Three big misses the Union will regret if they miss the playoffs

Three big misses the Union will regret if they miss the playoffs

Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales (11) takes a penalty kick and scores the tying goal during stoppage time against the Philadelphia Union at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 3.

From afar, if you simply looked at this year's standings with two games to go and last year's standings, you'd call this season a success for the Union, whether they make the playoffs or not (this cool graphic shows the Union's form this season).

The team already has 10 more points than it earned all of last season, and controls its own playoff destiny with two games to go. A win on Saturday in Montreal (2 p.m. -- Comcast Network) and another next weekend at home against Sporting Kansas City would clinch a playoff berth, no matter what happens elsewhere in the incredibly tight Eastern Conference.

But if you have followed the season closely, there is a feeling of frustration with this year's team. That's because there are a few specific cases where the Union "dropped points."

There's two kinds of games where you can drop points (an oft-used soccer term meaning a match you lost when you should've drawn, or settled for a draw when you had three points in the bag).

The first is a game  you were expected to win from the jump. A bad team, or a home game -- or a bad team in a home game. These are games where you looked at the schedule back in March and said, "That's three points right there."

The other kind of miss is a little trickier to identify. These are games where maybe you weren't expecting much at kickoff, but with 15 minutes left to play, you look up and say, "Hey, we can win this thing!" It doesn't matter the opponent, it doesn't matter the venue. This is where you learn if your team can close things out.

The Union have had a few misses this season in each category. Should they miss the playoffs, here's three they'll really regret -- six dropped points that should have them fighting for the Supporter's Shield instead of scrambling for a playoff spot.

Without further ado, in reverse order from "gut punch" to "throwing things around the living room."

April 13 -- Union 1, Toronto FC 1

This falls in the first category: a bad team in a home game. Toronto is a team you MUST beat at home. And if not for Kleberson's amazing free kick a few weeks ago, the Union would have two home draws this year against the Reds.

In the first meeting, the Union not only settled for a draw, they needed a stoppage-time equalizer from Jack McInerney to get the one point. Danny Cruz missed a gifted first-half chance, Toronto goalie Joe Bendik made two big saves early in the second half on a Jack McInerney header and Conor Casey drive, and the Union had a goal disallowed due to a foul.

The late goal may have left Union fans feeling relieved. But another look at the Toronto goal makes you realize just how bad a draw it really was.

June 29 -- Union 2, FC Dallas 2

This one actually fits in both categories. Dallas is a below average team that was winless in five games coming in, the game was at PPL Park, and the Union had a win in the bag if they could close it out.

But they didn't.

After Casey, McInerney and Sebastien Le Toux combined to waste an early counterattack, Amobi Okugo put the Union on top in the first half. After giving up an equalizer, Aaron Wheeler appeared to lock it up with an 87th minute goal to give the Union a 2-1 lead.

From there, it got crazy. Dallas -- which was playing a man down -- should have tied it if the ref had seen that a Blas Perez shot went across the line. Minute later, DEEP into stoppage time, Union goalie Zac MacMath came out weakly for a ball in the area and watched from his butt as Perez tied the game. Remember, they were STILL playing a man down.

July 3 -- Real Salt Lake 2, Union 2

The only road game on the list is yet another draw. A road draw against a team that can still win the Supporter's Shield for the most points in the league. A game where you'd GLADLY take a draw when looking at the schedule, especially without an at-the-time-red-hot McInerney, who was away with the U.S. National Team.

But a closer look reveals a game that might be the toughest result to swallow this season.

Le Toux gave the Union a first-half lead, and the Union went up a man for the final half hour after an RSL red card. Philadelphia lost the lead on a nice header off a corner, but quickly regained it on a nice play from Antoine Hoppenot and Casey.

With a 2-1 lead, Le Toux had an absolute gimme breakaway in stoppage time to ice the game, but failed to finish.

He would regret it a few minutes later.

Just Missed the Cut: Oct. 12 at D.C. United (1-1 draw); Sept. 14 vs. Houston (1-0 loss); Aug. 31 vs. Montreal (0-0 draw).

Prediction Sure to Be Wrong

The Union play a Saturday matinee in Montreal. Normally, it would be a game where you'd accept a road draw. But the Union would lose playoff tiebreakers to Houston, Montreal and Chicago, so they need to separate themselves. They go into a tough setting needing a win.

Since they couldn't get three road points against lowly D.C. United last weekend, I can't count on the Union to get three against a much better team in a much more intimidating environment against Montreal.

