by Julian Spivey
The 2021 World Series is going to be a matchup between the veteran Houston Astros, making its third World Series appearance in the last five seasons, and the surprising Atlanta Braves who didn’t have a record above .500 this season until almost mid-August.
The Astros won seven more games during the regular season than the Braves, but I believe the World Series matchup could be closer than some people think.
Let’s break it down position-by-position and then I’ll make my prediction afterward.
Catcher is the weakest position offensively for both the Astros and the Braves, but if I had to pick one catcher to get an important at-bat during the series it would be Travis d’Arnaud, who was a Silver Slugger in the shortened 2020 season before being hurt and missing a lot of 2021. Defensively both are strong when it comes to calling games and stopping balls from getting to the backstop, but where Martin Maldonado shines for the Astros is at cutting down base stealers, which is something d’Arnaud struggled with during the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. I’ll give the Astros the slim edge based on this ability.
If you’re a National League fan mostly it may be surprising just how close this matchup is between 2020 National League M.V.P. Freddie Freeman for the Braves and Yuli Gurriel for the Astros, after all Gurriel is just the ‘Stros fourth most famous infielder. Gurriel won the batting title in the American League this season hitting .319. He’s hit .333 in the postseason thus far and driven in eight runs. Freeman will give the Braves the slight edge, however, because he’s the team leader and is more likely to have a bigger impact in the lineup during the series. The Astros could win the title with Gurriel playing poorly. The Braves likely can’t if Freeman doesn’t hit. Freeman is hitting .294, with three homers, six RBI and 21 total bases in 10 games this postseason, which is kind of amazing given how historically bad his first two games of the NLCS were when he struck out seven times in eight ABs.
This positional breakdown is awfully close too, just like the two previous ones. Jose Altuve for the Astros and Ozzie Albies for the Braves may be the best second basemen in their prospective leagues, but both may be playing a bit under their capabilities this postseason with Altuve hitting .200 and Albies hitting .262. Despite Albies hitting better the ‘Stros are getting more run production out of Altuve with a team leading 15 runs scored this postseason and three homers and seven RBI – a lot of that has to do with Altuve drawing more walks than Albies. Both two-baggers play excellent defense. I wouldn’t be shocked if Albies has a better series than Altuve, but I’m going to give Altuve the edge here because this big stage is old hat for him and brand new for Albies.
I’ve seen some people giving the Astros the edge here with multiple-time All-Star Alex Bregman, but I, once again, believe it’s awfully close. Braves third baseman Austin Riley had a much better season than Bregman did in 2021 hitting 41 points higher and blasting 33 homers and driving in 107 runs, with Bregman missing a bunch of time with injury. Their numbers during the postseason have been equal. This is a position that I would probably say is a push, but that’s kind of a cop out, so I’ll give the edge to Riley and the Braves based on his season.
Eddie Rosario had one of the all-time greatest LCS performances in baseball history against the Dodgers and is hitting .474 for the postseason with three homers, 11 RBI and 30 total bases. It’s hard to compare his season to that of Astros left fielder Michael Brantley as Rosario missed the bulk of the season due to injury. Brantley was second in the A.L. in batting average hitting .311, second only to his teammate Yuli Gurriel. I’m going to ride the extremely hot hand of Rosario here and give the Braves the edge, but there’s a huge caveat here. When the Astros visit the Braves at Truist Park in Atlanta for games three, four and a potential fifth game it’ll likely be Yordan Alvarez in left field instead of Brantley and Alvarez is the scariest hitter in that Astros lineup to me right now. Alvarez will be designated hitter when the games are at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
The Braves have the edge here simply because they have one guy manning the position the entire series in Adam Duvall, who led the N.L. in RBI this season with 113 and had a career high 38 home runs. While Duvall’s power numbers are great, he doesn’t hit for much average batting .228 during the season and has hit .229 this postseason. However, during the postseason his power numbers aren’t as high compared to his teammates four RBI (fifth on the team) and one homer. The Astros have a platoon going with rookie Chas McCormick, who’s already one of the better defenders in center in baseball, and speedster Jose Siri. Their spot in the lineup is probably the only time Braves pitching will get to breathe, along with Martin Maldonado.
Joc Pederson was one of the hottest hitters in the postseason during the NLDS against the Milwaukee Brewers and the first two games of the NLCS against the Dodgers hitting three homers for the Braves. He started the postseason as Atlanta’s no. 1 pinch hit option off the bench but took over right field when Jorge Soler tested positive for Covid-19. Pederson’s production has slowed down since the first two games of the NLCS, almost as if his good juju was transferred to Eddie Rosario, who’s been lights out ever since. For the Astros, Kyle Tucker has been one of the leading offensive producers this postseason with four homers and 15 RBI, both of which lead the team, and is hitting .275. He also has a team leading three stolen bases in the postseason.
