Sports Returns: Nine Things To Watch For
Thursday, July 9, 2020
Sports is finally on the way back! Two weeks from tonight, major league baseball begins their 60-game schedule. Six days later, on July 30, the NBA will play out eight more regular season games inside the Orlando “bubble” before moving into the postseason by mid-August. The NHL will start its 24-team playoff bracket at the start of August with eight best-of-five qualifying series. Here’s nine items that are being looked at closely at TheSportsNotebook…
A DELAYED BOSTON IN THE SPRING
I live in New England and missed my usual favorite time of the local sports year, when the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins are all going in unison. The Notebook Nine begins here…
*The Celtics have the most to gain from the NBA going into the Orlando bubble. I don’t think they could have gone on the road to both Toronto and Milwaukee and won the Eastern Conference and certainly not against either of the Los Angeles powers in the Finals. But on a neutral floor in a quiet atmosphere that will be probably akin to playing pickup at the local gym, I think Boston matches up very well and I’ll pick them to win the East.
*Tuuka Raask is going to be feeling the pressure in net when the Bruins resume. The 33-year-old goalie from Finland has been great this year, with a save rate of 92.9%. He’s spearheaded the defense that was the stingiest in the NHL at the point play was suspended. He’s going to have a nice place in Boston sports lore. But those losses in the Stanley Cup Finals of 2013 and 2019 are a problem. The Bruins have the best team again this year. Tuuka has to finish the job.
*The Celtics and Bruins have a legitimate shot at parlaying NBA & NHL titles, something that would surely re-ignite national disdain for Boston that might otherwise subside with Tom Brady in Tampa. But there’s no reason for similar optimism on the Red Sox. I think they can get by without Mookie Betts because the talent up and down the lineup is still there. But the pitching staff, with Chris Sale out, is just not up to snuff. The Red Sox’ Over/Under for wins is 31.5 and I can’t see any reason to think they would go Over.
*Is it time for a baseball resurgence in Cincinnati? I thought it would happen last year, but the Reds never got rolling and settled for a 75-win season. This year Cincy has a good top three in the rotation with Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer. The latter two have postseason experience in Oakland and Cleveland respectively. The NL Central looks open—the Cubs are in transition post-Joe Maddon, the Brewers are retooling and the Pirates look awful. The Cardinals are a legit favorite, but far from overwhelming. Cincinnati has odds of (+170) simply to make the playoffs. Looks like a good bet.
*If the Reds are a good bet at (+170) then the Phillies are a great bet at (+200). They’ve got Didi Gregorius in at shortstop to strengthen a team that was already a contender. Aaron Nola is still at the top of the rotation. Philadelphia is best situated to capitalize on the National League’s use of the DH for 2020. Jay Bruce can post some nice power numbers in a hitter’s venue like Citizen’s Bank Park. Under traditional rules, Bruce would have been frozen out of the lineup by Bryce Harper. Not this year.
*No team in hockey was hurt more by the lockdown than the Tampa Bay Lightning. After a slow start, where they appeared to have not gotten over their stunning first-round sweep at the hand of Columbus last spring, the Lightning were gaining steam. They had the most prolific offense in the league. They are the most talented team in the league, with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos leading the way and a great goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Suspending the season cost them the same kind of momentum that St. Louis rolled into the playoffs with last year. But Tampa’s talent is no less imposing and a potential showdown with Boston is a juicy treat.
*While Boston and Tampa are the best two teams in the East and perhaps all of hockey, don’t sleep on the Washington Capitals. The Caps’ offense is still well put together, with a clear go-to guy in Alex Ovechkin and a number of quality support players behind him. Washington was second only to Tampa in goals scored during the regular season. They were doing a good job at limiting shots on defense. What was killing the Caps and placing their overall team defense in the middle of the pack was a subpar performance from Braden Holtby in goal. But if my worst problem is a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender with a nine-year record of success, then I think I have a good shot at putting it all together for the postseason.
THE DEFENSE CAN’T REST
*The NBA playoffs should give us a monster Lakers-Clippers showdown in the Western Conference Finals, but if the Clips don’t pick up their game defensively, it’s going to be a wipeout. The Clippers rank 13th in defensive efficiency. While that’s not terrible, it’s not championship-quality either. By contrast, the Lakers rank third, the Celtics rank fourth, the Bucks are fifth and the Raptors are first. Among the teams considered title contenders, Doc Rivers’ Clips are the ones not up to snuff on defense. This could be a case of a team just slacking a bit during the regular season. Clippers fans better hope so.
HORSE RACING’S PREMIER MEET
*One of the great horse racing events in the country opens up next Thursday, on July 16. The Saratoga meet in upstate New York will run through Labor Day. If you like watching the ponies—and I do—than it’s a fun meet that draws a lot of the top names for both trainers and jockeys. There’s usually several stakes races. If you don’t care about betting the races, but want to watch, just do what I do and take out a subscription at Equibase.com. For $12.95 a month you can watch pretty much any race in the country the morning after it runs.