Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Basketball is Back! NBA Regular Season Preview

Well, we're just under an hour away from the pregame ceremonies at TD Banknorth. The raising of the banner is going to be special and I'm sure the Celtics head brass have put together a great show for us. Seeing Paul Pierce finally get his ring will mean even more to me than anyone else because he was here for the hard times as well.

However, what I'm looking forward to is the game. The team the Celts barely beat in the second round last year is coming in with a man in Lebron James who might be heading into one of those Jordan-esque seasons. He finally has some help in Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson is healthy. These are things that worry me as a Celtics fan. While the East has improved through the additions of Elton Brand to the Sixers and Jermaine O'Neal to the Raptors, Boston will receive its greatest challenge from Lebron and the Cavs. On paper, there might be better teams than the Cavs. But I also saw Lebron almost single-handedly bring his team to an Eastern Conference finals against the third-best, repeat, THIRD-BEST defense in the history of the game.

On that note, let's get to my picks and thoughts on each division.

The East:

Atlantic- The Celtics are clearly still the class of this division and it's going to take more than a few middle-aged power forwards to knock the C's off their perch. Based on preseason action, I think Tony Allen will fill James Posey's shoes as a defensive stopper. He will never be the outside shooter Posey is but I think the Celts knew what they were doing here. Allen was waiting in the wings and Posey wanted too many years.

Central- The Pistons have become the Atlanta Braves of the NBA, which isn't a bad thing at all. They are built for the regular season but lack that scorer who can create his own shot and get to the line at will (this role formerly belonged to Chauncey Billups in a sense). This is the year the Cavs win 60 games, easily. Detroit aside, the rest of the division wreaks of mediocrity. I really am scared of this team, especially if you consider the prospect of them picking up a hired gun such as Michael Redd. Ugh...I don't want to think about it.

Southeast- If the Hawks had fired Mike Woodson and brought in someone the players actually enjoy playing for, I would take them far more seriously. If I were an Atlanta fan, I would have no clue how my team will come out of the gates after bowing out in an emotional seven-game first round series against the C's. You never know how young teams will react the following year after reaching the cusp of one of the biggest upsets in recent years. That being said, Dwight Howard and the Magic can cruise to the division title. I know my man-crush, D-Wade, looked damn good in the Olympics and is finally healthy but it's not enough to offset not having a point guard, a mature Michael Beasley or an interested Shawn Marion.

The West:

Pacific- The Suns' sudden change in philosophy has to be one of the biggest stories in the NBA. How does a team with the "Seven Seconds Or Less" mantra miraculously turn into a half-court, defensively sound unit? I'm not sure there's an answer to that question. Steve Kerr is putting everything on the line here and I suppose I see some rationale here. He knows the Suns were a 58-60 win team with major defensive flaws and could get no further than the Conference Finals. I get that. But to blow up the whole thing entirely? There was mixed results at the end of the '07-08 season and the team eventually burned out in the playoffs against the Spurs. It will be an interesting winter in the desert, especially if Shaq decides that being a deputy sheriff is more important than staying away from the dinner table.

I'll go into more depth about the Lakers later but they're a lock to win 60 and the division. It's the playoffs that should prove to be interesting.

Southwest- O.J. Mayo will lead the Grizz to the division....Ahh I'm kidding! This is easily the most competitive division in the NBA. There are three teams (Spurs, Hornets and Rockets) that are legitimate title contenders and a fourth in the Mavs that will still be a dangerous team. Because of Manu Ginobli will be out until December at earliest with that ankle injury, the Spurs will be too far behind to have a shot at the regular season (post season could prove different with a healthy Ginobli). So it comes down to the Hornets and Rockets. Let's play the "if" game. If I knew the Rockets were going to be injury-free all year, I'd make them a shoe-in to lock the division up. Since this isn't NBA Live and you can expect Yao Ming to miss at least 20 games with various injuries from the knees and below (I'm not even taking into account T-Mac's arthritic shoulder), I'm going with the Hornets. They have the best point guard in the NBA and the always-improving David West and Tyson Chandler. Posey will make his greatest impact in May and June.

