Haggerty: Bruins setting things right with playoffs approaching

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Haggerty: Bruins setting things right with playoffs approaching

BOSTON -- Any questions about the legitimacy of the Bruins most recent stretch of good hockey appear to now be answered.

Boston once again mixed together its powerful cocktail of timely goaltending, stifling defense and opportunistic, diversified offense into a winning formula against the desperate Tampa Bay Lightning, and the B's 5-2 victory gives them three wins in row for the first time in 2012.

The Bruins hadnt won three games in a row since winning seven straight from Dec. 10-28, and have won five of their last six while finally regaining their hockey equilibrium.

The win was way more important than my three assists," said Zdeno Chara, who led the Bruins with a plus-3."We just want to play really well going into the playoffs. In the postseason you have to get your game established and play the right way and for the most part, I thought we did. But there are still areas that can be better. We can improve and just have to be ready for the next one.

The Bruins have opened up a five-point lead over the Ottawa Senators in the Northeast Division with a game in hand, and it appears any danger of losing home-ice advantage through the first couple of rounds has been averted. They could still fall behind the Panthers, who are just behind them in the Eastern Conference standings, but thoughts are starting to wander toward potential playoff opponents. Ottawa, Buffalo and Washington are all potential candidates if the Bruins stay in their current No. 2 position.

But for the Bruins, its become about finishing out the season as strongly as possible. Fine-tuning in all areas is both recommended and crucial to postseason success.

The win over Tampa Bay was solid in many areas:
The fourth line had one of its best games in recent memory and Shawn Thornton ended a 35-game goal-scoring drought that seemed to last an eternity.

Dennis Seidenberg erased his own goal-scoring drought, which had lasted more than 25 games.
Both goals were set up by Bs defensemen hopping up into the offensive zone and activating at exactly the right times, and thats the kind of timing and feel that the Bruins will need offensively in the postseason.Its huge, its huge if you can get the defensemen helping out on offense especially against a team like that that collapses down all the time, said Brian Rolston. Its difficult to get anything going down low so its great to have defensemen contributing offensively.
But most importantly their two most important cogs are once again playing at an elite level: Chara and Tim Thomas.

Chara and the Bruins defense so dominated the Lightning in five-on-five play that they outshot the Bolts by a 38-18 margin, and only faltered when Steven Stamkos started winging one-timers on the power play. Electrified by the heartfelt, appreciative ceremony recognizing his 1,000 games in the NHL, Chara also carried the puck to the net and created the Thornton goal after dangling through Marty St. Louis on the defensive perimeter.

For the second straight game at home the Bruins defense gave their 37-year-old goaltender a rocking-chair outing; they only allowed an average of 15.5 shots per game in the two wins. But Thomas came up large when it was required of him, and thats what his Vezina and Conn Smythe reputation has always been based on. With the Lightning on a power play and the game tied midway through the third period, Thomas flashed a glove to knock down a sizzling Stamkos one-timer, and then the Bs goaltender somehow knocked a Teddy Purcell follow shot to safety by butting the puck with his goalie mask.

It was the classic stop the puck by any means necessary philosophy favored by Thomas, and it showed he's once again brimming with confidence. Only a goaltender feeling it would attempt to fling a puck all the way down the ice with the goalie pulled in the final minute as Thomas did while looking for his career NHL goal and thats exactly what Thomas did once Dwayne Roloson had been pulled from the game.

And that's not all. Patrice Bergeron finished with 20 wins in 25 faceoff tries while dominating Stamkos, Trevor Smith and Tom Pyatt, and actually won more draws than the entire Tampa team (17). The players on the third line now have 29 points in their last seven games, and once again provided the game-winner on Benoit Pouliots third-period strike.If not for Stamkos magnificent goal-scoring ability and a solid effort from Roloson between the pipes, it would have been a much greater one-sided result in favor of the Bs.

But the victory itself was most important.

We seemed to have turned it around at the right time, said Brad Marchand. You want to play your best hockey going into the playoffs, you just cant flip a switch and turn it on and start to play well. Were doing a good job at responding right now.

Its going to be a rough ride for the Bruins in the postseason, and of that there is no doubt.

Seven of the last eight Stanley Cup champs never made it out of the second round of the playoffs, and six of those teams were first-round casualties. The only team to make it past the second round was a stacked Detroit Red Wings outfit that lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 finals, and the Bruins arent that Red Wings team.

