Monthly Archives: December 2016

Info The Rangers Fight Best When Put in a Corner

“Every situation is different,” said defenseman Dan Girardi, a veteran of 121 playoff games with the Rangers since 2007. “We’ll use that experience and hopefully translate into a win tomorrow.”

The Rangers have been particularly good at turning the page after subpar performances this postseason. After losing Game 2 of their first-round series at Montreal in overtime — a game in which they gave up the lead with 18 seconds remaining in regulation — and then dropping Game 3 at home, they reeled off three straight impressive wins to capture the series.

And after blowing another late lead against the Senators in Game 2, and losing in overtime, the Rangers responded with a pair of emphatic home wins to tie the series.

Such late-game drama has been common in these playoffs. Through Sunday, 14 of 22 games in the second round have had a winning goal scored in the third period or overtime. That includes Anaheim’s memorable three-goal rally against Edmonton on Friday, when the Ducks scored three times with their goaltender pulled before prevailing in overtime.

“You cannot quit believing in any situation,” Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle said. “Momentum swings in the playoffs are so drastic, and they mean so much, that when you get one you start to believe. It sends a different message to the opposition.”

Rangers center Derek Stepan said the onus for yet another comeback inevitably will fall on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who despite allowing three overtime winners this postseason retains the team’s confidence. In the 20 games since 2012 in which the Rangers have faced elimination, Lundqvist is 15-5 with 1.74 goals against average.

“Every single time we step on the ice we know that we have one of the best — if not the best — goaltender in the league, especially when we get to these situations,” Stepan said. “He turns it on to a whole new level.”

Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault said too many of his players turned in pedestrian efforts on Saturday.

“At this time of the year against such a good opponent — and all opponents right now in the playoffs are good teams — you can’t bring an average game to the table,” Vigneault said.

Vigneault also expressed confidence that the vast playoff experience on his roster would be an asset now. The Rangers are trying to reach the conference finals for the third time during his four seasons as coach.

“There’s no doubt for me that experience, when you have it, is a good thing,” Vigneault said. “You’ve got to control your emotions and focus on what you need to do on the ice. This is going to be an opportunity for our team to respond and play a strong game in a pressure situation.”

News Giants Battling Misery

“It’s tough, because he has been that fixture,” catcher Buster Posey said. “That first game in Cincinnati, we got trounced, and I believe his spot would have been the second game. Sometimes that can really change the momentum of the series if you have your guy come in and be that stopper. So it’s hard not to think about that.”

The Cincinnati series was historically bad: The Giants lost by 13-3, 14-2 and 4-0. The last time they had been outscored by 26 runs in a series of any length was in 1922, against Pittsburgh at the Polo Grounds.

There is no single cause of the Giants’ misery. Their E.R.A. before Monday was 4.81, ranking 28th of 30 teams in the majors. Their offense was averaging just 3.28 runs per game, the lowest in the National League. They had also made eight errors in their last seven games.

“You never lose your sense of optimism,” Manager Bruce Bochy said. “You’ve got to keep believing, and there’s a lot of baseball left. At the same time, you want to avoid having complacency set in to where you go, ‘Well, there’s a lot of baseball left,’ and you lose that sense of urgency. A lot of things have to happen, to be honest with you. We have to pitch better. We have to swing the bats better. We just have to play better all-around ball.”

The Giants seemed a safe bet for the playoffs before this season. After Bumgarner’s wild-card shutout, the Giants lost a hard-fought division series to the eventual champion Chicago Cubs. The Giants swiftly fixed their most pressing weakness by signing a star closer, Mark Melancon.

But they are also among the older teams — only two N.L. clubs, the Mets and the Atlanta Braves, have an older average age among position players than the Giants’ 29.8 years — and have lately been without shortstop Brandon Crawford and center fielder Denard Span, who are injured. Christian Arroyo, 21, was promoted to hold down shortstop while Crawford recovers from a groin strain (he is on a rehabilitation assignment now), but otherwise there is not much the Giants can do to alter the team’s makeup.

“We can see the issues; we can see the challenges we’re facing,” General Manager Bobby Evans said. “We’ve brought in Arroyo, and we have some options with extra players and the bullpen, but when it comes to the core part of your lineup and the rest of your club, there’s not really so much you can do — other than let them get back into the groove.”

