Column: The Dodgers can make a run at the Braves’ record division streak

From 1991-2005, the Atlanta Braves achieved an unprecedented level of regular-season success, winning division titles in 14 consecutive seasons — a record across all of professional sports.

It’s one of those sports records that many people say will never be broken.

But after clinching the National League West title on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers are halfway to the Braves’ mark with seven straight division championships, and have a chance to make a run at matching or even surpassing the record.

The sheer thought of winning 14 straight division titles is incredible — imagine the Minnesota Twins, a potential division winner this year for the first time since 2010, winning the AL Central every year until 2032. That’s what makes the Braves run so remarkable, and what makes the Dodgers’ chance at a parallel run impressive.

When the Dodgers won the NL West in 2013, they did not have a club with the appearance of a long-term run of success, but instead a very veteran-laden club. Six of the team’s eight position-player regulars that year were 31 or older, including Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford (and Hanley Ramirez was 29), with Yasiel Puig serving as the one young gun in the daily lineup.

The pitching staff wasn’t quite as old, led by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenley Jansen, but among the contributors were Ricky Nolasco, Chris Capuano, J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson, all at or near the end of their respective careers.

In the years since, there’s been plenty of turnover — Kershaw, Ryu and Jansen are the only three players to play on all seven division-winning teams — but they’ve continued to win, and in almost every year of the streak have won comfortably.

That’s because the franchise has been able to replenish the roster without ever having to rebuild — and remarkably, turning over nearly the entire roster without ever finishing out of first. A big reason that’s been done is the players they’ve drafted and developed to become major-league stars.

Current Dodgers Walker Buehler, Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and potential NL MVP Cody Bellinger have become key pieces after coming up through the Dodgers farm system. Others, like Puig and Dee Gordon, were key contributors to multiple division titles before being dealt away.

Some of the Dodger players who weren’t drafted by the team have also been a key to the team’s success, including several players who they found as diamonds in the rough: Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Andrew Toles were each released by their previous organizations, while Chris Taylor was part of a trade that seemed inconsequential at the time.

The result today is a well-rounded team who is built to continue winning in the coming years. Nearly all of the team’s offensive contributors are 29 and younger, and despite age starting to become a factor for the pitching staff the rotation is as strong as ever, including Ryu, in the midst of a career year at age 32. The bullpen is far from the team’s strength, but between the organization’s deep pockets and its depth of minor-league prospects, that problem may fix itself moving into next year as they go for division title No. 8.

The Dodgers are halfway to the Braves’ thought-to-be-unattainable record, and they’re better built for the future than they were at the beginning of the streak. And this is all while each of the other NL West teams appears to lack the strength to make a run at them, at least in the immediate future.

So, seven years from now, it’s quite feasible that Bobby Cox’s Braves could have some company.

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Column: From one home to another

Nine months ago, I packed up and left Clayton, Ga. to move back home.

This week, I packed up as I prepare to leave Asheboro, N.C. to move back home.

Before I explain, let me avoid what we in the business call “burying the lead” – I’m excited to announce that I will be starting a sportswriting job at The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C. on Monday.

Now, about the whole “move back home” thing…

Two areas have always been home to me, as I’ve spent large portions of my life living in both of them: the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina and the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

I lived in Kernersville, N.C. from birth until I was 14, and lived in Mullins, S.C. from then until I got my first job out of college. Granted, for four of those years I was in Anderson, S.C. eight months a year (and it’s a home to me as well), but Mullins was still my home base.

So it was truthful when, in November of last year, I said I was moving close to home when I left my job at The Clayton Tribune for another at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro N.C.

Now, after a roller-coaster nine months in Asheboro, I’m moving back close to home – my other home – as I join the excellent staff at The Robesonian and relocate to Lumberton, just across the state line from Mullins.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect in November I would be changing jobs and locations again so soon, but circumstances more or less made that decision for me.

In May I was laid off from The Courier-Tribune as part of a wave of company-wide layoffs within parent company GateHouse Media. I was one of the approximately 200 journalists affected nationwide. I woke up one day with a position in the company and by the end of the day that position had simply vanished.

The move from Clayton to Asheboro had felt perfect. I was close to my original Triad home and, more importantly, to my grandmother and other extended family. I had the opportunity to cover some big events with The Courier-Tribune, including the ACC Tournament in Charlotte and several University of North Carolina events in Chapel Hill.

