Philly March Madness FINAL FOUR: (1) Mike Schmidt vs. (4) Ryan Howard

Philly March Madness FINAL FOUR: (1) Mike Schmidt vs. (4) Ryan Howard

Over the next few weeks at The700Level, we'll be posting poll matchups as part of our Philly March Madness competition.
Examine the cases of
the two fine Philadelphia athletes
below, and cast your vote at the
bottom as to which you think should
advance to the next round. And as
always, feel free to explain your
selection and/or debate the choices
in the comments section.

Today and tomorrow: The Final Four and the Finals. Here's hoping
for our biggest voter turnout yet as we finally name a greatest Philly
athlete of the last 30 years.



(1) Mike Schmidt

Previously Defeated: (16) Keith Byars, (9) Wilbert Montgomery, (4) Ron Hextall, (3) Brian Dawkins

Sports Writers Say:

He  was batting .203 with six homers, but when his glove also betrayed him,  Mike Schmidt knew it was time. With two on and two out in a 3-3 game in  San Francisco a week ago, the Phillies' third baseman booted a grounder  for what would have been the third out, a grounder he would have once  handled routinely. When the next hitter, Will Clark, smashed a  grand-slam homer, the Phillies were on their way to an 8-5 loss. And at  age 39, Mike Schmidt decided that he won't be playing baseball anymore.  It's baseball's loss, not his. Too many baseball fans yearn for the good  old days, as if nobody playing now could possibly be as good as the  old-timers. But too many baseball fans don't always appreciate the good  now days. Over nearly two decades, Mike Schmidt was the third baseman of  the good now days. While accumulating three National League most  valuable player awards, he hit 548 homers and was voted 10 Gold Gloves.  No other third baseman ever did what he did with both his bat and his  glove. Not Brooks Robinson, not Eddie Mathews, not Pie Traynor.

If  you saw Mike Schmidt play baseball, you can always say that you saw  baseball's best third baseman. Even the old-timers might not argue.

In  assembling an all-time team, third base had always been the thinnest  p

osition for candidates. Only seven are waiting for Mike Schmidt to join  them in 1995 at the Hall of Fame: the old-timers Frank (Home Run)  Baker, Fred Lindstrom and Jimmy Collins along with George Kell,  Robinson, Mathews and Traynor. The other positions always had many more  legends to choose from but Lou Gehrig dominated the first basemen,  Rogers Hornsby the second basemen, Honus Wagner the shortstops. In the  outfield, take any three: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Ted  Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose. Among the  catchers, judge Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella  and Johnny Bench. For pitching, consider Cy Young, Walter Johnson,  Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton,  Tom Seaver.

But at third base, it's no contest. As good as  Traynor, Mathews and Robinson were in other years, none of them matched  the complete package that Schmidt put together.

Season after season, Schmidt not only produced but he usually produced when the Phillies needed him to produce.

His  500th homer wasn't merely a ceremonial cannon shot. It won a game in  Pittsburgh. In the 1980 divisional race with the Expos, his home run in  Montreal clinched the title. In the World Series against the Kansas City  Royals that year he batted .381, hit two homers and drove in seven  runs. He was selected as the m.v.p. as the Phillies won the Series for  the only time in the franchise's 106-year history. He once hit four  homers in a game; he twice hit three homers in a game. He holds the  National League career third-base records for double plays, total  chances and assists. And in an era of free-agent soldiers of fortune, he  wore only the Phillies' uniform.

One reason was that the Phillies were wise enough to pay him what he  was worth: more than $17 million over his career, more than any other  baseball player in history except Dave Winfield.

Like every  player, Schmidt had his slumps. When the Phillies lost the 1983 Series  to the Orioles in five games, he batted .050, only one broken-bat single  in 20 official times at bat. Even so, he never hid or sulked. After  every game, he sat at his locker and answered questions, patiently,  thoughtfully.

