Saturday, December 31, 2011
I wrapped up 2011 with a State of the Teams Report.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
This weekend produced a good news-bad news situation for the Patriots. The good news: the Patriots defeated Denver while the other previously 10-3 AFC teams (Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore) lost. This means the Pats just need to beat Miami and Buffalo at home to secure the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. As of today, the road to the Superbowl goes through New England. The Patriots have lost at home in the playoffs the past two years but I'm still convinced that the home field advantage is huge for this team (they are 21-1 at home in the regular season the past three years). Equally important are the playoff matchups. As the #1 seed, the Patriots would be guaranteed to avoid the AFC North winner and Houston in their first playoff game (Divisional round) but there is still a better than average chance they would have to play the second place team from the AFC North (Pittsburgh or Baltimore). If they are lucky, they will draw Denver, Oakland, Cincinnati or Tennessee in the Divisional round. The Jets are another possibility. The Jets are a pretty lousy team right now but they have a habit of playing surprisingly well in big games. Even the dangerous Chargers are still in the hunt for the AFC West crown.
The bad news: It looks like Andre Carter will be out for the rest of the season. This is a tremendous blow to the Patriot pass rush which has improved quite a bit since last season thanks in large part to Carter. As usual, the New England defense gave up a lot of yards against Denver, but they also made some big plays (four sacks and three fumble recoveries). When the playoffs begin, the Patriot defense won't magically break their habit of giving up big chunks of yards but they are capable of forcing opponent mistakes. That will be the key to winning in the postseason. Fortunately for New England, the AFC quarterback selection is not very strong. Among the likely AFC playoff opponents you have the shaky (Flacco, Sanchez, Palmer), the inexperienced (Dalton, Tebow) and the "past their prime" (Hasselbeck). With his ankle problem, Roethlisberger may be in the "gimpy" category but a matchup with the Steelers would be 4-5 weeks away and I would expect Big Ben to be healthier by then. That leaves Philip Rivers. He'd be the second biggest threat behind Roethlisberger.
The playoff picture is starting to take shape though there will be a lot of critical games to be played over the next two weeks. If the top four teams in the AFC win their final two games, they would be seeded as follows: 1. Patriots, 2. Ravens, 3. Texans, 5. Steelers. The AFC West winner will be seeded 4th. That will likely be Denver as they play at Buffalo and finish with Kansas City at home. The Raiders, Chargers and even the Cheifs still have a shot. The Jets control their own destiny in the race for the final AFC Wild Card spot.
In the NFC, the Packers will almost certainly be the #1 seed. Atlanta can stay in contention for the NFC South title with a win in New Orleans on Monday but the Saints would have to lose at home to Carolina in Week 17 for the Falcons to be able to win the division. As of now, San Francisco is the #2 seed with New Orleans at #3. With two game leads over the rest of the pack, Atlanta and Detroit should be the NFC Wild Card teams. Dallas, the Giants and, believe it or not, the Eagles are fighting for the NFC East and the #4 seed. A three way tie at 8-8 in the NFC East (hardly a long shot) would put the disappointing but threatening Eagles in the playoffs.
Hue Jackson will join Jason Garrett in my Incredibly Dumb NFL Coach Hall of Fame. Ahead 20-14 halfway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, Jackson's Raiders scored a touchdown. A two-point conversion would have put them ahead by 14 points. Jackson decided to kick the extra point to make it 27-14. The Lions roared back with two late touchdowns and won 28-27. There are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs in the world. How can someone not bright enough to go for the two-point conversion in that situation (or not use his timeouts as Garrett did a couple weeks ago) land those coveted jobs? I'm not saying that NFL head coaches need to be geniuses but they should be able to do second grade level addition and subtraction.
The Red Sox made a solid move last week, adding reliever Mark Melancon. Melancon was Houston's closer last season (2.78 ERA, 20/25 saves/save chances) and will have a chance to be Boston's closer in 2012. I am hoping that the Sox can acquire a more proven closer and use Melancon in the 7th inning role. The Red Sox also acquired utility infielder Nick Punto, presumably to replace Jed Lowrie who was traded, along with Kyle Weiland, to Houston for Melancon. Lowrie certainly showed promise at times but he had a hard time staying healthy and doesn't appear to have major league defensive skills. I could see Lowrie being a solid National League pinch hitter. The Sox also signed catcher Kelly Shoppach. He's 31 and has batted under .200 in each of the past two seasons so I can't imagine why. He has some power (11 HR in 221 at bats last season) but I'm not sure how much that means when it comes with a .268 on base percentage.
Things have gone from bad to worse for the Celtics. Jeff Green will miss the entire season with an aortic aneurysm that will require surgery. First and foremost, I feel terrible for Green. He seems like a good guy and I hate to see him go through this. Obviously, it's a scary situation. Basketball takes a back seat when a heart problem is involved but it is also sad that a promising basketball career is now in jeopardy.
As for the less important impact on the team, the Celtics already slim hopes of winning an 18th title in 2012 just became a whole lot slimmer. The hope was that Green would be the sixth man, contributing points, rebounds and solid defense. His absence also creates a depth problem. Green would have given the Celtics a solid 30-plus minutes per game. They probably aren't going to find a replacement who can give them a productive 30-plus minutes per night. Danny Ainge was already on the hot seat for the Perkins trade. Obviously, this situation isn't going to help his image in Boston.
I'm still shocked (and thankful) that things fell into place for the Celtics in 2008. Since June 1986 when Les Bias died, the Celtics have been a cursed organization with the exception of that amazing run in the 2008 playoffs. That was a great two months in what has otherwise been 25 years of bad luck.
The NBA saved face, to some extent, by getting much more for Chris Paul in the Clippers deal than they would have gotten in the Lakers-Rockets deal. Actually, the Clippers probably gave up too much. It really depends on: (1) whether or not Paul stays with the Clippers beyond next season and (2) whether or not the Minnesota 2012 unprotected pick that went from the Clips to New Orleans will be in an impact player. Obviously, the Clippers had to pull the trigger. They are relevant for the first time in their history. In fact, if they can trade either Mo Williams or Randy Foye for a legitimate big man, they could be one of the top teams in the West.
Last and certainly not least is Boston's best all-around team, the Bruins. Last night victory over the Canadiens, gives the Bruins a 19-2-1 record in their last 22 games. They have scored 48 more goals than their opponents. The next best goal differential in the Eastern Conference is the Rangers at +20. They are getting offensive production from unlikely sources including Chris Kelly (12 goals), Benoit Pouliot (6 goals) and Rich Peverly (25 points). Tuukka Rask actually has a better goals against average (1.82) than Tim Thomas (1.84). This is great news because the goalies can alternate starts, allowing Thomas to be fresh for the playoffs.
It's interesting that only 5 of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference have a positive goal differential so far this season. It seems that the West is the much stronger conference right now. That is great news for the Bruins who could end up with a very weak first round playoff opponent. There's been a lot of talk about how disappointing the Capitals have been (9-14-1 since a 7-0 start) but I'm a little more surprised by the poor play of the Lightning. Tampa Bay is 14-16-2 and has been outscored by 20 goals this season. They certainly haven't built on their success in last season's playoffs.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Penalties on the defensive side of the ball and red zone mistakes on the offensive side turned what would have been a blowout Patriots victory into a nail-biter decided in the final seconds. All things considered, the offense had another impressive game. Brady passed for 357 yards and 3 TDs, Gronk decimated Redskin tacklers and the Pats rushed for a perfectly respectable four yards per carry. On the down side, the normally efficient Pats redzone offense threw away 10 easy points. They settled for a field goal following a Hernandez drop in the endzone. Later, Brady was intercepted one play after missing an open Welker for a would-be touchdown. It wasn't vintage Brady yesterday, but as usual he got the job done. The secondary was once again shredded by a mediocre (at best) quarterback. The last three weeks, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman - not exactly Montana, Brady and Manning - have averaged 335 yards passing. The front seven was worse than the secondary yesterday as Skins running backs averaged 5.2 yards per carry. A couple of ridiculous personal foul calls on Carter and Wilfork led to 10 of Washington's 27 points. A pass interference penalty on McCourty on a 3rd and 18 resulted in another Redskins touchdown drive. The call was legitimate but needless from the Patriots perspective because the short pass was not going to result in a first down.
Brady remained on pace to break Dan Marino's single season passing record of 5,084 yards. Brady just needs to average 271 yards per game over the last three to break Marino's 27 yard old record. Drew Brees, however, needs to average just 239 per game to break the record. Aaron Rogers and Eli Manning even have an outside shot. It's just an amazing year for quarterbacks.
It's been an even more amazing year for Rob Gronkowski. Yesterday, he broke the record for most TD receptions by a tight end in a single season. He's only 202 yards shy of Kellen Winslow's single season receiving yards record for a tight end. The Saints' Jimmy Graham is just 189 yards away from Winslow's record.
The good news is that the Patriots keep winning. The bad news is that the Ravens, Texans and Steelers also keep winning. All four teams are 10-3. The Patriots control their own destiny in terms of securing a first round playoff bye. If they beat the Broncos, Dolphins and Bills, they will be seeded no worse than second in the AFC. If the Pats, Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh all finish 13-3, the seeding would be - 1. Ravens, 2. Patriots, 3. Texans, 5. Steelers (Wild Card). At 13-3, the Patriots would lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Ravens and Steelers but win a tiebreaker against the Texans. A three-team tiebreaker at 13-3 involving the Patriots, Steelers and Texans would give the Patriots in the #1 seed. The second tiebreaker after head-to-head is conference record so if any combination of these teams finish tied at 12-4, who they lose to (AFC or NFC) will become very important. The Patriots (at Denver), Steelers (at San Francisco) and Ravens (at San Diego) all face tough road games next week while the Texans host Carolina. If you would like to put together your own playoff scenarios, check out ESPN's Playoff Machine.
Next week's game at Denver will be very interesting. The New England defense has been wilting down the stretch at normal altitude. I can't imagine what might happen in Denver after three quarters of chasing Tim Tebow around the field. I am of two minds on Tebow's likelihood of succeeding in the NFL. On the plus side, he's a proven winner. Some guys rise to the occasion when it matters most (Montana, Brady, Roethlisberger) while others wilt (Romo, Palmer). Tebow is in the mold of the first group. I also think Denver is a perfect place for Tebow. Fans don't realize just how important the altitude advantage is for Denver. John Elway's career winning percentage at home was 81% as compared to 46% on the road. Elway, like Tebow, was skilled at avoiding pass rushers and using his running ability to pick up yards. Elway rushed for more than 3,400 yards in his career. That running ability is even more effective in the fourth quarter when the altitude really begins to affect the visiting team. Tebow and the Broncos deserve credit for their great comebacks but there is a reason why the Jets and Bears gave up so many yards late in the fourth quarter after dominating the Denver offense in the first three quarters. Tebow is the last guy you want to face when your defense is fatigued. On the other hand, I have the same skepticism that many NFL fans do. Is Tebow accurate enough in the pocket to be an effective NFL quarterback? He's 7-1 as a starter but he's completing just 48% of his passes. The top ten passers in the NFL are all above 60%. Tebow's ability to run the ball is a great weapon but the "running quarterback" experiment has failed repeatedly over the last two or three decades. Quarterbacks who run a lot also tend to fumble a lot and get hurt a lot. It's going to be interesting to watch Tebow's development. I've never really liked the Denver Broncos but I can't help but root for Tebow - except for this coming Sunday, of course.
It's hard to believe what is transpiring in the NBA. I find it hard not to dislike both the players and the owners. The players claim to be underpaid in a league where Brian Scalabrine was paid $15 million to wave a towel around. Vin Baker was paid $86 million to get drunk and the union defended his right to get paid $86 million to get drunk. Players will stomp their feet for a five-year contract if the team is offering four, but that same player will demand a trade to the team of his choice after four years, making it clear that he'll "mail in" the season if he's not traded. LeBron's "Decision" was reprehensible, but at least he waited until his contract was up. The NBA is filled with overpaid spoiled brats. Then you have the owners. These clowns love to implement rules to protect themselves ... from themselves. They want to put a maximum length on contracts. I've got a better idea. Don't give players long term contracts for ridiculous money. If someone is dumb enough to give Joe Johnson $120 million, you can't blame Joe Johnson for taking it. The smaller market owners like Cleveland's Dan Gilbert are complaining that they can't compete financially. If an NBA owner "can't compete" he should sell the team. If a city can't support a team, that team should move to a new city. Stop the whining! The NBA owners remind me of politicians who spend far more taxpayer money than they take in then blame everyone but themselves for the destruction they create.
The Chris Paul fiasco has been another black eye for the league. I didn't want the Lakers getting another superstar for 50 cents on the dollar (actually, they picked up Pao Gasol for 5 cents on the dollar) but that trade was not unreasonable given the predicament that New Orleans is in. Now it looks like the league might not let the Hornets trade Paul to the Clippers. It's now a lose-lose for the NBA. If Paul is traded, the league will be accused of showing favoritism toward that franchise. I'm not into conspiracy theories but even I have to wonder if they will block every trade until he winds up with the Knicks. I don't feel bad for Paul. He should act like a man and play hard through the end of the contract he signed. Obviously, I don't feel bad for the Lakers. They won two titles because of the ridiculous Gasol trade. If the NBA was ever going to block a trade, it should have been that one. I do feel bad for New Orleans. If Paul stays with the Hornets this year, their rebuilding period will be extended because they will lose him and get nothing a year from now.
It looks like we are in for a very mediocre Celtics season. It's hard to imagine they will do anything more than make some minor moves to fill out the roster. I'd love to see them trade Garnett and Allen and start the rebuilding process now. If they can maintain a reasonable level of health, they could make a little noise in the playoffs but the odds of winning a title are next to nothing. I just mentioned that New Orleans' rebuilding will be delayed if Paul sticks around. The same could be said of the Celtics if they keep Allen and KG. Trading one or both of those guys could land the Celtics some draft picks and possibly a player that could help them down the road. It would also put them in the lottery with a chance to grab an impact player in next June's draft. In the NBA, I'd rather be terrible and get a nice lottery pick than get blown out in the first round of the playoffs. Miami and Chicago will be good again and the Knicks will be a lot better. I can't see the Celtics finishing higher than 4th in the East and even if they do better than that in the regular season, will they have anything left for a playoff run following the brutal 66-game in four month season?
The Bruins stumbled a bit last week but they remain in a logjam at the top of the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, the Bruins and Florida all have between 37 and 39 points. The NHL's unlikely #1 team is the Minnesota Wild, who didn't even come close to making the playoffs last season. Things can change in a hurry in the NHL.
The NHL's realignment plan has been released. The new plan calls for four conferences, rather than six divisions. The Bruins conference would include three Canadian teams (Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa), two Florida teams (Florida and Tampa Bay) and our old friends, the Sabres. The top four teams in each conference will advance to the playoffs (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3). The playoff format is similar to what we had in the 80s and early 90s where the top four teams in the Adams Division would advance to the playoffs. I like the idea of going back to four divisions but I'm not sure I like the four conference format. There will undoubtedly be seasons where a 75 point team in a weak conference makes the playoffs and a 90 point team in a strong conference does not. That scenario is very unlikely with two conferences.
Here's the realignment plan.
This has been a very strange December in Major League Baseball. Lots of big moves are being made and none of them involve the Yankees or Red Sox. The biggest moves were made by the Angels who picked up the top free agent hitter (Albert Pujols) and the top free agent pitcher (CJ Wilson). Pujols, who will be 32 next season, signed for ten years and $254 million. Pujols is still a great hitter but his numbers have dropped noticably (though not precipitously) the past two seasons. I have a feeling that contract will be an albatross, or albertross, around the Angels' necks by 2014.
