BERNIE BITS 

I hope you had an enjoyable and safe weekend. 

We have another busy week ahead, so let’s get going! 

The 5 Best Things that happened over the weekend in STL-related sports. 

1–The Blues won at San Jose, 7-6, in a crazy game that evidently drove the goaltenders mad. Well, at least one of them. But I’m not buying into the “Jordan Binnington goes psycho, throws a tantrum, and inspires his teammates” narrative. But I’ll take the win, yessir. 

Ville Husso did a heck of a job after replacing Binnington. And defenseman Marco Scandella had two goals, an assist and was a +4 in 25 minutes of ice time. 

2–Some positive news on Vladimir Tarasenko. He’s on the current California Tour with the Blues and could return to the lineup between now and the road trip’s final game on March 8. Because of two shoulder injuries that required surgery, Tarasenko has competed in only 10 of the Blues’ 91 regular-season games since the start of the 2019-20 campaign. 

3–After losing to Dayton and VCU on the road, Saint Louis U predictably came through at home for Friday’s 72-67 win over Richmond. The Billikens are 11-1 at Chaifetz Arena this season and KenPom puts their home court advantage at No. 15 nationally. SLU has to beat UMass at Chaifetz on Monday night to keep its at-large NCAA Tournament bid alive. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports has SLU on the “his last four teams out” list. 

3a– And kudos to Illinois, which won at Wisconsin on Saturday to move to 2-0 without its best player, guard Ayo Dosunmo, sidelined with a facial injury. Next up: Tuesday at Michigan; will Ayo be able to play? Palm has moved Illinois to a No. 1 seed in his latest NCAA Tournament bracket. Joe Lunardi (ESPN) still has the Illini slotted as a No. 2 seed. 

4–Baseball is back. The scorecard jumble and general drudgery of exhibition games are better than no ball at all. I’ll try to refrain from overanalyzing every start, relief appearance or at-bat taken by a Cardinal this spring. Let’s at least wait for some trends to emerge, OK? 

5–Our Town’s Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal had a fantastic NBA duel Sunday night in Boston. Their latest Chaminade Prep Bragging Rights Game was wonderfully entertaining. Beal scored 46 points to carry his Washington Wizards to a five-point lead with 46.9 seconds to play before Tatum brought the Celtics back for a 111-110 victory. 

With his team down and in a lot of trouble, Tatum forced a key turnover (by Beal) and scored the Celtics’ final six points including the game winner with four seconds left. But it wasn’t over until Beal missed a jumper at the horn. Beal was frustrated by his turnover with 12 seconds left — pressured by Tatum, he slipped on a wet spot and landed out of bounds. That gave Boston a final shot and Tatum delivered to finish with 31 points. 

Though the Wizards are playing much better, having won seven of their last nine, Beal has now lost 11 consecutive games in which he scored at least 40 points. It’s the longest such streak in NBA history. Beal leads the NBA with an average of 33.1 points per game. 

“That’s some of the goofiest (crap) I’ve ever seen in my life,” Beal said on a postgame Zoom conference. “Slipped out of bounds, gave Tatum three layups at the end of the game.”

The 3 Worst Things that happened over the weekend in STLrelated: 

1–Good grief. The Blues lost another player to body damage: this time it’s center Jacob de la Rose going on injured reserve after sustaining a lower-body during Saturday’s bedlam in San Jose.  He’s done a solid job of filling the fourth-line void at center, posting a 53.8 percent Corsi For rating in nine games. 

The injured-list count remains high: forwards Ivan Barbashev, Tyler Bozak, Robert Thomas and Tarasenko plus defenseman Colton Parayko and Carl Gunnarsson. The Blues are extremely shorthanded at center; we’ll see what the coaching staff comes up with. 

2–The Cardinals put starting pitcher Miles Mikolas on pause mode. He will not get in some work, as planned, in Monday’s simulated game at the team’s backfield-complex in Jupiter. Mikolas, 32, had surgery on the flexor tendon in his right forearm and did not pitch last season. He was all set to go and was said to look good while throwing live batting practice last week. And now … Mikolas is being held back. It’s a familiar song. We’ve heard it many times. 

 “For now it’s caution,” manager Mike Shildt told reporters. 

Let’s hope so. But two of the presumptive members of the rotation already are off to slow starts in terms of work. The other: Kwang Hyun Kim. As Derrick Goold noted on Twitter, Kim “could be around a week behind others, based on his recent schedule.”

