AL Divisional Series Outlook

The last night of the season has set a pretty high mark for the postseason to follow, and while the next few weeks might not exactly match that excitement, I’m still looking forward to the playoffs.  The current 5-7-7 playoff format is an easy one to hate when your team is 0-6 in their last two playoff appearances, but it applies a great pressure to win early, and to win at home to protect home field advantage.  Over the past few years in the MLB, the playoffs have been great to watch, and I don’t think this year will be any different.

 

-Tampa Bay Rays (91-71, Wild Card ) vs. Texas Rangers (96-66, AL West Champions)

Well, this looks familiar doesn’t it?  Last year the Rays won the AL East and faced the Rangers who won the AL West that year as well, the difference between last year’s series and this year’s is that the Rangers have home field advantage.  Last year’s Divisional Series was one of the oddest series that I had seen in a while- a five game bash fest, in which the away team won each game (Rangers won that series).   The road team scored at least 5 runs in all five games of the series last year, and this year I simply don’t think the same thing will happen.  The Rays are trotting out “super stud” rookie pitcher Matt Moore who made quite a meteoric rise from AA Montgomery to Tampa Bay, tying the AAA Durham Bulls single game strikeout record with 13 Ks along the way, and the Rays will follow him up with David Price tomorrow.  Looking at those two pitchers together brings me to this comparison: In 2008, the Rays made a lot of waves calling up a left handed fireballing pitcher from the minor leagues late in the season (Price), and this year the Rays brought up another left handed fireballing pitcher from the minor leagues late in the season (Moore).  In 2008, Tampa made their first franchise World Series appearance, could Moore’s call up propel the Rays to their second WS appearance and possibly first Championship?

Tampa is going to have to pitch carefully to Texas’ lineup, the Rangers finished the regular season second in the league in home runs with 210 (Yankees were 1st with 222).  At the same time, the Rangers are going to have their work cut out for them at bat, the Rays had the league’s 8th best team ERA (3.58), so this series will put the “Good hitting vs. Good pitching” question into action.  My pick: Rays get revenge from last year and win this series in 4.

 

-Detroit Tigers (95-67, AL Central Champions) vs. New York Yankees (97-65, AL East Champions)

It’s certainly a welcome sight to see the Detroit Tigers in the playoffs again after a five year absence, and they’re carrying a great cast of players with them.  That cast is led by their pitching ace Justin Verlander who paced the league with his 24 win season, 2.40 ERA and 0.92 WHIP, and is followed by first baseman Miguel Cabrera (.344 batting average, 30 home runs), catcher Victor Martinez (.330 avg, 103 RBI), and shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.299 avg, 21 home runs).   The Yankees are a similarly built team, and will be sending one of the worst fantasy baseball pitchers CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.00 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) to keep the Tigers at bay, and hopefully put the Yankees up in the short series.  As I referenced earlier, the Yankees led the league with 222 homers; the reigning Home Run Derby champion Curtis Granderson led the team with 41, followed by Mark Teixeira with 39, Robinson Cano with 28, and Nick Swisher with 23.

We know both of these teams have great starting pitching and great hitting, I feel this series is going to come down to the relievers- especially Detroit’s hyper energetic closer who converted a perfect 49 saves in 49 opportunities, and the legendary Mariano Rivera who converted 44 saves in 49 opportunities, and oh by the way set the league’s all time career record of 603 saves.  My pick: due to the rest of the Yankees bullpen showing themselves to be suspect this season, I’m going to pick the Tigers to win in 5.

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Of AIM, Baseball, and Superstition

I knew today was going to be good.  I just didn’t know it was going to be this good.  I spent the last few hours of my life sitting directly in front of my television watching baseball, with my laptop in front of me feeding information to me about the games I couldn’t watch.  As a Rays fan, I settled in to watch the Rays put up a big number against rookie pitcher Dellin Betences hoping to clinch the Wild Card spot tonight, and at the same time as a Cubs fan keeping tabs on the Cardinals/Astros and Phillies/Braves rooting against the Cardinals.  David Price started off the game struggling, but only allowed one run in the first inning, so the Rays were still in it, I hadn’t given up hope yet.  And then the Mark Teixeira grand slam in the second inning, that was deflating.

