Through long and testing road, Canadiens find way back to Cup Final

MONTREAL — It was a Saint Jean Baptiste Day celebration like no other, with the Montreal Canadiens playing for the first time ever on Quebec’s cherished Fête Nationale and punctuating it by stamping their 34th ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.

Unique? How about unheard of.

This has been the year of the unexpected — for all of us, but most certainly for these Canadiens, who were given no chance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 and even less of one in this semifinal against the Vegas Golden Knights. No team has had worse odds to make it this far in over 30 years, and it’s perfectly fitting this one defied them.

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These Canadiens fought through in six games, overcoming this challenge like every other one they faced before it: ferociously and all together. And this series-clinching win was a microcosm of that, with Artturi Lehkonen scoring 1:39 into overtime to end Game 3 at 3-2 and send them back to the Final for the first time since 1993.

Prior to that, the Canadiens allowed two one-goal leads to slip away and fell back on their heels to end the third period.

They stayed there to start overtime, but were lifted off their toes to celebrate Lehkonen’s goal after Brendan Gallagher cut through the neutral zone and fed the puck to Phillip Danault, who slashed through the middle and found Lehkonen’s stick.

The 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre erupted, handshake lines were formed, and then Shea Weber skated over to accept the Clarence Campbell Bowl — he didn’t touch it — for the first time in over 100 years of Canadiens history.

Weird? No, just more of the same stuff this year’s been made of.

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“We’ve been through a lot,” said the captain, who scored the opening goal — his first of the playoffs, a booming slap shot from the left point that made you almost forget he missed the final eight games of the season with a left-thumb injury.

The drama of the last six months could’ve filled a dozen soap operas.

This team started off on a tear and then played so badly it got its coach fired. This team came out of a break and then jumped into a pause when Joel Armia caught COVID-19. This team had to finish the season by playing 25 games in 44 nights, travelling across the country three times just to get it done. This team faced a salary-cap dilemma and a roster crunch that handcuffed its coach from dressing the optimal lineup when he desperately needed the flexibility post trade deadline. This team lost Weber, star goaltender Carey Price and every other key player to injury while a playoff spot hung in the balance. This team clinched with a loss in its second-to-last game of the season — one of 14 they endured over their final 21. This team was dead to rights down 3-1 to the Maple Leafs, shut out on home ice in what was expected to be their last game of the year at the Bell Centre. And this team left Vegas tied 1-1 in the series with the Golden Knights, returning to Montreal, where head coach Dominique Ducharme was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed into quarantine for the remainder of this series — and possibly beyond.

This team prevailed.

“We wouldn’t be here right now if we didn’t believe,” said Price, who made 37 saves in Game 6. “We’ve always stuck with it.”

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On Thursday, with a city’s worth of people flooding the streets outside the building and a few thousand more filling the seats within its walls, the Canadiens were the team who surrounded that Campbell Bowl for a picture and then left it right there on the table.

“Obviously there’s a bigger one out there that we’re chasing,” said Cole Caufield, whose goal in the second period featured every element of what will make him a special player for years to come.

The 20-year-old rookie pushed a stretch pass over Brayden McNabb’s stick in the neutral zone, double-clutched from second gear to fourth and ripped his wrist shot over Robin Lehner’s glove and under the bar of the Vegas net to make it 2-1 Canadiens 9:36 into the second period. It was the fourth goal of the series for the kid who started the playoffs watching the first two games from the Toronto press box.

Resilient.

After Lehkonen sealed the deal, Lehner shared his appreciation for the Canadiens’ determination.

“Hell of a team,” Lehner said. “Works really hard. Sticks with their structure, and they have a lot of great players. Everyone underestimates them. Good for them.”

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All of them.

You don’t get through everything the Canadiens have been through and pull off something entirely unexpected without every single person doing what’s expected of them — and some doing even more.

“It’s really fun to see the guys enjoying themselves in the dressing room,” said Ducharme’s stand-in, assistant coach Luke Richardson. “They deserve it. It’s really heartwarming to see a group of guys that work that hard together. I know every team is the same, it says the same thing, but these guys are a special group and a really good mix. It’s hard to put into words how proud we are of them, but they deserve it, and they’re not done yet.

