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For a long time, I’ve considered the Tampa Bay Rays to be baseball’s little miracle, succeeding in the sport’s toughest division — the American League East — despite low payrolls, low attendance figures and a stadium situation that remains unresolved.

That view is a little unfair, though, because in one sense, the Rays are no different from the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros or Atlanta Braves — they expect to contend for a World Series every season.

They have made the playoffs the past four seasons, but there always seems some surprise that they’re doing it again. Perhaps that’s because they turn the roster over rapidly and often rely upon depth more than star power. In 2019, they won 96 games, but their four best players that season (Charlie Morton, Austin Meadows, Willy Adames and Tommy Pham) are long gone. They reached the World Series in 2020, but that was kind of a scrappy team with a great bullpen. The 2021 team hit a lot of home runs and won 100 games even though its two pitchers with the most innings had ERAs over 5.00. Last year’s team snuck in with 86 wins mainly due to the emergence of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs. Now two of those three are injured — and this still looks like the best Rays team ever, except with two young stars to build around in McClanahan and Wander Franco.

Since 2019, only the Dodgers and Astros have won more games; since 2008, only the Dodgers, Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays are not a miracle — they’re an exceptional organization, only one that’s less celebrated.

The national spotlight fell on them after they began the season with 13 consecutive wins and finished April at 23-6 with an incredible plus-103 run differential. That first month put them on an early pace to become one of the greatest teams of all time. There were still skeptics, however, since the Rays dominated a soft schedule and in their two toughest series, against the Toronto Blue Jays and Astros, they dropped four of six games.

May, on the other hand, presented a much more difficult slate of opponents, so we got a better idea of the Rays’ potential greatness. Let’s go back series by series and see what we learned.

The Pirates entered this series nearly as hot as the Rays, with a 20-9 record and as winners of 11 of their past 13 games. The Rays beat them 4-1, 8-1 and 3-2. In the finale, Zach Eflin tossed seven scoreless innings and struck out 10 with no walks — the first time in his career he recorded double-digit strikeouts with no free passes. Eflin was one of the more intriguing free agent signings of the offseason as the Rays gave him a three-year, $40 million contract — not only the largest free agent deal in franchise history but one to a pitcher with a 4.49 career ERA who had pitched just 181 innings over the previous two seasons.

What did the Rays see? A guy who throws strikes — Eflin averaged just 1.5 walks per nine over the 2021-22 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. “In an era of power and velocity, he’s an artist,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said in December when the club signed Eflin. A better defense behind him — certainly better than the ones the Phillies have thrown out there during Eflin’s career — combined with the Rays’ ability to improve a pitcher’s repertoire meant the signing made a lot of sense.

Indeed, Eflin improved to 4-0 after beating the Pirates and is now 7-1 with a 3.17 ERA — allowing just seven walks in 54 innings. Sure enough, the Rays have tweaked things a little bit. He has increased his cutter usage from 15% to 31% and nearly completely ditched his four-seamer, which he threw 16% of the time last year, to stick with his sinker, with the cutter/sinker combo playing successfully off each other. The biggest change, however, might simply be the defense: He had a career .303 batting average allowed on balls in play with the Phillies and it’s at .280 with the Rays.

“Some guys out-stuff you. Some guys out-execute you. He’s got a little bit of a combination of both,” manager Kevin Cash said of Eflin after the win on May 4.

With the sweep of Pittsburgh, the Rays improved to 26-6 — the best 32-game start since the 1984 Detroit Tigers went 27-5.

Lesson learned: They already had one ace in McClanahan. They potentially had a second in Springs, but he went down for the season with Tommy John surgery in April. The Eflin signing now looks not only particularly astute, but necessary.

May 5-7: vs. New York Yankees

OK, so the Pirates had cooled after that hot April. This would be the first real test for the Rays — and it was a terrific series with three one-run games, two of those going the Rays’ way.

The Rays won the first game 5-4 while wearing their old Devil Rays uniforms — the retro look that’s now much more appealing than when the Devil Rays were losing 100 games every season. The go-ahead run scored in the seventh when Yankees left fielder Jake Bauers dropped a catchable fly ball and turned it into a double — and then kicked the ball, allowing Yandy Diaz to score from first base (instant replay overruled the tag play at home, as Diaz was originally called out). While bad Yankees defense lost the game, the Rays won with some good defense of their own. Jose Siri ranged into deep center field to corral the final out of the game, while Josh Lowe earlier made a diving catch in right field with two runners on.

