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MLB 2021 award races: These stars are leading Cy Young, MVP and rookie races

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MLB 2021 award races: These stars are leading Cy Young, MVP and rookie races

Two months into the season should be way too early to start talking about MVP races or Cy Young conversations, but that’s never stopped baseball fans before. 

So let’s take a look. 

These are the players who we think would win the award if the season ended yesterday, not who we think will wind up with the award at the end of the season. 

MORE: Read Lou Gehrig’s 1939 interview with The Sporting News after his final game

NL Cy Young

Jacob deGrom, Mets: Even by deGrom standards — as lofty as lofty gets — the two-time Cy Young winner’s 2021 numbers are just jaw-dropping. He’s made eight starts, and his ERA sits at 0.71. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 1.08. In 51 innings, he’s allowed just 22 hits and seven walks, while striking out 82 batters. His 11.7 K/BB ratio is a career best, as is his 14.5 K/9 ratio. He’s yet to allow more than one run — or even five base runners — in any start in 2021. He’s the easy choice, but that’s a ridiculous thing to say because lots of pitchers are having stellar seasons to date. 

The others: It’s crazy to think that Kevin Gausman and Brandon Woodruff have each made 11 starts, with 1.40 and 1.27 ERAs and 3.5 and 3.9 bWARs, respectively, but neither is the front-runner. One of Woodruff’s rotation mates in Milwaukee, Corbin Burnes, has a 1.15 FIP, to go with a 2.24 ERA and 11.6 K/BB ratio, and another one, Freddy Peralta, has a 2.38 ERA with a 13.1 K/9 ratio. Neither is up top. And we have yet to even mention Miami’s Trevor Rogers (1.87 ERA, 2.46 FIP), Los Angeles’ Trevor Bauer (2.24 ERA, NL-best 96 strikeouts), Washington’s Max Scherzer (2.34 ERA, 95 strikeouts) or San Diego’s Yu Darvish (2.16 ERA). Oh, and Taijuan Walker of the Mets and John Gant of the Cardinals both still have sub-2.00 ERAs (1.84 and 1.60, respectively) and they’re really not even in the conversation. 

NL MVP

Fernando Tatis Jr.: The Padres’ young superstar is not leading NL position players in WAR either by FanGraphs’ calculation (that’s Nick Castellanos of the Reds) or by the Baseball-Reference formula (that’s Max Muncy of the Dodgers), but he’s having an incredible season, despite playing only 39 of the Padres’ 56 games so far. He’s one off the MLB lead with his 16 home runs, and he’s tied for the NL lead with 12 stolen bases. He also leads the NL with a .693 slugging percentage and has a stellar 199 OPS-plus. 

The others: Muncy and Castellanos have been outstanding, and either would be a worthy choice. Kris Bryant is having a big comeback season (.317/.398/.598 and 12 homers) that’s basically lifted the Cubs into contention in the NL Central. Ronald Acuña Jr.’s having an incredible season for Atlanta (he’s basically alone on that Georgia island), and Jesse Winker is batting .341 with 13 homers and a .621 slugging percentage for the Reds. And what about Buster Posey, the ageless one, topping .300 with double-digit homers to lead the story-of-the-year Giants?

NL Rookie of the Year

Trevor Rogers, Marlins: The 13th overall pick of the 2017 draft reached the majors in 2020, but his debut season was (let’s be kind) not good. In seven starts, the lefty posted a 6.11 ERA. In his Age 23 season, Rogers seems to have figured things out. Through 11 starts, he has a 1.87 ERA, with only three home runs allowed and 76 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings. 

The others: Ian Anderson (3.27 ERA in 10 starts) is picking up where he left off last postseason for Atlanta, and Adbert Alzolay (3.66 ERA in 10 starts) is having a fine season for the Cubs. Dylan Carlson is having a fine season for the Cardinals, batting No. 2 ahead of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

AL Cy Young

Gerrit Cole, Yankees: No, he doesn’t have a no-hitter, but we’re still going with Cole and his 1.78 ERA and 12.4 K/9 for the two-months-into-the-season Cy Young nod in the AL. He’s been, again, everything the Yankees could have hoped for in what’s mostly been a roller coaster season for the franchise thus far. The most notable thing? He’s become incredibly stingy handing out walks. Cole has always had good control — his “worst” BB/9 was 2.9 — but through 11 starts this year, he’s only walked nine while striking out 97. In one particular five-start stretch, he had 49 Ks and 0 BBs. He has four top-five Cy Young finishes in his career, and it would not be at all surprising to see him wind up with his first first-place finish in 2021. 

