T.J. Simmons hoping to join list of impact WVU receivers

By JOHN RABY AP Sports Writer
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia wide receiver T.J. Simmons is embracing the chance to lead a unit that lost most of its production.
An afterthought last season, Simmons is now the focal point of an inexperienced group still trying to fill out a depth chart under new head coach Neal Brown.
“No pressure,” Simmons said. “I enjoy it because it keeps me accountable.”
Simmons is a junior who transferred from Alabama after the 2016 season. He started half of West Virginia’s games in 2018 and finished fifth on the team with 341 receiving yards on 28 catches.
Tevin Bush is the only other returning wide receiver who had more than 10 receptions. Also in the mix are redshirt freshman Sam James and Florida State graduate transfer George Campbell, who had 13 career catches. Brown also hopes Temple sophomore transfer Sean Ryan will be granted immediate eligibility.
Simmons will try to continue a decade-long tradition of high-impact pass catchers that included Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Kevin and Ka’Raun White and, over the past two seasons, David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr.
Sills caught 18 TDs in 2017 and combined with Jennings for 1,900 receiving yards and 28 scores last year. West Virginia also lost speedster Marcus Simms, the team’s third-leading receiver, and dependable tight end Trevon Wesco.
“It’s not your perfect situation,” Brown said. “T.J. Simmons is the only experience we have. We’re making steady improvement. I think that’s the position group that will benefit the most by going back to the video and then making some corrections.”
Simmons, who also became a father shortly before the start of fall camp, said Sills and Jennings taught him more about the mind than the hands — to stay level-headed and maintain a professional attitude.
“No matter if times get hard or if times are good, they tried to always keep that same work ethic, bring that same type of intensity to practice and try to get better each and every day,” Simmons said. “And that’s something I try to do. I try to push myself even if I’m down mentally or not feeling it on a certain day. Because I’m the focal point of the receiving corps.”
Simmons’ goal is simply doing whatever he can for the team, and scoring touchdowns will be a must. His lone 2018 TD catch came in the opener against Tennessee.
He’s had to fend off lingering criticism for drawing a penalty for finishing a block on an opponent well out of bounds that negated a long run late against Oklahoma. The close loss kept West Virginia out of the Big 12 championship game.
Simmons uses that memory as a teaching tool as West Virginia prepares to open the season at home Aug. 31 against FCS James Madison.
“I definitely do think about it, especially when we’re doing perimeter blocking or when somebody makes a good block on the sideline,” he said. “Even though I play around with it and say ‘That’s a flag, you better stop blocking them,’ I’m really trying to help them out. Because in a game, that could be a costly penalty like in the Oklahoma game and can turn the game around.”
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This story corrects that Simmons’ 2018 TD catch came against Tennessee.
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Oklahoma grad transfer QB Kendall named starter at WVU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall has been named West Virginia’s starting quarterback for the Aug. 31 season opener against FCS James Madison.
West Virginia coach Neal Brown on Tuesday announced the choice of Kendall, who beat out three others.
At Oklahoma, Kendall backed up Baker Mayfield in 2016 and Kyler Murray last season. His decision to leave drew intense scrutiny when Oklahoma initially sought to block the move.
For his career, Kendall has completed 28 of 39 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Brown also announced that the NCAA has ruled that Bowling Green transfer quarterback Jarret Doege will be eligible to play immediately. He’ll have two years of eligibility remaining.
Others quarterbacks on the roster are junior Jack Allison and redshirt freshman Trey Lowe.
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Steelers return to practice while grieving loss of coach

LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — Gray, rainy skies and a subdued, sparse fan turnout made for a fitting setting Tuesday as the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to practice for the first time since the sudden death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
Drake, a longtime NFL and college assistant, was found dead in his Saint Vincent College campus dormitory room Sunday. He was 62. The Steelers canceled Sunday’s practice and bumped up an idle day to Monday to allow extra time for players, coaches and staff to absorb the loss.
After stretches and before team drills began upon the return to Chuck Noll Field on Tuesday, most of the Steelers’ offensive skill-position players gathered near midfield for a group prayer.
“Professionally, obviously, the loss is significant,” head coach Mike Tomlin said of Drake earlier Tuesday. “But personally, it’s even bigger. Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with coach Drake all feel that way.”
But for a team grappling with the grief over a beloved assistant, the meetings and drills that resumed Tuesday mark a return to routine. Whether that accelerates the healing is unclear.