The Giants are committed to several of their headliners; their 2020 payroll already includes more than $88.5 million for Belt, Crawford, Posey, Melancon and starter Jeff Samardzija. Another starter, Johnny Cueto, could make $21 million that year, but he could also opt out of his contract after this season.

That clause complicates Cueto’s trade value if the Giants are far out of the race and want to deal him in July. Only one other impact player — the versatile Eduardo Nunez — is facing free agency after this season, and Evans said the Giants were focused on trying to win with this group. They want to extend their era of glory as long as they can.

“For me personally, and I could probably speak for the guys in here, we’re still hungry for more,” Belt said.

Belt mentioned that the Giants had won without prominent pitchers before. Brian Wilson was injured for the 2012 title run, and Matt Cain was hurt in 2014, when the two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum was essentially an afterthought.

But Bumgarner is this era’s most dependable big-game force, and among the small handful of best pitchers in baseball at any time of the year. His accident hurts the Giants’ chances, to be sure, but Evans said the team was mostly relieved. Two other prominent starting pitchers — Miami’s Jose Fernandez and Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura — have been killed in accidents over the past eight months.

“With all the awful things that have happened in the game, tragically, we actually felt fortunate he wasn’t seriously hurt,” Evans said. “He was wearing a helmet. There are a lot of shoulder injuries that are more severe — this was in one spot, the A.C. joint, and our anticipation is that he will return to full strength.”

Bumgarner is resting until the pain goes away and he can begin to rebuild his arm. But the Giants have no time to waste as they wait for him.

“You’ve got to be careful that you assume the attitude of, ‘Hey, we’ll be fine, we’ll be fine,’” Bochy said. “Well, we’re not fine now, and it’s time for us to do something.”

Information Yankees Outlast Cubs with 48-Strikeout

They also had to endure getting just one hit from the ninth to the 16th inning and a spectacular catch by Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who dove into the left-field seats to run down a pop foul in the 12th inning.

It was fitting that in a game that featured a major-league record 48 strikeouts, the last came when Chasen Shreve fanned Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks with runners at first and second to end the game. (The previous record, 43, was set in 1971 in a 20-inning game between the Angels and the A’s.)

“It was a gritty performance by our guys,” the Yankees’ manager, Joe Girardi, said after completing the sweep of the defending champions, which gave the Yankees five consecutive wins, a half-game lead over Baltimore in the American League East and, at 20-9, the best record in baseball.

Luis Severino pitched superbly for the Yankees, allowing only four hits and one run over seven innings, Aaron Judge delivered a booming run-scoring triple, and Jacoby Ellsbury hit a two-run homer. But those events took place earlier in the evening before many in the crowd of 40,584 gave in to temperatures that hovered near 40 degrees and the clock drew closer to midnight.

In the end, the Yankees’ heroes were typically unsung ones — relievers Jonathan Holder and Shreve, the sixth and seventh pitchers of the night, who combined to allow two hits over the final six shutout innings, striking out eight.

“That’s the longest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Holder said.

The longest Major League Baseball game, between the White Sox and the Brewers in 1984, lasted eight hours and six minutes over 25 innings.

For Shreve, it was a memorable performance — he twice faced Kris Bryant, his former high school teammate in Las Vegas, including in the 18th after retiring the first two batters. He walked Bryant, then Anthony Rizzo was intentionally walked because Strop’s spot was up, and the only option for Cubs Manager Joe Maddon was to use another pitcher to hit, so he chose Hendricks.

Facing Hendricks required a reminder that all Shreve needed to do was execute his pitches and he would be fine. Facing Bryant was another matter.

“It’s a funny thing,” said Shreve, who got Bryant to fly out in the 16th. “When me and my buddies talk about it back home, oh, when you face Kris, you talk about those situations. What if he comes up in a one-run game in the last inning? You try to forget who’s up there and treat him like any other reigning M.V.P.”

The reward Shreve and Holder get may be a trip to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, since they both have minor-league options, and they will be unavailable Monday night, having thrown 44 and 33 pitches, respectively, and the bullpen is in need of fresh arms.

Shreve, who was sent down to make room for fifth starter Jordan Montgomery earlier this season, has yet to allow a run in seven innings this season.

“I want to pitch well here, I think I can pitch well here, so tonight was very satisfying,” Shreve said. “I just have to keep getting better.”

