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Minnesota Sports

Vikes rule LB Barr out vs. Bengals with nagging knee trouble

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr has been ruled out for the season opener at Cincinnati because of a nagging knee injury that kept him on the sideline for much of the preseason.
The Vikings also listed rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw as out for the game on Sunday against the Bengals, with their first-round draft pick still catching up after a second offseason surgery on his midsection to address a groin injury he had in college. Rashod Hill is the starter.
Barr tore his pectoral muscle in the second game of 2020 and missed the remainder of the season. Coach Mike Zimmer said Friday “he’s close” to being ready to play. Newcomer Nick Vigil, who played the first four seasons of his career in Cincinnati, will start in Barr’s place at the strong side spot and make the calls for the defense.
Another free agent addition this season, wide receiver Dede Westbrook, is at full speed after being brought along slowly upon his arrival at the start of training camp. He tore the ACL in his knee with Jacksonville in 2020 and only appeared in two games. He’ll be one of the options at the No. 3 wide receiver spot and be the primary punt returner, Zimmer said.
The Bengals ruled out cornerback Trae Waynes (hamstring) for the game against his former team. He was Minnesota’s first-round draft pick in 2015 and signed with Cincinnati last year.
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Minnesota Sports

Lynx beat Fever 89-72 in first of 3 straight meetings

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Aerial Powers scored 20 points and Kayla McBride added 15 points to help the Minnesota Lynx beat the Indiana Fever 89-72 on Friday night.
Minnesota (19-10) moved into a tie with Phoenix for fourth in the WNBA standings. The Lynx face Indiana the next two games, and play Washington in the regular-season finale — aiming for a top-four finish and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Sylvia Fowles had 13 points, seven rebounds, four steals and five blocks for Minnesota. Fowles tied a franchise record for blocks in a first half with four.
Tied at 41 early in the third quarter, Minnesota scored 40 of the next 59 points.
Tiffany Mitchell scored 16 points and Jantel Lavender added 15 for Indiana (6-22). Kelsey Mitchell had 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting.
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Minnesota Sports

Steveson signs NIL deal with WWE, will wrestle for Minnesota

By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer
Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson has achieved his childhood dream of signing with World Wrestling Entertainment — with a twist.
The WWE announced Thursday that it has signed Steveson to a deal that will allow him to join the WWE roster and return to the University of Minnesota to defend his college heavyweight wrestling title.
It is the WWE’s first so-called NIL deal, where college athletes can earn money for their name, image or likeness without violating NCAA rules.
“There’s a lot of possibilities for me with this gold medal,” Steveson said after winning the 125kg freestyle class in Tokyo. “A lot of doors opened after me winning a national title, and now the whole world is open for me to see after this Olympic gold medal.”
The night he won Olympic gold, he declared his allegiance to Minnesota. His love for his school and his home state caused him to consider his options carefully.
Steveson and fellow gold medalist Tamyra Mensah-Stock appeared at WWE SummerSlam last month, and the crowd of more than 50,000 showed its appreciation.
That appearance increased the hype about his potentially signing with WWE, but in a recent interview with The Associated Press, Steveson had hinted that returning to school was a strong possibility. He has been visible in his home state since winning the gold. He also blew the Gjallarhorn at a Minnesota Vikings preseason game and was on the sideline at Minnesota’s home football game against Ohio State.
In his three years at Minnesota, Steveson has been the winningest wrestler in program history (.971). He looks to become the sixth wrestler in program history to claim multiple NCAA titles.