“I don’t know that it does,” Tomlin said during a news conference in which he fought back tears. “But we’ve got professional obligations … so we intend to march.”
Tomlin called a Tuesday morning full-squad meeting the “most important film session of the year.” It was the team’s first football work in what had been a quiet 48 hours on the rural campus an hour east of Pittsburgh.
Tomlin said some players and coaches stayed at Saint Vincent to grieve while others chose to go back to their homes in Pittsburgh. The Steelers made grief counselors available to players and staff.
“It’s been said that counseling is not for the weak but the wise,” Tomlin said. “So we seek people who have expertise and help dealing with such circumstances.”
Players were to offer their first public comments about the loss of Drake in speaking with reporters after Tuesday’s practice, but the players hastily headed to the locker room when the session was postponed after lightning was spotted. The practice was ultimately canceled about an hour before it was scheduled to end.
Drake was in his second season with the team, but 16th in the NFL and 37th season in college or pro coaching. His relationship with Tomlin spans more than two decades.
“I was a young wide receivers coach at Arkansas State, and he was viewed as one of the top wide receivers coaches in the college game,” Tomlin said, his face lighting up for a rare moment during a 15-minute session with reporters.
“I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice — that’s how he described it in terms of being my friend. I was too persistent, and he extended courtesies to me, like he does a lot of young guys like myself. We developed a rapport and our relationship grew from there.”
Tomlin called Drake, “a father, a mentor, an adviser.” He said the team has tributes planned but did not elaborate. Tomlin also declined to share funeral arrangements, deferring to Drake’s family.
“It’s whatever they say,” Tomlin said. “We all feel that way.”
As to who will replace Drake or fill his duties as a position coach, Tomlin said the team is “in the process of developing a plan.”
“It’s in place. I just don’t wish to discuss the intimate details,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s appropriate at this time.”
During Tuesday’s abbreviated practice, coaching assistant Blaine Stewart and former longtime NFL assistant Ray Sherman were working with the receivers. The son of late former West Virginia University coach Bill Stewart, Blaine Stewart is in his second season as a coaching assistant with the Steelers.
The Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 1998, the 67-year-old Sherman served as wide receivers coach for four NFL teams between 2000-2015. He has previously has been a guest of Tomlin’s during this camp.
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Bell’s HR, 3 RBIs help Pirates take down Angels 10-7

By DAN GREENSPAN Associated Press
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Josh Bell has pulled himself out of a recent slump with some extra film study and a return to better habits as a hitter.
Not only has he found his form, Bell helped the floundering Pirates find their footing.
Bell homered and had three RBIs to help the Pirates rally for a 10-7 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night.
“It’s awesome to get our bats alive,” said Bell, who homered for the fourth straight interleague game to set a new Pirates record. “Hopefully it starts a new trend the next couple of weeks and hopefully we can finish this thing strong.”
José Osuna drove in two runs, and Bryan Reynolds added a solo homer for the Pirates, who have won consecutive games for the first time since July 6-7 against Milwaukee.
Trevor Williams (5-5) allowed five runs in five innings. He was tagged for three runs in the first inning, but responded to take some pressure off Pittsburgh’s bullpen and get back to .500 on the season.
Pittsburgh, which is now in position to sweep a series for the first time since June 21-23 against San Diego, can thank its offense for getting back on track. And no one has been more important to that turnaround than Bell, whose two-run shot to center tied the game at 5 as part of a four-run fifth inning.
The Pirates took a 6-5 lead on Osuna’s double to left that scored Colin Moran, and Pablo Reyes drove in another run to make it 7-5 and tag Taylor Cole (2-4) with the loss.
Bell’s 31st homer of the season continued a recent long-ball flurry with his fourth homer in the past three games. He is also one away from tying Bobby Bonilla’s 1990 team record for homers by a switch-hitter in a season at 32.
“I think things got a little bit sped up for me there for a little bit, so I’m just trying to focus on the timing of everything ,” Bell said. “If I can start early and slow I’m in a good place, I can see the ball. So I’m just trying to stay there.”
Justin Upton had three RBIs and Shohei Ohtani added two for the Angels, who have lost 10 of their past 12. Albert Pujols moved into a tie for 15th place in career hits with an RBI single in the first inning.