When the Rays acquired Siri last season from the Astros, they knew he could play center field. Outfield defense has long been a Rays trademark, and when longtime center fielder Kevin Kiermaier left as a free agent, Siri was given the chance as the regular. He missed two weeks in April with a hamstring strain, but he’s now hitting .243/.292/.563 with nine home runs. He’s not going to be a high-average or high-OBP guy, but the power and defense make him useful. Lowe, meanwhile, has broken out in his sophomore season, hitting .300/.349/.581 with 11 home runs.

The Yankees won the next game 3-2 with three runs in the eighth off the Tampa Bay bullpen, but the Rays won the finale 8-7 in a game Gerrit Cole started for the Yankees. Christian Bethancourt hit a big three-run homer off Cole in the sixth, the Rays threw out a runner at home in the top of the 10th and then Isaac Paredes singled in the winning run.

Lesson learned: With guys like Siri and Lowe contributing, the Rays’ lineup is deeper than ever and much more powerful than last year’s team, which ranked 11th in the AL with 139 home runs. Through Monday, this year’s team already has 101 home runs — most in the majors — and owns a 136 wRC+ (park-adjusted weighted runs created), which easily leads the majors. In the wild-card era (since 1998), the highest single-season wRC+ belongs to the 2019 Astros at 124.

The Rays won 3-0 behind McClanahan to improve to 29-7, but then lost 4-2 and 2-1. At this point, the Rays were 29-9, on pace for 124 wins — but the Orioles were only 4.5 games back, off to their own blazing start.

Lesson learned: The AL East is going to be absolutely brutal and wonderful all season long.

May 11-14: at New York Yankees

In the first game of the series, Drew Rasmussen pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, as the Rays won 8-2. In recent years, no team has been more astute at finding pitchers from other organizations than the Rays, and Rasmussen had been a shining example of this — although his journey to the majors began when the Rays drafted him 31st overall out of Oregon State in 2017. The Rays didn’t sign him due to concerns with his post-draft physical (he had Tommy John surgery as a sophomore), so Rasmussen returned to OSU, where he did indeed undergo a second TJ surgery. The Brewers drafted him in the sixth round in 2018, and he reached the majors as a reliever in 2020. The Rays acquired him early in the 2021 season along with J.P. Feyereisen for Willy Adames and Trevor Richards (in a deal, to be fair, that worked out for both teams).

The Rays eventually moved Rasmussen back into a starting role. He developed a new cutter and had a breakout season in 2022 (11-7, 2.84), and after his gem against the Yankees, he was 4-2 with a 2.62 ERA. Going back to 2021, he was 18-9 in 46 career starts with a 2.63 ERA. While still relatively anonymous, he had become one of the better starters in the league. Then came the crushing news: The day after his start, the Rays placed Rasmussen on the 60-day injured list with a flexor strain in his forearm, announcing that he would be shut down for eight weeks and then would start building up again — assuming all goes well, given that a flexor strain is often a precursor to Tommy John surgery.

This gets us to the dirty little secret with the Rays: As good as they are at finding and developing pitchers, they have trouble keeping them healthy.

They had turned Springs from a journeyman reliever into a potential Cy Young candidate before his injury. In recent years, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Colin Poche and Jalen Beeks all underwent Tommy John surgery. So did Shane Baz, who is out for all of 2023 while rehabbing. Reliever Andrew Kittredge, an All-Star in 2021, pitched just 20 innings last season and has missed all of 2023 with elbow issues. Colby White was one of the best relievers in the minors in 2021 but has yet to reach the majors after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Brendan McKay had shoulder issues and then underwent Tommy John surgery, which has him sidelined for all of 2023.

With Rasmussen injured and Glasnow out since the start of the season with an oblique strain, the Rays would now have to get through this difficult stretch of May without three-fifths of their projected starting rotation. Throw in a season-ending knee injury to key reliever Garrett Cleavinger and the assumption that the Rays have an endless supply of pitchers that they pluck out of Durham or off the waiver wire — or from some secret underwater lair in the Gulf of Mexico — will be severely tested.

Meanwhile, the Yankees won 5-4 the next night when Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer off Jason Adam in the eighth inning and then won the third game 9-8 as New York knocked out McClanahan after four innings and Aaron Judge homered twice. Rays exposed? Hardly. They bounced back with an 8-7 win as Taylor Walls belted a grand slam — yet another player hitting much better than projected. After hitting .172 with eight home runs in 466 plate appearances in 2022, the switch-hitter made some minor mechanical tweaks after visiting a hitting instructor outside the organization. The changes have produced more hard contact and a higher launch angle that has already produced seven home runs and a .488 slugging percentage.

