The Sports Report: When will Cody Bellinger snap out of slump?
Howdy, I’m your host, Austin Knoblauch, filling in for Houston Mitchell, who probably spent Oscar night writing a screenplay about Saint Peter’s March Madness run. Let’s get right to the news.
From Jack Harris: Dave Roberts sounded like a professor teaching a class on the complexities of hitting.
The Dodgers’ manager used technical terms like “flexion,” “levers” and “barred out.” He dissected next-level batting nuances, from base width to hand placement to firing position at the start of each swing. He spent 10 minutes Saturday trying again to explain the continuing evolution of Cody Bellinger’s swing.
Roberts’ message to his uber-talented but ever-inconsistent center fielder, however, is much more simple.
“Be a good hitter first.”
It’s an objective Bellinger has struggled to achieve this spring, with time running short for him to snap a preseason slump — one that looks eerily similar to his career-worst performance last year — before the start of the regular season.
In seven Cactus League games, the 2019 National League MVP has struck out in 14 of 19 at-bats. Of his three hits, none have gone for extra bases. And even after finding success in the playoffs last season, he is trying to remake his swing again, hoping to find a “happy medium” between the player he used to be and the one he is now.
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“Believe it or not, I’m actually feeling a lot better than the results are saying,” Bellinger said Sunday, answering another round of familiar questions about his struggles at the plate. “That’s real. That’s what spring training is about, obviously. You don’t want to do what I’m doing, but I feel better than what the stat sheets are showing.”
Alarm bells aren’t ringing yet. It’s still March, and Roberts believes Bellinger’s timing is the problem more than anything else. For now, his role as the team’s everyday center fielder remains safe. And the hope is that, with more at-bats, he will grow more comfortable with his newest iteration of mechanics at the plate.
But even Roberts acknowledged that Bellinger, who struck out in all four of his at-bats in a Saturday night game against the Kansas City Royals, could benefit from better results right now.
Until then, the Dodgers can only hope his spring slump doesn’t stretch into the regular season.
“The performance is up to Cody,” Roberts said. “It’s our job as coaches to create an environment and the work to allow him to succeed. But at the end of the day, he’s the one in the batter’s box. He knows that, and he’s got to produce. He’s a big part of what we want to do this year. He’s a big part of it, and he knows that.”
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From Mike DiGiovanna: Albert Pujols is going back to where he launched his Hall of Fame-caliber career in 2001 — the St. Louis Cardinals.
The former Angels and Dodgers slugger has agreed to a one-year, $2.5-million deal with the Cardinals, pending a physical, according to a person familiar with deal who can’t speak publicly about it.
Pujols, who starred for 11 seasons with the Cardinals, struggled through nine-plus injury marred seasons with the Angels and finished out 2021 as a key reserve for the Dodgers. He has clubbed 679 homers to rank fifth on baseball’s all-time list behind Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez.
The burly first baseman and designated hitter is among the top 10 in several other offensive categories, ranking third in RBIs (2,150), fourth in extra-base hits (1,367), fourth in total bases (6,042) and fifth in doubles (672), filling out a resume that is expected to earn him first-ballot entry into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Pujols established himself as the most feared right-handed hitter in the game during his time with the Cardinals. He hit .328 with 445 homers, 2,073 hits, 455 doubles, 1,329 RBIs and a 1.037 OPS in 11 years in St. Louis, leading the Cardinals to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011. He also won two Gold Glove Awards with the Cardinals.
From Bill Plaschke: The glass slipper cracked as everyone feared it would crack, jagged shards spilling all over a hopeful college basketball landscape, loudly, messily, sadly.
One shining moment became one shattering moment, the greatest surprise story in the history of the NCAA men’s tournament suffering a greatly expected but terribly feared ending.
Cinderella finally collapsed.
Saint Peter’s, the lowest-seeded team to advance to the Elite Eight, finally met a hurdle it could not magically clear, the 15th-seeded Peacocks falling to mighty North Carolina on Sunday in the East Region final, 69-49.
It began with a roar. Saint Peter’s has no pep band, but it made no matter, as it took the Wells Fargo Center floor to the music of a screaming crowd speaking for a nation of believers.
It ended with a sob, six Peacocks players huddling with coach Shaheen Holloway in front of the scorers’ table in the final minute to share their pain.
