Matthews: Play Ball! Bob's National League Forecast...

PLAY BALL! BOB’S NATIONAL LEAGUE FORECAST...

NATIONALS, CARDINALS AND DODGERS ARETHE PICKS

The 2019 Major League Baseball season kicks off Thursday – apologies to last week’s two games in Tokyo – with 15 games involving all 30 teams.

Here’s how I see the National League:

NL EAST

1--Washington (92-70).Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy are gone but the Nationals still have plenty of pop with table setters Adam Eaton and Trea Turner, third baseman Anthony Rendon, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, sparkplug shortstop Trea Turner and hard-hitting young outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles...Improved at catcher with Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki...No team has three better starting pitchers than Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin...The Nationals plunged from 97-65 in 2017 to 82-80 last season and have the potential to bounce back in a big way.

2—Philadelphia (88-74). The Phillies improved by 14 wins in 2018 (to 80-82) and should continue on the upgrade. Newcomers Bryce Harper, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutcheon add juice to a dangerous lineup that also includes Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez...The starting rotation is iffy behind Aaron Nolan and Jake Arrieta...The back of the bullpen is strong with David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez...The defense has to be better than last season...Need more staying power: 64-49 through August 7 last year and went 16-33 thereafte. They also were 49-32 at home and 31-50 away last year.

3—New York Mets (85-77). Starting pitchers Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler give the Mets at least an outside chance to win this contentious division...The bullpen is in good hands with Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia and Seth Lugo...Newcomers Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos are welcome additions to a lineup including Michael Conforto, Todd Frazier and Brandon Nimmo. No one knows if or when slugger Yoenis Cespedes can contribute after surgery on his heels.

4—Atlanta (84-78). The young Braves won 90 games last year after three straight 90-loss seasons and have a bright future. But I won’t be surprised if they regress a bit this season for lack of experience in a strong division...Can former AL MVP Josh Donaldson return to form to bolster a lineup including underrated Freddie Freeman, 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Arcuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Ender Inciarte?...Not nearly as much pitching as fellow NL East contenders Washington and the Mets.

5—Miami (54-108). CEO Derek Jeter has unloaded many talented veterans in favor of cheaper prospects and suspects. Trading catcher J.T. Realmuto was the last straw. Time will tell but for now the Marlins figure to be awful.

NL CENTRAL

1—St. Louis (92-70). The Cardinals have missed the postseason three years in a row, but It is difficult to keep them down for long. They’re trying to win now...They needed a big bopper and former Arizona star Paul Goldschmidt has NL MVP potential this season...Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem with Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, Jose Martinez, Yadier Molina, Dexter Fowler, Paul De Jong and Kolten Wong...Starting pitching is the key. Best-case scenario: Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty and Daniel Poncedeleon come through, Alex Reyes blossoms and Carlos Martinez overcomes his latest arm woes...Andrew Miller bolsters the bullpen.

2---Milwaukee (89-73). The 2018 Brewers, sparked by newcomers Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, won their first NL Central title since 2011 and fell one game short of reaching the World Series. They’re the team to beat in the division again this season...The loaded lineup includes reigning NL MVP Yelich, Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw and Mike Moustakas...The bullpen was superb last season and Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress return. There are major concerns regarding closer Corey Knebel’s ailing elbow...The big question mark is starting pitching. It isn’t good.

3—Chicago Cubs (88-74). The Cubs were a huge disappointment last season. They looked great on paper but collectively underachieved. They were 55-38 with a +114 run differential at the All-Star Game break and 40-30 (+2) thereafter...The potent lineup includes Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora and Ben Zobrist...The pitching isn’t nearly as impressive. The starters rely more on guile than power and counting on a comeback by Yu Darvish could be folly. The bullpen is mostly ordinary.

4—Cincinnati (72-90). It should be a fun season for home fans who enjoy high-scoring games at the cozy Great American Ball Park...The Red can hit (featuring Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, Scott Schebler and Dodgers imports Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp) but don’t have much pitching...Raisel Iglesias is a quality closer...The team needs a better start (3-15 in 2018) and more success in one-run games (10-29 in 2018).

5—Pittsburgh (69-93). The Pirates appear to be on the decline but at least no players are sitting out the season or demanding to be traded...Jameson Taillon , Trevor Williams and maybe Chris Archer are decent starting pitchers...Big bats include outfielders Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte...Home attendance plunged by more than 454,131 last season and the trend figures to continue.