Maybe it’s a surprise that some of these guys are hitting at this level, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve improved. “They have shown the ability coming up through the minor leagues that they can hit,” Cash said after Walls’ grand slam. “I think we thought it was more a matter of time. It doesn’t always come out of the gate.”

Anyway, the Rays hold on to split the four-game series when Judge flew out to Siri on the warning track to end it. Adam left a first-pitch sweeper over the middle of the plate and hung his head as Judge connected — sure he had just allowed the game-tying home run. “I thought it was 30 rows deep,” Adam said. “But thankfully, [Judge] missed it more than I thought.”

Overall, the Rays played the Yankees seven times in 10 days with six of the games decided by one run — two of the best series we’ll see all season. The Rays went 4-3 — and then came perhaps the most exciting game of the season so far.

Lesson learned: The Rays’ pitching depth will be tested — but if the offense keeps rolling, it might be dominant enough to cover the injuries to the rotation.

On May 16, the Rays beat Justin Verlander, knocking him around for eight hits, two home runs (both by Paredes) and six runs. Then came the game of the year. The Rays led 2-0, the Mets tied it in the bottom of the seventh, the Rays took a 6-3 lead, Francisco Alvarez hit a game-tying three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth off Adam, the Rays scored twice in the 10th and then Pete Alonso won it with a three-run walk-off blast off Pete Fairbanks. Wow.

Therein lies the biggest concern I have about this Rays team: Is this a championship-caliber bullpen? Adam, let go five times in his career, came out of nowhere last season to post a 1.56 ERA and hold batters to a .147 average. He’s got kind of a funky short-arm delivery and isn’t overpowering for a modern closer, relying on a changeup and sweeper. He has been a little more hittable this season with a .200 average and four home runs allowed. Meanwhile, Fairbanks has a 1.26 ERA over the past two seasons — but has pitched just 35 2/3 innings and is once again back on the IL with hip inflammation.

Factor in that the Rays have had to return to using an occasional bullpen arm to open due to all the injuries in the rotation and the bullpen depth is hitting a crisis point: The Rays have already churned through 26 pitchers (not counting two position players who have pitched). Rays relievers lead the majors in innings — yes, even more than the Oakland Athletics — and rank last in strikeout rate (yes, lower than the A’s). We know the Rays’ history of conjuring up good major league relievers out of thin air — Adam and Fairbanks being two examples — but that supposition is being stretched to the limits.

The Mets took the third game to take the series and drop the Rays to 32-13 — still on pace for 115 wins. But the Orioles at this point were still just 3.5 games behind.

Lesson learned: Strong bullpens have been a hallmark of the Rays in recent seasons, but this might be the team’s soft spot in 2023, especially if Fairbanks can’t stay healthy and Adam continues to be homer-prone.

After those intense games against the two New York teams, a more subdued series followed against the Brewers, with the Rays taking two out of three, including a 1-0 victory behind McClanahan. In the Saturday night game, Diaz returned after missing four games and hit his 11th home run. Let’s talk about Diaz, who is second in MLB in wRC+ through Monday, sandwiched between two much more famous hitters in Judge and Yordan Alvarez.

I don’t know if Diaz is the strongest player in the majors, but he’s certainly the most likely to win a Mr. Universe contest. Despite his stature, he has never hit for much power — though he possesses excellent plate discipline and doesn’t strike out much. He hit nine home runs last season in 473 at-bats and his career high is 14 back in the rabbit-ball year of 2019. His issue has been getting the ball in the air enough to take advantage of his strength. His average launch angle so far this season is a career-best 9.3 degrees — still below the MLB average but high enough that his fly ball rate has improved from 19.6% last season to 27% this year. He’s also simply barreling up more balls than he has in the past with a hard-hit rate that ranks in the top 10 in MLB. Add it up and he’s hitting .320/.420/.598 with 12 home runs and nearly as many walks (26) as strikeouts (29).

It’s certainly unusual for a 31-year-old to break out with a career season like this, but Diaz has always had a good approach to build off — and he did hit .296 with a .401 OBP last season. Even though he’s not the fastest guy around, Diaz has been hitting leadoff to take advantage of his on-base ability, a lineup Cash started deploying last season. It’s another example of the Rays thinking outside the box, using a non-conventional slow runner in the leadoff position.

“To see Yandy Díaz come up as the first hitter an opponent team faces is incredible,” Eflin said after the game on May 20. “He’s everything you want in a leadoff hitter.”

Lesson learned: Diaz has been hitting like an MVP candidate — although he might not even be the best MVP candidate on the team. Franco is tied with Freddie Freeman for second in MLB (behind Judge) in FanGraphs WAR among position players and leads in Baseball-Reference WAR. Diaz is eighth. And Randy Arozarena is 10th. The Rays have many weapons.

