St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants

Showtime’s “The Franchise” looks like a winner


Last week, the premium cable network Showtime offered viewers a sneak peek at the reality series it has been working on since last October with the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

When plans for the series were first announced this past winter, it came as great news for the baseball-watching world. Finally, something in-depth and beautiful was going to be produced about our sport.

We’ve seen HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which shines a light on one NFL team each preseason, tracking players both popular and anonymous in stunning quality. Every frame of “Hard Knocks” is a delight. The soundtrack is always perfect, the drama feels impeccably genuine, and the stories make you care — truly and deeply care — about a group of professional athletes who are usually so well media trained that real feelings don’t get out.

HBO’s “24/7” series leading up to the NHL’s Winter Classic was a landmark in sports television programming. Combining the visuals and sounds of “Hard Knocks” with a bruising and non-stop action sport like hockey, it was a program that reached beyond entertainment. “24/7” made hockey cool again to the casual sports fan.

Now it’s baseball’s turn.

Showtime isn’t HBO. In most ways, it’s merely HBO’s awkward second cousin. So there was reason for speculation that Showtime’s version of a sports documentary series might not be as crisp or impactful.

About 10 minutes in to “The Franchise,” that worry is carried away. Early shots feature manager Bruce Bochy lighting a stogie in a dark room, Barry Zito stepping out of an Audi convertible, and outfielder Andres Torres throwing blocks of stone and running up farming hills in his native Puerto Rico.

We also meet Freddy Sanchez’s family. The second baseman has been with his wife since high school, and now he’s throwing pitches to his son in a massive mansion foyer. Sanchez’s wife can’t hold back tears as the topic of the World Series is brought up. “We almost lived in our car,” she says, recalling the old days.

There’s a lot of Brian Wilson, but he doesn’t dominate most of the plot lines and it seems as though he might be taking a more honest and less goofy approach with the Showtime filmmakers.

At one point he tells the camera:

“When you’re a young pup coming up, you have meetings about media. And controlling the media. Dealing with the media the past five years, I’ve learned to hone in on what kind of message I’d like to send. Even if it’s in a sailor’s outfit. You think, ‘Oh wow, here goes again. Being crazy.’ But maybe he’s just being smart.”

Wilson is being smart. He has only been an elite major league closer for three years, and yet he’s made himself a household name. Relievers don’t typically get invited to be regular talk show guests.

Wilson also has it right about controlling the message. Baseball fans will often form opinions on players based on the doses of sound bytes they hear after a win or loss. We think we know these guys, but those quotes typically carry about an ounce of authenticity, maybe less.

Authentic is Brandon Belt, a 23-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, trying to break camp with the big league club for the first time. When Bochy finally has Belt in his office at the end of the preview episode and tells the youngster that he has made the Opening Day roster*, the kid is thrown. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, shedding tears in front of coaches and front office members whom he has been trying to impress for going on three years. Belt slowly gets up out of the chair in front of Bochy’s desk and makes his way toward the office door that leads back to the players’ part of the clubhouse. Then he stalls. He doesn’t want his teammates to see that he’s been crying. Bochy knows this situation well and tells Belt in that Jeff Bridges-like tone of his, “You can take your time, you can hang with me a while. If you want a beer, grab a beer.”

Belt has a seat on the couch, holding a can of Bud Light. “I don’t even know why I’m crying right now,” he mutters, hand covering face. “You should be, it’s a big moment,” Bochy responds.

The preview only runs a half-hour long, but you get the feeling that this series is going to be pretty special. It officially begins Wednesday, July 16 and will presumably run through the end of the baseball season.

*Belt hit just .192 with one home run and a .569 OPS across his first 60 plate appearances and was demoted to Triple-A Fresno on Wednesday afternoon.

Rougned Odor steals the show to send Rangers to 2-0 ALDS lead over the Blue Jays

Rougned Odor
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The Rangers outlasted the Blue Jays in 14 innings to take the second game of the ALDS on Friday 6-4, moving to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Second baseman Rougned Odor‘s star shone brightest, as he used his speed to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 14th.

With LaTroy Hawkins on the mound and the Jays employing an infield shift, Odor slapped a weak ground ball towards Josh Donaldson, positioned where the shortstop would normally play. Donaldson’s momentum took his momentum away from first base, so he had to make an off-balance throw. Odor then moved to second base on Chris Jimenez’s single to right field — narrowly making it back to the second base bag after rounding too far, a play which required replay review. Odor scored the go-ahead run, breaking a 4-4 tie, when Hanser Alberto (Adrian Beltre‘s replacement at third base) lined a single to center field.

Center fielder Delino DeShields had three hits with an RBI and two runs scored in seven at-bats. The RBI padded the Rangers’ lead to 6-4 in the 14th, as he beat out an infield single against Liam Hendriks. Starter Cole Hamels was strong over seven innings, allowing four runs (only two earned) on six hits with no walks and six strikeouts. The Rangers’ bullpen pitched seven scoreless innings of relief, including Ross Ohlendorf‘s 14th inning in which he recorded all three outs on strikeouts.

On the Jays’ side of things, Josh Donaldson hit a home run and helped instigate a benches-clearing argument with Rangers reliever Keone Kela. Donaldson had smoked a Kela offering home run distance was foul, then repeatedly swore at Kela because he felt the right-hander was quick-pitching him, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.

Jays starter Marcus Stroman was shaky early, coughing up three runs in the first two innings, but was able to settle down. He ultimately allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts in seven innings. The Jays’ bullpen allowed only four base runners on two hits and two walks through the 13th, before Hawkins and Hendriks relented.

The two teams will have an off-day on Saturday as they travel to Texas to continue the ALDS. Game 3 starts on Sunday at 8:00 PM EDT, featuring Marco Estrada starting for the Jays and Martin Perez for the Rangers. The Blue Jays are still in search of their first playoff victory since Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series.

NLDS, Game 1: Cubs vs. Cardinals lineups

Jon Lester
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Here are the Cubs and Cardinals lineups for Game 1 of the NLDS in St. Louis:

CF Dexter Fowler
RF Kyle Schwarber
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Starlin Castro
LF Chris Coghlan
SS Addison Russell
C David Ross
SP Jon Lester

Jon Lester’s personal catcher David Ross takes the place of Miguel Montero behind the plate. Kris Bryant shifts back to third base after playing left field in Game 1, with Chris Coghlan coming off the bench to get a start in the outfield against a right-hander. Addison Russell bats seventh, which he did just 10 times during the regular season.

3B Matt Carpenter
1B Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
CF Jason Heyward
SS Jhonny Peralta
RF Randal Grichuk
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
SP John Lackey

Mike Matheny’s lineup for Game 1 is an interesting one. Jason Heyward is batting cleanup and playing center field, where he started just eight games all season. Stephen Piscotty plays first base, where he started just nine games. Yadier Molina is behind the plate, toughing his way through a significant thumb injury that’s sidelined him since September 20 and leaves him at much less than 100 percent now. Brandon Moss, Mark Reynolds, and Jon Jay are all on the bench.

Steven Matz is on the Mets’ playoff roster, set for Game 4 start

New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz (32) works during the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Rookie left-hander Steven Matz hasn’t pitched since September 24 because of a back injury, but he’s on the Mets’ playoff roster for the NLDS and looks likely to start Game 4 against the Dodgers.

Matz prepped for a potential start by throwing 80 pitches in a simulated game Thursday and apparently experienced no issues. Even setting aside the health question mark Matz has started just six games in the majors, but he’s 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA and 34/10 K/BB ratio in 35.2 innings.

Matz is one of 11 pitchers on the NLDS roster, along with 14 position players. No big surprises.