NL WEST

1—Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67). They’ve won six straight NL West titles and are the team to beat again this season...The impressive lineup includes Justin Turner,Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson...The bench is deep, including David Freese and Chris Taylor...Outfielder Alex Verdugo could the team’s latest hot rookie...Formidable starting rotation even if Clayton Kershaw is a question mark: Walker Buechler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda...Kenley Jansen and Joe Kelly anchor the bullpen...17 different teams have won the World Series since the Dodgers last won in 1988. They’re overdue.

2—Colorado (90-72). The Rockies are coming off consecutive post-season appearances for the first time in the team’s 26-year history and it won’t be a surprise if they make it three in a row...The potent lineup includes Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, Ian Desmond and newcomer Daniel Murphy...Could use more pop at catcher and second base...Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Jon Gray are decent starting pitchers...A team-record 44-38 road record last season.

3—San Diego (81-81). The Padres have a loaded farm system, featuring shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who is almost ready...Manny Machado and Ian Kisler are additions to a decent lineup, with Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe and Austin Hedges....Starting rotation and bullpen need improvement but there are enough solid bats to think the team can end a stretch of eight straight losing seasons.

4—Arizona (71-91). The Diamondbacks started fast last season, winning their first nine series. But they finished 82-80 and have since lost mainstays Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin...Decent heart of the lineup with David Peralta, Steven Souza Jr., and Jake Lamb. Top and bottom of the lineup not so hot...Decent 1-2-3 starting pitchers in Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and Zack Godley...Will miss closer Brad Boxberger...The fans aren’t expecting a lot this season and that’s a good thing.

5—San Francisco (65-97). This is the final season for manager Bruce Bochy, who guided the Giants to three world championships. There won’t be a fourth...The Giants have become an old and slow team. They look better on paper than on the field...Need more from aging infielders Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria (they’ve all seen better days) and young outfielders Steven Duggar, Mac Williamson and Austin Slater...Catcher Buster Posey probably won’t be traded but former pitching ace and World Series hero Madison Bumgarner could be moved at the trade deadline.

WEDNESDAY: Bob’s American League Forecast.

WAS GRONK THE ALL-TIME BERST ALL-AROUND TIGHHT END?

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from pro football Sunday. On Instagram of course. I don’t know if we’ll next see him on a movie screen or in a pro wrestling ring, but I do know his departure will retire the talent gap between the Patriots and the Buffalo Bills.

The NFL is going to miss Gronk. He was a great player and a generally charming, funny and carefree personality.

How good was he on the field? He’s the best all-around tight end I’ve ever seen – all things considered. Excellent hands, great size (6-foot-6 and around 270 pounds), good speed, toughness, performed well in the clutch (81 catches for 1,163 yards and 12 TDs in 16 post-season games), a punishing and willing blocker and he often played hurt.

The only thing he lacks in comparison to the other great tight ends was longevity. He played only nine seasons and retires before his 30th birthday (May 14).

For the record, Gronk had 521 catches for 7,861 yards and 79 TDs in 115 regular-season games. He averaged 15.1 yards per catch.

Tony Gonzalez is the NFL leader among tight ends in career catches 1,325), receiving yards (15,127) and TD catches (111) in 270 regular-season games. He averaged 11.4 yards per catch.

For one game my team had to win, a healthy Gronkowski would be my tight end. You might prefer Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Shannon Sharpe, Mike Ditka, John Mackey or someone else.

JOSH ALLEN VERSUS BILLS’ OPPOSING QBs IN 2019

Entering the 2018 NFL season, I wouldn’t have given the Buffalo Bills with Nathan Peterman or AJ McCarron much chance against any opposing quarterback on the schedule.

Josh Allen showed me enough in the performances the second half of last season to make me far more hopeful that the Bills won’t be consistently outclassed at the quarterback position.

Vs. New England (2 games) – Obviously, Tom Brady still has a considerable advantage over Allen on experience alone. At some point – who knows when – Josh’s youth and athleticism will trump Brady’s age and vulnerability.

Vs. New York Jets (2 games) – Sam Dalton rates a slight edge over Allen because he’s the more polished passer. He’ll also benefit from having Le’Veon Bell to throw to.

Vs. Miami (2 games) – When new Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has a hot hand, he can beat anyone. But we’ve seen Fitz have more poor games than good ones. Slight advantage to Allen.

Non-division home opponents

Vs. Baltimore – Toss-up between Allen and Lamar Jackson. Josh is one opposing QB that Jackson won’t outrun. Both are working in improving their accuracy.