May 22-25: vs. Toronto Blue Jays

The Rays took three of four from the Jays — although a 20-1 loss cut into the team’s run differential (a category that the Rangers now lead). While Diaz doesn’t run, the Rays have other players who can do that — as witnessed by the seven stolen bases they recorded in a 6-3 win on May 25. The Rays have always loved fast, athletic players, and they’re certainly loving the new rules that benefit teams that steal bases. They lead the majors with 75 steals, 17 more than the No. 2 team, and when they face an especially weak pitcher-catcher combo, they can go wild: two games with seven steals and four others with at least four. Franco leads the team with 20 steals, Walls is a perfect 14-of-14 and Josh Lowe has 13.

So, to sum up: The Rays lead the majors in home runs and stolen bases. And they’re tied with the Reds for the highest percentage of extra bases taken (advancing more than one base on a single or more than two on a double). Oh, and they’re also tied with the Nationals and Royals for the youngest group of position players, averaging 26.9 years of age (weighted for playing time). That gets back to Cash’s comment about the improvement in some of the younger players: It shouldn’t be unexpected. Even Franco is still just 22 years old — and while his bat has been impressive, his defense has also taken a huge step forward, to the point where he looks like a Gold Glove candidate.

Lesson learned: No team can blow off a 20-1 loss like the Rays. And fast players are fun. And 22-year-old shortstops who can hit, run and field are really fun.

May 26-28 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Rays took two out of three. Sunday’s game was an 11-10 affair with Adam getting a two-inning save with four strikeouts, perhaps a sign he’s getting back into his 2022 groove.

Lesson learned: Yeah, the Rays are for real. We’ll throw out the Pirates series and the Rays still ran through a 23-game gauntlet against the Yankees, Orioles, Mets, Blue Jays, Brewers and Dodgers and went 13-10. The pitching depth is a concern, although Glasnow made his first start in this series and struck out eight in 4 1/3 innings. A top three of McClanahan, Glasnow and Eflin is a quality trio, and rookie Taj Bradley has a 42-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six starts. We’ll see if Rasmussen can make it back after the All-Star break.

The Rays did lose two in a row to the Chicago Cubs, 1-0 on Monday and 2-1 on Tuesday, to drop their overall May record to 16-12. The Orioles are still breathing down their necks, and the Yankees — and Judge — are finally heating up. The Texas Rangers have looked impressive in the AL West, and the Astros are playing well after scuffling in April. But these Rays are absolutely loaded on offense, McClanahan is 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA and Cash certainly seems to usually get the best out of his bullpens.

The Rays are 39-18, on pace for 113 wins, and they proved in May that they’re the best team in baseball as we start the summer.

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The Pac-12 leftovers: What will be Washington State’s and Oregon State’s ultimate fate?




The Pac-12 leftovers: What will be Washington State's and Oregon State's ultimate fate?

PULLMAN, Wash. — Nothing about Saturday’s game between Oregon State and Washington State should have felt unusual. There is a familiarity that comes with having played 106 times over the past 120 years.

It’s a rivalry game in that sense. A reliable way to mark the passage of time. But this version — the first time the matchup featured both teams in the AP top 25 — might have had the friendliest lead-up to a high-stakes college football game on record.

The pregame festivities were highlighted by the schools’ mascots — Benny Beaver and Butch T. Cougar — being driven onto the field in a cart, waving each other’s flag, before sharing a dance at midfield. The WSU Cougar Marching Band played Oregon State’s fight song. Two days earlier, the schools’ presidents and athletic directors conducted a joint online press conference with a custom background of alternating OSU and WSU logos, during which WSU president Kirk Schulz proclaimed, “Go Cougs and go Beavs.”

“Just to be clear, this partnership has been super strong, but it’s on pause come kickoff for just a little while and then we’ll get back to it,” OSU athletic director Scott Barnes clarified, lightheartedly.

Following UCLA‘s and USC‘s decision last year to join the Big Ten, eight of the ten remaining schools have followed suit, scattering to the Big 12 (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah), Big Ten (Oregon, Washington) and ACC (Cal, Stanford) beginning in summer 2024.

The collapse left Oregon State and Washington State without a major conference suitor and in limbo to chart their futures together.

“Fans need to know that we are leaving no stone unturned together,” Schulz said. “WSU and OSU are aggressively pursuing all options. Staff from our two schools are meeting daily to explore alternatives and determine the best path forward. Let’s be clear, WSU and OSU are in this situation not because of the quality of our athletic programs, but because of the size of our media markets.”