Northwest- This is Utah's last shot to win this division because it will become property of Greg Oden, Brandon Roy and Co. by next season. Deron Williams' ankle injury and Carlos Boozer's impending free angency won't help the team but they have the most experienced roster and this is Williams' official breakout season. Look for 20 ppg, 10 assists and 2 steals. After a year under his belt though, Oden will take his crown as King of the Northwest. Side Note: The Nuggets will be a funny team to watch, not fun, funny. Is it possible to give up 120+ ppg during an 82 game season?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Yeah. I Still Post! Sox, Pats and Celts

After a prolonged, yet unintentional absence, I am back to posting. Having a new job really cut into my time to write about the sporting world.

Since I last wrote....

-After going down 3-1, the Sox forced a game 7 with the Rays but couldn't muster enough offense to finish the comeback. While I'm not happy with the way things turned out, I'm proud of the resiliency this team showed. After a few days of reflection, I realized that not only was this team lucky to beat the Angels in 4 games but taking a superior Rays team to the limit should have been viewed with a glass half-full approach. Senor Octobre', David Ortiz, was a ghost throughout the post season. If you take away Grant Balfour's idiotic location with his pitches in game 5 of the ALCS when he gave up the 3-run shot, Ortiz would have had no production to speak of. I'm hoping that his hand was still injured and he isn't following the familiar pattern of the declining middle-aged slugger (i.e. Frank Thomas ect...) I never really thought it would happen this early with Ortiz for a few reasons. First, he's a DH and all he has to worry about is hitting. Even first base can be cumbersome for those who aren't fleet of foot. Secondly, he lacks the wear and tear that other slugging stars carry with them as they reach their mid-thirties. He was never a full-time player in Minnesota and has only been a starter since he joined the Sox in 2003. Ortiz blamed much of his failures on how he was pitched to but I saw a multitude of pitches he had good swings at that he used to crush but were easy fly outs. Seeing how that wrist feels in March after a few months of rest will help decide whether or not this is a long-term problem.

Even taking Ortiz's struggles into account, it's become apparent that the Sox need to acquire another "bopper" who can help shoulder the load of the offense come post season. If Mike Lowell were healthy, I'd say this wouldn't be as glaring of a problem but no one knows how that hip will be feeling come spring training. The Sox lineup (Jason Varitek aside) is a production line of good hitters, none of which really caught fire in the ALCS. I'll talk more about this later but Mark Teixeira would be the prime candidate here, despite not having a position in our current infield.

-The Phillies took it to the Dodgers in 5, once again proving me wrong. Nicely done. I really underestimated the Phils lineup and bullpen beyond Brad Lidge. Both Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero (aka Red Sox legend) have been phenomenal. This team is currently up 3-1 on the Rays due to an awoken offense and the arms of Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton. By the way, Blanton wasn't kidding when he said his eyes were closed for that home run he hit. Good stuff. Rain washed away the potential celebration in Philly tonight. If I were a Phillies fan, I'd hope my boys get the job done at home Wednesday in the final innings of tonight's game because James Shields and Matt Garza are two tough customers...especially Garza as Sox fans found out.

-The Patriots have somehow found themselves tied with the Bills for the division lead at 5-2 after two weeks of good football. I went to last Monday's 41-7 torching of Denver and I liked what I saw. The running game gashed the Bronco defense for the most yards gained on the ground for a Pats team since I was born. I know Jay Cutler was hurt for most of the game but the team improved defensively in one important area: third down conversions. They didn't allow Denver to go on sustained drives and when the Broncos reached Patriot territory, they forced turnovers. The only negative about the game was Sammy Morris's injury after he rushed for 138 yards in the first half. He adds toughness to an offense that is often lacking in that area. Side note: If Morris participates in last year's Super Bowl, things are different. I'm not being bitter by bring up the "what-ifs" but I think that statement speaks to how important he is to this team.

This week's win over the Rams indicated to us that Matt Cassel can make the throws in the final minutes that win games. He isn't going to be a super star this year, or maybe any year for that matter. But what's important is that he's progressing each week at about the speed Coach Bill and the team expects of a kid with the natural ability he has. He's finally looking at the whole field and checking down each of his receivers before darting out of the pocket with the football with the sole intent of running with the ball. Now he's looking to pass and when his initial options aren't there, he either buys time to throw or tosses it out of bounds.