''I'd like to hit a five-run homer or a six-run  homer,'' he joked after the fourth game. ''You ever see one of those?''  But his 1980 World Series ring had eased his burden as the Phillies'  most productive hitter, a burden that developed on the teams that lost  the National League Championship Series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. When the  Phillies won the 1980 Series, their manager was Dallas Green, now the  Yankee manager.

''Schmitty was neat to be around,'' Green  recalled. ''He made you work at making him understand the game and  there's nothing wrong with that.''

Schmidt also made opposing managers work. Charlie Fox, now a Yankee  coach, once managed the Giants, the Expos and the Cubs against the  Phillies.

''When you're a manager,'' Fox said, ''there's always  one player on the other team that you tell yourself, 'Don't let this man  beat me.' On the Phillies that man was Schmitty. With the game on the  line, you'd tell your pitcher, 'Get this guy out, then we'll walk  Schmitty, and get the next guy.' But when you did pitch to him, you  never knew how. Just when you thought you were getting him out inside,  he'd start hitting the outside pitch to right center.''

At 6 feet 2  inches and 205 pounds, Schmidt was also considered one of the Phillies'  best baserunners. He stole 174 bases, with a high of 29 in 1975.

''He  stole a base when the Phillies needed it, usually late in the game,''  Fox said. ''He lulled you early in the game. In the third inning, the  fifth inning, he'd take a little lead and never even make a move to  steal. In the seventh or eighth or ninth when the Phillies needed a run,  he'd take that same little lead and you'd figure he wasn't going  anywhere and boom, he'd steal.''

Mike  Schmidt did it all. And he did it with a quiet style that embellished  his stature. If you saw him play, you can always say you saw baseball's  best third baseman. -Dave Anderson, New York Times, 1989


(4) Ryan Howard

Previously Defeated: (13) Jon Runyan, (5) Pete Rose, (1) Reggie White, (3) Donovan McNabb

Sports Writers Say:

The sky over St. Louis looked as gray and uninviting as cold oatmeal when Ryan Howard hit the most memorable moon shot of his career. He was 12, and his Little League team was playing a squad from Jefferson City. Howard, then known simply as Hurt, already had prodigious power from the port side. "When he made contact, it was like, Wow!" recalls his twin brother, Corey. "His home runs were loud."

Late in the game, Hurt turned on a chest-high heater. According to family lore the ball soared over the infield, over the outfield, over a 20-foot chain-link fence in rightfield, over a parking lot and, depending on the storyteller, struck the wall of a Red Lobster, the base of a sign outside a Red Lobster or a Red Lobster sign's red lobster.

Thirteen years later Howard still savors the swat. "It was my first actual bomb," recalls the Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman. "I watched it with a little awe." An equally awed sportswriter recently paced off the distance b
etween home plate and the building. If the yarn is true, Ryan's blast traveled at least 430 feet.

Laid end to end, Howard's homers this season have traveled an estimated 4 1/4 miles, the longest going 491 feet. He had a major-league-leading 56 to go along with a major-league-leading 138 RBIs, including 41 in August, the most by any player in any month since Frank Howard had 41 in July 1962. He also pounded 14 homers and hit .348 last month to single-handedly launch the Phillies into wild-card contention. If Howard reaches 60 homers, he'll become only the sixth player to accomplish the feat. "To hit 50 is really something," says Philadelphia closer Tom Gordon. "Sixty is almost beyond comprehension. It's magnificent."

To date, the Magnificent Five includes Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927, and Roger Maris, whose 61 came in '61. The rest of the roster-- Mark McGwire (65 and 70), Sammy Sosa (63, 64 and 66) and record-holder Barry Bonds (73)--is sullied by suspected steroid use. Should Howard pass Maris's 61, a crusade is afoot to anoint him King of the Juiceless Dinger. Asked if he would take pride in such a title, he says, with a hint of diffidence, "I would."