The Marlins are the other team making huge moves. Miami (no longer Florida) has already picked up closer Heath Bell, shortstop Jose Reyes and starter Mark Buerhle.
I'm not sure we'll see a big move from the Sox. They will undoubtedly add bullpen depth and will probably acquire a veteran rightfielder and starting pitcher. I think we'll see the same starting nine with the exception of right field. Hopefully, Buchholz will be healthy, giving them a solid top of the rotation. Believe it or not, Spring Training is just over two months away.
Monday, November 28, 2011
It's nice to see the Patriots offense dominating once again. Tom Brady and Company picked apart the Eagles defense to the tune of 457 yards, 29 first downs and 5 touchdowns. A few Patriots may break some records this season. Tom Brady is on pace to break Dan Marino's single season passing yards record. Brady can eclipse Marino if he averages 300 per game the rest of the way. Rob Gronkowski can set the single season TD record for a tight end with three more trips to the endzone. He also has a shot at Kellen Winslow's single season reception yardage record for a tight end. Wes Welker would need some huge games to break Jerry Rice's single season receiving yardage record but it's still a possibility.
Of course, it's the defense that is the big concern. Especially, the secondary. When Vince Young lights you up for 400 yards, you know there's a big problem. I don't see a Superbowl run without a healthy McCourty and Chung. I still like the effort though. Kyle Arrington continues to be a pleasant surprise. Julian Edelman chipped in a couple of tackles yesterday. Like most Patriot teams, this one can bend but not break against mediocre offensive teams. Fortunately, the AFC is loaded with mediocre offensive teams.
Not much changed in the AFC this week. The Patriots, Steelers, Ravens and Texans will likely make the playoffs though the Texans are at risk given their QB injury woes. Kansas City and San Diego are done. It will be Denver or Oakland coming out of the West. What a break it would be for the Patriots (assuming they get the bye) to draw one of those two teams in the divisional playoff round. The Texans with whatever QB they have left at the time would be a nice draw as well. Then there's Mark Sanchez, 36-year-old Matt Hasselbeck and rookie Andy Dalton as possible first game opponents. As a Pats fan, you have to feel good about that. Unfortunately, they could just as easily end up with Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the first playoff game, even if they grab a first round bye.
It looks like the NBA is coming back in time for Christmas. Unfortunately, it's looking like the worst case scenario for the Celtics: a 66-game, condensed season that includes back-to-back-to-back games in some cases. The playoffs might include back-to-back games. The normal season would have been long but at least there would have been plenty of rest time. A shorter, condensed season (say 50 games) would have least meant less games for the aging Celtics. What they ended up with is a long season with little rest. If I'm the Celtics, I start rebuilding now. If they can improve their future by trading Allen or Garnett, they should do it. Hopefully, the Celtics can prove me wrong and make a serious run at Banner #18. I just don't see how it's possible.
The other occupant of the TD Garden, however, is looking every bit the championship contender. The Bruins have 23 points in their last 12 games. They have been the best team in the NHL this season by far. Their goal differential (+28) is 10 better than anyone else in the league. They had some bad luck early but now they are rolling. I think everyone knows that Tyler Seguin is off to a great start. What you may not know if that Chris Kelly is Boston's second leading goal scorer with nine. Needless to say, that is a huge surprise. My only criticism at this point is that Tim Thomas is playing too much. He appeared in 25 playoff games on top of a grueling regular season last year. Tuukka should be playing every other night. He needs the experience and 37-year-old Thomas needs the rest.
I'm hearing rumors that the Sox have narrowed down the manager search to Bobby Valentine and Gene Lamont. Please tell me there is a third choice we don't know about. I guess we're just lucky they didn't call Grady Little or Buddy Bell.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
The Patriots regained control of the AFC East with an impressive victory over the Jets tonight. The offense began to click during the final drive of the first half and dominated the rest of the game. The defense played their best game since Week 5 against the Jets despite even more injury problems (McCourty left the game in the first half with a shoulder injury). Special teams made some big contributions as well. Stephen Gostkowski created some momentum with a 50 yarder on the first Patriots drive of the game and Niko Koutouvides made a big recovery when the Jets botched a punt early in the third quarter (the turnover led to a field goal). It was a great team effort.
Tom Brady, despite a somewhat slow start, passed for 329 yards and 3 TD without throwing an interception. The Jets had no answer for Rob Gronkowski (8 catches, 113 yards, 2 TD). A third Gronk TD was called back because he stepped out of bounds prior to the catch. Welker was bottled up by Revis early but had a big second half. Branch had a key TD to put the Pats up by 14 in the fourth and even Ocho Cinco chipped in with a 53 yard reception that set up the second field goal. The running game did nothing early but was pretty good in the second half. This was the offense we saw in the first five games of the season.
I think we all had that "here we go again" reaction when the Jets rattled off 58 yards in their first four plays to set up a first and goal two minutes into the game. Thankfully, the defense made some big stops to force a field goal attempt that the Jets missed. This was the first of many Jets blunders tonight. Between those first four plays and Ninkovich's "pick six" midway through the fourth quarter to make it 37-16, the Patriot defense allowed only 227 total yards. Andre Carter was, without a doubt, the key player on defense. He had 4 1/2 sacks and forced an intentional grounding call. The Patriot pass rush was very good tonight. I can't think of many times in the past three or four years that I've been able to say that.
Tonight's victory put the Pats one game ahead of the Bills and Jets in the AFC East but also gets them to 3-1 in the division with a sweep over the Jets. The Patriots host the Dolphins and Bills in the final two weeks of the season. If they win both those games, they would hold all AFC East tiebreakers. Between now and then, they play Kansas City, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington and Denver. New England's final seven opponents have a combined record of 21-43. Barring a major choke or an amazing turnaround by the Jets or Bills, the Patriots will win the AFC East. The soft schedule also gives them a great chance to grab a first round bye and maybe the #1 seed in the AFC. The Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, and Texas all have three losses. The Jets, Bills, Titans and Raiders are just one behind in the loss column. I expect tiebreakers to play a large role in the playoff picture this season.
Despite the great effort tonight, I still have doubts that this patchwork Patriots defense can win the requisite 2-3 games (depending on seeding) that will get them to the Superbowl. McCourty is one of three Patriot defenders (along with Wilfork and Mayo) that they cannot afford to lose. Hopefully, his injury is not serious. People outside of Boston will say "cry me a river" when I write this, but I am really sick and tired of injuries ruining so many of our local team's seasons. Injuries are part of sports and every team deals with them, but we have had far more than our share the past four years or so. Obviously, the 2008 Pats season was ruined when Brady went down in the season opener and that injury meant he wasn't himself in 2009. This season may be ruined because of all of the injuries on defense. The 2010 Red Sox season was ruined by a seemingly endless string of key injuries (Ellsbury, Pedroia and Youkilis were out for the year by early August). This year, most of the pitching staff went down. Two years ago, most of the Bruins top players were knocked out by the middle of the conference semi-finals (Philadelphia series). We all know how that ended. The past three Celtics season were ruined by injuries, the worst of which was Kendrick Perkins missing Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. There is absolutely no way the Lakers would have won if Perk had played. I don't mind losing but I don't like the fact that an overabundance of key injuries is so often the reason.
What a great couple of weeks for the Bruins. They have won five in a row by a combined score of 30-10. Tyler Seguin is now just one goal behind Phil Kessel (ironically enough) for the league lead. The Bruins are only 8-7-0 but they have the best goal differential in the NHL (+17). They play New Jersey, Columbus and the Islanders this week.
Monday, November 7, 2011
I'm not sure which of the last two Patriots losses were more depressing. On one hand, I'd say last week's loss to the Steelers because New England was dominated by a team they have a good chance of facing in the playoffs (unfortunately, I now have to add: if they make the playoffs). On the other hand, I'd say yesterday's loss to the Giants because they gave the game away. Because of conference tiebreakers, losses to the NFC are not as costly as losses within the conference but this could the loss that eventually keeps the Pats out of the playoffs.
Yesterday's game had many parallels to the Superbowl XLII. First, because a defensive struggle turned into an offensive shootout late in the game. Second, the Giants ended New England's 19-game regular season home winning steak yesterday and of course ruined what would have been a 19-0 season in 2007-08. Third, Eli Manning was more lucky than good. In Superbowl XLII, he obviously doesn't win without a one in a million (okay, maybe 1 in 10,000) helmet catch. Yesterday, Manning threw one bad pass after another yet was bailed out by either a pass interference call (the 35 yard P.I. occurred because his long pass was so badly underthrown, the other time his throw was nowhere near the target) or a great play by his receiver (twice his receivers made great catches on passes that were about to be intercepted). Manning made good throws for the TDs but for the most part, he was terrible. What's worse than the Patriots losing is listening to the idiots on television talking about how great Eli Manning. If you think Eli Manning is great, you are either an idiot or some kind of a Giants or New York sycophant. The Pats could have easily had 5 or 6 interceptions in that game.
Speaking of interceptions, what is up with Brady and the turnovers. Last season, the Patriots set records for not coughing up the ball. The were an incredible +28 for this season. This year, they have 14 takeaways and 14 giveaways. Yesterday's loss and the loss to the Bills earlier this season were all about turnovers.
It was sad to see the defense give it up in the final two drives. They played so well for 3 1/2 quarters. New York punted on their first six drives and their first touchdown drive was only ten yards (not the fault of the defense). Kyle Arrington made a spectacular interception in the endzone. They showed some rare pass rushing prowess. It was all going pretty well for the Patriot defense until that 35 yard pass interference call on Arrington. The ref made the right call. Arrington did not turn his head and he did contact the receiver before the ball arrived. Unfortunately, that is one of those cases where a team is rewarded with a huge chunk of yardage because the quarterback made a bad throw. Over the years, I've gone back and forth on whether or not the NFL should adopt the college football rule of no more than 15 yards on a pass interference call. A penalty of more than 15 yards is excessive but changing the rule might encourage defenders to do more pushing and grabbing on long passes. You hope it evens out in the end.
As the Patriots were driving for the go-ahead score, I couldn't help but worry that even if they scored, they would score too quickly. Danny Woodhead was forced out of bounds (and injured) on a first down running play with 1:48 remaining. That saved the Giants either 40 seconds or a timeout. I doubt the Giants would have used a timeout in that situation so Woodhead gave the Giants the opportunity to score the winning touchdown, rather than forcing them to play for the tying field goal. Those are the kind of small things that can cost you a football game.
The loss puts the Patriots in a precarious position heading into this weekend's battle with the Jets. The Pats, Jets and Bills are all 5-3 with one division loss. If the Patriots win, they will have swept the Jets and would have the inside track on the AFC East tiebreaker. With a loss, they would drop one game behind the Jets (and possibly Buffalo) and would have one more division loss than the other two. They would also be on a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2002.
This has been a very interesting and competitive year in the NFL so far. In the AFC, 12 of the 16 teams are within one game (in the loss column) of first place in their division. The Packers are quite clearly the best team in the NFL, but who comes next? San Francisco has the second best record in the NFL and Cincinnati is tied with Baltimore atop the AFC. Is it 1988? The Giants are 6-2 but they have just been lucky (only a +14 point differential). Detroit has been impressive at 6-2 with a +92 point differential. Next you have the Patriots, Bills, Jets, Steelers, Texans, Bears, Saints and Falcons in the slightly better than mediocre three loss category. By my count, only eight teams are out of the playoff race (Miami, Jacksonville, Indy, Minnesota, Carolina, Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis) and competing for Andrew Luck.
When the schedule came out, it appeared that Miami-Dallas would be the best Thanksgiving Day game this year. That is certainly not the case. The day starts with a tremendously interesting battle between the Lions and Packers. After all these years, it's fun to watch the Lions again on Thanksgiving. The nightcap is San Francisco at Baltimore. One can make an argument that the four top teams in the NFL (right now) will be playing on Thanksgiving Day.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
What a miserable day for the Patriots. They played badly, the refs killed them and they couldn't catch a break. It was amazing that, given how badly things went, they actually had a reasonable chance to win the game in the final minutes. It was discouraging to see the Steelers offense dominate the way they did. The Patriots just couldn't get off the field. Pittsburgh had five drives of ten or more plays and 29 first downs. Most importantly, the Steelers were 10 for 16 on third downs including a critical conversion of 3rd and 15. The Patriot offense was subpar today but in their defense, they didn't get the ball much - only eight drives not including the desperation drive at the end of the game. The offensive line committed four false start penalties (one was bogus - more on that later). Gostkowski missed a field goal so the special teams was part of the problem as well.
There is no shame in losing to Pittsburgh on the road, but I can't help but be concerned. The defense isn't stopping anyone and the bend-but-don't-break philosophy only goes so far. The offense will surely bounce back but once again we saw what a good pass rush does to the Pats. It's also disturbing to see how useless Ocho Cinco has been. I wasn't expecting anything close to the Ocho Cinco/Chad Johnson of old but I thought he'd been good for 2-3 catches per game.
Before I complain about the refs, I have to say that the Steelers deserved to win the game. I am not blaming the refs for the loss. But, they were awful today and it all went Pittsburgh's way. The first botched call came on a first and ten from Steeler territory in the second quarter (10-0 Steelers at the time). Troy Polamalu stepped into the neutral zone - just barely - which caused Logan Mankins to commit a false start penalty. The penalty should have been on Polamalu, giving the Pats a 1st and 5. Instead, it was a 1st and 15 and the promising drive stalled. Later in the quarter with the score 10-7, Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass beyond the line of scrimmage but it was not called. On the same play, Pittsburgh committed an illegal use of hand which was offset by a Pat Chung pass interference. Had the refs called the line of scrimmage infraction, it would have nullified the pass interference and push the Steelers back. That drive resulted in a Pittsburgh touchdown. In the second half, the refs missed - or ignored - a clear Steeler pass interference on Taylor Price. This would have been a big play. Finally, they missed the obvious touchdown by Gronkowski with 4:10 left in the fourth quarter. The Pats scored the TD to make the score 23-17 but there was only 2:35 remaining. That extra 1:35 meant that New England had to go for the onside kick, rather than kicking it deep. The Patriots were bad today. The refs were worse.
This loss created quite a logjam at the top of the AFC. Buffalo, New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati and San Diego all now have two losses. Five teams have three losses. It should be a crazy second half.
It's been a rough start for the Bruins. At 3-7, they have the worst record in the Eastern Conference. It shouldn't be a big surprise that they are off to the slow start following the lengthy playoffs, the very short hockey offseason and the post-Cup celebrating. They may not be mentally or physically ready for the 2011-2012 season. It is very early, but the Eastern Conference is very competitive and the Bruins can't afford to dig too large of a hole for themselves. They face Ottawa and Toronto this week.
The Sox have a new GM (Ben Cherington) and will hopefully have a new manager very soon. I am very appreciative of what Theo Epstein and Terry Francona did for the Red Sox organization. Theo seemed to do just about everything right leading up to the 2004 championship then he traded for Josh Beckett prior to the 2006 season. His moves have been less than stellar since then. The Sox won the series in 2007 in spite of J.D. Drew (Yes, I remember the grand slam) and Julio Lugo. John Lackey looked a bad pickup two years ago and now it appears he'll go down as one of the worst signings in baseball history. Carl Crawford will probably bounce back and have a good 2012 season but I think most Sox fans would agree that he was not a good fit for this team and is being paid far more than he deserves. I think Adrian Gonzalez is a good fit and I support the deal but you still have to wonder about the commitment of that much money and that many top prospects for a guy with a questionable shoulder. Theo won because (1) the Red Sox minor league system improved (Pedroia, Papelbon and Ellsbury were a big part of the 2007 championship), (2) he added players with good value who fit in well (Ortiz, Millar), (3) he spent the big money in the right places (Schilling), (4) he didn't clog the payroll with huge, long-term, high-risk contracts (John Lackey) and (5) didn't overpay for flashy players (Crawford). Theo can become a folk hero for the second time if he wins in Chicago. Hopefully, he will go back to this pre-2007 philosophy of getting good value for every dollar and signing character guys who can be leaders in a clubhouse.
