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Fred VanVleet’s determined effort inspires Raptors in win over 76ers

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Who was going to help? Who was going to quit watching Fred VanVleet revving the engine to the red line, fuel tank on empty, and get themselves up to speed?

The Toronto Raptors were staring down a four-game losing streak Thursday night, but VanVleet wasn’t having it.

From the minute the ball went up he was determined to lift his team and avoid following up a dud outing against Boston with another in Philadelphia.

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But he needed someone else to step up. Someone off the bench. Anyone.

The Raptors responded. The fight was there. Chris Boucher found his game for the first time this season. Scottie Barnes came to life in the third quarter and Svi Mykhailiuk did his part down the stretch and off the bench.

And then OG Anunoby took over as the primary ball-handler to make two textbook plays late in the shot clock and late in the game to set up threes for Gary Trent Jr. and then — who else — for VanVleet, whose sixth triple of the night with 24.8 seconds left iced it as Toronto closed a gutty effort on an 8-0 run.

The Raptors’ 115-109 win improved Toronto to 7-6 on the season with one more home date (Saturday) before a daunting six-game road trip after that.

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VanVleet finished with a season-high 32 points on 11-22 shooting while adding seven assists in 40 minutes. But he got some assistance, too. Boucher came off the bench for a season-best 17 points; Barnes had 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists; Anunoby had 20 points and four assists and Trent Jr. had 20 with four assists also.

The Sixers were without some key pieces but were lifted by Tyrese Maxey who had 15 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter, though it was not enough to halt the Sixers’ losing streak which is now at three as Philadelphia fell to 8-5.

Toronto played to their maximum to take an 81-78 lead into the fourth quarter. They switched to zone defence and got some support for VanVleet, who had carried them through the first half. Barnes looked for his shot a bit more in the half-court and had a nice sequence when he dribbled himself open into some mid-range twos while also finding his way to a couple of scores on the offensive glass. He chipped in with three assists also.

There was some welcome signs of life from Boucher who has struggled badly after missing all of training camp with a dislocated finger and finding himself in a battle for playing time since. Boucher looked like his old self with a trio of dunks and his recognizable manic energy.

The Raptors needed it after it was determined that Pascal Siakam would be rested for the second night of the back-to-back after playing two games since being cleared following off-season shoulder surgery.

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The rest of the Raptors had to carry the load.

The Raptors were fully expecting to have their will tested, even though the Sixers have been dealing with COVID-19 issues: MVP candidate Joel Embiid and all-defence prospect Matisse Thybulle both missed their third and fourth games, respectively, due to health and safety protocols, while Tobias Harris returned after a six-game absence. Sharpshooter Seth Curry — shooting 48.3 per cent from three this season — returned after missing one game.

The Sixers have created an identity this season as a team that plays with freedom — they came into the game with the NBA’s top-ranked offence, even with point forward Ben Simmons unavailable.

But Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was not interested in excuses pre-game.

“I think that tonight you got to be ready to go early, right? You got to really be ready to run. Both ways. I think throw everything else out, you know, back-to-back on the road — whatever you want to throw in there, they’re coming fast anyway, but you better be ready to run and get your defence set up or it’s gonna be tough to guard them,” Nurse said. “So I think it’s especially true tonight you got to really shake off the last game quickly. Get determined and do, you know, some hard things. You got to run, you got to hit on the rebounding. Gotta handle the ball with strength, you got to play through hits to score. You got to execute with some mental toughness. Those kinds of things on a night like tonight early.”

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VanVleet — the NBA’s leader in minutes played — was game to bring the fight early less than 24 hours after the Raptors lost in Boston. He decided that he would unravel the Raptors’ offensive woes by looking for his own number early and often.

He assisted on the Raptors’ first basket, grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the ball the length of the floor for a lay-up on his next touch, hit a three, knocked down a pair of free throws and then knocked down another three before the game was five minutes old. He scored 15 points in the first quarter as the Raptors hung tough, trailing 30-27.

VanVleet then went on to play all but 38 seconds in the second quarter. Late in the half he took another hit and was sent to the floor for the umpteenth time, but this time spread his arms wide and lay there for a while, grateful for a chance to recover.

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His best efforts weren’t enough. The Sixers used a 16-4 run to open up a 10-point lead late in the second quarter before Toronto cut that in half with scores on the last two possessions before the break.

VanVleet simply didn’t have enough help. There wasn’t another Raptors player in double figures scoring by halftime as Toronto’s season-long shooting woes continued. Raptors other than VanVleet (5-of-11) were shooting 36 per cent and 25 per cent from three.