Vs. Cincinnati – Slight edge to Allen over Andy Dalton.

Vs. Denver – Edge to Allen over Joe Flacco. Both have big arms. Josh is getting better. Flacco is getting worse.

Vs. Philadelphia – Big advantage to a healthy Carson Wentz.

Vs. Washington – Edge to Allen over Case Keenum/Colt McCoy.

Non-division road opponents:

Cleveland – Edge to Baker Mayfield. He was better than Allen last season and will have better offensive weapons to work with this season.

Dallas – Slight edge to Dak Prescott at home over Allen. I’m not a big fan of Prescott but he usually is much better in Dallas than on the road.

New York Giants – Edge to Allen over the Eli Manning 2019 model.

Pittsburgh – Big edge to Ben Roethlisberger over second-year man Allen, but the departures of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown closes the gap.

Tennessee – Slight edge to Allen over mildly disappointing duo of and Marcus Mariota/Ryan Tannehill.

COULD THE SAN DIEGO SEALS BE A MODEL FOR THE EXPANSION KNIGHTHAWKS NEXT SEASON?

The San Diego Seals and the Philadelphia Wings – the National Lacrosse League’s two expansion teams this season – both won Saturday night.

Maybe next season’s expansion Rochester Knighthawks will be as successful as San Diego has been. The Seals have won four straight games to boost their record to 8-4 and lead the Western Division. The big guns in the 13-12 home victory over the defending champion Saskatchewan Rush were veterans Kyle Buchanan (4 goals and 4 assists), Garrett Billings (1G, 9 A) and former Knighthawks star Dan Dawson (2G, 3A; 19G and 34A in 12 games this season).

The watered-down K-Hawks lost their eighth straight game, 12-9 at home to the Calgary Roughnecks. Jake Withers continued to shine for Rochester, winning 21 of 25 faceoffs. The K-Hawks are 2-11. Rochester’s crowd of 5,394 was the NLL’s smallest last weekend: Buffalo 16,580; Co0lorado 12,826; Philadelphia 11,988; San Diego 6,163; Georgia 5,800.

TWINS TRADE MICHAEL REED TO GIANTS...HE WOULD’VE BEEN A USEFUL RED WING

I was hoping outfielder Michael Reed would be playing for the Red Wings this season. The Minnesota Twins selected him off waivers from Atlanta last October after he tore up the International League for Gwinnett in the second half of last season: .363 (70-for-193); 36 runs; 13 doubles; 7 HRs; 25 RBI; 4-for-4 stolen bases; 32 walks; .459 on-base percentage; .539 slugging percentage; .997 OPS.

But Reed won’t be a Red Wing. The Twins traded him over the weekend to the San Francisco Giants, who needed a right-handed hitting outfielder. Minnesota received 28-year-old veteran Triple-A outfielder John Andreoli and cash. In 89 games for Tacoma (Pacific Coast League) last season, Andreoli hit .297 with 18 doubles, 5 triples, 3 HRs, 36 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 24 attempts.

SHORT SHOTS

Buffalo’s Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy will enter the 2019 season with the most combined rushing yards of any teammates in NFL history.

Of course, what they combine for this season is more important to the success of the Bills than what they’ve done in the past.

xxxThe Finger Lakes Race Track live thoroughbred season April 27 through November 27 will have only 123 racing days. There were 155 racing days in 2016 and 145 in 2018. The pattern is fairly obvious.

xxxIn my opinion, the Rochester Americans have the most impressive sweater in minor-league hockey and one of the best in all of hockey. I particularly like the Amerks crest on the blue jersey. So I was sad to see the incredibly ugly Teenage Mutant Turtles uniform the Amerks wore for Friday night’s home game. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but please, not again.

Fuddy-duddy (as defined by Merriam-Webster): a person who is fussy while old-fashioned, traditionalist, conformist, or conservative, sometimes almost to the point of ecentricity or geekiness...I plead guilty.

xxxThe Houston Rockets started this season 11-14. They were 33-24 at the All-Star Game break and are an NBA-best 14-3 since. James Harden’s bid to repeat as league MVP is looking better every day.

xxxThe Syracuse Crunch are tied for the American Hockey League lead with 16 short-handed goals, including 8 in 10 games against the Utica Comets. Maybe the Comets would be better off declining penalties against the Crunch.

xxxThe 67 nominees for the National Soccer Hall of Fame Class of 2019 were announced last week. The list of 44 former players has 17 first-time nominees, including Rochester product and all-time women’s leading goal scorer Abby Wambach. You have to like her chances.

xxxMike Trout’s record contract has driven up the prices of his baseball cards. An autographed 2010 Trout card recently sold for $227,000.

