Keselowski takes Geico 400 over Johnson in sneaky fashion

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Keselowski takes Geico 400 over Johnson in sneaky fashion

JOLIET Jimmie Johnson has spent his career finding innumerable ways to snooker his fellow competitors. He's obviously become a great practitioner of that art, given his record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.
But in Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Johnson ultimately found himself in an odd position. Rather than being the guy who does the snookering, he wound up being the snookered in the first of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Brad Keselowski won his eighth and perhaps the biggest race of his young Cup career, holding off Johnson to not only win but also to take the top spot in the Chase standings with nine races now remaining.
Amidst a near-sellout crowd of 70,000, how the Michigan native won Sunday's race looked awfully familiar, almost as if he had stolen a page from Johnson's own "How To Snooker An Opponent" book.
Johnson made his final pit stop for fresh tires and fuel under green flag conditions on Lap 230 of the 267-lap race. Keselowski came into the pits one lap later, received service to his car and then quickly motored back onto the racetrack.
Too quick in Johnson's mind, at least at the outset. Rather than merging into traffic on the backstretch of the 1.5-mile racetrack, Keselowski unexpectedly pulled back onto the track and not surprisingly, right in front of Johnson, who was forced to stomp on his brakes to avoid a collision.
At first, Johnson was none too pleased at Keselowski's move, asking crew chief Chad Knaus over the team radio whether what his opponent did was a legal move. But upon review of the TV footage, NASCAR officials judged Keselowski's move was within the rules.
Johnson has pulled that kind of move several times in his career, even to his own teammates (just ask Jeff Gordon), but he obviously didn't like the tables being turned upon him in the same fashion. Whether it affected him or put a serious dent in Johnson's mojo, the fact remains that Keselowski would go on to a commanding 3.171 margin of victory and become the new Chase points leader.
After the race, Johnson was more contrite, claiming in hindsight that Keselowski did nothing wrong.
"It didn't affect the outcome, I believe," said Johnson, who dominated by leading 172 of Sunday's 267 laps, only to fall short. "The way (Keselowski) made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off. At the time, it messed me up but I don't think it played out in the outcome of the race."
Keselowski himself was somewhat taken aback at how the circumstances unfolded and eventually played out.
"I don't know what happened, (Johnson) either slowed down or we sped up," Keselowski said. "We just took off from there."
Keselowski has now won four races this season, tying him for the series lead with Denny Hamlin who ran out of fuel on the final lap and saw what could have been a Top-5 finish fade to a disappointing 16th-place showing. Hamlin had entered the Chase as the No. 1 seed, but Sunday's finished dropped him to fourth place with nine races remaining in NASCAR's marquee playoffs, 15 points behind the new series leader.
Keselowski was like a pesky fly most of the race. While Johnson clearly had the dominant car, Keselowski continually hovered right behind or within a few spots of his opponent, waiting for what would prove to be the most opportune time to strike.
He couldn't have timed it any better with the way he pulled out in front of and likely rattled Johnson, and then while Johnson's Chevrolet seemed to fade in the closing laps, Keselowski's Dodge just got stronger and stronger.
While there's no question Keselowski is thrilled to have the lead in the standings, he also knows there's still a lot of racing left in the Chase. He may have beaten Johnson at his own game, but Johnson is not the type of driver who will forget what Keselowski did Sunday. Mark my word, Johnson will be looking for payback at some point and Keselowski knows it.
"It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it's a 10-round bout," Keselowski said. "Week 1 is done and we won the round but we didn't by any means knock them out, we've got a lot of racing left to go. We're feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do."
Behind the winning Keselowski and runner-up Johnson, Kasey Kahne finished third in Sunday's race, followed by non-Chase entrants Kyle Busch in fourth and Ryan Newman in fifth. Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was sixth, followed by non-Chaser Joey Logano in seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from the back of the pack to finish eighth, Martin Truex Jr. was ninth and Clint Bowyer rounded out the Top 10.
As for the overall Chase picture, Keselowski assumes the early lead in the Chase standings, leading Johnson now by three points. Stewart is third (minus-8), followed with a three-way tie for fourth between Hamlin, Kahne and Bowyer, all 15 points behind the new leader.
"Congratulations to Brad and those guys, they did an awesome job," said Johnson, who was hoping for an early birthday present with a win Sunday (he turns 37 on Monday). "But, it's a great way to start the Chase for us. There's 10 long races and a lot can happen, but to come out of here second is a great day for us. Sure, we'd rather be in victory lane, but we'll take the second and go on to the next one (next Sunday in New Hampshire) and we're real happy where we're seeded at going into the second round."
The rest of the Chase standings find Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17 points back in seventh, Greg Biffle in eighth (minus-19), Truex in ninth (minus-21), Kevin Harvick 10th (minus-24), Matt Kenseth 11th (minus-26) and Jeff Gordon went from being a potential Chase dark horse to now sitting a distant 47 points behind Keselowski in the 12th and final Chase position.
So, did the guy who has been snookered a number of times in the past by Johnson, feel any different in finally being able to return the favor Sunday? Not that much, Keselowski said, pointing instead to the bigger picture overall. He may have won the battle Sunday, but there's still that nine-race war still hanging over everyone's heads.
In fact, even though he makes his living driving a race car, Keselowski likened the task still ahead as more of a baseball game than a race to the finish line.
"It's my goal to be a Sprint Cup champion, to be a winner," Keselowski said. "Racing is one of the few things I've ever done in my life that has been able to take me to another level mentally and physically, and it demands that out of you to be successful. And there's no guarantee of success in this sport as there's no guarantee of success in any sport but this one in particular.
"And the way I approach the work ethic of it (is) as though I were a baseball player at the plate, and you know there's 100 mile-an-hour fastballs coming at you all the time. There's always somebody trying to beat you, but if I go down, I'm going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time. I'm not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out.
"If that means I've got to work harder to go down in that manner, then that's what it's going to be, but it also means I've got a great shot at hitting that ball, and right now that's where our team is at."
It's too bad Keselowski doesn't play baseball, too. With an attitude like that, the Cubs could certainly use a guy like him.

