Aug 14, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Happy Friday! We're debuting a new section this morning called "Friday Film," where we break down the X's and O's of sports. Hope you enjoy.

Today's word count: 1,814 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏀 The NBA bubble awards

Damian Lillard followed up his 51-point and 61-point outbursts with a 42-point night, leading the Trail Blazers past the Nets, 134-133, and into the play-in series.

  • Final shot: Nets star Caris LeVert (37 points) had a chance to win the game, but he missed, ending Phoenix's season and keeping Portland's alive.
  • What's next: The No. 8 seed Blazers will play the No. 9 seed Grizzlies in tomorrow's play-in series. Memphis needs to win one game to advance to play the top-seeded Lakers, while Portland needs to win twice.

The Bubble Awards:

  • MVP of the Bubble: Lillard (37.6 PPG, 9.4 APG), followed closely by Suns superstar Devin Booker (30.5 PPG, 6.0 APG).
  • Team of the Bubble: The Suns went a perfect 8-0 — the longest winning streak to finish a season by a non-playoff team in NBA history. The future in Phoenix feels infinitely brighter than it did a few months ago, and their magical run won't soon be forgotten.
  • Rookie of the Bubble: Denver's Michael Porter Jr. averaged 22.0 points (55.1% FG) and 8.6 rebounds, more than doubling his pre-bubble averages.
  • Sixth Man of the Bubble: Sophomore guard Gary Trent Jr. averaged 20.6 points (57.6%) FG in Portland's first five games. He's cooled off some since then, but his impact off the bench makes the Blazers a different team.
  • Coach of the Bubble: Monty Williams deserves a lot of credit for having the Suns in the right place, both mentally and physically, to perform the way they did. Absolutely loved his post-game speech.

First-Team All-Bubble

  • G: Damian Lillard (POR)
  • G: Devin Booker (PHX)
  • G: Luka Dončić (DAL)
  • F: T.J. Warren (IND)
  • C: Nikola Jokić (DEN)

Second-Team All-Bubble

  • G: James Harden (HOU)
  • G: Caris LeVert (BKN)
  • F: Michael Porter Jr. (DEN)
  • F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL)
  • C: Jusuf Nurkić (POR)
2. 🏈 High school football kicks off in Utah
Photo: Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Herriman, Utah, was the center of the football universe on Thursday night, with Herriman High hosting Davis High in the first high school football game of 2020.

Photo: Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Mustang Stadium can hold up to 4,000, but cheerleaders had to work with 25% capacity — just 700 Herriman fans and 200 Davis fans were allowed.

"There's like 12 of us in a family but we only get four tickets so I don't know. We're going to have to rotate throughout the season."
— Rosie Hansen, whose brother plays for Herriman, via KSL-TV
Photo: Chris Gardner/Getty Images

What's next: 17 more states kickoff this month, and another 15 start in September and October. 14 states and Washington, D.C. have postponed football until 2021.

  • August (17): Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming.
  • September (15): Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin.
  • October (2): Louisiana and New Jersey.
  • Moved to spring (14, plus D.C.): California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington.
  • Undecided (1): Florida (meeting today).
3. ⚾️ Why hits are disappearing in baseball
Data: FanGraphs; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

MLB's league-wide batting average sat at a paltry .238 entering Thursday, the lowest mark since 1968 (.237) — a season so dominated by pitchers that the mound was lowered the very next year to even the playing field, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

By the numbers: MLB's strikeout rate (23.4%) is on track to set a record for the 12th consecutive season, and the current walk rate (9.2%) would be the ninth-highest mark since 1950.

  • On top of that, BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is just .283 at the moment, which would be the lowest since 1989.
  • In conclusion, not many balls are being put in play, and the ones that are being put in play have resulted in outs at near-historic levels.

