The Blue Jays have played themselves back into the race

Toronto is playing well, of course. The Rays are surprisingly a legitimately good team. The Orioles always stick around. The Red Sox have arguably the most talent of the group. Finally, the Yankees have been hot all season, and Aaron Judge doesn’t look like he’ll slow down. The AL East is going to be fun to watch this summer, and the Blue Jays are making sure they’ll be a part of it.

MLB has juiced baseballs before. The steroid era sure seems like it was the era of steroids, but it’s still probably improperly named, since there were plenty of other aspects at play that caused offense to rise: smaller ballparks, multiple expansions in the decade that (temporarily) diluted the talent pool in MLB, and juiced baseballs as proven by studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and written about by Jay Jaffe.

Now, we might be back to an era where the ball is livelier, and it’s because of a change in the design. That’s what Ben Lindbergh and a guy who blocked me on Twitter after I told him to log off are saying, anyway. A change to the seams has reduced air resistance on baseballs, and between that and the sudden desire of so many players to hit fly balls, we’ve got ourselves a whole bunch of dingers we didn’t have even just a few years ago.

There are some issues here, though. The pair even admit that this is a central question we can’t quite figure out, and also that some of this could just be inconsistency in the batches of balls themselves the fact they haven’t been able to test any balls from this year limits the scope, too. And if there was a change, was it intentional, or just one of those things that happens when the manufacturing process changes?

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It’s not like there’s a player on an 80-homer pace.

The rest of them? Jose Altuve is incredible. Carlos Correa is incredible. George Springer is incredible. Brian McCann and Evan Gattis complement each other extraordinarily well. Josh Reddick is just OK, but that’s been his thing for a while.

It’s not like there’s a player on an 80-homer pace. It’s not like Altuve is hitting .440, which would be absurd, even for him. These are quality players providing quality production.

And with all that written, it’s time to get to the part where the Astros can get better. Not in a .800 winning percentage sense, but in terms of building a quality team with less of the postseason left to chance.

The trade deadline. All of those problems will either be fixed or the Astros will be open to fixing them. Have problems with the back of the rotation, still? Here’s Jose Quintana. Or Johnny Cueto. Or Quintana and Cueto. Is Beltran still disappointing? Here’s Yonder Alonso, who is like the Marwin Gonzalez of first base. There are so many different ways the Astros can go.

Previously, Chicago was behind the Mets on our scale, and ahead of the group of 23 other non-villainous teams that the Padres, Pirates, and Brewers were meant to represent on this wheel. The whole explanation for all that can be found here.

All the above isn’t quite enough to move them past the Mets, given the Mets are still owned by the Wilpons and they’re still causing us to all write about Tim Tebow. (Would you people please lose interest in him? Man.) On the other hand, the Mets are basically the most pathetic team in baseball right now. Everyone is hurt and the manager was, at one point, barred from discussing any injuries, and instead had to say things like a start was being skipped because of the weather.

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Joe Maddon & Cubs acted quickly to get rid of Miguel Montero before things got worse

Miguel Montero walked into the Chicago Cubs clubhouse Monday, saw his wide locker alongside veterans John Lackey and Jon Lester, and yelled to a clubhouse attendant that it took him 12 years to earn that spot. Two days later, it took him five minutes to lose it.

Montero, who was designated for assignment Wednesday, is what Cubs manager Joe Maddon calls a Stage 5 player. Stage 5 guys, Maddon says, are usually the best types of players to have on your team because all they want to do is win. Behind them are Stage 4 players, consumed with making as much money as possible, and Stage 3 guys, focused on staying in the league for as long as they can.

On the other other hand, maaaaaaybe the Cubs shouldn’t panic just yet. Maybe they’re still one of the very best teams in baseball, if not the best team. Sure, they were just swept by the Padres, and there’s no silver lining to that boring cloud. Yes, they’re under .500, and, yes, they’ve been outscored on the season, nearly a year after a thousand drooling features about their ludicrous run differential. But they’re also 2? games back, with 110 games to go.

This isn’t to suggest that SI is being hypocritical, or that Verducci is out of touch. Home runs are up, up, up. Strikeouts are up, up, up. The sport is turning into whiffwhiffwhiffwhiffwalkdingerwhiff, and it’s different than what we’re used to.

For all its stodginess, though, baseball has changed plenty over its history. Home Run Baker got his nickname because he lead the league in homers for four straight seasons, but his career high was 12 homers. When he retired, he was teammates with Babe Ruth, who sloughed off dinger spores and reshaped the league in his own image.

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Baseball defense still lives.

Earlier in the afternoon, Cal State Fullerton and Oregon State met for a battle that ended 6-5 in the Beavers’ favor, thanks in large part to Oregon State’s defense pulling through on a pair of spectacular defensive plays that prevented certain Titans base-running shenanigans. Baseball defense still lives.

