Just a Labor Day reminder that the return of football is far more of a downer than the annual exuberance baseball brings for this simple reason: The start of football means back to school (ugh). Baseball means summer is here (hum babe!). Though that still didn’t stop me from being glued to the flat-screen TV on what was a great opening weekend of college football…


1. Boston’s Road Dogs Chase the Blue Jays

Tuesday in San Diego was the same as Monday in San Diego for David Ortiz: not much to do. Playing in a National League park with no designated hitter, Ortiz had plenty of time on his hands.

Let’s see…He could count the well-traveled Boston Red Sox fans around San Diego, scoreboard-watch as the Red Sox slug it out with the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, even pay rapt attention to Donald Trump’s campaign.

“I’m not talking about that,” Ortiz good-naturedly told a Boston radio reporter here Tuesday. “I already said what I have to say on that.”

He sure did, telling USA Today‘s Jorge L. Ortiz in a wide-ranging interview that Trump’s declaration that Mexico is sending rapists and criminals to the United States “didn’t sit well with me. When you speak like that about us, it’s a slap in the face. … As Latin people we deserve respect, no matter where you’re from. And especially our Mexican brothers, who come here willing to do all the dirty work. Latin people here in the United States are the spark plug of the country’s economy.”

The only wall Ortiz wants to see is Fenway Park’s Green Monster. But considering 30 of their final 46 games were/are on the road, these are interesting times for the Red Sox as they thunder down the stretch.

Ortiz is sitting (other than pinch-hit appearances) until this weekend’s showdown in Toronto. They’ve summoned Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada from Double-A Portland because Travis Shaw and Aaron Hill weren’t producing at the plate (Boston’s third-base production ranks 28th in MLB with a .710 OPS). And Clay Buchholz has been resurrected from the boneyard just in time.

Since the All-Star break, Boston’s pitchers have the lowest road ERA in the majors at 2.66. Good timing for that, given the Red Sox’s spate of road games this month. Buchholz, following 6.2 one-run innings Tuesday night, has produced a 2.20 ERA over his past 12 outings (four starts) beginning on July 27.

Among other things, Buchholz has moved his arm slot up a little higher than it has been during the past two seasons, back to where it was when he went 17-7 in 2010. Injuries and wear and tear had caused it to drop. The better arm slot, according to manager John Farrell, “has helped him to stay in his lane [with pitches] in or away, and it’s added depth to his two-seam fastball and cutter.”

Plus, Buchholz has pitched exclusively from the stretch in each of his past three starts.

The comeback is a credit to Buchholz, who, at 32, was getting pummeled on both the mound and in the public arena earlier this summer and could have mentally checked out. He was 3-9 with a 5.91 ERA at the All-Star break.

“It says a lot about him,” Farrell said. “There was a lot of speculation [early in the year], a lot of wondering about his status. Externally, people were wondering whether his days in Boston were numbered.”

Instead, with knuckleballer Steven Wright’s shoulder injury, Buchholz might be just what the doctor ordered for Boston. Wright got a second opinion on his shoulder Tuesday, and though Farrell said it was consistent with the first exam in that no structural damage was found, he said the Sox still do not know whether Wright will pitch again this year.

So Buchholz is enormous, as is the potential emergence of Moncada, who Baseball America rated the game’s No. 1 prospect at midseason. But after going 4-for-10 with three runs scored and a double in his first three games in Oakland, Moncada was 0-for-7 with seven strikeouts in the first two games in San Diego. Still, the Sox see plenty they like.

“He’s got a pretty good swing, and I don’t think he’s scared,” Boston hitting coach Chili Davis says. “He got upset after one at-bat [Monday]. He didn’t walk back to the dugout timid; he walked back mad.

“And hitters like that are going to do something about it.”

The AL East has been a jumble all season, and it’s only lately that Toronto has threatened to clamp down. The Jays spent 22 days alone in first place this season, including nine of the past 10 days until Tuesday’s loss in Yankee Stadium. Now, Toronto and Boston are tied for first, and Baltimore trails by only a game.

The Jays team that awaits Boston at Rogers Centre this weekend has allowed the second-fewest runs per game in the American League (4.18), is watching second baseman Devon Travis become a breakout star in the season’s second half and is fueled by Josh Donaldson’s bid for a second consecutive MVP award.

The Blue Jays also pushed back knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s next start to line up their top three starters for the Red Sox this weekend: Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez.