After falling behind 4-0 on Ohtani’s RBI triple in the second inning, the Pirates started their comeback in the third. Bell dropped a bloop single into left field to get Pittsburgh on the board, with Reynolds scoring and Bell reaching third on a throwing error by Angels starting pitcher Griffin Canning to pull within 4-2. Moran’s double drove in Bell and cut the deficit to 4-3 before Luis Rengifo made it 5-3 with an RBI single in the bottom of the third.
Pittsburgh went up 8-5 on Osuna’s sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. They made it 10-5 in the seventh on an RBI double by Adam Frazier, who had three hits, and Reynolds’ solo homer.
“We’ve just connected the dots offensively,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “(Starling) Marte has three hits today and we didn’t mention his name, so there’s a lot going on.”
Pujols tied Adrián Beltré (3,166) in career hits with his single up the middle to drive in a run as part of a three-run first inning for the Angels, with Ohtani and Upton picking up the other RBIs.
Upton had a two-run single in the ninth inning to score Mike Trout and Ohtani that pulled the Angels within 10-7 before Felipe Vázquez (22) came in to see out the game.
“Sometimes you got to believe in things you can’t see,” Hurdle said. “And we’ve had different guys step up the last two days in different areas and give us big pushes.”
BIG ARM
Marte had an outfield assist in the bottom of the fifth with his throw from deep center to Jacob Stallings, allowing the catcher to tag Kole Calhoun out at home and deny the Angels a run. Hurdle called it “one of the prettiest plays in the game,” and Bell credited Marte’s effort for the win.
“He was definitely the player of the game with that.,” Bell said. “Got Trevor the win, and allowed our bats to take hold of the game and keep the game in our grasp.”
BACK IN ACTION
Canning allowed three runs in four innings after being activated off the injured list for inflammation in his right elbow earlier on Tuesday. Angels manager Brad Ausmus said he would be cautious with the workload for Canning, who gave up six hits and three walks while striking out two, over the remainder of the season.
“His stuff looked really good, but the pitch count got up,” Ausmus said. “A little trouble locating the ball, and the error, that hurt him. But, overall, I thought more importantly he looked healthy, looked strong.”
ROSTER MOVES
The Angels optioned RHP Jose Rodriguez to Triple-A Salt Lake on Tuesday and recalled RHP Jake Jewell from Triple-A on Tuesday. They also placed LHP Adalberto Mejia on the restricted list for personal reasons. Ausmus did not know when Mejia would rejoin the team.
TRAINER’S ROOM
Angels: RHP Noé Ramirez (viral infection) could be recalled from the injured list by Thursday following a successful rehab assignment at Single-A Inland Empire, Ausmus said. Ramirez must serve a three-game suspension for hitting Astros OF Jake Marsinick with a pitch on July 16 when he rejoins the team.
UP NEXT
Pirates RHP Chris Archer (3-8, 5.23 ERA) has gone 11 starts without a victory, the longest winless stretch in his eight-year career. Archer is 0-3 with a 5.25 ERA since his last win on June 6. Angels LHP Dillon Peters (2-1, 3.45) has thrown 13 2/3 innings over his past two appearances, the longest outing during a two-game span in his three-year career.
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Marte, Pirates stop Mets’ 7-game win string with 8-4 victory

By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Steven Matz’s mastery of the Pittsburgh Pirates unraveled quickly. So did the New York Mets’ seven-game winning streak.
Five days removed from a five-hit masterpiece in which he shut out the Pirates on 99 pitches, Matz didn’t make it out of the fourth inning of an 8-4 loss on Friday night.
Melky Cabrera’s two-run double highlighted Pittsburgh’s five-run outburst against Matz (6-7) and Starling Marte’s three-run home run in the seventh off New York reliever Tyler Bashlor provided some welcome cushion for the Pirates, who won for just the fourth time since the All-Star break.
“It all just snowballed so fast,” Matz said. “I was out of the game and I was just like, ‘I can’t believe I’m out of this game.’ Especially with how I went the first time through the lineup.”
Matz retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced and appeared on his way to a repeat performance before things feel apart in the fourth. Each of the first five hitters reached base, culminating in Cabrera’s shot to the wall in left-center field to give the Pirates the lead.
Three batters later Matz’s night was over. He allowed five runs with a walk and four strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings to fall to 2-7 on the road. Matz’s bumpy performance ended a 17-game streak in which New York’s starting pitchers allowed three or fewer runs.