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Minnesota Sports

Healthy again, Burrow leads Bengals against Vikings

By MITCH STACY AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — One of Joe Burrow’s special skills is extending plays, scrambling to make something out of nothing after the blocking breaks down.
He took a beating through 11 games last season, but it made the rookie one of the NFL’s most intriguing quarterbacks early in 2020.
Now playing on a surgically reconstructed left knee, the 2020 Heisman winner insists he’ll still be the same multifaceted leader when the Bengals open this season Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
“I’m a football player, not just a quarterback, and getting hit is part of the game,” he said this week. “I’m excited to experience it.”
It’s been a while. Burrow continued rehabbing through training camp and was held out of all but one series in the last of three preseason games. He hasn’t been hit hard since he went down among Washington pass rushers on Nov. 22 and was wheeled off in a cart.
The always confident Burrow said he never doubted he would be back for the opener, even with the extensive surgery required. Besides getting his knee back to 100%, he spent a lot of rehab time getting his body stronger and focusing on the other aspects of his game, too. He’s stronger, and receivers say he’s throwing harder.
“I expect to be better,” he said. “I put in a lot of work this offseason that I’m excited to show off, as all the guys have. We’re a much better football team.”
A season-long wave of injuries contributed to the Bengals limping to a 4-11-1 finish last year.
Improving — and maybe saving coach Zac Taylor’s job — could hinge on mitigating the damage to the 24-year-old franchise quarterback.
“He knows it’s a long season,” Taylor said. “We want him healthy. He’s got to manage that, we’ve got to manage that. It’s just part of football. Quarterbacks get hit.”
HOLDING ON
Cincinnati rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase helped Burrow and LSU win the 2019 national championship, but so far in the NFL he’s known more for his drops.
The fifth overall pick in the draft, Chase dropped passes throughout camp, including three in a row in a preseason game. He said this week that he’s got it fixed.
“Lack of focus,” he said. “I didn’t look the ball all the way in. Lack of concentration, just watching the ball come all the way into my hands. That’s what I lacked, and it showed.”
After winning the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s best receiver in 2019, Chase opted out in 2020 to wait for the draft.
“I don’t want to blame it on me sitting on my butt all year, but it probably has something to do with it,” he acknowledged. “I’m not making excuses. I need to be a pro and make the catch.”
MEAT IN THE MIDDLE
Nose tackle Michael Pierce will make his Vikings debut, after signing with the team in 2020 but sitting out last season due to coronavirus concerns because of chronic asthma. After finishing a disappointing 7-9, the Vikings made another defensive tackle their prime target in free agency with Dalvin Tomlinson, and they’re counting on their experience, heft and agility to improve a front that fell off badly last year with star defensive end Danielle Hunter absent due to a neck injury.
Pierce and Tomlinson have formed a natural bond, heightened recently by a brunch outing with both of their girlfriends.
“He’s an awesome dude. Great player. He’s taught me a lot, and I’m grateful to have him next to me along with Danielle and everybody else,” Pierce said. “I think we’ll play really well off each other this Sunday and throughout the season. So it’s just kind of chemistry and building.”
FAMILIAR SURROUNDINGS
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer makes frequent visits to his vacation home in northern Kentucky, property he bought near the end of his time as defensive coordinator of the Bengals from 2008-13. He said he noticed an uptick in hype lately surrounding the Bengals and the return of Burrow. By Monday, Zimmer had fielded requests from friends and family for 26 tickets.
NEW FACES IN CINCY
Just seven of the 22 players who started the Bengals’ final game of last season, a 38-3 loss to the Ravens on Jan. 3, will start in Sunday’s opener. Nearly half — 22 of 46 — who played in the finale, including eight who started, aren’t even on the current roster of 53.
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Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy
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AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell contributed.
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Minnesota Sports