Most of the time the American League team is going to have the edge at DH simple because they’re used to having one the entire season. The Astros will get to utilize Yordan Alvarez at DH for a possible four games this series, though he’ll no doubt find his way into the batting order in the games at the Braves’ Truist Park. Just by physical stature alone he’s the scariest guy in the ‘Stros lineup and has hit an incredible .441 this postseason with two homers, nine RBI and a team leading 27 total bases. The Braves do have Jorge Soler, recovered from Covid-19 to slot in at DH – a position he’s more than comfortable with as he did so for multiple seasons with the Kansas City Royals. He’s no doubt better suited for DH than many options we’ve seen from National League teams in World Series past. He’s only had a couple of pinch hit at-bats since rejoining the Braves, so it’s to be seen if he’s warmed back up yet.
I’ve seen a lot already about how the Atlanta Braves have a better rotation than the Houston Astros going into the World Series, especially since Lance McCullers Jr. – potentially the ‘Stros best pitcher is unavailable with injury. The Astros pitching staff was rough in the first half of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox with Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Jose Uriquidy and Zack Greinke all failing to complete even three innings in the first four games. But then in game five of the series Valdez had the best start of any pitcher this postseason going eight innings and allowing only one run. Then in the game 6 clincher for Houston, Garcia pitched a dominant 5.2 innings of shutout ball. So, we’ll see which type of performances Houston can get in the World Series against the Braves offense. The Braves essentially have a three-man rotation for the postseason, as has shown to be the case for most teams, but their three-headed rotation of Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson has combined for a good 3.27 ERA thus far. I do believe the Braves have the edge over the Astros in this all important category, especially with Morton, who’s made the World Series in three of the last five years with three different teams (Astros in 2017, Rays in 2020 and Braves now). My only question is how much can the Braves starters, two of which are young and have never been on a stage this big, stop potentially the scariest lineup in the entire sport?
Both the bullpens of the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros have been relied upon heavily this postseason and are a big part as to why each team has made it this far. Each bullpen has lowered its season ERA in the postseason – Astros have gone from 4.06 to 3.42 and Braves from 3.97 to 3.56, which is impressive against the best teams in their respective leagues. This is another close competition. The Braves have probably the hottest reliever in the postseason now in setup man Tyler Matzek, who absolutely owned the Dodgers, especially in game 6 of the NLCS. The Astros probably have the best reliever overall in each bullpen in their closer Ryan Pressly, who had a 2.25 ERA this season with 26 saves. The Braves closer Will Smith’s numbers don’t look all that bad on paper but ask any Braves fan who’s followed along all season if they’re comfortable seeing him enter the game in a save situation, even if he has stepped up his performance a bit this postseason. The edge here is likely minute, but I’m going with …
World Series Prediction: Astros over Braves in 6 games
by Julian Spivey
The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 117-97 on its opening night of the NBA season on Wednesday, Oct. 20 despite the in-house suspension of All-Star guard Ben Simmons, who’s turned into the biggest man-baby in the history of the National Baseball Association.
A dramatic saga that’s been going on between Simmons and the 76ers since the end of the 2020-21 season when he demanded to be traded by the team seemed to come to a head on Tuesday, Oct. 19 when Simmons was kicked out of practice by 76ers head coach Doc Rivers after the three-time All-Star, considered one of the best two-way players in the league, refused to practice.
During the practice session when Rivers asked Simmons to join a defensive drill the guard refused to do so and then when Rivers asked again, again Simmons refused. Rivers then told Simmons he should go home, and Simmons dropped the basketball in his hand and left. That’s right, Simmons threw the same type of tantrum you’d expect from children not getting their way.
Shortly after this incident in practice the team suspended Simmons for Wednesday’s opening game and there’s no telling if he will ever suit up again for the 76ers. Simmons was previously fined $1.4 million for failing to show up for four preseason games and numerous practices, workouts and meetings, according to ESPN. He missed roughly another $227,000 for the opening night suspension.
Rivers told the media after he dismissed Simmons from the team’s practice: “I thought he was a distraction today. I didn’t think he wanted to do what everyone else was doing.”