I just realized I've had this blog since August and I have written almost nothing about the Celtics. After a short summer that the team and fans would be more than willing to go through again in '09, the Champs are back in action tomorrow night against the Cavaliers. I expect this to be the first of many great games between these two teams this season. The addition of Mo Williams will do wonders for the Cavs. Not only does it relieve the pressure of ball-handling duties from Lebron, it gives him another player who is a reliable starter. This team took the C's to 7 with essentially just Lebron. Having Williams at his side could sway things the Cavs way this season.

Anyway, it's good to be on this thing again and I'll be posting my NBA preview tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Trouble in Beantown

It has not been a pleasant three days of sporting events for Boston sports fans since the Red Sox were gearing up for Game 2 of the ALCS and trying to take a 2-0 lead on the Rays. As is the case so often, things have changed rapidly since early Saturday evening. The Sox lost a 11-inning affair to the Rays in which their hopes were resting on the right shoulder of Mike Timlin. The next night, our beloved Patriots were embarrassed on national TV by a team that didn't have its top receiver playing and whose running back isn't 100 percent. Hope was abound heading into last night's contest as we had our ace going against a guy who could blow up at any moment in Matt Garza. A 10-1 loss later, here we are. Down 2-1 and the momentum from Game 1 has clearly subsided and seems like it was weeks ago.

As we sit here waiting for Game 4, the question no longer is what the Sox need to do. That is the obvious: David Ortiz needs to be David Ortiz while Jacoby Ellsbury and Jason Varitek need be factors again. After watching runner after runner stay stranded on base last night the question now is why is this happening?

All of the national pundits are saying that this lineup doesn't have enough firepower to come back from deficits and that this team is clearly missing Mr. Dreadlocks. I don't see lack of firepower as the problem here. The way this offense is run can work, as evidenced in the Angels series. The past two games the Red Sox haven't been "finishing" after doing the little things like putting the lead off man or moving a runner to third with less than two outs. They've had men on base for the most part, they just haven't been able to hit with runners in scoring position. This goes back to the three "black wholes" in the lineup.

I don't think Ortiz is that far off from becoming a force again. His timing is indeed off but baseball really can be a game of confidence. This is ironic because of the way Ortiz jabbed at the Rays after the Game 1 victory but if he can just get a solid, line-drive hit tonight I think it would do wonders for his psyche. David Ortiz is never lacking outward confidence. What I'm wondering is if he's starting to wonder if he's going to get it going for this team in time. Like I said, a hit early on would be huge for him.

As for Ellsbury, his issues are mainly seeded in his mechanics. He is hitting the ball in the air and not putting pressure on the defense, that we know. I think he is trying too hard to drive the ball these days. He is feeling the pressure of a lineup that isn't hitting homeruns (save for the three homer inning in Game 2). Dave Magidan needs to go back to the basics with him and straighten out his now-uppercut swing. It's a very correctable problem and hopefully the adjustments are made.

Going into the series I was aware the 25 homerun-hitting Varitek wouldn't be making an appearance but he is no longer putting up competitive at bats. If he's not going to hit, the least he can do is make the pitcher work and attempt to grind out an at bat. By the end of the game last night, it was apparent to everyone watching that he was meekly hoping to draw a walk.

If any of these three can get it together, the offense will be fine. We don't need the 3-run homer. We need one-third of our lineup to have solid at bats and to have any sort of success with RISP.

Garza was very impressive last night and I knew he had the potential to be that good. I was hoping he would get rattled by a few runners on base but he calmly and effectively squashed each Red Sox rally. He located his fastball with precision and was able to get his breaking ball over when the Sox hitters least expected it (especially David Ortiz).

I know we all expected John Lester to go Orel Hershiser via '88 on us and dominate the whole post season but things don't always turn out that way. Simply put, Lester didn't have it last night. You could tell even in his 1-2-3 first inning there was something off. His fast ball was moving into the heart of the plate, not in on the hands of batters. B.J. Upton was fooled in his first at bat of the game but definitely wasn't in his second. He ended up with a line of 4 ER in 5 2/3 IP but it could have been even worse than that. These Rays hitters were aggressive and ready to pounce on missed locations.