I've always like Terry Francona, even when he was driving me nuts this season by overusing Bard and ruining him for the stretch run. You can't argue with two titles in eight years. But, it was certainly time for a change. The 2011 team just didn't seem to care enough. They weren't ready for the season to start and didn't have the determination to will themselves into the playoffs. They had plenty of injuries and bad luck but there is simply no excuse for a team with this much talent to go 7-20 in September. The drinking/chicken clubhouse scandal was certainly overblown. No one would have written about it had it happened in Cincinnati or Kansas City. However, I think it shows a lack of unity. There was also a lot of complaining this season (starting with Big Papi). I hate to say it, but the 2011 Red Sox didn't show much heart. Hopefully, the new manager can change the attitude in 2012.
What an amazing year for the St. Louis Cardinals. They were nine games (in the loss column) behind the Braves in the Wild Card on September 5th. They trailed the Rangers by two runs in both the bottom of the 9th and the bottom of the 10th in Game 6. They were down to their last strike twice in that game. You couldn't sell a movie script with that scenario. It would seem too improbable. With their 11th championship in 75 years, the Cardinals further cemented their spot as one of the top franchises in professional sports. I think most would agree on a "Big Seven" comprised of the Yankees, Cardinals, Celtics, Lakers, Red Wings, Canadiens and Packers. What's really impressive is St. Louis' consistency. Their pennants by decade, starting with the 1920s: 2-3-4-0-3-0-3-0-2-1 (18 total). They won championships in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 60s, 80s, 00s and now the 2010s.
Of course, I feel bad for the Rangers. To be one strike away in back-to-back innings and not win is quite Red Soxian. Nelson Cruz won't ever be as infamous as Bill Buckner but baseball fans won't soon forget his blunder in right field. Most baseball players would run through a wall to catch the ball the clinches the World Series. I'm glad Cruz does not play in New York, Boston or Philly. The Texas fans will probably be more forgiving.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
I don't have to tell anyone that today's victory was crucial for the Patriots. The win put them two games ahead of the Jets, who are suddenly in big trouble. If not for "Tony Choko" in Week 1 the Jets would be 1-4 and in even bigger trouble. There was a lot to like about today's game. The defense played very well with the exception of two drives. The Jets started the game with four consecutive three-and-outs. The running game was stellar for the second consecutive week with Green-Ellis playing his best game as a Patriot. I wonder if he was motivated by Ridley's performance last week in Oakland? Brady was hit far too often, there were too many penalties, they allowed too many kickoff return yardage and there were several key dropped passes so the coaching staff will have plenty of material to use if the team displays any cockiness following their big win over their division rivals.
We're about a third of the way through the season now and the biggest surprise in the AFC is the Buffalo Bills. When the season started, they appeared to be Andrew Luck candidates. They are now 4-1 and playing very good - and entertaining - football. Ryan Fitzpatrick is having a solid year but the big story is running back Fred Jackson who is averging 5.8 yards per carry. I don't expect this run to last but it's been a nice story. The Jets are the AFC's biggest disappointment. They can't run the ball or stop the run. They have Miami next week but then have San Diego, Buffalo on the road and the Patriots. The Jets need to figure it out quickly or this could be a long season for them.
It's nice to see Tom Brady with a man's haircut.
The NFC's biggest surprise has been the Detroit Lions. I think everyone expected the Lions to continue to improve this season but they appear to be ahead of schedule. Matt Stafford's QB rating is above 100 and Calvin Johnson already has 8 TDs. Ndamukong Suh is already one of the best defensive linemen in the game. Detroit has not played a top notch opponent and they don't appear to have a running game so it's way too early to even assume they are a playoff team, but it's nice to see them out from under the black cloud known as Matt Millen. The biggest disappointment in the NFC is no doubt the Philadelphia Eagles. Their made some big moves in the off season and it appeared they would be Green Bay's top contender in the NFC. The Eagles are 1-4 and with Washington and Dallas on the schedule the next two weeks, their season is already in jeopardy. They Eagles are putting up some points but their defense has been suspect, especially against the run.
Speaking of Philly, the Boston Bruins opened the season with a tough loss at home to the Flyers but bounced back with a 4-1 win over the Lightning. It always seems like the NHL has no offseason but that is particularly true when the team you follow plays in a Game 7 of the Cup Finals. The Bruins didn't receive much love from the ESPN experts. Only one of eight picks the Bruins to win the Northeast Division and no one picked the Bruins to return to the Finals. Actually, that's pretty reasonable. The Bruins played a lot of games last season and there is bound to be a Cup hangover. The nice thing about the NHL is that it's all about making the playoffs. Seeding (and home ice) doesn't matter much.
Do you remember those late August days when everyone was trying to decide if it would be the Red Sox, Yankees or Phillies who would win the World Series? As it turns out, none of the three even made it to the league championship series. The Red Sox were banged up and we knew the Yanks had rotation problems but how in the world could the Phils be knocked out this early? It's an interesting final four. The Rangers and Brewers have never won the World Series and the Tigers haven't won since 1984. The Cardinals are a great story because of the September comeback and because of the Pujols free agency situation.
I am particular excited about the Brewers. They have been so bad for so long. It's hard not to root for them. The Brew Crew won more than 83 games only once between 1989 and 2008. I am intigued by the Brewers incredible home/road split. Milwaukee was 57-24 at home and just 39-42 on the road for winning percentage gap of .222. Sure enough, they are 4-0 at home and 0-2 on the road in the 2011 playoffs.
Some people don't even remember that the Brewers were in the American League East with the Red Sox until 1993? Quick trivia question: Can you name the seven teams in the old American League East? Scroll down to the bottom of this page for the answer.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Last's night Red Sox debacle capped the biggest regular season collapse in Boston sports history. September was a "perfect storm" of player incompetence, injuries, bad managing, bad umpiring and just plain bad luck. It was fitting that the Rays rallied from seven down while the Sox couldn't hold onto a ninth inning lead with two outs and nobody on base ... against the Orioles. It was also fitting that the season essentially ended with Carl Crawford botching a line drive that Manny Ramirez probably would have caught. Crawford and Lackey (all $37 million worth) were shockingly awful this year. This team had a pre-2004 feel to it and what transpired was pure 1919-2003 Red Sox. Not only because of the "1986 World Series Game Six" type of ending but because Tampa rallied against the Yankees AAA team, tying the game and winning game on the cheapest of homeruns. For the record, I am not taking anything away from Tampa. They were the better team at the end of the year. I am also not being critical of the Yankees. With a game two days away, they were under no obligation to play their starters for the whole game - or at all. The Red Sox should not have put themselves in that position.
I got a kick out of the conversation between Dan Shaughnessy and Heidi Watney during the rain delay. Heidi was concerned about Tampa loading the bases in the eighth (still down 7-0). Shaughnessy brushed that off, saying the Rays had no chance of coming back. You would think that the guy who wrote "Curse of the Bambino" would know better.
Not only did the Sox cost themselves a playoff spot, but they probably cost Jacoby Ellsbury an MVP award. Ellsbury came up with big hits (many of them homers) over and over again this season. I've been following the Sox for 30 years and I have never seen a better season in "clutch" situations. Ellsbury was the only consistent player this season for the Red Sox. Amazingly enough, Alfredo Aceves was probably the second most consistent player.
I'm not sure what to make of Papelbon. He was nearly unhittable for two months. He easily retired the first two batters last night before things fell apart. He may have been tired though it didn't seem that way. It may have just been a fluke. Bard, of course, fell apart in September. I've been complaining since June that Francona was overusing Bard. Was that the reason he lost it? Who knows? When the season started it was assumed that Papelbon would pitch one more season with the Sox then Bard would take over as the closer. Because Papelbon pitched so well, people started thinking that the Red Sox would resign him and leave Bard in the setup role. Given what happened, the Sox might actually let Papelbon leave via free agency and find a new closer, leaving Bard in the set up role.
It will also be interesting to see what they do with Big Papi. If he's willing to take a one-year deal, I'm sure the Sox will agree. Two years, maybe. Three or more, no way. Kevin Youkilis appears to be on the fast track to becoming a DH, but I'd be surprised if that happened next season. I have a bad feeling we'll be seeing Big Papi in Yankee pinstripes.
This wasn't just a bad week for the Sox. The Pats loss to Buffalo could have big ramifications down the road. I don't think the Bills will compete for the AFC East title but that division loss could end up being the difference between the Patriots winning the division and the Jets winning it.
I can't believe I am actually going to say this but Thank God for the Bruins!
Monday, September 19, 2011
First the good news: (Patriots). The Patriots improved to 2-0 with another incredible offensive effort on Sunday against another very good defense. Through two games, the Patriots have gained 1,126 yards of total offense. Tom Brady has already passed for 940 yards and 7 TDs. Both Branch and Welker already have 15 catches (14 for Hernandez). The offense has been a machine against two pretty good defenses (San Diego and Miami were ranked 1st and 6th in the NFL a year ago). Yesterday, the Pats had two touchdown drives of more than 90 yards. My favorite drive, however, was the 80 yard drive late in the fourth quarter that put the game away. That drive was a nice mix of running and passing. Green-Ellis had a tough run for a first down on 3rd and 1. He also finished the drive with a TD run. The offense was fun to watch.
The Patriots defense, on the other hand, has not been very good. They now rank 2nd to last in the NFL in yards allowed. On the plus side, the defense played much better when San Diego was in position to score. The Pats forced four turnovers and had a great goalline stand that completely changed the game's momentum at a critical time. Henne and Rivers have shredded them which is not completely surprising. They are dealing with injuries, new players at safety and Leigh Bodden is showing the rust of missing an entire season. The pass rush was also very disappointing.
Now on to the bad news: (Red Sox). The Rays beat the Sox for the sixth time in seven games over the past week and a half to move within two games of the Sox in the Wild Card. This afternoon's loss to the Orioles means the Rays are just one game behind in the loss column heading into tonight's game. A perfect storm of injuries, bad play, back luck and bad umpiring have left the Sox in a daze. Today's bottom of the ninth against Baltimore was a microcosm for the Red Sox September. With the game on the line, the Red Sox had no choice but to send up Mike Aviles and Darnell McDonald as the first two batters in the ninth inning (injuries). Aviles appeared to have a lead-off hit in the ninth but JJ Hardy made a great play to throw him out (bad luck though I give credit to Hardy for making the play). On the first pitch he saw, Darnell McDonald weakly bounced out to third for the second out (bad play). Finally, Jacoby Ellsbury bounced out to end the game thanks in part to a bad strike call (bad umpiring). None of this is any excuse. The Sox had a nine game lead when September began and were still seven up on September 7th. Everything is going wrong for this team and they are getting close to being even money to make the playoffs. It's even more unfortunate because the Yankees have lost 7 of 11. The Sox could have cruised into the #1 spot in the AL Playoffs had they just played mediocre baseball this month.
On paper, the Red Sox have an advantage in the schedule. Both teams play in New York, but the Sox remaining games are with Baltimore while Tampa plays home series against Toronto and the Yankees. The problem is: the Yankees may have clinched by the time they visit the Rays next week. The Yankees would then be in a position to help the Red Sox by winning. Normally, they would rest key starters in that situation. Knowing they can knock the Sox out by losing, I'd fully expect the entire AAA roster to play that whole series.
There are only a couple of bright spots for the Sox right now. One of them is Jonathan Papelbon. He hasn't given up a run since July 16th. Since then he's been unscored upon in 21 outings, covering 22 innings. He's given up five hits and seven baserunners during that time. Simply dominant. Mike Aviles has been a bright spot as well. He's batting .364 as a member of the Red Sox with a couple homers.
According to ESPN.com, the Red Sox still have a 90.3% chance of making the playoffs. The formula they use doesn't account for injuries or momentum but I'll take any positive numbers I can find.
Monday, September 12, 2011
If you like offense then tonight's Patriots-Dolphins game was for you. New England and Miami combined for 1,110 yards of total offense, an NFL record 906 of those through the air. The teams combined for 62 points but that number could have been a lot higher if not for penalties. Chad Henne was a solid 30/49 for 416 yards and 2 TDs but his performance was barely noticable as Tom Brady completed 32 of 48 for 517 yards and 4 TDs. Welker, Hernandez, Branch and Gronk accounted for 28 of those 32 pass completions. The Patriots running game was also excellent as Woodhead and Green-Ellis combined for 103 yards on 21 carries. The Patriot offense dominated a very good defense despite the penalties and injuries on the offensive line.
The news was not nearly as good on the defensive side of the ball. Miami had 25 first downs and gained nearly 488 yards. However, after giving up a TD on Miami's opening drive, the Patriot defense limited the Dolphins to 31 yards or fewer in seven of the next eight drives (excluding the end-of-half kneel-down). The Dolphins had their way with the Pats defense on the final three possessions but that is not surprising for a road team playing in the early season in the heat and humidity of Miami. Clearly this defense has some holes but Miami's 488 yards of total offense is a little bit deceptive.
Brady's 517 yards passing is the 5th best in the NFL history and the most since 1996 (Boomer Esiason). Norm Van Brocklin passed for 554 in 1951. The second best is Warren Moon's 527 in 1990. Just an amazing night for Brady.
It was also an amazing night for Wes Welker who caught a 99-yard TD pass. He is only the 12th player in history to have a 99-yard TD reception.
Hats off to the Patriots banged up offensive line. They did an excellent job of protecting Brady. Nate Solder lost some battles but won the war with Cameron Wake. Dan Connelly did a nice job filling in for Dan Koppen. Let's hope Koppen's apparent ankle injury is not serious.
All things considered, a pretty good start to the season. The game was not as close as the score would indicate. Bring on the Chargers.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
The Red Sox dropped three straight games in Tampa and are now just 2-9 in September. The recent swoon has left the Sox just 3 1/2 games ahead of Tampa in the Wild Card race. The Sox play Tampa four more times in the next week so there is no question that it is now time for concern. Yesterday's loss was concerning because Daniel Bard had another subpar outing. I've been worried since May about Francona's use - overuse in my opinion - of this star set up man. Bard has now made 63 appearances and he appears to be wearing out. Bard didn't give up a single run in June and July (25 1/3 innings). He's given up seven earned runs in just 3 2/3 innings in September. He was also less effective in September last season. Today's loss was concerning because Jon Lester gave up four runs in four innings. He's now struggled in two of this last three starts. The Sox desperately need a win but their next four scheduled starters are: Wakefield, Miller, Lackey and Weiland. The 2010 Red Sox season was ruined because of injuries. It's looking like injuries might ruin 2011 as well.
The good news is that the Red Sox play the next 10 games at Fenway. It's also fortunate that seven of the final ten games are against Baltimore. Clearly things are going in the wrong direction and Tampa has all the momentum but 3 1/2 games is a decent lead at this stage of the season. If the Red Sox finish the season 8-8, Tampa would need to go 12-5 to catch them. That is not an easy task. I shudder to think that the Sox could do worse that .500 down the stretch but anything is possible right now.
Some interesting games in the NFL today. The Ravens made a big statement with a blowout win over the Steelers. Meanwhile, Indianapolis was tattooed by the Texans. Like many people, I felt like the Colts were on the downswing even with Peyton Manning. Without him, they could be #1 draft pick contenders. The Jets are playing Dallas as I'm typing this. This is certainly a more important week for the Patriots because they are playing a division game. Right now, I'd say the Pats, Jets, Ravens, Steelers and Chargers are clear-cut favorites to make the playoffs in the AFC. That leaves the AFC South where 8-8 could be enough to win the division.