Anyway, the evening tilt between No. 4 overall national seed LSU and Florida State promised the most compelling action of the CWS’ opening weekend, as the Tigers and Seminoles matched well at the plate and their pitching staffs are deep enough to throw themselves into panzer strikes for innings on end. This thing could have been a marathon.

In the top of the first, FSU’s Dylan Busby got things started with a two-run slam into left center where Fullerton’s Timmy Richards had previously bashed a three-run homer of his own in the afternoon game. That stretch of the outfield wall runs notoriously deep, especially so since the wind traditionally blows in from direct center at TD Ameritrade. No bother, though, when you’ve got bats as big as FSU’s. That could have demoralized the Tigers into submission.

Maddon’s main concern Wednesday was that his young players would internalize exactly what they heard come out of Montero’s mouth the night before, when the catcher publicly criticized starter Jake Arrieta for his slow delivery leading to Washington’s seven stolen bases. The decision to cut Montero Wednesday afternoon wasn’t aimed at preventing friction between the catcher teammates like Arrieta or Anthony Rizzo; it was meant to send a clear message to the young core of Cubs who witnessed the fallout.

The Cubs in their current state have plenty of key Stage 2 players, from Willson Contreras to Albert Almora and Javier Baez to Addison Russell. Rookies Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, Mike Zagunis and Montero’s replacement, Victor Caratini, will be there soon.

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These 4 heroic Florida fans are committed to seeing the Gators advance to the College World Series

The college baseball tournament is annually plagued by foul weather, and 2017 has been no different. The skies have been particularly troublesome in Florida for the super regional weekend, with Gainesville undergoing a four-hour delay on Saturday and both Tallahassee and Gainesville currently under dangerous weather delays. Tallahassee, for its part, has been delayed nearly seven hours.

This inconveniences everyone involved in these games, most pertinently players and coaches, who have to tame the emotions of in-game preparedness to the tedium of sitting around and waiting for the weather to clear.

A Trekkie (or is it Trekker?) made the initial attack by pulling off some moves that you’d normally do at a wedding, while the Star Wars side had a breakdancing Jedi, making this totally unfair from the start.

By the end of this, the crowd decided Star Wars was the better franchise. But I call shenanigans. If we’re going to do this for real as in, not set up to be lopsided where one side has an actual breakdancer we need a dance-off among Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Felicity Jones, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, LeVar Burton, Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, and Zoe Saldana. The winner will be decided by an anthropomorphic Rotten Tomatoes meter.

The Cubs and Diamondbacks each had a worthy starter at short in roughly half of their previous 20 seasons. Fair enough. But neither of them stumbled into even one All-Star-caliber season, according to WAR.

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Bruins’ Tuukka Rask pulled from loss to Penguins with migraine

As the season shifts from bad to worse for the slumping Bruins, goalie Tuukka Rask played only half of Sunday’s blowout loss to the Penguins because of a migraine.

Rask was pulled midway through the second period because he was not feeling well, the Bruins announced. He did not return.

Rask revealed to reporters after the 5-1 loss he was suffering from migraine symptoms, something he’s dealt with in-game previously.

Two Washington goals in the first 11:32 of the first period set the stage for the avalanche that was to follow.

Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, winner of 14 straight starts, was pulled after allowing five goals on 19 shots.

Columbus, which entered averaging an NHL-best 2.03 goals against, hadn’t given up more than three goals in a game since Nov. 12. Only twice has a team scored more than four against the Blue Jackets this season.

The power-play unit, which also led the league at 28.3 percent during the streak, failed to score on five chances against the Caps.

While it won’t make the NHL history book, the streak was fun while it lasted.

Columbus rode it to the league’s best record, 27-6-4 and 58 points, as the season nears its halfway point.

It’s the first time the Blue Jackets failed to earn a point in 18 games.

Brian Elliott, G ( Signed with Flyers ) — Elliott was having a brutal first season in Calgary but became one of the NHL’s hottest goalies down the stretch, salvaging his contract year. A poor playoff showing cost him some dollars (2 years, $5.5 million), so Philly gets a bargain to platoon with Michal Neuvirth while hoping Elliott, 32, might recapture the consistency that made him a stalwart with the Blues.

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Meeting Alex Ovechkin dream come true for UAE women’s prodigy

Meet Fatima Al Ali.

She’s from the United Arab Emirates and is a hockey prodigy at age 26. Her favorite team is the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin is her idol.

On Tuesday night, the phenom met the Russian superstar as part of Hockey Is For Everyone month in the NHL.

Her reaction to meeting Ovechkin is the kind of thing that makes you a sports fan:

The Washington Post reports former Caps great Peter Bondra met Al Ali during on a November trip to Abu Dhabi, where she plays for the national women’s team.

Crosby joined very rare company when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the Penguins captain as the 2017 playoff’s most valuable player. Following the Penguins winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup, Crosby was again awarded the Conn Smythe, making him one of three players ever (Mario Lemieux, Bernie Parent) to win the award in consecutive years.