So now the eyes of the Fenway Faithful will be focusing on the amount of movement the knuckle ball of Time Wakefield has tonight. The fact that tonight's game could turn into a shoot-out is the reason why I said last night's game was of such importance. Let's hope the 10-11 mph wind has that knuckler dancing like Mo Vaughn's favorite Foxy Lady employee.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Heading into Game 3 of Sox-Rays

A phrase that's used often in baseball when discussing a seven game set is saying the third game can often propel a team to gaining momentum and an edge in the series. I don't think this applies to every team or every series but for the Red Sox-Rays, I think winning this game could go a long way toward heading to the World Series.

The Sox have their ace in John Lester on the mound (wow, it still sounds weird not referring to Beckett as that) and the Rays will send Matt Garza out to try to steal one on the road. This is the type of game the Sox have won with regularity during the past few years and I fully expect them to come out and play well. Remember what I said before...if Garza doesn't have it early he could let his emotions get the best of him. In October, these are things that you need to keep an eye on.

After this game, the Wakefield-Sonnanstine match up is a game I'm not sure I'd be confident in if I were either the Rays or Sox.

The Sox have had great success with two-out RBI and the struggles of Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz haven't been a huge problem but as the series goes on they're going to need to contribute. Dan Shaughnessy made a good point in today's Globe. Ortiz should start bunting to keep the defense honest. A few hits could get him going.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Where Oh Where Has the Defense Gone?

After watching the Patriots get beat down the field time after time tonight, I'm not sure how successful this team would be even if they had Brady as their signal caller this season.

Simply put, the secondary doesn't look like it can compete with quality opponents. Even last week they were lucky they faced the Mike Martz-led, turnover-happy 49ers. They won but it wasn't a victory that sat well with me because of the way the defense was manhandled at times by J.T. O'Sullivan.

The problems in the Pats' secondary start with Deltha O'Neil. O'Neil was released by the Bengals, a team clearly starving for defense, but I thought he had some solid ball-hawking abilities. Any of those skills are diminished by the way he can be fooled easily on double moves by receivers. He gets beat off the line consistently and at 5-10 he needs to gain position on bigger receivers.

Ellis Hobbs hasn't been great thus far but at the same time he hasn't progressed to where I thought he would. After Asante Samuel left, the Pats needed him to step up this season. He seems to be out of position more often than not and he should be the leader of the cornerbacks but is just another face in the crowd these days.

I'm not expecting someone like Rodney Harrison to cover receivers or even a tight end. Both his and James Sanders' responsibilities lie mainly with the running game, which the Pats did a decent job of tonight. A guy like Brandon Meriweather is improving but again, he's not exactly standing out in coverage.

Some of these issues could be alleviated by good ol' fashioned QB pressure. Problem is, there was literally none to speak of tonight. The Patriot pass rushers (Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel) didn't even get close to Rivers all night and the down linemen were pancaked on more than a few occasions. In games like this where it's obvious the other team is going to exploit you deep there needs to be some sort of wrinkle in the defense to at least partially cover up its deficiencies. I'm not sure something like bringing a safety over the top more often would have helped all that much but after seeing Vincent Jackson abuse O'Neal, what other alternatives are there?

This is a flawed team, not even bringing the offense into account. Is age finally catching up to what has been the premiere defense in the NFL since 2003? The next few weeks will be very telling.

One last thing...

After the San Diego fans booed the officials for correctly calling a non-interception I started thinking about the things that they really should have booed over the years:

-Stan Humphries.
-Nate Kaeding missing an easy field goal that could have beat the Jets in their 2004
opening round playoff game.
-Marlon Mcree being stripped by Troy Brown to change the course of the game and help jump start the Pats to a 24-21 win.
-Philip Rivers and LT crying after Ellis Hobbs did the "Lights Out" dance on the Chargers symbol after that game. They claimed it was disrespectful. Wasn't aware doing a dance to mock your opponents was at all respectful.
-Their defense for letting the Pats offense run out the clock with 9:13 left in last year's AFC Title Game.

Note to fans: Your team beat an extremely beatable Pats team and your quarterback has yet to prove he can win a big game. (If you don't recall, it was Billy Volek and not Rivers who beat the Colts last year).

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Short Sox-Rays entry

After two years of frustrating performances but solid statistics, Daisuke Matsuzaka showed what he could do in the biggest of stages last night. He won last year's ALCS Game 7 but was far from dominant. Last night, he was. Sure, he had runners on base for a great deal of the evening and seemed to be a pitch or two away from having damage done to him. To be frank, that's how it's going to be with Dice-K and we should enjoy the ride. The man won 18 games this year for a reason and, more often than not, gives the Sox a chance to win every game he pitches.