The Patriots are certainly set up for another great season. They lost almost no key players from last year's 14-2 team (Brandon Merriweather might be the exception) while adding Leigh Bodden (injured all of last year), Ocho Cinco, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter and a pair of interesting rookie running backs who could contribute immediately. Rookie tackle Nate Solder and veteran guard Brian Waters give the Pats more depth on the offensive line. The Patiots scored 77 more points than any team in the NFL last year and their offense has a chance to be even better. The defense ranked eighth in points allowed despite having no pass rush and a glaring weakness on the corner opposite McCourty. On the other hand, the Patriots have an aging receiving corps, a glaring weakness at strong safety, an unproven set of linebackers (other than Mayo) and question marks at defensive end. When you look at the 2010 depth chart, it's shocking that this team outscored its opponents by 208 points last season. All things considered, I like the 2011 depth chart better yet I wonder if they will be as successful in the regular season. Of course, as we all know, the 14-2 meant nothing when the playoffs began. The 2011 Pats should have a better running game, a better pass rush and two - not one - solid cornerbacks which will make them a better playoff team. That, and keeping Belichick from suspending his best receiver for the first drive of the playoffs.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Red Sox followed a successful week with a disappointing 2-4 effort this week. Both the Yankees and Rangers took two of three from the Sox at Fenway. The Red Sox would still be in first place (instead of a game and a half out) if not for a ridiculous 4-2 loss on Tuesday night. The Sox had 19 baserunners but left 16 of them on base and scored just twice. Tuesday's home plate umpiring was the worst I've seen all season, perhaps in several seasons. Both the Sox and Yankees were victimized by Ed Rapuano's bad calls but the Red Sox clearly received the worst of it because they had so many runners on base.
The Sox can bury Tampa Bay and, for all intents and purposes, wrap up a Wild Card spot by winning two of three in Tampa over the weekend. The Red Sox and Rays play seven more times this season and realistically, the Rays need to win six of those seven to have a chance of catching the Sox.
As for the division race, New York is two ahead in the loss column. Boston has the tiebreaker so they will need to lose two less games than the Yankees the rest of the way to take the AL East. Both the Yanks and Sox have two series remaining with Tampa Bay, one series in Toronto and one series at home against the Orioles. They also play each other the weekend of September 23rd. The main difference in the schedule is that the Sox play the Orioles on the road and have a two game home series with Toronto while the Yanks visit Los Angeles and Seattle. Clearly, that is an advantage for the Red Sox. New York also has make-up games at Baltimore and at home against Minnesota.
I am not concerned with Friday night's blowout loss to the Rangers because Andrew Miller isn't going to be a key piece of the playoff puzzle. The Yankee series doesn't worry me because, as I mentioned, Tuesday was a fluke and Thursday's loss was all about one bad inning (Lester's 43 pitch first frame). What does worry me is today's pitching effort. After pitching at a "fourth starter level" for a month or two, John Lackey is again looking like a guy who should be making $16/hour not $16 million a year playing major league baseball. He's given up 15 hits, 7 walks and 10 earned runs in his last two starts covering 12 innings. That's nearly two baserunners per inning. Not good.
On a positive note, Kevin Youkilis was 2 for 4 today with a double. Youk is batting just .194 since the All Star break so I'll take any signs that he is getting his stroke back.
October 9th Trivia Answer
Old AL East: Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, Indians, Tigers and Brewers.
Monday, August 29, 2011
Last week was a pretty good one for the Red Sox.
The Red Sox and Yankees will meet for their fifth series of the year starting on Tuesday. Boston is 10-2 against New York but only one game (in the loss column) separates the two teams. By the way, I am really tired of this unbalanced schedule. Four series per year with the Yankees (and Jays, Rays and Orioles) is more than enough. If the league does only one thing in the offseason, I hope it's killing the unbalanced schedule.
With the Sox and Yankees essentially in the playoffs already, there has been a lot of talk on television and sports radio about the first round (AL Division Series) matchups. If the playoffs started today, Detroit would visit Boston for Game 1 and New York would head down to Texas. No one doubts that Texas is the better overall team but the Verlander factor means that many fans would rather play Texas than face the Detroit ace twice in a five game series. The argument is a good one. Verlander is having the best season by an AL starter since Pedro Martinez in 2000. Verlander's WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is 0.90. No AL starter has had a WHIP under 1.00 since 2005. His ERA is 2.38 and he's on pace for 24 wins and 264 strikeouts. More importantly, when Verlander is really on his game, he is nearly unhittable. He followed up a May no-hitter with an eight-inning two-hit outing the next time out. He's given up three hits or less seven times this season. A week ago, I would have said that I would rather face Detroit, Verlander or not, but after the Sox bashing of Texas last week, I think I'd rather face the Rangers. I think the Angels would be a better option than either Detroit and Texas but Jeff Weaver is no picnic. No matter how you cut it, the Sox will have to beat three very good teams to win the World Series. Assuming the White Sox and Indians don't make a big comeback, this will be the most competitive group of AL playoff teams in years.
The Boston College Eagles kickoff the 2011 season on Saturday when the host Northwestern. I'll be covering BC football, as always, at bceaglesfootball.com.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
The Red Sox took three of four in Kansas City after a 2-5 stretch that (a) allowed the Yankees to creep into first place and (b) kept the Rays in playoff contention. The Sox could have buried the Rays last week at Fenway. The Rays are still 7 1/2 out but that is a manageable number at this stage of the season, especially with Boston's injury problems.
Only one inning separated the Sox from a sweep. That eight run 6th inning on Saturday highlighted Boston's biggest problem right now. The starters are simply not getting deep into games. They are giving up leads in the middle innings and causing the bullpen to be overworked. Opposing players are batters only .255 against Tim Wakefield in his first 75 pitches of each outing. That average goes up to .346 for pitches 76-100. Opposing batters are batting .339 against John Lackey between pitches 76 and 100. Andrew Miller has had problems in just about every inning which is why he has failed to go six innings in each of his last seven starts. With the exception of Albers, the pen has been very good lately but it's important that they get more rest in September so they are ready for October. The September callups will help in that regard.
There is a lot of disagreement about the AL MVP race. I'm still hearing a lot of Jose Bautista talk but I can't imagine that a guy on a team that is 13 games out of first place will win the award when there are so many other candidates on playoff-bound teams. Also, Bautista may not even drive in 100 runs this season. His numbers would have to be far better than any member of the Sox, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers to have a chance and that does not seem to the case. Curtis Granderson is having a huge month and has not only put himself in the thick of the MVP race but may be the front-runner. He was batting .263 in late July which, despite the big homer and RBI numbers, was not going to get him votes with anyone who isn't a Yankee fan. He's now at a respectable .281 and has added to his impressive power numbers. If he ends the season above .290, he's probably going to win it. I don't think Dustin Pedroia has the numbers and Adrian Gonzalez's power numbers have not been good since the All Star break. Justin Verlander is the favorite in the Cy Young race but unless he can get up to 25-26 wins, I don't see any chance that he wins the MVP. That leaves Ellsbury. He's still just about on pace for a .315/30 HR/100 RBI/115 run/40 double/40 stolen base season. Add great defense and incredible clutch hitting and you have the classic MVP. Anyone who has followed the Sox this season knows that Ellsbury has come through when the team has needed a big hit time after time. Missing these games with the back injury is not helping his cause, however.
The guys filling in for the injured starters have done a nice job lately. Darnell McDonald was 5 for 12 against the Royals with a homer and 3 RBIs. Rookie Ryan Lavarnway is 5 for this last 9. Mike Aviles is batting .295 with the Red Sox.
The Red Sox are now 28-11 in day games. Ellsbury (.363 8 HR, 34 RBI) has been their best hitting under the sunshine. Gonzalez, Crawford, Scutaro, Ortiz and Pedroia are all .320 or better in day games. Crawford has an unsual day/night split of .333/.216. Carl's 2008-2010 average in night games was .302 (.285 in day games) though I'm not sure how much that means for a guy who played his home games in a dome. Everything about Crawford's performance this season is strange.
Monday, August 15, 2011
The Red Sox lost a series for the first time since June as the Mariners took two of three over the weekend. The Red Sox had won eight consecutive three game series. They had either won or split their 15 series against American League teams. That is pretty remarkable. Boston is 71-36 since the 2-10 start but New York will not go away. The Yankees are just a half game behind.
The Sox offense has cooled a bit this month. Mike Aviles, believe it or not, leads the Red Sox with a .381 average in the month of August. Scutaro is second at .355. Big Papi is batting .348 in August, leading the team in homers (4) and RBIs (11). Crawford, Gonzalez and Pedroia are all batting .313 or better this month. Kevin Youklis is having a rough month (.216) and second half (.213). The injuries seem to be a constant problem with Youk this season and it appears to be affecting his play. The catchers have also been cold this month (.163) after performing very well in June and July.
The pitching this month has been quite poor. Every Sox starter plus Albers, Aceves and Bard has an ERA above 4.00 in August. The lone bright spot has been Jonathan Papelbon who has been dominant. He's working on 12 consecutive scoreless innings. During that time, he's allowed just three baserunners while striking out 13.
The Red Sox are entering a tough stretch. They start a 14 game in 13 day stretch tomorrow which includes four game trips to Kansas City and Texas. The next couple of weeks will certainly test the depth of the rotation and the bullpen. We'll learn a lot about the Red Sox in the next couple of weeks.
Monday, August 8, 2011
The Sox pushed across two in the ninth to beat the Twins in the first game of a six-game road trip. For the fourth time in a week, the Red Sox won a game with runs in the ninth inning or later. It's nice to see the Red Sox win some close games. Heading into last Tuesday's game, Boston had won only 55% of their one-run games as compared to 64% of games decided by two runs or more. Boston is 3-1 in one-run contests since losing a 4-3 game to the Royals on July 28th. Boston is now 34-14 on the road since the 0-7 road start.
Carl Crawford has shown signs of breaking out of his season-long slump. He's batting .406 with six extra base hits and six runs in his last eight games.
Jacoby Ellsbury continues to make his case for AL MVP. Ells has driven in ten runs in eight games and is now on pace for a .319, 27 HR, 102 RBI, 119 run, 44 double, 44 stolen base season. Add zero errors and two walk-off hits to his resume. Adrian Gonzalez is on pace for a better statistical season - .350, 26 HR, 131 RBI, 111 runs, 48 doubles, 4 errors - but Ellsbury has been the better hitter in the clutch and has more often been the catalyst for big innings. Jose Bautista has probably cooled off to the point where he is no longer part of the discussion. Miguel Cabrera is having a nice season but it really doesn't come close to Ellsbury and Gonzalez. In fact, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Gonzalez, Ellsbury and Pedroia could finish 1-2-3 in the MVP voting.
With each passing week, the Red Sox and Yankees get closer to wrapping up playoff spots. The Yankees are seven games ahead of the Angels. The Tigers should win the (Comedy) Central but the Indians and White Sox are alive. Every team in the AL Central has been outscored by their opponents this season. It should be a great race in the West between the Rangers and Angels.
The Phillies are the only team in baseball that has, for all intents and purposes, wrapped up the division. The Brewers, Cardinals, Giants and D-Backs are division title contenders and within striking distance of the Braves for the Wild Card. In other words, five teams are fighting for three spots. The Giants are somehow in first place and ten games over .500 despite being outscored by 12 runs this season. There are going to be some very mediocre teams in the playoffs this season.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
After a disappointing split against the Royals at home, the Sox took two of three in Chicago. The White Sox had won 13 of 15 games against the Red Sox heading into this weekend's series. The Sox won 5-3 today. They had scored 10 runs or more in each of their previous four wins. The Yankees are still on Boston's heels (2 GB) but the Sox are now ten games in the loss column ahead of New York's closest pursuer in the Wild Card chase.
The Red Sox had a strange stretch between last Sunday and Wednesday. They wrapped three 10+ run games around a one-run in 14 innings performance on Monday. Three times between the 9th and 13th innings on Monday, the Sox had the winning run at third base with one out and were not able to score. That game was easily one of the 10 most frustrating regular season Red Sox games of my lifetime.
Thursday game was pretty frustrating as well. Josh Beckett has only walked 37 batters and given up 9 homeruns all season, yet he had a walk-walk-homer stretch of three Kansas City batters in the 4th inning. The Sox nearly won the game in the bottom of the 9th when Carl Crawford's long fly ball (which would have provided a walk-off win) died on the warning track. It's been that kind of year for Crawford.
This was another solid week for the Red Sox bullpen. They gave up just 5 runs in 24 2/3 innings (20 hits, 9 walks) for an ERA of 1.82. The only bad innings for the pen were the mop up 9th for Morales (2 runs) on Tuesday and the 14th inning on Monday (2 runs and loss). All of the key Sox bullpen righties pitched well in July: Bard -- 0.00 ERA in 12 1/3 IP; Papelbon -- 2.77 ERA, 8/8 in saves; Albers -- 0.00 ERA in 13 1/3 IP; Wheeler -- 2.08 ERA, 2-0; Aceves -- 2.28 ERA, 4-0. It was not a great month for the bullpen lefties, however. Williams and Morales combined for 11 earned runs in 15 innings (6.60 ERA).
Dustin Pedroia's July was spectacular. He batted .407 (the third best July in Sox history) with 8 HR, 20 RBI and 27 runs. He had more homers than strikeouts (6). Ellsbury (.381 with 8 HR) and Gonzalez (.371) also had great months. Saltalamacchia continues to contribute at the plate. He batted .283 with 4 HR and 14 RBIs in July. Big Papi is batting .240 with one HR since the All Star break.
The way I see it, the Red Sox needed to address four needs via the trade market: (1) Buchholz insurance, (2) righthanded hitting rightfielder, (3) lefthanded reliever and (4) utility infielder. The Sox took care of #1 when they acquired lefty Erik Bedard from Seattle. Bedard has career ERA of 3.69 and has won more games than he has lost despite pitching for bad teams in Baltimore and Seattle. This was a nice pickup for Boston IF HE STAYS HEALTHY. He'll improve the rotation now and would be an acceptable, though not ideal, starter in a playoff game if Buchholz isn't healthy or Lackey isn't getting the job done. The Sox can also check off #4 (sort of) since they picked up utility infielder Mike Aviles from Kansas City. Aviles batted .304 last season (and .325 in 2008) but his average has dipped to .222 this year. He's also made 6 errors in just 67 chances this season as a third basemen. Wow! On the plus side, he's batting .309 against lefties. That leaves need #2 and #3 on the docket for August.
Some fans might be disappointed that the Sox didn't pick up a reliable AND reliably healthy starter. Unfortunately, getting a Jimenez or Garza would have cost way too much in prospects. We're just going to have to hold our breath and hope the either Buchholz or Bedard is healthy when the playoffs roll around.
The Patriots made big news this week when the acquired Chad (Johnson) Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. They also released Ty Warren. I think Ochocinco (I feel silly calling him that but what the heck) will be a nice addition. Obviously, he is a showboat but I think Belichick and Brady will keep him grounded. He's an "odd duck" as they say but doesn't appear to be a bad guy. Haynesworth, on the other hand, probably is a bad guy. He may just be one of those people who simply can't get their life together. Then again, Belichick might be the guy to set him straight. There is no question that he has immense talent and could once again be a dominant force on the field if he gets his head together. Time will tell. It's worth the fifth round to find out.
The Patriots regular season opener is six weeks from tomorrow. Where has the summer gone?
Sunday, July 24, 2011
The Sox completed a sweep of the Mariners on Sunday to improve to 7-2 since the All Star break. The Sox are now three ahead of the Yankees and ten games (in the loss column) ahead of the Yankees closest Wild Card contender. In other words, it will a major collapse for the Sox not to make the playoffs this season. Boston is 60-27 (.690) since the 2-10 start. If the Sox played .690 baseball for an entire season, they would finish 112-50. That is pretty amazing, especially when you consider the number of starts missed by their Opening Day rotation.