3–With the Blues down 4-3 in the second period, Binnington was pulled from Saturday’s game at San Jose after getting beat by Evander Kane. (At least now Binnington knows what Kane’s creditors feel like.) Binnington was mostly fine at 5-on-5, stopping 12 of 14 shots including all five high-danger shots that came his way. But Binnington allowed two power play goals and has given up 13 PP scores on the season … tied for the most in the league. 

I mention this for a reason: though I generally try to avoid putting too much blame on goaltenders for their performance on the penalty kill, this hasn’t been an area of strength for Binnington. This season, among the 16 NHL goalies that have at least 70 minutes on the PK this season, Binnington ranks 13th with an .845 save percentage. Last season Binnington ranked 11th among 17 goaltenders (minimum 200 minutes) with an .863 save percentage on the PK. 

It was better in 2018-2019. Among 52 goaltenders with at least 115 minutes on the penalty kill, the rookie Binngington and teammate Jake Allen were tied for 28th with a PK save percentage of .870. 

I don’t know what to make of it, but Binnington’s save rate on the penalty kill is down for a second consecutive season. 

Moving On … 

Checking In On A Few Former Cardinals: 

+++ Our sincere best wishes to outfielder Tommy Pham, 33, who is trying to rebound after a harsh and difficult 2020 in San Diego. After being acquired by the Padres following the 2019 season, Pham missed a month with a broken hamate bone in his left hand and batted only .211 with a .624 OPS last season. He did finish strong however, batting .375 in six postseason games. But last Oct. 12 in San Diego Pham was stabbed in the lower back after asking two arguing strangers to move away from his car. The pierced wound required surgery and more than 100 stitches to close. Doctors told him that his life was probably saved by the presence of considerable muscle at the point of attack. 

“I’m lucky,” Pham said via Zoom conference Sunday in his first comments since the assault. “I’m lucky to even be able to play … my time wasn’t quite yet.” And Pham had this interesting comment when asked about his close call: “If anything, I probably will just spend more money and stop saving as much. Because if I die, I would feel like I had too much money in the bank and I didn’t live enough.”

Pham, who will make $8.9 million this season, can become a free agent after 2021. Said Padres manager Jayce Tingler: “He’s special. He’s so competitive in everything he does. Whether it’s a tee drill or a soft toss drill, a machine challenge drill that, quite frankly we set up some drills where they’re not supposed to succeed, he’s always looking to improve. He’s always working to improve. Even on the days that he won’t tell you that it was as good as it can be, he’s at 100 percent, he’s going back looking at video, looking at the iPad. He’s finding flaws in maybe one swing out of 90 that he took that day. He’s just that type of guy, and that’s pretty unique.”

Based on adjusted OPS, Pham was 21 percent above the league average offensively during his parts of five seasons with the Cardinals … and was 35 percent above league average offensively in  1 and ½ seasons with Tampa Bay following the late July of 2018 trade that brought pitcher Genesis Cabrera and outfielder Justin Williams to St. Louis.  

+++ Here’s former Cards second baseman Kolten Wong, in his first Zoom conference as a Milwaukee Brewer: “I love the colors,” he said. “Honestly, I’m a big fan of the blues and the yellows, so it’s been fun.” 

Wong is getting used to the Brewers’ heavy usage of defensive infield shifts. He’s OK with it.

“I’m not a huge fan of shifts, but you know what? That’s part of the game,” Wong said. “I think we’ve got to adjust to the game. We’ve got to adjust to the times. Whatever they want me to do, I’m ready to do it. That’s why I signed that contract, because I wanted to be a Brewer, and I wanted to do what the Brewers do. I’m excited for this opportunity. If shifting is going to be it, then hey, put me in the best position I can be in.”

+++ Luke Voit: since being dealt to the Yankees just before the 2018 MLB trade deadline, the first baseman has slugged .543 with a .915 OPS. His park-adjusted OPS as a Yankee is 43 percent above the league average. Voit has homered once every 13.5 at-bats for the Yankees. Last season he homered every 9.68 at-bats while leading the majors with 22 homers. 

OK, what’s next big fella? 

“Hit a bunch more,” Voit said recently via Zoom “And work on my home-run trot.” 

More to the point Voit said he’s focused on improving his defense, especially on balls hit to his right. He said he’s moving better after being slowed by plantar fasciitis last season.

Voit, 30, will make $4.7 million in 2021 after avoiding arbitration as a “Super Two” arbitration-eligible candidate. He’ll also be eligible for arbitration in 2022, 2023 and ‘24. 

+++ Tony La Russa is back! The White Sox lost their exhibition opener to Milwaukee, 7-2 on Sunday. You will not be surprised to learn that La Russa was … intense … and apparently displeased. 