Diggs finds validation in being selected a Bills captain

By JOHN WAWROW AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Stefon Diggs no longer needs to worry about whether he’ll be accepted in Buffalo.
If the record-setting production the receiver put up last year in his first season with the Bills wasn’t enough, whatever lingering apprehensions Diggs might have had were put to rest Tuesday, when he arrived for practice and learned he had been voted one of team’s eight captains.
“I was kind of taken back a little bit because I’ve never been in that role,” Diggs said, noting he doesn’t recall ever earning that distinction even in high school, where the best player is named captain usually by default.
“It means even more now just as far as being acknowledged by your peers,” he added, with Buffalo preparing to open its season hosting Pittsburgh on Sunday. “The fact that they trust you in the biggest moments and they trust you on a daily basis that you’re going to do the right thing on and off the field, yeah, I was happy.”
Numbers, apparently, don’t mean everything for a player coming off a season in which he became Buffalo’s first to lead the NFL in yards receiving (1,535) and catches (127).
What mattered just as much to Diggs was validation in pursuing his fresh start upon being acquired by Buffalo in a trade with Minnesota. Even before learning of the trade, Diggs had begun a concerted effort to break from his past — he referenced reading “Leadership For Dummies” — to evolve from the mercurial player he was during his first five seasons with the Vikings.
There were times he’d sulk because of a lack of targets, leading to talk a rift between Diggs and quarterback Kirk Cousins. He was disciplined by Minnesota for skipping practice following a loss and amidst speculation he wanted out a month into the 2019 season.
Diggs worried his reputation for being a diva would follow him to Buffalo by saying, “I was scared to be the red-headed stepchild.”
His concerns couldn’t have been further from the truth in how his new teammates, starting with quarterback Josh Allen, immediately embraced him.
“I tell him all the time, he’s my favorite No. 1 receiver I’ve played with,” said fellow receiver Cole Beasley, who played alongside Dez Bryant and Amari Cooper during his first seven seasons in Dallas.
“I love everything about the guy. He’s been nothing but spectacular since he’s been here on and off the field,” Beasley added. “I don’t know why he would think he would be a stepchild here. He came right in and fit right in.”
Coordinator Brian Daboll put aside any preconceived notions about Diggs upon his arrival in an effort to get to know him personally.
“I love the guy, I love the player, but really it was more about relationship and getting to know one another, building a level of trust,” Daboll said.
“He’s a man of integrity and loyalty,” he added. “He bonded well with the coaching staff and the players, and we let him be him. Then his talent took over and he’s got some high energy out there that a lot of the guys feed off of, so I can see why he was voted captain.”
Diggs was never going to be the featured player on a Vikings offense in which the offense revolved around running back Dalvin Cook, with receiver Adam Thielen the established target.
Not so in Buffalo, where the Bills gave up a first-round draft pick in believing Diggs was the missing piece in Daboll’s up-tempo, pass-heavy offense being built around a strong-armed, developing quarterback.
Despite the lack of a preseason because of the coronavirus pandemic, Allen and Diggs developed instant chemistry in setting numerous single-season records. The Bills in turn won their first AFC East title since 1995 and made their deepest playoff run in 27 years, ending with a loss to Kansas City in the conference championship game.
Diggs deflects credit by saying everyone on offense — from Daboll to Allen to the line — played key roles.
“It’s a tribute to everybody,” Diggs said. “For me, I was just doing my job.”
NOTES: Diggs laughed when asked about a knee injury which forced him to miss a portion of the preseason. “A little worried, huh?” he said with a wink, before referring to the Steelers. “Tell them I’m hurting and I can’t go.” … Starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei missed his second straight practice with what the Bills revealed to be a calf injury. … CB Taron Johnson, who has his hand wrapped in protective tape, and WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot) were listed as limited in practice.
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Minnesota Sports