Last night's win was important because it puts the onus on the Rays to come out and win tonight's game against Josh Beckett. If Beckett is anywhere close to what he can be, the Rays could very well be heading to Bean Town down 2-0. He needs to show more command with his fast ball and stray from throwing so many breaking balls in the dirt.

Don't underestimate Justin Masterson inducing Evan Longoria into that double play last night either. Confidence is not lacking with Masterson but getting Dice-K out of that jam won't hurt his psyche either.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Phillies and Dodgers- A Blast from the Past

This is an old school NLCS as the Phillies are facing the Dodgers in post season play once again. The two faced each other in 1977 and 1978 (again in 1983) while providing audiences with some very good baseball. Both teams were loaded with star players and more often than not, it was a matter of match ups than overall talent. I don't think there's a huge disparity in ability between LA and Philly and that is the reason I'm bringing up teams that played 30 years ago. (and because I consider myself a baseball historian as well as a geek).

(Side Note: Who knew Jim Lonborg, ace of the 1967 Impossible Dream team, was on these Phillies teams?)

The "I'm Gonna Have to Carry This Team on My Back" Comparison: As far as the late 1970s Phillies pitching was concerned, Steve Carlton was the man and he had very little support behind him. Cole Hamels must be feeling the same way heading into this series. I know Brett Myers was very good in his lone start in the NLDS but he has yet to prove he is in any manner reliable. It's fitting that the man with the fate of his team on his shoulders is Cole Hamels. He should give Steve Carlton a call sometime.

The "No One's Great, But All are Very Good": The 1977 Dodgers are similar to this current crop in that they had deep pitching (far deeper pitching than I realized). Five (that's right- five) different pitchers won at least 12 (all others at least 14) games for this team. Tommy John [yeah, the guy who they named the surgery after] won 20 games but wasn't really considered to be at a higher level than Don Sutton or Bert Hooton.. I see the same in the Dodgers of 2008 in that Derek Lowe might be considered the "ace" of the staff but there's not a huge drop off with Chad Billingsley as their No. 2.

The "Struggling Infield MVP Candidate": Mike Schmidt hit .063 and .200 in the 1977-78 NLCS, respectively. Chase Utley has had a great year but struggled in the opening round, collecting 2 hits. I don't see it continuing in the NLCS but Schmidt proved how detrimental the heart and soul of a team struggling can be. Each had power-hitting teammates (in Schmidt's case it was 39 HR, 130 RBI man Greg Luzinski) but Utley needs to produce to give the Phillies a shot to win the series.

The "Behind the Scenes Left Fielder": Andre Ethier (90 RBI) didn't have a great series against the Cubs but is comparable to Reggie Smith (32 HR) in that he faces the shadow of Manny Ramirez while Smith didn't receive the same type of publicity that Steve Garvey did.

The "$20 Million Player Who Quit on His Team": Oh wait...that never happened in the '70s...that was just Manny being Manny!

Some of the similarities of this series are stark. It's always fun revisiting some of the old rivalries from the past that don't just involve the Red Sox and Yankees.

Now, onto this upcoming NLCS. My heart wants the Phillies to win but I won't be making the same mistake as I did in the first round. These Dodgers are for real and shouldn't be considered just Manny's team. Joe Torre has them playing well at the right time and their pitching depth as well as their 1-8 hitting should be a scary prospect for the Phillies.

Something that would give me hope as a Phils fan is that these should be close contests and if there is a battle of the bullpens, I'd take Brad Lidge over Jonathan Broxton without even thinking about it. However....

I fully expect Hamels to come out and dominate Game 1 but for the Dodgers to steal Game 2 with Billingsley on the mound. Games 3-4 should be the key to the series. Hiroki Kuroda vs. Jamie Moyer won't make it onto ESPN Classic but whoever holds a 2-1 lead will have momentum heading into Game 4. The Dodgers haven't announced a game 4 starter but I'd guess it would be between Greg Maddux and Clayton Kershaw. No offense, Mad Dog, but I'd start Kershaw. The kid's filthy.

