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It was two weeks ago Brian Cashman spent an off-day expressing disappointment at the poor start of the team he constructed while also displaying confidence it would turn around and defending manager Aaron Boone.

Cashman’s passionate defense lasted about 40 minutes and the immediate results did not net an instant turnaround as the Yankees settled for a split and produced an ugly first inning that allowed three runs in Cleveland.

Since that first inning, things are not as bleak though the Yankees never want to be at .500 through 28 games and while it is tough to determine how long it will take them to get well over .500, there’s a better vibe around the Yankees.

Of course, it is easy to say that after a sweep of the Detroit Tigers where the Yankees outscored their opposition 18-4 but conversely imagine the outcry if the Yankees actually lost one of these games. So, consider this to be a weekend where the Yankees did what they had to do and got important stuff done.

Among the important stuff is the continued hot streaks of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge to offset some of the slower starts by others. Stanton is hitting .436 (17-for-39) in his last nine games while Judge carried the Yankees through the first two games with eight RBIs after being given two days off due to lower body soreness.

Perhaps the best feel good element of some of the recent developments is the starting pitcher from those not named Gerrit Cole of late. It was particularly noticeable in the feel-good moment for Jameson Taillon, whose five gritty innings represented his first win in exactly two years.

It had been that long for Taillon because three months later he underwent a second Tommy John surgery and then during the long rehab process he refined his mechanics and encountered some speed bumps in his early going.

On Saturday, none of those obstacles persisted for Taillon, who highlighted his best outing with the Yankees in one sequence against Miguel Cabrera in the fifth inning. He set up Cabrera with three straight curveballs and then used a high fastball to get the strikeout.

Taillon’s grittiness preceded an absolute clinic from Corey Kluber, who wrapped up his eight dominant innings in under two hours. It was so good that even the normally stoic personality cracked a smile in the eighth inning at the end of a day when he did not allow a ball to be caught by outfielders.

“I’m probably not the vocal or emotional person in the clubhouse,” Kluber said, “But I wouldn’t say that I don’t ever have a good time.”

In a two-hit performance, he struck out 10 with an impressive array of five different pitches. There were the 30 sinkers which set up the 25 changeups and 25 cutters to go along with the 19 curveballs and occasional four-seam fastball.

“That was a guy who was in control of the outing,” manager Aaron Boone said.

Kluber got his strikeouts on changeups and curveballs and did not throw a pitch over 92.6 mph. It was about precision against a team struggling to generate any type of offense but even if the quality of opponent was upgraded you get the feeling Kluber was going to effective, though maybe not this effective.

“Really fun,” Kyle Higashioka said of catching Kluber. “It’s kind of like as a kid when you play the video game, you kind of just randomly choose. Obviously I’m not randomly choosing pitches to call, but you can throw any pitch, any spot, any count. That’s kind of how he’s working right now and it’s really fun.”

When Kluber is pitching as Higashioka described, he’s working fast though Sunday’s time of 2 hours, 14 minutes can be characterized as Mark Buehrle or Roy Halladay fast.

In his last double-digit strikeout game on Sept. 24, 2018 in Chicago, it took 2 hours, 53 minutes and the last time he pitched eight innings before Sunday on Sept. 18, 2018, it took 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Kluber’s rapid pace also continued a trend for Yankee starting pitching, which during the slow start, many wondered if anyone besides Cole could complete five innings.

It turns out they can. Since April 18, Yankee starters own a 2.38 ERA and averaging nearly six innings. During those 79 1/3 innings, the starters have 91 strikeouts and yielded just four homers. Perhaps a better gauge is in the last nine starts where the starters have allowed one run or less in six of those games.

Any way you slice it, things are going better these days for the Yankees, making it seem like Cashman’s media session seem longer than two weeks ago. They are not perfect, very few teams are but things are trending upwards for the Yankees who always anticipated it would happen even as the slow start triggered memories of the 1991 season.

“It’s better than being under (.500) that’s for sure,” Boone said. “Even when we’re down and things aren’t going great, I do know our group at its core has a lot of confidence. We’re definitely moving in that direction now, but we also understand we’ve got to keep the pedal to the metal.”

And for the Yankees the next part in keeping the pedal to the metal just happens to be a visit from the Houston Astros.

To help protect their best asset — Patrick Mahomes — the Kansas City Chiefs have added eight new offensive linemen this offseason. That includes Lucas Niang and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also includes their 2021 NFL Draft. The Chiefs spent two of their six selections — 63rd overall pick Creed Humphrey and 226th pick Trey Smith — on offensive linemen.

“It’s going to be an extremely competitive offensive line room, and there’s going to be a lot of depth there,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. “We have a lot of talent there now.” 

Because there’s so much talent, training camp battles are sure to be very competitive.

But it looks like the 6-5, 320-pound Humphrey is the favorite to start at center over Austin Blythe.