Then again, Ryan is dispassionately modest about his chances of even attaining 60. "If it happens, it happens," he says with a small shrug. "If I were to do something like that and then wake up and reflect on the season one day at home in the off-season, I wouldn't believe it."

Baseball has seldom seen anything quite like Howard. The hulking 6'4" 250-pounder looks like he was poured into his uniform and forgot to say when. As if stanchioned to the bag at first, he often seems as animated as the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia's City Hall. "Ryan does get excited," insists Philadelphia reliever Geoff Geary. "His excitement is just not extreme." To prove a point, Geary shows a video he filmed surreptitiously on his cellphone. Facing his locker before a game, wired into an iPod, Howard, arms akimbo and hips swiveling, does a wobbly rumba. "That's Ryan's groove dance," says Geary. "He gets down to get loose."

Howard is only truly loose in the clubhouse, where he greets teammates with a dozen handshakes. "He's got big old Mice and Men hands," says Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "You know, like the ones Lenny had. There's a lot of strong in those hands."

You need strong hands to dispatch fastballs into the troposphere. "Ryan uses an inside-out swing for wallburners to left, but his homers to center and right have a trajectory unlike anything I've ever seen," says pitcher Jamie Moyer, a veteran of 20 seasons. "They start out like routine flies and carry and carry and carry until they land 30 rows back in the bleachers. They're absolutely majestic."

At Citizens Bank Park, Howard's most regal blasts alight in the upper deck in right, a veritable petri dish of costumed Phillies fan clubs, from Flash Gordon's "Superheroes" to Chase Utley's " Utley's Uglies." Three clubs vie for Howard supremacy: the leonine-garbed "Ryan's Lions," the Homer Simpson--masked "Homer's Homers" and " Howard's Howards," who sport bowl cuts like Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. All chant "M-V-P!" when their hero steps to the plate.

"Phillies fans go crazy for the shut-up-and-play type," says Jerry Getz, a Philly sports-radio gadfly known as Jerry on the Mobile. "Howard seems like a quiet, clean-cut John Kruk, an accessible, almost jolly guy who plays the game like he loves it. He's the anti-T.O."

In the Phillies' dugout Howard is called everything from Rhinoceros to Man-Mountain to One-Man Gang. The consensus favorite, however, is John Coffey, after the gentle gargantuan in The Green Mile. "John Coffey was a big guy and a good, kind person," says Howard. "I act like that sometimes, too, just to throw people off."

By most accounts it's no act. "Ryan has always been even tempered," says Corey, his fraternal twin. "The only thing that sets him off is hearing people say he can't do things. They've said he can't hit lefties, he can't hit off-speed pitches, he can't hit for a high average. Whatever they've said Ryan can't do, he's gone out and done."

Their father, Ron, a project manager for IBM in St. Louis, forbade the word can't in his home. So Ryan set out to show his old man he could. At Lafayette High he played defensive end, power forward, first base and trombone in the marching band. He played each of them ably but baseball best. Two years ago Howard, who was drafted by the Phils in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of Southwest Missouri State, hit 46 homers for two farm teams. All that stood in his way in Philadelphia was power-hitting first baseman Jim Thome and his six-year, $85 million contract. "I'd heard Ryan hit bombs," Rollins says. "But I figured there were 85 million reasons I wouldn't see him anytime soon."

The following spring Howard auditioned in left, flunked and was sent back to Triple A. "The Phillies traditionally give you one shot," Rollins says. "If you're demoted after that, you might as well cancel Christmas."

For Howard, Christmas came in July. When Thome's season was cut short by injuries, Howard--the International League leader in hitting (.371), on-base percentage (.467) and slugging (.690) at the time--got another chance. He made the most of it, mashing 22 homers (10 in the final month) to help propel the Phils to within a game of the playoffs.