Up by five runs, Joe Girardi appeared to no longer be too occupied with winning the game, than with exercising his pitchers.  Seriously though, who sends out eleven pitchers in a regular season game?  Anyway, I kept watching the Rays game hoping for a comeback and all I got was more pain; Mark Teixeira hits another home run to stretch the lead to 6 in the fourth, and then Andruw Jones sends another one deep to make it 7-0 Yankees in the fifth.  At this point, I had had enough, I picked up my remote and flipped over to the Cardinals/Astros game to see what was happening there, and to not watch the Rays.  Seeing that the Cards were up 7-0 on the Astros also, I knew how this game was going to end and so I began trying to find the Braves game to listen to on the MLB AtBat app on my phone, and being stuck in the middle of nowhere, my mobile network was not supporting this cause.

So, next game on the agenda available on tv: Phillies/Braves, and I tuned in just in time for extras.   Read more of this post

NFL Review: Flipping the Script (For Now)

So far through this season, we’ve seen a minor shift.  We’ve seen a shift to the rookie quarterbacks taking the helm (Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder surely soon to follow), we’ve seen the Colts fall to the back due to Manning’s injury, and we’ve seen the… Buffalo Bills rise to the top?  We’re talking about a team that went 4-12 last season!  We’re talking about a team that had the 25th ranked offense and 24thranked defense in the league last season!  But this year, we’re talking about a team that leads the league in points scored (37.7 ppg) and is 3rd in total yards (431.0 ypg).

Read more of this post

A Wild Week Ahead

Calamity, thy name is the Wild Card race.  At the beginning of this month, both the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves held an 8.5 game lead in the Wild Card over the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals respectively.  The Red Sox saw their AL Wild Card dwindle to just a 3.0 game lead in 11 days and it hasn’t been over 4.0 games since then.  The Braves on the other hand saw their lead drop to 4.5 games in the same amount of time and kept their lead above 3.0 games until September 19th when Chipper Jones “lost a ground ball in the lights” that set the Marlins up for a 2-run walk off home run in the 9th.  And now, today with the Red Sox/Yankees game still in the balance the Sox hold a 0.5 game lead over the Rays, and the Braves hold a 1.0 game lead over the Cardinals. Read more of this post

MLS: How U.S. Soccer Can Finally Leave A Lasting Impression

After enduring many years of “soccer is boring” or “every game ends 1-0” or the ever-popular “real men play American football”, it seems that Yanks and “soccer” finally appear to have made a love connection. The growth is confirmed in the numbers: a recent study showed that MLS now has a higher average attendance than the NHL, no easy feat for sure.

The permitting of “designated signings” has allowed Major League Soccer to welcome the likes of David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry, and while these guys may be past the primes of their careers, they are still a welcome treat for fans to watch. These players are known all over the world, even in America, and are therefore an easy draw for fans of all ages.

Adding to the feel-good factor has been the recent additions of teams in Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Philadelphia. All five of these teams have fan bases that are nothing short of fantastic. New stadiums, sell-out home matches, and constant singing and cheering have helped these clubs build up atmospheres that rival those of any other American sport. For you cynics saying “it’ll die down in a few years”, check out the die-hards up in Toronto, who have been here since 2007. How the hell did MLS know Canadians loved soccer so much?

However, there are still some issues that plague MLS and hinder its growth. The debate over the American style of play will not apply here, as changing something like that would take a decade or more to accomplish. Instead, let’s tackle the structure of the league itself.

 

Promotion/Relegation

While 10 out of the league’s 19 teams make the playoffs, you also have the teams who aren’t doing so hot and have no chance of making the post-season; however, there are often still many matches to be played, but what’s the point of turning up to see the team if they have nothing to play for?

