Random Observations, Pics, and Video From a Great Night at the Wach

Random Observations, Pics, and Video From a Great Night at the Wach

Walking from FDR Park to the Wachovia Center last night, I was hit with a wave of nervous energy. It was mostly some positive excitement about going to see a crucial Flyers playoff game, but there was also just that moment where you think, man, this same walk out of here is either going to be a chanting celebration or head-hanging pity party. 

FDR was packed, and I really wished I'd been able to get there earlier. The mix of slightly improving weather, tailgate games, and the occasional amateur fireworks are something you don't get to see as often for Flyers games, most of which are played in cold weather months. After heading back to the car to get the tickets we'd left in the cup holder and making the whole trek ah-gain, we walked inside and were greeted by the customary XL orange t-shirts and a few stars of the Broad Street Bullies documentary I've seen four times in the past week. 

The late start and lack of a Phillies game helped with the traffic situation some (although the traffic on the Blue Route was like cruel punishment), and the fans packed the concourses earlier than usual. Everyone was jumping out of their skin ready for this game. 

We got a few pints of Grolsch at that one little stand with good beer on the upstairs concourse (directly next to the big standalone bar), grabbed a few hot dogs and some of the... oh how should I phrase this... GREATEST PRETZELS EVER, and made for our seats in the top row of the Wach.

On our way up, I saw the early candidate for Jersey of the Night—a Ville Leino Flyers sweater. Now that's some threadication, sir. Sadly, he would be dethroned by another jersey on the way out. An older fan was rocking an Ilka Sinisalo jersey with the Pelle Lindbergh number patches on the sleeve. I don't know if anyone's taking down that champion this year. 

The seats filled up early, a sea of dimly lit orange around the pristine ice before the teams came back out.

The game action was pretty intense, with the Flyers owning the first period and Bruins taking much of the swing in the second despite the Flyers scoring the only goals in either frame. When Richie found that rebound in the first, I nearly went deaf. After the exaltation, the Tuuu-kkaaaa chants started, although Rask was playing pretty well. The defense that helped him out so much in the first three games was nonexistent in the first period, and the shot that beat him wasn't remotely his fault. But this wasn't a court of law, so we serenaded the sorry bastard throughout the night.

All the energy from the first seemed to be lost for stretches of the second. The Flyers were sluggish, and they couldn't clear the zone to save their lives. Fortunately, they were able to stifle the dangerousness of the scoring attempts, and Michael Leighton's first playoff start was a thing of beauty. During a stoppage mid-way through the second period, the video board started playing some highlights of Brian Boucher in action. A BOOOSH chant started to emerge, picking up steam as the video panned Boucher in a suit and tie, out for the foreseeable future with injuries to both knees. The crowd went nuts. 

The emotion in his face says so much. Sometimes "It's just a game" is just a bunch of bull. Much respect, Boosh. In game 3, Ian Laperriere got the same treatment, but this was no crowd-hyping gimmick. 

One of the amazing things about this team has been its ability to show up just when everyone is ready to count them out, whether due to poor play or an insane amount of key injuries. Whatever happens next, they've earned a lot of respect for stepping up when it's really mattered, and picking up for their injured teammates. 

A few player notes, observed from the top row of the building. If you watched from home, you probably saw more details and had a lot of replays and commentary, so I'll keep this part short. 

Scott Hartnell looked every bit the player who'd regained his swagger. He rifled big shots on Rask and played some physical hockey. Danny Briere is a playoff monster. His goal deflated the Bruins, and the crowd went nuts every time the replay showed him crippling Rask's glove hand with his top-shelf licker. Michael Leighton made saves on everything from equipment testers to all-alone breakaways. All that time off, and not a speck of rust on his game. Seeing the birds-eye view of the ice gave a great reminder to how important Simon Gagne's two-way play is to this team's success. Their record with and without him in this series can attest to that too, but he was a beast in the neutral zone. Richie too, what an amazing game from the Captain. Ville Leino was awarded a penalty shot, and although he made some pretty moves, he couldn't get Rask to move laterally enough to find a hole. Leino, Briere, and Hartnell were a force together, with the Finnish newcomer showing some jaw-dropping moves with the puck. Claude Giroux had a few of his own, which was no surprise, but still had me catching flies. JVR seems to have walled out, which really shouldn't be much of a surprise. 

Both sides had huge hits, and the Bruins played a physical game without the level of dirtiness we saw in game 5. Playoff freakin' hockey out there. 

