He has kept 19 clean sheets in 32 La Liga games this season, plus a further four in the Champions League. His efforts in the latter competition have often been eye-catching, from the stunning reflex stop he made to deny Milan’s Andrea Poli in the last-16 to his second-leg shut-out of Lionel Messi et al during Atlético’s quarter-final win over Barcelona.

There are those who would already name Courtois as the best goalkeeper in the world. The former Atlético striker Radamel Falcao did so last November, while Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – who played for both the Spanish club and Chelsea during his career – recently claimed that only Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer could compare.

The Dutchman was prepared to rank Courtois above the man who will start in goal for Chelsea on Tuesday night. Petr Cech was once considered to be the best in the world himself, but lately seems to have slipped out of the conversation. He knows very well that he is likely to face a battle to keep his job when Courtois’s loan deal expires in the summer.

Impatience for change is building, as it tends to do where young talent is involved. Cech’s qualities were called into question after he made costly mistakes on two of Paris Saint-Germain’s three goals during the first-leg of Chelsea’s own Champions League quarter-final last month. The next day’s edition of the Daily Star newspaper carried the unequivocal headline: “TIME FOR KEEPER TO CECH OUT!”

It was a preposterous demand – and one that came to look even more so after Cech’s clean sheet had helped Chelsea to overturn the result in the second leg. The goalkeeper has made mistakes this season, not least those in Paris, but for the most part he has enjoyed a very solid campaign. In fact, from a statistical standpoint, he’s been outstanding.

Cech has kept 16 clean Premier League sheets so far in 2013-14, three more than any goalkeeper in the division, and is conceding at a rate of just 0.71 goals per game. Nor is this simply a case of him benefitting from the quality of Chelsea’s defence. According to NBC’s stats, Cech’s save percentage for the season stands at 76.7%. Only Vito Mannone, on 77.9%, has done better.

Such achievements are hardly a flash in the pan. Cech had the Premier League’s best save percentage last season, too, when he also made more stops than any other goalkeeper among England’s top four teams. He has kept a club record 219 clean sheets so far in his 10 years at Chelsea, and has shown little sign of slowing down.

But Cech knows better than most that he cannot afford to rest on his laurels. After all, he was a young upstart himself once, arriving at Chelsea as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the summer of 2004 – after a short loan spell at Rennes – and immediately snatching the starting goalkeeper’s job away from Carlo Cudicini.

During an interview with Sport magazine last summer, Cech recalled the mood of supporters at his Premier League debut – a home game against Manchester United. “I remember coming out for the warm-up, and you see there is a huge reception for Carlo,” said Cech. “Everyone is singing his name, and then the line-ups come out and I think the supporters were like: ‘Who is that guy?’ I knew I had to really deliver if I really wanted to keep my place.”

That he did, playing his part in a 1-0 victory over United and never relinquishing his spot thereafter. Cudicini, previously considered to be one of the better goalkeepers in the Premier League, would not be a full-time starter again until he joined LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer almost a decade later.

Cech has no intention of imitating the Italian’s career path. At 31 years old, he knows that he still has plenty of good years left in him, and does not want to waste them sitting on a bench. Indeed, one of players he looked up to most of all during those early years in English football was Nigel Martyn, a man that Cech admired precisely because of the way he kept performing to a high level even as he closed in on his 40th birthday.

Long before Martyn, though, Cech’s first true goalkeeping idol was Edwin van der Sar. “I remember when Ajax started playing with [him] basically as a libero,” said Cech during his interview with Sport. “Everyone was like: ‘Wow, they are playing like this with their goalkeeper!’

“But then you realise that this was the way forward – a goalkeeper shouldn’t just be in the goal to catch the ball when it comes to him. He is an extra player, he can see things from the back, he can pass the ball. Players don’t just kick the ball for the sake of it, so why should a goalkeeper? You always want to find the solution that enables you to retain the ball, and you always need to know how to control the space behind the defenders.”

It is a style that Cech has sought to emulate in his career, advancing high up the pitch when his teams are in possession. It is also one area in which he might claim an edge over Courtois. In a piece for the Guardian earlier this month, Sid Lowe noted that Barcelona, linked with a bid for the Belgian, had distanced themselves from such a move by raising concerns about his ability to distribute the ball with his feet.

Then again, there is always a fair bit of gamesmanship where potential transfers are concerned. And a Barcelona approach for Courtois would surely be rejected in any case. If Chelsea were to even consider allowing the player to leave, it would likely only be in a deal with Atlético, and presumably one that saw Diego Costa move in the opposite direction. Even that might not be sufficient.