Vikings sign RT Brian O’Neill to contract extension

By DAVE CAMPBELL AP Pro Football Writer
EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have taken many measures toward improving their lagging offensive line in recent years.
The biggest investment yet came Wednesday, with right tackle Brian O’Neill.
O’Neill signed a five-year contract extension, a deal to lock in Minnesota’s most reliable blocker for the long term that’s worth as much as $92.6 million, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations.
That includes $49.1 million in guaranteed money, including $22.6 million up front, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team was not announcing the financial details. Based on annual average contract value, O’Neill will be the second-highest paid right tackle in the NFL behind Ryan Ramczyk of New Orleans.
“I want to be here, no matter what. I’ve known that for a long time. The people we have in this building, everybody around here, I just want to be a part of it, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” O’Neill said, a permanent smile on his face as he discussed the deal with reporters. “There was never really a doubt as to whether or not something was going to work or not, in my mind, because this is where I want to be.”
O’Neill was drafted in the second round out of Pittsburgh in 2018 and would have been eligible for free agency next year. He cracked the lineup as a rookie and has started 42 games in his first three seasons. During his span as a starter, the Vikings have the third-most rushing yards in the NFL.
The Vikings have drafted an offensive lineman in the first or second round for four straight years. O’Neill is the oldest and most accomplished from that group, followed by center Garrett Bradbury (first round, 2019), left guard Ezra Cleveland (second round, 2020) and left tackle Christian Darrisaw (first round, 2021).
Darrisaw fell behind during the uneven recovery from offseason groin surgery, and sixth-year veteran Rashod Hill has held that spot since the beginning of training camp. Darrisaw took part in individual drills during practice Wednesday, but he’s unlikely to be in the lineup for awhile. Oli Udoh, a sixth round pick in 2019, is the new right guard.
Despite the loss of leader Riley Reiff, the veteran left tackle who was let go for salary cap savings, O’Neill said he’s more excited about this offensive line than any of the others he’s played with. Udoh practiced at right tackle the last two seasons, forming a bond between him and O’Neill they didn’t realize would pay off until this year.
“I understand how he thinks about blocks, and he understands what I think about certain angles and placement of linebackers and things like that,” the Delaware native O’Neill said. “That rapport kind of has been built for a while, and we’ve just got to continue to build on it.”
The Vikings open the season Sunday at Cincinnati.
Their biggest concern, as coach Mike Zimmer openly acknowledged Wednesday, is a lack of established backups.
The roster is stocked with legitimate stars and experienced players, but most of them are paid like it, too, leaving little room for the quality reserves that can go a long way toward keeping a team in contention. Zimmer has repeatedly lamented this summer the salary cap crunch.
“I feel really good about the top guys, and then some of these young guys have got to come on. But when you’re kind of top-heavy with finances, that’s what you’ve got to do. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and try to get these younger guys better,” Zimmer said.
Hill is a prime example of this, a trusty player who can easily play both tackle spots. With Darrisaw still working his way into form and picking up the playbook, Hill is the starter, leaving the Vikings thin in case he or O’Neill were to get hurt. Reiff is with the Bengals now, another reminder of how big contracts for priority players can have future consequences.
That’s a matter for the next offseason, though, when O’Neill’s status will give the Vikings one fewer position to worry about.
“They believe in me just like they did three years ago, but it’s time to go prove them right again,” O’Neill said. “The chip just gets bigger.”
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Minnesota Sports

Indians’ Rosario breaks up Twins rookie Ryan’s no-hit bid

CLEVELAND (AP) — Indians shortstop Amed Rosario singled with one out in the seventh inning Wednesday night to break up a no-hit bid by Twins rookie Joe Ryan, who is making just his second major league start.
The 25-year-old Ryan retired the first 19 hitters in order and was flirting with a perfect game before Rosario lined a clean single to left field on an 0-1 pitch.
Ryan was bidding to pitch the record ninth no-hitter in the majors this season, topping the mark set in 1884 — the first year overhand pitching was permitted. He was acquired in July from Tampa Bay when the Twins sent slugger Nelson Cruz to the Rays.
He was with Team USA at the Olympics at the time of the deal and went 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA over two starts in Tokyo. The right-hander made his major league debut against the Cubs on Sept. 1 and pitched three-run ball over five innings.
The Indians have been no-hit twice this season — first by Chicago’s Carlos Rodón on April 19 and then Cincinnati’s Wade Miley on May 7.
Before Rosario’s hit, the closest Cleveland came to getting a baserunner against Ryan came in the second inning, when slugger Franmil Reyes hit a hard grounder that third basemen Luis Arraez snagged and threw out Cleveland’s designated hitter.
Arizona rookie Tyler Gilbert threw the majors’ most recent no-hitter on Aug. 14.
There also have been a pair of seven-inning no-hitters this season, which don’t officially count in the Major League Baseball record book.
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Minnesota Sports

