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St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds Friday, April 17, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds Friday, April 17, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Even with less than his best stuff, Cardinals starter Michael Wacha was good enough to beat the Cincinnati Reds again.

Wacha served a first-inning homer to Joey Votto but did not give up another run in seven innings and Yadier Molina delivered a bases-clearing double to break a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the seventh as the Cardinals beat the Reds 6-1 on Friday night.

The win was Wacha’s second in a week over the Reds and their ace, Johnny Cueto. In eight career outings against Cincinnati, Wacha owns a 2.01 ERA and 3-1 record. He handled the Reds in this game even though his best pitch, his changeup, was not particularly sharp.

“Michael was good but it wasn’t his typical stuff,” manager Mike Matheny said. “The changeup was good but it seemed like it had a different feel. It was nice to see him figure out a way to pitch with a different style.”

Wacha said the key was calming down.

“Early on, I was a little jumpy,” Wacha said. “I was just a little too excited out there, leaving some balls up. After the first couple of innings, I was able to settle down and start working down in the zone.”

Cueto, winless in three starts, matched Wacha through six innings before the Cardinals broke through in the seventh. With the score 1-1, Matt Holliday led off with a single to right field. He went to third on a one-out double by Jhonny Peralta that landed just in front of left fielder Marlon Byrd and bounced past him.

After Jon Jay was intentionally walked, Molina lined the first pitch from Cueto down the left-field line that scored three.

“There’s no reason to get beat right there by Jay,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “In the end it’s just the best decision to walk Jay and go after Molina and have an idea of how we want to get the ball on the ground. It just didn’t happen.”

Molina said he understood why Price decided to walk Jay.

“That’s baseball,” Molina said. “Try to get a good pitch to hit and try to make good contact. Everybody knows I’ve been in the league 12 years and I’m an aggressive guy. It was special, a good moment.”

Votto gave Cincinnati a first-inning lead with his fourth homer, his third against St. Louis, before Matt Carpenter tied the game in the bottom of the inning. He doubled, went to third on a groundout and scored when he somersaulted over catcher Brayan Pena on Holliday’s fly to short center.

“I either could run through him or go over him,” Carpenter said. “At the last (second), I saw the opportunity to go above him and it ended up working out. I’ve never done anything like that.”


To mark the 70th anniversary of his major league debut, Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst was honored before the game. He batted third, tripled and scored in a 3-2 loss at Wrigley Field and went on to hit .289 in a 19-year career. Schoendienst, 92, remains a special assistant with St. Louis. “With Mr. (Stan) Musial no longer with us, Red’s taken that banner for what a Cardinal looks like,” manager Mike Matheny said.


Reds: C Devin Mesoraco (left hip) returned to the club after missing the team’s series in Chicago but was not in the starting lineup. Mesoraco, 2 for 21 for the season, has not played since Sunday and is not likely to return behind the plate this weekend. C Tucker Barnhart was called up Friday and could back up Pena.

Cardinals: LHP Jaime Garcia, trying to come back from last year’s left shoulder surgery, faced minor-league hitters at extended spring training in Jupiter, Florida. He remains weeks away from a possible return, general manager John Mozeliak said.


Reds RHP Homer Bailey is scheduled to make his 2015 debut when he opposes RHP Carlos Martinez Saturday afternoon. Bailey underwent surgery last September to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right forearm.

by Dave Skretta, AP Sports

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Friday, April 17, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Friday, April 17, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Royals and A’s picked up right where they left off. On Friday night, it nearly turned into punches.

In their first meeting since last September’s dramatic wild-card game, Paulo Orlando delivered a go-ahead triple in the eighth inning to help Kansas City to a 6-4 win.

The victory nearly came at a big loss for the Royals when shortstop Alcides Escobar was run over by the Athletics’ Brett Lawrie covering second base. The Royals took umbrage with Lawrie’s late slide, and both benches quickly emptied before order was restored.

“I can’t judge intent,” said Royals manager Ned Yost, who later acknowledged that he didn’t think Lawrie was trying to hurt Escobar when he slid over the bag.

Escobar was diagnosed with a sprained knee and likely will be sidelined for a few days.