Canada’s recent dominance atop the hockey world has coincided with Crosby’s reign as the game’s best player. Most recently, he captained Canada to gold at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the rebooted best-on-best tournament that featured perhaps the most talented pool of players in an international tournament in hockey history.

Crosby scored three goals and added seven assists in six tournament games, including two assists in Canada’s gold medal victory against Team Europe.

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Rangers extension makes Alain Vigneault NHL’s third-highest paid coach, report says

The New York Rangers have signed coach Alain Vigneault to an extension through the 2019-20 season that reportedly will make him the third-highest-paid coach in the NHL.

With the Rangers (31-17-1) in fourth place in the Metro Division with 63 points, the extension is as much about expectations as it is a reward for Vigneault, according to the New York Daily News.

The expectation: Bring the Rangers their first Stanley Cup since 1994, which would be Vigneault’s first as a coach.

CTV is now reporting a Calgary judge has ruled in favor of Heatley, awarding him $4.167 million from Presidential Suites Inc., and $2.348 million from Waterfront Development Inc., sums that he invested in the companies respectively that he was supposed to be paid back 100 percent.

Perhaps adding legs to Heatley’s lawsuit is that his former Senators teammate, Chris Phillips, is also suing McAlpine and his parents for millions listing those same real estate companies, citing unapproved real estate investments.

Heatley played 317 games for the Senators, scoring 180 goals, including back-to-back 50-goals seasons in 2006 and 2007. Ottawa reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 with Heatley.

But now is as fair a time as any to ask if Draisaitl is a product of McDavid, or really a player capable of driving play on his own accord, although, in the broader scheme of things, the question really doesn’t matter.

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Should the Rangers buy, sell, or stay at the MLB trade deadline?

If the Rangers wanted to blow it up, they could blow it up spectacularly. Yu Darvish to the Dodgers for all of the prospects. Cole Hamels and money to the Brewers for most of the prospects. Adrian Beltre to the Red Sox for a plurality of the prospects. They could sail into August with a fortified farm system, and all they would have to give up are their hopes and dreams.

However, this brings us to the Greater Theory of Rebuilding and a comic-sans chart that I made a couple years ago for the White Sox.

The answer to this depends entirely on one thing: How much money are the Tigers sending along with Verlander? The 34-year-old is owed $28 million in each of the next two seasons, plus whatever he’s still owed from the 2017 season. If the Tigers want to chip in after determining that owing, say, two-thirds as much money while getting a prospect back is better than watching Verlander’s trade value potentially fall lower, then hey, there’s your answer. If the Tigers’ response is that they want all of the money taken care of by Milwaukee but in return they’ll reduce their expectations for a prospect return, then that’s probably something that could work, too!

If the Tigers want to play that in-the-middle game they’re so fond of in other areas of team development, and demand that they pay nothing or very little while the Brewers give up a major prospect in exchange for a Verlander who doesn’t look like anything like the Verlander who signed this deal to begin with, then, well, we’re all wasting our time a little bit here, aren’t we?

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Kings’ Drew Doughty calls Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk ‘pretty dirty player’ after elbow to chin

Flames rookie Matthew Tkachuk’s chin-high elbow on the Kings’ Drew Doughty in Sunday’s game likely will get the league’s attention.

The late first-period elbow knocked Doughty down and out for the rest of the period. He returned in the second period of a 5-2 Flames win but afterward offered a not-so-flattering assessment of the rookie’s play.

He’s a pretty dirty player, that kid, Doughty told reporters, via L.A. Kings Insider. To be a rookie and play like that is a little surprising. I don’t know exactly what happened because I got hit in the head, but I thought he elbowed me. … Whatever it was, it hurt pretty bad, and it’s going to hurt for a bit.

The Canadiens collected Guy Lafleur at No. 1 overall, then added Larry Robinson at No. 20. They hoarded draft picks back then, when other teams had little use for them. The Canadiens had three firsts and three seconds that year, and even if the other players combined for less than 800 games, using those six picks to select two of the best players of the 1970s and Hockey Hall of Fame members worked out pretty well.

The Predators stocked half their defense corps for several seasons with one draft. Ryan Suter (No. 7), Kevin Klein (No. 37) and Shea Weber (No. 49) were one of the best hauls from the deepest draft in NHL history.

This is another tough one, because the Devils selected a goaltender named Martin Brodeur in 1990, and that class also included six other players who played at least 200 NHL games. The next year, the Devils landed one of the greatest defensemen of all time, Scott Niedermayer (No. 3) and Brian Rolston, who also played more than 1,200 games and had 761 points, eight picks later at No. 11. Apologies to the likes of Valeri Zelepukin, Jaroslav Modry and Mike Dunham, but Rolston was a very nice sidekick to Niedermayer in the Class of ’91.

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