By then, Boston again will be able to utilize the DH and Ortiz, who leads the majors in OPS (1.030), slugging percentage (.625), extra-base hits (76) and doubles (44).

“That’s the schedule,” Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. shrugs. “We’ve known that’s the schedule since before the season started.”

And despite all of the road games, if it comes down to the season’s final weekend, there’s this: Boston hosts Toronto.


2. Backing into the NL Wild Card

Only one of the top five teams in National League wild-card contentionthe New York Mets—had a winning record from July 30 until Tuesday night. Then the Cardinals took it to Pittsburgh again, and now, since July 30, this is what it looks like:

In this turtle’s-pace race, keep an eye on the Mets for this reason: Of their remaining 23 games, only three are against a team with a winning record (Washington Nationals). Otherwise, Terry Collins’ club gets a steady diet of losers: Cincinnati, Atlanta, Minnesota and Philadelphia.


3. Of Managers, Slumps and October

Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon each went to the “Clear Their Heads” page of the playbook a couple of weeks ago in attempting to ignite struggling outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, respectively.


Since his three-day mental break last month, Upton, the erstwhile Tigers slugger, has hit .330 with eight homers and 21 RBI in 16 games.

Since his four-day mental break last month, Heyward, the slumping Cubs slugger, has responded some, but not quite to Upton’s specs: .271, one homer and 10 RBI in 15 games.


4. Tim Tebow, and Quarterbacking the Atlanta Braves

The clubhouse leader to sign Tim Tebow following his workout at the University of Southern California last week is the Atlanta Braves, multiple sources tell B/R.

Makes sense on several levels: As an undrafted free agent, Tebow’s contract will count against a club’s 2016 draft bonus pool, and the Braves have a little money left. And in that regard, Tebow is not expected to sign for much because he is such a project.

As it will not demand a big cash outlay, and given that Tebow will start at the Single-A or Double-A level, there isn’t much risk involved. And with Atlanta’s farm teams in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia—smack in the heart of SEC football country—you bet Tebow will sell some extra tickets.

The fascinating thing to consider, of course, would have been if Tebow started his baseball career far younger than his current age of 29. As we wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Angels tried to draft him in 2009 but, as Red Sox scout and then-Angels scouting director Eddie Bane told B/R, “They hid that phone number better than any phone number has ever been hidden. Probably, it was Urban Meyer [Florida’s coach at the time]. You couldn’t get any info on Tim Tebow. As hard as we tried…we couldn’t get the info.”

Bane said the Angels tried to get an MLB draft information card to Tebow so he could fill it out, but they couldn’t find him.

When I relayed that story to Tebow last week at USC, he grinned in amusement and confirmed that no MLB draft card ever reached him. He laughed when I told him that Bane figured Meyer was the one who hid Tebow.

“This is the first I’ve heard of any of that,” the former quarterback told B/R, laughing.

Whether the Braves or someone else signs Tebow, expect him to play for a club’s Instructional League team this fall. Then, as B/R reported last week, he is expected to play winter ball in Venezuela to prepare for his first spring training.


5. Of Clayton Kershaw, Awards and Chavez Ravine

Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is slated to rejoin the rotation Friday in Miami. Now the biggest question for the rampaging Dodgers becomes: Will Kershaw screw them up?

Anybody would be thrilled to get Kershaw back, but everyone from industry insiders to seamhead pundits expected the Dodgers to fold this year if Kershaw was out for an extended period of time. Instead, the opposite has happened. The Dodgers are 37-24 in Kershaw‘s absence.

So while not diminishing Kershaw‘s dominance on the mound, it does make you wonder about his overall value to the team. Kershaw is no mere Cy Young Award winner—he’s also the 2014 AL MVP. Granted, that was two years ago, but given the always-fierce debate regarding whether starting pitchers should be considered for an MVP Award when they already have the Cy Young Award, it does make you wonder.

As the anti-MVP argument goes, starting pitchers, even those as great as Kershaw, only play once every five days. Watching this year’s Dodgers, it does deflate the seemingly automatic tie-in between the Cy Young Award and MVP that Kershaw usually carries with him.

And now, as HBO’s John Oliver might say, this:

That would be Jesse Chavez and Josh Ravin, who pitched in relief on Sunday in Chavez Ravine. Beautiful.


6. Weekly Power Rankings

1. Chicago Cubs: Ripped through a 22-6 August, most victories in a month since they won 22 games in September 1945—one month after V-J Day. Next thing you know, the Cubs will be kissing nurses in Times Square.