This is where relegation comes in. In a system used all across Europe (but completely foreign to American sports), the bottom few clubs in every league are demoted to the division below. In MLS’s case, perhaps the bottom team from each conference could be relegated to the NASL, (the division below MLS), while the top two teams from the 2nd division get promoted to MLS. Heartbreaking? Sure. But hasn’t heartbreak always been part of the beauty of sport? Even if your team is doing badly over the season, they always have something to fight for, right up to the very last game. And as English Premier League fans know, relegation battles near the end of the season can be some of the most entertaining matches of the year. The lasting suspense would definitely keep attendances up (and maybe increase in some cases) for the entire season.

Of course there are many financial issues that would have to be resolved, as well as the quality of NASL teams being good enough to compete in MLS, but if Europe has always made it work, why not us too?

 

Better TV Coverage

For all the good things MLS has done, I still have trouble keeping up with the standings and even the local team’s (Chicago Fire) run of form. Why? There’s nothing on TV. ESPN2 covers a couple of games a month while Fox Soccer Channel runs one game a week, followed by a quick 30-minute post-game show. This, quite frankly, is not nearly enough to keep me interested and up to date on the league. Sure, the TV ratings of MLS matches on ESPN2 don’t make a pretty sight, but surely the one TV channel in America dedicated to SOCCER can do better than one match/post-game show a week. Take a look at the guide on FSC sometime; that channel shows an astonishing amount of reruns from the European leagues during the afternoon, often when MLS teams are playing. Sure, regular matches on Fox or ABC would be nice, but let’s start small. Let’s get the American soccer channel to support American soccer.

 

Soccer Specific Stadiums

We all know the horrifying sight of watching soccer matches played on NFL football fields. When David Beckham first saw one of these fields, he turned to his Galaxy teammates and said, “This is a joke, right?” His teammates, embarrassed, said it was not. For MLS to truly be taken seriously around the world, this has to stop. The majority of teams now have their own stadiums, many of which are extremely impressive, but others are still stepping out onto a field covered with white lines and the logo of an NFL team at each end. Come on, MLS. Get these teams stadiums already. They don’t have to be fancy, giant things like in Seattle or Philadelphia; they can be smaller, more intimate stadiums with maybe a 10,000-15,000 capacity. And if the league can afford to fund giant stadiums for the newer teams, surely they can find space for those still waiting.

Obviously money is at the heart of all these issues, making  them much more complicated to resolve than I can explain. But we know that MLS is run by competent people; we have come a long way since 1996, largely silencing the “soccer is boring” chants. Now let’s go a few steps further and silence the Europeans who still call MLS a “mickey mouse league.” Respect doesn’t come cheap, but we are showing it’s attainable.

NFL Review: Week 1

The NFL season started off with a bang in Green Bay with a great game between the Saints and Packers, and that game along with the entire weekend has set a high mark of what to expect over the course of this season.  The Sunday afternoon slate was entertaining to watch, especially if you saw Cam Newton’s debut against the Cardinals; other than that, there were a few one sided wins like the Bills 41-7 win over Kansas City.  The true story of this weekend were the night games: the aforementioned Saints/Packers game, the Sunday Night Cowboys/Jets game, and the Monday Night Football doubleheader of Patriots/Dolphins followed by Raiders/Broncos. Read more of this post

Something More: Why Chelsea Won’t Win the Champions League

The Champions League trophy: The ultimate achievement in club football. Jose Mourinho believes it is tougher to win this competition than the World Cup. Precious few teams ever get the chance to compete in the competition, let alone have a chance at winning it. For one Roman Abramovich, billionaire owner of English powerhouse Chelsea, it is his obsession to win this trophy. He has dispensed with several top-class managers (plus Avram Grant) for failing to deliver his dream.  Abramovich has brought in world class players, some of the best managers, and delivered the most successful period in Chelsea’s history. But the Champions League, his ultimate goal, continues to elude him. There are many reasons for this, and they are the reasons why no amount of money will make his dream come true.