“With Creed coming in here, needless to say, now you feel good about leaving Thuney where he’s most comfortable, and that’s at that guard position,” Veach said. “And Creed now gives you a bigger center option, and we had been talking about that.”

When Blythe was signed, most assumed he would be starting at center, but his contract — a one-year, $990,000 deal — is very affordable even for a backup, and he’s played guard too.

He played both guard and center at Iowa from 2013 to 2016. And Blythe started at right guard in 2019 before starting all 16 games at center for the Los Angeles Rams in 2020 after an injury to Brian Allen.

“Austin has shown that he can come in and play,” Veach said. “He’s done that over his career and shown that he can do it at a high level.”

Humphrey played at a high level at Oklahoma. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid praised Humphrey’s size, smarts, quick feet, work ethic, size and that he can snap with either hand.

Perhaps most impressively, Humphrey, a second-round pick, didn’t surrender a sack on his 1,297 pass plays at Oklahoma, according to Pro Football Focus.

Humphrey started 37 games for the Sooners but redshirted his first year when Orlando Brown Jr. played on the Oklahoma offensive line.

Following his trade to Kansas City, Brown even told Reid that the Chiefs should “take a peek at” Humphrey in the draft.

“I’m really close with Orlando,” Humphrey said. “He’s really helped a lot. He’s mentored me a lot at my time at OU. So being able to be on a team with him, I’m really excited.” 

The Chiefs likely will start two Oklahoma players on their offensive line. Brown, of course, was the signature acquisition of late for the Chiefs. 

An extremely affordable blind-side protector for Mahomes, Brown is in the last year of his four-year, $3.5 million rookie deal that expires after the 2021 season.

To retain the talented tackle, the Chiefs will have to reward him with a contract around $20 million a year.

“We have some different things that we’re working through. We had great dialogue with him and his agent before the trade,” Veach said. “He has all those attributes you look for — the size, the length, the mental toughness, the durability, the leadership. It’s hard to find that.”

Because of Brown’s skillset, the Chiefs traded their first-round pick as part of a package to acquire him.

But even the last pick of their 2021 draft, Smith, could help the team.

The 6-6, 335-pound Smith missed time during both his freshmen and sophomore campaigns due to blood clots in lungs, but he went on to start 23 games his next two seasons at Tennessee.

The Chiefs’ doctors cleared him. And if healthy, the sixth-round pick could represent a draft steal.

“We feel really comfortable and confident that we’re getting a good young man,” Chiefs director of pro personnel Tim Terry said. “They did a lot of research, a lot of work, did all the due diligence and searching out everything from his medical history standpoint.” 

At the very least, Smith should add even more depth, which will be crucial as the NFL goes to a 17-game season for the first time in its history.

“We talked about multiple times: 17-game season now, long preseason and hopefully an extended playoff appearance for us,” Veach said. “We need all the help we can get.”

During the offseason and especially the last 10 days, the Chiefs have bolstered their offensive line. As a result, they’ve turned what was one of the team’s few weaknesses last year — especially after injuries struck Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher — into a strength.

“We’ve got this great competition that will take place,” Reid said. “That brings out the best in all of us.”

If you think there’s a lot at stake in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, hold on to your masks because the last two weeks of the regular season schedule in the Western Conference has massive implications.

Here’s a brief look at the West standings as we head to the final fortnight:

There are essentially three groups with what they have to play for over the next two weeks, which we’ll break down:

Jazz, Suns fight for 1st

Utah and Phoenix will be in a dogfight for not just the top seed in the West, but possibly for the NBA Finals as well. And that’s not a small thing for two teams that have reached unimaginable heights this season. FiveThirtyEight gives the Jazz a 27% chance of making the Finals and a 16% chance, tied with Brooklyn for the 3rd best odds, to win the title. Those numbers are just 12% and 5% for the Suns, which is incredible considering the franchise hasn’t reached the postseason since 2009-2010.

Phoenix holds the all-important tiebreak between the teams after an enormous 121-100 home win against Utah on Friday. The Jazz have five of their last eight games at home, including two against San Antonio and one against Houston before ending with Oklahoma City and Sacramento on the road. Things are significantly more difficult for the Suns, which play seven of their last nine on the road including Atlanta, the Lakers, Golden State and two against the Spurs to end the season.

Utah should be able to hold off Phoenix for the top seed, but both clubs need to be careful not to go into a tailspin and end up close to this next group.

Nuggets, Clippers Battle For Uncertain 3rd Seed

We know what Utah and Phoenix are fighting for. With Denver and the L.A. Clippers, with the Nuggets holding the tiebreaker, things are far less clear. Because of the uncertainty of which teams will be seeded 5th and 6th, we’re not even sure if it’s advantageous to get the 3rd seed.

What we’re sure of is that the Clippers need to get back to full strength with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and especially Serge Ibaka to be healthy and ready for the playoffs, though Ivica Zubac has started well at center in Ibaka’s absence. And we know that Jamal Murray’s torn ACL will prevent him from playing until next season, likely a crushing blow for a Nuggets team rolling with MVP favorite Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. along with trade deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon.