Jacoby Ellsbury will probably not win the AL MVP but he is making a very strong case. Ells is batting .320 and he is on pace for 26 HR, 95 RBI, 121 runs, 44 doubles and 46 stolen bases. He is batting .421 with runners in scoring position and two out. He has five outfield assists and has not made a single error. These are incredible numbers for a leadoff hitter. Rickey Henderson's best season was probably 1990 (.325, 28 HR, 61 RBI, 119 runs, 33 doubles, 65 SB). Ichiro has never hit more than 15 homers or driven in more than 69 runs. Craig Biggio had a couple of seasons with very similar numbers from the leadoff spot.
Speaking of MVP, despite Toronto's sub-.500 record, Jose Bautista appears to be the front runner for the AL MVP. Bautista is on pace for .330, .465 OBP, 49 HR, 110 RBI, 119 runs. Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez would probably battle for second place. Gonzalez has cooled off a bit. His average (.346) and RBIs (134) are certainly MVP-like but his homeruns (28) probably aren't. Anyone else (Jhonny Peralta, Miguel Cabrera, Michael Young) will have to really have a hot August/September to join the MVP race.
Justin Verlander probably has the inside track for the Cy Young (13-5, 2.24 ERA, 162 K's). Jared Weaver is clearly in the running (13-4, 1.81, 129 K's). Josh Beckett would be right there with those two guys if his teammates had scored a few more runs for him. His ERA (2.07) puts him in the Cy Young race but his lack of wins (9) takes him out. Sabathia (14-5, 2.62) also has a chance.
A couple of pitchers - Jeremy Hellickson of Tampa Bay and Michael Pineda of Seattle - are the Rookie of the Year front-runners. If Josh Reddick keeps up his current pace, he could end up being part of the conversation.
Daniel Bard has now gone 23 appearances (24 innings) without giving up a run. In the eighth inning on Saturday, he loaded the bases with no outs but kept the streak going. I am concerned that he is being overworked. He's on pace for 78 apperances and 79 2/3 innings. Will he have anything left for the playoffs if Francona continues to abuse him? Matt Albers has pitched well. Why not let him take the setup role from time to time?
Dustin Pedroia extended his hitting streak to 21 games on Sunday. He dipped to .239 on June 4th. He's now batting .299 and will probably end up having a better season this year than he had in his MVP season of 2008.
John Lackey has been pretty solid in four of his last five starts. If you take away the horrendous July 4th outing, he's 3-1 with an ERA of 2.04 in his last four outings, 23 K/3 BB.
I didn't realize until All Star week that the Florida Marlins will be called the Miami Marlins starting next season. They will open a new retractable roof ballpark next season. Good news for the handful of fans who show up for Marlins games. Here's a video showing what the new park will look like. The Marlins current home, Sun Life Stadium, is actually the seventh oldest park in the majors (1987). Only the Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Angels, A's and Royals play in ballparks more than 25 years old. The new Miami park will the 14th to open since 2000.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
They started the season 2-10 and had much of the city in panic mode but the Sox have battled back to a healthy 20 games over .500 at the All Star break. The are an exceptional 53-25 since the poor start including a 43-17 record against the American League. Boston has the best record in the AL and the second best record in baseball (the Phils are a game and a half better). They have done it with an explosive offense (most runs in baseball), a great top three in the rotation (Lester, Beckett and Buchholz are a combined 24-10) , a steadily improving bullpen (more on that later) and solid defense (tied for fewest errors in the AL). On the negative side are the injuries. Four of the Sox five Opening Day starters are currently injured (though Beckett is expected to make his next start). Carl Crawford and Jed Lowrie have missed almost a month. The replacements in the starting rotation (primarily Aceves, Wakefield and Miller) have done an excellent job and Josh Reddick has been a pleasant surprise filling in for Crawford but the Red Sox will not win the World Series if their overall health does not improve.
The Red Sox bullpen, which was absolutely terrible early in the season, has been a big story of late. Here are some of the impressive numbers:
The bullpen's great performance over the past six weeks means that management will not be under pressure to trade for bullpen help. However, I expect them to trade for at least one proven lefthanded reliever by the trading deadline.
The more interesting trade talk will focus on right field. Mike Cameron is gone and J.D. Drew continues to struggle. Carlos Beltran's name is the one most often discussed on the talk shows. The switch hitter, who is in the last year of a big contract, would certainly be a good fit. He's batting .289 with a solid .379 on base percentage - 13 HR, 58 RBIs, 52 runs. For whatever reason, Beltran is batting only .232 righthanded this season but has 8 of his 13 homers from that side of the plate. The four big questions will be: (1) Will the Mets trade Beltran if they are in playoff contention? (right now, they are 7 GB in the Wild Card race) (2) Will the Mets swallow some of his contract the rest of the way? (3) What will the Mets want in return? and (4) What other teams will be bidding for his services? I'm confident that the Mets will want to trade Beltran and that the Red Sox could make the dollars work. However, the Mets may ask for too much in return. Boston would definitely give up Lars Anderson and might part with Josh Reddick but I doubt they would let the Mets have one of their top pitching prospects for a two month rental. There are other potential upgrades such as Michael Cuddyer of Minnesota. Trade rumor talk will heat up after the All Star break.
The Sox would surely love to upgrade at shortstop but the options there are limited. Most of the shortstops on the non-contending teams would not be an upgrade over Scutaro/Lowrie and getting a guy like Hanley Ramirez would take more than the Sox have to give at this point.
The Red Sox offense has been great since April. They have now scored ten runs or more a total 12 times in their last 47 games. They lead the AL in runs, batting average, OBP, hits, doubles, extra base hits and walks (among other things). On the down side, they have been grounding into a lot of double plays lately. The Red Sox have grounded into 87 double plays, second only to the Angels in the American League. They have also left more runners on base than any other team in the AL. Of course, when you get on base more often, you are going to leave more guys on base. That's why the key stat is batting average with runners in scoring position where the Sox rank 6th in the AL. Imagine how many runs they would be scoring if they were were performing better in those situations.
Yes, he's a Yankee but you can't help but tip your cap to Derek Jeter. Not only was his 3,000th hit a homerun but he went 5-for-5 in the game including the game-winning RBI. Talk about a flair for the dramatic. Jeter has had a brilliant career. He's a proven winner and he plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He is one the most respected professional athletes among Boston's hated rivals in the four major sports. In the last 30 years, I would say that only Magic Johnson has equalled that kind of respect with the Boston faithful. This may be the last nice thing I ever say about a New York Yankee.
Women's World Cup Soccer
I am not a soccer fan and I normally don't follow women's sports outside of the Olympics but I was on the edge of my seat today during the US-Brazil Women's World Cup quarterfinal. In case you missed it, the United States scored the tying goal (2-2) with about a minute left in the last of two overtime periods (yes, they play two overtime periods and it's not sudden death) then won the game on penalty kicks. Both Brazil goals were gifts from the referees and the US played one player down for 52 minutes so it was extra sweet when the Americans won the game. A lot of Americans don't like soccer because of the lack of scoring and the lack of genuine scoring chances. Most Americans also hate the fact that faking injuries is very common in soccer. The Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks have nothing on the great actors of international soccer (and the men are far worse with the theatrics than the women). The faking of injuries drives me nuts but my biggest problem with soccer is that some of the rules make no sense to me. Maybe some of the soccer fans can tell me where I'm going wrong. Here's my list of soccer pet peeves:
I respect soccer for trying to preserve tradition by keeping the rules the same, but I don't think it's wrong to make small changes to improve the game for both the fans and the players. Where would basketball be without the shot clock and three-point line? How much longer would a hockey game last without the delayed offside? What would football be like if the goal post was still placed in the endzone? What would college football be like if they didn't have a playoff system? (I'm kidding about the last one. College football IS stuck in the 1950s).
Monday, July 4, 2011
We are now just past the midpoint of the 2011 season so it's a good time to grade the key members of the Red Sox. Please note that these grades are adjusted to some degree for expectations. For example, Adrian Gonzalez needs to do more for an "A" than Jarrod Saltalamacchia would. Here is the breakdown, by grade.
Adrian Gonzalez -- Gonzalez has been everything the Red Sox hoped for, and more. He's leading the American League in batting average, hits, RBIs and doubles. He's second in slugging percentage and third in on base percentage. He's on pace for .350, 31 HR, 144 RBI, 115 runs and 53 doubles. All this despite a somewhat slow start. The Red Sox knew that Adrian would hit homers and drive in lots of runs but nobody expected a .350 batting average (he was .284 career hitter through 2010). He's also been as solid defensively as advertised.
Josh Beckett -- Beckett was a huge question mark after an awful injury-riddled 2010. His ERA ballooned to 5.78 last season (151 hits in 127 innings). What a difference a year makes. Beckett's 2.12 ERA is second only to Jared Weaver in the American League. He's only won seven games but that is due to lack of run support (five times he's given up two runs or less and not picked up the win). With Beckett back to his old form, the Red Sox now have two aces in the rotation.
Jacoby Ellsbury -- Ellsbury is having a spectacular season. Like Beckett, Jacoby's 2010 was ruined by injuries. He's an All Star for the first time this season and for good reason. He's batting .302 and is on pace for 18 HR, 78 RBI, 111 runs, 51 stolen bases and 45 doubles. Ellsbury could become the third player to have at least 50 doubles and 50 steals in the same season (Tris Speaker and Craig Biggio are the others). Biggio is the only player to have 50+ doubles, 50+ steals and 20+ homers. Ellsbury has an outside shot at that as well.
David Ortiz -- Big Papi posted decent power numbers the past two seasons (average of 30 HR, 100 RBIs) but his batting average the past two years was only .238 and .270. This season, Ortiz, who batted .300 or better in three of four years between 2004 and 2007, is up to .301 with a .382 on base percentage. He's once again on pace for about a 30 HR/100 RBI season. The big news, however, is that Big Papi is having great at bats and putting the ball in play. Ortiz whiffed 145 times last season (about 24% of the time). This season, he's striking out about 11% of the time.
Jon Lester -- Lester hasn't been quite as good as he was last season, but his numbers clearly qualify him for an "A" in the first half of the season. He's 10-4 with 3.43 ERA. He's struck out nearly a batter an inning (105/110). On the down side, Lester has given up 14 homers already (he gave up 14 HRs total in 2010).
Kevin Youkilis -- Youk is having a rough time physically this season. He's been limping around more often than not over the past two months. Still, he's having a pretty solid season -- on pace for 21 HR, 111 RBIs, 41 doubles. He fails to qualify for an "A" because his 2011 batting average is more than 20 points lower than his career average. His health is surely having a negative impact.
Dustin Pedroia -- As usual, Dustin has had his peaks and valleys. He batted .400 in the first nine games and may have saved the Red Sox from an even worse start (he was 9 for 13 against the Yankees in the second weekend of the season). He went into a prolonged slump following that Yankee series (.209 in his next 47 games) then caught fire again (.374 with 14 extra base hits, 19 RBIs and 18 runs in his last 24 games). Like Youkilis, Pedroia's batting average is way down but his on base percentage is the highest it has even been and he's already closing in on a career high for stolen bases despite coming back from a foot injury. I think we'll see plenty of lasers in the second half.
Daniel Bard -- Bard has had his ups and downs as well. He was 1-4 with 3.65 ERA and a pair of blown saves through May 23rd. Since then he's made 14 appearances (15 1/3 IP) without giving up a run. He's allowed just eight baserunners during that time. His lack of success earlier in the season may have been the result of being overworked. He made 30 appearances in the Sox first 60 games. Since then, Francona has rested Bard as much as possible.
Jonathan Papelbon -- Papelbon has been a nice surprise in 2011. Last season, he blew eight save chances (as many as 2008 and 2009 combined) and lost seven decisions while posting a 3.90 ERA. This season, he has converted 17 of 18 save chances and is 2-0. His strikeouts per nine innings stands at 12.1 (he's been between 10.0 and 10.2 the past three seasons). His 3.58 ERA is not impressive but 9 of the 13 earned runs he's given up have been in non-save situations.
Clay Buchholz -- Buchholz has pitched fairly well this season despite battling injuries. He's now on the DL with back issues. I'm happy that the Red Sox have shut him down and I'm confident that the 26-year-old won't pitch again until he's 100% healthy. Buch was 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA before heading to the DL. Like Lester, he was giving up a lot of homers (10 in 82 innings pitched). Buchholz's health may be the key for the Sox in 2011. I don't see anyone other than maybe the Phillies beating Boston in the playoffs if Lester, Beckett and Buchholz are all healthy heading into the postseason.
Matt Albers -- Albers has pitched better than expected. His 2.97 ERA is two runs per game lower than his career average. More importantly, he's pitching better as the season moves along. His ERA is 1.80 since June 1st.
The Catchers -- Saltalamaccia and Varitek certainly deserved an "F" for their early season performance but both catchers have come around over the past five or six weeks. Salty is batting .316 since June 1st to get him up to .251. The Red Sox would certainly like to see more power (he has 5 HR) from the big switch hitter. Tek started to heat up on May 31st with a three-hit day. Since that date, he's batting .326 with four homers. Red Sox catchers have just one error this season, a major league best. On the down side, Salty and Tek have thrown out only 22.2% of potential base-stealers (only four stolen bases with Wakefield on the mound so the knuckleball is not the reason for the high stolen base rate).
Alfredo Aceves -- Aceves' 3.75 ERA puts him squarely in the "C" category. He's had some very good performances, including a couple as a starter, and some bad ones. His main role is as a reliever where his ERA is a decent 2.76.
Tim Wakefield -- Wake's 4.73 ERA in nine relief appearances leaves something to be desired. He's an equally mediocre 4-3 with an ERA of 4.84 in ten starts.
The Shortstops -- Jed Lowrie got off to a great start offensively but it didn't last. Scutaro has also been subpar while battling injuries. Sox shortstops are batting .269 (.322 OBP) with 6 HR and 39 RBI. Those numbers might be okay if they were playing great defense but they have been terrible in the field. The Red Sox are 11th in the American League in shortstop fielding percentage (14 errors). What's worse is that Lowrie and Scutaro don't get to a lot of balls in the first place. Shortstop is the most glaring Red Sox weakness right now.
J.D. Drew -- Drew doesn't have many fans in Boston. Despite what Theo Epstein claims, Drew has not been worth the $70 million the Red Sox will pay him for five years of service. Still, Drew was an above average player between 2007 and 2010. He averaged 19 HR, 66 RBI and 79 runs with an on base percentage of .375. This season, Drew has been absolutely horrible at the plate. He's batting just .231 with four homers. Josh Reddick's performance has been a pleasant surprise but if he tails off and Drew doesn't pick up his game, the Red Sox will need to upgrade before the trade deadline. Drew gets a "D" and not an "F" because he continues to play solid defense.
Carl Crawford -- Needless to say, Crawford has been a huge disappointment thus far. The Red Sox signed him for $20 million per season to bat .300, steal 50 bases, score 100 runs and hit 15-20 homers. He went to the disabled list with a .243 average, eight stolen bases, 33 runs and six homers. I'm hoping that Crawford's trip to the DL will allow him to push the proverbial "reset" button. His return to the lineup could provide him with the fresh start he needs.
John Lackey -- Lackey has been better since returning from the disabled list but there is no getting around his 5-7 record and 6.81 ERA. That's an incredible number for a guy getting more than $16 million per year. I think every Red Sox fan was puzzled when the Sox signed Lackey. Will he ever be worth $16 million per year? Almost certainly not. Can he be an adequate fourth starter behind Lester, Beckett and Buchholz? I think he can, but only if he gets himself together mentally.