That perfection was over quickly – the NBA season that started before I moved to Asheboro was still in progress when I was laid off – and I wondered what was next.

Fortunately, an opportunity at The Robesonian opened, things moved quickly – in part due to a connection to sports editor Jonathan Bym through us meeting at UNC games – and here I am announcing my latest career move.

This job will be very similar to the one in Asheboro, as I’ll be covering high school and college sports at a newspaper that publishes five days a week (the only difference in that sentence would be that Asheboro publishes six days a week).

The Triad will always be a home to me. But now I’m excited to be close to family and friends as I start the next chapter and “move home” yet again.

Column: Westwood’s last good chance?

For much of his career, Lee Westwood was known as the current “best player to never win a major,” and the Englishman is, quite frankly, one of the best golfers of all-time to never win a major championship.

This week, Westwood is squarely in contention at the 148th Open Championship, sitting a shot back of co-leaders Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes at the event’s halfway mark.

Westwood is no stranger to the position he’s in, but him and those watching alike have to be wondering if this Open is the last good chance that he will have to shred the dreaded “never won a major” label.

When the championship ends Sunday, Westwood will be 46 years, 2 months and 27 days old. A victory would make him the third-oldest player to win a major, four days older than Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters and 11 days younger than the second-oldest, Old Tom Morris in the 1867 Open Championship.

Context would make a win even more historic. No player has ever reached Westwood’s age before winning their first major championship. Jerry Barber, who won the 1961 PGA Championship at age 44, is the oldest first-time major champion.

But what Westwood lacks in youth, he makes up for in experience. He has 24 European Tour wins (eighth-most all-time) and has been a part of seven victorious Ryder Cup teams in his 10 appearances. And while he hasn’t won a major, it isn’t because of a lack of chances over his career.

Westwood has finished in the top five in The Open four times, in addition to three times each at the Masters and U.S. Open and once in the PGA Championship. He has 18 top 10 finishes in majors spanning from 1997-2016, including two in each year from 2009-13.

But Westwood’s form over the last few years hasn’t matched that of his prime. Since a tie for second at the 2016 Masters, Westwood hasn’t finished better than 18th in a major.

After spending most of his career ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, he’s now ranked 78th and has only qualified for three of the last eight majors — a 61st-place finish in last year’s Open and a missed cut at May’s PGA Championship.

Missed cuts this week by contemporaries such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington also serve as a reminder that the golfers of Westwood’s generation are no longer able to contend week in and week out.

But one of those peers, Woods, has won a major this year, proving that it can still be done by someone in their mid-40s (and to say Tiger had also been through a slump before his win would be a huge understatement).

Westwood enters the weekend with more major-championship experience than anyone else in contention, although he’ll have to beat some big names if he wants to lift the Claret Jug on Sunday. Behind Lowry and Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood is tied with Westwood one shot back, ahead of a list of contenders that also includes Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, all within three strokes or less. Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson are among those further back that could still have a chance with a good weekend.

Surely he feels pressure — he has to know this could potentially be his last good chance at the one thing in professional golf that’s eluded him — but perhaps he can continue his solid play and earn a storybook triumph in his nation’s championship.

Local favorite?

Another storybook ending could take place if Lowry can turn the 36-hole co-lead into his first major championship.

This Open at Royal Portrush is the first contested in Northern Ireland since 1961. But while Northern Ireland had three players in the field, only one made the cut, and Portrush native Graeme McDowell is likely out of contention nine shots back.

The other Northern Irishman each had a memorable first two days — Darren Clarke hit the tournament’s opening shot, birdied the first hole and led early Thursday morning, while Rory McIlroy made a stirring run at the cut line late Friday, coming back from a first-round 79 only to fall one shot short — but will not be around for the weekend.

Who will the locals root for with no one from Northern Ireland in contention? Enter Lowry.

The 32-year-old Irishman, from about 120 miles south of Portrush, not only joins McDowell as the only two players from the island of Ireland to make the cut, but will be the local favorite for the fans at Royal Portrush this weekend.

While Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a tumultuous relationship over the course of history, fans fully supported Lowry over the first two days around the Royal Portrush links. Relations have softened between the two nations in recent decades, and many Irish fans may have crossed the border (about 55 miles away) to attend The Open at Royal Portrush this week.

Other fan-favorites this weekend will be Brits Westwood, Fleetwood and Rose and the always-popular Spieth and Kuchar. But Lowry is in better position than any of those names entering the third round, and may have equal or better support too.