Forget Sidney Crosby (should be easy after last night!). He's cleaned up his diving act some, and anyway, it's nothing compared to Zdeno Chara's. I counted three times when the ogre just flopped to the ice, one of which drew a call on Chris Pronger (okay maybe the call was legit, but it still looked like a dive as well), who had been exchanging some light stuff with Chara in front of the net. After that though, the refs didn't take the bait. 

Thy Name Is Schadenfreude
Some of the biggest cheers on the night came with each score update from the Canadiens' elimination of the Penguins. Should the Flyers win on Friday, they'll actually host the 8th seeded Habs in the Eastern Conference Finals. You ALWAYS want your NHL team to make the playoffs. 

Standout Fans
Here's that guy again.

I'm still a sucker for Green Man, even with the oversaturation that's seen him at pretty much every sporting event these days.

At one point, security was talking to him though, and he had his head thing off. Creeped me out, like I was on the train in Spiderman. 

Dancing Shawny was in rare form, even for him. He seems to have added a new move to his repertoire to play up the playoff beard.


There were very few Bruins fans that I could see—just one guy sitting quietly other than to occasionally cheer, and a young couple who walked up the aisle toward the top of the section just begging for it. Arms raised, Bruins and Red Sox gear, plenty of pluck, mostly from the girl. I leaned over to my friend and said, "She's going to get him beat up." 

Wouldn't ya know it? They got real quiet after the Flyers scored a pair of goals. That wouldn't last though. I couldn't hear what she was saying, only the several voices telling her to just shut up already. A fracas did in fact ensue after the last seconds of the game ticked off, but the Flyers fans policed themselves pretty well from what I saw, just a few pushes and a couple of spilled drinks. Finally, dragged away by her boyfriend, she got to the bottom of the stairs and flipped everyone off, screaming the whole way. 

Pretty rough week for Bruins fans everywhere—so far. 

Struttin
I think my favorite part about Flyers' home playoff games is the walk out of the building after a win. The concourse erupts with LET'S GO FLYERS chants that don't stop until you're outside, and even then they only dissipate. 

Game 7 can't come soon enough. 

Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

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Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

CHICAGO – The Ryan Howard drama continues to simmer.
 
Howard’s dwindling production has led to dwindling playing time. He did not start against a right-handed pitcher for the second time in eight days on Sunday (see game recap).
 
After the game, manager Pete Mackanin addressed the uncomfortable situation and said he would continue to trim Howard’s playing time against right-handers because he wants to look at Tommy Joseph, who has 10 hits, including three homers and a double, in his first 35 big-league at-bats.
 
“We brought Joseph up here for a reason, to get a look at him,” Mackanin said. “I can’t let him stagnate on the bench like (Darin) Ruf ended up doing, so he’s going to face some right-handed pitchers to keep his timing. I don’t know when the next time we’re going to face a left-handed pitcher is, but I’m going to use (Joseph) a little bit more often than I did Ruf.”
 
Since the end of last July, Howard has gone from being a full-time player to a platoon guy, facing just righties. Now, he’s migrating toward more of a reserve role.
 
Taking away playing time from a club icon – Howard is a former NL MVP and World Series champion -- is not easy, but Mackanin has little choice. Howard is hitting .154 with eight homers and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats over 44 games. He has struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances. Howard’s average for the month of May is .097 (6 for 62) and he has 25 strikeouts. He recently used the word “brutal” to describe how the month of May has been going.
 
Mackanin was asked about Howard’s mindset in relation to losing playing time.
 
“I don’t know how he feels,” Mackanin said. “I’m sure we’ll talk to him and we’ll go from there. The important thing is that we brought Joseph up here to get a look at him, and as I said, if he sits on the bench for a week or 10 days and we don’t get a look at him, what’s the point of bringing him up?”
 
Howard started Saturday against Cubs’ righty Kyle Hendricks and went hitless.
 
After Sunday's game, Howard was asked if he was surprised to see he was not in the lineup.
 
“I guess, yeah,” he said. “But I don’t make the lineup. The manager makes the lineup. I just show up. If I’m in there, I’m in there, if I’m not, I’m not."
 
Howard said he was unaware of Mackanin’s intention to sit him more against righties.
 
“I haven’t heard anything about sitting more against righties,” he said. “I haven’t been called into the office and talked to about it, so you guys apparently have breaking news before I do.”
 
