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Alijah Vera-Tucker came at a high price, but it may have been worth it

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Alijah Vera-Tucker came at a high price, but it may have been worth it

Joe Douglas moved aggressively last spring to acquire Alijah Vera-Tucker, and the early results indicate that the deal is paying off.

The Jets traded the No. 23, 66 and 86 overall picks to the Vikings to secure the No. 14 overall pick to select Vera-Tucker in the 2021 draft. After his rookie season, it looks like it could be a slam dunk move.

“I feel like it went well. Obviously, there were some ups and downs from a personal standpoint,” Vera-Tucker said after he met with reporters after the season finale against the Bills. “I feel like this rookie year took some time to evaluate this NFL life, it was a great opportunity for me.”

Vera-Tucker wasn’t always perfect, but the Jets couldn’t expect greatness in year one.

But there were plenty of plays where Vera-Tucker looked like a seasoned pro.

The former USC standout showed signs of becoming a force in the run blocking game. And while it wasn’t always consistent, Vera-Tucker’s showed impressive athleticism. He can pull across the line of scrimmage, or block two blitzing defenders in pass protection to give his QB enough time to fire a strike.

Mike White’s touchdown pass to Braxton Berrios against the Bengals is a prime example of this.

In the running game, Vera-Tucker can double-team a defensive tackle then sprint up to the second level and quickly latch onto a linebacker.

The Jets rushing attack averaged 4.3 yards when running left, which is solid, but leaves room for improvement.

Vera-Tucker needs to be better in pass protection. He allowed 42 pressures (34 hurries, six QBs hits and two sacks), sixth most among NFL guards, according to Pro Football Focus. Growth in that area will come with time as he gets stronger and cleans up his technique.

“I think there’s always room for improvement. From what I could say now without looking at every single game in close detail, I’d say pass pro,” Vera-Tucker said. “I’d definitely like to get better at that. I know my strengths and weaknesses with that. Also in the run game, too. I just always want to be violent in the run and pass game. I feel like I was able to show that this season. But I definitely need to pass well, just techniques and stuff like that. Being able to just perfect my craft.”

The three picks after Zach Wilson were Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore and Michael Carter and all three have shown they are building blocks. The offensive quartet could become the core that changes the course of the franchise.

“It’s really exciting just the rookie class this year, everybody taking this year to grow and stuff like that, getting used to playing in the NFL,” Vera-Tucker said. “I’m excited for it. I know everybody else is excited for it. Go into this offseason and evaluate what we did right, what we do wrong, look at the tape and just get better.”

Overall, Vera-Tucker’s rookie year revealed he could become a premier guard in the NFL. He already flashed promise in the run game, and as he acknowledges, his pass blocking needs improvement.

The trade up to the No. 14 pick is paying early dividends.

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Park Square’s ‘Airness’ promises plenty of headbanging — and a message

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Park Square’s ‘Airness’ promises plenty of headbanging — and a message

It sounds silly at first blush. Yes, there are people who not only like to pretend that they’re playing rock guitar for arenas full of cheering throngs. What rock lover hasn’t done that at some point? But they actually compete against others for who does it with the greatest sense of style, realism and creativity.

Now if I tell you that there’s a play about a community of said imaginary guitar players who converge upon competitions around the country, you would be correct in assuming it’s a comedy. But it’s also a really well-crafted play, full of richly detailed characters with offbeat wisdom to share about getting in touch with yourself and your tribe.

“Airness” is currently receiving its Twin Cities premiere in Park Square Theatre’s first production since the pandemic’s arrival. Written by Chelsea Marcantel, it was among the most heralded new plays of late last decade, and Park Square’s production makes clear why. A topic that could invite derisive laughter instead inspires compassion for a group of people who may be linked by the act of pretending, but are some of the most real characters you may find on a local stage this year.

In the director’s chair is a veteran Twin Cities actor with a reputation for crafting vivid characters, Angela Timberman. Her clearly committed cast lends a verite vibe to a story centered around a seemingly absurd pursuit. And Marcantel has a marvelous ear for speech, both in the competitors’ banter and in captivating monologues when they set down their invisible guitars and talk about what truly drives them.

The plot unfolds over a series of regional air guitar competitions, newcomer Nina acting as our everywoman learning the tricks of the trade and finding acceptance within a supportive community of high-energy pantomime practitioners devoted to “melting faces and breaking hearts for 60 seconds.”

