The Perfect Race

There’s something brilliant that baseball has that no other sport does: The perfect game. There’s nothing comparable if you think about it. What is a perfect game anyway? It is a game where the pitcher and defense so thoroughly dominate the batters that not one of them reaches first base.

In other words: Boring.

Except, it isn’t boring. Not in baseball. No, this is the wonder of the perfect game — it’s thoroughly engrossing. It turns the relative lack of action into something magnificent, something awe-inspiring, something thoroughly wonderful. We watch those last few outs with our hearts in our throats, and we desperately root for inaction. We care about the perfection if we don’t care at all about either team. This is history, man.

What other sport has that? You can’t have a perfect game in football — well, yes, quarterbacks can have perfect passer ratings, though that doesn’t compare, and who really cares about passer ratings? The closest thing I can find to a perfect basketball game belongs to, of all people Brad Miller when he was playing for the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. He made all nine of his field goal attempts, all seven of his free throws, and he did not commit a single foul or turnover. Nobody remembers.

There’s no perfection in hockey — that is a sport that celebrates and luxuriates in imperfection.

Tennis does have something called the “Golden Set” where one player wins every single point in the set … but it’s rare, and it isn’t any fun. I would never root for one of those. A birdie on every hole in golf might qualify as perfection, but as far I know it’s never happened, and even if it did happen that’s not really “perfect.” I mean, there are no eagles on the card.

There is perfection in gymnastics and diving and other judged sports, but, you know, these depend on the judges … so that’s a whole other thing.

The idea of perfection in sports seems to be the sole property of Major League Baseball and any reproduction or other use of perfection without the express written consent of baseball is strictly prohibited.

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And that’s too bad. Because on Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. had the closest thing to a perfect NASCAR race we will likely every see. There’s no name for it, and no emotions that are tied to it, and there’s not even any obvious history connected to it. And, as such, Truex’s bid for the ideal race disappears like other great, but temporary performances drawn in the sand.*

*On the same day, Jordan Spieth had one of the greatest finishes in the history of the PGA Tour. He was tied for the lead at the 16th hole and he made a winding, ridiculous long birdie putt to take the lead. Next hole, he chipped in from 45-feet for another birdie. And on the 18th hole, he made an absurd 35-footer for yet another birdie. Any one of those shots would have been a lifelong story for just about every golfer on earth. He made three of them in a row. And, yes, it will be forgotten by Thursday and the start of the next tournament.

***

Truex has had a haunted year.  Here’s how you can tell this: If you are are not a NASCAR fan at all or just a mild one, there’s a decent chance you barely recognize the name. And yet, Truex is this close to having one of those magical Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon racing seasons. He began the year by losing the closest Daytona 500 ever — losing it to Denny Hamilin by 0.01 seconds. It is all but impossible to comprehend what 0.01 seconds means, so you can imagine how hard it is to comprehend losing the sport’s biggest race by that incomprehensible amount of time.

He went to Texas and dominated the race, leading the most laps, but with 45 to go the team decided not to take on fresh tires. That was a mistake, and he fell all the way to sixth. “We did everything we were supposed to do,” Truex said, “except for that one deal there.”

He won the pole at Kansas and again dominated the race until, well, it’s still not entirely clear what happened. It was, according to the Kansas City Star, an overheated lug nut that caused him to take an extra pit stop and go a lap down. To verify: An overheated lug nut.

Then, at Dover, he again led for much of the race, put himself in great position for a late restart — and it just so happened the guy in front of him, Jimmie Johnson, had transmission problems, couldn’t get out of second gear, and this led to what NASCAR calls an “accordion crash” which is just a whole bunch of cars bumping into each other’s rear bumpers.

That’s a whole lot of crazy bad luck, enough bad luck that even in the hypercompetitive world of stock car racing, you could hear a sort of “shucks, I hope he wins one of these” sympathy when other drivers talked. Then Truex came to Charlotte for what is probably the second-biggest NASCAR race of the year. And, he was beyond awesome.

First, he won the pole.

Then, he led all but eight laps of the race.

Then, he got the checkered flag.

Nobody has ever dominated a NASCAR race quite like that.

“I kind of felt like he was toying with us,” JImmie Johnson would say afterward. Johnson is the only driver who actually passed Truex on the night. He was ahead of Truex for roughly four seconds.

“And then,” Johnson said, “he just took off again.”

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He led for 588 of the 600 miles — that’s a record. And it likely will never be broken. See — and I don’t need to tell NASCAR fans this — but the whole point of the sport is to make everything exactly even. Some of America’s brightest engineers work constantly with drag and downforce and all sorts of other things I don’t understand in order to make sure that guys like Martin Truex Jr., NEVER dominate a race like that. NASCAR is about competition. It’s about cars that can’t pull away from each other. It’s about taking away any and all advantages.

So, to do what the Truex Jr. team did on Sunday, well, it really can’t happen. But it did anyway. The team found speed that the other drivers couldn’t find. They kept that speed going for 600 miles. It was so jaw-dropping that even Jeff Gordon, who certainly had his moments of domination through the years, said on FOX that we will likely never see anything like that again.

I keep waiting for people to call it The Perfect Race. But they can’t because … there is no such thing as a perfect race.  After all, he didn’t lead EVERY lap (you can’t really lead every lap because of pit stops and so on). He set a race speed record, but he probably could have gone a little faster. So, if it wasn’t perfect, what was it? Well, as Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler wrote Monday morning: “There is a blurry line in a sports event between ‘dominating’ and ‘boring’ and Martin Truex Jr. drove all over it.”

And later Fowler clarified is as “B-o-o-o-r-ing.”

So there you go. Scott is right. It was boring to watch one car so thoroughly dominate the entire night. But, as he also said, this wasn’t Truex’s fault. He was just about perfect. It’s just that, outside of baseball, perfection doesn’t make for much excitement.

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    When Bread Turns Bad

    CHARLOTTE — The question is: What do you do when you find out that you’re the villain of the story? That’s a jarring discovery because, unlike in the movies, most people don’t want to be the villain. Most people grow up imagining the cheers, applause, promotions, awards and respect. Most people grow up with every intention of being the hero.

    Joey Logano certainly did.

    And then one day, Logano found himself in his car, driving to the winner’s circle at Talladega, winner of his third race in a row, and it should have been exactly as he had hoped, exactly as he had dreamed ever since he was a little kid sleeping in his little race car bed littered with little Matchbox cars. Here was the conquering hero. Here was the star of NASCAR, the newest Richard Petty, the newest Bill Elliott, the newest Dale Earnhardt, the newest Jimmie Johnson.

    Except for this: People were throwing beer cans at his car. They cans were exploding off the windshield like water balloons, and the sound was like gunfire.

    “Gosh,” Logano thought. “They really hate me.”

    * * *

    Joey Logano keeps all of his toys in the garage behind his Charlotte office. His toys, of course, are cars — always have been cars. There’s a car back here that you can drive right into the water. Then you hit a button and watch it convert into a boat — it’s like something Batman would have. There are several huge trucks and cars (“I love big cars,” he says). There is the Thunderbird where he asked Brittany to marry him (“She loves T-birds”). There is the car he used to win his first Sprint Cup race. “All the cars back here have sentimental meaning,” he says.

    The two that mean the most to him, though, are the cars he can’t drive anymore. They are quarter-midgets, tiny things, barely big enough to fit two American Girl dolls in. He drove these cars when he was 7 years old. He won in them all the time.

    “As I get older,” he says, “those times mean more to me now than ever before. That’s what it was all about, you know?”

    That sounds strangely wistful for a 26-year-old man, doesn’t it? Let’s just say that it has been a long 26 years for Joey Logano. He is, now, one of NASCAR’s biggest stars. He has won 11 races the last two or so years, including the Daytona 500, and those don’t even include the Sprint All-Star Race. It was preordained that Joey Logano would someday be a superstar in this sport– you could see it even when he was 7 and driving one of these quarter midgets — and now that it’s happening, well, being a NASCAR superstar is different than he thought.

    “Some days you’re the bat,” Matt Kenseth said. “And some days you’re the ball.”