Bobby Jenks -- If I could hand out a grade worse than "F" to Bobby Jenks, I would. In 14 2/3 innings this season, Jenks has given up 34 baserunners! That's closing in on one baserunner for every out. It's actually amazing that his ERA is only 6.75. Jenks has been getting progressively worse since 2008.
Dan Wheeler -- 3.12, 3.28, 3.35 -- those were Dan Wheeler's ERA numbers in his final three seasons at Tampa Bay. Clearly, his eye-popping 5.92 ERA with the Red Sox in 2011 is immensely disappointing. His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is 1.36 after being below 1.00 during the 2008-2010 stretch. Wheeler has not been the reliable 7th inning guy the Sox expected.
Josh Reddick -- Nice start, but it's too early to judge.
Rich Hill -- No earned runs in eight innings prior to his injury.
Andrew Miller -- You can't argue with 2-0, 3.06 ERA in three starts.
Michael Bowden -- Good start, good prospect.
Darnell McDonald -- I'm being generous giving him an Incomplete and not an F.
Mike Cameron -- The Cameron signing was a horrible decision and a waste of good money.
Tito and Theo
It's always tough to grade the manager and GM at midseason. The team has been a little disappointing but I don't think Francona is the reason for that. The Sox are in great position to grab the top spot in the AL despite all of the injuries. Tito will be judged in October, not July.
Theo Epstein has made some very bad moves (Lackey, Jenks, Cameron) and some great moves (Gonzalez, not trading Ellsbury, Lester and Buchholz, keeping Ortiz around). Getting Wheeler was probably a smart move that just isn't working out. The jury is still out on Crawford and Saltalamaccia. The Red Sox are now in business to win championships. Theo will be judged accordingly.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
The Red Sox won their fourth game in a row on Sunday to finish interleague play with a 10-8 record. This was Boston's worst performance against the National League since 2004 when they were 9-9. They haven't finished below .500 in interleague since 2002 (5-13). Boston was an amazing 16-2 against the NL in 2006.
Interleague play has not been the best of times for the Red Sox but they survived it, much like they survived the 2-10 start. A great week against the Blue Jays and Orioles could put the Sox back in first place at the All Star break despite the poor start, losing Ortiz for seven of the last nine games and the injuries. It's been a trying 83 games but the Red Sox are still in great shape to win the AL East and have field throughout the American League playoffs.
At least one piece of good news came out of the last 2 1/2 weeks of interleague play -- that would be the play of Josh Reddick. The 24-year-old batted .169 in the majors in 2009 and .194 with the big club in 2010. In 2011, Reddick is batting .452 in 42 at bats with the Red Sox. That includes ten RBIs and seven extra base hits. Reddick has seven hits in nine at bats against lefthanded pitching. Reddick has shown some power at the minor league level but hasn't hit for average so his recent performance is rather shocking.
It will as no surprise that Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz will be starting in the All Star Game a week from Tuesday in Phoenix. Josh Beckett will be on the pitching staff and Jacoby Ellsbury will be a reserve. This will be Ellsbury's first trip to the All Star Game. Gonzalez and Ortiz will also compete in the Home Run Derby.
Monday, June 27, 2011
It was not a good week for the Sox as they sandwiched Monday and Sunday wins around four consecutive losses. Andrew Miller was undoubtedly the pitching star for the Sox this week. He was far from spectacular (11 2/3 IP, 4 ER, 12 hits, 5 walks) but he started the only two games the Sox won this week. With the injury problems the Red Sox are having, Miller could be a key player in the second half of the season. The offensive star of the past week - and month - was, of course, Adrian Gonzalez. Adrian has a ridiculous .443 average in the month of June. Despite the slow April, he leads the AL in batting average and RBIs by a huge margin. He's eighth in homers, seven behind the league leaders, Bautista and Teixiera.
The Red Sox struggles this week reminded me of the early part of the season, particularly the anemic performance with runners in scoring position. The Sox were an unthinkable 1-for-26 with runners in scoring position in the three games in Pittsburgh. There is no excuse for that kind of performance but losing Ortiz's bat certainly contributed to the power outage. Injuries to Lowrie and Crawford coupled with the loss of the DH meant that a .108 hitter with 1 HR and 3 RBIs (Darnell McDonald) batted 5th in the Sox lineup on Friday. I'd love to know the last time a guy hitting .103 batted 5th in a late June game. It's even more bizarre coming from the team with the most runs in baseball.
A lot of fans are calling for Adrian Gonzalez to play the outfield in the NL parks so that Ortiz can join the lineup as a first baseman. I have mixed feelings about this, mainly because this situation will arise again if the Red Sox reach the World Series. I am not concerned with the next week, but I hate the idea of Big Papi potentially sitting for three or four World Series games. If Gonzalez will be used in the outfield in the World Series, then it makes sense to get him some games in the outfield now. On the other hand, I hate the idea of Adrian Gonzalez risking an injury by playing an unfamiliar position. He would also be a big defensive liability and could cost the Sox more runs than they gain by having both he and Ortiz in the lineup. If J.D. Drew were hitting well, this wouldn't be an issue. This is another reason why pursuing Carlos Beltran might make sense. With Beltran in right, there would be no drama. Ortiz would not be in the lineup in the NL park.
The Red Sox now have three losing streaks of four games or more this season and we are not even to the midway point. This is hard to believe. These losing streaks are the reason why the Yankees are a half game up in the AL East (and 7 1/2 better than the Sox in games that did not involve each other).
It was great to see the excitement in Pittsburgh over the weekend. I hope the fans start to show more support this Pirates team. Their rotation is very solid and they may have the best closer in baseball. They have great setup guys as well. Andrew McCutheon and Neil Walker are having very good seasons. If the Bucs can pick up a couple more bats, there is no reason why they can't compete for the NL Central title. The Brewers are inconsistent and St. Louis will be without Pujols for a while. It's great to see teams who have been struggling for a while (Cleveland, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Washington) competing for playoff spots. This isn't necessarily good news for the Sox because there will be fewer sellers when the trade deadline approaches.
MLB realignment has been a hot topic of late. The most likely scenario would move the Astros to the AL West leaving 15 teams in each league. This would mean that there would be interleague play throughout the season. A second Wild Card team in each league will likely be added. The Wild Card teams would meet (probably in a three-game series) with the winner moving on to face one of the three division winners in the AL and NL Divisional Series. I can't imagine too many people disagreeing with that part of the plan. Some fans want to eliminate interleague play but it's been far too successful for baseball to give up.
There is also some disagreement about scheduling. Bud Selig apparently loves the unbalanced schedule where divisional rivals play each other more often. For example, the Red Sox play the Yankees 18 times but play some American League foes as few as seven times. I feel that the Sox-Yankees rivalry has actually been damaged by the unbalanced schedule. The Sox and Yankees play so often that the matchups aren't as special as they once were. More importantly, I am really sick of watching the Sox play the Rays, Orioles and Jays so often. A third of Boston's games are against those three teams. My proposed schedule (after realignment) would be as follows:
I think that this would be a pretty reasonable solution. Interleague play would still be 18 games. Natural interleague rivals would meet every year (four times every three years). Division rivals would play enough to add drama to division races but still leave room for more cross-division battles critical to the Wild Card race. Having two Wild Cards in each league means that division titles would mean more.
That leaves one very contentious issue: the DH. As an American League fan, I would prefer to see the DH added in the National League. I do see a few advantages to the National League model.
I understand the desire of some fans to retain as much of baseball's history as possible but these are not the old days when pitchers could handle the bat reasonably well. The tradition of the hitting pitcher has already been tarnished by the fact that most pitchers are lousy at the plate. It's time to move on and make the DH a part of both leagues.
Sunday, June 19, 2011
My Bruins Stanley Cup recap is on a separate page.
The Red Sox wrapped up another great week (well, great if you don't factor in injuries) with a 12-3 drubbing of the Brewers. The Brewers were the hottest team in the NL and the Sox demolished them twice this weekend. Boston has won 10 of their last 11 three or four game series. They are 26-8 since May 13th. They have outscored their opponents by 98 runs (nearly three runs per game) during that time. Unfortunately, because of the 2-10 start, the Yankees are right on Boston's heels.
This was another great week for Adrian Gonzalez (10 hits and a couple of homers). Youk had a couple of big homers and drove in eight this week. Dustin Pedroia showed the first signs of breaking out of his long slump. He's 16 for 40 (.400) with seven extra base hits in his last ten games. On the down side, Carl Crawford (hamstring), Jed Lowrie (shoulder) and Clay Buchholz (back) all hit the DL this week.
One often overlooked benefit of winning via the blowout - as the Sox have so often of late - is the ability to rest his key bullpen guys. Daniel Bard was being severely overworked early in the season. He appeared in 30 of the Red Sox first 60 games putting him on ridiculous pace of 81 apperances for the year, not including the playoffs. Bard was dominant last year through August (61 appearances, 1.76 ERA, 55 baserunners in 61 innings). In September, however, he pitched 12 times with an ERA of 3.00 (20 baserunners in 12 innings). Fortunately, Bard has only pitched just twice in the past 12 days. Hopefully, Francona can continue to use him once every three games, on average, for the rest of the season to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Papelbon has also only pitched twice in 12 days (the same days actually). That's also good news.
We are getting to the point in the season where the serious trade talks begin. The Red Sox catcher situation seems to be okay right now so I don't think we'll see any moves there unless someone gets hurt. Shortstop might be an area where the Sox look to upgrade. Lowrie had not been hitting and now he's on the DL. Scutaro has been excellent at the plate since coming off the DL. Both Lowrie and Scutaro need to hit because they are defensive liabilities. Jose Iglesias clearly is not ready to move up. He's not hitting AAA pitching so he certainly won't hit major league pitching. If J.D. Drew continues to swing a weak, the Red Sox might need to upgrade in right field. Carlos Beltran would be a nice addition. He's a righthanded hitter with power in the last year of his contract on a team that could be out of contention by the trading deadline. He has a no trade clause but I can't imagine that he would want to stay with the Mets if they are out of the playoff picture. The Yankees also need a right fielder and, like the Red Sox, could swallow the remainder of his huge contract. Because Drew is still an excellent fielder the Red Sox would be reluctant to make a move for a poor defensive right fielder unless he could be a huge upgrade offensively. It would be nice to see J.D. start to hit and put the issue to rest.
I don't the Sox making a move for a quality starting pitcher because: (a) there won't be many available given all the teams in contention (b) Tim Wakefield is doing a solid job and Alfredo Aceves has proven that he can step in and (c) the Red Sox depleted their farm system a little bit to get Adrian Gonzalez and probably wouldn't want to give up more top prospects for a middle to bottom of the rotation starter. I imagine that the price tag for a guy like Wandy Rodriguez of Houston will be pretty high. It is almost certain that the Red Sox will add to the bullpen. Middle relief comes relatively cheap and the Red Sox have second-tier prospects to offer. Injuries will obviously affect their moves. This could be a tough year for trade deadline upgrades because so many teams are likely to be in contention for at least a Wild Card spot (demand high, supply low). As of today, only seven teams were more than six games from either a division or Wild Card leader.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
After another excruciating loss in Vancouver, the Bruins face a straightforward though difficult task - win the next two games and take home the Stanley Cup. The Bruins have outscored the Canucks 15-7 in the series but find themselves facing elimination because of their own inability to put the puck in the net north of the border and Vancouver's uncanny knack for scoring flukey goals. Despite being outscored by five goals in the 2011 playoffs, the Canucks are one game away from a title. The last team to win a Stanley Cup while being outscored over the entire playoff season was the 1944-45 Toronto Maple Leafs. The NHL playoffs were only two rounds at that time. Since 1968 when the NHL playoffs expanded to three rounds (and later to four rounds in 1980), the worst playoff performances for a champion were the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2007 Anaheim Ducks who were both +13. The Bruins were fortunate to make the finals in a season with a weak Western Conference Champion. Hopefully, they can win these next two and take advantage of it.
In case you are wondering, the best playoff performances (based on goal differential) in the 30 years of four-round NHL playoffs are the 1981 New York Islanders (+49) and the 1985 Edmonton Oilers (+43). In 1981, the Islanders scored more than twice as many goals (97) as their opponents.
Looking back at the Cup winners, I noticed that between the Bruins championships in 1941 and 1970, Montreal (12), Toronto (10) and Detroit (5) won 27 of the 28 Stanley Cup championships (Chicago won in 1961). Montreal (5), the NY Islanders (4) and Edmonton (4) won every Cup between 1976 and 1988. Regardless of who wins this year, ten different NHL teams will have won the Cup in the last 12 seasons. Quite a change from the old days.
As for Friday night's game, the key was the first period. The Bruins had one great chance after another to score but either couldn't beat Luongo or just couldn't get a great shot on their many chances in the slot. Chris Kelly hit the crossbar. Had the Bruins been able to score once or twice in the first period, I'm fairly certain they would have been on their way to another easy win. Horton's absense was quite obvious on Friday night. You have to believe that he would poked home at least one of the many loose pucks in front of Luongo. You have to give Luongo credit. He did his job in the first period while the rest of the team regained their confidence. The other key to Game 5 was the hitting. Vancouver outhit Boston in every period (47-27 for the game). The Bruins were simply not as physical in Game 5 as they had been in Games 3 and 4 at home. I'm sure that will change on Monday night.
The NBC announcers were correct to ask why Seguin was not the ice more often. I can understand not using him with a lead (which they never had in Game 5) and maybe not even at even strength in a tie game. But he should get more power play time and he should be on the ice regularly when the team is behind late in the game. Seguin played just nine minutes in a game where the Bruins didn't score. That just doesn't make sense to me.
With the 3-2 lead Vancouver clearly has the upper hand but I like Boston's chances. The Bruins are 9-1 in their last ten playoff games at home. Vancouver didn't look like belonged on the same ice as the Bruins in Games 3 and 4. I don't expect it to be that easy in Game 6 but you have to like the Bruins to win in front of the Garden faithful. No team is ever going to tank a Game 6 road game for a chance to win the title at home but it's human nature to not leave everything on the ice knowing that they still have Game 7 at home to fall back on. The Bruins will be playing like a team with no tomorrows. Should Boston win Game 6, I'd expect another low scoring affair in Game 7. The series may come down to a lucky bounce and that is not comforting for a Bruins fan. I hate to say it but the Canucks look like a team of destiny.
What a week for the Sox. They are now 6-0 on the road trip and have won nine in a row after a bizarre sweep at the hands of the White Sox. They outscored the Yanks and Jays 60-19 this week and they have scored 134 runs in their last 17 games (7.9 rpg).
Just about every Sox batter is on fire but no one is swinging the bat better than Big Papi. Ortiz his .320 this week with 4 homers and 13 RBIs. This weekend was the first sign of the Laser Show this season. Pedroia was 7 for 13 with a homer and 6 RBIs this weekend. He reached base 11 times in the series against Toronto. Jacoby Ellsbury had at least two hits in every game this week and scored ten runs. Adrian Gonzalez drove in ten runs this week. Pretty much everyone is hitting except for Jed Lowrie who is in a major slump and J.D. Drew who hasn't hit all year.
The Red Sox are now 37-16 since the 2-10 start. That .698 winning percentage over a full season would translate to a record of 113-49. The Red Sox will need to play .629 baseball the rest of the way (61-36) to win 100 games.
The Sox have another big road series this week in Tampa before interleague play resumes. The Sox face a suddenly resurgent Brewers team Friday through Sunday. Milwaukee is 24-8 after a slow start.