It hardly seemed like the Yankees were in store for such a long night when Chapman took the mound in the ninth, having been handed a 4-1 lead.

But Chapman, who had allowed one run all season, walked Russell and allowed a single to Jon Jay to begin the inning. He struck out Willson Contreras, but Albert Almora singled to score Russell, and Javier Baez — after fouling off three two-strike pitches — singled to score Jay, narrowing the Yankees’ lead to 4-3.

Chapman rebounded to strike out Kyle Schwarber, but with runners at second and third and a 3-1 count on Bryant, Girardi ordered Bryant walked to load the bases. Chapman then hit Rizzo on the forearm with his first pitch, forcing in the tying run.

After 35 pitches, Chapman was removed for Tyler Clippard, who sent the game to extra innings by retiring Ben Zobrist on a grounder to second.

Adam Warren, who also received a World Series ring on Friday, having spent the first four months of last season with the Cubs, struck out Russell and retired Contreras on a grounder to strand Rizzo at third to end the 12th inning.

On and on it went, until Hicks came to plate in the 18th. It had been a frustrating night for Hicks, who struck out four times and had been hitless, but he leaned on a skill that he had spent time in the off-season honing: bunting.

“You see how Strop a lot of times throws the ball underhanded, you figure that maybe he has a problem with some touch throws,” Girardi said. “That’s why we did it.”

Hicks dropped his bunt down, but it was not far enough to get to Strop. Contreras, who played the entire game behind the plate, sailed his throw into Hicks and past Rizzo, allowing Hicks to reach second. Ronald Torreyes bunted him to third, and then Castro hit a sharp grounder to the left of Russell, who was playing in.

Russell gloved the ball, and a good throw might have had Hicks, but his off-balance throw was up the first-base line. As Hicks slid past the plate, the earlier signs of frustration were gone. He did not kick at the dirt or slam his batting helmet down, as he had done earlier in the game.

He popped up from his slide and was mobbed in the dugout, realizing it felt much better to feel beat than beaten.

Here First African to Play in the Major Leagues Is a ‘Pinnacle’ for Baseball

Every promotion to the major leagues is a triumph. The rookie has ascended to the top of his profession, realized his dream, validated his toil and sacrifice. He deserves the support that awaits him.

For a new Pittsburgh Pirate, though, the feelings run deeper. Gift Ngoepe has arrived, and Major League Baseball has never seen anyone like him. As the industry struggles with declining participation by black Americans, here is Ngoepe, a middle infielder and the first big leaguer born in Africa.

“You know how when you see someone you have something in common with, the way you don’t need to speak, you just look at each other and kind of nod and tip your cap?” said Chris Archer, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s like the ultimate moment for that.”

Ngoepe, 27, was born in what is now Polokwane, South Africa, and he signed with the Pirates for $15,000 in September 2008. In his first four seasons, he did not rise above Class A. In his next four, he peaked at Class AAA.

But last month, when the Pirates needed a middle infielder, they finally called for Ngoepe, who singled off the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester in his first at-bat.

Ngoepe gave his cap to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but kept his bat, he said, because it still had hits left in it. He followed up with three more in Miami and two in Cincinnati. He was 7 for 24 (.292) through Sunday, while playing the smooth defense at shortstop and second base that has kept the Pirates intrigued for so long.

“I played with a lot of people, saw a lot of shortstops, and he ranks up there at the top with them,” said the Pirates coach Tom Prince, who spent 17 seasons in the majors. “His reads on balls, throwing it accurately across the diamond — he’s an unbelievable defender.”

As an amateur, Ngoepe — pronounced n-GO-pay — twice attended Major League Baseball’s academy in Italy, where he worked with Barry Larkin, the Hall of Fame shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. Larkin noticed Ngoepe’s athleticism, but also his remarkably advanced baseball instincts.

Ngoepe’s introduction to the game, however, was a twist on the typical American path. Many players in this country learn baseball from their fathers, but Ngoepe never knew his. Instead, he learned baseball because of his mother.

It would be wrong to say she taught him the game — “She had zero idea about baseball,” Ngoepe said — but without her, he might never have known baseball existed: She raised him at a ball field in a suburb of Johannesburg.