Howard's status in the lineup and with the team has been an issue for almost two years. Before the 2015 season, former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted it would be best if Howard moved on. The Phillies tried to trade him last year, but there was no interest. 

Howard is in the final year of a five-year, $125 million contract that did not kick in until after he suffered a devastating Achilles tendon rupture on his final swing of the 2011 season.
 
He is still owed more that $26 million in salary for 2016 and an option year buyout for 2017.

Howard isn't walking away from that kind of money.

Would the team release him to solve this uncomfortable situation? Or will it ride out the final four months of the season and the contract with Howard as a part-time player?

Time will tell.

Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

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Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

CHICAGO – The Phillies are rebuilding.

The Chicago Cubs are focused on winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

And they have a team that can do it.

So the events of the last three days at Wrigley Field were not that surprising.

The Phillies suffered a three-game sweep, capped off by Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 loss.

When the Phillies departed Citizens Bank Park last week, they had a 25-19 record and were one of the surprise teams in the majors.

But the trip to Detroit and Chicago figured to be a stiff test. The Tigers pound the baseball. The Cubs do everything.

In the end, the Phillies won just one of the six games on the trip. They limp home at 26-24 for a matchup Monday night with the Washington Nationals.

Is the Phillies’ unexpected, early-season magic fading?

“That’s up for debate, I guess,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “Every team goes through a hot streak and a cold streak. How you come out those streaks, especially now with a cold streak, determines how good of a team you are. I choose to believe we’re at the bottom of the roller coaster and on our way up.”

The Phils were outscored 17-5 by the Cubs in this weekend’s series. The Cubs’ starting pitchers – Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – combined to allow just three earned runs in 22 ⅓ innings. And Jake Arrieta, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, did not appear in the series.

After Sunday’s game, Mackanin was asked what he learned about his club on the trip.

“I didn’t learn anything about my team,” he said. “I learned first-hand that the Cubs have a lot going for them. They’re a good team, probably the best team in baseball right now and they beat us fair and square.”

They do have the best record in the majors at 34-14.

It was not surprising to hear that Mackanin didn’t learn anything about his club during the trip. He knows the Phillies are rebuilding and have glaring holes. He knows the pitching has kept them in games and allowed them to win a bunch by one run. He also knows it’s difficult to sustain that with a team that averages just 3.22 runs per game, second-lowest in the majors. Sunday marked the 19th time the Phillies have scored two or fewer runs.

Looking for more offense, Mackanin sent Ryan Howard to the bench Sunday against a right-handed pitcher and used Tommy Joseph. Joseph hit a homer in the ninth inning. After the game, Mackanin said he would continue to get Joseph playing time against right-handers.

Power-armed right-hander Vince Velasquez had a difficult trip. Against two of the toughest lineups in baseball, he pitched 8 ⅔ innings over two starts. He gave up 18 hits, five of which were homers, and 10 earned runs. The Cubs got him for nine hits and seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings. He gave up two homers, a solo shot in the second and a three-run blow in the third.

The three-run homer, by Ben Zobrist, gave the Cubs a 5-0 lead and ignited the daily Happy Hour in the stands.

Two batters before Zobrist homered, Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis failed to make a play on a hard-hit one-hopper by Kris Bryant. Galvis backed up and gloved the hot smash, but threw quickly, off-balance and wildly to first. It was ruled a hit. Had Galvis made the play, it would have ended the inning. Instead, Velasquez issued a two-out walk to extend the inning further and Zobrist hit the two-out homer.

“I don’t know why Freddy got rid of the ball so quick,” Mackanin said. “I thought he could have planted and thrown it over there. But I’m not going to be critical of Freddy Galvis. He’s been unbelievable, just outstanding.”

Zobrist’s homer was one of six the Cubs hit in the three games. Two of them were three-run shots. The Phillies had just two homers in the series. Both came Sunday after the club was down 7-0.

“We didn’t string hits together,” Mackanin said.

Rookie Alexander Rossi pulls off upset win at 100th Indianapolis 500

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Rookie Alexander Rossi pulls off upset win at 100th Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- A new era for the Indianapolis 500 arrived in the form of a most unfamiliar driver.

An American, no less.

Alexander Rossi outlasted his faster rivals - and his fuel tank - for a stunning victory Sunday in the historic 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing." The unlikely win allowed the long-suffering Andretti family to celebrate in the biggest race of their storied careers and it left the top drivers in the field fuming over Rossi's good fortune.

Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot and certainly not the driver anyone would have picked to win. But the 24-year-old Californian used fuel strategy to outsmart a handful of drivers who had the most dominant cars in the race.

Rossi stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps. He was sputtering on the final lap, working his clutch and getting screamed at by team co-owner Bryan Herta to conserve fuel, and he ultimately ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag.

His victory celebration came only after his Honda was towed to the party. He sat in the car for some time before climbing out to take that sweet sip of milk.

"I have no idea how we pulled that off," he declared.

"I really was focused on taking it one lap at a time," Rossi said. "The emotional roller-coaster of this race is ridiculous. There were moments I was really stoked, really heartbroken, really stoked. I was like, `Wow, I'll need to see a psychiatrist after this.'"

Rossi didn't have the speed of Carlos Munoz, who was charging hard over the final 50 miles. But Munoz also had to stop for gas and didn't have a chance to race his teammate for the victory, even though Rossi was running on fumes and completed the final lap at a snail's pace of 179.784 mph.

The Colombian settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport. He seemed devastated after his second runner-up finish in four years.

"I was really disappointed when it comes with fuel and you lose the race because of that," Munoz said. "I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short. What can I say? The only thing I'm clear about is that I will win this race one day."

Munoz has contended at Indy before and he's proven to be fast at the speedway.

Rossi? Well, not many know much about him at all.

He's an IndyCar rookie who has chased a ride in Formula One since he was 10. He left for Europe when he was 16 and never pursued a career in American open-wheel racing. But stuck without a ride this year, he made the decision to return to the United States to race and became the ninth rookie to win the 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001.

Rossi understood full well that it was strategy that got him this win, and he knows what an Indy 500 victory means.

"I have no doubt it's going to change my life," he said.

Although he's a relief driver for Manor Racing in F1, Rossi has no scheduled F1 races and IndyCar right now is his top commitment. He was lured back to America this year to drive for Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. Herta was the winning car owner in 2011 with Dan Wheldon, the actual 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, and now can claim a win in the 100th actual race.

"I can't compare (the wins) other than to say I am so happy," Herta said. " I can't overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I was asking of him on the radio."

This Herta effort relied heavily on its alliance with Andretti, and the family was hoping Marco Andretti would give them their first Indy 500 title since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969.

Instead, Marco Andretti never contended on a day at least three of his teammates were clearly among the best in the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when Bell clipped Castroneves as he left pit road. The contact caused Bell to crash into Hunter-Reay.

"Ryan and Townsend looked really good up front, we thought they would be the team to beat," team owner Michael Andretti said. "Unfortunately, they had their problem in the pit, which I could not believe, and I thought that may have been our shot at winning."

Herta decided to gamble with Rossi on fuel strategy, and it's the only thing that made him a late contender.

As the laps wound down, American Josef Newgarden and Munoz repeatedly swapped the lead. Both had to stop for gas, Rossi moved into the lead and it was all his from there.

Michael Andretti earlier this month was voted by the 27 living winners as the best driver never to win the race, but he has now won the 500 four times as a car owner.

"I knew Alex was going to try (the fuel strategy), and we said `Alright, if he's going to try it, we're going to try something else (with Munoz)," Andretti said. "To come home 1-2 is just incredible. It was amazing. I don't know what to say, it's a great day, to be a part of history, to win the 100th running, and to win it with a 1-2 finish is just incredible."

Newgarden finished third and was followed by Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand as Chevrolet drivers took spots three through six.

Newgarden, along with Hunter-Reay, Bell, Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, had the strongest cars most of the race. Hinchcliffe, the pole winner who missed this race last year after a near-fatal accident in a practice session, faded to seventh despite being one of the best cars in the field.

"If I was in Alex's position, I'd be the happiest person in the world right now, I wouldn't care how we won the damn race," Newgarden said. "Everyone was on different strategies, and they played that strategy. Those guys, to put it politely, weren't as strong as us. They didn't have as strong a chance to win, so they had to mix it up. It worked out at the end for them."

In front of the first sellout in Indy 500 history, Rossi stunned the more than 350,000 fans in attendance. He was in Monaco this time last year for F1's signature race, unsure of what his future held.

"I had no idea I'd be in IndyCar, I had no idea I'd be in the Indy 500," said Rossi, who becomes the 70th winner in race history.

He will now also become the 103rd face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.