For many students and alumni of both universities, it’s the college town atmospheres in Corvallis (population 60,956) and Pullman (population 32,508) that attracted them in the first place. Nowhere else on the West Coast offers a chance to escape major population centers to attend school at a place with major college athletics. In the past several weeks, that small-town dynamic — and major source of pride — has become a threat to the futures of both towns and universities.

“Clearly, us being in the news has generated a lot of angst though within the community, within our faculty staff and students,” Schulz said. “It’s just, ‘Hey, what’s next? What is it going to look like? Are we going to lose part of our identity because of where we’ll land next year?'”

For a few hours Saturday night, those thoughts were on hold as Wazzu roared to a comfortable lead before a sold-out crowd, eventually hanging on to beat the Beavers, 38-35. With the game behind them, though, their shared future is back in focus.

PULLMAN MAYOR GLENN Johnson will finish his fifth and final term later this year. He moved to town from Sacramento in 1979, when he took a job teaching broadcasting at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communication. Since 1980, he has been the voice of the Cougars, serving as the public address announcer at WSU football and basketball games.

When Johnson arrived, the Cougars did not play all their football games in town, opting to play some games — notably several Apple Cups against Washington — 90 miles up the road at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane.

It was a practice he recalled then-coach Jim Walden did not like.

“I remember [Walden] said, ‘Hey, it’s like preparing for an away game. We should have all these games down here [in Pullman],'” Johnson said.

Walden got his way in 1983, when WSU played its final game in Spokane. Even if the sentiment was rooted in gaining a competitive advantage, the decision had a wider-ranging impact.

“Wow, you’re transforming your downtown,” Johnson said. “People saw all the restaurants get busy with all the visitors and all the fans. They loved coming back. We weren’t getting that when I first got here. And that’s one of the important things.”

The impact WSU athletics has on the local economy is difficult to quantify, but even anecdotally the importance is easy to notice. Take the locally owned American Travel Inn, a 1-star, bring-your-own-shampoo motel less than a mile from campus. WSU logos are painted all over the motel, which is adorned with signs welcoming Cougars fans. Rooms are usually less than $99 a night, but on the night before the OSU game, that number climbed closer to $500.

In the adjoining parking lot sits the Old European, a beloved breakfast spot that has been in business since 1989 and still uses family recipes that date back more than a century. On a typical morning, it’s easy to walk in, grab a booth and drink the famous fresh-squeezed orange juice almost immediately. On the Sunday following a football game, it transforms into a bustling madhouse with a line out the door.

Earlier this year, Pullman discussed plans to rebuild parts of its downtown, but had to put things on hold.

“We found out, well, by the time they could finally get all the construction done, you’re going to impact at least five home games,” Johnson said. “We as a city, city council, mayor, all of us said that we can’t do that. I mean, here are restaurants — our businesses are fully recovered from COVID and you can’t do that to ’em like that. So, we delayed the entire process until next year so we can get the thing done in time for next season. Home football games are a big economic driver for the community, and that’s far more than it used to be over the years.”

Even though there is no thought to the possibility of football going away, there is concern in Pullman and within the WSU athletic department about the long-term repercussions of the Cougars not being in a conference considered to be at the top level of college football.

“To ultimately be on the outside looking in a grouping of schools that this university has been a part of for over a century, that’s a painful moment for Washington State,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said. “Then there’s the reality for people inside the athletic department. There’s uncertainty because everyone recognizes we’re going to reorganize our budget some way, somehow. The $35 million we got from the Pac-12 is not going to be there anymore.”

On top of the looming financial impact is the hit to civic pride.

“I think you always mentioned, ‘You’re Washington State University, a Pac-12 institution,'” Johnson said. “They also mentioned the research too, but from a general acceptance standpoint, people understand the Pac-12, especially here on the West Coast.

“Being part of the Pac-12 always has meant a lot and, well, I’ll tell you, seeing the Pac-12 basically implode, this has been tough to see.”

EARLIER THIS MONTH, a judge in Washington granted a temporary restraining order sought by OSU and WSU to prevent the Pac-12 from holding a board meeting. There was concern from the two remaining schools that the exiting members could attempt to dissolve the conference to force an equal split of the conference’s remaining assets.

OSU and WSU successfully argued that when UCLA and USC were barred from the conference board after announcing their departures for the Big Ten in 2022, it set a precedent that they did not have board or voting rights. The same approach was applied when Colorado announced it was headed to the Big 12 earlier this summer.

When Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff scheduled a board meeting for earlier this month that included all 12 schools — 10 of which will no longer be in the conference next year — OSU and WSU initiated legal action.