Last November the Phils settled their first base question by trading Thome to the White Sox. Questions about Howard, however, remained to be settled. Though he was Rookie of the Year in 2005, for example, he batted only .148 against southpaws. At week's end he was up to .283 and had hit 15 of his homers off lefties. "Two years ago he had raw power, but he tried to cover the entire strike zone," says Astros third base coach Doug Mansolino. "The difference now is patience and selectivity: He only swings at pitches in his strike zone." (His strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved from 3 to 1 last season to under 2 to 1 this year.)

Pity the pitcher who trespasses in Howard's zone. Last week Houston's Russ Springer tried to bust him with a cutter up and in. Howard swatted the righthander's pitch off the face of the second deck. "Lefthanded batters are supposed to foul that off or hit it on the ground," says Astros infielder Aubrey Huff. "I don't think there's another big leaguer who could have hit it out."

The crack of Howard's 34 1/2-ounce bat was easy on Rollins's ear. "When he connected, it was loud, like somebody had turned up the volume," says Rollins. "It was a beautiful sound, and I knew the ball would be leaving the yard." -Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated, 2006

    Who should advance to the next round?Market Research

Elite Eight Results:

(1) Julius Erving (53.6%) over (2) Chase Utley (46.4%)
(2) Allen Iverson (68.1%) over (5) Brian Westbrook (31.9%)
(1) Mike Schmidt (51.6%) over (3) Brian Dawkins (48.4%)
(4) Ryan Howard (72.9%) over (3) Donovan McNabb (27.1%)

 

NHL Playoffs: Sharks win to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final

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NHL Playoffs: Sharks win to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest of the San Jose Sharks gathered around the Campbell Bowl for a celebratory picture after winning the Western Conference final.

In that moment, all those past playoff disappointments and collapses were forgotten. It will take four more wins to put to rest those questions about if they had the fortitude to win it all.

Captain Joe Pavelski scored an early goal, Joel Ward added two more and the Sharks advanced to their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history by beating the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.

"It's a pretty cool feeling," Thornton said. "Obviously it's our first time. It was pretty neat to get this done at home. The fans here have waited so long, 25 years. We've waited 18 years or so. So it's a great feeling."

Joonas Donskoi also scored, Logan Couture had an empty-netter and Martin Jones made 24 saves as a Sharks team notorious for postseason letdowns will play for the championship that has eluded Thornton and Marleau since they entered the league as the top two picks in 1997.

Thornton assisted on Pavelski's goal less than four minutes into the game to set the tone and Marleau had two assists in the third period that set off chants of "We Want The Cup! We Want The Cup!"

"We're just enjoying the ride right now," Marleau said. "We've had some really good teams over the years."

Despite making the playoffs 16 times in 18 seasons and winning the second-most games in the NHL since the start of the 2003-04 season, the Sharks have been known for their soul-crushing playoff disappointments.

They won just three games in three previous trips to the conference final, were knocked out twice in four seasons by a No. 8 seed and most notably blew a 3-0 series lead to lose in the first round to Los Angeles in 2014.

The impact of that loss lasted for a while as San Jose missed the playoffs entirely last season. But led by first-year coach Peter DeBoer and bolstered by some key acquisitions by general manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks recovered this year and are now only four wins from a championship.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final will be Monday night. The Sharks will either host Tampa Bay or visit Pittsburgh, depending on which team wins Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Thursday night.

"It's a great moment for those guys who have put in a lot of work but we still have another series to go," Couture said. "We still have four more wins to try to get. It's another step. This is the third one now. We're ready for that next challenge."

With the loss, the Blues' postseason woes continue as the franchise still seeks its first championship and first trip to the Cup final since 1970. Coach Ken Hitchcock's second goalie change of the series did not work as Brian Elliott allowed four goals on 26 shots in his return to the net.

Vladimir Tarasenko, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, got his first points of the series when he scored twice in the third period but it was too late for the Blues, who still trailed 4-2.

"It stings right now," captain David Backes said. "Six more wins and we're having parades on Market Street. Right now ... not enough."