“He’ll shake this one off and understand he’s throwing some really good baseball since he got back into the rotation since the All-Star break,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said.
Pete Alonzo, Robinson Cano and Amed Rosario all had two hits apiece for the Mets. But New York lost for just the sixth time since the All-Star break when Matz couldn’t protect an early three-run lead.
“We weren’t going to go undefeated the rest of the way,” Callaway said. “So we just have to start another one.”
WILLIAMS RECOVERS
The Mets jumped on Trevor Williams (4-4) early, touching him for two runs in the first and appeared on the verge of a big inning in the third. Yet Williams survived thanks to some nifty defensive plays at third by José Osuna, given the start after Jung Ho Kang was designated for assignment.
Osuna cut down the lead runner on a force play at third and later caught Wilson Ramos in a rundown between third and home. Osuna also went 2 for 3 with an RBI.
“He saved us a run and he made a couple of really nice plays and it kind of ignites the team,” Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman said.
Williams settled down quickly. He didn’t allow a hit after J.D. Davis’ RBI-double in the third, retiring the final 11 batters he faced as Pittsburgh rallied.
“We had to adjust in game,” Williams said. “Thankfully I stuck with (catcher Elias Diaz) and it was good to go to Plan B and execute.”
BRAWL FALLOUT
Bench coach Tom Prince filled in for Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, who began serving a two-game suspension following a brawl in Cincinnati on Tuesday night that also resulted in suspensions for Osuna (five games) and relievers Keone Kela (10 games) and Kyle Crick (three games). All three players are appealing.
Kela, who admitted after the game in Cincinnati he was trying to send a message when he threw the ball over the head of Reds infielder Derek Dietrich in the seventh inning — a pitch that MLB ruled helped instigate the incident — believes the league is trying to make an example out of him.
“Me being honest, I guess the truth will get you crucified,” Kela said. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to sit here and bald-faced lie. The game sees enough of that.”
TRAINER’S ROOM
Pirates: RHP Jameson Taillon will undergo surgery to repair a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm and will not return this season. Taillon (2-3, 4.10) last pitched on May 1. The 27-year-old — who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 — was shut down for several weeks after going on the injured list then experienced a setback while trying to rehab last month. There is no timetable on a potential return date.
UP NEXT
Mets: Marcus Stroman makes his first start for New York on Saturday after being acquired in a trade with Toronto. Stroman is 10-5 with a 2.93 ERA against National League teams in his career.
Pirates: Chris Archer (3-8, 5.58 ERA), who is 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA since June 12, will make his second start against the Mets in a week. New York touched Archer for six runs in five innings last Sunday.
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Big 12 is a 10: Bowlsby says no talk of expanding league

By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Bob Bowlsby sat on the podium at midfield of the massive NFL stadium where the Big 12 plays its championship game, talking about the successes of the smallest Power Five conference before getting a familiar question about the possibility of expansion.
The commissioner said there is no talk about adding to the league’s current 10 schools.
“We have had no expansion discussion at any level. We like the 10 we have,” Bowlsby said Monday at the start of the conference’s football media days. “I don’t expect that to be an active topic on anybody’s agenda within the conference anytime in the foreseeable future.”
Bowlsby talked about the round-robin schedule that sets up a title game rematch of the league’s top two teams, and a full round-robin schedule in basketball that allows for home-and-away games each season. He said there are record revenues and new opportunities in a changing media market, such as the new Big 12 Now digital network on ESPN+.
“We have had a tremendous year competitively. We have had a very good year financially,” Bowlsby said. “I think our ADs and our board (of directors) are the most aligned that they have been in the seven years that I’ve been with the conference.”
The Big 12 split $388 million in revenue for the last academic year, a 6 percent increase and an average of $38.8 million per school. Those numbers don’t include third-tier media rights and participation subsidies.
While Oklahoma fell short of playing for a national championship after winning its fourth Big 12 title in a row and making its third College Football Playoff appearance, the league won national titles in women’s basketball (Baylor), women’s gymnastics (Oklahoma), men’s tennis (Texas) and men’s outdoor track (Texas Tech). There were also four national runner-ups, including Texas Tech’s men’s basketball team.
After holding its football media days the past two years at The Star in Frisco, the practice headquarters for the Dallas Cowboys, the two-day talkfest was moved this year to the NFL team’s home stadium where the Big 12 drew a record 83,114 fans for its championship game last December between Red River rivals Oklahoma and Texas.
