Ticket brokers hedging bets, putting money on Astros in Game 6

In case you missed this fascinating ESPN.com story that first appeared Monday, let me point it out to you. The upshot: Ticket brokers, who have control over a lot of the World Series tickets at Dodger Stadium, are placing big bets in Las Vegas on the Astros for Game 6 — hedging against the possibility that the tickets they hold for Game 7, which they can sell on the secondary market for $2,000 apiece, will be worthless if the series ends tonight.

The logic is simple: If the Astros win, the brokers who made large wagers on Houston will at least recoup some of the money lost on a series with no Game 7. If the Dodgers win, they lose their bets but get to rake in the profits from tickets sold for a winner-take-all series finale.

This is necessary and possible because, per the report:

Sources tell ESPN that brokers own roughly 15,000 tickets for each World Series game at Dodgers Stadium. The Dodgers sell more season tickets to brokers than any other franchise in Major League Baseball, sources said. The season ticket allows the brokers to also purchase a commensurate amount of postseason tickets.

So either way, those who gobble up tickets and resell them at astronomical prices are going to make money. Enjoy the game!

Inside the numbers: The mysterious, suddenly clutch Timberwolves

If you’ve watched all or even some of the Timberwolves’ first seven games this season, including Monday’s 125-122 overtime victory at Miami, you might be a little confused.

See, this year’s Wolves appear very similar to last year’s Wolves in a lot of ways so far. Their offense is great (fourth in offensive rating). Their defense has been suspect (last in the league in defensive rating). Their bench still isn’t contributing much, while their starters are logging heavy minutes. They’re getting leads, then giving them back.

But these Wolves have also played five toss-up games — all five in which Jimmy Butler has played. The other two, when he didn’t play because of a respiratory infection, were blowout losses that make their defensive marks look particularly bad.

In the first toss-up game at San Antonio, the Wolves didn’t execute down the stretch and lost by eight. But in the last four of those, they’ve secured three three-point wins and a two-point win. The three-point wins all ended with their opponent missing a three-pointer at the final horn. The two-point win came with Andrew Wiggins making a buzzer-beating three-pointer.

Considering last year’s Timberwolves lost their first 10 games that were decided by four points or fewer and didn’t win their first such game until their 43rd game of the season, this is a pretty significant difference.

How do we make sense of a team that is so very much the same for most of the game and yet so completely different at the end? Let’s take a look at some contributing factors:

*The first 44 minutes or so of Wolves games look the same largely because the defense is still very much a work in progress. You can see flashes of it getting better. Towns and Wiggins seem more actively engaged in the process of trying to get stops. There was a hug between Towns and Taj Gibson on Monday after good help defense by Towns led to an errant pass and a turnover. But until the defense is consistently good, teams are going to make runs at the Wolves and get back into games.

*The flow of games also looks the same because the Wolves’ bench, while sporting some better players than in years past, is still not producing much. Signing Gibson meant Gorgui Dieng became a reserve. Nemanja Bjelica has played quality minutes. Jamal Crawford is a veteran the Wolves have lacked. Shabazz Muhammad came back on a low-money deal. Tyus Jones has been the primary backup point guard. Those are the reserves in the regular rotation.

Each of those five players is useful in his own way at times, and mix-and-match lineups featuring a few reserves and a couple of starters have been effective in some spots. That sounds like a better second unit than the Wolves had last season, but the group still ranks 29th in the NBA in bench minutes played this season and 28th in efficiency, per Hoops Stats, after ranking last in both categories last season.

Plus-minus is an imperfect stat, but Jones is minus-45 in the Wolves’ last five games (meaning Wolves opponents have outscored them by 45 points when he was on the court for those 70 minutes). The bench is still giving back a lot of leads the starters have gained, while the starters are still learning to play with each other and haven’t been as dominant as they might be down the road, leaving things tight at the end.

*So why have the Wolves been able to win the exact types of games they were losing last year? Some of it could just be small sample size. They’re bound to lose their share of close ones as the year goes on, just as they won some as last year wore on. Still, from an 0-10 start last year in such situations to 4-0 demands further investigation.