“We just told each other, just stay together,” KC Ndefo said. “What we did was amazing.”
Sunday’s Elite Eight results
No. 1 Kansas 76, No. 10 Miami 50
No. 8 North Carolina 69, No. 15 Saint Peter’s 49
Saturday’s Final Four schedule (all times PDT)
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas, 3:09 p.m., TBS
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Duke, 5:49 p.m., TBS
Sunday’s Elite Eight results
No. 1 South Carolina 80, No. 10 Creighton 50
No. 1 Stanford 59, No. 2 Texas 50
Monday’s Elite Eight schedule (all times PDT)
No. 2 UConn vs. No. 1 North Carolina State, 4 p.m., ESPN
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 1 Louisville, 6 p.m., ESPN
From Dan Woike: On the outside of the Superdome, across the street from where the Lakers suffered their latest basketball indignities, the words “The road ends here” are printed in giant letters — a phrase meant to celebrate the college basketball teams that will play in the Final Four in this city next weekend.
Inside the building where the Lakers blew a 20-point halftime lead before losing to New Orleans 116-108, the signs were even more obvious.
LeBron James, the Lakers’ best hope to salvage their season, limped badly through the hallways, a new injury threatening to push the Lakers’ postseason hopes into full-fledged delusion.
All the talk about the progress the Lakers had been making over the last week, the optimism that Anthony Davis could return soon and that Russell Westbrook was settling in, all got erased with another misstep.
The ankle, James said, feels “horrible.” And the losing? That “feels like s—.”
“I mean, excuse my language,” he said, “but that’s what it feels like.”
In one of their biggest games of their season, the Lakers fighting for their postseason lives, the team wasted a dominant first half and crumbled when the Pelicans fought back in the second, exposing the best and, more importantly, the worst in who they are as a team.
“We are who we are,” James said.
From Kevin Baxter: The U.S. couldn’t be any closer to the World Cup without actually being in it.
With Christian Pulisic scoring three times in a 5-1 rout of Panama at a sold-out Exploria Stadium on Sunday, about the only thing the Americans have to do is show up in Costa Rica for their final qualifying match Wednesday and they’re through to Qatar this fall.
“We made a big step towards our goal of qualifying for the World Cup,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We know we’re not there yet. We still have a game to go and it’s a difficult game in Costa Rica.”
Oh sure, the statisticians — and the coach — will say there is still a mathematical chance the U.S. won’t make it. Reality and commonsense say otherwise.
With Sunday’s win, which matched the Americans’ most one-sided victory in a World Cup qualifier over the last five years, the U.S. (7-2-4) remained second in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying table, tied with Mexico at 25 points and three points head of Costa Rica (6-3-4). Only the top three teams are assured spots in Qatar.
But if the U.S. did little more than stand its ground in the standings, the lopsided win swelled its advantage in goal differential. Even if Costa Rica wins Wednesday, it would have to make up a 10-score deficit in the tiebreaker to pass the Americans and take their World Cup spot.
Done deal, right?
Don’t tell that to U.S. forward Paul Arriola. He was on the U.S. team that won its penultimate qualifier — over Panama, by four goals, in Orlando — five years ago to virtually lock up a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
From Ryan Kartje: The first official practices of the Lincoln Riley era at USC are in the rearview mirror. So what have we learned about USC’s new regime through one week of spring football practice?
Caleb Williams has seamlessly stepped into a leadership role. He might’ve taken a wrong turn into his first USC practice, but the Trojans’ new QB1 has looked completely at ease at the helm of his new offense. Teammates are already raving. His gravitational pull within the program is powerful.
“He’s a baller,” running back Austin Jones said. “He’s a leader. Most definitely, he’s an alpha.”
Those qualifications should come as no surprise after Williams smoothly took the reins from Spencer Rattler in the middle of the season as a freshman at Oklahoma. He’ll have the benefit of an entire spring and summer to establish himself at USC.
“He’s one of those guys who can walk into a room with people he doesn’t know and he’s kind of a chameleon, he can fit in in any place,” Riley said.
From Helene Elliott: Todd McLellan heard the phrase often. He certainly knew what it meant, but he just hadn’t lived it during his first two seasons of coaching the Kings through a slow and painful rebuild.