    Kenseth said that after intentionally wrecking Logano at Martinsville.

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    “He’s nothing but a little rich kid that’s never had to work in his life,” Tony Stewart said. “So he’s going to learn what it’s like for us working guys that had to work our way up.”

    Stewart said that in 2013, after he and Logano got into a fight.

    “I guess Joey Logano can’t see through his squinty, douchy eyes.”

    That’s what Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, tweeted after Logano wrecked Truex in California. This was even after Logano took full responsibility and apologized profusely for the crash.

    “The karma train is coming after you,” Kevin Harvick told him after a run-in at Talladega.

    And so on. He’s at or near the top of just about every “Most Hated Driver” poll. One NASCAR official says, “I don’t think there’s any question that fans view Joey as the No. 1 villain in the sport right now.” People LOATHE Joey Logano, and here’s the thing: He’s a nice guy. He’s a child prodigy who was nearly drummed out of NASCAR but has worked his way up to stardom through sheer will and aggressiveness and joy of driving. He smiles all the time.

    But that smile … that’s just another thing they hate about him.

    “We get a lot of reports about fans,” Logano says, and he’s still smiling. “We get a lot of nasty business reports on fans who don’t think I’m genuine. That’s one of the biggest things, I guess. They don’t think I’m genuine. They don’t know me, though. I believe I am a genuine person. I’m genuinely happy. A lot of people think that because I smile a lot, it’s a fake smile. But I’m a freaking happy person. And I have a lot to be happy about. Look at what I get to do. This is awesome.”

    He shakes his head.

    “Why does everyone hate me?” Logano asks. “Whatever. At this point, I don’t care.”

    But, of course, he cares. He just isn’t going to change, not now, not when he’s winning.

    * * *

    What does it mean to be a childhood prodigy? Logano didn’t grow up in a racing family. His dad, Tom, liked cars well enough, but he had a business to run, a successful hazardous waste-hauling company in Connecticut, and he was focused on that. Tom just saw that his son loved cars from the moment he was born. Every birthday was a car birthday. Every present had to do with cars. When Joey was 6 or 7 years old, Tom bought an old junker Honda Civic, tied some blocks on the pedals, put some pillows on the seat, and told his son: “Go figure out how to drive a stick shift.”

    After Joey figured that out — it took almost no time at all — Tom put him in a giant water tanker truck and told him to drive until all the water had run out. “I couldn’t even let out the clutch because it was so stiff,” Joey says. “He’d jump on the door, and he’d roll the clutch for me, and he’d jump off.”

    With that, Joey proudly shows a photo of the enormous truck. “Seven years old,” Joey says proudly. “I see 7-year-olds now, and how small they are, and I go ‘Pops, what the hell were you thinking?'”

    But Tom could see it. Everybody could see it. Little Joey Logano could drive anything. When he played other sports — baseball, football, basketball, hockey — he was like any other kid. He flashed a little talent, but more so he was awkward — you’ve seen little kids play sports. His older sister Danielle was the physically gifted one; she worked her way up in figure skating. Joey didn’t care much for those types of sports because, as he says, “I didn’t win in them.” Behind the wheel he always won. Something came over him, something even now Joey can’t explain. He could just drive cars, and he could drive them fast.

    “You know, sometimes you see a kid pick up a golf club and swing perfectly, and it’s like ‘Holy cow!'” he says. “I can’t swing a golf club to save my life. I suck at it. And I see some of these kids swing, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, that’s absolutely amazing.’ And they’re like, ‘What do you mean? It’s easy.’

    “That’s how it was for me. I would just get into a car, and I could drive it fast. I didn’t know it was anything special. I just thought, ‘What’s so hard about this?'”

    When the racing began, Logano won and won and won. It didn’t matter the level. It didn’t matter how inexperienced he and his father were (“We had no idea what we were doing,” Joey says). None of it mattered because when he got behind the wheel, he pushed the car harder and faster than anyone else. He instinctively knew the edge. He could feel the car’s rhythms. He won junior championship after junior championship. When NASCAR star Mark Martin first saw the kid racing, he nicknamed him “The Real Deal.” Logano was 15 years old at the time.

    When Randy Lajoie — a two-time Busch Series champion — saw Logano at that time, he came up with a nickname, too: “Sliced Bread.” As in: “Best thing since …”

    “What did you think when you got the ‘Sliced Bread’ nickname?” I ask Logano.

    “Well,” Logano says smiling, “I was just a kid. I thought: ‘Damn right.'”

    Yeah, he was cocky. How could he not be cocky? “When everybody — and I mean everybody — tells you that you’re the next big thing, you believe them,” Logano says. Joe Gibbs Racing saw Logano’s future when he was just 15 years old. He promptly made good, becoming the youngest driver to win a Nationwide (now Xfinity) race, and then the youngest to win a Sprint Cup race, at Loudon in 2009. Yes, it was a lucky win involving rain and confusion and just enough gas, but then, Logano seemed a lucky guy.

    “We know we were fortunate,” Joe Gibbs said after the race. Then he added, “We figure we can keep this thing going, ride this thing out for about 20 years.”

    Sure, it looked like the kid would dominate the sport for decades. But soon there were some bad signs. In baseball, general managers will talk about how they want players to fail long before they get to the big leagues because dealing with failure is a skill. In many ways, it’s the most important skill at the highest level of sports. How do you rebound? How do you overcome? When Logano began in NASCAR, he had never failed. He had always been the fastest. He had always won. He was Sliced Bread.

    “It’s one thing to be a natural,” he says, “and then when you get to a certain level, you’re racing against drivers that it came natural to as well. Every single Sprint Cup racer, I think, just jumped in cars, and they went fast because they were just naturally badasses.”

    “So,” he asks, “what do you do when you’re not the baddest badass anymore?”

    Here’s what you do: You lose. And Logano started losing. In 2010, when he was the most hyped young star in the sport, he led 53 laps TOTAL all year, and did not finish first or second. The next year it was even worse; no victories and just four top-five finishes all year. In 2012, he won at Pocono but managed just one more top-five finish. The “Sliced Bread” tag that had once made him feel a bit sheepish and bold was now a flat-out embarrassment.

    “I will always remember,” he says, “I was sitting at home one night, and I was watching Wind Tunnel — it was this show on Speed Channel. And Jimmy Makar (Senior VP of Racing Operations for Joe Gibbs) was on … I don’t remember the exact question, but it was basically ‘What are the plans with Logano?’ And Jimmy said straight up, ‘If he doesn’t start running better, we’re going to have to make a change.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God!'”

    After four years of mostly disappointing racing, Gibbs pulled the plug on Logano. They offered him a chance to rebuild his career riding full time in Xfinity. Logano was just 22 years old, which seems young. But he felt old. “A lot of times in professional sports, you take a step back to a lower level, and that’s it,” he says. “That was your shot. There’s a good chance you’re not getting back.”

    So he went to Roger Penske, got the No. 22 car and began working with crew chief Todd Gordon. And it turned almost immediately. Gordon proved to be a perfect match for Logano (“I needed someone I could talk to all the time,” he says). Logano’s first year, he had 11 top-five finishes. Then he won five races in 2014 and was one of the final four drivers in the Chase. He won six races last year. The transformation has been staggering.

    “I thought I knew everything,” he says of his days with Gibbs racing. “That’s normal though. Most kids at 18, 19, 20 know everything, you know? So I knew everything. But I didn’t know anything.

    “With Todd, with this team, I’ll tell you the biggest thing I learned. It’s all about stacking pennies. It’s the minor details that make a difference now. You’re not finding three-quarters of a second (per lap) anymore. No chance. You’re finding a half-a-tenth. You’re looking for the smallest things to stack up — stacking pennies. Nobody could have told me that when I was 18 years old because I had never needed to stack pennies before. I’d always just outrun people. It was easy. It’s not easy now.”

    * * *

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    Logano admits that, in the past, he has spent too much time thinking about why people don’t like him. He has a hard time letting things go, which has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. He realizes some of the vitriol has to do with the conflicts he’s had with some of the sport’s biggest stars like Harvick and Stewart. “Well, yeah, I am having feuds with people who have been in the sport forever,” Logano says. “They’re more established. They have fans that have been there for a while, and I’m just building my base.”