After starting the season 16-14, the Nuggets are 27-7 since. But a brutal seven of their last eight games are on the road, including games at the Lakers and Jazz this week, though Minnesota and Detroit are also on the docket. Only games against Brooklyn and New York are at Ball Arena. For the Clippers, they have three home games this week against Toronto, the Lakers and New York before a relatively soft road trip against Toronto, Charlotte, Houston and Oklahoma City. Advantage: Los Angeles. But what does that advantage really mean?

Can the Lakers avoid the play-in?

Here’s where things get really spicy. With LeBron James back in the lineup on Friday for the first time in nearly six weeks, can the L.A. Lakers do enough to avoid the 7th seed and the play-in tournament?

Dallas and Los Angeles are currently tied for the 5th seed, but Portland lurks only one game behind both of them. Circle the Lakers’ Friday matchup in PDX against the Blazers as a crucial one. Los Angeles plays six of its final nine games at Staples Center if you include a “road” game against the Clippers. Denver, Phoenix and New York are among the final home contests.

For Dallas, a soft remaining schedule includes five of the final nine at home and two games against Cleveland and one against Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans and Toronto. The Mavs have the best shot here at 5th. Portland has the toughest remaining schedule among the bunch, with five road games of the final nine and the four home tilts coming against the Lakers, Spurs, Rockets and Nuggets. Boston, Atlanta, Utah and Phoenix are all on the road.

When it comes to possible first round playoff matchups in the West, the possibilities are surely mouth-watering for neutral observers. We could easily see a battle of Los Angeles in the first round between the Clippers and Lakers, a series we were deprived of when the Clips blew a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the conference semis. We could get a Western Conference finals rematch between the Nuggets and Lakers, with Jokic and Anthony Davis going head-to-head again in a best-of-seven. We could get a Clippers-Mavs series that went seven games in the first round last season, or a Nuggets-Mavs duel between Jokic and Luka Doncic.

But the biggest question mark of all is whether the Lakers can finish ahead of either the Blazers or Mavericks and avoid the play-in series, a scenario none of us could’ve envisioned when the 2020-2021 season began.

Starting the offseason thinking that you were traded via Twitter isn’t the best way to kick off your free agency. 

Bogdan Bogdanovic began this year believing, for good reason, that he would be sent off to the Milwaukee Bucks in a deal that was to fortify their quest to win a championship and retain Giannis Antetokounmpo. The crumbling of that transaction was well detailed in a story by Sam Amick in The Athletic where he was able to get an interview with Bogdanovic who gave his side of the story. 

The restricted free agency matching period left Bogdanovic wary of the possibility of having to return back to Sacramento where hurt feelings still remained. Ultimately the Kings bypassed the opportunity to match the offer and/or gain assets in a sign-and-trade. Regardless, Bogdanovic ended up in Atlanta on a four-year, $72 million contract. 

Like the beginning of his offseason, the start of the year didn’t go too well for Bogdanovic. He averaged just 10 points per game on less than 40 percent shooting from the field; often looking a bit off in his fit next to Trae Young as Lloyd Pierce searched for the right combinations after the team made a flurry of acquisitions a few weeks beforehand. Bogdanovic revealed last month that during his first practice with the team that his stamina may still have been impacted from his COVID-19 infection earlier in the year. 

It was tough. I have finally felt over the last month that I have finally recovered and am back to feeling good.

I do remember that first practice I had with the Hawks, I was dead. I was really dead. When I got hurt, all I could think about was how I might not have been ready. 

Before being able to fully settle in he suffered a right knee fracture and bone bruise that knocked him out for 25 games. The Hawks sputtered during that time, compiling a 10-15 record that buried them in the standings and put them in peril of missing the playoffs. 

Coincidentally, Pierce was fired on March 1st which happened to be the day before Bogdanovic returned back to the court for Atlanta. Since that time the Hawks have posted a 20-9 record and have rocketed up to 5th in the Eastern Conference. Plenty of praise should be given to Nate McMillan, but the 28-year-old shooting guard deserves plenty of kudos for his ability to help lift the Hawks from a disappointing season.

The beauty of Bogdanovic is that his game is so malleable to the construction of the team. The intrigue with his fit in Atlanta was that he could provide enough size on the wing to toggle between the guard and small forward position while continuing to provide that consistent shooting from 3-point range that the organization desperately needed around Trae Young. 

As a team the Hawks are shooting 37 percent from deep after only draining 33 percent of their 3-point shots last year. That figure placed them dead last in the league last season, even with the gravity and shooting acumen of Young. Bogdanovic has been the most reliable shooter on the floor this season for the team, sporting a 41.9 3-point percentage on seven attempts per game. The luxury of having a player like Trae is that it allows his other teammates open catch and shoot opportunities. Bogdan has always exceeded on these chances, but he’s bumped up his efficiency a notch by knocking down 43 percent of those looks this year.