This was the first time in San Jose's history that the team played with a trip to the Stanley Cup final on the line. The atmosphere in the Shark Tank reflected the high stakes with the fans at a frenzy during pregame introductions and the "Let's Go Sharks!" chants starting soon after the puck dropped.

The Sharks fed off that energy and were buzzing early as Hitchcock predicted before the game. St. Louis nearly silenced the crowd when Alexander Steen got a chance in the slot early in the period but Jones robbed him with a glove save.

That led to a breakaway for Thornton, who missed the net on his chance. But Pavelski recovered the puck behind the net and before Elliott knew what was happening, Pavelski tucked the puck in on a wraparound for his NHL-leading 13th goal of the playoffs.

San Jose added to the lead early in the second when Ward tipped a point shot from Brent Burns past Elliott to make it 2-0.

Ward's second goal and another by Donskoi in the third period removed any drama and allowed the fans to celebrate and the Blues to ponder their missed opportunity.

"They're hurting right now," Hitchcock said. "We're all hurting. "You don't want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block."

Notes
Marleau played his 165th career playoff game, the most ever for someone who never played in the finals. Thornton is next on the list with 150 games, followed by Curtis Joseph with 133. ... The only franchise that has played longer than San Jose without going to a Cup final is Arizona, which began NHL play as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979-80.

NBA Playoffs: Cavs respond to destroy Raptors in Game 5

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NBA Playoffs: Cavs respond to destroy Raptors in Game 5

BOX SCORE

CLEVELAND -- Back home, the Cavaliers were not hospitable.

They rudely roughed up the Raptors again.

LeBron James scored 23 points then sat the fourth quarter, Kevin Love scored 25, and Cleveland unleashed tenacious defense on Toronto to regain control of the Eastern Conference finals with a 116-78 rout of the Raptors in Game 5 on Wednesday night.

On their court in front of 20,000-plus screaming fans following two straight losses in Canada, the Cavs opened a 34-point lead in the first half and never slowed while taking a 3-2 series lead.

They can clinch their second straight conference title and trip to the NBA Finals with a win in Game 6 on Friday night in Toronto.

"We ought to be able to transfer that on Friday," James said. "Playing in that beast of an arena that we're going to we got to be composed, we got to be tough and we got to be sharp."

The Raptors, who came in with momentum and confidence after winning Games 3 and 4, left Quicken Loans Arena shaken and one loss from having their deepest playoff run stopped.

"They kicked our butts, bottom line," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "That's been all three ballgames."

James had eight assists and six rebounds in 31 minutes before checking out late in the third quarter with the Cavs up 37. He spent the fourth quarter resting on the bench while Cleveland's reserves finished the romp.

Kyrie Irving added 23 points and he, James and Love outscored the Raptors 43-34 in the first half. Cleveland has won its three games in the series by a combined 88 points.

"They are a different team here," Casey said. "We came in here with a chance to do something special and we didn't get it done. They pushed us around and took what they wanted."

DeMar DeRozan scored 14 points and Kyle Lowry had 13 for the Raptors, who were overwhelmed from the start. Bismack Biyombo had just four rebounds after getting 40 the past two games. The only positive for Toronto was center Jonas Valanciunas, who returned after missing eight straight games with a sprained right ankle. He scored nine points in 18 minutes.

Playing defense as if every possession was the game's last, Cleveland held Toronto to 34 points in the opening half while building a 31-point halftime lead -- the largest in conference finals history. Since their expansion arrival in 1993, the Raptors had never been down by 30 before in any game -- regular or postseason -- at halftime but they have rarely seen a defense like this either.

The Cavs were all over the court, swarming and stifling DeRozan and Lowry, who combined for 67 points in Game 4.

A courtside doctor might have stopped this one in the first half.

Love found his shooting touch after it went missing during the lost weekend in Toronto, where he went just 5 of 23 and was benched for the fourth quarter of Game 4. He finished 8 of 10 from the field, a confidence-boosting performance that should temporarily quiet his critics.