It didn’t help too that the Raptors botched away several opportunities in transition with Precious Achiuwa and Boucher combining for a couple each.

But VanVleet was determined to will his teammates to a bigger effort. Eventually, they joined him.



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Dialled-in Auston Matthews stays hot, helps Maple Leafs rout Oilers

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EDMONTON — As pregame warmups winded down and all the Oilers had filed off the ice, one player remained alone, stickhandling around the dots and flipping pucks into an empty net.

Gradually, a roar began to swell from the multitudes of fans decked out in enemy blue and white. And by the time Auston Matthews finally skated to the dressing room, he’d received a hearty ovation. In Edmonton. Twenty minutes before puck drop.

Leafs Nation turned out to Rogers Place in giddy droves, punctuating Jack Campbell saves with bellowing “Sooooup!” calls and drowning out “Let’s go, Oilers!” chants with loud rounds of “Go! Leafs! Go!”

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Unfortunately for the home side, the Oilers failed to execute a solid road game, and a half-crowd-pleasing 5-1 Toronto win extended Edmonton’s losing skid to six games.

A dialled-in Matthews reciprocated his fans’ love late in the first period, scoring with Leon Draisaitl in the box for roughing and extending his point streak to 10 games.

Matthews’ 19th bumped him up to third place in the goal race, trailing only Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, whose team’s offence has dried up.

The Oilers appeared determined to claw their way back into the game in the second, firing the period’s first eight shots and pinning Toronto in its own zone.

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But when the Leafs finally did muster a shot at the 8:47 mark — a crease-crasher from Wayne Simmonds — it went in the net.

A T.J. Brodie slapshot was redirected by McDavid and past Mikko Koskinen, increasing the lead to three and giving Brodie his first of the season and 50th of his career.

Colton Sceviour banged in his first as an Oiler, giving Edmonton a rare dose of bottom-six production, but Morgan Rielly struck right back for Toronto, thanks to a pretty William Nylander feed.

Rielly’s two-point night gives the defenceman 12 points in his past seven games and 22 in 22 since signing his monster eight-year extension.

Matthews sniped his 20th late in the third.

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“They’re playing great hockey,” Leaf-turned-Oiler Tyson Barrie said. “They’ve really turned it around after a tough start, and they’re one of the top teams in the league.”

With Thursday’s game in Calgary postponed due to the Flames’ COVID outbreak, the Maple Leafs will travel to Vancouver and practice for a couple of days ahead of Saturday’s matinee against the Canucks.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Forechecking presence Zach Hyman (shoulder) missed out on his first opportunity to face his former team.

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“I’m sure the D will have a little bit of a sigh of relief going back for pucks,” Matthews said. “He’s an amazing guy, amazing teammate. Every single guy that has played with him probably can’t say enough good things about him.”

• McDavid skated one day with fellow “exceptional status” wunderkind Connor Bedard in Toronto this summer with Gary Roberts and the crew.

“First and foremost, just very impressed with his skill level, the way he shoots the puck, and it was eye-popping,” McDavid said.

Like McDavid, Bedard made Canada’s world junior squad at age 16.

“It’s an amazing thing he’s done, to make the team at such a young age. It’s exciting for everybody,” said McDavid, thinking back to his 2014 experience. “It’s your first games on the big stage. With that comes social media and lots of attention. For me and our team that year, things didn’t go that well [Canada finished fourth]. So, there’s lots of negativity around that. I remember it being difficult. So, I would say to go in and have fun. And maybe stay off social media for a bit because it can be a bit negative.”

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• Justin Holl is really fighting it. At what point does coach Sheldon Keefe give veteran righty Alex Biega a look on the third pair? Is Saturday in Vancouver an option for the former Canuck?

• Jason Spezza’s suspension appeal was heard by Gary Bettman Tuesday. He’s already served four of his six games.

Victim Neal Pionk didn’t want to comment much on the hit: “It is what it is. The league made their decision.”

The Jets defenceman had more to say about his own knee that sidelined Rasmus Sandin.

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“I’m not out there to hurt anybody,” Pionk told reporters in Winnipeg. “It made me sick to see him go off the ice and he’s limping off the ice. He’s a great young defenceman. I never want to cut his career short, even by a game. There’s remorse there and definitely not intent on the hit.”

• Following a big snowfall in Edmonton overnight, McDavid was asked if he gets up and shovels in the morning.

“I’m lucky enough to have a heated driveway,” McDavid replied.

Simmonds got a kick out of McDavid’s wintertime flex.