Early Promise

Ngoepe’s given name is Mpho Gift Ngoepe, the middle name a translation of the first, which is in Sotho, his native language. His mother, Maureen, was inspired by a conversation she had with a stranger in a church. She was 21, poor and pregnant with her second son, and the baby’s father had left her. The stranger told her that the boy would make her proud, and that his name should be Gift.

“Just thinking about my name and everything that has happened all my life, it was always bigger than me,” Ngoepe said last week, on the bench before a game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. “God had a purpose and God had a plan for me.”

As a baby, in the waning days of apartheid, Ngoepe lived in a hut in Limpopo, the northernmost province in South Africa. Needing a way to provide for her sons, Maureen left the children with her parents and found work cleaning houses.

She found shelter in Randburg, outside Johannesburg, at the modest home field of an amateur white baseball club called the Mets. The team practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays and played on Sundays. Maureen ran the clubhouse — cooking and cleaning for players, selling food to spectators — and lived in the small room next to the shower stalls.

Soon, young Gift joined her there, and in 1998 she had a third son, Victor, who is now a Pirates farmhand. The quarters were tight — kitchen on one side, dresser, television and bed on the other. But the home was so filled with joy that the players gave Maureen a nickname: Happy.

Music filled their world, Ngoepe said — South African and also the hits from the United States. A Whitney Houston song, “My Love Is Your Love,” was a favorite of his aunt’s and popular when he was 9 or 10. He made it a tribute to his mother.

“I’d put on that song on purpose so I could make my mom dance with me,” Ngoepe said. “She’d be like, ‘No, no, no!’ But I’d hold her tight and spin her. It was a fun time with all of us. We didn’t have a whole lot of things, but everything that we had, we just made it work.”

The world outside captivated him, too. The Mets taught Ngoepe their sport, and he took to it eagerly, preferring its speed to that of cricket. He reveled in the camaraderie of the team, and developed quick hands by mastering the craggy infields. By his teens he had become a baseball prodigy, and his sessions in Italy taught him the finer points of footwork.

“He was one of the earliest to arrive and one of the last to leave,” Larkin said. “There was certainly a desire to be as good as he possibly could be.”

In his second year at the academy, in 2008, Ngoepe had built on lessons learned the previous summer. Larkin told him that a Pirates scout, Tom Randolph, was interested in signing him. It was part of an ambitious effort by the Pirates, then a perennial loser, to seek out talent where others were not looking at all.

They signed two pitchers from India who did not advance far in the pros. They pursued but could not sign Max Kepler, now a promising Minnesota Twins outfielder from Germany. They also signed a pitcher, Dovydas Neverauskas, who became the first major leaguer from Lithuania during the same April series in which Ngoepe debuted.

Painful Progress

The deepest valley in Ngoepe’s journey came four years ago with the Altoona Curve on a road trip to Akron, Ohio. He had finally advanced to Class AA, the proving ground for elite prospects, but felt completely overmatched at the plate. Worse — much worse — was an urgent phone call from home: His mother was in the hospital with pneumonia, and it was serious.

Ngoepe had managed his homesickness before. (“Gift is a conformist,” Larkin said. “He adapts well.”) But this felt different. He took batting practice in a fog, swinging as hard as he could at every pitch. When a teammate asked what was wrong, Ngoepe came undone.

He fled the field for the clubhouse, falling to the bathroom floor in tears. Prince, then a coordinator of instruction, found him there and let him compose himself. Huntington happened to be in town, and clearly, Prince said, they needed to talk.

“I know I’m not doing too good right now, and if you want to release me, go ahead and do it,” Ngoepe said he told his bosses. “But I need to be home. I need to be with my mom. My mom’s not doing too good. I will pick family over what I want in my life.”

There was no need to choose, Huntington said; of course Ngoepe could take all the time he needed at home. Ngoepe spent five torturous days by Maureen’s side until she died, at age 45, a loss that at first seemed to shatter his brothers. He felt a duty to be strong for them.

“Everybody’s crying — should I join them?” Ngoepe said. “But I was like: ‘Well, you have a responsibility now. You have to look after your brothers. They collapsed. They’re down. I have to pull them up.’”

The feeling was so strong for Ngoepe, Huntington said, that he was not sure he would ever return. Finally Ngoepe did, though, after more than two weeks, convinced that his mother would not want him to quit and believing that her memory could sustain him.