“I’m trying to break up a double play there. It’s a tie game. No one is trying to hurt anyone there,” Lawrie said. “That’s just playing the game hard.”

Omar Infante drove in a pair of runs for the Royals, whose 12-inning victory over the A’s last year ultimately spurred them all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.

Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis (2-0) each pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Jeremy Guthrie, and Greg Holland breezed through the ninth for his fourth save.

Dan Otero (0-1) gave up both runs in the eighth inning for Oakland.

“It was eerily similar to about six months ago,” said the A’s Stephen Vogt, who played in that wild playoff game at Kauffman Stadium that ended their season.

Vogt had a pair of solo homers Friday night, and Ike Davis also went deep for the A’s, whose team bears little resemblance to the one from a year ago. For one thing, their designated hitter these days is Billy Butler, who was playing for the Royals back then.

Butler went 1 for 4, extending his hitting streak to 10 games to start the season.

“I was trying to do too much,” he said, “and I don’t do well when I’m trying to do too much.”

The A’s jumped in front on Lawrie’s sacrifice bunt in the second inning, and Kansas City pulled ahead with five straight two-out singles in the third.

Oakland quickly answered when Davis homered on the first pitch he saw in the fourth, and Vogt tied it at 3 with his first homer just two pitches later.

Kansas City went in front again in the sixth on Infante’s single, but Yost elected to leave Guthrie in rather than go to Herrera at that point. Vogt made him pay with a drive to right for his first career multihomer game.

Later in the inning, Lawrie was on first base when Josh Reddick lined a pitch off Herrera toward third, where Mike Moustakas fielded it. He flipped to Escobar covering second, but Lawrie’s late slide over the bag caused a collision that left Escobar crumpled on the dirt.

He was helped off the field without putting any weight on his left leg, while Lawrie had to be escorted by his teammates through a horde of angry Royals and back to the Oakland dugout.

“It was a weird play,” said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who had a good view of the play. “It was obviously late, but I don’t think he meant anything by it.”

Yost said that he was worried that Escobar may have “torn up his knee,” but he was reassured by trainer Nick Kenney that the injury is not considered serious.

“It looks like it’s going to be a bruise more than anything,” Yost said.


A’s starter Sonny Gray gave up four runs and a career-high 11 hits in six innings. He tossed eight innings of shutout ball against Texas and allowed one earned run in 7 1-3 innings against Seattle in his first two starts of the season.


Butler received his AL championship ring before the game. Royals C Salvador Perez, 1B Hosmer and LF Alex Gordon received their Gold Glove awards. Gordon also received a Platinum Glove as the American League’s best defensive player.


Athletics: RHP Jarrod Parker (Tommy John surgery) is scheduled to throw three innings in extended spring training Saturday. On Monday, LHP Sean Nolin (sports hernia surgery) will throw two innings, and RHP A.J. Griffin will throw one inning.

Royals: Escobar was replaced in the lineup by Christian Colon, who is likely to start at shortstop Saturday. Escobar had started the club’s first nine games.


Athletics: RHP Jesse Hahn faces the Royals for the first time in his career.

Royals: RHP Yordano Ventura makes his third start of the season. He left his first two with cramps, first to his right thumb and then to his right calf.

by Steve Overbey, AP

St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Carpenter celebrates as he stands on second after hitting an RBI double during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter celebrates as he stands on second after hitting an RBI double during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — St. Louis’ Lance Lynn wasn’t at his best on Wednesday night. Even a less-than-stellar effort couldn’t put a halt to his April success.

The right-hander pitched five solid innings and he received help from six relievers to lead the Cardinals to a 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Lynn (1-1) allowed one run and six hits. He pushed his April record to 13-2 since 2012, the best record in the majors over that period.

“I wasn’t sharp, I had a lot of deep counts,” Lynn said. “It was just one of those games. When you don’t have your best command and you get out of there giving up just one run, that helps.”

Wily Peralta (0-1) gave up four runs on 10 hits over five innings for Milwaukee.

Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez was removed from the game in the ninth inning. He was limping after beating out a play at first base. Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said Gomez strained a hamstring and it requires further tests. He indicated that Gomez will not be in the lineup for the series finale on Thursday.

Yadier Molina had three hits for St. Louis, which won 12 of 19 against Brewers last season.

Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Matt Belisle, Randy Choate, Jordan Walden and Trevor Rosenthal followed Lynn. Rosenthal picked up his third save despite giving up a two-out run-scoring hit to Ryan Braun in the ninth. He got Adam Lind to fly out to end the game.

“That’s not how we draw it up, to use so many guys that much,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “But wins are that valuable. You’ve got to jump on them when you can.”

The six relievers combined to allow just one run on four hits over the final four innings.

“They did the job, they bailed me out,” Lynn said.

Lynn worked out of trouble in four of his five innings and threw 99 pitches. He rebounded to set the side down in order on 16 pitches in the fifth.

“It wasn’t one of his better days and he was still good,” Matheny said. “He went deep in a lot of counts, but he left a lot of guys on base.”

Roenicke said his club simply couldn’t bunch enough hits together at the right time.

“I thought we did a pretty good job putting people on base,” he said. “We had some chances. We’re just not stringing together a lot of hits.”

The Cardinals needed just six pitches to take a 2-0 lead. Matt Carpenter singled and Jason Heyward doubled before Holliday ripped the first pitch to right field. Holliday has a hit in all seven games this season.

Milwaukee cut it to 2-1 on a run-scoring single by Aramis Ramirez in the third.

St. Louis pushed the lead to 4-1 in the fourth on successive singles by Jhonny Peralta, Jon Jay and Molina. Matt Carpenter doubled in Molina with two outs.

The Cardinals had 10 hits and went 4 for 11 with runners in scoring position after stranding an NL-high 50 runners over their first six games.

“We’re starting to capitalize on some things,” St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams said. “We got hits when we needed to cash in.”

Jhonny Peralta has hit safely in all seven games this season.


Brewers: Braun started for the sixth time this season despite a sore rib cage that caused him to miss two starts last week. … RHP Jim Henderson remains on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.

Cardinals: LHP Jaime Garcia threw another side session at extended spring training on Wednesday. He is expected to throw batting practice on Friday.


Brewers: RHP Mike Fiers (0-1, 9.00) will make his second start of the year in the series finale Thursday at 12:45 p.m. He is 2-1 with a 1.30 ERA in six career starts against the Cardinals.

Cardinals: RHP John Lackey (0-0, 6.00) will make his second start of the season on Thursday. He is nine strikeouts shy of 1,800 for his career.

by Patrick Donelly, AP

Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain (6) reacts to striking out against the Minnesota Twins in the eighth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Minneapolis. The Twins won 3-1. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain (6) reacts to striking out against the Minnesota Twins in the eighth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Minneapolis. The Twins won 3-1. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The defending American League champions were finally reminded what it feels like to lose a game.

Kansas City became the last team in the majors to lose this season, as Kyle Gibson pitched into the seventh inning and Oswaldo Arcia hit a two-run homer for the Minnesota Twins in a 3-1 victory over the Royals on Wednesday night.

The Royals (7-1) were chasing the 2003 team’s 9-0 start as the best in franchise history. But Gibson (1-1) used 12 groundball outs and three strikeouts to keep the highest-scoring team in the majors quiet for a night.

“He had a good sinker going tonight. He was pounding the zone early and when pitchers get ahead like that, it makes all of their pitches more effective,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Edinson Volquez (1-1) solidified his spot in the rotation with his second consecutive strong outing. He struck out seven in 7 2-3 innings, with five hits and one walk allowed. Volquez, who signed as a free agent after pitching last year in Pittsburgh, now has eight straight quality starts. He hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his last 14 outings.

“He’s going deep into games and throwing the ball very, very well,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.

Volquez pitched out of trouble in the first inning, when he loaded the bases with nobody out. Brian Dozier hit a sacrifice fly, but Volquez retired the next two hitters on infield grounders to limit the damage.

But after the Royals tied it in the fourth, Volquez made his only mistake of the night in the bottom of the inning. Arcia sent a two-strike, two-out drive into the seats above right-center field to put Minnesota ahead 3-1.

The Royals had their chances but couldn’t come up with a big hit. Lorenzo Cain bounced into a double play after consecutive singles to start the game, and Salvador Perez grounded into an inning-ending double play by the Twins in the second.