The others: Carlos Rodon of the White Sox and John Means of the Orioles both have no-nos and ERAs right around 2.00 — 1.98 for Rodon, 2.05 for Means — and that puts them near the top of the list. Lance Lynn’s missed a few starts for the White Sox, but that 1.37 ERA in nine outings deserves attention. In a season when everyone is striking out everyone, Shane Bieber is running away with the strikeout title in Cleveland. 

AL MVP

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays: With all due respect to the amazing Shohei Ohtani, I’ve got to give the nod to this young Jays superstar. Here’s a partial list of the categories he leads (or is tied for the lead) in the AL: home runs (17), hits (64), average (.337), on-base percentage (.447), slugging (.663), OPS-plus (203) and total bases (126). In his first taste of big league action in 2019, he struck out 91 times and walked 46 times; so far in 2021, he has 32 walks and 32 strikeouts. It’s crazy to remember that he just finally turned 22 years old in March, because it feels like we’ve been hearing about him forever. Well, you’ve been hearing about him forever because it’s long been known that he has the potential to do exactly what he’s doing right now. 

The others: Shohei Ohtani is so very much fun to watch. Y’know what? Just watch this. Xander Bogaerts is having an outstanding season, and he’s a big reason the Red Sox have exceeded expectations. Guerrero’s teammate, Marcus Semien, finished third in the 2019 AL MVP race and he’s heading toward a similar finish in 2021. 

AL Rookie of the Year

Adolis Garcia, Rangers: It’s not just the 16 homers and 41 RBIs — both numbers are top five in the AL — but Garcia’s knack for coming through in the biggest situations. He has three — THREE — extra-inning homers already this season. Two put the Rangers ahead in the top of the 10th inning, and one was a walk-off (with the Rangers trailing by a run) in the bottom half of the 10th inning. 

The others: Yermin Mercedes’ story has been pretty incredible, but he’s struggled lately. His ChiSox teammate, pitcher Michael Kopech, has 45 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings in a hybrid role. Randy Arozarena hasn’t been quite “playoff Randy” but still pretty good, with seven homers, 36 runs scored and eight stolen bases. In Cleveland, Emmanuel Clase has nine saves and a stellar 1.14 ERA. 

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Chris Paul, NBA Twitter react to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning dunk in Suns vs. Clippers

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Chris Paul, NBA Twitter react to Deandre Ayton's game-winning dunk in Suns vs. Clippers

Deandre Ayton was the hero for the Suns in their Game 2 win over the Clippers.

With less than a second left on the clock, the Suns were down one point and had just 0.9 seconds to get a shot off. Jae Crowder inbounded the ball on the baseline under the Suns’ basket and found Ayton cutting to the hoop.

Ayton threw it down. The play took just 0.2 seconds off the clock and sealed the 104-103 win for the Suns.

Here’s a look at the amazing finish.

Ayton and Crowder deserve a bulk of the credit, but Devin Booker had an impact on the finish as well. His physical screen on Ivica Zubac — who is seven inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than Booker — gave Ayton just enough space to get open off the cut and throw down the dunk.

And Booker put his body on the line despite playing with a bloodied nose that required stitches after an inadvertent hit from Patrick Beverley earlier in the game.

The Suns’ finish thrilled Phoenix fans as well as the team’s star point guard Chris Paul, who missed his second straight game in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. He took time to celebrate the victory on Twitter and praised coach Monty Williams for his “big-time play call.”

Indeed, it was a nice play call, and Williams made sure Ayton was prepared to dunk immediately after catching the ball.

“DA — if he throws it, you gotta try to dunk it,” Williams said. “Okay?”

Ayton was ready and obliged. As a result of his make, NBA Twitter erupted and celebrated the exciting end to yet another tightly-contested playoff battle. 