His snug fit within the confines of the team makes him indispensable. Young puts pressure on his teammates to fit in specific ways to minimize his deficiencies. For example, his defense has often been pointed out as being borderline atrocious. His size and offensive load limits his effectiveness in coverage, where he’s generally graded out as being one of the worst guard defenders in the league. Bogdanovic gives the Hawks an adequate defender on the wing that still offers the team enough shooting to maximize the offense. He has generally slotted in at shooting guard this season after playing nearly 50 percent of his minutes at small forward last year. Positional tracking data isn’t exact, but the more important note is the lineups in which the Hawks have succeeded with Bogdanovic on the floor. 

The team has played about 100 possessions with Young/Bogdanovic/Huerter/Collins/Capela on the court and have outscored teams by 12.9 points per 100 possessions. They’ve had even more success with Solomon Hill in the place of John Collins as they’ve outscored opponents by double that amount over double the possessions.

The biggest difference has been the survival of the Hawks when Young isn’t on the court. For the season, the team is +3.1 points per 100 possessions with Bogdanovic on the court and Young off. Staying afloat during those minutes has been the biggest bugaboo for Atlanta since Young arrived in 2018. The Hawks played like one of the worst teams in the NBA the past two seasons when Young sat on the bench. Bogdanovic gives the Hawks the playmaking chops and shooting to keep the defense honest.

The ceiling of the organization primarily rests on Young’s shoulders, but figuring out that potential is a lot easier to do when making the playoffs. The acquisition of Bogdanovic has allowed for not only a more capable regular season team, but a playoff nightmare for whoever gets matched up with them in the 1st round.

Nick Sanchez is like many young racers trying to make it into the top tiers of Nascar. The 19-year-old started racing go-karts at the age of 12 and recently moved into full-bodied stock cars racing in the ARCA Menards series.

But Sanchez stands out from the crowd of young racers for several reasons. His father is Cuban having come to the U.S. as part of the Mariel boatlift when he was just eight years old. Sanchez is one of only two active drivers who are Cuban (Aric Almirola with Stewart-Haas Racing is the other). He’s proud of his Cuban heritage and his Miami roots. And though he’s moved to Charlotte, the center of the Nascar world where most race teams are based, Miami is never far from his mind.

“It’s kind of nice having all of Miami and all of the Cuban heritage and even Latin heritage on my shoulders,” he said. “Miami is just different. There there’s no place like it.”

A graduate of Nascar’s Drive for Diversity program, Sanchez made the move to ARCA fulltime this season after winning the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award in 2019 as the most outstanding minority driver at Nascar’s weekly late model series.

There’s another way Sanchez differentiates himself from the rest of the young up and coming racers. While most young drivers receive financial help from their parents, and Sanchez has done that, he is making his own way financially off the track. While his parents did pay some of the bills for his racing, they also gave him something else; the teenager is also a licensed mortgage broker.

“I’ve been brought up kind of in a family that goes out and gets it,” he said. “You know, we’re not the type to really sit around and wait for anything to happen.

“I always obviously wanted to make a living racing cars, and still that’s my main goal, but I also had other interests and endeavors. And one of those is the mortgage industry. My mom’s an account executive for a mortgage company. She has been in the mortgage business for 30 years. So that’s always something that I’ve had around me.”

Being a mortgage broker then is a Plan B for Sanchez.

“I always knew growing up if, if I didn’t race cars for a living, I would obviously have to do something else,” he said. “I thought about going to college. But you know, especially this year in ARCA and even last year, it was just, I think it would be too much.”

With college not an option, he turned his attention to a business he grew up around, helped by the events of 2020.

“I’m the type of person I like to focus on one thing, but just having my mom in that industry, it’s always been unique because there’s not a lot of people in the mortgage industry and it’s something that I’ve learned over the years. And then next thing I knew and when COVID hit I had all this off time and I’m like, you know what, I’ll just get my broker license and start doing it while the rates are low. Why not?”

Since he started, he’s become successful closing several deals. But brokering mortgages has also helped his racing career.

“I use it more as a tool to focus on my racing,” he said. “Like if you look at most drivers there, they’ve kind of put all their eggs in one basket. You know, if they don’t make it in racing, they have no idea what they want to do, but they don’t think of that.

“But utilizing this mortgage industry and knowing that, you know, if I don’t make it racing, I still have a very good opportunity to do well for myself. So having that in the back of my head kind of fuels that fire to my race and it allows me to attack it even more I feel like. So, it takes some of the pressure off… It really does honestly,”

Beyond taking the pressure off while racing, he applies lessons he’s learning in the mortgage industry to other areas outside the race car.

“You learn how to deal with people, and you learn different sales tactics,” he said. “I’ve implemented a lot of that into how I hunt for sponsorships on the racing side.”