“The meaning of the bylaws hasn’t changed just because more members have decided to leave,” lawyer Eric MacMichael argued for OSU and WSU in court.

A preliminary injunction hearing is expected to be held in October to determine who will have voting rights on the Pac-12 board.

In the meantime, OSU and WSU have been trying to assess the value of the conference’s remaining assets and compare them with existing liabilities. It has been a slower than expected process that will ultimately determine how the schools proceed.

“We understand some of the assets that the Pac-12 has — certainly the media payments, the NCAA tournament credits, CFP — some things we understand pretty well,” Oregon State president Jayathi Murthy said. “Some things we don’t understand — even about the assets in terms of who the payments go to, who controls them, etcetera. And then there are liabilities. There are the public legal cases that are going on, so we’re trying to figure out how those are going to shape our view. There’s lots and lots of fine print and lots of other contractual obligations that the conference has. The balance of these will tell us what net assets actually exist in the conference and we’ve got to understand that before we can chart out the path forward.”

The schools expect to have some sort of clarity in the next month. In the end, the decision figures to be somewhat simple: If the assets outweigh the liabilities, the schools will likely attempt to maintain control and attempt some kind of rebuild. If the liabilities are determined to be too great, then they would likely be forced to walk away.

With either scenario, the most likely result is a future intertwined with schools from the Mountain West Conference. Whether that’s a reverse merger with the Mountain West schools moving to the Pac-12 as a block to benefit from the brand value or WSU and OSU going the opposite direction remains to be seen. For fans, any difference would be mostly semantics.

The current Mountain West media rights deal pays its member schools roughly $6 million annually; however, there figures to be an increase should OSU and WSU factor in.

It’s still theoretically possible, too, that OSU and WSU could operate the Pac-12 as a two-team conference the next two years — essentially acting as independents — but that option is viewed as a last resort, sources told ESPN. (The NCAA gives conferences a two-year grace period to reach designated minimums for member schools should they fall below the required thresholds.)

“The fact that we are waiting for some additional information does not mean that we haven’t been focused every day on what that scheduling scenario might look like and engaged in the proper conversations to make sure that when we do have that information we’re pressing go,” Barnes said.

At WSU, one of the most confounding parts of the conference realignment game has been the criteria for evaluation. If everything is being driven by TV media value, why is WSU being penalized for the size of Pullman when the Cougars have consistently been one of the biggest TV draws in the Pac-12 for several years?

“Depending on the metric you look at, we’re either in the top fourth, top third or top half [of the Pac-12] consistently over five, 10 years,” Chun said.

In an era where nearly all games are either broadcast on national TV or streamed, individual market size does not translate to larger audiences in the way it did when football was broadcast regionally. Where is the logic in the idea a school is more valuable from a TV standpoint because it’s located in a larger media market if there are years of evidence showing that school doesn’t translate to TV viewers? Rutgers, for example, is in the largest media market in the country, yet the Scarlet Knights were among the least-watched Power 5 programs in the country last season.

These are questions WSU has been left unable to sufficiently answer.

SINCE ARRIVING IN Pullman as the defensive coordinator prior to the 2020 season, Jake Dickert has consistently had to navigate through murky waters.

In 2020, it was the COVID season. In 2021, he took over as interim coach after Nick Rolovich and several assistants were fired for refusing to take the COVID vaccine. Now in 2023, there’s the uncertainty about his program’s standing within major college football.

“My number one job is the focus of seeing through the fog and understanding what’s on the grass matters,” Dickert told ESPN.

Through it all, Dickert has methodically taken the team in the right direction. Following the win against Oregon State, WSU jumped to No. 16 in the AP poll. It’s the Cougars’ highest ranking since 2018, when they reached as high as No. 7, and just the fifth time they’ve been ranked this high in September over the past 40 years.

“I said this summer I felt confident that we put together a really good team and no one was talking about it and we can do it in our own way,” Dickert said. “Our team is greater than the sum of its parts. … We got zero five star [recruits], zero four stars. We got zero. But we’re greater than the sum of our parts because of our connection and how we play and the buy-in that they have to their job.”

That track record with recruiting gives Dickert confidence that regardless of how the conference situation plays out, they’ll still be able to maintain a standard that fans can be excited about. It almost goes without saying that the Cougars have historically benefitted from being in the Pac-12 from a recruiting standpoint, but there has never been a time when they were consistently recruiting peers with the more high-profile brands in the conference. From that standpoint, their place in the college football ecosystem would remain very similar, though it remains to be seen how susceptible they would be to raids for top players through the transfer portal or how appealing a destination WSU would be for players looking to prove themselves at a higher level.