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How Suns perfectly executed game-winning play — and why goaltending didn’t apply on Deandre Ayton’s dunk

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How Suns perfectly executed game-winning play — and why goaltending didn't apply on Deandre Ayton's dunk

Back in December 2017, the Suns and Grizzlies found themselves in a down-to-the-wire contest. Phoenix had the ball with just 0.6 seconds on the clock and the game tied at 97.

So what did then-Suns coach Jay Triano do? He unveiled a play that he had kept in his back pocket for years.

MORE: Chris Paul reacts to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning dunk

While standing on the sideline near the Grizzlies’ bench, Dragan Bender threw a pass toward Tyson Chandler that floated directly above the rim, giving Chandler the opportunity to slam it through the bottom of the net. Wait, you can do that?

“You cannot goaltend a ball that isn’t going to count,” Triano told reporters after the game.

More than three years later, Triano’s words were once again ringing throughout Phoenix Suns Arena. Coach Monty Williams drew up a similar play on Tuesday night, and his players executed it perfectly to give the Suns a stunning 104-103 win over the Clippers and a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals.

Look at this beauty:

OK, let’s break down what NBA TV’s Matt Winer called “The Valley Oop.” (Great work, Matt).

First, notice the positioning of DeMarcus Cousins. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue made a smart move by putting Cousins on Jae Crowder in order to make an inbound pass more difficult, but Cousins is squared up to Crowder, opening up the passing lane Crowder needs.

As for the action in the paint, Devin Booker sets a terrific screen on Ivica Zubac, allowing Deandre Ayton to break free. Could Nicolas Batum have bumped Ayton and recovered? Possibly, but he is understandably concerned with leaving Booker.

(NBA)

Once Ayton gets a step on Zubac running toward the basket, it’s on Crowder to put the ball in a spot in which Ayton can score. As you can see from the angle below, Crowder just narrowly avoids the backboard. The placement here is simply incredible.

“That’s definitely Jae’s game-winner,” Ayton said after the game.

deandre ayton suns play
(NBA)

Now, you may still be asking, “But why isn’t that a goaltending violation?”

As the NBA explained in its Last Two Minute Report from that December 2017 game, “Goaltending rules do not apply because (Chandler) makes contact with the ball off of a throw-in and not a live ball that has already legally been touched on the playing court.” Scott Foster, who served as the crew chief on Tuesday, offered the same explanation when asked about Ayton’s dunk.

Sometimes less than a second can be all the time in the world. Just ask any Suns fan.

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Clippers’ Paul George misses crucial free throws in stunning Game 2 loss to Suns

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Clippers' Paul George misses crucial free throws in stunning Game 2 loss to Suns

The box score from Tuesday’s Suns-Clippers game — a pivotal Game 2 win for Phoenix in the Western Conference finals — will show Paul George had a decent game.

Twenty-six points, on 10-of-23 shooting; six assists; six rebounds; and 5-of-10 shooting from the free throw line. He also scored his team’s last six points, all within the last minute, to help the Clippers to a 103-102 lead with just 8.2 seconds remaining.

The only stats that ultimately mattered in the Clippers’ 104-103 loss, however, were the final two free throws George — a career 84.7-percent free throw shooter — missed. They ultimately allowed Phoenix a chance at an unbelievable comeback victory, which may prove costly even as the series heads back to LA.

NBA MOCK DRAFT 2021: Who will Pistons, Rockets take with top picks?

Had George sunk both of those shots, the Suns would have needed a 3-pointer just to send the game to overtime. Had he sunk even one shot, they would have needed a 2-pointer. But he missed both, allowing the Suns to win on an inbound dunk with less than a second remaining:

Credit to Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and the Suns. That play will go down as one of the top plays in NBA playoffs history. But every heartbreaking loss needs a goat, and no one fits the bill better than “Playoff P,” who could have secured a win for his team with the simplest of basketball scoring plays.

Here’s the bright side for the Clippers, if there is one: They have already overcome 2-0 deficits in each of their first two series against the Mavericks and Jazz, respectively. That’s likely a cold comfort as George and Co. head back to LA, however. The scathing Twitter comments aimed at George likely won’t do anything to help, either:

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