If I were a Dodger fan, having Lowe on the mound in a potential 2-2 series fills me with confidence. I see Billingsley out-dueling Myers in Game 6 for the Dodgers for the series. I'm not being quite as bold as I was a few weeks ago but I'm basing this prediction on what I saw in the opening round.

I'll be checking back after the game and will have a full Rays-Sox preview by tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fandom at its Worst

The other day I was talking to someone I work with about the Patriots' 30-21 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. A solid win that the team needed but what got me thinking wasn't the game itself. It was a comment from him: "Yeah it was great win after that loss to Miami. If they kept on losing, I'm not sure I could watch this season."

I'm sorry, but...WHAT?? Let's inject some perspective here. Imagine life as a Lions fan. This is one of the worst teams I have seen years and it'll take years to undo the catastrophe Matt Millen created (a la Rick >Pitino's mess in Boston). How about wearing a Bengals jersey? The days of Corey Dillon and Akili Smith must seem not all that bad in comparison to this current crop of Bungles. Even in those two instances, I'm just talking about the very bottom. There are plenty of instances where teams have been mulling in mediocrity for years.

Now take into account that while our Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl in four years, they have won 22 of their past 23 regular season games. I'm not sure fans realize how hard that is to do or what it takes to be that consistent. For example, the Dallas Cowboys became the darlings of the NFL after Brady went down. There was talk of a dominant season and Jerry Jones mentioned a repeat of the 16-0 mark the Patriots posted in 2007. A loss to Washington and an ugly win against Cincinati later, it's clear they have flaws. Not to say the '07 Patriots didn't have flaws but they fought through them to have a perfect regular season (Super Bowl notwithstanding).

OK, back to that guy from work. When you take into account the lack of stability and wins in general for the also-rans of the league as well as the degree of success for the Patriots, he should be keeping his mouth shut and if he was a real fan he would watch all of the games regardless of wins or losses. This brings me to the point of this post. If any fan stops watching a team mid season because it isn't doing as well as expected, they should be sentenced a year to sports purgatory the next time their team has a deep run in the playoffs or exceeds expectations. They shouldn't be able to root for that team after abandoning it.

Obviously there are exceptions to this. If you have gone through the turmoil that is associated with being a Kansas City Royals fan, by all means do what you need to do. Stop watching. Punch a TV. Jump out of a window.

What I'm saying should be taken in context and is mainly directed at pseudo-fans (see: post-Cowboy Up era in Boston). It took some will power, some sound decision making and sobriety not to punch that guy who said he would stop watching the Pats with Matt Cassel at the helm. I wanted to collect all of his Patriots paraphernalia and distribute it to people who stayed for the entire Miami game a few weeks ago. I'm not just speaking as a Patriots fan here. I was offended as a sports fan. Rule #1: Support your team through thick and thin. Doesn't that make celebrating all that much more enjoyable?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beasts of the East

Prior to the 2000 season, I didn't believe in the term "championship pedigree". I felt as though previous playoff success didn't play a huge part in October. After the Yankees almost blew the division down the stretch that year, it seemed as though they were a team that would fold quickly against the A's in the opening round. You know the story, they went on to win their fourth title in five years. An impressive feat and one that caused me to think twice about counting out teams that hadn't played their best during the regular season but had won titles in previous years.

What's interesting about this match up between the Red Sox and Devil Rays is that one team proves that experience does matter while the other is defying all of the old baseball adages about being battle-tested and "having been there before". I'll let you figure out who fits into each category.

I'm not comparing this version of the Sox to those Yankees; they are different teams in terms of age as the Yankees were at the end of their run while I feel like the Sox are just beginning theirs (although they are similar in that they can manufacture runs with the best of them). I'm just comparing the concept of drawing upon previous success at this time of year. The core Red Sox players aren't much older than the Devil Rays but I firmly believe last year's championship run paid dividends in this most recent snuffing of the Angels and will continue to as the post season continues. We know the obvious ones: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and John "Get on my Back" Lester. The results from others participating in last year's playoffs have been a bit more subtle.