Rookie Ryan shines as Twins hold Indians to 1 hit in 3-0 win

By BRIAN DULIK Associated Press
CLEVELAND (AP) — Joe Ryan carried a perfect game into the seventh inning of his second big league appearance, helping the Minnesota Twins beat the Cleveland Indians 3-0 on Wednesday night.
Ryan, who was acquired in a July trade with Tampa Bay for slugger Nelson Cruz, retired his first 19 batters before Amed Rosario lined a single through the left side of the infield with one out in the seventh.
“I was kind of like, shoot, when the ball went through, but then I moved on to how I was going to get the next hitter,” Ryan said. “I just tried to keep it as simple as I could and hit my spots. Being in the big leagues has been great so far.”
Caleb Thielbar worked a perfect eighth and Tyler Duffey finished the one-hitter for his third save. Rosario was the only baserunner for Cleveland, which has been no-hit twice and held without a hit in a seven-inning game this season.
“Really, that was not the pitch I was looking for, but I was able to get the hit,” Rosario said. “He threw the ball extremely well and it was moving around. You’ve got to tip your hat to him. He had it going good.”
Ryan (1-1) struck out four over seven innings, throwing 61 strikes in 85 pitches. The 25-year-old right-hander made his major league debut Sept. 1 against the Cubs and allowed three runs in five innings.
Miguel Sanó homered for Minnesota, which pitched back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2019. Nick Gordon had an RBI double and Byron Buxton drove in Ryan Jeffers with a fielder’s choice.
“Thank God that Joe came out and pitched the way he did because our offense didn’t have a lot going on,” Jeffers said. “We went with his off-speed stuff and used his fastball as a kill pitch. The Indians were pretty aggressive, which kept the pitches down.”
Cleveland only managed one near-hit in the first six innings. It occurred in the second when Franmil Reyes slapped a grounder past third, but Luis Arraez ranged wide to his right and threw out the 6-foot-5, 275-pound slugger by a half-step.
Ryan was seeking Minnesota’s first no-hitter since Francisco Liriano on May 3, 2011, at the White Sox. Cleveland was no-hit on the road by Carlos Rodón of the White Sox on April 14 and at home by Cincinnati’s Wade Miley on May 7.
“Joe believes in himself and his stuff works in the big leagues,” Twins acting manager Bill Evers said. “His command was excellent and the game plan worked perfectly.”
Minnesota opened the scoring in the fifth. Rob Refsnyder walked with two outs, stole second and scored on Gordon’s double to right off Triston McKenzie.
Sanó hit his 25th homer in the seventh. Jeffers doubled and scored in the eighth.
McKenzie (4-6) had his career-long win streak snapped at three. He struck out seven while working six innings of one-run ball.
The right-hander has yielded three earned runs in his last 27 innings for a 1.00 ERA in his last four starts.
Minnesota has won four straight, while the Indians lost their third in a row.
OH, BABY
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, whose first child was born Tuesday, will rejoin the team Friday when Minnesota hosts Kansas City. Baldelli’s wife, Allie, and daughter Louisa are doing well, according to pitching coach Wes Johnson.
“I want him to enjoy his baby girl, but there are some things that I need to talk to him about after the game,” Johnson said with a smile.
TRAINER’S ROOM
Twins: RHP Alex Colomé (rest) was given the night off after pitching out of the bullpen on four straight days. Colomé threw four scoreless innings and earned three saves during the stretch, which included two games at Tampa Bay and two in Cleveland.
Indians: C Roberto Pérez (right shoulder inflammation), who has been on the injured list since Aug. 4, logged two plate appearances for Triple-A Columbus in the first game of his rehab assignment Tuesday. He had a sacrifice fly and struck out against Gwinnett.
UP NEXT
Twins: RHP Randy Dobnak (1-7, 7.64 ERA) starts the series finale Thursday. He picked up his only win of the year on May 21 at Progressive Field, tossing six scoreless innings, and is 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA in three career appearances in Cleveland.
Indians: RHP Cal Quantrill (4-3, 3.15 ERA) suffered his first loss since June 6 in his last start, allowing five runs in six innings at Boston on Sept. 3. Quantrill pitched 16 times between defeats, going 4-0 with a 2.75 ERA.
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Minnesota Sports