“I saw a fire in their eyes. They’re already talking about it. We are shifting our focus right away. We’ll probably step away (Friday) and just take some rest and come back on Saturday and do a little work and Sunday, get right back at it. And we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Golden Knights caught in Canadiens’ destiny as latest playoff run ends

Sometimes you get caught in the path of destiny’s freight train. A fate train, if you will.

That’s where the Vegas Golden Knights spent the past couple of weeks, trying simultaneously to beat the Montreal Canadiens and a 28-year curse, where the country that cares the most about the Stanley Cup annually has watched it ship south for the summer each year.

Now, at the expense of the Golden Knights, Canada gets another shot.

And a town that has had nothing but a contender since getting their expansion team four seasons ago? They just watched hockey’s eldest franchise show them a thing or two about playoff hockey, closing off this series in overtime with a 3-2 win in Game 6.

“(Montreal) owned the key moments of the series,” said Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer, in the wake of another close-but-no-cigar season for the Golden Knights. “When they got a chance, they stuck it in the net. When they needed a save, they got a big save. They won the overtime battles. They won the special teams battles.

“If you’re losing those areas of the game, you’re putting yourselves in a tough spot.”

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Artturi Lehkonen was the unlikely overtime hero, “Finn-ishing” the Golden Knights with a dandy roof job off a slick pass from Phillip Danault. The goal came after Max Pacioretty had stared down Carey Price from tight, shooter’s range, but failed to beat the man who enters the Stanley Cup Final as Montreal’s Conn Smythe favourite.

It was a microcosm of the series: Perhaps Vegas’ most lethal scorer could not solve Price, and moments later Lehkonen — a third-liner who will give you 12 goals a season — pots his first of the series to drive the stake through the Golden Knights’ armour.

“It just came down to they did a better job scoring goals in the series,” said Reilly Smith, Vegas’ most dangerous forward in this series. “The opportunities were there for us. They got a breakaway or an opportunity and it ended up in the back of the net. We didn’t do a good enough job on our chances.”

Let’s face it: Vegas’ biggest shooters choked in this series.

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Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Alex Tuch all had zero goals versus Montreal. Pacioretty and Smith each had one.

The power play finished the series at 0-for-15, a crippling outage and likely the decisive failure in this series for Vegas.

“Their D play hard. They’re big, they’re strong. Their forward group is responsible,” Stone said of the Canadiens. “I can praise them all I want, but ultimately it falls down on myself and the top players on this team. We had some guys produce night in, night out, but as far as myself and a number of other guys…

“I got skunked this series,” he concluded. “That can’t happen. I’m the captain of this team. The leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred.”

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Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki were miles better than any Vegas forward — two small, skilled Montreal players whose ability to pull you out of your chair is off the charts. That two kids could become the difference makers against a Vegas team with this much playoff experience is simply amazing, befitting of the tale the Habs are penning here.

How hard are these Habs to play against?

“They stick with their 1-1-3 structure,” said goalie Robin Lehner. “And they made it hard for not just us. The made it hard for Winnipeg and Toronto, with some of the best goal scorers in the world.”

“When you’re concentrating on defending and you have the ability to counter-punch with guys who don’t need multiple looks to stick a puck in the net, you’re a very dangerous team,” DeBoer said of Montreal. “That was the story here. They concentrated on defending, shutting guys down. And when the puck went the other way, on Caufield’s stick, Suzuki’s stick — they put it in the net. That’s playoff hockey.”

In their four seasons since joining a an expansion team, the Golden Knights have bowed out once as a Stanley Cup finalist, and twice more in the Round of Four. They have never missed the playoffs, small solace as they pack up their gear and head home to the desert as a failed semi-finalist for the second straight year.

It doesn’t have to get much better in Vegas, but it can’t stay the same either.

“There’s another door we have to find a way to barge through at this time of year,” agreed DeBoer. “Everyone. Coaches included.”