The short answer isn’t rocket science: Their young stars, Towns and Wiggins, are a year older and look more confident in end of game situations. And they’ve been joined on the court by a stabilizing star in Butler, a point guard who can distribute and create his own offense in Jeff Teague and a veteran in Gibson who has seen every situation multiple times. Sometimes they swap in Crawford for Gibson, giving them even more veteran savvy.

Each of those players has contributed meaningfully to close wins. Crawford hit a huge three against Utah. Wiggins devastated the Thunder with his deep three. Towns and Butler were monsters down the stretch in the OKC rematch. Monday night, Teague had seven points in overtime, part of a game in which he contributed 23 points, 11 assists, six steals and five rebounds. Collectively, that group has a better chance than last year’s group of getting a good shot or getting a key stop in crunch time.

In that sense, coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau’s vision is already being realized. I don’t know if I’d rather have Teague than Ricky Rubio for all 48 minutes, but I like him a lot better in the last four. Butler’s early impact has been more subtle than we might have imagined, but he’s clearly already the heartbeat of the team. Gibson and Crawford are imperfect but useful players who aren’t afraid of the moment.

Eventually, the Wolves will need to become a better 48-minute team — building bigger leads with the starters, developing better bench production to maintain those leads, defending more consistently and with more energy regardless of who is in the game — so they don’t have to scramble and claw for every win.

That’s the next step, and it’s not guaranteed. For now, being a better team in the final two minutes of games will have to suffice.

If you like bobbleheads, this T.C. Bear Twins World Series doll is for you

In case you did not know, there is a National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum that is run out of Milwaukee. (I did not know that, or if I did I had forgotten about it until this morning). They had a preview exhibit in 2016 and are hoping to have a permanent location to house their wares by the end of this year.

On Tuesday, the folks there released a limited edition bobblehead (1,000 made) of Twins mascot T.C. Bear holding onto replicas of the World Series trophies the Twins won in 1987 and 1991.

Per a news release from the museum: Bobbleheads featuring World Series Champions and their mascots were not produced until 2001, and no bobbleheads have been produced commemorating all championships for each franchise.

The Twins bobbleheads cost $40, plus $8 shipping. The timing seems quite good given this year’s World Series, which will end by Wednesday night, has rivaled the 1991 World Series in the conversation for the best ever … while the 1987 team is celebrating its 30-year anniversary.

Wild needs more performances from Dubnyk like the one he delivered Saturday

It’s hard to split Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk’s 2016-17 neatly into two halves, but this much is true: during his first 33 appearances last season, he posted a .940 save percentage with dazzling analytics-based numbers to match. The Wild, in turn, was 28-9-5 through the last of those 33 appearances — a 3-2 win at Chicago.

In Dubnyk’s final 32 regular-season appearances last season, he posted a .905 save percentage. The Wild’s overall play was eroding as well — as was coach Bruce Boudreau’s faith in his primary backup goalie option, Darcy Kuemper. Minnesota’s record over those final 40 games was 21-16-3 — not bad, but hardly the blistering pace at which it had started.

Dubnyk was generally good for the Wild in the postseason, giving up 10 goals in the five-game loss to St. Louis. He had the misfortune of being outplayed by Blues goalie Jake Allen and had his series bookended by allowing game-winning overtime goals in Games 1 and 5.

Alex Stalock made a couple of good starts toward the end of last season and earned the primary backup job for the Wild this season as Kuemper was allowed to move on. Still, it was clear when 2017-18 began that Dubnyk — who agreed to a six-year contract extension in 2015 — was the main guy.

Through the first eight games this season, Dubnyk had started six games and Stalock had started two.

Minnesota registered a badly needed 6-4 victory over the Islanders on Thursday after starting a six-game homestand with a sleeping pill of a 1-0 loss against Vancouver in which Dubnyk played but wasn’t overly tested.