Moving forward as he works his way up the ranks in stock car racing, Sanchez is prepared to leverage his mortgage business to help attract team owners who want a driver that may not demand as big a salary as others.

“I’ve thought about that many times,” he said. “That definitely is a possibility. And, you know, I’m the type of person where I just want to get my foot in the door for a team in that way.

“I don’t ask for a lot but having this industry behind me also gives me the opportunity to make money elsewhere… that’s totally something I’d do if I was presented the opportunity.”

The racing community is a group all its own, a clique that keeps to itself away from the cameras. Sanchez is among that group now, proving himself not only a talented racer, but also proving to be a savvy mortgage broker as well leveraging the opportunity as a marketing channel.

“A hundred percent,” he said smiling. “I already have business cards printed. I’ve already given many of them out. So I’m already definitely very much doing that.

“The more I market it within the industry, obviously the more business I get. I still try to make sure first and foremost people know me as a race car driver and not a broker, but I definitely try to throw it in there as low-key as possible.”

With his success brokering mortgages and with two top-10 finishes in his first four ARCA races of the season, including a third place at Talladega, Nick Sanchez is proving that he can not only close deals away from the track, he can also close them on track as well.

The Cleveland Browns have almost no experience at drafting near the bottom of every round in the NFL Draft, but you’d never know it as General Manager Andrew Berry and his staff found plenty of upside while drafting on the downside of each round.

With the draft being held in the shadow of their own stadium in downtown Cleveland, Browns officials were ecstatic with their draft haul, particularly the first three picks which addressed the team’s three most pressing needs: a shutdown corner, a versatile, athletic, speedy linebacker, and a receiver who was the fastest player in the draft.

Selecting 26th in the first round, Cleveland’s lowest slot in 25 years, Berry was patient in landing his first-round pick, aggressive in reeling in a second-rounder, and opportunistic in the third round.

In the first round the Browns took ultra-confident, ultra-competitive Greg Newsome II, who was a three-year starter at cornerback for Northwestern.

“We felt comfortable sweating it out as Greg fell to us,” Berry said.

Newsome wasn’t so comfortable.

“I was expecting to go a little bit higher, so I was sitting there a little nervous,” he said. “The way I feel, if I’m not the first pick in the draft then everyone made a mistake. That’s the type of confidence I have. I could have been picked second overall and I still would have had a chip on my shoulder, and I’ll always keep that chip on my shoulder.”

Berry and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski are both big fans of chips on the shoulder.

“One thing striking about Greg is he’s pretty laid back off the field, but when he’s on the field he flips the switch,” Berry said. “He’s very, very confident, and highly competitive, which is something we love to see.”

That the Browns would use their first pick on a defensive player was no secret. That’s where the holes were on Cleveland’s vastly improving team, which reached the playoffs last season for the first time in 18 years. Prior to the draft Berry signed six free agents, all of them defensive players.

In the second round Berry added a second piece to his defense, but he had to scramble to do so. The target was Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but when Browns officials felt another team was poised to swoop in ahead of Cleveland to take Owusu-Koramoah, Berry back-doored that attempt.

“I won’t go into the details, but we felt the need to go up and get him,” said Browns Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, of the Notre Dame linebacker.

Cleveland did so through a trade with Carolina. Berry sent the Browns’ second-round pick, No. 59 overall, plus Cleveland’s third-round pick (No. 89) to the Panthers for Carolina’s second-round pick (No. 52) and fourth-round pick (No. 113).

With the 52nd pick, the Browns selected Owusu-Koramoah, who called being drafted by the Browns, “A glorious feeling. . . a monumental feeling.”

“I am very familiar with the Browns,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “I was watching throughout the season last year. Believe it or not, I was actually picturing myself in this scheme as I was watching them play last year, sitting down with one of my coaches from Notre Dame. It has been a blessing to see everything come to fruition.”

In the third round, the Browns selected the burner they needed for their offense, receiver Anthony Schwartz, from Auburn, whose time in the 40-yard dash, 4.2, stamped him as the draft’s fastest player.

“You turn on the film and Anthony just jumps off the tape to you,” Browns vice president of football operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said. “We like to think about the wide receiver position in terms of dimensions. We love the vertical presence and he’s not your typical track guy. He’s got a run-after-catch mindset. He wants to finish plays. You don’t always see that from guys like that.”

Schwartz gives the Browns a speed dynamic that was missing from the receiving corps last year after Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury in October.

“Every time you throw it deep, I’m grabbing it and it’s going to be a touchdown,” said Schwartz, who had 54 receptions for 636 yards and three touchdowns for Auburn last season.

“I think probably the theme of Day 2 of the draft with these two players really is speed,” Berry said. “Jeremiah, a versatile defensive player who can produce from multiple alignments, a high motor, great range, a quick processor and he is a perfect schematic fit for us at the linebacker position.