Column: Insult or not, Foltynewicz’s demotion is the right move

Saturday night, as Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz was enduring his latest struggle on the mound, I was chatting with a friend via text message about whether or not the Braves should consider moving the right-hander down to AAA Gwinnett for a couple of starts.

“Hmm, wouldn’t that be kinda a middle finger to an All-Star?” the friend replied.

I agreed that sending a player who was an All-Star and the team’s No. 1 starter just last year down to the minor leagues might not be the most popular move, but said that a team in a division race like the Braves has more urgency to not let a struggling player continue hurting the team’s results.

It would turn out that in Saturday’s game Foltynewicz’s performance did not cost the Braves the game, as the team scored nine runs over the last three innings to earn a thrilling, come-from-behind 13-9 win over the Washington Nationals.

Mike Foltynewicz. (Flickr Photo)

But a couple of hours after the game, news broke that Foltynewicz reportedly will, in fact, be optioned to the Gwinnett Stripers, the team’s AAA affiliate.

This is one of those moves that people say “if you told me in Spring Training that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed it,” but the Braves have made the right decision in demoting the 27-year-old known as “Folty.”

This move will allow Foltynewicz to work through his struggles without the pressure or urgency to win that each and every major-league game entails. Instead of feeling like he has to be his 2018 self every time out, he can be more patient in trying to solve his problems.

After a very solid 2018 season — 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA in 183 innings, with 202 strikeouts and a league-leading two complete games, leading to an eighth-place finish in National League Cy Young Award voting — the 2019 season has been a struggle for Foltynewicz, from the beginning. His Spring Training was compromised by an elbow injury and he didn’t make his season debut until April 27.

He is currently 2-5 with a 6.37 ERA, and has allowed 16 home runs in 59 1/3 innings for a rate of 2.4 home runs per nine innings, by far the worst of his career. By comparison, he allowed 17 home runs in three times as many innings last year.

Saturday’s start was his 11th of the season; only four of the 11 have been quality starts, and Foltynewicz only reached 100 pitches once. He hasn’t recorded an out in the seventh inning yet this season.

The struggles particularly reached a flash point Saturday in Washington as he allowed eight earned runs over four-plus innings and showed negative body language throughout the outing.

“I’ve got a 7-ERA on a first-place team,” Foltynewicz said. “It’s just tough. I’m battling every night. It’s just tough. It’s just the person I am. I’m going to wear that stuff on my sleeve, especially when things aren’t going my way. It’s just tough. It’s all my fault, too.”

Foltynewicz often struggled with his in-game emotions over his first four major-league seasons, but seemed to mostly harness them in 2018, leading to his successful campaign. Many around the Braves organization thought he had turned that corner for good, but even Braves manager Brian Snitker — who almost never makes negative public comments about his players — wondered aloud after Saturday’s game what effect Foltynewicz’s emotions were having on his performance.

“I thought he had turned the corner, but I’m seeing signs this year of him going right back to where he was two or three years ago,” Snitker said. “Nobody can take care of that other than him. He has to be the one who controls that.”

Now, as Foltynewicz in back-to-back starts goes from facing Anthony Rendon to facing Danny Mendick*, he can breath easier as he steps back from the burden of a pennant race and can work on whatever in his game needs working on without the risk of costing his team ground in the National League East standings.

*Yeah, I don’t know who that is either, but he leads Foltynewicz’s likely next opponent, the Charlotte Knights, in at bats.

Foltynewicz is surely frustrated that it’s come to this — and it’s rare for a player to go from an All-Star to the minor leagues in less than a year — but hopefully once his flight back to Georgia lands he’ll be able to see that this move can benefit him in the long run. If he can iron out the struggles in his performance and once again control his emotions as he competes, I don’t see any reason why he can’t return to the form he showed in 2018 and help the Braves as a productive starter — maybe even down the stretch this season.

As the Braves hope that’s what comes from this move, they’re not exactly “giving him a middle finger” but instead doing their best to reach out a helping hand.

SportsShorts: Rain delays, retractable roofs and Stranger Things

Pop-up summer showers often present a dilemma for baseball’s umpires and groundskeepers. If you tarp the field and the rain ends quickly, it will still take 20 or 30 minutes to get the field ready despite the small amount of rain, but if you decide to wait out the rain and it intensifies, the field may be lost for the night.

Monday’s game between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets found itself in such a quandary.