Paul George drops 27 points to lead Clippers over Suns in Game 3

LOS ANGELES — Paul George scored 27 points and the Los Angeles Clippers pulled away in a dominant third quarter, beating newly returned Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns 106-92 on Thursday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

The Clippers cut their series deficit to 2-1, ending the Suns’ franchise-record playoff winning streak at nine games.

Kawhi Leonard remained out with a right knee sprain, leaving George to carry the load again. After missing two crucial free throws in a one-point loss in Game 2, Paul had 15 rebounds and eight assists and played a game-high 43 minutes. He made 6 of 7 free throws.

The Suns got Paul back after he missed the first two games while being sidelined since June 16 because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. The former Clipper, who was booed heartily during intros, had 15 points and 12 assists, but was 5 of 19 from the field.

Deandre Ayton led the Suns with 18 points.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, and Ivica Zubac had 15 points and tied his career playoff high with 16 rebounds.

Game 4 is Saturday night at Staples Center.

After Phoenix won the first two games by a combined seven points, the teams played a close first half. Then the Clippers went to work in front of their raucous, Thunder Stix-pounding fans.

They took control with the biggest run of the game, a 21-3 spurt that left them leading 71-56 in the third. Terance Mann got it going with six straight points and Jackson scored four in a row before George scored inside. Zubac dunked off George’s pass and made a pair of free throws. The Suns were limited to a 3-pointer by Paul.

Devin Booker picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 42-second span during the Clippers’ run. Booker — wearing a clear mask to protect his nose that required stitches after he and Patrick Beverley banged heads in Game 2 — was 5 of 21 from the field, making only one of seven 3-point tries, and finished with 15 points.

Jae Crowder, who assisted on Deandre Ayton’s winning dunk on Tuesday, fouled out with 4:51 remaining. He had nine points, six rebounds and six assists.

George capped the third by banking in a 3-pointer from just inside midcourt, and it beat the buzzer, stunning the fans and sending the Clippers into the fourth leading 80-69. He nearly bobbled the ball along the right sideline, with Booker and Cam Johnson pressuring, before getting the shot off.

Luke Kennard opened the fourth with a 3 from the right corner, getting fouled and making the free throw. Marcus Morris hit a three before George got fouled. He confidently made both, keeping the Clippers ahead 89-71.

Cameron Payne, who so ably filled in for Paul in the first two games, went down with a left ankle injury after playing four minutes and didn’t return.

TIP-INS

Suns: Fell to 10-3 in the playoffs, losing for the first time since May 27 against the Lakers at Staples Center in Game 3 of the first round. … Booker and Beverley were called for double technicals in the third. … Paul and Booker each missed their first six shots of the game and were both 2 of 10 with seven points each in the first half.

Clippers: Zubac is the first Clipper with a double-double in the first half of a postseason game since DeAndre Jordan on April 30, 2017, against Utah. … Longtime fan Billy Crystal sat courtside.

Blue Jays beat up on Orioles, continue taking advantage of soft schedule

This is what the Toronto Blue Jays should be doing. Actually, it’s what they need to be doing. If the club’s going to return to the post-season in a hyper-competitive American League East, it must significantly outperform the hovering-around-.500 outcomes it produced over the first 70-odd games of the season. It must win at something closer to a .585 or .590 clip over its remaining 89 games. It must go something like 52-37 the rest of the way, which would give Toronto 90 wins and a decent shot at a wild-card spot in a tight AL playoff race. It must get on a roll before long.

Because it isn’t early anymore. To this point, the untimely injuries, bullpen meltdowns, defensive miscues, and sputtering bats could be cited as extenuating circumstances for a meandering club. But that can’t continue to happen as the Blue Jays cross the season’s midway point a week from Saturday. With the hardest part of the schedule in the rear view, the time to spin wheels has passed. Now it’s time to beat up on the teams you’re supposed to beat up on and put some wins in the bank. Now it’s time to go.

And they’re doing it, damn it. With five straight wins over the Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, and, in a 9-0 Thursday night drubbing at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, the lowly Orioles again, the Blue Jays are putting together the kind of run against inferior opposition they’ll need to make something of an undeniably promising season. They’re three games north of .500 now and they must keep building.