“With Anthony. . . he has world-class Olympic speed. He was a player who really impressed us throughout the spring process. Very, very smart. A very quick study. I think his best football is in front of him, but he has all of the characteristics we desire for a player to be a real primary vertical presence in our offense. We are excited to add both those guys to the team.”

The Browns also drafted the following players:

In the fourth round: tackle James Hudson (Cincinnati) and defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (Ohio State). In the fifth round: linebacker Tony Fields II (West Virginia) and safety Richard LeCounte (Georgia). In the sixth round: wide receiver Demetric Felton (UCLA).

“We really went into it to find player who fit their roles within our offensive and defensive systems,” Berry said. “Certainly, versatility is an added bonus, but really, we went with prospects that we thought were No. 1 very talented and No. 2 had the physical and mental characteristics to execute their responsibilities within our offensive and defensive schemes.”

Medina Spirit did indeed “move well” over Churchill Downs’ track, as his famous trainer Bob Baffert said he would at the beginning of the week, to win the Kentucky Derby with a time of 2:01.02. Mandaloun placed, and Hot Rod Charlie, very much among the first tier of favorites, showed. Medina Spirit went off at 12-1 and paid a handsome $26.20. Mandaloun, who admirably duked it out with Medina Spirit in the last eighth of a mile, and who briefly assumed the lead before losing it to Medina Spirit’s furious stretch run, paid a flat $23.00, and Hot Rod Charlie, long among the top favorites, paid $5.20 in show.

For his part, the race’s favorite, Essential Quality ran a decent-enough fourth, after having to recover from a bad bump at the break between him, and, predictably, the race’s ebullient second-favorite, Rock Your World. The lightly-raced Rock Your World didn’t even hit the board, but one has the sense that the collision he caused will be a lesson to him.

Medina Spirit brings Bob Baffert his seventh Kentucky Derby win, the most by a trainer in the race’s one hundred and forty-seven years. With seven Preakness Stakes victories, three Belmont Stakes, and two Triple Crowns to his credit, Hall of Fame trainer Baffert hardly needed any help in the record book, but the win cements his status as America’s greatest trainer, period.

There was a delightful quotient of admiring disbelief in the winner’s circle, even among Medina Spirit’s closest connections, and specifically between his beaming trainer and jockey, Baffert and John Velasquez. Baffert looked frankly surprised, as if his leap into the solitary position of the Kentucky Derby’s winningest trainer had yet to sink in.

“Johnny Velasquez said to me last night, don’t underestimate this horse,” Baffert said. “I knew he was an overachiever, with his heart bigger than his body. But he reminded me a little of Silver Charm, he just wasn’t gonna let anybody pass. For a $45,000-dollar horse, I am so proud of him. “

Perhaps Medina Spirit’s jockey, John Velasquez put it best: “This little horse was ready. You just put him in the game and let him do what he needs to do. Every time I asked him he gave me more. He was fighting.”

Offensive line. Cornerback. Wide receiver. Defensive line.

These were the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. And the Packers spent the three-day draft attacking them.

Green Bay took three offensive linemen and two cornerbacks among their nine draft picks. The Packers also plucked a wide receiver, defensive tackle, inside linebacker and a running back.

Here’s a look at the good, bad and ugly of the Packers’ draft.

THE GOOD

• Putting it on the line: According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers’ offensive line ranked No. 2 in the league last year. There were major concerns, though, with center Corey Linsley and guard Lane Taylor leaving in free agency, and the release of tackle Ricky Wagner.

In addition, left tackle David Bakhtiari (ACL) is unlikely to be ready for the season-opener.

But the Packers did a terrific job replenishing the talent and depth up front.

Second round center Josh Myers of Ohio State seems likely to step in for Linsley from Day 1. Fourth round tackle/guard Royce Newman could battle for playing time early, while sixth round tackle/guard Cloe Van Lanen has a chance to make the roster.

Throw in the fact Green Bay used three sixth round draft picks on linemen in 2020 and there should be plenty of options to keep the line among the top-10 in football.

• Cornering the market: Green Bay’s secondary has a chance to go from good to elite in 2021.

The Packers used their first round pick on Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, a blazer who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.29 seconds at Georgia’s pro day. That time is believed to be the fastest by any player at a pro day in the 2021 draft.

“As we went through the process today, he was kind of sticking out like a sore thumb on our board and we didn’t really think he had a chance to get there,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said of Stokes. “We thought maybe when we started, there might be an outside chance, but as the board fell and some of those corners went off early, we weren’t really sure if we were gonna be able to, he was gonna get to us, and we were really excited that he did.”

The Packers brought back their top three corners from a year ago, but Stokes will have every chance to supplant Kevin King or Chandon Sullivan in the lineup. If that happens, Stokes, plus Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander and the dynamic safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage will give the Packers one of the top-5 secondaries on football.

• Winning at slots: Green Bay hasn’t had a difference-making slot receiver since Randall Cobb left after the 2018 season. Third round pick Amari Rodgers from Clemson should change that.