It’s clear that Simmons’ tantrum is a tactic to force the hand of the 76ers to trade him – and give him what he wants. But the 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey should stand his ground and refuse to deal Simmons. Simmons needs to be taught a lesson by the 76ers that you can’t go around acting like a man-baby and expect to have your way. In these situations, the players almost always get their way and I think it’s time for a franchise to put its foot down. The 76ers should continue to suspend Simmons and withhold his pay – if such a thing is allowed by the NBA Players’ Association. This tactic might keep the circus surrounding the team alive, but if he’s simply sent home and treated like he doesn’t exist maybe it won’t be such a distraction for the team. The 76ers certainly didn’t seem to miss him in uniform on Wednesday night.
The 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid, the actual best player on the team, told the media after Simmons’ practice tantrum: “At the end of the day, our job is not to babysit somebody.”
It’s quite surprising to me that Simmons teammates haven’t had a physical “come to Jesus” with him, but they simply don’t seem to want to have anything to do with him period.
The NBA is no stranger now to selfish superstars with the Brooklyn Nets going through something somewhat similar with seven-time All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving being unable to play in home games because he won’t get the Covid-19 vaccine and the city mandates it and is being withheld from road games because the team didn’t want the distraction. He, however, will be paid for the missed road games since it’s the team’s decision.
At least Irving feels like he’s standing for something, even as misguided and wrongheaded as it is. Simmons is just behaving like a toddler and should be treated as such by his organization. Go sit in the corner Baby Ben until you’re ready to act your age.
by Julian Spivey
Superstar: Chicago Sky
The Chicago Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday, Oct. 17 to win its first WNBA Championship in its 16-year history. The Sky defeated the Mercury 3-1 in the best-of-5 series.
The Sky got big performances in the clinching game from a couple of hometown heroes on the roster: Candace Parker, who came over before the season after more than a decade with the Los Angeles Sparks and scored 16 points with 13 rebounds and five assists in the clincher to win her second career title and Allie Quigley, a former DePaul star, who led the Sky with 26 points and hit five 3-pointers. Kahleah Copper was named MVP of the WNBA Finals scoring 17 points per game over the four-game series. Cooper had a big breakout season for the Sky making her first career All Star game after not playing a whole lot over the first four seasons of her career.
The only quibble I have with this is that the clinching game of the WNBA Finals was held on a Sunday afternoon during NFL season and as a result likely won’t have been seen by as many eyes as should have seen it. If the WNBA is going to continue its growth, it’s going to need its championship games in primetime. It needs to work with its television partners on this.
Bonehead: MLB Umpire Gabe Morales
The National League Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, the two best teams in Major League Baseball this season by record, was a terrific series that came down to a nightmare ending in a deciding fifth game due to a massive mistake by first base umpire Gabe Morales on a check-swing by Giants batter Wilmer Flores when he said Flores went around and struck out. Replay on the telecast showed Flores wasn’t even closing to going halfway on his swing. Honestly, I think it would need to be an obvious swing for the umpire to call a strike in that situation when you have the two best teams in baseball fighting for their postseason life.
The biggest game of the year simply shouldn’t come down to an umpire’s call on a non-reviewable play. And that’s another bonehead thing – this should be a reviewable play. If it had been the game would’ve gone on for at least one more pitch and likely would’ve ended without controversy. This postseason has shown on multiple occasions that the game needs to investigate some rulebook and review changes.
by Julian Spivey
Bonehead of the Week: Major League Baseball Rule 5.05 (a)(8)
A baseball rule so obscure that many players, coaches, longtime journalists and fans didn’t even know existed (and shouldn’t exist) cost the Tampa Bay Rays at least one run in the 13th inning of Sunday (Oct. 10) night’s American League Division Series Game 3 between the Rays and the Boston Red Sox. It may have even cost them the game.
In the top of the 13th with Yandy Diaz on first base and two outs Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier hit a deep fly ball to right-center field at Boston’s Fenway Park, the oldest and possibly most unique ballpark in Major League Baseball. The ball bounced off the short wall in right-center then hit the ground and ricocheted off Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe and then went over the fence. Diaz was running on the pitch and was likely to score the go-ahead run. Kiermaier would’ve at the very least had a double, but possibly a triple.
Umpires immediately signaled a ground-rule double, which is typically seen whenever a batted ball bounces over the fence on its own or in some cases gets stuck underneath a wall or even in the case of Chicago’s ivy-covered outfield walls of Wrigley Field gets lost in the ivy. But I’d never (and obviously many others hadn’t either) seen a ground-rule double ruled when a fielder deflected a ball – willingly or unintentionally – over the wall. It’s something that frankly isn’t possible in many ballparks due to the walls being much higher than at this portion of Fenway Park.