“No heated driveway. Connor’s a boss,” Simmonds smiled. “We’re lucky enough to have a snowplow guy come by and help us out a little bit there. Because generally, if I’m on the road, it’s just my wife at home. So, she can’t be doing a driveway.”

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Senators feeling mental, physical fatigue as COVID-19 outbreak drags on

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The Ottawa Senators are prisoners in their own town.

They can’t practice, let alone go out. It’s rink/home. If they even live at home. Many don’t right now, to protect their families.

While the rest of the NHL more or less eases into post-pandemic life, the Senators have turned back the clock. The lockdown bubble is back. A young, growing Ottawa team is trying to perform that impossible gymnastic exercise of drawing closer together while remaining physically apart. They are masked and weary.

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Their dressing room has been cut in half, spaces between stalls doubled to allow distancing and players moved out to other rooms to reduce numbers.

Tested multiple times daily, players are showing positive COVID-19 tests and then not — such that over the past several days, forward Drake Batherson and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev were both placed on the COVID-19 protocols list, then removed, only to be put back on again.

Batherson, with a boatload of family and friends here from Nova Scotia to see his game against Pittsburgh on Saturday, was put on the list in the morning, then removed in the afternoon, and was the Hockey Night In Canada hero with a career-high four-point night in a 6-3 victory that ended a six-game losing streak.

The next day, Batherson, Ottawa’s scoring leader and best forward, was put back on the protocols list and the Sens got routed 4-0 by Calgary.

False positives and true positives are getting to be a collective negative.

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“Everyday there’s something unexpected,” Senators captain Brady Tkachuk says. “So, of course it kind of wears on you mentally.”

With 10 Ottawa players and assistant coach Jack Capuano testing positive over the past 10 days, Sens players are living in fear that they’re up next. How could they not think that?

“You’re almost crossing your fingers every single day hoping that you get through with a negative (test),” said veteran defenceman Michael Del Zotto. “It is a learning experience, with the different tests we’re doing, and trying to keep everyone safe, not just the players but their families and staff as well. It’s a great opportunity for guys to learn the mental side of the game.”

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With 13 years in the league, Del Zotto says he is trying to help emergency callups like D-men Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Thomson has stepped in seamlessly in his first three NHL games, but there are little pointers and supportive comments that can be vital for a raw rookie. Yet, Tkachuk notes that veterans and rookies are often in different dressing rooms, so they can’t even talk during intermission about little mistakes made or so much as say, “don’t worry about that.”

How impressive have newcomers like Thomson, Bernard-Docker and winger Egor Sokolov been, jumping into the lineup without the benefit of off-day practices? This non-playoff team, spiralling at 4-10-1 to open the season, is in playoff mode, as far as no practices between games.

Hockey players are proudly stoic. They trot out their “next man up” lines and “no excuses.”

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But let’s be honest. If this was any other business besides professional sport, the rink would be closed and the players told to stay home. With the COVID-19 cases now in double figures and the AHL Belleville Senators tapped dry to the point they are virtually signing people off the street to assemble a roster there, the NHL is surely questioning the wisdom of the Senators flying to New Jersey on Tuesday to play the Devils.

While the COVID-19 cases ran through a team like the San Jose Sharks (seven cases) rather quickly, the Ottawa situation is lingering, protracted.

“Mentally, players don’t know if they’re in (a lineup) or not in — they’re waiting on the test and it’s a lot of distraction,” says head coach D.J. Smith. “You know, it’s hard enough to win in the National Hockey League with no distractions, no noise and a healthy group, let alone all the distractions that go with the testing and the last-minute pullouts.

“It’s the NHL, we have to try to find ways to win. (Sunday) was a tough one for us.”

New captain Tkachuk, just 22, is putting up a brave front, however chaotic the background scenes may be.

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“It’s just such a weird situation right now,” Tkachuk says. “We’ve just got to get through it and make sure everybody’s healthy and doing your part to stop this spread.”

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Loss of Pinto hurts

Just as in life, “no good deed goes unpunished,” it can seem, for every bright spot, a dark one emerges for the Senators. With Batherson cleared to play on Saturday, and centre Shane Pinto, 21, finally back from his shoulder injury, it felt as though the Senators were turning a corner on the crisis.

But as Pinto bent low, clutching his right shoulder following a first period faceoff against Pittsburgh, it represented a massive blow to a roster already thin down at centre. Still a rookie, Pinto has slid right into a second line centre role with the Senators, but now could require surgery to repair the shoulder.

“He commanded the ice in the middle,” Smith said. “The way he controlled the game when he was out there, it’s a huge loss for us.”

