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. 

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

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Philadelphia Union

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after most of the Union players retreated from the heat Wednesday, Derrick Jones remained on the practice field. Not even his new rookie responsibility of carrying the bag of balls could dampen the 19-year-old’s enthusiasm of participating in his first official training as a member of the Union.

“I was just excited,” said Jones, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union a day earlier. “I was just happy. I didn’t know where I was going to be four years ago.”

Jones’ path to the pros was certainly an interesting one as he came from Ghana to South Philly in 2012 and, at the time, “didn’t know anything about the Union.” But he soon found his way to YSC Academy, the Union-run high school in Wayne, and after graduating from there, was the first player ever signed by the Bethlehem Steel, the team’s expansion minor-league affiliate.

He then played well enough for Bethlehem this season to ink a deal with the Union on Tuesday as their first Homegrown signing since 2012 and just the fourth in franchise history.

“It’s a proud moment for me as a coach, a former academy coach,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d like to thank [YSC Academy head and Union part owner] Richie Graham and [academy director] Tommy Wilson for the job they did developing Derrick, and also [Bethlehem Steel head coach] Brendan Burke sprinkling in that extra polish for the half a season that Derrick put in. I’d also like to thank the players because the one thing people don’t always get to see is how valuable it is with our first-team players being around Derrick in the preseason and putting him under their wing and all of those little things. 

“As a club, it’s a proud moment because everybody has played a role, from our medical staff to our trainers to our equipment guys, all the way through our academy to Bethlehem to now our first team.”

Ever since the franchise’s exception, Union coaches and executives have always said how they wanted to build a team from their youth ranks with several players hailing from the Philadelphia area. But, as it turned out, it was easier said than done.

Zach Pfeffer was the first player to sign a homegrown contract (an MLS mechanism that allows teams to directly sign youth players from their own development academies) as a 15-year-old Upper Dublin High School sophomore in December of 2010. And although he showed some promise, the teenager was never able to become a regular and was traded to the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Former manager Peter Nowak signed two other homegrown players — Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez — during his tenure but neither played much and are no longer with the club.

You can certainly argue that Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez were all victims of an old system that didn’t allow them to properly develop at such a young age. In many ways, that’s why the Union launched YSC Academy and the Bethlehem Steel: to create a more surefire pathway from high school to the pros without throwing teenagers directly into the fire.

And Jones, the only current homegrown player on the roster, is the first to truly benefit from that improved structure — and will very likely usher in a new, better era of youth development for the Union.

“Everyone likes to compare who’s doing it the best, and there’s a lot of really good things being done right now in the U.S. Developmental Academy and specific MLS academies, but I can say with confidence, having coached in it and lived through it and having seen it up close, our academy is the one that prepares these kids for life more so than any,” Curtin said. “So everyone wants to talk about the successful homegrowns and how many each team has, but no one writes the article about a lot of the homegrowns that are out of this league in a year and no one cares about them anymore.

“It does need to be said that our structure, in the way Richie Graham has set it up, is holistic in every way. The school and the things that they do there, it is amazing. It’s a special environment, and it’s one that is based on each individual kid and their needs, because every kid has different spurts in their development, highs and lows. And the support system that they provide at our academy is second to none in this country.”

Curtin’s glowing praise of YSC Academy is not hyperbole. The school is the first in the country to fully integrate a college-preparatory education with an MLS-affiliated youth soccer development program with practice time embedded into the school day. And although Jones is the first from the school to sign with the Union, many others in the first two graduating classes have moved on to play high-level Division 1 soccer (and can still sign with the Union, or the Steel, as a homegrown player if they shine at the collegiate level). 

“They helped me a lot,” Jones said of YSC Academy. “It was good. I got to train twice a day. I spent my whole day over there. In terms of working on my fitness, it really helped me.”

The school also helped Jones adapt to the United States away from the field, and even though he’s a quiet kid, his new teammates made sure to greet him with a lot of smiles this week. MLS veteran Chris Pontius said he expects Jones’ personality to come out in a few months and praised his soccer skills, calling him “a good two-way player” in the midfield.

It might be unfair to expect Jones to play right away for the Union but the 19-year-old will certainly be ready if called upon, as early as Sunday’s home game vs. Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN).