Between the lines: What's making life so difficult for hitters this year? And why is BABIP, specifically, so low? A few theories:

  • Limited spring training: "We've kicked around some ideas like hitters not getting looks at pitchers other than their own teammates in summer camp and how that might impair their readiness," one assistant GM told The Ringer.
  • Fewer repeat looks: Lighter workloads have deprived hitters of repeat looks at starting pitchers. With relievers eating more innings, only 8.3% of plate appearances have come when facing a pitcher for at least the third time, down from 13% last season.
  • Empty stadium effect: Fielders are making more plays in part because they can hear the crack of the bat. The fan-less backdrop may also help them see the ball more clearly.
4. ⭐️ Thursday's stars: Betts, Korpisalo, Adams
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Mookie Betts hit three home runs within the first five innings of the Dodgers' 11-2 win over the Padres. He joins Sammy Sosa and Johnny Mize as the only players in MLB history with six career three-homer games.

  • MLB HR leaders: Aaron Judge, NYY (9); Mike Trout, LAA (8); Fernando Tatís Jr., SD (8); Betts, LAD (7); Nick Castellanos, CIN (7); J.T. Realmuto, PHI (7).
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

TORONTO — Two days after making an NHL-record 85 saves in a 5OT loss, Joonas Korpisalo stopped 36 more shots (97.3 SV%) to lead the Blue Jackets past the Lightning, 3-1, and even the series at a game apiece.

  • More scores: Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (Series tied 1-1); Golden Knights 4, Blackhawks 3, OT (VGS leads 2-0); Stars 5, Flames 4 (Series tied 1-1).
  • Today's slate: Coyotes vs. Lightning, 2pm ET (COL leads 1-0); Canadiens vs. Flyers, 3pm (PHI leads 1-0); Canucks vs. Blues, 6:30pm (VAN leads 1-0); Islanders vs. Capitals, 8pm (NYI leads 1-0); Stars vs. Flames, 10:30pm (Series tied 1-1).
Photo: Julian Finney/UEFA via Getty Images

LISBON, Portugal — 21-year-old American Tyler Adams, who grew up in New York and turned pro with the New York Red Bulls, scored in the 88th-minute to send RB Leipzig past Atlético Madrid and into the Champions League semifinals.

5. 🎥 Friday Film: Sliders and sequencing
Source: @PitchingNinja (Twitter)

A slider is the faster of the two most common breaking pitches (the other being a curveball) and is a great way to turn professional hitters into hopeless piles of goo, Jeff writes.

Case study: The best sliders look like fastballs for the first ~two-thirds of their way to the plate, so they're particularly devastating if the pitcher sets them up with prior fastballs (called pitch sequencing).

  • That's exactly what Dodgers rookie Brusdar Graterol did to make Manny Machado, the Padres $300 million man, look foolish above (see full at-bat).
  • Sequence: Graterol starts with a 99-mph two-seam fastball on the inner half, then pumps 100 on the outer half. Machado takes both fastballs, putting himself in an 0-2 hole, and all he can do is flail at a 91 mph slider that ends up three feet off the plate.
Courtesy: Sean McCarthy

How to throw a slider: Grip the outer-third of the baseball, with your middle finger on the seam and your thumb underneath for control.

  • Rather than releasing the ball with two fingers like a fastball, imagine you're slicing through it with your middle finger. Let the ball roll off your index finger as the last point of contact.
"The slider is what helped Max Scherzer take the crown from Clayton Kershaw as 'baseball's best pitcher' sometime around 2017. ... When Mad Max has his slider working, good night to your offense."
— Matt Kelly,

Go deeper:

6. ⚡️ Catch up quick
Photo: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  • 🏈 NFL: Looking good out there, Tom. (Patriots fans shudder.)
  • 🎾 Tennis: Serena and Venus Williams faced each other for the 31st time on Thursday, with Serena prevailing, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, in the second round of the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky.
  • 🏆 Fall championships: NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday that there will be no fall championships played in 2020. The announcement does not impact FBS football, which is governed by the individual conferences and the College Football Playoff.
  • ⛳️ Golf: Segundo Oliva Pinto's caddie touched the sand in a bunker, apparently to test its texture. Turns out, that's illegal, and it cost Oliva Pinto the 18th hole — and the match — at the U.S. Amateur in Oregon. Brutal.
  • 🎓 NCAA: A group of U.S. Senators, including Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have introduced legislation that would create a "bill of rights" for college athletes.
  • 🏟 Voting: Dodger Stadium will be open for five days this fall as a voting location for the presidential election, in partnership with LeBron James' More Than A Vote organization. It's a movement.
7. Aug. 14, 1965: 🏈 The birth of the CoFL
Program for a 1967 game between the Charleston Rockets and Montreal Beavers. Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

55 years ago today, the short-lived Continental Football League (CoFL) played its inaugural games.