Based on the Major League Baseball rulebook the umpires made the right call on this play so they’re not at fault one bit. My bonehead of the week is Rule 5.05 (a)(8) of the MLB rulebook, which states “any bounding fair ball is deflected by the fielder into the stands, or over or under a fence on fair or foul territory, in which case the batter and all runners shall be entitled to advance two bases.”
Essentially the Rays were negatively affected by this rule when Renfroe made a defensive miscue. Yep, the Red Sox fielder made a mistake and it hurt the offensive team. Dumb, right? In my view this should’ve been an error on Renfroe, and I believe both runners should’ve been able to score. At the very least Diaz, running on the pitch, should’ve been awarded home plate.
MLB needs to look at this rule in the offseason. At the very least the umpires should be awarded discretion at where to place the runners. It shouldn’t just be an automatic two bases per runner. I also wouldn’t mind seeing that fence in Fenway Park heightened, but I know that may be heresy to some traditionalists when it comes to the 109-year old ballpark.
The Rays failed to score a run and the Red Sox won on a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 13th inning by catcher Christian Vazquez. The Red Sox would clinch the series the next night.
Superstar of the Week: Texas A&M College Football Team
The University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team has dominated college football over the last decade winning five championships going back to 2011. The team averages basically one title every two years. The team had only lost 11 games over the last 10 seasons and was a perfect 13-0 last season. So, beating Alabama is a pretty freakin’ big deal.
In the spring Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, a former national championship winning coach with Florida State University, proclaimed his team would beat Alabama during coach Nick Saban’s career. I’m not sure he realized his promise would be fulfilled so quickly.
In a thrilling game on Saturday (Oct. 9) the Texas A&M Aggies handed Alabama its first loss since 2019 (snapping a 19-game winning streak) on a last-second 28-yard field goal by kicker Seth Small.
It kind of came as a shock for Texas A&M to beat the No. 1 ranked team in the country and the best in the SEC Conference as the Aggies had already lost its first two SEC matchups of the season in consecutive weeks to Arkansas and Mississippi State.
The Aggies thrilling and surprising upset of Alabama happened to come on Coach Fisher’s 56th birthday. That’s quite the impressive birthday gift from his team.
by Julian Spivey
I began watching NASCAR during the 2001 season, so this season was my milestone 20th as a NASCAR fan. I’ve seen some of the greatest races in the sport’s history, attended multiple races at four different tracks thus far and had the opportunity to hang out in the garage area at Kansas Speedway in October of 2015 during one of my all-time favorite driver Jeff Gordon’s final races. Hanging in the garage area during a NASCAR weekend is my all-time favorite in-person sports memory and I’m sure it’s a dream for every NASCAR fan.
There’s been a lot of good in the sport in my 20 years following it and there’s been some bad. But the part of being a NASCAR fan I’ve always despised is when somebody who doesn’t know much about the sport asks me with a questioning tone in their voice: “how can you watch NASCAR?” That question is often followed with a follow-up about the sport being boring, which I always retort with “every sport has boring, and exciting events and NASCAR is no different.” But often people will follow up with questions about it being a “redneck” or “ignorant” or even “racist” sport. I usually comeback with a response about how sports can’t be racist. Folks within it can be, but the sport itself is no more racist than any other and by that, I mean it’s not because as I just said sports can’t be racist.
But there have been moments over the years, really the last few, that have made it harder to defend the sport. President Donald Trump attended the Daytona 500 at the start of the 2020 season and I was disgusted by that. Presidents have attended NASCAR races before, but this one felt different. It was just a conservative or a liberal thing, but a “this guy is a horrible person” thing. Also, during the 2020 season came the response to Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., the only black driver in the sport’s top series, having Black Lives Matter on his car (which was truly a heroic move on his part given the political and likely ideological beliefs within the sport and its fan-base) and then the mistaken hate crime of a potential noose being found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. The reception from many fans toward Wallace has been poor – he’s probably the most booed driver on the circuit since then – and has led me to see a lot of bad things about the fan-base that were almost certainly always there, but I hadn’t seen with my own eyes.
I hadn’t been to a NASCAR race since 2015 until attending the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sept. 5. There wasn’t any reason for my five-plus year gap in attending races, just didn’t have the time, etc., but it just so happened to coincide with me not attending a NASCAR race during President Trump’s term in the White House.