Rodgers caught 77 passes for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. Rodgers finished his Clemson career with 181 receptions for 2,144 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Rodgers is just 5-foot-9 ½, but is a sturdy 212 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds and recorded a 33-1/2” vertical jump.

In addition, Rodgers is expected to give some life to Green Bay’s miserable return units.

“He’s short but he’s not small,” Gutekunst said. “You know, he’s 212 pounds. When you see him, when you get up on him, he’s not a small man. He’s just not tall. So, I do think he’s a little different maybe than some of the other slot guys you see across the league because he’s just built a little bit more like a running back.

“So, he gave me great comfort because I think one of the things he does and I think you have to do in this league is you can’t run by everybody in this league, You’ve got to be able to take contact on and break tackles and he’s certainly one of the kind of guys that can do that.”

THE BAD

• Linebacking issues: The outside world looked at Green Bay’s inside linebacking group — undrafted Krys Barnes, 2019 seventh round draft pick Ty Summers and 2020 fifth-rounder Kamal Martin — before the draft and said an upgrade is necessary.

It doesn’t seem like Green Bay feels the same way, though.

The Packers have largely ignored the inside linebacker spot early in drafts for years now. And 2021 was no different.

Green Bay waited until the sixth round to select undersized Isaiah McDuffie of Boston College.

“I was kind of a Swiss Army knife,” McDuffie said of his role at Boston College. “I could rush. I could check tight ends, running backs in space, play inside, outside the ball.

“I just feel like at the next level I’m here to do whatever a team asks me to do, whether that’s special teams or contributing on defense. I’m just ready to do the gritty jobs and do whatever I can do help the team.”

If that happens in 2021, it would be a major surprise.

• Help for Clark: The Packers have one of the NFL’s dominant nose tackles in Kenny Clark. He needs more help up front, though, and Green Bay’s only addition was fifth round, 320-pound nose tackle T.J. Slaton of Florida.

Slaton appears to be a developmental player who might be able to spell Clark from time to time. But Green Bay’s suspect run defense — which ranked 18th in yards allowed per carry (4.5) — doesn’t appear any better than it did in 2020.

“Going up there, playing with Clark, I’m going up there willing to learn, get all the advice that he can give me and see if we can click on the field together and really cause some disruption,” Slaton said.

THE UGLY

• Aaron Rodgers vs. the Packers: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped a bombshell Thursday when he leaked information through several media outlets that he didn’t want to play for the Packers again.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said later that night, “We’re not going to trade Aaron Rodgers.”

Rodgers has been agitated with management since they traded up in the 2020 draft and selected his expected replacement, Jordan Love. Pro Football Talk also reported, “(Rodgers) doesn’t like anyone in the front office for a variety of reasons.”

ESPN reported that Packers president Mark Murphy, head coach Matt LaFleur and Gutekunst have all flown to California to meet with Rodgers. In all three instances, Rodgers has shown no interest in a reconciliation.

“We’ve been working through this for a little while now, and I just think it may take some time, but he’s a guy that kind of makes this thing go,” Gutekunst said. “He gives us the best chance to win, and we’re going to work towards that end.”

If the Packers are the only party that wants to reunite, though, a divorce is a virtual certainty. And a summer of turmoil seems likely in Green Bay.

Green Bay Packers 2021 draft picks

• Round 1 (No. 29): Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia

Round 2 (No. 62): Josh Myers, C/G, Ohio State

Round 3 (No. 85): Amari Rodgers, WR, Clemson

Round 4 (No. 142): Royce Newman, OT/G, Ole Miss

Round 5 (No. 173): T.J. Slaton, DT, Florida

Round 5 (No. 178): Shemar Jean-Charles, CB, Appalachian State

Round 6 (No. 214): Cole Val Lanen, OT/G, Wisconsin

Round 6 (No. 220): Isaiah McDuffie, ILB, Boston College

Round 7 (No. 256): Kylin Hill, RB, Mississippi State

Topline

India, the current epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, has reported more than 2 million new cases and 18,000 Covid-related deaths this week alone, as a catastrophic second wave continues throughout the country, pushing hospitals and crematoriums past their breaking point. 

Key Facts

India’s Health Ministry on Saturday reported 401,993 new infections, the highest number of new cases reported yet in a single country in a 24-hour span.

Hospitals throughout the country continue to plead for medical supplies, especially oxygen.

Despite being the world’s leading producer of vaccines, only 2% of India’s population has been vaccinated. 

Key Background:

The surge in cases and hospitalizations in India has been attributed to several factors, including relaxed restrictions following a drop in infections in February, and environmental determinants such as decreased humidity in some parts of the country. Health experts believe a new variant of the coronavirus, B.1.617, often referred to as the “double mutant,” is also responsible for the rampant spread. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have received increased criticism as well. As recently as April 17, a maskless Modi campaigned at rallies with thousands of supporters who also weren’t wearing face coverings.