Tigers' late homer sends the White Sox to another tough loss

Tigers' late homer sends the White Sox to another tough loss

DETROIT — The White Sox still haven’t figured out how to beat the top teams in the American League Central.

The middle of the lineup missed out on several key opportunities and kept the Detroit Tigers within striking distance as the White Sox lost 4-3 in front 27,201 on Monday night at Comerica Park. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s two-run homer off Nate Jones in the eighth inning gave the White Sox another disappointing loss to their top AL Central foes. The White Sox dropped to 11-27 against the Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals.

The White Sox had been hanging on by a thread through seven innings. James Shields stranded seven in his six innings, and the combination of Dan Jennings, Tommy Kahnle and Chris Beck kept them ahead 3-2 through seven innings.

Jones took over in the eighth and issued a leadoff walk to J.D. Martinez. Two batters later, Saltalamacchia ripped a 1-0 fastball out to right to put Detroit ahead for good.

It was another case where the White Sox offense didn’t take advantage of their early opportunities. Tyler Saladino drove in all three White Sox runs with a two-run single in the fourth and a go-ahead solo homer in the seventh.

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But in the first inning, Jose Abreu struck out and Todd Frazier flew out with two aboard.

Abreu grounded into a double play in the fifth after the first two men reached, and Frazier grounded out. Frazier also struck out with two in scoring position to end the seventh inning after Abreu doubled Melky Cabrera over to third.

Though he pushed the limit in nearly every inning, Shields finished a rough August on a high note. Much like he did when he posted a 1.71 ERA in six starts from June 29 through July 26, Shields was most effective when he needed to make the big pitch.

In the first inning that meant an inning-ending strikeout of J.D. Martinez with two aboard. In the third, he retired Victor Martinez on a groundout. He retired Saltalamacchia and Casey McGehee with the tying run on third in the fourth inning and struck out J.D. Martinez with a 3-2 curveball to leave the bases loaded.

Tigers hitters were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and stranded seven against Shields. During that earlier six-game stretch, opposing hitters went 0-for-28 against Shields with runners in scoring position.

He struck out six and allowed two earned runs and six hits in six innings.

For first time since leaving Cuba, White Sox slugger Jose Abreu gets to play father

For first time since leaving Cuba, White Sox slugger Jose Abreu gets to play father

DETROIT — The last three weeks have afforded Jose Abreu and his son lifelong memories, fulfilling moments for a proud father and a bonding experience the White Sox slugger had long wanted to provide.

For the first time since he left Cuba in 2013, Abreu and his family are hosting his son, 5-year-old Dariel, who recently received a five-year travel visa that will allow him to visit his famous father in the United States.