2. Stranger Things: Netflix has greenlighted a second season of the show, which features the supernatural developments of Yasiel Puig bouncing between the Dodgers and Triple-A Oklahoma City. Wait, what? That’s not what the show is about?

3. Ubaldo Jimenez: Orioles starter throws his first complete game since 2011 and Baltimore’s first of the year in a 7-3 triumph over Tampa Bay on Monday. Look out: Jimenez has a 2.70 ERA over his past four starts and could be just the wild card the Orioles need to earn a wild-card slot.

4. Taco trucks: Mmmmm!

5. Zack Greinke: Surrenders a career-high five homers in his return to Dodger Stadium on Monday, including four in one inning. The only other pitcher in Diamondbacks franchise history to give up five homers in a game was Casey Daigle in 2004, and he, um, didn’t sign for $206.5 million.


7. Whoosh!

Biggest swing-and-miss relief pitchers? Maybe not who you think. File this away for your stretch-run scouting:


8. Chatter

• Former Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has emerged as a candidate to replace Terry Ryan in charge of the Minnesota Twins’ baseball operations, according to Jon Morosi of MLB Network. Industry speculation has the Twins going outside of the organization to make the hire, with former Boston GM Ben Cherington, Cubs senior vice president Jason McLeod and Texas assistant GM Thad Levine also in the mix. The headhunting company the Twins hired to aid in the search is the same company the Milwaukee Brewers used last year that led them to hire David Stearns.

 When the going gets tough, Texas usually wins: The Rangers lead MLB in both one-run wins (30) and winning percentage in those games (.769, 30-9). Thanks in no small part to how well they’re playing in those games, the Rangers continue to own the best record in the American League and, thus, the edge for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

 Two weeks ago, Cleveland was going 2-5 on a trip through Oakland and Texas. The Indians had scored a total of just four runs combined in six of those games, and Detroit had chopped their AL Central lead from 7.5 to 4.5 games. How the Indians answered that skid speaks to the resiliency of Terry Francona’s club: They opened their current 10-game homestand with six consecutive wins against Minnesota and Miami before losing Monday and Tuesday to Houston to maintain that 4.5-game lead despite the Tigers winning 11 of their past 15 games.

 Three Boston Red Sox—Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts—are on pace to collect 198 or more hits. Only three clubs in the past 75 years have had three players with 200 or more hits each: The 1991 Texas Rangers (Rafael Palmeiro, Julio Franco and Ruben Sierra), 1982 Milwaukee Brewers (Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount) and 1963 St. Louis Cardinals (Bill White, Dick Groat, Curt Flood).

 Seattle’s sinking ship: On Saturday, Taijuan Walker surrendered three home runs while obtaining only two outs before departing in the first inning. The last starting pitcher to yield that many homers while failing to make it through the first inning? Cincinnati’s Phil Dumatrait on Sept. 9, 2007, per ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark.

 Minnesota’s All-Star second baseman Brian Dozier has cracked 39 home runs, bringing him within sight of the MLB record for homers by a second baseman, set by Davey Johnson (43) in 1973. Dozier’s 39 homers are the most by any Minnesota player since Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew’s 41 in 1970.

 The ongoing adventures of Gary Sanchez: The Yankees catcher has reached base in 21 consecutive games, and he had hits in 18 of those games.

 Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, 21, on Sunday became the youngest player ever to reach 30 saves in a season, dating back to when the save was invented in 1969.

 Pittsburgh has lost eight in a row and lost catcher Francisco Cervelli to a left thumb injury. Rough times for the Jolly Roger.

 The Aug. 31 deadline for Arizona to exercise contract options for general manager Dave Stewart and assistant GM De Jon Watson passed without a decision, other than club president Derrick Hall telling the Arizona Republic that the Diamondbacks have decided to wait until season’s end to make any decisions. That’s all well and good, but scouts and those working in player personnel generally work under contracts that expire Oct. 31, and if Arizona does opt to make leadership changes in October, it will be terrible timing for the scouts and player-development folks to start looking for jobs.


9. I Read It on the Coconut Telegraph

Uttered during the Giants-Cubs series over the weekend, this gem from San Francisco starter Johnny Cueto:


9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week

Stretch run, adrenaline gets you through…

“Everyone I know, everywhere I go

“People need some reason to believe

“I don’t know about anyone but me

“If it takes all night, that’ll be all right

“If I can get you to smile before I leave

“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels

“I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels

“Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through

“Looking into their eyes I see them running too”

—Jackson Browne, “Running on Empty”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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