With Batherson added to the protocols list on Sunday, the Senators are missing several key forwards — Connor Brown, Batherson, Pinto, Alex Formenton, Colin White — and a lot of experience on defence — Zaitsev, Josh Brown, Nick Holden, plus young defencemen Victor Mete (COVID-19) and Erik Brannstrom (broken hand).

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Thomson impresses

It’s a small sample size, but the smooth, smart play of Thomson has been one of the bright spots for Ottawa in a rough stretch. In just his third game, Thomson vaulted up to the top pair with Thomas Chabot, playing 20-plus minutes. Thomson played even more than that in his NHL debut Thursday. While he was minus-three on Sunday, the Flames were scoring on Anton Forsberg from outside and with deflections.

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Before the game, Smith admitted it is a bonus to get a sneak preview on some of Ottawa’s upcoming talent.

“You know, what I saw from him last year at the end of the year when I watched AHL games was just how good his feet are, his gap,” Smith says. “He snaps the puck hard. The NHL is a game of inches and things happen quick. When D snap the puck you are able to beat coverage and what-have-you.

“The thing I’ve been impressed with is his ability to defend so far. Boxing out, speed to pucks. Really good stick. A lot of young kids have offensive ability to make plays, but their ability to defend is what gets them in the league sooner than later and he’s been really good.”

Is it just me, or does Thomson remind anyone of a young Sami Salo? Like Salo, Thomson has a strong shot, plays a smooth, effortless game and makes smart plays.

Gustavsson owns net

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The lone goaltender on the COVID-19 list is starter Matt Murray. In his absence, Filip Gustavsson continues to be a rock for the Sens. Gustavsson made several big saves early against the Penguins Saturday, including during a 5-on-3 advantage, to give his team a chance to get the offence going. On Thursday, Gustavsson deserved better in a 2-0 loss, with both L.A. Kings goals coming on deflections. Anton Forsberg was not great on Sunday, and Gustavsson will be leaned on this week with scheduled games against New Jersey Tuesday, home to Nashville Thursday and home again Saturday versus the New York Rangers.

Considering the Sens overall record, Gustavsson’s stats line is remarkable: 3-3-1, 3.01 goals against and .915 save percentage.



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Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson eager to feel like himself again after hernia surgery

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TORONTO — Seeing as he’s thrown only 63.2 innings over the last 26 months, Nate Pearson’s had a lot of time to think about a lot of things. How quickly the air can let out of a top prospect’s rise to MLB. Where it went off the rails over two years marred by injuries and wayward control. Why he’s seldom felt like himself when healthy enough to take the mound.

“Dealing with injuries — it affects you physically, obviously. But it also affects you mentally. If you’re not going out there confident in your health, if you’re worried about something else, it’s hard to compete. And I struggled with that,” Pearson says. “You’re OK to pitch. But in the back of your head, you know something might be lingering or isn’t quite right. And now you’re tightening up. The game’s speeding up on you. You have to try to slow it down. And sometimes I wasn’t able to, and I’d have these blow-up innings.

“I just need to be in the present. It’s so hard when you’re thinking about things negatively. I had to learn how to not get too down when I was down. And how to enjoy it when I’d have a good outing. How to be even keeled through the whole process. How to not put too much pressure on myself. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

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These are the things Pearson’s been reflecting on since the end of a 2021 season in which little went his way. He entered the year near the top of prospect rankings across the industry and positioned to claim a job in the Blue Jays rotation. But then he hurt his groin in early March and missed the start of the season. And only seven outings after he returned in May, he hurt it again. He finished the year with 11 stretch-run appearances out of the Blue Jays bullpen and a date with a surgeon in New York to repair a sports hernia.

Surgery was discussed thoroughly after Pearson’s groin problems arose a second time in June, as he went from waiting room to waiting room, receiving multiple opinions on the recurring injury. Ultimately, Pearson and the Blue Jays decided to kick the ball down the road to the off-season, opting instead for the right-hander to continue pitching through the issue in shorter stints to better manage his workload and recovery.

In July, Pearson received a cortisone injection to relieve his pain and began working towards a return. By mid-August, he was back on a mound in triple-A. And a half-dozen outings later, he was called up to pitch out of the Blue Jays bullpen during a post-season push. It was the best he’d felt all year.

“I finished the season great — I felt like myself again,” Pearson says. “I pitched in the last game of the season and came out of it expecting to pitch in the playoffs.”