“I think it can’t do anything but enhance the rivalry, although it’s fair to argue that that rivalry couldn’t be enhanced any more than it already is,” Bowlsby said. “I think this year’s game with OU and Texas picked one and two in the league probably has more anticipation to it than what we may have had before, and of course, that is multiplied by the fact that they played in the championship game last year.”
Among other topics:
— Bowlsby said the number of transfers is about the same on a school-by-school basis as in recent years.
“Interestingly enough, there are kids going to the portal and leaving with a scholarship and finding difficulty in getting another scholarship at another institution,” Bowlsby said. “There are many walk-ons in the portal that are going from a non-scholarship environment trying to find a scholarship and you certainly can’t blame them for that.”
— The Big 12 has had conversations with football coaches and athletic directors about making participation reports mandatory each week.
“Well, it’s hard to say how far down the road it is,” Bowlsby said. “Frankly, I don’t know that we want to do anything that encourages gambling, not that that necessarily does. But the replicating what the NFL does with 32 teams is very different than replicating it across 700 schools that play football or 200 that play in Division I.”
— Bowlsby said there was one particular statistic he wanted to make sure everyone got.
“I want to see pencils moving and fingers tapping on this,” he said, before pointing out that in the Big 12’s seven bowl games last year, six of the opponents were held below their season averages offensively.
“Contrary to popular belief, there are kids that tackle in the Big 12,” he said.
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Big 12’s 2nd day features 2 new coaches, 2 QBs

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — The second day of Big 12 football media days will feature two new coaches and the only two quarterbacks who are appearing at the conference’s two-day kickoff event.
While new Kansas coach Les Miles is the only Big 12 head coach with a national championship at college football’s highest level, new Kansas State coach Chris Klieman is coming off his fourth FCS championship in his five seasons as North Dakota State’s head coach. Klieman was also part of three other titles as defensive coordinator for the Bison.
Neal Brown took over at West Virginia after three consecutive 10-win seasons with bowl wins at Troy. He was Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator from 2010-12.
The quarterbacks talking Tuesday are Texas junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year, and Kansas State junior Skylar Thompson.
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Oklahoma favored to win 5th straight Big 12 title

IRVING, Texas (AP) — Oklahoma is the favorite to win another Big 12 football title, according to the conference’s preseason media poll released Wednesday.
The Sooners have won the league the last four years and 12 Big 12 championships overall. Oklahoma also made the College Football Playoff three of the past four seasons.
Texas was picked second by media covering the league. The top two teams will meet in the conference championship game on Dec. 7. The Longhorns lost to the Sooners in the title matchup in 2018.
Iowa State, TCU and Oklahoma State round out the top five picks.
The Big 12 will have four new head coaches in 2019 with Les Miles at Kansas, Chris Klieman at Kansas State, Matt Wells at Texas Tech and Neal Brown at West Virginia.
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Big 12’s preseason best: Ehlinger, Murray, Hurts top awards

IRVING, Texas (AP) — Texas junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger has been tabbed the Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year, with Oklahoma junior linebacker Kenneth Murray taking the defensive honor.
Jalen Hurts, the former Alabama quarterback who is at Oklahoma as a graduate transfer, was picked as the league’s newcomer of the year in voting by media representatives who cover the league.
The awards were announced Tuesday in advance of the league’s football media days next week at AT&T Stadium, the NFL home of the Dallas Cowboys where the Big 12 championship game is played.
Ehlinger is the Big 12’s top returning passer after throwing for 235 yards a game with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions in 14 games last season. Murray had 155 tackles (11.1 per game) for the Sooners, with 4 ½ sacks and 12 ½ tackles for loss.
Hurts had 5,626 yards and 48 touchdowns passing and 1,976 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing the past three seasons at Alabama.
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Party of 5? Competitive NL Central in for taut second half

By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Joe Maddon didn’t let the free time created by a rare ejection go to waste.
Shortly after getting tossed by home-plate umpire Joe West on July 4 following an outburst in which the Chicago Cubs’ manager appeared ready to take on any and all comers from the Pittsburgh dugout after taking exception to the way the Pirates kept pitching up and in to his players, Maddon retired to the visiting manager’s office at PNC Park. He eased into a chair, opened a bottle of wine, flipped on the television and watched his wildly uneven team put the finishing touches on an 11-3 victory that avoided a four-game sweep.