“I think you’ve got to practice winning,’’ La Russa during post-game Zoom.  “You get 30 chances (during spring training games) so you don’t want to wait until Opening Day. Whether the team or a manager, you’re supposed to be using those games to anticipate and make decisions. That’s why I like it, in the sense that when I get to Opening Day or October, there really isn’t any difference in the concentration and the process.” 

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf reacted to the loss with a lighter touch: “That’s it, I’m going to give him one more game,” Reinsdorf joked, in comments made to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. “I hope he doesn’t push me.”

La Russa, 76, hasn’t managed since retiring from the Cardinals following the team’s World Series conquest in 2011. And this was TLR’s first game of any kind as the White Sox manager since the team sacked him 64 games into the 1986 season. In case you’re wondering, that was 12,673 days ago. 

Moving On …

Congrats to Southern Illinois and coach Nick Hill for their stunning 38-14 upset over powerful North Dakota State University, a dynasty program that’s won eight of the last nine FCS national championships. The Salukis’ blowout ended NDSU’s FCS-record 39-game winning streak. That was the third-longest winning streak in Division I history, behind Oklahoma’s 47 straight from 1953 to 1957 and Washington’s 40 in a row from 1908 to 1914. Moreover, this was NDSU’s second-worst defeat since moving up to Division I in 2004. A remarkable day in Carbondale.

Because of the short 2020 season caused by the Covid shutdown, baseball people are concerned about the impact on pitchers for 2021. Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton says he will be surprised if any MLB pitcher reaches 200 innings this season. “I’m not saying someone won’t do it, but I think it’s going to be very challenging. We as an industry have to be very mindful of pitchers, because I don’t think we’re going to see the residual effects of this until two or three years from now.” 

Illinois is ranked 6th in the NCAA NET ratings and 6th at Ken Pom. The Big Ten has four of the top eight teams in the nation according to NET: Michigan (No. 2), Iowa (No. 5), Illinois (6) and Ohio State (8.)

White Sox third-base prospect Jake Burger grew up in St. Louis and played baseball at Missouri State. He was the 11th overall selection in the June 2017 draft. Playing for La Russa in camp is a big deal for Burger, a Cardinal fan who attended Game 6 of the 2011 World Series and jumped up and down when David Freese hit the famous 11th-inning.  “Seeing that emotion from that team, and coming back from that deficit,” Burger said, “that’s a manager I want to play for. He’s a winner. That’s the type of manager I want to play for. Learning from Tony is unbelievable.”

Tracking the NL Central: 

ESPN came out with its first MLB Power Rankings of 2021. Some of you may be surprised to see the Cubs at No. 10 overall, and the best in the NL Central, with a projected total of 89.7 wins. The Cardinals (No. 16) have a projected win total of 84.8, ahead of Milwaukee (No. 18, 81.7 wins), Cincinnati (No. 22, 76.7 wins), and Pittsburgh (No. 29, 62.5 wins. 

Why the Cubs? “For all of the caterwauling (including plenty by yours truly) about the Cubs’ offseason, they end up with a roster that looks poised to tread water over what they finished last season with,” ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle wrote. “That’s good enough to mark the Cubs as the favorite to repeat in the NL Central. The late-winter blitz that saw the previously complacent Chicago shift its approach with the additions of Joc Pederson, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams and Brandon Workman boosted the short-term outlook for the Cubs.

“Run prevention is the strength of this club. Beyond Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ staff has less name recognition than last year’s, but the overall picture is one of average or slightly better than average performers and few gaping holes. The team defense looks strong, which is crucial for a staff led by Hendricks, Arrieta and Zach Davies. However, whether the Cubs simply emerge as the best team in a bad division or rise to challenge the beasts of the NL will depend on a thin offense that looks heavy on strikeouts but lacks the collective power to justify all the swing and miss.”

ESPN gives St. Louis a 37% chance to make the postseason, a 3% chance to win the NL pennant and a 1% shot at winning the World Series.

Back to St. Louisans Beal and Tatum: 

Both are starters for the Eastern Conference in Sunday’s NBA All-Star game. Beal was chosen as a starter in a vote of fans, media and players. Tatum was picked to replace Kevin Durant as a starter once Durant was officially ruled out for the game with a hamstring injury. However: this doesn’t mean that Beal and Tatum will play for the same side. Despite the Eastern Conference heading, LeBron James and Durant will draft teams on Thursday from the pool of players. 

The NBA put in this gimmicky set up a few years ago. It would be nice to see Beal and Tatum on the same team Sunday. Beal will be making his third All-Star appearance. Tatum has made it in for the second straight year. 