Alcides Escobar had three of the nine hits against Gibson and Alex Gordon drove in a run with a two-out single in the fourth inning, but Gibson tiptoed out of trouble all night. The former University of Missouri star improved to 4-0 in four career starts with a 1.38 ERA against Kansas City.

Yost decided to keep Cain in center field and replace Alex Rios in right field with Jarrod Dyson, only the second bench player to appear in a game so far for the Royals along with Paulo Orlando. Outfielder Terrance Gore was recalled from Double-A Northwest Arkansas for depth.


Rios, who broke the pinkie finger on his left hand when he was hit by a pitch from Twins rookie J.R. Graham the night before, expressed frustration about the circumstance.

“It’s frustrating when you get inexperienced pitchers coming to the mound showing a lot of energy and not being able to control their emotions,” Rios said. “I think that’s a recipe for disaster, when you have high-energy guys without being able to control their emotions. And then you put them in high-pressure situations, and they just don’t know what to do and things like this happen.”


Rios said he wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis, considering how hard the pitch was and the placement of his hand against the knob of the bat. He passed a strength test on his hand, one encouraging sign for a recovery that could take about a month.

“I’m going to do my best to do what I can to shorten up the time. It’s going to depend on the bone itself, but I’m going to work on everything that I can to help the healing process a little more,” he said.


The Royals will send left-hander Jason Vargas to the mound for the series finale on Thursday afternoon to face Twins left-hander Tommy Milone.

by Harlin Hutchison

(West Plains) – Thursday, April 16 will be one of the biggest sports day of the year in West Plains, with the annual West Plains Zizzer Relays at Zizzer Stadium.

A total of 17 schools will be competing in track and field events.

Those schools, along with the host team, will include:

Liberty, Licking, Waynesville, Mountain Home, Springfield-Glendale, Plato, Dora, Mountain Grove, Cabool, Springfield-Central, Ava, Willow Springs, Houston, Gainesville, Bakersfield, Alton.

by Harlin Hutchison

Shondell Jackson (YouTube/Scarberry Productions )

Shondell Jackson (YouTube/Scarberry Productions )

(West Plains) – The number is now ‘four’ as far as new recruits for the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzlies basketball program.

The first two, Justin Davis of West Plains and Lane Duncan of Licking, will give the team more of a local flavor next season.

For their most recent recruits, the Grizzlies hit the road and went back to the familiar recruiting grounds of Ohio.

The Grizzlies have signed a pair of players: Jearvon Irvin, a 6-3 guard from Princeton High School in Cincinnati, along with Shondell Jackson, a 6-4, 185 lb. guard from Warren Harding High School in Warren, Ohio.

Statistics for the pair were not available although Jackson did lead his team in scoring in his junior year with 15 points per game.

The Grizzly Volleyball program has signed four players for next season.

The most recent signee is Stephanie Phillips from Thornsland, Queensland, Australia. Three players had signed in the month of December. They included: Ashley Bishton of Liberty, Mo., Susannah Kelly of Jonesboro, and Fangapulotu Manoa of Pittsburg, California.

Former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez listens as the guilty verdict is read during his murder trial, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. at Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, Mass. Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd in June 2013.  He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.  (Dominick Reuter/Pool Photo via AP)

Former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez listens as the guilty verdict is read during his murder trial, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. at Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, Mass. Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd in June 2013. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. (Dominick Reuter/Pool Photo via AP)

FALL RIVER, Mass. (AP) — Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison Wednesday in a deadly late-night shooting, sealing the downfall of an athlete who once had a $40 million contract and a standout career ahead of him.

Hernandez, 25, looked to his right, pursed his lips and sat down after the jury forewoman pronounced him guilty in the slaying of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old landscaper and amateur weekend football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee. The conviction carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole and automatically triggers an appeal to Massachusetts’ highest court.

Hernandez’s mother, Terri, and his fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins, cried and gasped when they heard the verdict, and Lloyd’s mother also cried. Jenkins wept loudly on his mother’s shoulder. Hernandez, his eyes red, mouthed to them: “Be strong. Be strong.”

The former football pro was also found guilty on weapons charges. The jury deliberated for 36 hours over seven days before rendering its verdict.