Let’s look at last year’s winners, Barcelona. Constantly the favorites to win the Champions League (along with everything else), it was no surprise when they raced to last year’s final and then demonstrated their superiority with a dominant performance over Manchester United. Quite simply, longevity is the key to their success. Look at the players who are either homegrown or have been at the club for a lengthy period of time- Pique, Valdes, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Puyol, Busquets, Bojan. And many of these players (plus David Villa) play together in the Spanish national team, who recently won the World Cup. Little wonder they’re on the same wavelength.

Lesson 1: You don’t always need to buy foreign to be successful.

Chelsea, by contrast, have always been interrupted by changes in personnel, usually engineered by Abramovich. Striker Andriy Shevchenko, brought in for 30 million pounds in 2006, was a known friend of Abramovich and was an “owner’s signing” rather than a signing of then-manager Jose Mourinho. Past his prime and low on confidence (and reported tensions with Mourinho), he only managed 22 goals in 77 appearances for Chelsea. Not only did this episode demonstrate that owners should leave transfer targets to the manager, it showed an utter lack of respect for the manager. Mourinho eventually fell out with Abramovich and moved on to win, yep, the Champions League with Inter Milan.

This undermining of managers continued with Italian Carlo Ancelotti.  Brought in by Abramovich to make Chelsea the kings of Europe, he was incredibly sacked one year after winning the Premier League and F.A. Cup double. In the midst of his reign, Chelsea signed one Fernando Torres for a staggering 50 million pounds. Ancelotti was clear: this was an Abramovich signing, not an Ancelotti signing. Torres has so far managed just 1 goal in 23 appearances for the Blues, looking a complete shadow of the striker who scored the winning goal for Spain in the Euro 2008 final. Now Ancelotti is gone and Abramovich’s wallet is quite a bit lighter (with his money going toward bringing Liverpool back up to Chelsea’s level!).

Lesson 2: Learn to trust your manager. There’s a reason you hired him.

These “star signings” and the revolving door of managers (Mourinho, Grant, Guus Hiddink, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Ancelotti) are also hindering a very important aspect of every club: the development of young players. With the managers under so much pressure, they are reluctant to take a risk on youngsters. And it is telling: aside from the extremely promising Josh McEachran, who will have trouble getting in the team with all the senior midfielders in the squad, what homegrown players have turned out to be successful for Chelsea recently? A top club such as the Blues must have some promising young players in their academy, but they will get frustrated and continue their development with a club who can guarantee playing time. It will be Chelsea’s loss.

A prime example of this is Scott Sinclair. Formerly a promising talent for the Blues, he became irritated with a lack of playing time and was unsettled by the constantly changing managers.  After being loaned out to six different clubs, he had enough and departed for Swansea City, where last season he scored 27 goals, including a hat-trick in the Championship playoff final to help the club win promotion to the EPL. As the young man himself recently said, “It’s Chelsea’s loss.”

Lesson 3: Patience is a virtue. Give your managers the time they need to properly develop young players.

With Abramovich clearly not being a man who learns his lessons in football, you have to fear for the current manager, 33-year-old Andre Villas-Boas. With the reported amount of “player power” that goes on at Chelsea (demonstrated by Ashley Cole bringing a rifle into training one day), along with the task of bringing the best out of Torres, the words “mission impossible” come to mind. Blues fans can only pray that this manager is given time to implement his own style as well as the encouragement to bring up some young players such as McEachran.

Roman’s millions are capable of bringing in domestic trophies, but it takes something more to conquer Europe. A certain Sir Alex Ferguson has shown what can be achieved when owners give an under-pressure manager time to make his mark. Barcelona and Manchester United, with their excellent combinations of homegrown and bought players, are the benchmark. Until Abramovich realizes how little he truly understands, he will never claim the prize he wants above all others.

As for that John Terry slip, we’ll put that one down to karma for sacking Mourinho.