Xxx2018 Rochester Red Wings fan favorite and MVP Willians Astudillo hit .306 (15-for-49) this spring training and no one is surprised that he had 0 walks and 0 strikeouts.

MEN’S NCAA TOURNAMENT UPDATE

Pairings for the Sweet 16:

Thursday night

#4Florida State vs. #1Gonzaga (-7), 7:09 on CBS

#3 Purdue vs. #2Tennessee (-1), 7:29 on TBS

#3 Texas Tech vs. #2 Michigan (-2), 9:39 on CBS

#12 Oregon vs. #1 Virginia (-7 ½), 9:59 on TBS

Friday night

#3 LSU vs. #2 Michigan State (-6), 7:09 on CBS

#5 Auburn vs. #1 North Carolina (-5), 7:29 on TBS

#4 Virginia Tech vs. #1 Duke (-8), 9:39 p.m.

#3 Houston vs. #2 Kentucky (-2 ½), 9:59 on TBS.

All four #1, #2 and #3 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16.

By conference – ACC 5...SEC 4...Big Ten 3...Big 12, America, Pac-12 and West Coast 1 each.

Betting results in Las Vegas through 48 games: Favorites are 37-11 outright and 21-25-2 against the point spread.

Seven games were decided by 5 points or fewer...Nine games were decided by more than 20 points.

Updated odds to win the Tournament (courtesy of Sportsbook.ag): Duke 5-to-2...Gonzaga, Virginia each 9-to-2...North Carolina 8-to-1...Kentucky, Michigan State each 10-to-1...Michigan 16-to-1...Florida State, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas Tech each 20-to-1...Auburn 30-to-1...Houston 35-to-1...Virginia Tech 40-to-1...LSU 50-to-1...Oregon 75-to-1.

HAPPY SPORTS BIRTHDAYS...

Monday, March 25

Hyun-Jin Ryu 32...Kyle Lowry 33...Marco Belinelli 33...Danica Patrick 37...Wladimir Klitschko 43...Lawrence Moten 47...Sheryl Swoopes 48...Cammi Granato 48...Travis Fryman 50...Dale Davis 50...Debi Thomas 52...Jeff Cross 53...Avery Johnson 54...Alex Solis 55...Pat Hughes 64...Lee Mazzilli 64...Jean Potvin 70. Sarah Jessica Parker 54 and Elton John 72 are invited to the birthday party.

Tuesday, March 26

Justice Winslow 23...Kyle Van Noy 28...Von Miller 30...Rashad Jennings 34...Jimmy Howard 35...Doug Janik 39...Roberto Garza 40...Michael Peca 45...Marshall Faulk 46...Mickey Weston 48....Luke Richardson 50...Jose Vizcaino 51...Wesley Walls 53...Ulf Samuelsson 55...John Stockton 57...Kevin Seitzer 57...Joe Binion 58...Keira Knightley 34, Marcus Allen 59. Kenny Chesney 51, Jennifer Grey 59, Martin Short 69, Steven Tyler 71, Diana Ross 75, James Caan 79 and Nancy Pelosi 79 are invited to the birthday party.

ON THIS DATE IN SPORTS...

March 25

85 years ago (1934), Horton Smith won the first Masters golf tournament...48 years ago (1971), the Boston Patriots became the New England Patriots...47 years ago (1972), UCLA beat Florida 81-76 for its sixth straight NCAA men’s basketball championship...37 years ago (1982), Wayne Gretzky became the first NHL player to score 200 points in a season...31 years ago (1988), Robins Givens demanded full access to imprisoned husband Mike Tyson’s money.

March 26

74 years ago (1945), DePaul won the NIT basketball championship as George Mikan scored 45 points...59 years ago (1960), the Orioles-Reds exhibition series planned for Havana was shifted to Miami...47 years ago (1972), the Los Angeles Lakers broke the NBA record by winning 69 of 82 games; the record stood for 24 years...45 years ago (1974), George Foreman TKOd Ken Norton in 2 for the heavyweight boxing title in Caracas, Venezuela...27 years ago (1992), the New York Rangers clinched their first NHL regular-season championship in 50 years.

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