    But, he adds, all NASCAR drivers will have some feuds. Many have been loved for it. Who had more feuds than Dale Earnhardt?

    He realizes that some of the vitriol has to do with the whole image of him as a fortunate son, the silver spoon driver who was handed everything. “I look at the perception of me, and I can understand,” he says. “I get it. It doesn’t mean I think it’s right or I think it’s fair, but I understand it. I have been lucky. But my father worked very hard for what he built, and I think I learned from his work ethic.”

    He realizes that some of the vitriol has to do with him being a bit of an outsider, a Connecticut Yankee in NASCAR’s court. “My last name’s not Earnhardt or Elliott or Dillon,” he says. “I don’t have racing roots like they’ve got.”

    He realizes that some of the vitriol just comes with winning. When he was running 15th or 20th every week, no one particularly cared how aggressively he drove or what his background was. But now that he’s taking checkered flags away from Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and the rest, yes, those fans might get a little angry.

    “It’s a compliment,” he says, then he pauses. “I guess.”

    Logano realizes … well, enough of that. He doesn’t want to realize anymore. He’s tired of trying to figure out what will make people like him more. “At the end of the day, there’s a select amount of people that really know me and know who I am and know what I stand for,” he says. “I can’t get my story out to everybody. I don’t have the time to sit down with every single person and change their opinion about me.

    “And why am I supposed to do that? I know inside who I am, and that’s what we all have to live with. You look at yourself and say, ‘Am I OK with who I am? Did I do the right things?’ I’m not going to lie, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But mistakes are what make you better and what make you grow. There are no regrets.”

    When I ask him what story about himself he would like to get out there to change the perception, he shrugs.

    “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’m happy. I’m in the position I’ve always dreamed to be in. I got a great team, I got a great wife, I got a great family. So some people don’t like me. Oh well. The reason they don’t like me isn’t because of who I am, it’s because they just don’t know. I can’ live with that. Would I rather people like me? Sure. But if you don’t, well, OK! Sorry!”

    * * *

    Let’s go back in the car with Joey Logano at Talladega, with beer cans exploding off the windshield, and the thrill of victory ringing in his head. This wasn’t how he thought victory would feel … but then he felt something. He remembered that, many years ago, this was Jeff Gordon winning at Talladega. He watched the race when he was just a kid. And, yes, the fans threw beer cans at his car, too. They threw beer cans at Jeff Gordon, the legend.

    And suddenly, Logano felt this boost of joy.

    “Why do they hate you?” he asked himself. “Why? I’ll tell you why: It’s because you won three races in a row! Cool!”

    And, for then, suddenly, he realized that the beer smelled like celebration and the explosions sounded like music.

    “I’m sitting there,” he says now, “driving the car around, getting blasted in the windshield with beer cans, and it was … awesome! It all changed. I thought ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ Some people, that might piss off. But I’m sorry, this is the ultimate, I feel, in any sport, when you can show up your critics and prove people wrong. When you’re hated, really hated, you know? It’s an unreal feeling.”

    Then, Joey Logano smiles that smile again, the one that his haters think isn’t genuine. But they should be here. It’s plenty genuine.

    “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe I’m just a silver-linings guy. I try to find the positive in everything.”

    Switch your style up

    In a year of fascinating pitching stories — with Clayton Kershaw having a 95-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and Jake Arrieta pitching about as well as anyone ever and Max Scherzer offering up some legendary performances and the emergence of Noah Syndergaard and so on — my eye follows Chicago’s Chris Sale. He is playing a fascinating game. And nobody knows exactly how it is going to turn out.

    You probably heard: Sale is a different kind of pitcher this year. It’s an interesting and even curious tactic because Sale has probably been the best pitcher in the American League for five years. This seems a bit like Tiger Woods changing his swing after winning the Masters by 100 shots or whatever.

    But, then, change is the story of Chris Sale’s life. He blossomed late. As a freshman at Lakeland (Florida) Senior High, he was just 5-foot-8 and barely pushed 120 pounds. His only obvious baseball skill was the obsession he had with the game. His parents built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard, and he threw so many pitches against the concrete wall of the house that — as his father Allen dutifully reported later — he chipped a hole in the wall.

    Sale sprouted 10 inches between his freshman and senior year, though at first he didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with all that extra height. He did show enough raw talent that the Colorado Rockies drafted him in the 21st round and offered him a $100,000 signing bonus. But Sale’s parents wanted him to go to college. Only one college in baseball-rich Florida even looked at him. That was Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that had only started its baseball program four years earlier. Sale decided to go there.

    He will admit to being adrift in those days. He almost quit baseball after his freshman year. But then he started to get in sync with his stretched-out body — Sale maintained his flexibility even as he grew to 6-foot-6 — and he developed a three-quarter pitching style that gave his pitches a nasty bite. As a junior, he went 11-0 and led the country in strikeouts. He was supposed to be a Top 10 prospect; projections had him going fourth overall to Kansas City. But the Royals passed (taking Christian Colon) and so did the next eight teams.

    The White Sox took him with the 13th overall pick. He signed almost immediately — one of the concerns about Sale was that he would hold out — and two months after draft day he was pitching for the White Sox. By the end of the year, he was closing out games and being compared to Randy Johnson.

    Sale pitched angry. That was his character. In his first year as a starter, he went 17-8, was fourth in the American League in ERA, and ninth in strikeouts. The next year, he was third in strikeouts and was fantastic (though many people failed to notice because his won-loss record for a 99-loss Chicago team dwindled to 11-14). In 2014, he led the league in strikeouts per inning pitched and finished third in Cy Young voting. Last year, he led the league in strikeouts and strikeouts per inning pitched and was fourth in Cy Young voting. While so much of the attention went to Felix Hernandez and David Price and Justin Verlander, Sale was the real star of the league.

    Strikeouts defined Chris Sale. He made hitters swing and miss. He led the AL in swinging strike percentage in 2014 (12.9 percent) and 2015 (14.6 percent). With two strikes, Sale went for the K by attacking hitters with his drop-off-the-table slider and his disappearing change-up. Bat contact was to be avoided, more or less at all costs, and this had its advantages (Sale was a thoroughly dominant pitcher) and disadvantages (high pitch counts often forced him out of games and he endured numerous nagging injuries).

    This year, Sale has changed his style. He explains it various ways: He wants to stop “overthrowing. He needs to stop “pitching angry.” He intends to pitch later into games and save the bullpen. Pitchers often say stuff like that but you rarely see any actual difference in their styles. With Sale, you absolutely can see the difference. He really is a markedly different pitcher.

    1. His velocity is unquestionably down. According to the indispensable Brooks Baseball data, Sale is throwing his four-seam fastball, his sinker and his slider one-to-two mph slower than last year. Sale says this is by design.

    2. He has more or less stopped throwing the change-up to get strikeouts. That is his best swing-and-miss pitch (and also the pitch hitters will hit hardest if they connect). Last year, he threw the change-up about 28 percent of the time — and about 22 percent of the time with two strikes. This year, he is throwing it about half as much and almost never with two strikes.

    3. He is throwing many, many more sinkers this year. The sinker is, by far, his least effective swing-and-miss pitch. But it is his most effective pitch for getting ground balls.

    The results have been striking. Batters are not swinging and missing Sale’s pitches in the same way — his swing and miss rate is all the way down to 9.2 percent. Hitters are not chasing his pitches out of the strike zone like they did. And even when they do chase, they’re connecting a lot more often. For the first time in his career, Sale is not striking out at least one batter per inning.

    And the overall result? Well, for the first nine starts of the year, Sale was impossibly efficient. He started the year 9-0, completed three of those games (he threw a 99-pitch complete game) and posted a 1.58 ERA. The league was hitting .163 against him.

    In the 10th game against Cleveland, though, he only lasted 3 1/3 innings and gave up seven hits and six earned runs. Cleveland went 7-for-17, a .411 average if you are scoring at home.