For reasons that were never made clear to the jury, Lloyd was shot six times in the middle of the night on June 17, 2013, in a deserted industrial park near Hernandez’s home in North Attleborough.

Police almost immediately zeroed in on Hernandez because they found in Lloyd’s pocket the key to a car the NFL player had rented. Within hours of Hernandez’s arrest, the Patriots cut the former Pro Bowl athlete, who was considered one of the top tight ends in the game.

Prosecutors presented a wealth of evidence that Hernandez was with Lloyd at the time he was killed, including home security video from Hernandez’s mansion, witness testimony and cellphone records that tracked Lloyd’s movements.

Hernandez’s lawyer, James Sultan, acknowledged for the first time during closing arguments that Hernandez was there when Lloyd was killed.

But the attorney pinned the shooting on two of Hernandez’s friends, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, saying his client was a “23-year-old kid” who witnessed a shocking crime and didn’t know what to do. Wallace and Ortiz will stand trial later.

Prosecutors have suggested Lloyd may have been killed because he knew too much about Hernandez’s alleged involvement in a deadly 2012 drive-by shooting in Boston. But they were not allowed to tell the jury that because the judge said it was speculation.

As a result, they never offered a motive beyond saying Hernandez appeared angry with Lloyd at a nightclub two nights before the killing.

Hernandez faces further legal trouble: He is awaiting trial on murder charges in the drive-by shooting. He is accused of gunning down two men over a spilled drink at a nightclub.

In the Lloyd killing, the defense argued that investigators fixated on Hernandez because of his celebrity and conducted a shoddy investigation in their zeal to confirm their suspicions.

Prosecutors said Hernandez organized the killing, summoned his two friends to help carry it out and drove Lloyd and the others to the secluded spot in the industrial park. During closing arguments, prosecutors also accused Hernandez of pulling the trigger, though under the law it was not necessary to prove who fired the shots to convict him.

Security video from inside Hernandez’s home showed him holding what appeared to be a gun less than 10 minutes after Lloyd was killed. The surveillance system also captured Hernandez, Wallace and Ortiz relaxing at his home hours after Lloyd was shot, hanging out in the basement “man cave,” lounging by the pool and cuddling Hernandez’s baby daughter.

Hernandez, a native of Bristol, Connecticut, was an All-American out of the University of Florida who was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round in 2010.

by Dave Campbell, AP

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Twins have presented new manager Paul Molitor with quite a challenge after his first week of the regular season.

The seven-game sample size couldn’t be much smaller, but the results couldn’t be much worse.

“We’re not pitching particularly well, we’re not fielding particularly well, we’re not swinging the bat particularly well and I’m probably not managing particularly well,” Molitor said Monday after the Twins lost their home opener 12-3 to Kansas City, dropping their record to 1-6. “So all these things we need to try and do better.”

Molitor’s first year on the job was jarred three days before the 2015 schedule even started, when starting pitcher Ervin Santana was suspended by Major League Baseball for 80 games for a positive test for a banned performance-enhancing substance. Then the Twins went to Detroit and were swept by a combined score of 22-1. Another expensive veteran in the rotation, Ricky Nolasco, was placed on the disabled list with elbow inflammation.

With a whopping 45 runs allowed and a mere 16 runs scored, the Twins are last in baseball in both categories.

“We had a lot of things happen the first week,” general manager Terry Ryan said. “All heck broke loose.”

The lineup will certainly produce at a better rate over the course of the season. Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone have the ability to stabilize the starting staff until Nolasco and Santana return. But the bullpen is thin. Maybe the most concerning development, mirroring a recent downturn on defense the Twins have displayed in recent years, is all the misplays in the field in the first seven games.

“I don’t think we should panic right now,” said right fielder Torii Hunter, who had a throwing error Monday. “But we definitely need to make some adjustments on things and get it right.”

Molitor’s demeanor is as steady as managers go and he is taking over for Ron Gardenhire, whose 13 years on the job ended with the Twins slumping to an average of 96 losses the last four seasons. The 58-year-old Molitor isn’t under the same pressure.

“At what point do you change tactics? I think for the most part I try to be one of encouragement, try to keep things somewhat loose. Obviously when there’s specific things to be passed along you do that,” he said. “I haven’t really seen a lot of things that in my mind are worthy of reprimand, if that’s the direction you’re trying to go.”