“I kept hearing the term ‘meaningful games later in the year,’ ” he said the other day. “It’s a common term that’s used in sport, and we’re doing that right now. It’s a great thing for our team.”
The NHL’s regular season has about a month left but the Kings are, in many ways, already in postseason mode. With 15 games left on their schedule they’ve put themselves in position to finish in the top three in the Pacific Division and earn an automatic Stanley Cup playoff spot. They might even get home-ice advantage if they hold on to second place ahead of the offense-rich but defense-poor Edmonton Oilers.
That’s a lot to ask of a young team that’s still missing key players because of injuries, but the depth that general manager Rob Blake accumulated over too many dreary losing seasons is beginning to surface and blossom.
“This is the playoffs for us and we’ve shown signs of growth during it,” McLellan said, “and it’s going to have to continue for whatever we have left.”
THIS DATE IN SPORTS
1939 — The barnstorming Renaissance Five beat the NBL champion Oshkosh All-Stars, 34-25, to win the first annual World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago. Sports reporters of the day make no mention of the fact that all the Rens are black and the All-Stars are all white.
1942 — Stanford beats Dartmouth 53-38 for the NCAA basketball championship.
1944 — Arnold Ferrin’s 22 points leads Utah to a 42-40 victory over Dartmouth for the NCAA basket championship.
1950 — CCNY beats Bradley 71-68 in the NCAA basketball final to become the only team to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same year. CCNY beat Bradley 69-61 in the NIT on March 18.
1971 — Gail Goodrich of the Los Angeles Lakers sets an NBA playoff record for most free throws (17) without a miss in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. Goodrich leads all scorers with 39 points in the 106-98 loss at Chicago.
1977 — Marquette beats North Carolina 67-59 for the NCAA basketball title.
1982 — Louisiana Tech beats Cheyney State 76-62 in the NCAA’s first women’s basketball championship. The tournament replaces the AIAW championship which had been held since 1972.
1989 — Southwestern Louisiana pitchers Cathy McAllister and Stefni Whitton pitch back-to-back perfect games against Southeastern Louisiana, a first in NCAA Division I softball history. McAllister strikes out 10 in a 5-0 victory and Whitton has 14 strikeouts in a 7-0 triumph.
1990 — Michael Jordan scores 69 points to help Chicago beat Cleveland 117-113 in overtime and clinch a playoff spot.
1992 — Christian Laettner hits a 15-foot turnaround jumper at the buzzer to give defending champion Duke a 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky and a fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four.
1992 — Eric Forkel posts a 217-133 victory over Bob Vespi in the title match of the $300,000 PBA National Championship. Vespi’s 133 sets a record for the lowest in tournament final history.
1993 — Teemu Selanne of the Winnipeg Jets scores his 69th and 70th goals of the season in a 3-3 tie with Los Angeles Kings. Selanne is the eighth player, and first rookie, to have a 70-goal NHL season.
1995 — Michael Jordan, playing in his fifth game in 22 months, scores 55 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 113-111 victory over the New York Knicks.
2006 — Oklahoma center Courtney Paris is the first freshman selected for The Associated Press All-America team in women’s basketball. Paris averaged 21.4 points and led the nation in rebounding (15.1). She is the first NCAA women’s player with 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in a season.
2012 — The NFL’s new rule for postseason overtime is expanded to cover the regular season on a 30-2 vote by the NFL owners. All games that go into overtime cannot end on a field goal on the first possession.
2015 — Breanna Stewart has 31 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists to help UConn rout Texas 105-54, earning coach Geno Auriemma his 100th NCAA Tournament win. Auriemma is the second coach to reach the century mark, joining Pat Summitt, who finished with 112 victories in her career.
2015 — Kentucky escapes with a 68-66 win against Notre Dame to go to 38-0 and advance to the Final Four. Wisconsin tops Arizona 85-78 to reach consecutive Final Fours for the first time.
2016 — Rodney Hood scores 30 points and the Jazz turn Kobe Bryant’s last visit to Utah into the worst loss of his career with a 123-75 victory that matches the Lakers’ largest defeat in franchise history.
The U.S. men’s soccer team went on a scoring frenzy against Panama to all but punch their World Cup ticket. Check out all of the team’s goals here.
Until next time...
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