The backdrop: After the United Football League folded in 1964, some of the owners branched off to form the CoFL, with hopes of it becoming the third-best league in North America, behind the NFL and AFL.

  • Hall of Famers Bill Walsh (1967 San Jose Apaches), Ken Stabler (1968 Spokane Shockers), Doak Walker (1967 Akron Vulcans) and Steve Van Buren (1966 Newark Bears, 1967 Orlando Panthers) all spent time in the fledgling league.
  • Baseball legend Jackie Robinson even got involved when the Rhode Island Indians moved to Brooklyn in 1966 and became ... the Dodgers. Robinson was installed as a figurehead GM, making public appearances during the team's lone season in Brooklyn.

The big picture: The C0FL began with 10 teams in 1965 and expanded to 22 by its final season (1969), with clubs in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Financial troubles ultimately doomed the league, and it quietly folded in 1970.

  • 1965 championship: Charleston Rockets 24, Toronto Rifles 7
  • 1966: Philadelphia Bulldogs 10, Orlando Panthers 3 (OT)
  • 1967: Panthers 38, Orange County Ramblers 14
  • 1968: Panthers 51, Ramblers 10
  • 1969: Indianapolis Capitols 44, San Antonio Toros 38 (OT)

Go deeper: History of the CoFL (Sports Collectors Digest)

8. The Ocho: 🚲 "Everesting"

Paralympic cyclist Billy Lister rides in San Diego. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

A biking challenge known as "Everesting" is catching on, with records rapidly falling, NYT's Alec Jacobson writes.

  • "'Everesting' is straightforward: Pick a hill, any hill, and go up and down it until you attain 29,029 feet of climbing. Friends can support you, but you must do it under your own power and in a single effort — no sleeping."
  • "The result is more than double the climbing of the hardest stages of the Tour de France. With most cycling events disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Everesting has become a hot activity for the ultra-endurance set."

Keep reading.

9. 🎥 Highlights: Thursday's top plays

Shogo Akiyama makes the leaping catch. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

  1. ⚾️ McNeil, my goodness (injured knee)
  2. 🏒 What a move by Wennberg
  3. ⚾️ Sho-ing off the glove
  4. 🏀 Lillard from the logo
  5. 🏒 Perry finds Oleksiak

Feedback request: How are you liking this new section? How can we make it better? Reply to this email with feedback and suggestions. Thanks, love you.

Bonus: 🏀 NBA trivia
Tim Duncan, the Spurs' No. 1 overall pick in 1997. Photo: Sporting News via Getty Images

The Spurs will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season, snapping their record streak of 22 straight playoff appearances.

  • Question: Two other franchises have made the playoffs at least 20 straight times since the NBA-ABA merger (1976). Can you name them?
  • Hint: Both are still alive this year.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Anthony and his father. Photo: Anthony F.

Anthony F. (Austin, Texas) writes:

"While our Dad was never a baseball fan (or sports in general), he knew his three sons were. So at least once or twice a year, he would take us to a Yankees game in the Bronx, making the trek via subway from Brooklyn.
"He'd always get good seats with the only prerequisite being that they be in the sun. Once seated, he would take off his button down shirt, take out his sandwich, tin foil wrapped beer (at that time legal), newspaper and radio.
"While we enjoyed the game played by our 'heroes,' he listened to his Italian program or music and read the Italian paper, occasionally popping his head up when the crowd roared and asking, 'Hanna fatto uno punto?' (Did they make a point?').
"All the while we thought those men on the field were our heroes, when in fact he was sitting right next to us. Thanks Pa, we love you very much."

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email.

Kendall Baker

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Epic ending" Baker

Trivia answer: Trail Blazers (1983-2003) and Jazz (1984-2003)

Editor's note: The first item has been corrected to state that the Trail Blazers are the No. 8 seed and the Grizzlies are No. 9 (not the other way around).