The goal of the month-long visit is simple: Abreu hopes to offer his son a glimpse into why he had to leave Cuba and also to connect with him despite the distance between them. He desires to teach him about life in a new and different culture. And when Dariel returns to Cuba in early September to begin school, Abreu wants his son to understand he had to leave the island nation in order to provide him with better opportunities. The experience has perhaps exceeded Abreu’s expectations and given him a much-needed boost late in the most difficult season of his professional career.

“First and foremost, I want to thank God for the opportunity to be a father,” Abreu said through interpreter Billy Russo. “It's something you can't describe with words. To have the opportunity to bring him in here is good. It's special. It's an opportunity to show him what I do, what is my workplace and how I interact with other people and how the other people try to take care of him, too, and me. That was special. Every single time I get to bring him here it's special because we feel that connection.”

The White Sox slugger wasted no time in sharing the major league experience with his only child, something he longed for after watching other players do the same.

He introduced Dariel to teammates in Miami earlier this month after the boy watched his father play in person for the first time on Aug. 12 at Marlins Park. The pair also has hung out with teammates in the clubhouse before and after certain games, which gave Dariel time to soak up the atmosphere. And of course there was the sacred rite of passage — the postgame trip to the gumball jar.

These experiences, which some teammates might take for granted and few could conceive of, have been sacred to Abreu.

“He has been dreaming of this for a long time,” manager Robin Ventura said. “You can just tell it has picked his spirits up as of late knowing this was going to happen. He’s happy. I can’t imagine (not seeing my kids) — what that is. He’s a great guy and I know he always wants to do the right thing, so this is pretty important to him.”

It’s pretty easy to spot a difference in Abreu since he learned his son had arrived in Miami on Aug. 7. Normally upbeat, Ventura said Abreu had a noticeable “bounce in his step” when he rejoined the team two days later in Kansas City — this even though he was exhausted from flying back and forth across the country to spend the team’s day off with his son in Miami.

Abreu originally left Cuba for the United States in August 2013 when Dariel, who turns 6 in September, was only 2. They were reunited last December when Abreu participated in a Major League Baseball goodwill tour to Cuba.

Ever since he returned from the tour, Abreu wanted to organize a visit to the United States as the first baseman — for now at least — is unable to return to Cuba. He worked with his agent, Diego Bentz, to arrange a visa.

In the meantime, Abreu missed his son.

Back in March, Abreu watched for several minutes as teammate Todd Frazier’s young son ran across the spring training clubhouse to hug his dad. Now that he’s had the same opportunity, Abreu has constantly had a smile on his face.

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Teammate Melky Cabrera said he’s not surprised to find the same Abreu only happier.

Time shared with family around the clubhouse is critical for players given how much time they’re apart from their young children, Cabrera said.

“It's always important to show them where you work, what is the atmosphere of your workplace,” Cabrera said. “But I also think it's important to spend every bit of time with them you can, especially with our schedule.

“It's so special. This is a blessing for him to have the ability to be reunited.

“He's been the same with us. The only difference I can say is he's happier.”

Well, it’s not the only difference — Abreu has hit a ton in the three weeks since he and Dariel were reunited. Entering Monday, Abreu was hitting .343/.397/.557 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 78 plate appearances.

While he still posted a league-average performance, Abreu’s .770 OPS through Aug. 7 is more than 130 points lower than the .904 OPS he posted through his first two seasons.

Many have contended that this was merely the league adjusting to Abreu. Teams had figured out his approach, and he simply hadn’t figured out how to adjust back. But some of Abreu’s teammates think the uptick in performance is in large part because of his son.

Adam Eaton said the birth of his own son earlier this season has made it easier to go home after an 0-for-4 night because fatherhood has provided him with a different outlook on life.

Eaton doesn’t know for certain that Abreu’s struggles were in part tied to missing his child. But he imagines the situation would weigh on anyone and thinks Abreu has handled it “better than 95 percent of the guys in baseball could.”

“Family is everything to us,” Eaton said. “We put our hearts and souls and lives into this game, but kids and family, puts life in perspective.

“For him to have his kid around, he can play more free and easy, and he has a different pride about him when he's around. It's touched all of us.”

Abreu can’t help but smile when he talks about his son and the opportunity to bond.