But theyre pretty darn good, and theyre once again serving notice theyll be a handful for anybody in whats shaping up to be a competitive group of Eastern Conference teams in the tournament.

Kimbrel's knee 'feels great,' pushing himself towards return

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Kimbrel's knee 'feels great,' pushing himself towards return

BOSTON -- Just before the All-Star break, it almost seemed like the Red Sox were bound to lose Craig Kimbrel for six weeks potentially with the knee damage.

However, prior to Saturday’s game, John Farrell sounded optimistic about Kimbrel return more towards the three-week timetable.

The closer has gotten back to what he was working on prior to his injury, including his breaking ball.

“I’m out there spinning the ball right now,” Kimbrel said. “My knee feels great, so I’m just working on getting back into my mechanics. Staying compact and before I hurt my knee I was working on a few things. Just getting back to focusing on [those things].”

Kimbrel also stated that his arm “feels great” which was originally a concern for the Red Sox Front Office when he was injured -- fearing the knee would somehow lead to arm problems later.

Although things seem to almost be moving too fast for Kimbrel, he feels like the process has taken too long.

“It may look like a pretty fast recovery but it feels like forever,” Kimbrel said. “I think the way some people may look at it, it might be a little fast, but I’m not doing anything that is uncomfortable. I’m pushing myself, but I’m not pushing myself to a point where it doesn’t feel good. Testing everything out, that’s kind of where it is.

“Went in there and we didn’t really fix anything. Just kind of cut some cartilage out and right now it’s [about] getting my muscles firing like they’re supposed to. That’s coming back pretty fast because we were able to keep the swelling down right after surgery, so I was able to get back into the weight room and get back to the range of motion pretty quick.”

The righty will throw his first bullpen since the surgery and his confident he’ll feel good on the mound.

In fact, he thinks he could’ve thrown off the mound Sunday, but still hasn’t tested one important responsibility of a pitcher.

“I think I could throw off the mound,” Kimbrel said. “I don’t know if I can run in from the bullpen yet. Tomorrow we’re going to get off the mound, throw a bullpen and then can start pushing off and running.

“Fielding my position and cutting -- things like that. The kind of things where if a guy bunts on me [or] if I’ve gotta cover first -- I’ve gotta be able to do things like that.”

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza take their place among legends in Cooperstown

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Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza take their place among legends in Cooperstown

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Two players who began their careers at opposite ends of the spectrum nearly three decades ago ended up in the same place on Sunday — with their names etched on plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, the culmination of their long journeys was tinged with tears all around.

"I stand up here humbled and overwhelmed," Griffey said, staring out at his family and tens of thousands of fans. "I can't describe how it feels."

The two became a piece of history on their special day. Griffey, the first pick of the 1987 amateur draft, became the highest pick ever inducted. Piazza, a 62nd-round pick the next year —No. 1,390 — is the lowest pick to enter the Hall of Fame.

Griffey played 22 big-league seasons with the Mariners, Reds and White Sox and was selected on a record 99.32 percent of ballots cast, an affirmation of sorts for his clean performance during baseball's so-called Steroids Era.

A 13-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner in center field, Griffey hit 630 home runs, sixth all-time, and drove in 1,836 runs. He also was the American League MVP in 1997, drove in at least 100 runs in eight seasons, and won seven Silver Slugger Awards.

Griffey, who fell just three votes shy of being the first unanimous selection, hit 417 of his 630 homers and won all 10 of his Gold Gloves with the Seattle Mariners. He played the first 11 seasons of his career with the Mariners and led them to the playoffs for the first two times in franchise history.

"Thirteen years with the Seattle Mariners, from the day I got drafted, Seattle, Washington, has been a big part of my life," Griffey said, punctuating the end of his speech by putting a baseball cap on backward as he did throughout his career.

"I'm going to leave you with one thing. In 22 years I learned that one team will treat you the best, and that's your first team. I'm damn proud to be a Seattle Mariner."

Dubbed "The Natural" for his effortless excellence at the plate and in center field, Griffey avoided the Hall of Fame until his special weekend because he wanted his first walk through the front doors of the stately building on Main Street to be with his kids, whom he singled out one by one in his 20-minute speech.

"There are two misconceptions about me — I didn't work hard and everything I did I made look easy," Griffey said. "Just because I made it look easy doesn't mean that it was. You don't become a Hall of Famer by not working, but working day in and day out."