    Of course, every pitcher will have a bad game now and again, and that might be the only thing that happened Tuesday. But here’s the question: Was Sale’s bad game INEVITABLE? Here’s what I mean: Sale’s shift in pitching tactics is based on a very simple premise. He wants hitters to make more contact. Sure, he still wants to get some strikeouts (he has 69 Ks in 71 2/3 innings, so we’re not talking about slow-pitch softball here) but strikeouts are hard on the arm, they require a lot of pitches, they are not always cost-effective. Sale wants, instead, for hitters to make light contact — ground balls, pop-ups, soft line drives — and for the White Sox defense to get the outs.

    For nine games, this worked in a historic way. Nine games in, opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .197. How amazing is that? No pitcher in the record books has EVER held hitters a sub-.200 BABIP for a full season. When hitters put the ball in play, they will hit around .300; it has been that way for 20-plus years. One of the more prominent theories in baseball right now is that starting pitchers, no matter how good, do not have much control over BABIP.  After bat meets ball, this theory goes, it is up to the team’s defense and the hands of destiny to determine whether it becomes a hit.

    And, sure enough, we saw Sale’s destiny turn Tuesday night. Let’s look a little bit more closely. In the first and second innings, Francisco Lindor and Marlon Byrd hit ground balls that scooted through the infield for hits, though these were not damaging.

    But the third inning was a nightmare. With two outs, Sale got a 1-2 count on Jose Ramirez. As per usual, he did not go for the strikeout with his change-up. Instead, he fed sliders and fastballs, and Ramirez kept fouling them off until he drew a walk. Lindor followed with solid single and then Mike Napoli hit a ball to the outfield that landed in the perfect spot, just out of reach of White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson, scoring two runs. Sale then got two strikes on Carlos Santana, but again could not put the hitter away. After he walked, Juan Uribe fouled off six pitches before blooping a single to right field to score another run.

    Do you see the pattern? For nine games, those bloops became outs, those foul balls had been caught. This is what pitching coaches and managers hope for when they say “pitch to contact.” But on Tuesday, those balls kept dropping in, and Sale was clearly rattled. In the fourth inning, he gave up a home run to Chris Gimenez, then, after striking out Michael Martinez, he walked back-to-back hitters and gave up another single to Lindor, and his night was done.

    The Indians put nine balls in play. Seven of them were hits.

    “We ran into a buzzsaw,” Sale said.

    Was it a buzzsaw … or was it inevitability? Well, hey, it’s just one game. Chris Sale is a fantastic pitcher, one of the best in the game, and whatever style he uses, he will be a terrific pitcher. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner rather than later, he goes back to pitching angry again. Chris Sale’s awfully good when he’s angry.

    Building 43

    Building 43 takes viewers through the storied history of Richard Petty Motorsports, from the epic and unforgettable 1967 season through the No. 43 team’s focus on checkered flags and Sprint Cup glory. Go behind the scenes with Aric Almirola and the No. 43 team during the offseason and see what it takes to build a Sprint Cup winner when the lights of the tracks aren’t on.

    Featuring interview with Almirola, the driver of the 43, Petty himself and more, Building 43 provides a unique look at the makings of a championship team.

    Chasing 43

    We look at the legacy of Richard Petty’s famed No. 43 car. Petty captured a record 200 wins in the 43, including seven Daytona 500s.  While Petty himself has long stepped out from behind the wheel, the car remains in action and still wears Petty Blue, but with a new sponsor in Smithfield Foods on the hood, and with a new team in the pits and garage.

    The piece includes interviews with driver Aric Almirola, who won the 2014 Coke Zero 400 in the No. 43, 30 years to the weekend of “The King’s” fabled 200th win on the same track.  Petty’s nephew, crew chief Trent Owens, is also interviewed.

    The Only One

    Nervous? There is no kind of nervous like what a home crowd feels in overtime of a hockey game. And there were circumstances during Game 2 in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, extenuating circumstances that amplified this particular nervousness, turned it up to cold-sweat horror. First, the Penguins were trailing Tampa Bay 1-0 in the conference final; a second home loss could seriously hinder Pittsburgh’s chances of winning the Stanley Cup. Second, the Penguins had thoroughly outplayed the Lightning, especially in the third period, but they couldn’t get the puck by that stubborn 21-year-old goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy. A kid that young doesn’t know pressure. That was scary.

    But third, the big one, the fans just couldn’t figure out Sidney Crosby. For a decade now, Crosby has been the rock of Pittsburgh. He has endured pressure, injuries, slumps, insults, cheap shots … and he remained the best hockey player in the world. Thing is: He had not scored a goal in 29 periods, There had been Crosby droughts before, of course, but something about this scoring drought seemed more treacherous. Crosby is 28 years old. He’s been through the strangest season of his career. And, one thing everyone knows is nothing lasts forever.

    “You have to trust and believe in what you do out there,” Crosby had said, but he always said stuff like that, whether things were going well or not. He has always had the talent of being opaque. It’s hard to tell what goes on inside Sid the Kid.

    The overtime period began, and people settled in for their nervousness as the puck bounced around center ice. Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin picked it up and looked — there was winger Bryan Rust skating uncovered up the middle. Only the Lightning’s Victor Hedman was back. The whole world had just opened up and Rust had a clear shot and he will tell you: When he has an open shot, he tends to take it. As Pittsburgh scribe Dejan Kovacevic would write: “He tends to play with blinders, and it can take a crowbar to pry the puck from his stick.”

    Only this time, Rust heard someone yell. It was a full-throated yell. He turned and dropped a soft pass.

    Sidney Crosby cracked a one-timer into the upper-left corner of the net. It was the first playoff overtime goal of his magnificent, sprawling, wonderful and haunted career. And, suddenly, it was over. All of it. The game. The nervousness. And something else felt over too.

    “That goal is huge for him,” Rust would say. “It’s huge for us.”

    “That’s a huge goal for our team … and that’s the perfect player to get it,” Patric Hornqvist said.

    “It was a feeling for all of us,” Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz said. “Because it was Sid.”

    * * *

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    What does it mean to be the “Next One?” The National Hockey League anoints and dismisses Next Ones much in the same way that “Game of Thrones” does. Eric Lindros was the original Next One, you know. That was around 1990, back when Gretzky — “The Great One,” of course — was still the game’s ultimate player, and Mario Lemieux was a force of nature all his own, and everyone wondered who might come next.

    Lindros was this seemingly impossible blend of power, skill and speed — a fusion of Gretzky and Lemieux. He had a fantastic early part of his career. He won the Hart Trophy at 21 years old. He dragged and carried the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. And then came the concussions (six of them in a 27-month stretch) and the overwhelming burden of expectations. The years wore him down. He retired at 34, and the obituaries of his career lamented what might have been.

    Alexandre Daigle was such an overwhelming junior player that most believe he inspired the idea of a draft lottery in the NHL (the Ottawa Senators rather obviously tanked to get him). They called him “Alexandre the Great” before he ever played a single NHL game. He burned out by age 25. “I don’t think I was prepared to go onto a team and be the savior at 18,” Daigle said after it all ended. “Who is prepared for that?”

    Every year or two, another junior hockey phenom would come along — a Jason Bonsignore or a Rico Fata or a Patrik Stefan — who was meant to dominate the game. They did not work out. USA Today called Phil Kessel “The King of Hockey Prospects.” John Tavares was so good at 15 years old that he was called “The Next Next One,” in order to beat the rush. And, of course, 19-year-old Connor McDavid is the current “Next One.”

    MORE: Crosby raves about HBK line | Pens give Kessel Listerine, gum for “bad breath”

    But the most overwhelming “Next One,” the player who inflamed the imagination more than any prospect since Gretzky himself, was Sidney Crosby.

    “He’s dynamite,” Gretzky himself said the first time he saw Crosby play. Sid the Kid was 15 then.

    It all seemed so perfect. Crosby was the archetypal hockey prodigy, the straight-A student who was beloved by his classmates, the small-town kid who liked country music and dented the family dryer after shooting so many pucks into it in the basement (whenever he missed the net, it would crash into the dryer — the basement and dented dryer would later be replicated for a Reebok commercial).