Friday, June 10, 2011
The Bruins now have all the momentum in what has become a best-of-three series. Unfortunately, momentum is often lost when a series shifts to the other team's arena. Tonight's game presents a fresh start for the Canucks who were dominated by the Bruins in all facets of the game on Monday and Wednesday. If the Bruins can beat a recently shaky Luongo early, there is a good chance they will once again steamroll the Canucks. Right now, the pressure is on the Canucks. The Bruins need to take advantage of that. The best way to keep the momentum on the Boston side is with physical play. The Sedins want no part of the physical part of the game. Ehrloff "turtled" to avoid an altercation in the late stages of Game 4. The Bruins need to avoid the after-the-whistle chippiness that plagued Games 3 and 4 but they should legally hit every Canuck they possibly can between the drop of the puck and the next whistle. All things considered, the Bruins have been the better team in this series by a wide margin. They have outscored Vancouver 15-6. Tim Thomas has been the better netminder. The Bruins have been better at even strength, in the penalty kill and shockingly enough, on the power play. The Finals could have easily been a Bruins sweep. At the very least, it would be 3-1 Bruins if the NHL had done its job and suspended Burrows for one game for the biting incident.
From a player behavior standpoint, this series has been ugly at times. This was particularly true during the games in Boston. I put the blame primarily on the NHL. Game 1 was fairly quiet in terms of chippy play with the exception of Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron's finger. Had the league suspended Burrows for Game 2, I think everything would have calmed down for the rest of the series (I mentioned in my June 5th notes why I believe the NHL didn't hand down a suspension). When the NHL let Burrows off the hook, it made the Bruins angry, especially after he almost single-handedly won Game 2 for Vancouver. Athletes will typically put an incident like that behind them if the player is punished fairly. Bergeron wasn't really hurt badly so a one game suspension probably would have been the end of it. Canucks prima donna Maxim LaPierre made made matters worse in Game 2 when he taunted the Bruins by wagging his finger in their faces. Of course, the Bruins exploded after Aaron Rome delivered one of the dirtiest hits in NHL playoff history in Game 3, knocking Nathan Horton out of the series. There is no explanation for Rome's hit other than intent-to-injure. Did Rome act alone? Did someone put him up to it? We'll probably never know. The Bruins were in a bit of a daze for the rest of the first period following the Horton injury, but came out in the second period with a vengeance. The Bruins intense play has included lots of clean hard hits as well as some chippiness (hooking, bumping into Canuck players, slashes on the ankles) and some dirty play (Lucic punching Canucks in the back of the head, Marchand ducking a check and sending one of the Sedin sisters dangerously flipping over on his head). The Canucks have of course responded with their own chippy/dirty play. Tim Thomas and Alex Burrows had a nice little exchange late in Game 4. This series is as heated as any I've seen and I don't see things calming down. Horton is still out. The league stole Game 2 from the Bruins. The anger isn't going to fade in the next five days. I just hope nobody else gets injured.
A lot of morons on Twitter are comparing the Rome hit on Horton to the Chara hit that ended Max Pacioretty's season. Only someone with a twisted hatred for Boston or the Bruins or someone who doesn't understand hockey would take that stance. Chara's hit and the severity of Pacioretty's injury resulted from (a) where the players were on the ice and (b) Chara's unique size. Had someone like Dennis Seidenberg made the same hit, Pacioretty may not have been severly injured. Had Chara made the same hit a couple feet down the boards, I doubt there would have been injury at all. Comparing an obvious malicious hit to an accident is idiotic beyond belief. One of the problems with the finals of any sport is that the casual fans who don't know the sport very well come out of the woodwork. Should skaters be off limits in the area between the benches? No, that would be silly. Should Chara play differently knowing that he is that much bigger than everyone else? No, it's not Chara's fault that he's huge. What happened to Pacioretty is awful. I feel terrible for the guy and hope he returns to the ice and is healthy next season. You take risks when you play pro hockey. Most people involved in the NHL understand that. Accidents happen. Intent-to-injure plays should not.
There have been a lot of reports about unruly Bruins fans viciously taunting Canucks fans before, during and after games, even throwing items. This behavior is of course totally unacceptable. The people participating in this are not real Bruins fans. Real fans don't represent their team that way. They are brainless idiots, alcoholics in training or both. A little harmless ribbing is fine. Fans expect that when they enter the opponent's arena. A little "Vancouver fans, you aren't going to bite me are you?" is part of the road game experience but no one should be subjected to profane language. No one should ever feel physically threatened because of a sporting event. I love the people of Boston but let's be honest, we do have a small segment of braindead Jersey Shore types. I hope real Bruins fans will get between the lunkheads and the Vancouver fans on Monday night.
It's also important to point out that Canucks fans have no control over the behavior of their team. It's easy to see why people around Canada hate the Canucks. The team is a mix of thugs (Rome, LaPierre, Burrows) and delicate figure skater types (Ehrloff, the Sedins). These are not guys who deserve to have their names on the Cup. The "green men" are more representative of a traveling ice show than professional hockey. I've never been to Vancouver but it appears that it's more like Los Angeles than Toronto. Anyway, don't blame Canucks fans because their team and a couple of guys in green tights are a disgrace to the sport.
Amazing stat: the Canucks have been outscored by six goals in the 2011 playoffs (56 goals, 62 goals against). The Bruins are +22 in the playoffs.
The Sox completed their second consecutive sweep at Yankee Stadium this season to move two games ahead of the Bombers in the AL East. The good news: Boston is 8-1 against New York this season. The bad news: the Yankees are five games better than the Red Sox against the rest of the league. In summary, Boston's lead is a lot smaller than it should be.
With the wins this week, the Red Sox now have the best record in the American League. I wonder if all of those people who were pounding on the proverbial "panic button" in mid-April are feeling silly?
There was some drama in the Bronx this week that was precipitated by a Big Papi bat flip after a homerun on Tuesday. It was no doubt "showy" but it's something that we've seen from Ortiz many times over the years. The New York media made a big deal about it - anything to distract from the team's troubles I guess. The Red Sox also hit several Yankee batters during the series including Jeter, Texiera and A-Rod. Clearly, none of those hit batsmen were intentional but the Yankees had to respond and last night Sabathia plunked Ortiz on the thigh (to CC's credit, not near the head). I'm guessing that both the Red Sox and Yankees feel that the matter has now been resolved. The players self-policed and solved the problem. Unlike the Alex Burrows situation, there should be no carryover hostility.
Lots of good news. Big Papi is on fire. He's batting .444 in June and is batting .362 with 13 homers since May 1st. Everyone in the starting lineup had a hit last night. Mike Cameron and Jason Varitek both chipped in with huge hits last night. Jacoby Ellsbury just continues to play spectacular baseball. He's seems to always get a hit when the Sox need one. He's now batting .310 and is on pace for 18 homers, 84 RBIs, 110 runs, 52 doubles and 63 stolen bases. Those are MVP type of numbers. Ellsbury won't win the MVP because, even if he continues at this pace, he'll be splitting votes with Adrian Gonzalez but he's certainly had that type of season. Only two players - Craig Biggio and Tris Speaker - have had 50 doubles and 50 stolen bases in the same season.
Boston's starting pitching has left something to be desired of late. Last night's performance by Josh Beckett was the best Sox start in a while. It was good to see Beckett get the win last night. He's been victimized by his teammates so many times this year. Alfredo Aceves had another excellent appearance to save Wednesdays win. In his last six appearances (three as a starter) he's pitched at least three innings. He's given up exactly one run in five of those six outings. He's 3-1 with a save during that time. He's becoming a very important piece of the Red Sox puzzle.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
The Bruins played two pretty good road games. If you only count the first 59 minutes and 40 seconds of each game, the teams were extremely even -- Two goals each, one power play goal each, Bruins 66 shots to the Canucks 65. The Bruins carried the play for most of the first two periods of each game. Vancouver won the third period. Both teams failed to score on a number of point blanks (these could have easily been 5-4 games). The difference, of course, is the final 19 seconds of Game 1 and the first 11 seconds of overtime in Game 2. In fact, Vancouver's only power play goal came with 12 seconds left on the man advantage. The Bruins deserved at least a split in Vancouver.
It's now an uphill climb but here's the good news:
The most aggravating thing about Game 2 was the fact that Alex Burrows played. He clearly should have been suspended for biting the finger of Patrice Bergeron in Game 1. Not only did he avoid suspension and play in Game 2, he scored twice, including the game-winner in OT. Prior to the start of the series, Vancouver sportswriter Tony Gallagher alleged that the Canucks would not get a fair shake because Bruins center Greg Campbell is the son of Colin Campbell, senior VP and director of hockey operations of the NHL. Colin Campbell, who normally handles discipline for the league, relinquished that role for the rest of the playoffs (as he should have). Unfortunately for the Bruins, it seems that the league failed to suspend Burrows as a way of overcompensating. They are so concerned about being viewed as pro-Bruins that they failed to suspend a key Vancouver player. Tony Gallagher was half right. One of these teams doesn't appear to be getting a fair shake in this series. No doubt, the Canucks have the NHL to thank for the Game 2 victory.
It was an interesting week at Fenway for the Sox. In case you missed it, they swept Oakland after being swept by Chicago. This leaves them a game back of the Yanks heading into yet another showdown with the Bombers in New York Tuesday through Thursday. The Red Sox pitching was the primary problem this week. Beckett's start on Saturday was mediocre. Jon Lackey probably has the best start this week (5 2/3 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 3 ER) and that isn't saying much. About the only good news from the mound came from the bullpen over the weekend. If you take away Papelbon's nightmarish performance in the 9th inning on Saturday, the pen gave up just one run (12 hits, 4 walks) in 15 1/3 innings of work against the A's.
The offense continues to score. They now have 74 runs in the last 11 games despite being shutout by Justin Verlander a week ago. Carl Crawford is batting .318 with 4 HR, 23 RBI and 23 runs since May 1st. The catchers had another nice week: 9 for 25 (.360) with a pair of solo homers and 6 runs scored.
The Sox nearly gave away another game on Saturday afternoon. Papelbon surrendered four runs in the 9th as the A's rallied to tie the game 7-7. Both Papelbon and Varitek were ejected for arguing with the home plate umpire. This was not a great week for umpiring in general but I think home plate umpire Tony Randazzo got all of the calls right in that 9th inning. Pitchers seem to be getting more irritating with their constant questioning of balls and strikes. Papelbon was actually thrown out after a pitch that Randazzo did call a strike. If you a pitcher is going to argue he should be 99% sure that he's right.
Another thing that annoyed me about Saturday's game was Francona's decision to pinch run Drew Sutton for Adrian Gonzalez in the 10th inning with game tied. Sutton batted two more times in the game, going 0-for-2. The absence of Gonzalez also allowed the A's to intentionally walk Pedroia. I feel that the odds of Sutton's speed making a difference in the outcome of the game are far less than the odds of Gonzalez's bat making a difference later in the game. Here are my rules for pinch running for an All Star hitter like Gonzalez: (1) If you are behind in game (8th inning or later) and the pinch runner is clearly faster, you pinch run. You have to tie a game before you can win it so I have no problem with this. (2) If the game is tied, you pinch run only if the pinch runner can steal you a base and get into scoring position. So, I would not pinch run Drew Sutton for Gonzalez in a tie game but if I had 2004 Dave Roberts on the bench to pinch run, I might. Otherwise, keep your slow-footed slugger in the game because there might be several more innings and you want that big bat in there.
Sunday, May 30, 2011
The Bruins are headed to the Stanley Cup Finals or the first time since 1990 and will seek their first championship since 1972. Since that last title, the B's have lost in the Finals five times (1974, 1977, 1978, 1988, 1990). The Bruins faced the Montreal Canadiens dynasty in 1977 and 1978 (Montreal won four Cups in a row between 1976 and 1979) and the Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers dynasty in 1988 and 1990 (Edmonton won their fifth title in seven seasons in 1990). This time around, Boston will face a very good but also very beatable Vancouver Canucks team. Vancouver is undoubtedly the favorite (home ice advantage, 117 points this season compared to 103 for the Bruins, +77 goal differential compared to +51 for the Bruins) but the teams have been even during the playoffs (12-6). In the first round, Vancouver nearly blew a 3-0 series lead to Chicago (winning Game 7 in OT). They needed six games to defeat Nashville with every game being decided by one goal (excluding empty netters). In the Western Finals, the Canucks defeated the Sharks in five games but were outplayed in the final two. They won 4-2 in Game 4 on the strength of three 5-on-3 power play goals in a span of two minutes. They tied Game 5 with 13 seconds left in the third period and that was only because of a legal game-ending clear by San Jose that was called icing. They then won in double overtime on one of the flukiest playoff overtime goals in NHL history. The point is: Vancouver is not the juggernaut that some are making them out to be.
I think everyone who has followed the playoffs closely knows that special teams will be the key to the Finals. The Bruins are every bit as good as Vancouver, perhaps better, in 5-on-5 situations. Unfortunately, the Bruins power play (with the exception of a game or two in the Conference Finals) has been abysmal, even comical, at times. Boston has converted on only 8% of their man-advantage situations (5 for 61) Only one of those has come on the road. Vancouver, on the other hand, has converted on 28% of their power play opportunities. Boston's penalty-killing (79%) is similar to Vancouver's (81%) but add it up and Vancouver is +1 in situations where one team has the man advantage while Boston is -8. At even strength, the Canucks are +3 in the postseason while the Bruins are an astonishing +21. If the Bruins can limit their time in the penalty box and be respectable on their own power play (something similar to their still-weak-but-not-pathetic 16% during the regular season), they should win this series.
As for Tampa Bay, I developed a lot of respect for them during the Conference Finals. Like most Bruins fans, I have no respect for Montreal. They spent most of the first round taking dives and whining to referees and it nearly won them the series. Philly earned our respect last season when they rallied from both a 3-0 series deficit and a 3-0 Game 7 hole. This year, they appeared to quit after losing Game 2 in overtime. Tampa didn't quit when they were down 3-0 midway through Game 4, staring at a likely 3-1 series deficit. They were down 2-1 in Game 6 and came back to win. They nearly rallied from a three goal deficit in Game 2 in a game they didn't absolutely need to win. They outplayed the Bruins in Game 5 and though the Bruins dominated the play in Game 7, Tampa Bay managed to keep the goal out of their own net for 50 minutes and could have stolen the game. Obviously, Steve Stamkos showed his toughness in Game 7. I came into the series thinking that Tampa Bay was a soft team that relyied on dives much like Montreal. That was not the case at all. The Bruins defeated a tough, hard-working team that played a great series.
Whether they win the Cup or not, the Bruins have exorcised the demons of 2009 and 2010. The reason is clear. Of the six most important Bruins during this playoff run (Thomas, Kreci, Horton, Bergeron, Chara and Seiderberg), only two were on the ice when Philadelphia completed the comeback in 2010. Thomas was on the bench, Horton was playing for Florida, and Kreci and Seidenberg were injured. In fact, the Bruins probably wouldn't have won the series without Tyler Seguin's heroics in Game 2 so five of the seven most important Bruins in the recently completed series were not playing in Game 7 against the Flyers last season.
The Red Sox started and ended the week with losses but in between they won five games in a row. In the middle of that winning streak was a stretch where the Sox scored 34 runs in 20 innings. The offense is ripping apart bad pitching and doing some damage against some very good pitching. Justin Verlander is in his own world right now, so I can't be too critical of last night's offensive impotence. Anyway, there are the key May numbers for the regulars:
The Red Sox are 28-13 since the 2-10 start. Though the 28-13 pace is probably not sustainable, it's clear that the 2-10 start was a fluke. All things considered, their current 30-23 record is disappointing but they still managed to climb back into first place at the 1/3rd mark of the season thanks to the fact that many other AL teams have been disappointing. Only seven games separates the AL team with the second best record (Boston) from the team with the second worst record (Chicago). Cleveland (31-19) and Minnesota (17-34) have more or less traded places in the AL Central. There is a little more separation in the NL, but 13 of the 16 teams are above .500 or within six games of .500.
With the Red Sox reaching the 1/3rd mark of the 2011 regular season (after Monday's game they will be exactly one-third of the way) I thought it would be a good time to list the pleasant surprises and disappointments.