The six-goal outburst against New York was good for the locker room, but it was also the fourth time in his first six starts this season that Dubnyk allowed at least four goals. What the Wild hadn’t done much up until Saturday was win a competitive, tight, low-scoring game. If anything, the Wild’s best example of that came when Stalock helped Minnesota to a 4-2 win at Calgary the previous weekend.

I was curious if Dubnyk would get the call against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins on Saturday. He did, and I have to think it was an important test. The Wild probably wasn’t on the verge of a goaltending controversy — or at least conundrum — but if there were any whispers of such a thing Dubnyk alleviated some concerns with 29 saves in a 2-1 win.

Still, in the early sample size of 2017-18, and even with that strong start against Pittsburgh, Dubnyk’s numbers are rough: a .905 save percentage (same as the second half of last season) and 3.04 GAA in seven starts. His peripheral numbers match those more traditional stats: out of 59 goalies this season with at least 100 minutes played, Dubnyk ranks 47th in save percentage on shots deemed to have come from high-danger areas, and 48th on shots from medium-danger areas. Stalock, in an even smaller sample of just two games, is 23rd and 16th, respectively.

To get where it wants to go this season, particularly as it works through early injuries to key players, it’s pretty simple to conclude the Wild will need Dubnyk to be more like he was Saturday more often. Ideally, Stalock would probably make 25 starts this season to help keep Dubnyk fresher than he’s been in past years when the Wild leaned more heavily on him out of necessity.

It will be interesting, though, to see how the split actually plays out. If Dubnyk gets on a roll, will Boudreau be able to give him the rest he needs? And if Dubnyk struggles to some degree, will Stalock find himself in more games than we thought?

Is this World Series already better than Twins/Braves from 1991?

Here’s a question that’s likely to elicit a highly emotional response from a lot of folks around here: Is this crazy World Series between the Astros and Dodgers already better than the 1991 World Series between the Braves and Twins?

My quick answer is “no,” and that comes from someone who rooted HARD for the Braves in 1991 and was devastated when the Twins won. But someone who was a little bit closer to both series has a different point of view.

Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, who threw seven scoreless innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and has worked the broadcast this year for Fox as an analyst, was asked on the radio Monday by host Dan Patrick if this World Series has surpassed the 1991 World Series already.

Smoltz paused for a moment before saying, “Yeah, in a different way.”

He then went on to describe Sunday night’s bonkers 13-12 Houston victory: “When you think about the pressure of doing something in one particular game … I’ve never seen a game where the emotions were so incredibly draining and there were so many monents where you could just hang your head. You just sensed each team was hanging on by a thread. There wasn’t anybody who thought this game was well in hand. Managing this game had to be an emotional roller-coaster.”

This series has had two pretty routine games, another that took a turn when the Dodgers scored five in the ninth to break open a 1-1 game, and two of the most dramatic games I’ve ever seen. It also has had controversy about the baseballs being used — which either adds to the drama or casts doubt on the legitimacy of what you’re watching, depending on your perspective.

That said, I don’t think we can declare any series to be the “best ever” until it’s over. Twins/Braves had five very dramatic games — Games 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7.

Let’s see what happens Tuesday (and possibly Wednesday) before we make any ultimate declarations.

High school girls’ golfer defeats every boy, denied trophy by odd rule

A female high school golfer in Massachusetts, who competes on the boys’ team because her school doesn’t field a girls’ team, shot the lowest score of all competitors in a qualifying tournament to determine the individual qualifiers in the boys’ state tournament.

She did so while playing from the same tees as the boys, carding a 3-over 75 and beating the next-closest challenger by four strokes.

But guess what? Emily Nash doesn’t get to compete in the individual state tournament. She doesn’t even get recognized as the qualifying tournament champion or get a trophy.

Because … er … well, there’s a weird rule.

Per a story from the Telegram in Worcester, Mass.: “The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association allowed Nash to compete with the Lunenburg High boys’ team in the Division 3 tournament because Lunenburg doesn’t field a girls’ team in the spring. But an MIAA rule states, ‘Girls playing on a fall boys’ team cannot be entered in the Boys Fall Individual Tournament. They can only play in the Boys’ Team Tournament. If qualified, they can play in the spring Girls Sectional and State Championships.’

