St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants

Showtime’s “The Franchise” looks like a winner

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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.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.