Case and point: last night in the ninth inning. Manny Delcarmen quietly had a great second half (1.82 ERA, .161 batting avg against and 33 K's in 34 innings). He was a part of the 2007 playoff bullpen and didn't pitch all that well in a limited role as he gave up 4 runs in a total of 3 innings. While watching Josh Beckett dominate with a great mix of offspeed stuff and his great fastball, as well as his own struggles, he started to learn the difference between a thrower and a pitcher. He gradually improved after a slow start in 2008. It wasn't as though a light turned on at once but I do think it was right around that point that he began his transition to being a reliable reliever and, more importantly, one that can handle the pressure of having a runner on third with less than two outs in a tie game. Delcarmen backed Erick Aybar off the plate with a pair of 95-mph fastballs and threw a perfect 96-mph fastball low and inside that would've been tough for Aybar to bunt fair even if he made contact with it. Location, Location, Location. It may not be obvious but last year's playoffs were a starting point for him.

For those who just saw the box scores, the Sox 3-1 series win over the Angels may not look all that tiring. But, the people who actually watched every inning of these games will tell you it was the case of two teams imposing their wills on the other. Gone are the days of the home run-hitting Sox. They still have some pop but their calling card is hitting with runners on and two outs and a great defense. When you have two teams as good as the Sox and Angels, obviously a play here or mistake there makes the difference. In tight situations (ex: game 1 when Youkilis threw Vlad out), the Sox consistently were better than the Angels. Again, don't think their success last October didn't play a part in these games. They knew they've been in these situations before and have come up big again and again.

The AL East Champion Rays, on the other hand, had never won more than 70 games before this year and have answered every challenge thrown at them. It's clear the playoffs don't phase them and this should have been evident in August and September when they didn't fold after their roster looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Back in June I thought this team had the makings of the '99 A's, who went down to the wire with the Red Sox but fell just short at the end. Lack of experience obviously had no impact on this team and I don't think it will make a difference in this series.

The Rays took a game longer than I expected to clear out the White Sox. They won the series with quality pitching (not that the Pale Hose hitters put up that much of a fight), timely hitting and an extremely underrated defense. James Shields (6.1 IP, 3 ER) and Scott Kazmir (5.1 IP, 2 ER), as anticipated, pitched well but if I were Joe Maddon, the only legitimate concern I would have between them would be Kazmir's ability to go deep into games. He had a total of 1 start of 7 innings past May 31st (four total). In the regular season and even in a short series, this isn't a huge concern. In a potential seven game series, eating up the bullpen becomes more problematic (example: Mr. Matsuzaka).

How Matt Garza (Game 3 loser) and Andy Sonnanstine (Red Sox killer with 2 ER in 13 IP this year) perform will also be crucial to the Rays' success. Garza is a guy who can shut down the Sox one night and give up a few bloop hits, lose his composure and unravel the next night. Sonnanstine will test my opinion on soft throwers in the post season. He's owned the Sox in 2008 with pin-point location and a good breaking ball. The question is can it continue?

I'm going to wait until both teams have their rotations set to do a full-out preview but feel free to comment on what I've said thus far.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Crazy October

Call me Pete Sheppard.

I've never been great with predictions and I don't think the professionals who make them are able to see into the future either. At the same time, wow, I was pretty far off base with these predictions.

The Cubs...The Cubs...The Cubs. If I were a Cubs fan out there, I'm not sure how I'd react after this latest debacle. This was a team built for a deep post season run. I'm still shocked as to how this series unfolded and really wasn't competitive in any manner. The Dodgers outpitched, outhit and outplayed the Cubs. Interestingly enough, it wasn't Manny Ramirez leading the charge as some of his stats may indicate. He did have a great series but the game-changers were Andre Ethier and James Loney. I guess this goes back to the old adage I had mentioned last week that at times it's not necessarily the best team but the hottest team (see: 2007 Colorado Rockies).

Next up: the Philadelphia Phillies and how wrong they proved me. This wasn't as bad as the Cubs series but in the end I overestimated Yovani Gallardo's ability in big games as of right now. Remember this, though; I have no doubt in my mind Gallardo will be a great pitcher in this league. I felt the Phillies haven't hit their stride yet after watching them demolish a solid (albeit tired and Ben Sheets-less) Brewers team. Cole Hamels looked like the stud that he has the potential to be every start he trots out for in game 1. That wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Brett Myers dominating was a bit less likely but he did what I was questioned whether he had the intestinal fortitude to do: take charge and have his emotions in control. Blanton was solid as well in game 4 but if the Phils have Myers and Hamels going strong they have a chance in any series.