    “You saw right away that this was someone who was going to change the fortunes, not only of the franchise, not only for the city, but for everyone around him,” says NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk, also Crosby’s first coach with the Penguins. “You just don’t see that. You just don’t see an 18-year-old kid that come(s) in and look(s) like he can take everybody on his back.”

    And the NHL career began like a dream. He captained his first Stanley Cup champion at 21 years old. He scored the Golden Goal in the Vancouver Olympics at 22 years old. As he stood at attention while “Oh Canada” played — “the dream of every kid who grows up playing hockey in Canada” — it was clear: He was the Next One. He really was the Jean Beliveau of his time, the Gordie Howe of his time, the Bobby Orr of his time, the Wayne Gretzky of his time.

    At that moment, you would have said that Sidney Crosby was charmed.

    * * *

    The Crosby slumps.

    May 2014: Crosby has gone eight playoff games without scoring a game. “Sidney Crosby slump causing angst in Pittsburgh,” USA Today reports. “I just have to keep working hard,” he says. “We’re creating chances, so that’s good. I have to bury them.”

    December 2014: Crosby has scored just 11 goals in his previous 50 games. What’s wrong? “You’ve got to find a way to bury the chances,” he says to reporters, “and I think that’s ultimately on me. I’ve got to find a way to bury my chances.”

    February 2015: Crosby is fourth in the league in scoring, but has scored just four goals in 29 games. “It’s just a matter of burying chances,” Crosby says.

    October 2015: Crosby is held pointless in eight of the Penguins’ first 10 games. What’s wrong? “It’s weird how it works,” Crosby tells TSN’s Pierre LeBrun. “It’s difficult to really put your finger on it. But when you’re going through a time like this, you just try to put your head down and work hard … I feel that I got some real good opportunities to score and produced some chances.”

    December 2015: Crosby’s struggles are severe and the Penguins fire coach Mike Johnston and hire Mike Sullivan. While Crosby is certainly not the sole reason for the move — Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford talked about the entire team badly under-performing — it is his troubles that dominate the headlines. “We just have to work through it,” Crosby says.

    May 2016: Crosby goes eight consecutive playoff games without scoring a goal, leading many people to wonder why he’s slumping. This includes NBC’s own Jeremy Roenick, who suggests that Crosby might watch Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin’s work ethic. “I’m not happy, obviously,” Crosby says. “But the big thing are the chances. I just have to keep creating chances.”

    * * *

    When did Sidney Crosby no longer seem charmed? That’s a trick question. Crosby never stopped being the player of his generation, the best player on the planet and so on. But the world stopped bending to his will. Again and again for the last six years, almost from the day after he returned from the Golden Goal, things got complicated for Crosby. The concussions. The testy series against the Flyers.The slapshot to the face. The helpless series against the Bruins. The shaky Pittsburgh goaltending. The losses to the Rangers.

    He did not change. All along, Crosby stayed focused and positive and, yes, a bit mysterious.

    “I have to just keep working hard,” Crosby repeated.

    “If it doesn’t go in you just have to trust the next one will,” he said.

    “I just have to bury my chances,” he said.

    “I have the great fortune of knowing him on a couple of different levels,” Olczyk says. “I think he’s the same exact guy when it comes to handling things. He’s the same guy, from what I’ve seen, in how he deals with success and the same guy in how he handles going through a difficult time. And there have been difficult times, but hey, that’s the nature of this thing. Anyone can be great when on a good streak. It’s easy to be a good guy when the puck’s going in the net. How are you going to be when the s*** hits the fan? That’s one of the things that separates players. Sid is the same no matter what.”

    This season has provided the greatest challenge of all. In the first 30 games, Crosby scored a total of 19 points, was a minus-7 and fired fewer than three shots per game. He looked worn out. Everybody saw it. Johnston was fired; many believed his two-way coaching — which put more pressure on Crosby to play defense — might be handcuffing him. Sports Illustrated wondered if he would be moved to Canada’s fourth line at the upcoming 2016 World Cup. The Washington Post, having dismissed Crosby as the world’s best player, listed off several others who might be ready to take his place. Bleacher Report floated the question: “Would Pittsburgh trade Crosby?”

    Crosby never did blame people for their doubts. “I understand why people were saying it,” he says.

    * * *

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    Maybe it was Mike Sullivan who shook Crosby out of it. Sullivan was hired mid-December and, first thing, he talked to Crosby. “He told me what he expected as far as a player and as a leader,” Crosby says. “It was pretty clear, and he was very honest. That’s all you can ask.”

    “I tried to challenge these guys — and Sid in particular — to play with that necessary emotion,” Sullivan says. “My experience of coaching against him for all those years was that when Sid is at his best, he’s emotionally engaged. …  When I first took the team over, my goal was to try to light that fire in his belly that makes him so great.”

    The timing certainly matches up. Crosby, in the last 50 games of the regular season — more or less corresponding precisely with the hire of Sullivan — scored 66 points, the same points-per-game average of his Hart Trophy season of 2013-14. He scored 30 goals in those 50 games. his best stretch of goal scoring since he was 23 years old. He led the Penguins to 104 points, second in the Eastern Conference. Wayne Gretzky insisted that, even after the worst start of his career, Crosby was deserving of consideration for the Hart Trophy, and he is indeed one of the finalists.

    Then, the playoffs began. Crosby was superb in the five-game series against the New York Rangers, scoring three goals and adding five assists, facing down all the Rangers demons of the last couple of years. But he was quiet in the Washington series. He didn’t score a single goal. He was rarely noticeable on the ice. It was reminiscent of the early-season troubles. It was also reminiscent of past playoff horrors, like the pointless series against Boston in the days after his jaw had been broken, or his near-soundless performance against New York in 2014 when the Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit to win.

    But this Washington series was not like those crushing defeats because this Penguins team is not like those Penguins teams. Rutherford completely remodeled Pittsburgh hockey. He brought in one-time phenom and longtime scapegoat Phil Kessel. “He was a guy that was blamed when things weren’t going well, and he doesn’t have to be the guy here,” Rutherford said, explaining the move. It has worked out perfectly. Kessel is the Penguins’ leading scorer in the playoffs.

    Rutherford traded for the speedy Carl Hagelin, and he has been all over the ice. Rutherford traded for scrappy Nick Bonino, and he is the Penguins’ leading assist man in the playoffs. Those three, the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line has been so overwhelming, they have their own initials — the HBK line — and wrestler Shawn Michaels (who goes by HBK as “The Heartbreak Kid”) will be in attendance for Game 5.

    Rutherford also traded for veteran defenseman Trevor Daley, who has been steady defensively and has helped launch some offense. This is now a much deeper team than any Crosby has played on in years. The pressure on Crosby, while still immense, has been drastically reduced. “Sid doesn’t care if he scores,” Sullivan says, “as long as we win.”

    And then there’s the 21-year-old goaltender Matt Murray. He was forced into action when Marc-Andre Fleury went down and he has been mostly sensational. Unsteady goaltending has been the most frustrating piece of Crosby’s playoff disappointments, but Murray almost single-handedly won the pivotal Game 3 of the Washington series, stopping 47 of 49 shots and turning away a determined Capitals team that dominated all night long. He was just about as good in Game 4 as Pittsburgh again won a game where Crosby could not unwind.

    “Best player on the ice,” Hornqvist said after Murray’s heroics, and this was something very different in Pittsburgh. Crosby was, of course, frustrated by his lack of goal scoring — assuming that you can read his occasional slamming of the stick and unhappy looks as frustration. But the Penguins won the Washington series. They lost Game 1 of the Tampa Bay series — another muted day from Crosby — but no one seemed too worried about it.

    “He will find a way,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said.

    And then … Crosby did find a way. He had two fantastic chances in the third period of Game 2 before scoring the overtime goal. He was all over the ice in Game 3, scoring a goal, firing six shots on net and dominating the game like Sid the Kid of old.

    “We’re creating chances,” Crosby says, of course.