So the best golfer doesn’t win. Got it.

Nash is taking this a lot better than, say, I would if something like this happened to me.

I was definitely disappointed, but I understand that there are rules in place,” she told the paper. “I don’t think people expected for this to happen, so they didn’t really know how to react to it. None of us are mad at the MIAA or anything like that, but I was definitely a little bit disappointed.

The story gained attention in the last couple days around Boston and even drew some national scrutiny. Nash’s father, Bob, had this to say: “I think people feel it was an injustice, and I understand, (but) I think people are more bothered than we are to be quite honest. I’m a little surprised at the reaction. When she found out, she was like, ‘OK, no problem.’ She came home, she had dinner, and it was a non-issue.”

Aaron Rodgers: Vikings’ Barr made obscene gestures after knockout play

We’re nearly two weeks removed from the Vikings’ victory over the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium, during which linebacker Anthony Barr broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone with a legal hit to the Green Bay quarterback.

But the play just won’t go away.

Rodgers wasn’t happy about the play when it happened, yelling some choice words at Barr as he went off the field. Packers coach Mike McCarthy called the play “totally unnecessary.” Barr later defended himself, saying he’s not a dirty player.

If you hoped those various news cycles were enough to cover the play, you were wrong. Rodgers was on with Conan O’Brien on Thursday, and the TV host asked Rodgers about the play.

Rodgers described what happened and then said “the cameras caught me saying something to him,” but they missed what Barr was doing back to him: giving the QB, according to Rodgers, a pair of obscene gestures.

Rodgers was kind of smiling as he retold the story, and he added, “There’s no respect anymore in this business.”

Rodgers added that he had 13 screws inserted during surgery to repair the collarbone.

I can only hope that nobody has to ask Barr about this, adding to the never-ending story.

Eight favorites — including the Vikings — have emerged 100 days from Super Bowl

As of Friday, we will be 100 days away from Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis. As we near the midpoint of the regular season, making it to the Super Bowl is still a theoretical possibility for most teams. But we’ve also learned enough to distinguish which teams we think — as of now — have the best chance of appearing at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4.

At this point, the realistic list includes eight teams — three from a top-heavy AFC and five from a more wide-open NFC. And yes, the Vikings are among those eight teams. Let’s take a quick spin through each one, starting with the AFC.

*Patriots: The defense had some early stumbles but has allowed just 38 points in its last three games. New England is the defending Super Bowl champion, owns a 5-2 record and still has Tom Brady as its quarterback. If there’s a true favorite, this is it. If the Patriots make it to Minneapolis … only Patriots fans will be happy.

*Chiefs: Kansas City started the year 5-0 before back-to-back losses slowed its momentum. Still, the Chiefs have a forgiving second-half schedule and look to be a legitimate threat with a much more dynamic offense than in years past. If the Chiefs make it to Minneapolis … Vikings fans will constantly be reminded about Super Bowl IV.

*Steelers: Pittsburgh is 5-2 with two puzzling losses (overtime at Chicago and a 30-9 rout at the hands of Jacksonville), but the last two weeks have re-established the Steelers as strong contenders despite the drama with wide receiver Martavis Bryant. If the Steelers make it to Minneapolis … get ready for Vikings fans to complain about letting Mike Tomlin get away a decade ago.

*Eagles: This is the trendy pick of the moment, given that Philadelphia is alone atop the NFL with a 6-1 record. Second-year QB Carson Wentz is playing brilliantly, and the defense is solid. Philadelphia will be tested with road games after the bye against the Cowboys, Rams and Seahawks. If the Eagles make it to Minneapolis … get ready for all of North Dakota to invade this state for a glimpse of Wentz.

*Seahawks: The offense looked broken early on, but Seattle has topped 400 yards in three of its past four games. The defense is still good enough to win a championship. It’s strangely tempting to overlook Seattle, but that would be a mistake. If the Seahawks make it to Minneapolis … expect to hear 97,000 times that Pete Carroll used to be a Vikings assistant coach.