Molitor, though, acknowledged after the home opener that he believed some of the players were already pressing in light of the ugly start.

“I realize how long a baseball season is,” Molitor said, questioning the effectiveness of emotional outbursts. “I guess you could try to measure when it’s going to be appropriate and when it’s not, but I have a tendency to do better personally and stay more optimistic when I look at the big picture.”

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Wild left wing Matt Cooke has an injury that has clouded his availability for Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.

Cooke did not practice Tuesday, due to what Wild coach Mike Yeo would only describe as “discomfort.” Yeo said Cooke is “definitely a possibility” to play Thursday, but he added that if the team were to decide Cooke wasn’t fully healthy then he wouldn’t play in Game 1.

Cooke missed two months after sports hernia surgery, but Yeo said his absence Tuesday was unrelated to the prior injury. Ryan Carter took Cooke’s place in practice on the fourth line with Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Wild were flailing three months ago, when a potential remedy for their problems was located in the desert.

Devan Dubnyk was so eager to help he took a cross-country red-eye flight to meet them.

The Wild gladly gave him the net that night on about 90 minutes of sleep, and their season-saving goaltender has been going strong ever since. They start the playoffs on Thursday at St. Louis.

“One of my first conversations with him was, `We don’t need you to come in and be a hero,’” coach Mike Yeo said. “It probably appeared that way to him at that time.”

The Wild fell to 18-19-5 after a humiliating 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 13, making them an easy pick for the NHL’s biggest first-half flop.

Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom were struggling to keep the Wild competitive, so general manager Chuck Fletcher sent a third-round draft pick to Arizona for Dubnyk, a 28-year-old backup who still had potential but was expendable for the Coyotes behind the established Mike Smith.

Dubnyk boarded a plane in Phoenix the night of the Jan. 14 trade and met the Wild in Buffalo after a connection in New York, bleary-eyed but clear-minded.

“That was a weird day, that one,” Dubnyk said after practice on Tuesday. “Right from the time I left, I just kind of tried to prepare and treat it as though I was going to be playing the game and not really think otherwise. You put yourself in between, and then you start guessing if you should or shouldn’t. I just didn’t give myself a choice. I just said, `I’m going no matter what,’ and prepared accordingly as best I could with an hour and a half of sleep.”

The Wild won 7-0.

The appearance on Jan. 15 of the lowly Sabres on the schedule sure helped. So did Dubnyk’s confidence. But the Wild were 2-8-4 in their previous 16 games, in dire need of a jolt. Just about anybody was welcome at that point.

“You wait and see how he’s going to play, but you know what? I feel like any time you bring in a new player you have that initial inject of life in the room right away,” star left wing Zach Parise said, reflecting later.

“And then on top of that for him to come in and get the shutout his first game and play really well for us in each game that he’s played, it just makes the team feel better.”

Dubnyk played in 39 of the 40 games that remained in the regular season, breaking just last week after the Wild clinched the wild-card spot.

They had the fourth-worst record in the Western Conference the day of the deal, and they climbed all the way to sixth to pose an unenviable opening opponent for the Central Division champion Blues.

“We’ve done a real good job of really being able to focus on a single game at a time and, regardless of winning or losing, just forgetting about it and shifting our focus to the next game,” said Dubnyk, who had a 1.78 goals-against average with the Wild and ranked second overall in the NHL in that category behind Montreal Canadiens standout Carey Price.

“And we’ve had to do that for months now. So I think we’ve grown as a team to know how to do that well, and that should help us going forward here.”

Dubnyk has never appeared in a playoff game, but he beat the Blues twice in March including a 41-save win at St. Louis. At 6-foot-6, he has a size advantage between the pipes.

He’s nimble and aggressive enough to play the puck well out of the crease, too, one of many benefits the Wild skaters have cited since his arrival.

“It’s not like we were waiting for it to end, but I don’t think any of us were expecting him to continue the way that he did,” Yeo said. “It’s remarkable the season he’s had and the level of play he’s been at game after game after game. When you look at him, there’s not a lot of reasons why he shouldn’t continue to be capable of doing it.”