Griffey's mom, Birdie, and his father, former Cincinnati Reds star Ken Sr., both cancer survivors and integral to his rise to stardom, were front and center in the first row.

"To my dad, who taught me how to play this game and to my mom, the strongest woman I know," Junior said. "To have to be mom and dad, she was our biggest fan and our biggest critic. She's the only woman I know that lives in one house and runs five others."

Selected in the draft by the Dodgers after Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, a close friend of Piazza'a father, Vince, put in a good word, Piazza struggled.

He briefly quit the game while in the minor leagues, returned and persevered despite a heavy workload as he switched from first base to catcher and teammates criticized his erratic play.

Mom and dad were foremost on his mind, too.

"Dad always dreamed of playing in the major leagues," said Piazza, just the second Hall of Famer depicted on his plaque wearing a Mets cap, after Tom Seaver in 1992.

"He could not follow that dream because of the realities of life. My father's faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single most important factor of me being inducted into this Hall of Fame. Thank you dad. We made it, dad. The race is over. Now it's time to smell the roses."

Piazza played 16 years with the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres and Athletics and hit 427 home runs, including a major league record 396 as a catcher. A 12-time All-Star, Piazza won 10 Silver Slugger Awards and finished in the top five of his league's MVP voting four times.

Perhaps even more impressive, Piazza, a .308 career hitter, posted six seasons with at least 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average (all other catchers in baseball history combined have posted nine such seasons).

Though the Dodgers gave him his start, Piazza found a home in New York when he was traded to the Mets in May 1998.

Three years later, he became a hero to the hometown fans with perhaps the most notable home run of his career. His two-run shot in the eighth inning at Shea Stadium lifted the Mets to a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first sporting event played in New York after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Piazza paid tribute to that moment.

"To witness the darkest evil of the human heart ... will be forever burned in my soul," Piazza said. "But from tragedy and sorrow came bravery, love, compassion, character and eventual healing.

"Many of you give me praise for the two-run home run in the first game back on Sept. 21st, but the true praise belongs to police, firefighters, first responders that knew that they were going to die, but went forward anyway. I pray that we never forget their sacrifice."

Attendance was estimated at around 50,000 by the Hall of Fame, tying 1999 when George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Young were inducted, for second-most all time behind 2007 (Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn).

Copyright The Associated Press

 

First impressions of Red Sox' 8-7 win over Twins

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First impressions of Red Sox' 8-7 win over Twins

BOSTON -- First impressions of the Red Sox' 8-7 win over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday at Fenway Park:
 
Rick Porcello did all he needed to do.

Although he’s still undefeated thus far at home (10-0), Porcello’s start could have easily gone better for him -- especially if Brock Holt catches a few fly balls hit his way.

Regardless, he's 13-2 with a 3.57 ERA and still maintained the title of Boston’s “most reliable pitcher.”

Yes, he gave up five runs -- but four were earned. And Juan Centeno’s “double” that was lost in the sun by Holt should’ve been caught -- accounting for at least one more run.

Porcello had another start where the bullpen was overworked the previous day in a tough loss. Furthermore, his teammates were expected to perform a little more than 12 hours after a rough four-hour contest.

This is a game where the numbers don’t do his performance justice -- but at the same time, Porcello left the bullpen to hold a three-run lead in the final 2 1/3 innings.
 
The Red Sox need Mookie Betts back in right.

If that wasn’t made evident with Michael Martinez’s play Saturday night, Holt made it clear when he couldn’t corral Max Kepler’s deep fly to right in the fourth.

Although the sun could’ve played a factor, Holt got there in time. So the ball has to be caught. Instead, he was too worried about the hip-height wall that he was heading toward at full steam.

Not too mention the fly ball he dropped looking into the sun in the seventh -- which was somehow ruled a hit. As much as the Green Monster is a difficult beast to master, right field at Fenway can be just as difficult.
 
Hanley Ramirez continues to take advantage of pitcher’s mistakes.

The best part about Ramirez’s third-inning, three-run blast was it came on a first pitch changeup -- not exactly something hitters are sitting on out the gate.

Additionally, Tommy Milone’s changeup ran in on Ramirez, instead of away from him -- given Milone is a lefty and Ramirez a right-handed hitter.

If Ramirez gets that pitch a month ago, he rips in foul or rolls over the top of it. Instead, he keeps displaying that he can still pull the ball with power.