*Saints: The inclusion of New Orleans on this list seemed improbable after an 0-2 start, but the Saints have won four straight since then while relying on a good mix of offense and defense. Drew Brees is still capable of carrying a team. If the Saints make it to Minneapolis … memories of the 2009 NFC title game will bring out a lot of local bitterness.

*Falcons: This is the only team among the eight that isn’t currently projected to win at least 10 games by fivethirtyeight.com, but the Falcons are the defending NFC champs. Despite their struggles this year, a very good and dangerous team is still lurking. If the Falcons make it to Minneapolis … memories of the 1998 NFC title game will bring out a lot of local bitterness.

*Vikings: You knew it was coming, right? And it’s legit. The Vikings have lost key offensive pieces and kept functioning, while the defense has graduated from very good to great. Their 5-2 record will be tested against better competition in the second half, but in a wide open conference they have a chance. If the Vikings make it to the Super Bowl … I can’t even imagine what would be like.

Gorgui Dieng’s playing time has been cut in half, and that’s a problem

The Timberwolves’ offseason makeover is playing out as a predictable work in progress on the court as we sort through the pluses and minuses of everything that happened.

There are big-picture questions like how much Jimmy Butler (when he’s not sick) will help this team grow, whether ditching Ricky Rubio in favor of Jeff Teague was a good idea and just what the ceiling is for young scorers Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

But there are also some lower-level questions that might be more significant than we think. One of them has to do with the playing time of Wolves big man Gorgui Dieng.

Dieng agreed to a four-year, $64 million contract last October — a deal that started this season. He had a typically solid and durable season in 2016-17, averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds while starting all 82 games. He played 32.4 minutes per game — a slight bump from the 27-30 he had played the previous two years, when his minutes fluctuated between the starting lineup and the bench.

Dieng also continued to be an advanced stats darling. He was third on the team in wins shares behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Rubio and he was second behind Towns in VORP (value over replacement player).

Of Wolves players who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, Dieng had the best defensive plus-minus rating. Among the 60 NBA players classified as centers last season, Dieng ranked sixth in that category. Karl-Anthony Towns, also considered a center, was dead last — 60th out of 60. Clearly one functioned more as a power forward, and the swapped roles at times, but the implication is clear: Dieng does a lot of little things, especially on defense, that help a team.

That said, he did all those things on a 31-win team. The Wolves, in making a push to improve significantly this offseason, added power forward Taj Gibson on a two-year, $28 million deal. Gibson has the benefit of coach Tom Thibodeau’s trust from their Chicago days together. He also has the versatility to guard more positions and switch on defense. Gibson was inserted into the starting lineup to start this year, with Dieng heading to the bench. ( (Gibson, by the way, was 13th among power forwards in defensive plus-minus last year — certainly no slouch).

Gibson has hardly been bad — he was quite good, in fact, in the Wolves’ 115-113 win over Oklahoma City, registering a double-double while being a plus-21. In the Wolves’ three losses, though, Gibson has been a minus-38.

The problem, though, has less to do with what Gibson is providing and more to do with Dieng’s early role. With Nemanja Bjelica also gobbling up power forward minutes, Dieng has more or less been a backup center so far. He’s averaging just under 14 minutes per game — less than half of what he had come to expect over the past three seasons. He’s looked lost at times as the Wolves sort out their rotations, though his per 100 possession averages are in line with his career numbers.

Dieng will never be a smooth player. He can often look awkward and mechanical, particularly on offense. But he’s also effective.

Adding quality players should make a team better, but if it comes at the expense of playing time for other quality players, is there really any gain?

At the very least, how Dieng fits into this roster is another evolving question in a season full of them for the Wolves.

This World Series is great theater — and daunting for the Twins

After a tidy World Series Game 1 on Tuesday played in 2 hours, 28 minutes — the fastest Fall Classic game in a quarter-century and easily the fastest playoff game this season — the Astros and Dodgers did their best to create mass sleep-deprivation during Game 2 Wednesday.