Yes, that’s how long you get to impress judges in an air guitar competition. And each of these artists seeks to not only wow spectators but tap into something deeper about what they want to tell the world (or at least a bar full of people) about themselves.

Nina gradually comes into her own with the guidance of analytical “Shreddy Eddy,” flamboyant “Golden Thunder,” open-hearted “Facebender,” and disdainful but eventually big-sisterly “Cannibal Queen.” They’ve become among the elite in their discipline with the help of tracks from the Ramones, Billy Idol and Queen, among others. Despite their posturing in the spotlight, they’re a vulnerable crew, and we come to see why this form of catharsis is so important to each of them.

Julia Valen’s Nina proves a fine guide to this milieu, endearing but occasionally explosive. And each of the others seizes at least one scene to command the stage. Such as when Daniel Petzold’s Facebender speaks of how a job dealing with death forced him to re-examine his life. Or Neal Skoy’s Shreddy Eddy poetically explains what Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” means to him.

If there’s a villain in this story, it’s Eric “Pogi” Sumangil’s “D Vicious,” who won the national championship last year, but is now turning a cold shoulder to his former support network. Yet he invites sympathy when we watch an endorsement opportunity shred his self-esteem.

But each actor offers a layered portrayal ideal for Marcantel’s pitch-perfect writing. Clad in the eye-catching costumes of Ash M. Kaun, they prove very enjoyable company, and may even inspire you to examine if you have enough self-expression in your life.

Rob Hubbard is a freelance Twin Cities arts writer. Reach him at [email protected]

‘Airness’

  • When: Through June 5
  • Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
  • Tickets: $40-$16, available at 651-291-7005 or parksquaretheatre.org
  • Capsule: Outstanding writing and acting make a show about pretending disarmingly real.
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Ukraine: More than 260 fighters evacuated from Mariupol mill

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Ukraine: More than 260 fighters evacuated from Mariupol mill

By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Ukrainian military official said more than 260 fighters, including some who are badly wounded, were evacuated Monday from a steel plant in the city of Mariupol and taken to areas under Russia’s control.

Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said 53 seriously wounded fighters were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk. An additional 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor. An exchange would be worked out for their return home, she said.

Malyar said missions are underway to rescue the remaining fighters inside the plant, the last stronghold of resistance in the ruined southern port city of Mariupol.

“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time,” she said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”

Earlier Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by pro-Moscow separatists.

After nightfall Monday, several buses pulled away from the steel mill accompanied by Russian military vehicles.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback Monday in its war with Ukraine as Sweden joined Finland in deciding to seek NATO membership, while Ukraine’s president congratulated soldiers who reportedly pushed Russian forces back near the border.

Russian forces pounded targets in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, and the death toll, already many thousands, kept climbing with the war set to enter its 12th week on Wednesday.

The eastern city of Sievierdonetsk came under heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians were killed in shelling.

But Ukrainian troops also advanced as Russian forces pulled back from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers who reportedly pushed all the way to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region in a symbolic gain.

Video showed Ukrainian soldiers carrying a post that resembled a Ukrainian blue-and-yellow-striped border marker. Then they placed it on the ground while a dozen of the soldiers posed next to it, including one with belts of bullets draped over a shoulder.

“I’m very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on my behalf and on behalf of my family,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “I’m very grateful to all the fighters like you.”

The Ukrainian border service said the video showing the soldiers was from the border “in the Kharkiv region,” but would not elaborate, citing security reasons. It was not immediately possible to verify the exact location.

Ukrainian border guards said they also stopped a Russian attempt to send sabotage and reconnaissance troops into the Sumy region, some 90 miles (146 kilometers) northwest of Kharkiv.

Russia has been plagued by setbacks in the war, most glaringly in its failure early on to take the capital of Kyiv. Much of the fighting has shifted to the Donbas but also has turned into a slog, with both sides fighting village-by-village.

Howitzers from the U.S. and other countries have helped Kyiv hold off or gain ground against Russia, a senior U.S. defense official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment, said Ukraine has pushed Russian forces to within a half-mile to 2.5 miles (1 to 4 kilometers) of Russia’s border but could not confirm if it was all the way to the frontier.

The official said Russian long-range strikes also appeared to target a Ukrainian military training center in Yavoriv, near the Polish border. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

A glimmer of hope emerged for wounded Ukrainian troops trapped in the remains of a giant steel plant, the last stronghold of resistance in the shattered port city of Mariupol. The Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by pro-Moscow separatists.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Ukrainian side, and there was no word on whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war.