Veteran move. Opportunities to relax over the next two-plus months will be scarce in the most competitive division in the majors.
The National League Central enters the second half with the first-place Cubs and last-place Cincinnati separated by just 4 1/2 games, an outlier during an otherwise yawn-inducing first half in which five divisions reached the All-Star break with at least a 5 1/2-game gap between first and second.
There are no front-runners in the NL Central. No room to breathe either, something Maddon saw coming long ago.
“I’ve been talking about this for the last two years how teams are getting better in our division,” Maddon said. “It’s not going to go away. It’s going to be really difficult to really separate, especially by the fact that everybody is catching up right now. The second half is going to be very similar to what you’ve seen in the first half.”
Exactly what the Reds had in mind when they retooled over the winter in an effort to stop a streak of four straight 90-loss seasons. Cincinnati upgraded its starting rotation over the winter, added a dash (OK, maybe more than a dash) of swagger when it acquired outfielder Yaisel Puig from the Los Angeles Dodgers and overcame a shaky 1-8 start to stay within striking distance in a division in which sustained momentum has been nonexistent.
“We’re in it,” Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett said. “It’s pretty close, pretty tight. There’s plenty of time to make a run.”
Maybe, but that will require one team in the Central finding a way to get the better of the other four on a consistent basis. That didn’t happen in the first half. Milwaukee is the only NL Central team with a winning record within the division (24-18) but has been unable to create any separation.
“It doesn’t make me comfortable that we’ve been spotty,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The division, we haven’t, nobody has jumped out. Somebody will. It almost has to happen that some team is going to start playing really well. Nobody has dug a hole for themselves, and I think every team feels good about that in our division for sure.”
First-place, after all, is only a week-long hot streak away. Not so much in the NL West — where the Los Angeles Dodgers have smashed their way to a 13 1/2- game lead — or the NL East — where Atlanta’s young core has given the Braves a healthy six-game cushion over Washington.
“You can slow it way down knowing that we’re only a few games back,” Cardinals infielder Paul deJong said. “Today’s important, so we’re focusing on today. We’re not thinking, ‘Oh, we’re 7 1/2 back and we’ve got to win 10 in a row.’ All of a sudden you’re thinking 10 games ahead and not focusing on winning today. For us with the small deficit or small lead, every game’s important so it locks us in the now.”
And leaves each team with some interesting decisions to make as the trade deadline approaches.
The resilient Pirates entered the break just 2 1/2 games behind the Cubs despite having 80 percent of its starting rotation spend time on the injured list at some point over the last three months. All-Star first baseman Josh Bell’s breakout season has helped. So has the impact of rookie outfielder Bryan Reynolds and rookie infielder Kevin Newman.
“We feel like we’re here for the fight,” Bell said. “We’re ready for it. I like the guys that we have. We trust ourselves to be celebrating at the end of the season.”
Then again, so does everyone else, which is one of the reasons the Central is so competitive. No one is rebuilding or transitioning from one core to the next.
“Each of us has our flaws, but there’s a deep level of talent in this division, and you do, you have five teams that their ambition is to make the postseason,” Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said. “That’s not the case in some of the other divisions. That’s not criticism. Teams cycle in and cycle out. It’s part of the industry. It’s part of the game. It’s been part of the game for decades.”
So have pennant races. The Central’s figures to go right down to the wire as it did a year ago, when Chicago and Milwaukee needed a 163rd game to determine a division winner. The Brewers emerged and eventually reached the National League Championship Series. The Cubs had to settle for a wild card berth.
There may not be any sort of consolation prize for the runner-up this time around. The four teams running behind Chicago are as close to the division lead as they are to the second wild card, leaving all five clubs potentially vying for one postseason spot.
It’s why Maddon — whose job status is tenuous at best just three years removed from leading the Cubs to their first World Series in more than a century — wants his players to buckle up and block out the noise.
“You have to circle the wagons at some point,” Maddon said. “Because today’s world, the way the speed of information and the way it’s generated and the vitriol that’s carried with it and the promotion of vitriol, you’ve got to get beyond that at some point and you have to insulate yourself.”
And are they circled in Chicago?
“They’re circled,” Maddon said with a smile. “Circled.”
Considering what the Cubs are up against in baseball’s tightest division, they better be.
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AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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