    * * *

    One final moment …

    Midway through the first period Wednesday night, Sidney Crosby chased the puck behind the Tampa Bay net. It was innocuous looking, the sort of scrambling and grinding play you see a dozen times every game. Players were scattered in an unorganized way. Defenders swarmed around Crosby. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had a clear view of the puck as it slid behind the net. Nothing dangerous lurked. The crowd breathed out.

    And then, suddenly, it happened. Genius. Crosby, in a motion so effortless it is unclear even after replays how he did it, reached to the puck and, without a millisecond of hesitation, passed it back through his legs. The puck obediently slid to the right of the net, just out of Vasilevskiy’s reach and onto the stick of Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist who — holy cow, where did he come from? — was all alone at the net’s doorstep.

    “I can tell you,” Olczyk says, “having played at that level, you don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, I’ll get behind the net and when I’m being checked I’ll pass the puck back through my legs.’ It’s spontaneous. It’s an idea that just forms in your brain while the play is happening. You think, ‘Hey, I’ll do this and surprise everyone.’ Some guys like Sid can get it from their brains to their hands in an absolute split second. The rest of us, it takes just a little bit of time for the idea to get to their hands. And by that time, you know … it’s too late.”

    Genius. It didn’t lead to anything. Hornqvist jabbed at the puck and, for an instant, it seemed headed for the tiniest crack between Vasilevskiy’s body and the right post. But it did not get through; the puck sort of got stuck there like Winnie the Pooh after he ate too much honey. And then the whistle blew, and the action was stopped, and Sidney Crosby’s genius for this game, once again, dissolved away all but unnoticed.

    Seeing is believing

    On the May day that ESPN released its latest 30 for 30, “Believeland” — about the now-52-year championship drought in my hometown — it snowed in Cleveland. Well, of course it did. The two giant questions that swung over my childhood like some swinging axe in a James Bond villain death contraption, were: (1) When will Cleveland finally win something? (2) When will it stop snowing? You didn’t want to know the answer to either.

    “Believeland” is a heartfelt look at Cleveland’s sports heartbreaks. All the familiar characters are there:

    There’s Red Right 88 — Brian Sipe’s horrifying interception when the Browns were in game-winning field-goal range. “Just throw it in Lake Erie,” Browns coach Sam Rutigliano had instructed Sipe if no one was open. He did not.

    There’s The Drive — John Elway’s 98-yard stab through the wind and Cleveland’s soul.

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    There’s Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo (At some point Ehlo, a fine player who had scored the go-ahead basket, says something in the documentary about how his hand was “right there” when Jordan shot the ball. To be clear: Ehlo’s hand was not right there. But how could anyone expect that? He was Michael Jordan. And he was Craig Ehlo).

    There’s the best hitting team I ever saw, the 1995 Cleveland Indians, running into the extraordinary pitching of the Atlanta Braves at exactly the wrong time.

    There’s Jose Mesa’s blown save and Tony Fernandez’s staggering error to blow the World Series after officials had rolled the champagne into the Cleveland clubhouse.

    There is LeBron James, taking his talents to South Beach — this was when his talents were at their peak.

    And there are the wounded Cavaliers last year, led by the game but more-earthbound LeBron, losing to a charmed and indomitable Golden State team.

    And, yes, there’s The Fumble. We will come back to The Fumble.

    Sports fans want to believe that we are special, that our teams are special, that our experiences are unique and monumental. That is at the core of fanhood. This is why you will hear fans actually arguing about which sports town has endured the most heartache. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve had the “You think YOU have suffered?” argument with Buffalo fans or Jets fans or Cubs fans or Maple Leafs fans (and right now there are fans from a dozen or more star-crossed teams screaming, “Wait! What about our suffering?”). Why would anyone argue about something that stupid? Why would anyone even want to be the hardest-suffering fan group?

    We want it, I think, because the suffering is all we have. We endured all that agony. We deserve something for that.

    The “Believeland” documentary — featuring my friend, the superb writer Scott Raab, who I just had as a guest on the PosCast to talk Cleveland pain — has a few stunning moments. I suppose the most stunning of them is when David Modell sits below a huge portrait of his adoptive father Art and claims that, in fact, the Browns never really left Cleveland because, you know, the new Browns came so quickly after. That was a staggering bit of logic jujitsu, and it reminded me of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lame attempt to say that he didn’t lie when saying that Darth Vader had killed Luke’s father. “What I told you is true from a certain point of view,” Obi-Wan said. Sure it was. No wonder the Jedi died out.

    But the moment that got me in the gut was when former Browns running back Earnest Byner looked into the camera and tearfully apologized for fumbling the ball.

    The Fumble — Byner’s fumble late in the 1987 AFC Championship game against Denver — has come to take a prominent place in the laundry list of Cleveland sports horrors. In many ways, it’s the most famous moment on that list. But, in retrospect, it never belonged there. The Fumble, painful as it was at the moment, wasn’t like those other moments.

    You look at Red Right 88 or The Drive or Mesa’s blown save or even Jordan’s shot — Cleveland should have won those games. They were in command. They had the lead or they were in ideal position to take the lead. All they had to do was finish the job. And they did not.

    But The Fumble, well, let’s be candid: The Browns had no business even being in that game. The only reason they were in that game at all was because of, well, Earnest Byner. He was Superman that game. Byner, you should know, was a 10th-round draft pick. They don’t even have 10 rounds in the NFL draft anymore. He was 5-foot-10, he was not especially powerful, he was not fast, he was supposed to be a special teams kamikaze who cashed a few paychecks and crashed a few helmets before getting a real job. That day, though, when the Browns fell behind 28-10 n the third quarter, Byner took over. He gained 187 yards and scored two touchdowns. It was was a one-man show by a football player who was all heart, all guts. The Browns somehow tied the game at 31.

    Then, John Elway promptly drove the Broncos for another touchdown to make it 38-31.

    That’s important: The Browns could not stop that Broncos offense. They were never going to stop the Broncos’ offense. Yes, it’s true that even down 38-31, the Browns somehow pushed the ball down the field. Byner was the star. And with a little bit more than a minute left, Byner got the ball one more time, and he seemed to be going into the end zone. Yes, there was elation. Yes, there was hope. And yes, he was stripped of the ball by Denver’s Jeremiah Castille, and the elation and hope drained out instantly, like breath disappearing after a hard punch to the gut.

    But, two points:

    1. If Byner had scored, the Browns would only have TIED the game. His fumble did not cost the Browns the game. It cost the Browns a CHANCE at the game.

    2. There was still a minute left. Elway would have gotten the ball and driven the Broncos to the game-winning field goal. This is not a mere possibility. It’s not even a probability. It’s an absolute certainty, and every Cleveland fan knows it’s true. Instead of being called “The Fumble,” the game would have been known as “The Drive II.” No difference, really.

    Byner could not have won that game by himself, though he tried. There were tears in Byner’s eyes as he talked about the very angry letter he got from an old Cleveland fan. The fan said his heart had been torn out of his chest.  Byner’s voice cracked as he talked about his own heart, missing from his chest ever since that day. I started crying, too. I was crying because Earnest Byner did not deserve that.

    Then again, maybe I was crying because none of us in Cleveland deserve that. Right now, you know, the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing the best basketball in the NBA playoffs. And right now, the seemingly invincible Golden State Warriors are looking a bit worn down and vulnerable. There’s hope once again, and it’s a growing hope. Maybe it will end the way every hope has ended in Cleveland in 1964. But maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the team. All I can say is that if this team does win, I hope Earnest Byner gets a spot at the front of the parade.

    Inspiring and ordinary

    Max Scherzer is kind of a strange pitcher. Last year, you might remember, he threw three of the greatest games in baseball history. On June 14, he threw a one-hitter and struck out 16. In his next start, he took a perfect game into the ninth when he hit Jose Tabata with a pitch. He still finished off the no-hitter. It was probably the greatest back-to-back pitching performance ever, including Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters.

    Then, in October, Scherzer threw his second no-hitter of the season; he struck out 17 in that one. It would have been a perfect game except for an error by shortstop Yunel Escobar. Even without perfection, it might have been the greatest nine-inning game ever pitched.