Chelsea, though, are going to have to face up to some difficult decisions this summer. Courtois has already expressed impatience at his situation, suggesting that he would like to know where his long-term future lies. With just two years left on his contract at Chelsea, he might soon be in a position to start making ultimatums.

But Cech has an opportunity over the next fortnight to prove just how much he has left to offer. A clear-eyed look at his performances this season suggests that it might be more than he often gets credit for.

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It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which losing six games in a row could be positive, but with the Toronto Maple Leafs currently stuck in a four-way tie for the two Wild Card playoff entries, the half dozen straight defeats that led the team to this point seem especially horrific.

On Tuesday night, Toronto suffered its most recent failure, losing 5-3 to the St. Louis Blues. Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf struggled mightily throughout the game, not unfairly tagged as a primary accomplice to his team being outshot 49-25.

It was a bad day at the office, and as a result, the defenseman opted out of his obligation to speak to the media following the loss. This, to the many pundits who weighed in following Phaneuf’s no-show, represented an atrocious lack of leadership, and partly explained Toronto’s recent struggles.

Things came to a head on Wednesday when Phaneuf phoned in to a local sports talk radio show to explain himself, after one of the hosts ranted about the player’s notable absence following his poor performance.

To be completely honest with you, I was emotional about the game. I didn’t want to let my emotions get the best of me. I feel bad about not being available. At that point in time, I was disappointed in the way that I played and I was emotional after the game. That’s why I did not talk.

As sports fans, we grow to accept the flawed “conventional wisdom” force fed to us by years of following our favorite players and teams through newspapers, television and radio.

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As some of you may be aware, I recently started a new gig here at theScore that sees me write/talk about the NBA as a whole on a full-time basis, so while I won’t be able to provide RaptorBlog posts and general Raptors commentary with nearly the same regularity, I hope you’ll continue to read/listen along with me this season (You can read my season preview here and my predictions here).

As for the Raptors, what I’m going to try to do is take some time every weekend to post my wide ranging thoughts on the week that was in Raps Land, in a similar fashion to how I usually wrote my “Thoughts On the Game” posts. Again, I’m hoping you’ll stop by on weekends to get the little bit of Raptors ranting I’m still able to do on a regular basis.

Other than, most of my Raptors thoughts and observations can be found through twitter, where I’m prone to my fair share of passionate Raps-related tirades.

As for the coming season, I’m predicting a 40-42 season for Toronto that results in a No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, though if Cathal Kelly’s Toronto Star report proves correct, Masai Ujiri and MLSE may blow things up before such a mediocre finish is allowed to fully take rot.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s source indicates a 45-day deadline for the Raptors, which would take us to December 13. The Raps play Philadelphia in the 21st game of the season that night, and I’ve got them as a 10-11 (7-14 worst case scenario, 12-9 best case scenario) team at that point, so the question is really what will Ujiri find acceptable to continue with, and what’s his line in the sand of ‘we can’t go on like this’?

I also feel like with the Honeymoon period that exists between Raptors fans and Ujiri, he wouldn’t have lost any support had he decided to blow things up as soon as he got here to put this team in a better position to properly take a strategic step backwards this season, so I don’t quite understand the point of now reportedly setting a hard deadline on whether to tank or not if that’s they’ve wanted all along.

In any event, a Raptors season opener wouldn’t feel quite right without at least a little drama (last year it was DeRozan’s extension), so let’s get this intriguing season of questions under way, shall we?

I know Stripes and Drake are ready…are you?

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For the first time ever in a UFC video game, EA Sports’ upcoming UFC title will feature playable female characters, headlined by UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and top bantamweight contender Miesha Tate.

“This is a great moment for videogames and for Mixed Martial Arts,” said Dean Richards, General Manager, EA SPORTS UFC. “In our commitment to delivering the most realistic fighting experience ever achieved, we wanted to represent the full spectrum of talent and diversity of all the fighters in the sport, including women who have become an undeniable force to be reckoned with.”

Programming note: Fin.

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I’m not one for long goodbyes, but as previously mentioned in our last show, TBJ and theScore are going in separate directions, meaning this post marks the end of our tenure here.

Thank you to theScore for the opportunity to make something that shows just how much fun the NBA can be. And thank you most of all to anyone who’s listened, watched, read, commented, emailed or in any other way been even a small part of TBJ over the past three years. It has been awesome.

Please follow all of our Twitter accounts to see what the future holds. We’re very excited for our next step, you will be too and the season starts soon, so don’t worry too much.

Bye for now.