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like,” Jones said. “Maybe I’ll get nervous since it’s my first game. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Chance for Nola to respond vs. worst offense

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Phillies-Braves 5 things: Chance for Nola to respond vs. worst offense

Phillies (46-57) at Braves (35-66)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies were throttled Wednesday, 11-1, as they dropped their fourth straight series coming out of the All-Star break. 

The Phils have gone 2-4 through the first two stops of their three-city, 10-game road trip which now takes them to Atlanta. It's a winnable series against the majors' worst team that could get the ice-cold Phillies' offense back on track.

Let's take a look at the opener:

1. Important night for Nola
Aaron Nola came out of the All-Star break with six shutout innings of the Marlins. It didn't mean he was all the way back. Sure enough, his next start was a struggle, just like his five before the break.

Nola allowed six runs in four innings to the Pirates last weekend as his ERA rose again to 4.75. He's allowed four runs or more in six of his last seven starts, five runs or more in five of his last seven, and he's pitched more than five innings just once in that span.

His command is just gone right now. And that's why this is such an important start for him. Facing the worst offense in baseball in a pitcher-friendly environment could build back Nola's confidence and result in a quality start, even if he's not locating perfectly. There is one dangerous hitter in Atlanta's lineup, Freddie Freeman. Other than that, Nola should be able to get away with a curveball that hangs a bit or a fastball that doesn't perfectly nip the outside corner.

His focus tonight should be attacking. Nola has faced the Braves four times and gone 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA.

2. Situational struggles
The Phillies went 2 for 21 with runners in scoring position in the Marlins series. On Wednesday, they had 10 hits but left 10 men on base. 

Rarely do you see a team come an out away from being shut out when its first two hitters reach base seven of 10 times. Cesar Hernandez was 3 for 4 with a walk, Odubel Herrera was 2 for 4 with a walk, and Maikel Franco also had a multi-hit game batting third.

But the Phils have just been unable to come up with the one big hit since the break and it's why they're averaging 2.6 runs per game.

3. Scouting Wisler
The Phils get another look at young Braves right-hander Matt Wisler (4-10, 4.92), whose ERA is much higher than it was the last time they faced him.

Wisler, like Nola, has been pounded lately. He ended May with a 3.16 ERA, but has a 7.40 ERA in nine starts since, allowing his opponents a .329 batting average and .934 OPS. 

Wisler faced the Phils twice in a 10-day span on May 10 and May 20 and allowed four runs in 14⅔ innings.

Wisler's fastball averages 94 mph, but he doesn't strike many batters out (6.8 per nine this season). He usually uses three pitches: four-seam fastball, sinker and slider.

Current Phillies have hit .299 against him in 67 at-bats with seven doubles and three home runs. Franco has done the most damage, going 5 for 9 with two doubles and a homer.

4. Bullpen blunders
The Phillies' bullpen has a 5.14 ERA since the All-Star break, another reason they've struggled. The main culprits have been Andrew Bailey (seven runs in four innings) and Brett Oberholtzer (four in five). 

The Phillies have three legit bullpen pieces in Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos, but none of the others have been reliable, which is a problem when the Phils don't carry a lead into the later innings. 

Expect to see a lot of bullpen turnover next season. The Phils have two promising young relievers in the minors in Jimmy Cordero (Double A) and Victor Arano (High A) who could turn this unit into one of the hardest-throwing in the game when they're ready to join Neris and Ramos. 

Bailey and Oberholtzer are not long for this organization. Both are free agents after the year and both could be designated for assignment to make room for another player over the next month.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 6-3 vs. the Braves this season after going 30-45 against them from 2013 to 2015.

• Atlanta is a majors-worst 14-36 at home.

• Freeman is hitting .280 with 18 home runs and an .881 OPS, but he has just 41 RBIs because the Braves barely get on base ahead of him.

The Phanatic scared the bejesus out of Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show

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The Phanatic scared the bejesus out of Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show

Perhaps the best thing about the Democratic National Convention descending upon the city of Philadelphia this week is the fact that the Phillie Phanatic can just pop up anywhere, at any given moment and scare the bejesus out of people.

That happened on the Today Show when Savannah Guthrie didn't see it coming.

That Carson Daly guy looked pretty spooked too while Al Roker is cool as a cucumber. Al knows.