    How often has a pitcher had three starts that good in a season? Heck, for that matter, you can ask how often a pitcher has had three starts that good in a CAREER. You know Bill James’ “Game Score” formula? It is a simple measurement — using innings, runs allowed, strikeouts, walks — to determine just how well someone pitched. Scherzer last year became the first pitcher in baseball history to throw three regulation-length games that had game scores 95 or better.

    And, for the record, only Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver have had more than three of these games in a career.

    In other words: When Scherzer is on, forget it. No one is better. No one was ever better. But when he isn’t on, when his stuff isn’t at its peak, when his concentration wavers even slightly, well, the results are mixed. There was that game at San Francisco last year where he lasted three innings and gave up six runs, including two homers. There were three last year games when he allowed three homers, second-most in the National League. There was the game this April where he got beat up by the Marlins.

    Yes, you’re right, this isn’t uncommon. Pitchers have their good days and bad, and this is especially true for power pitchers. But, even so, Scherzer’s case is extreme.

    Look: Last week, Scherzer had one of his worst starts in recent memory against the Chicago Cubs. For only the second time in his career — and the first time since he established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers — he gave up FOUR home runs. He walked three. He looked uncomfortable, even a bit overwhelmed, by the Cubs.

    Five days later, the guy strikes out 20 batters.

    Wow, was Scherzer overpowering Wednesday night. Right from the first inning, you could see it. After Ian Kinsler popped out to lead off the game, Scherzer had had a nine-pitch battle with J.D. Martinez. It was a fascinating dance. Scherzer threw three fastballs, four sliders and a changeup in an effort to upset Martinez’s timing, and Martinez kept fouling things off and holding his bat back on pitches out of the zone. Finally, Scherzer reached back and threw the 96-mph fastball and Martinez couldn’t catch up.

    Scherzer then struck out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches, and you could sense that the night belonged to him.

    One of the great baseball questions is this: What would be the ultimate pitching performance? Would it be a 27-pitch game where the pitcher so mesmerizes a lineup that they swing and make outs on every pitch thown. Or, more likely, would it be an 81-pitch, 27-strikeout game where no one touches the ball?

    Greg Maddux is the closest thing we’ve had to the mesmerizing pitcher. Maddux had 14 complete game shutouts where he threw 100 or fewer pitches. That’s twice as many as anyone else since they started counting pitches. He had that famous 76-pitch complete game against the Chicago Cubs. The 27-pitch game is a near-impossibility that would require some sort of black magic that goes beyond baseball. Maddux had black magic (and, Maddux cynics will point out, he hypnotized home plate umpires).

    Meanwhile, the 81-pitch game with 27 strikeouts, while also a near-impossibility, is more within a pitcher’s control. You can at least imagine it. And if anyone was going to do it, you would probably bet on Scherzer. When the volume on his fastball, slider and changeup are turned up to 11, he’s an awesome presence, like the Grand Canyon or something. Hitters flail away helplessly.

    But, even though Scherzer’s best is awe-inspiring, he is not the best pitcher in baseball. He’s not Clayton Kershaw. He’s not Jake Arrieta, either. Over the last couple of years, guys like Jose Quintana, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Kuechel and Zack Greinke have all pitched about as well at Scherzer. Why? Even Wednesday, you could see why. On a night when the Tigers missed often (30 swings and misses) and missed by a lot, they also hit two home runs and almost cracked a third one. When they hit the ball, they hit it hard.

    How do you make sense of this? Scherzer currently leads the league in both strikeouts and home runs allowed — no one has done that for a full season since Jim Bunning in 1959. We saw the dichotomy Wednesday night.

    In the second inning, Scherzer struck out the side on nine pitches.

    Then, to lead off the third, Scherzer threw a bland 93-mph fastball up and in and Jose Iglesias, who has seven homers in his big-league career, turned on it and hit it out.

    And right after that, he struck out four consecutive Tigers — Jordan Zimmerman, Kinsler, Martinez and Cabrera all went down swinging.

    In the seventh, he gave up three line drives in a row — the last one a Justin Upton shot that bounced off the wall. He then struck out the next five.

    And then, to start off the ninth, he threw a hanging slider — middle-middle as pitching coaches say — that Martinez crushed for a long home run. He promptly struck out Cabrera to get his 19th K and, after allowing another hit, struck out Upton for No. 20 on one of the nastiest sliders imaginable.

    He’s legendary. He’s ordinary. Legendary. Ordinary.

    The pitcher probably most famous for such extreme swings was Nolan Ryan, but you could understand it with Ryan: He was extremely wild, so on days he couldn’t get the ball over the plate, he could get beat. Scherzer is certainly not wild. He had an astonishing 276-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year. His good days and bad days, good moments and bad, come from something a bit harder to explain.

    So how do you explain it? Well, I guess you could just say this: We’d all like to be our best every day, every time. But it just doesn’t work that way. Focus lapses and snaps in. Some days everything feels right, and other days nothing feels right. In the end, the thing to do is check in on Max Scherzer. If you see that he is on, settle in. You’re in for one heck of a show.

    The Agony of Alex

    Twenty years ago, after one of the dozen or so playoff losses that left his heart numb, football coach Marty Schottenheimer stopped a press conference and asked everyone to turn off their tape recorders. And then he sheepishly asked: “What am I doing wrong?”

    It was an awful question because the answer was so thoroughly unsatisfying. Schottenheimer was a terrific coach. His teams almost always made the playoffs. He instilled discipline and inspired togetherness and taught players how, in his words, to “focus and finish.” But Schottenheimer’s teams inevitably lost anyway because — well, why? Chance? Stage fright? A few misguided decisions? A couple of mistimed blunders? Bad luck?

    Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the fates seemed against Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. The puck kept hopping over his stick like a child jumping puddles. His shot — maybe the best pure shot in the history of professional hockey — kept streaking off target. Like Artie Fufkin of Spinal Tap fame, Ovechkin had no timing … no timing … no timing.

    And for the eighth time in the last nine years, Ovechkin’s Capitals expired before the conference finals.

    “I don’t know what to say,” Ovechkin said after Pittsburgh extinguished his Capitals’ hopes. He added that coming up short again “sucks,” but there wasn’t too much else to say.

    The Capitals, willed largely by Ovechkin’s energy, had overcome a 3-0 deficit to force overtime in Game 6. Pittsburgh, though, played with more fury and energy in overtime. The Penguins really won the game twice. The first time, Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist backhanded a puck into a seemingly empty net. But Washington’s Jay Beagle flew across the crease, Superman style, and somehow blocked it with his stick. Even after an endless study of replays, it still seemed impossible; it was as remarkable a play as you will ever see.

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    And it did not matter because moments later Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino unsentimentally cracked home a rebound. The horn sounded. The Pittsburgh crowd erupted. The game and Washington’s season was over.

    And so, like Schottenheimer asked years ago, we now ask the question: What is Alex Ovechkin doing wrong? The answer is just as unsatisfying. Ovechkin is coming off yet another spectacular, even historic season. For the third consecutive year, he was the NHL’s only 50-goal scorer. He now has seven 50-goal seasons; only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy have more. But Gretzky and Bossy played in a time when goals came easier and 50-goal seasons were commonplace.

    Let’s put it this way: Bossy scored 50 goals nine times. In those nine seasons, an average of seven players scored 50 goals. Meanwhile, in four of Ovechkin’s seven 50-goal seasons, he was the only player in the NHL to do it. Since the 2007-08 season, only Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have scored 50 goals in a season more than once.

    This year, Ovechkin was again Ovechkin, firing that devastating shot at goalies night after night. But the Capitals were different. For years, the knock was that Ovechkin did not have a good enough cast around him. Well this time around, the Capitals had Braden Holtby, who Ovechkin proudly called “the best goalie in the world.” This time the Capitals had right wing T.J. Oshie, the American Olympic hero. This time the Capitals had three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams, who has always displayed a knack for being at his best in the biggest moments.

    Yes, this time Washington was the best team in hockey. The Capitals finished with the league’s best record. They finished second in the NHL in both goals scored and goals allowed. They seemed to stare down some of their demons by dispatching a game Philadelphia team in the opening round. Then they won Game 1 against the Penguins — in overtime and on an Oshie goal — and it seemed like this time would be different.