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This club could be rostering as many as five AL all-stars bound to wear those atrocious uniforms, with baseball’s best hitter, a top-three second baseman, a top-five shortstop, and a pair of strike-throwing, sub-3.50 ERA left-handers atop its rotation. It’s a solid core that needs plenty of help in the bullpen, a bench upgrade or two, more reliable back-end rotation depth, and a return to health and form from its $150-million off-season signing. It’s a young, talented club that, with some attention paid to the fringes of its roster prior to the trade deadline, has every reason to be competing for one of the AL’s five post-season positions deep into September. But to do so it needs to beat up on the teams it’s supposed to. It needs to make hay right now.

That’s what was encouraging about the way the Blue Jays burst out of the gates Thursday, scoring 9 runs on seven hits and five walks over the first three innings against a 28-games-below-.500 club starting a 25-year-old rookie with a 6.20 ERA allowing 2.4 HR/9. That’s the type of performance a lineup this talented ought to be producing against opposition this meek.

And credit the Blue Jays, they’ve done that more often than not this season. After throttling the Orioles, Toronto is now 19-10 against teams below .500 and 19-25 against teams above. Taking advantage of the Baltimore’s and Miami’s of the world hasn’t been an issue. Beating top-tier competition has, as the Blue Jays are 2-5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-5 against the Boston Red Sox, 2-4 against the Houston Astros, and 1-2 against the Chicago White Sox.

But Toronto can worry about finding a way to beat the good teams later. First it must put itself in position to make those late-season games matter. It must have nights like Thursday, when the top three hitters in the order each had an extra-base hit and a walk, while Teoscar Hernandez went 2-for-4 in the clean-up spot, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. drove in four from the No. 7 position, and Reese McGuire had three hits out of the nine hole.

With George Springer finally healthy — he had the night off after back-to-back nine-inning games in his return from a soft tissue injury followed by a wee-hours arrival in Buffalo Thursday morning — Toronto’s offence is one of MLB’s deepest, capable of putting up touchdowns on a nightly basis, particularly against uncompetitive clubs like the Orioles.

The other part of the equation would be pitching, and lately the Blue Jays have been doing that, too. Toronto has allowed one run or less in each of its last three games, taking advantage of two of baseball’s least potent offences. Thursday it was Anthony Kay’s turn, as he struck out eight over five scoreless starting in place of Steven Matz, who’s been sidelined for two weeks after contracting COVID-19.

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It was a fine outing to build on for Kay, who can be a difficult a guy to figure out. With a mid-90’s fastball from the left-side — often touching 96-97 — that he plays off of three distinct secondary weapons in a cutter, curveball, and changeup, it feels like he should be getting better results than he has. But he entered the night with a 6.43 ERA over six appearances this season with one peripheral pointing in the right direction (9.9 K/9) and another pointing in the wrong one (4.3 BB/9).

Of course, the cutter’s a new pitch that Kay’s been throwing for less than a year, and the changeup is his least-used offering, one he’s only comfortable utilizing against right-handed hitting. But he still ought to be able to be able to throw strikes and get plenty of outs with merely his fastball and curveball, considering they deviate in speed by 16-m.p.h. and that the spin direction on the two pitches almost perfectly mirror one another:

What that means is Kay’s fastball and curveball appear nearly identical as they come out of his hand on the same plane before suddenly moving in very different directions as they near the plate. That’s how Kay can get reactions like one from Austin Meadows, who thought he was going to get plunked with a fastball before a curveball landed perfectly over the inside corner:

And while his new cutter features less movement and has been thrown with less consistency than his two primary offerings, you can see the pitch’s potential in the image above. It could give hitters a third direction to worry about as they try to think along with Kay’s game plan.

But Kay must be throwing strikes to tie it all together, and that’s been an issue to this point in his career. He’s thrown just over 47 per cent of his pitches in the zone over the last two seasons, often missing the plate by too wide a margin to tempt big-league hitters to chase. He began 55 per cent of his 2020 plate appearances with a ball and walked 10 through his first 21 innings pitched this season.