After nightfall Monday, several buses pulled away from the steel mill accompanied by Russian military vehicles, but it wasn’t clear who was on the buses.

The international response to the Russian invasion picked up pace.

Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership followed a similar decision by neighboring Finland in a historic shift for the counties, which were nonaligned for generations.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves.

“Russia has said that that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO,” she said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us.”

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member, ratcheted up his objection to their joining. He accused the countries of failing to take a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.

He said Swedish and Finnish officials who are expected in Turkey next week should not bother to come if they intend to try to convince Turkey of dropping its objection.

“How can we trust them?” Erdogan asked at a joint news conference with the visiting Algerian president.

All 30 current NATO members must agree to let the Nordic neighbors join.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow “does not have a problem” with Sweden or Finland as they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will of course give rise to our reaction in response.”

Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24 in what he said was an effort to check NATO’s expansion but has seen that strategy backfire. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the membership process for both could be quick.

Europe is also working to choke off funding for the Kremlin’s war by reducing the billions of dollars it spends on imports of Russian energy. A proposed EU embargo faces opposition from some countries dependent on Russian imports, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations.

“We will do our best in order to deblock the situation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “I cannot ensure that it is going to happen because positions are quite strong.”

Also Monday, McDonald’s said it has started selling its business in Russia, ending a relationship that has lasted more than three decades. It cited the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, noting that staying in Russia “is no longer tenable, nor is it consistent with McDonald’s values.” The company was the first fast-food restaurant to open in the Soviet Union.

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McQuillan reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa and other AP staffers around the world contributed.

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Cardinals-Mets game postponed because of rain; doubleheader on Tuesday

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Cardinals-Mets game postponed because of rain; doubleheader on Tuesday

It was humid, and the sun was poking out of the clouds above Citi Field when the Mets announced that due to severe weather forecast for later in the evening, their series opener against the Cardinals on Monday was postponed.

The matchup was rescheduled as part of a single-admission doubleheader on Tuesday, beginning at 3:10 p.m. The gates at Citi Field will open one hour before first pitch, at 2:10 p.m. Game two will begin 30-40 minutes following the conclusion of game one.

“With severe weather in the area, we are thinking about everyone’s safety, so tonight’s game has been postponed,” the Mets said in a statement.

The rain, though flagged as a severe thunderstorm watch, was expected to clear out of Flushing by the 7:10 p.m. first pitch on Monday. The Mets did not make a team official available to provide clarity on their decision, as the home team, to postpone the game.

Alas, a doubleheader on Tuesday may just work to the Amazin’s benefit considering their sub-optimal pitching plans.

Taijuan Walker will take the mound Tuesday on his scheduled start day and Trevor Williams will get another one of those starts, but as of Monday evening the team did not announce which order they will pitch in.

With Tylor Megill (right biceps tendinitis) landing on the injured list, retroactive to May 12, the Mets were in need of a spot starter for Monday. Right-hander Williams, typically the team’s long relief option out of the bullpen, was scheduled to pitch Monday’s series opener against Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas. But Williams was likely not the Mets’ first choice against a 19-15 second place St. Louis squad.

The Mets have a 5-1 record in doubleheaders this season. They will look to rebound after a tough loss against the Mariners at home on Sunday, which led to their first series loss of the season — after a franchise record 9-0-1 start to the year.

There may even be some animosity lingering between the Cards and Mets after the two teams brawled at Busch Stadium the last time they played each other, just three weeks ago. The Mets, who lead the majors with 24 hit by pitches, were emotional after the Cardinals drilled yet another Met, J.D. Davis, which partly led to the benches-clearing incident in St. Louis.

Mets reliever Yoan Lopez sent a fastball up and in to Nolan Arenado, who then shouted and motioned at Lopez before pushing catcher Tomas Nido and the teams spilled onto the field. Arenado and Cardinals pitcher Genesis Cabrera, who pulled Pete Alonso’s collar during the on-field incident, both received suspensions and fines from MLB. But, to manager Buck Showalter’s surprise, Cardinals coach Stubby Clapp, who wrestled Alonso to the ground bear-hug style, did not receive either a suspension or a fine.

Tuesday will be the first time the Cardinals and Mets meet since the kerfuffle in the series finale, a 10-5 Mets loss, at Busch Stadium on April 27.

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