That means they'll enter the finale against Sporting KC needing a home win and likely some help.

Union 1, Impact 1.

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

BOX SCORE

MIAMI -- For struggling pitchers, facing the Phillies has become like a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
 
Another rival pitcher searching for a cure got it Monday night when the Phillies suffered their 23rd loss in the last 29 games. This time it was Miami Marlins right-hander Edinson Volquez. He pitched six shutout innings and allowed just three hits in leading his club to a 4-1 win over the Phillies, who fell to 6-20 in May (see Instant Replay).

Volquez had gone 16 starts between wins.
 
"Every loss stings, I don’t care who's pitching," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're just in a rut. We've got to battle our way out of it. We have to show up tomorrow and get after it. We've got to get more than three or four hits in the game."
 
The Phillies had just four hits in the game. It was the fifth time in the last nine games that they've had four or fewer hits. Only one of the hits was for extra bases and one of the singles was an infield hit.
 
"Once again, we need more offense," Mackanin said.
 
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson completed a difficult month of May by allowing six hits, including a two-run homer, and four runs over six innings.
 
Hellickson surrendered a two-run homer to Derek Dietrich with two outs in the sixth and that was basically the ball game. Dietrich hit a high changeup. Back in April, that pitch would have been at the knees. But Hellickson has misplaced the pitch command that he needs to succeed.
 
Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. In May, however, he went 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA in six starts. He was tagged for 35 hits, including nine homers, in 30 2/3 innings.
 
"Command in general," said Hellickson, describing his problem this month. "The biggest thing is not getting strike one, falling behind too much. I'm not getting the quick easy outs I was getting early in the season. I'm trying to get ahead, just missing."
 
Volquez signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Marlins over the winter, but it wasn't until this game that he delivered his first win. He entered the game 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA in nine starts.
 
The win was Volquez's first since Aug. 25, 2016, when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Volquez isn't the first struggling pitcher to shine against the Phils recently. Eight days earlier, Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl took a 6.69 ERA into a start against the Phils and pitched five shutout innings. In the series against Colorado, the Phillies were dominated by a pair of rookies. In the only game they won (in a late rally), they were held to one run over six innings by Tyler Anderson, who had entered that game with an ERA of 6.00. On Friday night, Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tim Adleman pitched eight shutout innings against the Phils and gave up just one hit in the best start of his life. He had come into that game with an ERA of 6.19.
 
So Volquez had to be heartened when he saw the Phillies on the schedule.
 
They are the get-well team for pitchers in need of a pick-me-up.
 
It's actually kind of sad.
 
With Odubel Herrera locked in the throes of the worst slump of his life and on the bench and Maikel Franco mired in a 2 for 21 slump and hitting .209, Mackanin is trying to push things a little. He gave Aaron Altherr the green light to steal with one out and runners on the corners in a one-run game in the sixth inning. Altherr was out at second on a close play and Tommy Joseph struck out to leave the runner at third.
 
The Marlins salted the game away in the bottom of the inning on Dietrich's homer.
 
"With our offense, I have to take chances," Mackanin said. "I can't sit around and wait for three hits in a row. We haven't been doing that."
 
The Phils have the worst record in the majors at 17-32.
 
They have lost eight of their last 10 and scored just 15 runs in the losses.
 
"It sucks," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "There's really no other way to put it. It's frustrating. But the only people that are going to help us are ourselves. Nobody's going to go out there and play for us, swing the bats, pitch, play defense. That's on us and we have to do a better job all around.
 
"We all want to be successful and get the job done. We just haven't been hitting the ball. There's no other way to put it. But the good thing about baseball is we play every day so we turn the page and come back tomorrow and try to get it done."

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins rarely tested the hottest goaltender in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Nashville.

They beat Pekka Rinne anyway.

Rookie Jake Guentzel fired the puck past Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a back-and-forth 5-3 victory on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in Final history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37 minutes at one point without a shot.

"I think at the end of the day we're up 1-0," Bonino said. "We had a good first, we had a terrible second and we were terrible in the third. I don't think it's Xs and Os. We've got to work harder, compete a little harder, but we got some timely goals."

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions, trying to become the first repeat winner since Detroit in 1998.

All the guys from "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

"The impact of that moment and then the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills I think changed the course of the game," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.

The decision gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge. Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead, they rallied and took over the game.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second and Nashville kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history -- and the first such period by any team in a Final game since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1958.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

"We didn't do a great job of (shooting), but we made them count," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But it was a good finish there to get that one from Jake."