Chief Critic: 

“The government has failed us all,” said Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the general secretary of opposition party Indian National Congress, earlier this week. “Even those of us who oppose and fight them could not have foreseen a complete abdication of leadership and governance at a time as devastating as this.”

Tangent:

India’s neighbor Nepal also is in crisis, with more than 5,600 new cases on Friday, its highest one-day total since October. In a statement issued Friday, Nepal’s Health Ministry warned, “coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system, and hospitals have run out of beds,” adding, ominously, “the situation is unmanageable.”

Further Reading:

India’s Daily Covid Cases Soar Past 400,000 As Crisis Deepens (Forbes) 

U.S. Promises To Send Crucial Oxygen Supplies To Covid-Ravaged India (Forbes)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus

Should Chelsea Women overturn their semi-final first-leg deficit against FC Bayern Frauen at Kingsmeadow this Sunday, their manager Emma Hayes will remarkably become the first woman in 12 years to lead a team into the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final.

Not since the current German national team coach, Martina Voss (now Voss-Tecklenburg), led FCR 2001 Duisburg to victory in the 2009 UEFA Women’s Cup, the current competition’s forerunner, has a woman achieved this feat. Her compatriot Monika Staab is the only other female coach to win the competition in 2002 with 1 FFC Frankfurt. Staab also coached Frankfurt to the final in 2004. Since the competition was re-branded as the UEFA Women’s Champions League the following year, the coaches of the seven different teams to have played in the eleven finals since have all been male.

This statistic is all the more surprising considering that many of the recent international competitions have been won by teams led by female coaches, such as the United States’ Jill Ellis, the winner of the last two FIFA Women’s World Cups, the Netherlands’ Sarina Wiegman, winner of the 2017 UEFA Women’s Euro, and Germany’s Silvia Neid, winner of one World Cup, two Euros and Olympic Gold. Seven of the top ten national teams are coached by women.

Despite this, men’s coaches have predominated in the European women’s club game. The most successful team of all, Olympique Lyonnais, has won seven Champions League titles under four different male coaches but following their quarter-final elimination to Paris Saint-Germain last month, they ended the contract of Jean-Luc Vasseur, to appoint former captain Sonia Bompastor as the first woman to coach the first team. Club President Jean-Michel Aulas said “the most important positions in the women’s team should be held by women.”

Speaking to me ahead of their Champions League semi-final second leg on Sunday, Hayes concurs, “I think the women’s soccer world has taken a while to wake up to female coaches. Thankfully, there’s many more of them across our league in particular. We have to make sure we’re ready for these jobs, and these positions.”

Half of the current coaches in the English Women’s Super League are currently female, compared to only one of the eleven head coaches in the United States’ National Women’s Super League (NWSL). Hayes believes that the growing critical mass of female coaches in England will soon consign her position as a lone standard bearer for women to history. “I think if you’ve seen the number that are being hired across the game now. It’s certainly more reflective of society. It will become more normal that a female coach may be part of the finalists. Hopefully, that’s something I can fulfill at the weekend. Hopefully that becomes a norm.”

Hayes cut her managerial teeth at the turn of the century at the Long Island Lady Riders and Iona College before coaching the Chicago Red Stars in the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league for two years. She was hired by Chelsea in 2012 and since 2015 has led them to nine trophies making her the most successful manager in the entire club’s history overtaking the legendary José Mourinho who won eight different titles in two spells at the helm of the men’s team.

This season, Hayes has already led Chelsea to the first-ever FA Women’s Community Shield and retained the FA Women’s League Cup. The team only require two more victories to secure Hayes a record fourth Women’s Super League title and the side are still in the Women’s FA Cup. An assistant coach at Arsenal Ladies in 2007 when the team won an unprecedented “quadruple” of trophies, Hayes is potentially eight wins from incredibly winning all five competitions the club entered at the start of the season. “I’m sure it would be an immense achievement for any team to do it”, she admitted.

Despite a massive financial investment in recent years, no Women’s Super League team has reached the Champions League final since that Arsenal side 14 years ago. Nine English teams have been eliminated at this stage in the intervening years. Chelsea themselves have previously lost two semi-finals, the last to Lyon in 2019 after narrowly losing the first leg 2-1 but not being able to turn the game around on home soil in the second leg.

Now, once again trailing 2-1 going into a second leg, this time to FC Bayern, defender Millie Bright explained to me the lessons they have learned from that narrow failure two years ago. “I think just being brave going into the game. It’s obviously vital that we get a goal. I think just staying patient with that, we don’t need to come out and rush that. Remaining positive, making sure we stay together as a team is definitely crucial, which I think we do in most games. Staying switched on – there’s no time to switch off in these games. It’s a big game, if you do switch off then Bayern will punish you. For everyone to know their roles. To be bold in the game and take our chances.”