Take Saturday’s win against Oregon State, for example. Quarterback Cam Ward, a transfer from FCS Incarnate Word, put on a show while connecting on a combined 15 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns just to Kyle Williams and Josh Kelly, both of whom transferred from Mountain West schools in the offseason. Some players of that caliber will inevitably not consider WSU if its not in a major conference.

“I always look at the positive side,” Johnson said. “It’s only the way it can be as a mayor. There’s enough people saying, ‘Oh, woe is us,’ and that kind of thing. But you’ve got to sit back and say, ‘Okay, what can we make out of this?'”

The most obvious answer is this: As college football’s postseason system evolves, WSU’s access to an expanded playoff will likely be easier from outside one of the expanded power conferences than from within. Assuming there remains a designated slot for a non-power conference team, the Cougars would be much better positioned for that than a team like, say, UCLA, which doesn’t have a track record to indicate it will compete at the highest level in the Big Ten.

So while there are serious budget concerns on the horizon that will have a negative impact on the athletic department and community, WSU — and Oregon State — remains intent on doing whatever it takes to stay relevant in major football.

Dickert summed it up succinctly: “We belong.”

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‘Give me the ball’: Inside Justin Steele’s long climb to the top of the Cubs’ rotation




'Give me the ball': Inside Justin Steele's long climb to the top of the Cubs' rotation

The National League Cy Young award likely slipped from his reach over his past two outings, but Justin Steele has plenty to pitch for in the final week of the MLB regular season.

With the Chicago Cubs holding a one-game lead for the National League’s final wild-card spot, the biggest two-start stretch of their new ace’s career will begin when Steele takes the mound against the potent Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night. His final start is scheduled to come on the season’s final day, against another division winner, the Milwaukee Brewers, in what could be an all-or-nothing conclusion to the Cubs’ playoff chase.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Steele told ESPN recently. “I love pitching in big games. Give me the ball.”

The 28 year-old’s career arc from being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB draft to becoming the pitcher Chicago trusts most with its season on the line has been a slow progression — and that kind of declaration didn’t seem likely just a few years ago, when Steele finished the 2019 season with an 0-6 record and 5.59 ERA for Double-A Tennessee.

After three promising seasons in the low minors to start his career, Steele’s 2017 season was interrupted by Tommy John surgery, and like many pitchers coming back from the procedure, he struggled to find his command when he returned. The Cubs showed faith by sticking with Steele despite that ugly stat line, and things finally began to click in 2020 at the team’s alternate site for minor league players during MLB’s pandemic-shortened season.

The secret to Steele’s breakthrough? He perfected his now-signature pitch, a four-seam fastball that has baffled hitters unable to lay off its unique movement.

“Everyone says he throws two pitches, but those two pitches are like five pitches,” Cubs closer Adbert Alzolay said. “That’s why hitters are so confused when they go up to the plate.”

Steele technically possesses a five-pitch arsenal, but his success has come by throwing two of those pitches more than 96% of the time. Paired with a slider he uses to keep hitters guessing, Steele goes to his four-seam fastball 62.7% of the time. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Steele’s fastball usage increased from 52 percent to 62 percent in the second half of 2022. His slider from 24 percent to 34 percent. It doesn’t leave much room for other pitches.

Any fear of his approach becoming too predictable and allowing hitters to sit on his four-seamer is quickly alleviated with a look at the results: Steele’s fastball ranks first in home run percentage (1.5%), second in barrel percentage (13%) and third in average exit velocity (86.9%).

“It’s rare in this game to see a guy simplify,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “It’s so refreshing to see a young guy go that way. So many guys come up and think, ‘I have to add a cutter, I have to add another pitch.’ He’s gone the other way.”

It’s not just that MLB-leading usage rate that makes his four-seamer stand out: In a time when a record number of pitchers are lighting up the radar gun with triple-digit heat, Steele’s best pitch averages just 91.8 mph.

“He’s got a short arm and hides it with a cross body delivery,” Pirates outfielder Jack Suwinski said after striking out against Steele. “It’ll have some different shape to it. Some cut. Some sink. Some life at the top as well. It’s harder than it [the radar gun] says it is.”

After declining a commitment to his home state school of Southern Miss., Steele signed as the 139th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Among current Cubs, only fellow pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Azolay have been in the organization longer than Steele.

While Hendricks was already pitching in the majors, Steele and Alzolay became close friends in the low minors as they watched Chicago go from rebuilding to winning a World Series from afar years before getting their chance to pitch for a playoff-contending Cubs team.

“There’s nothing that fires me up more than closing a game that Justin Steele has started,” Alzolay said.