    Then it just slipped away. The Capitals outplayed Pittsburgh in Game 3 but lost anyway. Washington’s players and coaches were surprisingly chipper after that loss; they seemed to believe that they would build off the momentum of their dominating but futile performance. In Game 4, Pittsburgh played without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, and they were also missing defenseman Olli Maatta. Again there were long stretches of time when the Capitals were the best team on the ice. Again, it didn’t matter. Pittsburgh won the game in overtime to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

    “That’s why it’s sudden death,” coach Barry Trotz said after that crushing game. “That’s what it feels like.”

    Ovechkin seemed at a loss. He had failed to score in Game 4 even with all those holes in the Pittsburgh defense. He kept playing with high energy. He kept firing shots. They just didn’t go in.

    Ovechkin was more effective in Game 5, scoring one goal, assisting on another, as the Capitals stayed alive. But Game 6 was a fog. Oh, it’s easy to miss: Ovechkin was good on Tuesday. He played with fury. He had two assists in the Capitals’ furious comeback. His awesome presence tilted the Pittsburgh defense and opened up possibilities for his teammates.

    MORE: Watch: Bonino’s game-winner | O’Brien: Blaming Ovechkin is silly | Will Caps fans quit?

    But, in the end, Ovechkin is no decoy. He plays to score goals, and there was just something… off. The puck kept moving on him. Defenders kept standing him up and pushing him out. He couldn’t quite get his stick on several superb scoring chances, including one in overtime. He whiffed a couple of times. His usually laser-precise shot sailed off course. He never quite looked comfortable.

    Ovechkin did not lose this game, far from it. If you want to look at it reasonably, the Capitals lost because Braden Holtby allowed an astonishingly cheap goal in the first period, probably the worst goal he has allowed in months, and that changed the dynamic of the game. If you want to look at it reasonably, the Capitals lost because Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer, was practically invisible just like he was for most of the series; Kuznetsov did not have a single point in the last four games. If you want to look at it reasonably, the Capitals lost because they did not fully take advantage of the Penguins’ historic run of three delay-of-game penalties in about two minutes. Washington did score the game-tying goal, but couldn’t finish the job. Then, the Capitals came out in overtime and looked a bit shell-shocked by Pittsburgh’s overwhelming energy.

    The Capitals lost as a team, like teams always do, but of course, the light shines harshest on Alex Ovechkin. He is the star without a Stanley Cup, and so he will take the brunt of the blame the way Dan Marino did, the way Karl Malone did, the way Marty Schottenheimer did. When this season ended like all the other seasons have ended, Ovechkin looked devastated. You had to wonder if, like Schottenheimer, he was asking himself that awful question: “What am I doing wrong?”

    The question is awful because the answer just might be: “Nothing.”

    The Unanimous MVP

    Let’s start with ancient Jewish law. Really, where else would a story about Steph Curry begin? The ancient land of Israel would have courts of 23 people to help maintain order. These courts would be relatively familiar to us except that they had this one strange quirk. If the 23 judges ever came up with a unanimous guilty verdict against someone, the person was automatically acquitted.

    You can argue that this makes absolutely no sense, and you might be right. But the thinking, as I understand it, went like so: NOTHING is that sure. There is always some reason for doubt, some reason for hope, some reason for uncertainty. If 23 people all agree on the same thing, the law suggests, there has to be collusion or the defense was presented poorly — there is no way that 23 independent people could come to the exact same conclusion on something so complicated as guilt or innocence.

    Tuesday, it was announced, that for the first time ever, we have a unanimous NBA Most Valuable Player. That’s Steph, of course. He got all 131 votes.

    Now, let’s begin by saying: I would have voted for Steph Curry too, and it would have been an easy decision. I mean, come on, he led the NBA in scoring and steals, broke his 3-point record by more than 100 and led the greatest regular season team in NBA history. I don’t really see how you can pick anyone else.

    But, this is the point, isn’t it? Someone ALWAYS picks someone else. True, there have been a bunch of unanimous MVPs in baseball — Bryce Harper last year became the 17th — but that’s only two or three dozen voters. This is more than 100.

    At the first Baseball Hall of Fame balloting, 11 people did not vote for Babe Ruth. Through the years, scores of people did not vote for Stan Musial or Willie Mays or Henry Aaron or Jackie Robinson or Sandy Koufax. Sixteen people did not vote for Greg Maddux a couple of years ago. Seriously, who doesn’t think Greg Maddux is a Hall of Famer?

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    I’ve always dreaded — and mocked — these non-votes for all-time greats, and will continue to do so. But they do suggest an independent spirit among voters. There are those who believe that no one should be elected unanimously. There are those who believe that if Ruth and Mays didn’t get unanimous elections, you can’t unanimously elect players who were not as good. There are those who have individual gripes even against these icons of the sport. I powerfully disagree with all of that, but that doesn’t mean their voices do not deserve to be heard.

    In 1995-96, Michael Jordan was obviously the best and most valuable player in the NBA. He led the league in scoring, was first team all-NBA defensively, he led the Bulls to a dominating 72-win season and the Bulls, even at that moment, were recognized as the greatest team ever. Jordan did win the MVP award. But Karl Malone got a first-place vote. Hakeem Olajuwon got a vote. And, stunningly, Anfernee Hardaway got two votes.

    This is how it goes. Everyone — or “everyone” in quotations — knew that LeBron James was the best player in basketball in 2008-09 when he almost single-handedly led Cleveland to a 66-16 record. I mean the second-best player on that team was probably Mo Williams. James scored 28 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished seven assists, averaged two steals and a block per game. He was playing all-around basketball as it had rarely been played. He won the MVP award. But Dwyane Wade got seven first place votes, Kobe Bryant got a couple, Chris Paul got a couple and even Dwight Howard got one.

    So, why was it different this year? Was the gap between Steph Curry and everyone else that big? Was it because voting for anyone else was inconceivable?

    I don’t think so. Kawhi Leonard finished second in the voting but is there a viable case to choose Leonard over Curry? Sure. Leonard was a terrific offensive player. He was certainly not Curry, but he was pretty spectacular. He averaged 21 points and seven rebounds per game, shot 51 percent from the field and finished third in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (just one percentage point behind Curry). That’s pretty dazzling stuff. And yet he’s really known for his defense — he’s been the NBA Defensive Player of the Year each of the last two seasons and, by the numbers, he is every bit as good as the hype.

    So, you could make the argument that when you combine offense and defense, Leonard was the league MVP.

    LeBron James finished third — is there a viable case for James over Curry? It’s a little bit tougher, but James still dominates the game with his brute force, his unparalleled passing ability and with the way he can control games.

    Russell Westbrook? Kevin Durant? Chris Paul? I think their cases against Curry are tougher, but again, I’m trying to look at it through someone else’s eyes.

    I think it came down to three things:

    1. Curry was the clear choice. Just because you can make an argument for Leonard, LeBron or Westbrook, it doesn’t mean that it’s a GOOD argument.

    2. The Warriors were so dominant all season long and such an overpowering storyline that picking a player from another team — even a 67-win team in San Antonio — would seem silly. To be honest, if I had to make a case for anyone else, I might have made it for his teammate Draymond Green, who is just so wonderfully versatile and fierce and integral to Golden State’s success. But picking Green over Curry is just too cute. It reminds me of a magazine cover I saw in the 1980s that had the headline: “Why Wayne Gretzky is not the best player in hockey.” Green is great. Curry is better.

    3. Curry is just so much fun to watch — the most fun player in basketball since Magic, I think — that he defies dissent. I’m sure people who despise the Warriors find a way to despise Curry, but it’s a tough trick. The guy makes crazy shots, he does funny Twitter things, he’s got this fantastic family, he is like one of the Avengers. How are you going to vote against that guy?

    And, heck, maybe this starts a trend. In three years, Mariano Rivera will become eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. A year after that, it will be Derek Jeter. Someday, it will be Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw. Maybe one of them will get in unanimously.