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A post-season appearance wasn’t in the cards. But returning to New York to see the doctor he consulted with mid-season was. Over a five-day visit during the second week of October, Pearson was advised to have the hernia procedure, went under the knife, and left the operating room with a month-long recovery ahead of him.

“We all decided that enough was enough with this. I wanted to get it done and put it behind me,” Pearson says. “I was at peace with it. Coming out of surgery, I felt that I really needed it.”

Not that Pearson looked like he needed it this September, as he averaged 98.5 m.p.h. on his fastball (touching 102), earned a 48.6 per cent whiff rate with his slider, and struck out more than a third of the batters he faced. He was electric. But cortisone treats a symptom, not a cause. The pain Pearson was dealing with earlier in the season was ultimately going to return until he had the hernia repaired.

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Still, finishing the season the way he did was extremely meaningful to Pearson. After spending most of April and May adjusting his mechanics to alleviate the stress on his groin — “Yeah, that backfired,” he says now — Pearson returned to the delivery he’s used his entire life and went on the most sustained run of success he’s had in two years. He reminded himself he can get hitters out at the highest level; that the stuff plays. The September bullpen stint wasn’t about proving he was healthy, because technically he wasn’t. It was about proving something to himself.

“I had a goal of getting back up to the big leagues. I didn’t want to end my season struggling in triple-A,” Pearson says. “With everything that’s happened and everything I’ve gone through, I really wanted to get that feeling back of being myself on the mound. Going after guys. Getting that adrenaline again. I feel like I got that itch back where I want to be out there all the time. I want to be on that mound. You get that drive again. It’s addictive. It’s so fun.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Pearson’s not sure when, how, or why he lost that drive. He had it in 2019, when he rocketed up Toronto’s system from high-A to triple-A, pitching to a 2.30 ERA across 25 starts. But over time, through injuries and control struggles, it bled away.

It really hit him this May, when he was demoted to triple-A following a rocky, three-run, five-walk, seven-out start against the Houston Astros. As Pearson was stepping back, Alek Manoah was leaping forward, storming through his first taste of the level in a breakout season. From the dugout’s top step, Pearson watched a pitcher two years his junior take the mound with a tenacity he couldn’t find.

“Alek’s got amazing stuff. But what makes him so good is that he’s so confident. His mound presence is crazy to watch. I learned so much from him,” Pearson says. “I was like, ‘That’s how I need to pitch. That’s how I should be. I should be that bulldog out there.’ And I realized I’d kind of lost myself. I was like that and I lost it for a bit due to injuries and everything else.”

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While Manoah was attacking the zone, Pearson was nibbling at corners, falling behind, throwing uncompetitive pitches. He was thinking too much about the quality of hitters he was facing; thinking about needing to get through six; thinking about his second and third trip through the order, rather than focusing on getting the out in front of him.

And he was thinking a lot about velocity. Looking up at his readings on the scoreboard during games; obsessing over every data point Rapsodo spat out between bullpen pitches. Pearson was measuring his success on throwing a tick harder; pushing his curveball spin efficiency up over 90 per cent; moving the vertical break on that pitch beyond minus-20. It was consuming.

The irony is that Pearson probably isn’t a big-leaguer if not for a data-driven developmental process he used to build his arsenal. But getting to the majors and staying there are different challenges. That’s why velocity and spin are the last concerns he wants on his mind going forward.

Now it’s about throwing those nasty pitches he built for strikes. Using them to get quick outs. Ignoring the data during bullpens and asking more universal questions. Was my fastball playing in the zone? How did my stuff look to the hitter in the box? Did my slider start as a strike before moving off the plate? Did my curveball stay up long enough to get a swing?

“I say this every year, I know. But I’ve just got to attack the zone,” Pearson says. “I’ve got to actually go into bullpens and focus on that. Not focusing on velo. Not focusing on curveball spin efficiency or slider break or any of that Rapsodo stuff. Obviously, that stuff is really good to know and understand. But I feel like I got absorbed into it. And if it’s not translating into a competitive setting, then what’s the use for it?

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“I can throw these immaculate bullpens — these legendary bullpens. But I need to prove it out on the biggest stage. Focusing so much on that stuff and obsessively fine-tuning everything, it took away from my competitive side. It took away from the fact I still need to go out there with whatever I have and compete.”

That’s the thing. A curveball with over 90 per cent spin efficiency and vertical break beyond minus-20 is a great pitch. As is a triple-digit fastball. And a hard slider that spins over 2,600 revolutions per minute. Plenty of pitchers would be ecstatic to develop just one of those offerings. Pearson throws all three. A changeup, too. But what good is a great pitch if you aren’t throwing it for strikes?

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