Dariel is only now learning the rules of baseball. While he’s new to the game, Dariel knows what a home run is and constantly asks his dad to hit one for him.

Abreu doesn’t think his son wants to follow in his footsteps as a professional baseball player. Dariel’s first love is cars, and Abreu thinks his son wants to one day be an Uber driver.

Though he’d love for him to play baseball, Abreu doesn’t care what his son chooses.

He’s just happy to have this chance to play the role of a father for the first time since he left home.

“When I was in Cuba of course he was young,” Abreu said. “Since then I've been trying to show him what I do and what I do to provide him all the supplies, all the things for him to be good. And now that I have him here, it’s another level. He's learning from another culture, how things are here, how I'm trying to do good here to offer him the best that I can and why. I'm glad that he's here and can see me playing every night. I'm very happy and proud for him to ask me to hit homers. 

“That's something that makes you feel proud and makes you feel like the biggest man in the world. You can't find a word to describe it.”

Cubs: Theo Epstein believes Kris Bryant can follow in Dustin Pedroia's MVP footsteps

Cubs: Theo Epstein believes Kris Bryant can follow in Dustin Pedroia's MVP footsteps

Joe Maddon has been trying to find a chance to give Kris Bryant a day off.

But how do you sit the hottest hitter on the planet?

Bryant just finished a torrid road trip in which he staked his claim to the National League MVP Award by hitting .417 with a 1.365 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs in nine games. 

That pushed his season line to .305/.398/.588 (.986 OPS) with a league-leading 35 homers and 107 runs plus 89 RBIs.

So is he the Most Valuable Player in just his second season in "The Show"?

"I don't want to get too wrapped up in individual awards," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He's an outstanding player having a great year. It's never too early.

"(Red Sox second baseman) Dustin Pedroia is another guy we drafted over a decade ago and he did the same thing — Rookie of the Year in the first year and then MVP the next year. It can be done.

"(Bryant is) helping us win in so many different ways. Obviously coming up big of late, which is great to see. He deserves all the accolades that are coming his way and that may eventually come his way.

"But I think he'd probably be the first one to tell you he wants the team awards; he wants the team recognition in the end. The only one that really counts is winning your last game and the parade. Everything else is nice to fill the trophy case, but that's what everyone here is all about."

Bryant will undoubtedly split some MVP votes with teammate Anthony Rizzo (.946 OPS, 25 home runs, 89 RBIs), but the Cubs third baseman/outfielder woke up Monday morning leading all of baseball in WAR on FanGraphs' page.

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Even the Cubs admit Bryant has progressed beyond their realistic expectations.

"I would never have held him to this standard," Epstein said. "I wouldn't say, 'This is his development path. He's gotta go be maybe the Most Valuable Player in the league in the second year.' But at the same time, it doesn't surprise me.

"He's always been outstanding at making adjustments. Very cerebral player. Makes great use of his down time, whether it's the winter where he can work on swing adjustments or even the time between at-bats or pitch-to-pitch. He's just really, really good at making adjustments and thinks about his own game at a really high level.

"He's such a good athlete, he's able to take it right out on the field."

Bryant has also surprised Epstein and the Cubs with how he's evolved as a player.

"In some ways, surprising," Epstein said. "I thought he would always hit five to 10 opposite field home runs a year at a minimum, and he hasn't this year — that was his first one of the year the other day at Dodger Stadium.

"But he's added the ability to turn on the inside pitch and hit it in the air and keep it fair, so he's hitting more home runs as a result. So I never saw that coming.

"It's interesting the way his swing and his game have evolved."

In discussing the difference between 2016 Bryant and the rookie model, Maddon pointed to a decrease in strikeouts (from 30.6 percent in 2015 to 22 percent) and a smoother product on defense.

"The biggest for me is consistently shorter swing. More contact," Maddon said. "He's had smaller windows of chasing pitches out of the strike zone compared to last year when he did it more often.

"But recently, he's been using the outfield gap, which is really impressive. So offensively, that's what I'm seeing. Defensively, better feet on the infield.

"You'd see a lot of the patting of the glove as the feet were moving. I see it on occasion now, but not to the extent I saw it last year. He's still a great baserunner.

"So primarily — shorter hack, greater contact, less chase, right central is coming back into play right now and better feet on defense. That's what I'm seeing."

Put it all together and you have an MVP frontrunner entering September.