The extra-inning affair clocked in at well over 4 hours. But in this case, I don’t think anyone was complaining. And if you’re a baseball fan who went to bed before it was over, you woke up this morning with more regrets than those who stayed up late.

In case you missed it, here are a few thoughts about the whole thing:

*The sheer volume of drama, weird/amazing plays and records from Game 2 is staggering. Here are just SOME of the things that happened in the 7-6 victory for the Astros that finally ended after 11 innings.

  1. The Astros tied the game in the ninth with a home run. They went ahead in the 10th with two home runs, only to have the Dodgers tie it in the bottom of the 10th (after being down to their last strike). The Astros then went ahead again in the 11th, finally for good, with another home run. They became the first team in postseason history to hit home runs in the ninth, 10th and 11th innings.
  2. The Dodgers, meanwhile, didn’t have a hit that wasn’t a home run until there were two outs in the 10th — and that hit tied the game. The teams combined for eight home runs, a World Series record.
  3. There was a ball that bounced off the hat of the Dodgers centerfielder. There was a ball that glanced off Yasiel Puig’s glove in right field, then over the wall for a ground-rule double. There was a pickoff attempt in extra innings that nailed the second base umpire in the thigh. Great games need weird plays. This one had it.
  4. Through it all, the Astros not only managed to remain undefeated in games started by Justin Verlander but also won their first World Series game in franchise history.

*It all made for great theater and did the thing a great game should do: It made me care deeply and watch intently even though I don’t really care about either of the two teams. If you live in Minnesota, a Los Angeles vs. Houston World Series doesn’t have much inherent appeal from a rooting interest standpoint. There’s a chance, though, that this game was just the beginning of an epic series that demands our attention regardless of that.

*From a Twins perspective, this series is both daunting and heartening. The Twins won 85 games this year and made a surprising appearance in the AL Wild Card game before losing to the Yankees — a team that lost in seven games to these Astros in the American League Championship Series.

Houston won 101 games this season. Los Angeles won 104. This is the first World Series between two 100-win teams since 1970. The Twins were a combined 1-8 against the Dodgers and Astros this season. Those nine games — and this series — are evidence of the gulf that exists between a fringe playoff team and an elite team.

It’s hard to imagine the Twins coming remotely close to matching the starting pitching and starting lineups both teams can run out there. It’s equally hard to imagine the Twins — as currently constructed — navigating the late innings against these teams.

That said, the Twins are in the midst of a building process, not at the end of it. Houston lost at least 106 games every season between 2011 and 2013, and then lost 92 in 2014. Their bottoming out period fell more or less in line with the Twins’ bottoming out. In 2015, the Astros won 86 games and made the playoffs. Last year they dipped to 84 and missed the postseason. This year they won 101, and they look to be here to stay.

It’s premature to suggest the Twins’ ceiling is as high as the Astros’ ceiling. Houston has more fully developed talent and more high-end contributors right now. But if the Twins’ lineup continues to develop as it did in 2017, while the pitching staff — by some combination of prospect development and smart spending — finds some dominant contributors, Minnesota could very well be the 2017 Astros by 2019 or so.

*The home runs these teams hit, by the way, are not an accident. Parker Hageman showed us a great statistic Wednesday on Twitter: The Dodgers and Astros were the top two organizations this season in terms of home runs hit across all levels of their minor league system.

*The Astros led MLB with an .823 OPS during the regular season. The next-best team was at .785. They also hit the second-most home runs (238). But they also had the fewest strikeouts of any team in the majors. Translation: Hitting for power doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

The home run that eventually won the game was a perfect example. With a runner on second and no outs, FOX analyst John Smoltz talked about how George Springer needed to at least advance the runner to third by hitting the ball to the right side. Springer stayed inside a slider and belted it the opposite way to right — and he hit it so hard that it not only advanced the runner but carried over the fence for a two-run homer.

It was the type of at-bat that Twins hitters started having more of down the stretch of 2017. It’s a winning approach. We’ll see if it carries the Astros to their first World Series title.

After Wednesday, I’m sure I won’t be the only one watching to find out.