After a beautiful day in Georgia, a pop-up shower hit SunTrust Park as the game was in the middle of the sixth inning — and the situation produced a rather bizarre rain delay.

The umpiring crew, led by crew chief Sam Holbrook, directed the Braves’ grounds crew to tarp the field. Head groundskeeper Ed Mangan discussed the situation with the umpires, showing them radar and weather forecasts that projected the storm would quickly pass.

As Mangan and the umpires held their discussion on the field, the grounds crew stopped and stared, waiting for further direction as the tarp was around 1/3 of the way pulled; this holding pattern continued for around 10 minutes, a period that also included a fan running onto the field.

Finally, after much discussion and the rain continuing off and on, the decision was made to take the tarp off the field. The grounds crew moved quickly, putting the tarp back at its post along the third-base-side wall and touching up the mound and infield. Play resumed after a delay totaling 15 minutes, although the teams had to wait a few extra seconds after Braves coaches Eric Young and Ron Washington were late getting in place at first and third base; the Braves went on to win 12-3.

In the midst of the delay, Braves broadcaster Chip Caray humorously noted the peculiarity of what was happening: “I can’t think of a more apropos promo to read during this delay: Stranger Things Night at SunTrust Park is Wednesday, July 3…”

This was not the first unusual rain delay involving the Braves in recent years. On Opening Day of the 2015 season, the Braves were playing the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park, which has a retractable roof.

But after the game began with the roof open on what had been a clear spring day, one of those patented South Florida showers popped up in the second inning and caused a 16-minute rain delay as the teams waited for the roof to be closed. Yes, an indoor stadium had a rain delay.

You may think that Monday’s 15-minute delay must be one of the shortest ever seen, but I’ve witnessed three shorter — all in the same game. In a 2016 Coastal Plain League game at Asheboro, N.C.’s McCrary Park — which has an artificial turf infield that doesn’t need to be tarped — three passing showers hit the park during the game.

In each instance, the teams waited for the rain to stop and then resumed playing almost immediately when the skies cleared. The three rain delays totaled around 30 minutes, with the shortest lasting just seven minutes.

Rain delays can be stranger things indeed.

Column: Buckner should be remembered for more than one play

When the name Bill Buckner is mentioned in any game of word association, where participants say the first thing that comes to their mind, one thing immediately comes to mind in Boston, New York and, frankly, worldwide.

Bill Buckner’s career had progressed solidly and steadily before one certain play in the penultimate game of his 18th MLB season, and continued for four more years before he retired. But he’s most remembered for what happened on the final pitch of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Buckner died Monday at age 69 after battling Lewy body dementia, 33 years after that fateful play.

To the outsider or even the casual fan, Buckner’s career was defined by one trickling ground ball on Oct. 25, 1986 that somehow got through his 36-year-old legs, allowed Ray Knight to score the game-winning run for the New York Mets and is perceived to have extended the Boston Red Sox World Series drought, which dated back to 1918 and eventually ended in 2004.

But Buckner was so much more than “The Buckner Boot”; anyone who played 22 seasons would have more depth to their career than the three seconds it took for a baseball to travel from Mookie Wilson’s bat to between Buckner’s legs.

“His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement Monday. “Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered.”

Buckner wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player — only 2.1 percent of the electors voted for Buckner in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot — but he was what I like to call a “Hall of Very Good” player. Anyone who sticks around the big leagues for 22 years does so because they’ve proven to be a noteworthy player.

Buckner earned 2,715 hits, hitting for a .289 lifetime average in a career that touched four different decades. He was a true “professional hitter” who only struck out 453 times in his entire career, and never more than twice in a single game.

He hit over .300 in seven seasons, including a .324 season in 1980 that won him the National League batting title while with the Chicago Cubs.

He was only an All-Star once, in 1981, but twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, in 1981 and 1982.

Buckner is mostly remembered for his time with the Red Sox — that’s where the error occurred, after all — but he had a pair of strong eight-year stints with NL clubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cubs.

With the Dodgers, he was part of the 1974 team that won the NL pennant and lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics. With the Cubs, he was part of the 1984 NL East-championship team that ended a 39-year playoff drought, though he was traded away at midseason.

While known for the error in the 1986 World Series, he was actually part of another of the most historic and frequently-replayed moments in baseball history, though as more of a footnote. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to top Babe Ruth’s all-time record, Buckner was the left fielder who tried to climb the fence in an attempt to make a play on the ball as it sailed over his head and into the Braves bullpen.

