Fall Ball: Phils Still Alive, and... Well...

Fall Ball: Phils Still Alive, and... Well...

Friday night saw gorgeous weather in Philly, perfect for an outdoor meal, a few beers, and some playoff-implications baseball to send the summer off in style. Despite some monumental setbacks this season, the Phillies are still an exciting ball club when healthy. Look no further than the past two nights for evidence of that, as they destroyed the Mets in a laugher on Thursday before welcoming the Braves to Citizens Bank Park with a 6-2 victory.  
The Phils find themselves in a somewhat unique situation as fall begins. They're not far from gaining a wild card spot, yet there seems to be little external postseason pressure right now. Most fans wrote the season off as lost months ago, and we've enjoyed the pleasant surprise of a climb in the standings and some great baseball to watch along the way. 
This afternoon, on the first day of the season that has lately brought playoff baseball to Philly, we have a meaningful game to watch, and our team is the one no other clubhouse wants getting into the playoffs. Hard not to enjoy nine innings right about now (possibly while flipping back and forth to Temple-Penn State). 
Last night's starter, Kyle Kendrick, may be the feel-good story of the Phillies' resurgent second half. If this season doesn't have a storybook ending, we can at least appreciate Kendrick's efforts lately and hope he maintains a solid portion of it next season. 
At the plate, Ryan Howard has homered in three straight games, giving him 13 on the season, with 54 RBI in 66 games played. A .228 average may induce a wince, but Todd Zolecki points out that with runners in scoring position, that mark jumps to .343. It's been great to see the Big Piece in the Cadillac again. 
Both he and Chase Utley homered on Friday, marking the 47th time they've gone yard in the same game, per Elias Sports Bureau. Elias also says they're the active leading duo in that regard, with 36 by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun the next best. Again per Zolecki, they're also on the brink of milestones, with Howard a homer shy of 300 and Utley just one away from 200. Kevin Frandsen notched the first of the Phillies' four homers last night, and after Howard homered in the bottom of the fourth, Chooch followed him up with a blast of his own. Meanwhile, Kendrick induced ground ball after ground ball. 
It was hard not to think about what 2012 might have been with a far healthier squad. 
Even still, there is time for a postseason berth to happen, though it will take more than just continuing the winning streak. The Dodgers are just one game ahead of them, the Brewers 1.5 after winning an impressive six straight and nine of 10. Three games back from the Cardinals with 11 to play, starting with tonight's action between Roy Halladay and Mike Minor... That's still a lot of teams to leapfrog and not much time to do it, but it's more than enough reason to tune in. 
Baseball's 162-game season can at times leave individual contests feeling like just another game. For the rest of this regular season, until the Philliess are eliminated or clinch a berth, every plate appearance feels more magnified. Whether they make it or not, that's enjoyable. 
The way the Phils have played on many nights lately (aside from the wtf Houston series) is entertainment enough if you love the game. Go Cubs. 

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).