"Kevin Love being Kevin Love," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "He had two bad shooting games and we made a big deal out of it. Nothing he does amazes me. We gotta keep him aggressive all the time."

The Cavs made a point of getting Love the ball right away and he responded by making all four field goal attempts, dropping a 3 late in the first quarter that pushed the Cavs to a 37-19 lead.

"He was just locked in," James said. "We saw that and just wanted to keep giving him the ball. The easiest one he had tonight, he missed."

Cleveland's onslaught continued in the second quarter, and when James got free for an easy two-handed dunk, Cavs fans could relax and begin making TV viewing plans for Friday.

These looked more like the Cavaliers who opened the postseason with 10 straight wins, obliterated the Raptors by a combined 50 points in Games 1 and 2 and given a chance to beat whomever survived in the West.

Center of attention
Valanciunas hadn't played since May 7. He scored two quick baskets in the first quarter when the Raptors were still close.

Tip-ins
Raptors: Dropped to 2-7 on the road in this postseason. ... Played a game every other day since April 29, going 7-7. . Biyombo and Valanciunas are the only teammates with at least 120 rebounds this postseason.

Cavaliers: Trumped their 31-point win in Game 1, which was the previous most lopsided playoff victory in team history. ... James played in his 191st career postseason game, moving him ahead of Magic Johnson for 12th place on the all-time list. ... James (1,320) is tied with Kobe Bryant (1,320) for the second-most free throws in postseason history. Michael Jordan made 1,463. ... Improved to 7-0 at home in these playoffs.

Up next
Game 6 is Friday night in Toronto.

Best of MLB: Walk-off single gives Giants 13th win in last 14 games

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Best of MLB: Walk-off single gives Giants 13th win in last 14 games

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Crawford singled in Matt Duffy with two outs in the 10th inning, and the surging San Francisco Giants beat the San Diego Padres 4-3 Wednesday for their 13th win in 14 games.

Duffy singled off Brad Hand (1-2) with one out, pinch-hitter Hunter Pence popped out, Duffy advanced on a wild pitch and Crawford hit a 1-2 offering over center fielder Jon Jay as Duffy scored standing up.

Crawford also singled and scored after some alert baserunning in the second inning. Duffy and Denard Span drove in runs for the NL West-leading Giants.

San Francisco completed a three-game sweep, extended its winning streak to five and improved to 9-0 against the Padres this season. The Giants' two walkoff wins in the series were against Hand (see full recap).

Arrieta moves to 9-0 in Cubs' win over Cards
ST. LOUIS -- Jake Arrieta remained unbeaten on the season despite allowing as many as four runs for the first time in nearly a year and the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 9-8 on Wednesday.

Arrieta (9-0) joined the White Sox's Chris Sale as the only nine-game winners in the majors.

Arrieta allowed four runs in a regular-season game for the first time since June 16, 2015.

Arrieta became the first Cub to win his first nine decisions since Kenny Holtzman in 1967 and it is the best start to a season for the franchise since Jim McCormick went 16-0 in 1886.

Kris Bryant hit a three-run homer and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist each drove in two for the Cubs (see full recap).

Bradley extends hit streak to 29 in BoSox victory
BOSTON -- Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his major league-best hitting streak to 29 games, Xander Bogaerts homered to extend his hitting streak to 18 games and the Boston Red Sox beat the Colorado Rockies 10-3 on Wednesday night for their fourth straight win.

Travis Shaw had three RBIs and Boston moved to a season-best 12 games over .500. The Red Sox have scored eight or more runs 10 times in their last 14 home games.

Steven Wright (4-4) had another solid outing, giving up three runs, two earned. He has now given up three runs or fewer in eight of his nine starts.

Chad Bettis (4-3) held the Red Sox scoreless through three innings but was responsible for seven runs over the next two innings before getting pulled.

The Rockies have lost six of their last seven -- all on the road (see full recap).