When Buckner participated in the 1986 World Series, he had made 8,996 major-league plate appearances (on his way to 10,037). His experience at age 36 was valuable to the Red Sox, and he hit third in their lineup, but his ankles were showing their age and Dave Stapleton was often used as a defensive replacement at first base in the late innings when the Red Sox led.

In Game 6, they took a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning after Dave Henderson homered and were three outs away from their first championship in 68 years. Manager John McNamara left Buckner in the game.

After Calvin Schiraldi got the first two outs he allowed three straight singles to the never-say-die Mets. Bob Stanley replaced Schiraldi and — in an important detail that’s oft-forgotten in the narrative blaming Buckner for the Red Sox’ loss — allowed Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run on a wild pitch earlier in Wilson’s at-bat.

The Buckner play became the enduring memory of Game 6 because it ended the game and forced a Game 7, one which the Red Sox lost despite two hits and a run by Buckner.

But three things should be remembered: First, if Schiraldi and/or Stanley did their job more efficiently the Buckner play would have never existed because the Wilson at-bat would have never happened. Second, if the Red Sox don’t also blow the lead two nights later in Game 7, Buckner’s error would be a moot point because the Red Sox would have still achieved their goal of winning the World Series.

And third, Buckner’s career was far more than one game. He played in 2,539 other major-league games (including postseason) and was an impactful player.

Unfortunately, those things were largely forgotten over the years in much of the discussion about the ’86 Series, among fans and the media alike — especially before the Red Sox’ 2004 championship season.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox in mid-1987 but came back to the team in 1990, his final season.

Over the last four years of his playing career, Buckner was heckled both in Boston and around the rest of the league, both while still on the Red Sox and in short stints with the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. Even after his retirement, Buckner’s error never stopped getting media attention — even to this day, in some ways — though it subsided as the Red Sox began winning championships; they’ve now won four in the last 15 years.

Buckner, who grew up in California, moved to Idaho after his playing career, in part to escape the constant reminders of that one ill-fated play. For several years, he declined invitations to appear at Fenway Park in Boston, but he accepted the Red Sox’ invitation to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day 2008 as part of the team’s celebration of their 2007 championship.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said that day. “So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Buckner even appeared at autograph-signing events with Wilson, who commented on Buckner’s death in a statement Monday.

“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said. “I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”

But even in his death, Buckner’s career still is being most remembered for one error. Every story on Buckner Monday mentioned the error or included a clip of the play, while far less mentioned his 1,208 RBIs. Some of the famous photographs of his dejected stare in reaction to the play have topped obituaries rather than images from any of his 718 extra-base hits.

The word association with Buckner’s name remains “error,” even as “good player” and “professional hitter” would a more appropriate reflection as his life is remembered in the coming days.

SportsShorts: Indy 500 win comes full circle for Pagenaud, Chevrolet and France

In 1920, French-born driver Gaston Chevrolet won the Indianapolis 500, becoming the third Frenchman to win in the first eight editions of the event.

Little did anyone know it would be 99 years before a French driver would again win at the greatest spectacle in racing.

Sunday, some 36,154 days later, the day belonged to Poitiers, France native Simon Pagenaud. The 2016 IndyCar Series champion won the race’s 103rd edition from the pole, earning triumph over 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi in a riveting final-laps battle.

Pagenaud soaked in the win for himself and his country, stopping on the track at the start-finish line and delaying the traditional victory-lane celebration and milk-drinking to celebrate with his team, family and friends. Perhaps Chevrolet had done the same nearly a century earlier.

If you’re wondering if Gaston Chevrolet has something to do with that Chevrolet, you’d be correct — as I found out in some brief research after Sunday’s race.

His brother Louis Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911 after moving to the United States. Gaston, Louis and brother Arthur co-founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation in 1916, a racecar manufacturer, and all three competed in the Indianapolis 500 multiple times, including Gaston’s 1920 victory.

Frontenac also won the 1921 Indy 500 with driver Tommy Milton before the company folded later that year. Chevrolet, of course, has become one of the largest auto brands in the world and is heavily involved in many forms of auto racing, including IndyCar.

Chevrolet eventually earned their first Indianapolis 500 win as a manufacturer with Rick Mears in 1988; Sunday was their 11th.

Hopefully Pagenaud’s fate after his 500 victory is better than that of Gaston Chevrolet: While his 500 triumph helped propel him to the AAA National Championship in 1920, he was killed in the season’s final race in Los Angeles.