The Blue Jays have been encouraging Kay to pitch more aggressively — also to correct a persistent tendency to fall off to the third base side of the mound in his delivery, preventing him from working directly to home plate and locating his pitches consistently — practically since the day he joined the organization as part of the 2019 trade deadline return for Marcus Stroman. But old habits die hard.

Take Thursday’s second inning. After the Blue Jays ambushed Orioles starter Dean Kremer with a six-run first, most of the damage crossing the plate on Gurriel Jr.’s first career grand slam, Kay took the mound to face the bottom of Baltimore’s lineup with a huge lead. But after striking out Freddy Galvis, he surrendered back-to-back singles, spurring a mound visit from his pitching coach, Pete Walker.

That got Kay back in the zone temporarily, as he struck out Pat Valaika on five pitches. But then he fell right back out of it, issuing a two-out walk to Cedric Mullins. By the time he got out of it, Kay had thrown 32 pitches in the frame to six hitters as Anthony Castro began loosening up in the bullpen behind him.

Now, to be fair, the BABIP Gods were not on Kay’s side in this one. Through those first two innings he allowed four balls in play, all of them soft singles that came off bats at 69, 72, 80, and 91-m.p.h. But he also started five of the 11 batters he faced with a ball, using 51 pitches to get six outs, continuing a season-long trend of inefficiency that had him enter the night averaging 19 pitches per inning.

And naturally, his third frame began with a first-pitch ball and a lead-off walk. But that also proved a settling-in point for Kay, who retired the next three batters on seven pitches before cruising through a three-up, three-down fourth on 9. The fifth was less tidy, as Mullins led off with a single. But Kay worked around it to complete five innings for only the second time in seven career starts.

Ultimately, Kay threw 62 of his 95 pitches for strikes, earning 15 whiffs, including eight with a fastball sat 95 and touched 97. He landed his curveball in the zone and got five swinging strikes with his changeup. His stuff was undeniably effective when he was locating it on the plate. It was an outing he can take some positives away from. But also one that demonstrated where he still needs to improve if he’s going to establish himself as a big-league starter.

Redblacks release Chris Larsen after suspension, say cuts are based on roster size

OTTAWA — The Ottawa Redblacks say their decision to release a player suspended by the Canadian Football League club after Toronto Police launched an investigation into a possible hate crime earlier this month was based on roster size.

Canadian defensive lineman Chris Larsen was one of six players released by the Redblacks on Thursday.

The Redblacks said in a statement the cuts were made in an effort to bring the roster down to the allowable limit prior to the start of training camp.

Larsen was never charged and Calvin Barry, his lawyer, said last week his client is not a suspect in the crime.

Barry said the University of Manitoba product talked to police and was cleared for an alleged assault on Toronto Island on June 5.

A 24-year-old man was arrested for aggravated assault last weekend and at the time of the arrest, police said the investigation was ongoing.

Investigators previously said a man and a woman were walking to the docks on June 5 when a disagreement broke out between them and a group of other people.

Police say a man from that group made the comments, and two men from the group assaulted the male victim, leaving him with significant injuries.

Officers said they were seeking three suspects — two men and a woman.

Barry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Canadian Press about Larsen’s release.

On the night of the suspension, Mark Goudie, the CEO of the Redblacks’ parent company, Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, said "We are particularly sorry for the trauma caused to the 2SLGBTQ+ community."

Larsen, 25, has not played a game in the CFL.

The Toronto native was picked in the sixth round, 54th overall, by the Redblacks in the 2019 CFL draft.

Larsen returned to Manitoba for the 2019 season.

The 2020 CFL season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the league has announced 2021 training camp will start next month with the season opening in August.

MLB Live Tracker: Blue Jays กับ Orioles บน Sportsnet ONE

ทีม Toronto Blue Jays หวังจะยืดสถิติการชนะที่ยาวที่สุดของฤดูกาล เมื่อพวกเขาเป็นเจ้าภาพ Baltimore Orioles ในบัฟฟาโล ดูเกมบน Sportsnet ONE และ SN ตอนนี้ และติดตามทุกสนามด้วย MLB Live Tracker

Blue Jays’ Steven Matz clears COVID-19 protocols, re-joins team

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Steven Matz has cleared COVID-19 protocols and re-joined the team.