I'll be previewing the 1970's-style matchup between the Phils and Dodgers tomorrow.

Tampa is up 6-2 on the White Sox in the 7th as I'm writing this and if they hold on, they'll be a tough opponent for whoever advances in the Sox-Angels series.

....Speaking of that series, to go back to that predictions thing, I'm not sure there were many who picked the Sox to take both in L.A. then lose game 3 with Josh Beckett on the mound at home. Something I've been coming to terms with gradually, and I think other fans are starting to feel the same way, is that this is not the 2007 Beckett. Nor do I think he'll be making an appearance in these playoffs. Something is obviously wrong with him physically and he simply isn't locating the way he needs to. The only pitch he had any sort of success with was his outside breaking ball. His fastball was all over the place and his velocity didn't scare any of those hitters. Success with runners in scoring position, no matter how little, has determined the first 3 games and I don't expect that to change tonight. Lester-Lackey could be a classic.

Side note: Mike Lowell won't be playing tonight and is out indefinately. Not that he's done anything in this series but this hurts purely because there was the threat of him coming up with a big hit. Not unexpected but this is something to follow in the offseason because a hip with growing arthritis could be problematic. Older players making big money with hip problems generally don't recover (see: Albert Belle).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Game 1 of Sox-Angels

Well, I went 1 for 3 in my predictions today but the Red Sox beat the Angels 4-1 so I'll take it. What a great win.

Make sure you remember this entry, folks. I'm about to admit how wrong I was about John Lester a year ago. His heroic battle with cancer aside, I wasn't very high on him even when he came up a few years ago. I thought he was a soft, mid-level pitcher who didn't have what it took to be successful at this level. Dumb....Dumb.....Dumb....

7 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 7 K. That's a stat line that would make Josh Beckett jealous. He worked both sides of the plate and (possibly unintentionally) busted his fastball in on right handers. His curve ball was hard and had a lot of late movement. These Angel hitters became more and more over matched as the game moved along. Something else that needs to be noted here is after Jed Lowrie's error, Lester remained poised and induced a ground ball from Torii Hunter to end the inning. Realizing there was a lot of baseball left to play is not the easiest thing to keep in mind at that point but he stayed calm and kept on pitching. Varitek's game calling was also important in that he got Lester through a few tough spots and kept the hitters off balance with his pitch selection,

Jason Bay looked awful his first few at bats against Lackey's curve ball. It leads me to wonder why Lackey didn't force Bay to prove to him he could hit it, especially if you take into account Bay's recent struggles with breaking balls.

My first year watching baseball with great fervor was 1995. I, like all 4th graders, was a huge Ken Griffey Jr. fan. Everyone remembers his huge series against the Yankees (5 home runs) but few remember how the Mariners lost in the following round against a great Cleveland team. Kenny Lofton was the spark on that team and had 11 hits while stealing 5 bases. He was a terror for Seattle pitchers and what he did that series is reminiscent of what Jacoby Ellsbury started for the Red Sox tonight. Ellsbury had 3 hits, 2 stolen bases and may have saved the game in the 8th with a spectacular catch. This post season could be his official coming out party.

As I watched Vlad Guerrero limp (unsuccessfully) from first to third, I realized to what degree his leg injuries have robbed him of his once-40+ stolen base speed. Kind of sad in a way. Props to Kevin Youkilis for getting to that ball (that his barely missed) and throwing it right away. With the condition of Lowell's hip, I was surprised he was able to turn quickly and tag Guerrero out.

Derek Lowe (who proved me wrong tonight with 6 innings of 2-run ball) compared himself to Justin Masterson when he talked to Nick Cafardo in Sunday's Globe. The more I think about it, it's not just the roles that are similar (which they are). They both have some of the best sinking stuff in the majors. If anything, Masterson throws harder and has far more upside. I realize its hard to compare Masterson to a guy who won three clinching games in the '04 post season but he's on his way.

The stunned looks on the faces of Angels fans was interesting. First of all where's the confidence in your team? Secondly, let me remind you the RED SOX are the defending champs, not your team. It is in the realm of possibility for the Sox to take the lead or (gasp) win! Act like you've watched post season baseball before. Thanks.

Well I have to be up in four hours for work and couldn't be happier. I'll have NL updates tomorrow.