Gant wins, Rooker homers as Twins blank Indians 3-0

By TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — One of the Twins’ expectant fathers delivered.
Hours after manager Rocco Baldelli’s wife gave birth, Brent Rooker homered as he awaits a call from home for an arriving baby and Minnesota beat Cleveland 3-0 on Tuesday night, spoiling Indians starter Aaron Civale’s return from injury.
Rooker’s 421-foot shot in the seventh off reliever Alex Young made it 2-0.
“I was looking for something up in the zone and got it,” Rooker said.
John Gant (5-9) pitched five solid innings to get his first win since joining the Twins, who beat the Indians for the sixth time in seven games.
“The boys scratched and clawed and made some plays tonight, and pushed some runs across,” said Gant, who came over from St. Louis in a July 30 trade. “All in all a good team win.”
Gant (5-9) didn’t allow a run on three hits. The right-hander, who had been winless since May 26 — a span of 27 appearances — had to survive a scare in the third inning when Indians slugger Franmil Reyes flew out to the base of the wall in left-center with the bases loaded.
Gant later found out the deep shot came during a grand slam promotion the Indians were running that inning.
“It was nice to not give that one up,” said Gant, who admitted he wasn’t sure when it left Reyes’ bat. “I didn’t think he got it full on, but he’s a big ol’ boy so he doesn’t have to get it full on for it to go.
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I was hanging on the edge of my seat if you will.”
Four Twins relievers finished the combined seven-hitter — Minnesota pitchers had 13 strikeouts — with Alex Colomé working the ninth for his 13th save in his fourth straight game.
“We did tell him tomorrow he can watch the game,” joked interim manager Bill Evers.
The Indians failed to homer for the first time in 20 games, ending the longest streak in club history.
Cleveland’s loss was softened by Civale’s comeback outing, his first start since he sprained his right middle finger in a June 21 start against the Cubs. He gave up just one run and three hits in 4 2/3 innings.
The 26-year-old Civale (10-3), who was leading the majors in wins when he got hurt, was sharp despite the long layoff. He was in command until the Twins scored in the fifth on a two-out RBI single by Andrelton Simmons.
Civale was determined to pitch again in 2021 for personal reasons as well as help the Indians, who have stayed competitive while also being without ace Shane Bieber (shoulder) for nearly three months.
“It’s awesome to be back out there,” he said. “Pitching at Progressive Field again, it’s always a delight. I don’t think you ever take it for granted, but when you have it taken away from you, you appreciate it that much more.”
BABY BALDELLI
Baldelli remained away from the team following the birth of his daughter. Louisa Sunny arrived early Tuesday.
Evers received a text from Baldelli after the manager’s wife, Allie, delivered the couple’s first child.
“It was awesome,” said the 67-year-old Evers, who is retiring after the season. “It brings tears to my eyes knowing he texted me right after the baby was born.”
Evers expects Baldellli to return Friday, when the Twins open a series at home with Kansas City.
FRANCONA RECOVERING
Indians manager Terry Francona is recovering from toe surgery, his second operation since stepping aside in July.
The 62-year-old Francona previously had his hip replaced. The procedure Tuesday was to fix his left big toe, which became infected during the offseason and required him to wear a walking boot for months.
TO (NOT) CATCH A THIEF
The Indians have stolen 29 straight bases, the longest successful streak since steals started being tracked in 1920.
It’s the longest run in the majors since Boston swiped 40 straight from Aug. 2013 to April 2014.
SALUTING JETER
On the eve of Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame induction, both interim managers reflected on the Yankees shortstop’s stellar career.
Evers managed Jeter in the early 1990s, when he played in the Gulf Coast League.
“He was a little homesick,” Evers said. “At the end of the year he had to get a couple of base hits just to hit over .200.”
Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale coached against Jeter in the AL East. He always appreciated his competitiveness and class.
“When they say that he’s The Captain, it says a lot about him because he represents so much,” Hale said. “Winner.”
UP NEXT
Twins: Rookie RHP Joe Ryan (0-1, 5.40 ERA) makes his second career start as the teams continue their four-game series. Ryan lost to the Cubs last week, allowing three runs and three hits in five innings.
Indians: RHP Triston McKenzie (4-5, 4.62) has won three straight starts, giving up just two runs and five hits in 21 innings.
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Minnesota Sports