Matz also threw 60 pitches of live batting practice at Sahlen Field in Buffalo on Thursday.

The left-hander was placed on the COVID-related injured list on June 13. There is no exact date for Matz’s return at this point, but he is expected to make his next start.

Matz has put together an impressive campaign with the Blue Jays, his first with the club after an off-season trade from the Mets. The 30-year-old has a 7-3 record with a 4.26 ERA and 75 strikeouts.

In other injury news, left-hander Ryan Borucki is scheduled to throw a bullpen on Friday, his first since suffering a forearm injury in May.

Meanwhile, George Springer, who returned to the lineup earlier this week, is receiving a night off on Thursday, per manager Charlie Montoyo. The outfielder is available off the bench when the Blue Jays face the Baltimore Orioles.

You can watch the Blue Jays and Orioles on Sportsnet ONE and SN Now, with first pitch scheduled for 7:07 p.m. ET/4:07 p.m. PT.

France, Italy lead way atop updated Euro 2020 odds

After finishing atop the Group F table by a narrow margin and earning a favourable matchup in the Round of 16, the French have climbed to short +350 betting favourites on the odds to win Euro 2020 at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The defending FIFA World Cup champions were put to the test early on after drawing into this year’s tournament’s group of death alongside Germany, Hungary, and defending Euro champions Portugal. While they failed to dominate, Les Bleus emerged from the group stage undefeated, setting the stage for a Round of 16 matchup with Switzerland on Monday at Arena Nationala in Bucharest, Romania.

Winners by a slim 1-0 margin in their tournament opener versus Germany, the French were forced to settle for draws in their subsequent clashes with Hungary and Portugal. But despite sporting the weakest record of any first-place finishers in the group stage, the French are likely to benefit from their date with Switzerland to open the knockout stage as they are undefeated in six meetings across all competitions with the Swiss since 1992. However, Les Bleus can expect to face stiff competition the rest of way.

A potential opponent for France in the semi-finals, the Italians are second on the Euro 2020 odds as a +550 wager at sports betting sites, followed by England at +650, Germany at +700, Spain at +750, and Belgium at +800.

Joining England as the only two squads to keep clean sheets in all three group stage matches, Italy marched to the top of the Group A table with three straight wins. The Italians have been rewarded for their efforts with a Round of 16 matchup with Austria, but will then have to get past the winner of Sunday’s clash between Belgium and Portugal to advance to the semi-finals for just the second time since 2000.

The stingy defence of the English was crucial to their climb to first place in Group D but earned them a Round of 16 date with Germany, whom they have not defeated at a major tournament since 2000. The Three Lions must also find a way to revive a moribund attack that produced just two total goals during the group stage, and only eight total goals over their past seven overall contests.

Germany’s second-place group stage finish extends a middling stretch of 16 matches during which they have won consecutive contests on just two occasions. However, Die Mannschaft have reached the semi-finals in nine of their 12 previous Euro appearances.

Further down the Euro 2020 odds, Netherlands leads the middle of the pack at +900, just ahead of Portugal, who are pegged as a +1200 wager to repeat as European champions.

MLB to use unique uniforms for 2021 All-Star Game

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is getting rid of club uniforms and caps for the All-Star Game in favour of specially-designed league outfits.

MLB released the looks Thursday that will be used for the July 13 game at Denver’s Coors Field.

The host National League has white jerseys and the American League blue. Each two-button jersey features three red letters for a player’s club arranged vertically on the left side with the club logo superimposed over the first and second letter, in black or white for NL teams and khaki for AL.

Stars on the back will mark each player’s All-Star selection total, and the right sleeves have the MLB All-Star logo patch.

Caps have team logos mostly in red, with some white and blue, superimposed over a star in the Rockies’ purple with white points.

Clubs uniforms traditionally had been used for the All-Star Game since its inception in 1933.