I could tell just by watching the world in the time between 2015-2021 that folks had become more brazen and former President Trump was a major factor in this happening. The world is less civil than it used to be. I think former President Trump played a major role in that. If you’re a conservative I’m sure, you’ll probably disagree if you’ve made it this far. Thankfully when I attended Darlington last month, in the heart of Trump country, things weren’t too bad – but seeing certain things like fans wearing shirts saying “Fuck Joe Biden” made me feel a little bit less welcome in the NASCAR environment. Honestly just being a confessed liberal (even if it’s something that’s not tattooed on my forehead) I always felt a bit of an outcast at races.
Saturday, Oct. 2 should’ve been a great day for NASCAR. The Camping World Truck Series race earlier in the afternoon had been one by a first-time winner Tate Fogelman for an underfunded race team in an exciting finish, that unfortunately ended with him wrecking and having to go to the infield care center in an ambulance, instead of Victory Lane. The Xfinity Series race ended in the early evening a few laps earlier than scheduled when darkness approached the track and the leader of the race, Brandon Brown, also became a first-time winner for an underfunded team. Brown, who’s given his all to have a successful team, put on one helluva celebration, but when NBC Sports went to interview him what should’ve been a terrific moment for the sport was hijacked by fans in the grandstands just a few feet away from the interview with a loud and obnoxious “Fuck Joe Biden” chant – which has apparently been quite popular at some college football stadiums, as well, during the early part of the season – which is just a massive black eye for NASCAR.
The chant, which was later scrubbed technologically by NASCAR for its social media from the victory interview, just feeds into the stereotypes the sport has – those I’ve been fighting against for two decades. It’s not that I believe politics should be kept out of sports (although many NASCAR fans sticking up for these jerks chanting this vile thing do always cry about keeping them out of sports). There have been moments where I’ve approved of it – earlier I called Wallace heroic for his BLM stance. To me this Biden chant wasn’t just political, but more proof of a lack of civility in our society.
It’s been well over 24 hours since the chant during the post-race interview and as far as I’ve seen neither NASCAR nor NBC Sports has released a comment about it. I think that’s a bad move from the sport that frankly made a lot of ground in the last few years when it comes to trying to move the sport into the future and gain viewership, in general and with newer demographics.
Now I’m not going to stop watching NASCAR over this – that would be an overreaction like what some conservative fans did with football players kneeling in the NFL or basketball players protesting games over police brutality in the NBA. It wouldn’t do anything but take potential enjoyment away from myself. Also, I believe in the Kris Kristofferson lyric: “don’t let the bastards get you down.” So, I’m looking forward to watching the Talladega Cup Series race on Monday that was postponed from Sunday due to rain.
But I am sick of defending the sport when sometimes it seems many fans who follow it are frankly disgusting people. So, in the future when I’m asked how I can watch NASCAR I’ll probably stick to the “sports can’t be racist” line, but if asked about the fans I’ll probably have to adopt a “many of them are exactly what you think they are.”
by Julian Spivey
Bonehead of the Week: Devin Williams (Milwaukee Brewers, MLB)
Milwaukee Brewers reliever Devin Williams is our biggest bonehead in sports this week, in a week particularly full of boneheads in sports with NBA stars like Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and Bradley Beal apparently turning into experts on why Covid vaccines aren’t necessary. But it’s Williams, the 2020 National League Reliever of the Year and Rookie of the Year, who most impacted his team with his idiocy this week when he broke his throwing hand while punching a wall after the Brewers National League Central Division clinching celebration on Sunday, Sept. 26. One of the most devastating relievers in baseball Williams finishes his season 8-2 out of the bullpen with a 2.50 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 54 innings of work. His stupidity will be a major blow to the Brewers postseason chances. He told the press “If I could take it back. I would.” No shit, dude, no shit. All his teammates, the front office and fans of the Brewers should be livid at this guy.
Superstar of the Week: Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens, NFL)
It’s not often kickers in football have a shot at being deemed “superstar” of the week, but Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens isn’t a normal kicker and his NFL record 66-yard field goal this past weekend against the Detroit Lions. It broke Matt Prater (of the Denver Broncos) old record by two-yards, after the previous record by New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey (later tied by Jason Elam of the Broncos) had stood for more than 40 years. As the New York Times published this week, Tucker’s new record may last quite a while because teams simply don’t try really long field goals that often and even with modern technology and stronger kickers the record is only nine-feet longer now than it was more than half a century ago. Oh, by the way, we failed to mention that Tucker’s record-breaking kick against the Lions was also a game-winner as time expired, so he had all that extra anxiety on his mind when walking out on the field for the attempt. It ended up being his 50th consecutive made field goal in the fourth quarter or overtime. Kickers rarely make the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but Tucker just may end up their one day. Maybe they should just bronze his leg in lieu of a bust?