No. 4 Ohio State outlasts Minnesota 45-31 in Stroud’s debut

By DAVE CAMPBELL AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — C.J. Stroud’s mind was not right as he sparred with first-game jitters, feeling “kind of all over the place” in his debut as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.
Playing for the Buckeyes comes with plenty of pressure. It also brings plenty of help.
Stroud passed for 294 yards and four touchdowns, and the fourth-ranked Buckeyes kept coach Ryan Day unbeaten in Big Ten play with a 45-31 victory over Minnesota on a rainy Thursday night.
Ohio State trailed at halftime (14-10) for the first time in a regular season game under Day, but time in the locker room was all Stroud needed to settle in. He passed for 246 yards in the second half.
“Everybody was encouraging me, telling me I can do it. My teammates all have belief in me,” said Stroud, who went 13 for 22 with one interception.
Said Day, who is 24-2 overall and 16-0 in conference games starting his third full year on the job: “We weren’t going to play it close to the vest. That’s not how we do it here.”
The Buckeyes flashed their five-star speed with two 70-plus-yard scores in the opener, one early on a run off right end by Miyan Williams and one late on a third-down screen to true freshman TreVeyon Henderson.
Chris Olave had touchdown catches of 38 and 61 yards, and Garrett Wilson scored on a 56-yard reception that gave Ohio State the lead for good at 24-21 midway through the third quarter. Less than three minutes later, Haskell Garrett grabbed a fumble from a strip-sack that Zach Harrison delivered on Tanner Morgan and ran it in for a 32-yard touchdown.
“I have great teammates, but I feel like I’m a great player, too,” Stroud said. “Maybe the first half didn’t show that, but I did my best in the second.”
More painful for the Gophers than their fade down the stretch was the loss of star running back Mo Ibrahim, who hurt his lower left leg late in the third quarter and left the field in a walking boot.
The second team preseason Associated Press All-American had 30 carries for 163 yards and two scores, both giving the Gophers the lead and the first one after Terell Smith intercepted an off-target pass by Stroud that hit Olave’s hand.
Coach P.J. Fleck had no update on Ibrahim’s status afterward but said the bruising fifth-year running back from Baltimore, who moved into a tie for fourth place on the program’s all-time list with his 33rd career touchdown, was in good spirits.
“Hopefully it’s nothing major, but we don’t know that just yet,” Fleck said.
The Gophers were probably never going to have a better opportunity to topple the mighty Buckeyes than this, fielding one of the most experienced teams in the country at home — and at night — to open the season against a newbie quarterback.
With fans allowed back in the seats at what’s now called Huntington Bank Stadium, after the virus emptied them out for an abbreviated 2020 schedule, Minnesota enjoyed its third straight sellout dating to the Penn State and Wisconsin games in November 2019.
Already a time-of-possession team, the Gophers needed to play keep-away more than ever to make this a game. They were tentative at times but bold at others, including a fourth-and-1 play from deep in their own territory when Ibrahim ripped off a 56-yard run.
That set up a touchdown throw by Morgan to Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright, who had five catches for 57 yards.
“I was really proud of how we responded,” Morgan said. “We’ve just got to keep responding and change our best.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
Ohio State had seven first-time starters on defense, with cornerback Sevyn Banks out injured and an all-new linebacker group getting broken in. That’s where Garrett and Harrison come in.
“We’ve got to lead. We were picked as captains for a reason,” Garrett said.
ONE-SIDED SERIES
The Buckeyes have won 12 straight games over the Gophers and 28 of 29 since their last loss at Minnesota in 1981. The Gophers last won in 2000, at Ohio Stadium.
POLL IMPLICATIONS
Ohio State will surely at least stay put at No. 4 but likely would only move up if a top-three team stumbled badly on opening weekend.
THE TAKEAWAY
Ohio State: For all their talent at wide receiver, size on the offensive line and depth at running back, the Buckeyes were still turning over their offense to a player who’d never attempted a pass in a college game so the succession from NFL first-round draft pick Justin Fields went about as smooth as could reasonably be expected. Luke Wypler filled in at center, too, for the injured Harry Miller.
Minnesota: Regardless of the outcome, this was the type of performance the Gophers were seeking in their attempt to get back on track after a frustrating 2020 season. The concern is a defense, buoyed by transfers and boasting seven players in their fifth year or more of college, that gave up way too many long gains, even against an NFL factory like the Buckeyes.
UP NEXT
Ohio State: The Buckeyes return home to face No. 11 Oregon on Sept. 11.
Minnesota: The Gophers host Miami of Ohio on Sept. 11.
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