Yet progress was painful. Ngoepe hit .177 in Class AA in 2013, then repeated the level in 2014. After that season, he helped major leaguers run a clinic in South Africa and met Archer, who had no idea that anyone from there played in the pros.

Archer, whose biological father is black, had taken the trip to learn more about his heritage. He was eager to spread baseball to a continent not known for it, but also to interact with people and learn about their life. In Ngoepe he found a native who was grappling with his future in the game.

Archer gave Ngoepe a note with a one-word question: “Why?” Over dinner, Ngoepe shared his doubts and frustration.

“I get it, dude, I get it,” Archer said he had told him. “You’re on a different continent, in a different culture, and there’s no one like you anywhere — in Altoona, Indianapolis, or if you get to the big leagues. But you’re giving hope to more than just yourself.”

Archer insisted that the sacrifices Ngoepe was making — all those seasons away from his brothers, the added pain of leaving them without their mother — would one day make sense. Eventually, Archer promised, there would be a reward. Ngoepe listened and decided to press on.

“His mom named him Gift for a reason,” Archer said. “You get that feeling when you’re around him.”

Reaching the Pinnacle

Ngoepe finally reached Class AAA Indianapolis later in the 2015 season. He abandoned switch-hitting, focusing solely on the right side, and held his own for a few weeks. But last season brought more disappointment: a .217 average, with 130 strikeouts in 332 at-bats.

“He was always trying to find himself with the bat in his hand,” said the first-base coach Kimera Bartee, a minor league instructor throughout Ngoepe’s climb. “But when he’s in between the lines and he’s got that glove on? Extremely comfortable. Always has been, always will be.”

Clint Hurdle, the Pirates’ manager, could not shake the allure of that glove. It lit up the screen when he surveyed the team’s prospects on video. Hurdle would pester the minor league coaches: What about the bat? Do we have a player? But Ngoepe was often his own worst enemy at the plate, too impatient to work deep counts or commit to a consistent technique.

Then, this spring training, things changed: Ngoepe hit .429 with a .500 on-base percentage. He stopped chasing bad pitches, working the counts in his favor and capitalizing. The Pirates ignored his sluggish start in Class AAA because at last, they had seen what they wanted to see. The major league game does not overwhelm him.

“I’m really interested to see how this works out for him,” Hurdle said, “because if the bat starts to play a little bit, he’s a legit major league player.”

Ngoepe is popular with his teammates, his enthusiasm infectious — important for a clubhouse rocked by the drug suspension of the All-Star outfielder Starling Marte and the legal troubles that have kept third baseman Jung Ho Kang in South Korea all season.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the team’s centerpiece, said he was thrilled to witness Ngoepe’s trajectory. He may even visit his teammate in South Africa, where Ngoepe returns for two months or so every winter.

“He’s invited me,” McCutchen said. “I’ve got to take him up on the offer; it’d be kind of cool. I told him already: ‘I want to plan a trip.’ I try to be a man of my word.”

Ngoepe, who has a tattoo of Africa on his left shoulder, knows life will be different when he returns home. Typically he starts in Johannesburg and then spends time with his family in Limpopo, where the sports minister has already promised a rousing welcome-home party. That is fine, Ngoepe said, but really he is most comfortable relaxing, and burrowing his way back in time.

Maureen is gone, and others in Randburg now run the clubhouse. But his older brother, Christopher, still lives at the field, and Ngoepe joins him when he visits, though he could afford something much bigger now.

“Yeah, but I grew up there and all my memories are there,” he said. “I do love being there, knowing that I can practice and work on my baseball stuff on that same field I grew up on.”

When he was a boy, Ngoepe said, he would plead with his mother not to watch him bat. He never seemed to hit when she did, but he knew deep down that she could always peek out a window and see.

“Nice hit, my son,” she would tell him. All these years later, it is not so different. When Ngoepe reached base after that first single in the majors, Bartee wrapped him in an embrace.

“It was hard to hold back those tears,” Bartee said. “I didn’t know what to say. I just told him: ‘Hey, Mom’s here. Mom was right there with you. She’s smiling.’”

Ngoepe had made it, completing a quest unlike any other in the history of the game. Somewhere, perhaps, the former clubhouse manager of the Randburg Mets was dancing again. My love is your love.