“I’m extremely excited that we’ll both be starting in the All-Star game next week,” Tatum said. “Hopefully we can be on the same team. I’ve never, in organized basketball, played on the same team with him. That would be special for us.”

More on Saturday’s zany 7-6 win for the Blues at San Jose:  

It’s comical when Binnington goes off, and I enjoyed the show. When he confronts the other team’s players on the ice, as he did Saturday, the feistiness will get the Blues’ attention. But the Sharks were just awful in this game, blowing leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before Binnington was yanked by coach Craig Berube. The Blues hadn’t checked out and failed to compete with Binnington in the game. They fought back from deficits before and after Binnington got benched for Ville Husso. 

“We didn’t get a chance to really build off it,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said, post-game on Zoom. “We couldn’t get any momentum going after we got up and got those leads. It’s tough to build momentum when the next shot goes in the net every time.”

The Blues had only 16 even-strength scoring chances, and 10 high-danger chances, over the final two periods. That’s on the low side given the up-and-down nature of the contest. But the Blues scored six times in the final 40 minutes. All in all, Sharks goalie Devan Dubnyk was burned for six goals on only 27 even-strength shots. 

“We had 40 shots, we generated 16, 17, 18 chances five-on-five,” Boughner said. “We did a lot of good things with the puck. … It’s (demoralizing) when you get a lead and you lose it four times and the next shot down is in the net.” 

Dubnyk faced nine shots on goal in the third period and let three get by him.

As for the “Binnington inspired his teammates” narrative …

Then why were the Blues outshot (8-6) in the third period at even strength? Why did San Jose have twice as many even-strength scoring chances (12-6) in the third period? Why did the Blues have only two high-danger shots at even strength over the final 20 minutes? Just wondering.

If the Blues players and coaches believe that they were motivated by Binnington’s spontaneous flashing of anger and frustration … hey, that’s fine with me. And the Blues did outscore the Sharks 4-2 after the benching. But the Note also let two leads slip away in the third period.

It was a swell win, and the Blues needed it. But in reality, if I ranked the three goaltending stars in order — based on how they each impacted the Blues’ favorable outcome, it would go like this:

  • No. 1 star, Dubnyk … of the 50 NHL goaltenders that have played at least 300 minutes at even strength this season, Dubnyk ranks 49th with an .878 save percentage. Maybe he should have jumped Binnington to get thrown out of the game and increase San Jose’s chances of prevailing. 
  • No 2 star, Husso … he was thrown into a tough spot and handled it well. 
  • No 3 star, Binnington … didn’t play all that bad. But Husso was more valuable because of his calm and confident play at a time of chaos. He entered the game with the Blues down a goal and playing shorthanded (because of Binnington’s unsportsmanlike behavior penalty.) 

Binnington was the most entertaining, though. No doubt about that. 

Finally: Happy 37th birthday to retired Blues forward Alexander Steen. 

AS OTHERS SEE US: 

MLB.com put the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty on the list of Top 10 pitchers poised for bounce-back seasons in 2021. 

“It’s easy to write off any struggling player’s numbers from last year given the unusual circumstances surrounding the shortened season, but that’s perhaps most true for Flaherty,” Paul Casella wrote. “The budding 25-year-old Cardinals ace was coming off back-to-back impressive seasons, only to put up a 4.91 ERA in nine starts in 2020. On the surface, an ERA near five over 40 1/3 innings might seem worrisome, but let’s take a closer look at Flaherty’s season.

“After an impressive Opening Day start (two runs over seven innings), Flaherty went nearly four weeks before his next outing due to the club’s COVID-19 outbreak. Even once the Cards resumed play, Flaherty didn’t break the 90-pitch mark until Sept. 10, as St. Louis had to slowly ramp their pitchers back up. Keep in mind, this is a guy who averaged 96 pitches per start in 2019, when he posted a 2.75 ERA en route to finishing fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting.

“Making that 4.91 ERA even less concerning is the fact that nearly all of that damage came in a disastrous Sept. 15 outing against the Brewers in which Flaherty was tagged for nine runs in just three innings. That outing aside, Flaherty had a 3.13 ERA in his other eight starts. Not to mention, his best outing of the year — six innings, two hits, one run, 11 strikeouts — came in the start directly after that Milwaukee meltdown. If you needed more convincing, Flaherty’s strikeout numbers in 2020 (10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, 34.5% whiff rate) were right on par with the elite numbers he put up in ’18 (10.9 K/9, 31.6% whiff rate) and ’19 (10.6 K/9, 30.9% whiff rate). Expect Flaherty to be just fine in ’21, starting with his Opening Day assignment against the Reds.”

Thanks for reading!

–Bernie 

Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store. 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.