The bond between the two pitchers strengthened even more during their time together at Chicago’s alt site in 2020, when Alzolay was often the encouraging voice Steele needed as he tried to remake his career.

“All you need to do is throw strikes,” Alzolay recalls telling Steele. “They don’t know where the ball is going to go. They don’t know if it’s going to sink, cut or go up.”

During his rise from an afterthought in the Cubs’ plans to pitching at the top of the rotation, Steele has had a chance to receive advice from the man whose footsteps he’s trying to follow as the team’s written-in-pen Game 1 playoff series starter. After watching one of Steele’s starts on TV midway through last season, former Cub Jon Lester jumped on his phone to offer advice to Steele through manager and former catcher David Ross.

Not long after receiving Lester’s advice, Steele’s career took off. Since July 22, 2022, he’s 17-7 with a 2.64 ERA, second lowest in baseball during that time frame.

“One of the main things [Lester emphasized] was establishing the four-seam command, down-and-in to righties on that inner third,” Steele said. “Very helpful advice. I watched a ton of Cubs games and always watched him pitch. I learned a lot.”

Steele has already thrown 49 more innings than his previous season high, but he has allowed six runs in each of his past two starts, losses to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates during the Cubs’ 1-7 stretch in mid-September that denied them the chance to break away in the race for the final postseason spot. Could fatigue be setting in at the most inopportune time?

“I don’t think so,” Steel said. “I feel great. My body feels great. I feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

Next, his greatest test will come under the bright lights of a playoff race against two squads already assured of doing what the Cubs are still striving for: reaching October.

“It’s what I want,” Steele said. “The ball in the biggest moments.”

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Racing groups introduce safety legislation




Racing groups introduce safety legislation

New legislation set to be introduced in Congress would dismantle the year-old national authority in charge of regulating safety and medication in horse racing and replace it with an organization backers say would allow for the safe treatment of horses and address concerns about doping.

The Racehorse Health and Safety Act, proposed by the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians and several horsemen’s associations, would include a national umbrella of rules for states to follow but give individual racing commissions more authority to enforce them. The bill was introduced Tuesday by Louisiana Republican Rep. Clay Higgins.

“While the federal government may have had good intentions in passing [the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act], in practice it ended up obstructing best practices in the horse business,” Higgins said. “I will not sit by and allow horses to be harmed while government crushes the families that have built their lives around the horse racing industry.”

The plan would essentially move oversight of the sport back to life before the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority was established. Critics say HISA goes too far with arbitrary medication rules and creating a Racehorse Health and Safety Organization would be a better way of regulating an industry that in recent years has largely acknowledged the need for reform.

“It takes into account horsemen’s input [and] veterinary science,” said Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It allows for horses to be given proper care in the best interest of equine health and welfare. And it’s constitutional.”

HISA was the result of concerns over doping in the sport of kings, and the new rules replaced a patchwork system of standards in the 38 U.S. racing states that can vary by track and location. It was signed into law late in 2020 by then-President Donald Trump and began regulating safety measures last year and medication and anti-doping rules in May. Safety has been at the forefront for months after high-profile horse deaths at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course.

HISA faced a series of legal challenges before going into place. Texas remains opposed and has for a year not been able to simulcast its races out of state as a result.

Hamelback and other stakeholders agree that there was change needed from the status quo but have criticized HISA and the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit — its independent enforcement agency — for banning or limiting the withdrawal times for substances that they say have little or no impact on performance.

Russell Williams, president of the board of the U.S. Trotting Association that governs harness racing of standardbreds, said one faction of the industry favors no medication in horse racing — “basically have hay, oats and water.”

“The purpose of that is to prove to the public that there’s no doping going on,” Williams said. “The other side of that debate is science, sports medicine.”

Williams said the new proposal was put together by racetrack veterinarians before being reviewed by officials in thoroughbred, standardbred and quarter horse racing.

Hamelback of the NHBPA pointed to a recent provisional suspension of a trainer for the presence of an estrogen suppressant in a male gelding as an example of where the current rules go too far, noting medication makes horses less aggressive but doesn’t help them run faster.

“We agree with the premise of developing national uniform rules, national uniform laboratory procedures, testing, but our (set of rules) is going to be based on veterinary science, and veterinary research that leads to actual betterment of equine health and welfare,” he said.

Hamelback and Williams think there’s a better than 50/50 shot of the legislation becoming the new law of the land.

“I firmly believe that there are members of Congress who were instrumental in bringing HISA about, who are seeing all the trouble that HISA is causing, and they’re looking for a good way out,” Williams said. “And if we can convince them that RHSA is a better way — and that’s our whole mission — then I think it gets passed.”

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