Broken-bat hit haunts Cardinals, completes collapse

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Broken-bat hit haunts Cardinals, completes collapse

SAN FRANCISCO Bruce Bochy had Matt Cain. As the longesttenured Giant on the playoff roster and the owner of the franchises firstperfect game, who better to start Game 7? Mike Matheny had Kyle Lohse. While Lohse doesnt have Cains pedigree, he puttogether the best regular season of his 12-year career in 2012 and helped theCardinals escape from a one-game playoff with the Atlanta Braves. And headinginto Mondays game at AT&T Park, Lohse had allowed two earned runs in 12.2innings over two starts in the NLDS and NLCS. Many San Francisco hitters felt they let Lohse off the hookin Game 3, when he picked up the win by outdueling Cain, despite five walks. InGame 7, the Giants got Lohse to bite back on the hook early, reeled him in and didnot catch and release.The Giants filleted Lohse for five runs in two innings. The Cardinals34-year-old right-hander threw 46 pitches and just two of them were swungthrough. I got myself in trouble early and theres no room for errorin a game like this, Lohse said in a solemn St. Louis clubhouse after thegame.Lohse started the third inning but headed back to thevisitors dugout with his head down without recording an out in that fatefulframe. With the Giants already up 2-0 after scoring a run in each of the firsttwo innings, NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro led off the third with his second single ofthe evening and his 13th hit of the series. With his Game 7performance, Scutaro became just the second player in baseball history to havea 20-game regular season hitting streak and a 10-game postseason hitting streakin the same season, joining Mike Piazza. Lohse explained what makes Scutarosuch a tough out.Do you want to get technical? Hes shortening up and not trying to do toomuch. Guys like that, for me, are the toughest outs. You give me a guy thatsswinging for the fences Ill get him out every time. But a guy that isntafraid to shoot the ball to righthes just a tough out. You cant fool himwith offspeed because hes not trying to pull it. We just couldnt find a wayto get him out in key situations.Scutaro advanced to third when Pablo Sandoval went the opposite way for adouble and Buster Posey followed with a walk to load the bases. Matheny hadseen enough from Lohse and decided to hand the ball over to Joe Kelly to faceHunter Pence with no outs and nowhere to put him. He did a very nice job all through this run of answering the bell and reallyhaving great composure for a young pitcher, Matheny said of the 24-year-old right-handerhe trusted to keep the Cardinals in the game.Pence, who struck out in his first at-bat of Game 7 to fall to 3-for-24 in theNLCS, cleared the bases with a bizarre base hit. Pence swung at Kellys firstoffering, a 95 MPH two-seam fastball that cracked his bat. The broken barrel thenhit the ball two more times as Pence completed his swing and it led to aknuckling grounder that shook St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma. Once the ball gotpast Kozma, it entered a no-mans land between Matt Holliday in left and JonJay in center. Both outfielders approached the ball timidly before Jaymisplayed it to allow a slow-footed Posey to score all the way from first.I didnt know what happened until I went back and looked atreplays, Kelly said. I thought I was just going to get a jam shot to theshortstop and all the sudden I was like Oh, that was weird and it looked likeit was a wiffle ball out there or something.Kozma, who wasnt charged with an error on the play butcommitted one later in the game, provided his perspective.The read I got, it was going towards the hole. I thought itcame around it. The ball was like a little banana and went up the middle. Theball kind of peeled like he sliced it. I just reacted to the ball and had achance at it Ive never seen anything like that.Matheny didnt throw Kelly or Kozma under the bus after the game.Joe Kelly came in, especially as a young pitcher, and did aterrific job getting the ball on the ground. As the ball left the bat I thoughtthat was our double play.Kozmas been a tremendous shortstop for us that ball was very unusual theway it came off the bat.While Matheny wouldnt play the blame game, he didnt downplay the importanceof that sequence either.That is a turning point in the game. Youre looking at apotential double play. We may be able to get out of that inning where its a3-0 game. And that was really what we were hoping for, to get that ground ball.And it was just one that had a lot more spin than what they usually have. Andit was a tough play.The Cardinals nightmare inning was just getting started, however. A BrandonBelt infield single and a Gregor Blanco walk re-loaded the bases for BrandonCrawford. On a routine ground ball to short, Kozma ignored the sure out atfirst for a chance to prevent Pence from scoring. The throw was too late,however, and the Giants suddenly had a 6-0 lead still with no outs in theinning. First base was probably my better play, Kozma said. Onething leads to another. We just keep giving extra outs and theyre going toscore more runs, get more chances.Angel Pagan made it a five-run inning with an RBI fielderschoice and the Cardinals never recovered against Cain or Bochys bullpen.Mattt Cain pitched great for them and they played better baseball tonight,Carlos Beltran said. We made a lot of mistakes and the didnt make any.For the Giants to win three straight games to complete theirsecond straight playoff series comeback, it took a Cardinal collapse as much asa San Francisco surge. St. Louis was 1-for-21 with runners in scoring positionover the final three games.You have short runs like this sometimes; its a tough game, Matheny said.And its about the team that was hot, and we went on a cold streak.The cold streak certainly contributed to the Giantsadvancing to their second Fall Classic in the last three years, but that didntstop the Cardinals from giving credit where credit is due.The Giants, theyre a helluva team; and theyve showed it,obviously, two series in a row, said David Freese, the 2011 NLCS and WorldSeries MVP. It stinks, obviously, not getting to the World Series, but werevery proud of what we accomplished this year.The Giants can appreciate what the Cardinals accomplished as well. The fewplayers remaining from the 2010 team know better than anyone else how hard itis to repeat as World Series champions.

Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

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Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

More than four weeks have passed since the Sharks were dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau appear no closer to signing contract extensions than when the season ended. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson faces some of the toughest decisions of his 14-year tenure as the head of the hockey department in the coming weeks, beginning with the two best players in franchise history.

And, no, there are no back room handshake deals here between the Sharks and either of Thornton or Marleau, allowing the Sharks to protect extra players in the upcoming expansion draft. The two veterans are still pending unrestricted free agents in the truest sense, and it’s no certainty that either will return to San Jose.

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Re-signing Thornton would seem to be more of a priority than re-signing Marleau, as centermen are more valuable than wingers. Thornton’s line, with Joe Pavelski and whoever the left wing happened to be, was still drawing the opposition’s top defense pair on many nights this season. Marleau was on that line at times, but was shuffled up and down throughout the year, spending about half the season on the third line.

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL. As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final run, the World Cup, and the condensed schedule seemed to take their toll. Thornton, who typically downplays anything remotely negative, admitted more than once that this season in particular was a grind.

But perhaps just as important to the Sharks is what Thornton brings to the team emotionally. Pavelski may still be the captain – and an effective one, at that – but Thornton is still the heartbeat. Pete DeBoer made that clear after Game 2 of the first round against the Oilers, talking about what Thornton’s absence from the bench in those first two games meant to the team in terms of a bench presence.

“It’s old school accountability with Joe. It’s black and white,” DeBoer said. “He came up in an era and at a time and around people who you weren’t worried about hurting feelings. You said what needed to be said. That’s not always the case now in modern dressing rooms and with modern athletes. He’s a great resource for us, because there’s no greater pressure than peer pressure, especially from a Hall of Fame guy like that.”

So what might it take to retain Thornton and keep him from hitting the open market? 

It has been previously reported that Thornton wanted a three-year deal, and that remains the case. As for money, I would expect Thornton – who has taken hometown discounts in the past to stay in San Jose – to ask for at least $5 million per season, minimum. Our best guess here is that a Thornton-Sharks pre-July 1 agreement would probably look something like three years and somewhere between $15 – 17 million.

Whether the Sharks would be willing to make that kind of commitment to Thornton, who will be 38 in July, is unclear. If they are not, Thornton could listen to offers from other teams beginning on June 24, when the window opens for unrestricted free agents to speak with other teams.

Still, Thornton’s first choice is to remain in San Jose. The Sharks don’t have anyone that could replace him on or off the ice. There should be a deal to be made here, either sooner or later.

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Marleau’s future with the Sharks seems much hazier.

Unlike Thornton – who put up with public ridicule from Wilson and had his captaincy stripped – Marleau’s commitment to the organization hasn’t been quite as steadfast. Recall in 2015, of course, when Marleau’s preference for a brief stretch was to leave the Sharks. We reported here in November, 2015 that he was willing to accept a trade to three teams, while ESPN reported that Marleau’s agent was “quietly exploring the market” as late as January, 2016.

While those feelings seem to have passed over time, Marleau hasn’t been as emphatic as Thornton in his desire to return. When asked on April 24 if he would like to come back to the Sharks, Marleau said: “Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option. A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

At this point, though, Marleau may be asking for a bit much in his next deal. It’s believed that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is, like Thornton, seeking a contract of at least three years.

That shouldn’t be overly surprising. When asked then if he wanted a multi-year deal on April 24, Marleau said: “Yeah, I think so. … I still feel like I have at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

As we wrote here in early February, it may not make much sense for the Sharks to commit to Marleau for more than one year for a number of reasons, including potential long-term (and surely expensive) contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, something Wilson has made his top priority this offseason. 

If Marleau is seeking a lengthy commitment from San Jose, I don’t see how that works from a business perspective for San Jose, which has a number of prospects in the system at wing that could potentially fill the hole Marleau would leave. Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, in particular, could be ready to take the next step, and both would be much cheaper options (Meier has two years left on his entry level deal, while Sorensen is a pending restricted free agent that won’t require a huge raise).

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Further complicating matters is that Thornton has never been shy about wanting to win with Marleau by his side. The two famously announced their nearly identical three-year contract extensions on Jan. 24, 2014, and Thornton would still prefer to have Marleau return to San Jose with him.

“Hopefully, I can come back and Patty can come back,” Thornton said after the season ended. “I think this team is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team. I really believe that."

Considering the salary cap for next season has not yet been revealed, and that Wilson can’t officially extend Jones or Vlasic until July 1, the general manager could be forced to wait a little while before finalizing anything with either Thornton or Marleau. That makes it all the more likely that the Thornton and Marleau camps will at least get an opportunity to hear from other clubs and consider other offers in late June.

In short, anything is still possible. And Wilson, Thornton and Marleau all have some difficult decisions on the horizon in a Sharks offseason that is unlike any other.

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.

Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.

But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.

Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.

The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):

Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.

Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.

Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.

Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.