Also: Adrian Gonzalez's batting average (.329 vs a career average of .287), Rich Hill (5 baserunners in 8 innings), Jacoby Ellsbury's production (on pace for 18 HR, 81 RBI) and Dustin Pedroia's stolen bases (12 steals coming off a foot injury!).
Also: Middle relief (for the most part, awful), JD Drew (.240 average with a .357 slugging percentage) and Carl Crawford (he appears to have turned the corner).
The NBA Finals are set and it's Mark Cuban vs the Miami Superfriends. I really regret that both teams can't lose. Arguably, Mark Cuban and LeBron James are the two most obnoxious people in the NBA. Sadly, one of the two clowns will win a title this year. Cuban has repeatedly made of spectacle of himself with his boorish behavior at NBA games or his anti-US military filmmaking. Of course, everyone knows about James and "The Decision" (no doubt who Cleveland is rooting for). I think I would prefer that Dallas wins for three reasons: (1) Dirk Nowitski has been a great player for many years and has been ridiculously good in the playoffs. He deserves a title. (2) If Dallas wins the series easily, I won't feel as bad about the Celtics not being there because I'd assume that Dallas is on a roll and the Celtics would not have beaten them. (3) Dallas has earned their spot, Miami is there largely because of friendly officiating. The officiating I've seen in the last two Miami series has been worse (meaning one-sided) than it was in the Donaghy days when refs were known to have been fixing games. There is no way Miami deserved that many more free throws (46 more than the Celts in the three games in Miami). A small gap, maybe, but not 15 a game. Add the phantom traveling calls in Game 5 and you have a series that Miami almost certainly would have lost with honest officiating and a healthy Rondo. Admittedly, I did not watch the entire Miami-Chicago series but when did tune in, it was the Celtics series all over again. On one occasion, I saw LeBron take three full steps without being called for traveling. Miami shot 28 more free throws combined in the final two games of the series but if you look at the shot chart, Chicago took far more shots around the hoop. Not all free throws result from shots around the basket but typically, there is a strong relationship between being aggressive inside and free throw attempts. That has not been the case with the Miami Heat. From now on when I hear a phrase like "Big Three carry Heat to victory" I'm just going to assume the person is talking about the three referees.
By far, the worst thing about the NBA is the officiating and it has been that way for about decades. This prompted me to create a list of my favorite and least favorite things about all of the major sports leagues.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
The Bruins led 3-0 after the first period of Game 4 and were one goal away from, for all intents and purposes, putting away the game and the series. Unfortunately, a four minute meltdown midway through the second period gave the Lightning new life and now Tampa has the momentum going into Game 5 on Monday. With the exception of the empty net goal, every goal in the game (both teams) resulted from a giveway in the defensive or neutral zone. As pretty much everyone knows, the Bruins let a 3-0 first period lead slip away in Game 7 against Philly. Several leads disappeared late in the third period this season though most of those were prior to the All Star break. The Bruins sloppy play in the first period that cost them Game 1 can be partially explained by the week off. There is no excuse for what happened in the second period of Game 4.
The sloppy play by the Bruins in the second half of Game 4 was particularly surprising given the fact that they had played excellent disciplined hockey in the previous four periods in Tampa, giving up no goals and few scoring chances. Game 3 was probably the Bruins best defensive effort in the playoffs.
The other problem on Saturday was the power play. The Boston power play has been significantly better since the final game of the Philly series. On Saturday, they had two power plays early in the second period with a chance to put the final nail in Tampa's coffin. They did very little with those power plays which gave Tampa the confidence and momentum they needed to get back in the game and the series. Just about everyone contributed to the wins in Games 2 and 3. On Saturday, Patrice Bergeron looked great but just about everyone else put up a lackluster performance, including Tim Thomas. If there was one other guy that stood out, it may have been Daniel Paille who was been doing a nice job on the penalty kill.
Of course, all is not lost. Before the series started, if you had asked me whether I'd be happy with a 2-2 series and Bergeron healthy heading into Game 5, I would have said yes. The key for the Bruins is to come out with a sense of urgency in Game 5. In nine of the Bruins' 15 playoff games this season, a goal has been scored in the first four minutes of the first period. The team that scored that early goal (or goals) has won seven of those nine games. The Bruins cannot afford to fall behind, especially if Mike Smith is in goal for Tampa Bay. The Lightning have outscored the Bruins 7-0 while Smith has been in goal. The Bruins have outscored the Lightning 13-8 with Roloson on the ice. My assumption is that Smith will get the start and though he hasn't faced too many tough shots, he looks very confident between the pipes right now. His team looked very confident with Smith in net.
Another odd stat from this series: six have Tampa's 13 non-empty net goals in the series have come in a 1 minute, 25 second stretch in Game 1 and a 3:58 stretch in Game 4. If you take away those two Bruin meltdowns and the empty netters, Tampa has scored just seven goals in about 230 minutes of hockey.
The Sox were having a great week up until the 8th inning of last night's game. Words can't really describe inning. The normally surehanded Sox committed three errors, at least two of the little league variety. Throw in some walks, some bloop hits and some rockets off of Cubs bats and you have one the worst Red Sox innings in the last ten years.
Like many people, I was surprised not to see Daniel Bard in the eighth inning of last night's game. Apparently, the Sox decided before the game even started that he would get a second straight day off. It may have cost Boston the game but I don't really have a huge problem with the decision. Bard has already made 22 appearances this season. The Sox can't keep using him like they have been. Last season, he was dominant between May and August (ERA below 2.00 and opponent batting average below .200 in each of those months). In September (when he made his 62nd through 73rd appearances of the season) his ERA was 3.00 and opponent batting average was .279 -- 2010 Monthly Splits. I'd rather lose a game or two now than burn out Bard for the stretch run.
We know Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Youk and Big Papi have been swinging hot bats. But how about those catchers? Varitek and Salty are 11/28 (.393) with 2 HR and 8 RBIs since the start of last weekend's Yankees series.
Despite the tough loss, the Sox are right back in the thick of the race. With a win over the Cubs on Sunday night, Boston will be just one-half game behind the Rays and Yankees in the AL East. They are 22-11 since the infamous 2-10 start.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
For the third consecutive season, the Celtics season was ruined by injuries. Even without KG, the Celtics took Orlando to seven games in the conference semis two years ago. It's hard to believe that season (2008-09) would not have ended with another Celtics-Lakers finals had KG been playing. Last season, the Kendrick Perkins injury in Game 6 definitely cost the Celtics their 18th title. The Lakers shooting in the first 2 1/2 quarters was atrocious. They only remained in the game because of offensive rebounding (they had 23 in the game). This would not have happened had Perk been in the lineup. In the conference semis against the Heat this year, nothing went right for the Celtics. They played poorly, the officiating was the most one-sided since the Tim Donaghy days, LeBron James made three-pointers that he never makes, James Jones had a career game in Game 1 and an already injured Celtics team suffered several more injuries during the series. However, the reason the Celtics lost the series boiled down to the Rondo injury. Even with a one-armed and high ineffective Rondo, the Celtics were one shot from winning Game 4 and were ahead with three minutes left in Game 5. Would the Celtics have lost either or these games with a healthy Rondo? Of course not. Would the Celtics, up 3-2 in the series, have lost the series in seven. It's possible but not likely. It irritates me to hear people in the media saying that the Heat were the better team this year. They weren't. They won because of a Celtics injury that they caused. Wade didn't intend to injure Rondo but it wasn't an accident. Wade won this series for Miami, but not because of his points, assists and rebounds.
I refuse to give credit to Miami but that doesn't mean I am not disappointed in the Celtics. On one hand, it took a gutsy effort to be competitive after Rondo's injury. Obviously, Rondo showed his toughness. Both O'Neals, West, Allen and Pierce were also banged up. Garnett looked winded for much of the series but played a monster Game 3. Many of the bad turnovers that were so prevalent in Games 4 and 5 were a byproduct of Rondo's injury (other people making entry passes and dribbling the ball more than normal) but that doesn't excuse the turnovers. At times, it looked like the Celtics had butter on their hands. Doc could best be described as dumbfounded as he watched this. It looked like the pre-Garnett Celtics. The Heat might not have deserved to win this series but I'm sure the Celtics deserved it either.
It's also clear that age is catching up to the Celtics. Pierce is still a big time scorer but he isn't the effective penetrator he once was. They could have used that in the Miami series. Allen and Garnett had pretty good seasons but it's hard to count on more than one or two great playoff games from each of those guys per series. By next season, these guys will have lost another step or two. I don't think there is much doubt that the C's will have a very different look in the 2012-13 season. The bigger question is: what will they do next year? They might try to make another run with the Big 3 out of necessity. Unfortunately, with Miami, Chicago and New York getting better, there doesn't seem to be any path to the Finals next season.
The Pierce/Garnett/Allen Celtics deserved more than one title, but at least they grabbed one. Imagine how upsetting it would be if they hadn't.
The Bruins will take the ice shortly. I expect a much better effort. For some reason, Boston looked rusty and Tampa did not despite the fact that Tampa's layoff was longer. I was very impressed by Tampa's defense. Tyler Seguin was about the only Bruin to really test Roloson. Clearly, the absense of Bergeron was enormous. I was not particularly impressed with Tampa's offense, however. Their goals were as follows: (1) goal on a Bruins broken stick (2) soft goal given up by Thomas (3) giveaway in the Bruins crease (4) power play goal on a power play they didn't deserve since they started the altercation and (5) empty-netter. They put five on the board, but it could have easily been zero had the Bruins been ready to play. Based on that, I'll be expecting a low-scoring Game 2 but you never know in the playoffs.
Prior to Sunday, the Sox had been 0-4 when trying to reach the .500 mark. The comeback win over the Yankees on Sunday pushed the Sox to an unimpressive 20-20 overall but an impressive 5-1 against New York. A second straight comeback win last night put the Sox above .500 for the first time this season.
Adrian Gonzalez has been leading the resurgence. Gonzalez is batting .349 in May with 8 homers and 22 RBIs. Jacoby Ellsbury (.353, 10 runs, 8 steals), David Ortiz (.316, 5 HR, 8 RBI) and Kevin Youkilis (.308, 2 HR, 12 RBI) have also been hot in the month of May. If Dustin Pedroia (.228, one extra base hit in May) can heat up, this team should start putting up the big run numbers that we expected.
Big Papi is now hitting .287. This is a very good sign since he was batting .208 and .224 on May 16th the past two seasons.
Typically rainouts during a hot streak is a bad thing but tonight's rainout was good news for Boston since we were looking at a Zach Britton-Tim Wakefield matchup. The Sox were scheduled to face three of the top 13 starters in the American League (based on ERA) over the next seven days. Luckily, they will avoid Britton (2.42) but they will face Justin Verlander (2.91) on Thursday and Justin Masterson (2.73) on Monday. I wouldn't mind another big rainstorm on Thursday.
As the record has improved, so have the stats. The Sox are now 4th in the AL in average (.260) and 7th in runs. However, they are still only 11th with runners in scoring position (.223). They rank 11th in the AL In ERA, starters ERA and bullpen ERA.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Once again, injuries have become the biggest obstacle for the local teams in their quest for the championship. The Bruins will likely have to start their conference semi-final series without Patrice Bergerson, their second most important player after Tim Thomas (they have already lost their third most important player, Marc Savard). Last season was ruined because of injuries to Savard (who returned but wasn't the same, Kreci, Sturm, Seidenberg and others. Pretty much the entire Celtics rotation is playing with injuries and now we'll have to wait and see whether Rajon Rondo can bounce back from the dislocated elbow. Kendrick Perkins' injury in Game 6 of the Final last season almost certainly cost the Celtics their 18th title. They may have made a serious run for the title two years ago if not for the season-ending injury to Kevin Garnett. Last season, the Sox lost Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia for pretty much the entire second half of the season and Jacoby Ellsury's season ended, for all intents and purposes, in April. Of course, Tom Brady's knee was turned into spaghetti seven minutes into the 2008 season. The Patriots finished 11-5 with Matt Cassell so I can't imagine that they would not have made a Superbowl run with Brady. Injuries are part of the game but out local teams have been suffering key and severe injuries at an alarming rate.
Gutsy doesn't even begin to describe Rajon Rondo's effort last night. Not only did he return to the game after suffering a dislocated elbow but he even dove for a ball, nearly falling on the same elbow. Whatever happens the rest of the series, Rondo will have secured a place in Boston playoff history.
I don't feel that Wade pulling down Rondo on that play was malicious and I don't think he deserves a suspension but I am quite sure that if any Celtic had done the same thing to Wade or LeBron, they probably would have been suspended for one game. Kevin Garnett definitely would have been suspended for one game and the media suck-ups around the league would have been calling Garnett's head. An argument can be made that Wade is a dirty player. I'm not sure I'd go that far. At the very least he's a chippy player and certainly not the poster child for sportsmanship.
Officiating in the NBA continues to be a nightmare but this series has seen the most one-sided officiating since the Donaghy days. I'm saying that anyone is on the take but they are certainly protecting the Heat. To a large degree, officiating in favor of the home team is expected. That was certainly the case in last season's finals. The Lakers got most of the calls in the LA and the Celtics got most of the calls in Boston. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Game 7 was in LA. The officiating was absurdly pro-Heat in Games 1 and 2 (LeBron steamrolling Rondo was one of the more incredible no calls I've ever seen) but I expected that to be reversed in Boston. It wasn't. The Heat appear to have a get-out-of-foul-free card under their own basketball. The usually mild-mannered Ray Allen was furious. The refs appear to be in love the Heat which is strange since everyone outside of Miami can't stand them.
As for the rest of the series, if Rondo can't play or is playing one-armed as did in Game 3, the Celtics have little chance to win the series. If the key Celtics can stay on the court and at least be 80%-90% healthy, I like Boston's chances. They seem to be doing a decent job scoring despite the lack of Miami fouls underneath. There is no reason the Celtics can't score around 95 points per game. This means that Bosh, who disappeared in Games 1 and 3, absolutely needs to step up for Miami. Jones, Chalmers, Anthony have played above their heads at times in this series but Miami certainly can't count on that. Those three guys averaged a combined 14 points per game during the regular season. They are averaging 24 per game in this series. If Boston pushes those guys back to their usual output and Bosh disappears then Miami would need both Wade and LeBron to have spectacular games to win.
The best news for Boston in Game 3 was obviously KG. He was an absolute monster. This was undoubtedly his most dominant playoff peformance since his first season in Boston. Will we see that KG for the rest of the series? If we do, Miami is in big trouble.
The Bruins closed out a very impressive series against the Flyers with a 5-1 win on Friday. Boston outscored Philly 20-7 in the series. The only time during the series that Philadelphia outplayed Boston was during the third period and overtime in Game 2. Tim Thomas' stole the game for the Bruins and they more or less coasted for the rest of the series. Thomas has only given up five goals in the last seven games that were NOT on either the power play or a breakaway. He's stopping nearly everything that he has a chance to stop. The entire team played well in the Philly series. The only player noticably underperforming was Lucic, but he broke out with two goals in Game 4. Kreci was dominant in the series and Horton has been coming up big since the Montreal series. Marchand is playing great. Seidenberg played a phenomenal defensive series against the Flyers as did Chara. There were some problems in the neutral zone that led to Philly scoring chances (and a goal in Game 4) but for the most part, the defense was excellent in the series. Chara and Boychuk scored big goals in the final two games. Good news all around with one exception.
That exception is, of course, Patrice Bergeron's concussion. His status for the Tampa Bay series in unknown. The concussion was mild and for most players, it would be the standard week off. Because Bergeron has suffered two severe concussions in the past, it might be different in his case. It's almost certain he'll miss the start of the next series. He could be out for the season. If he cannot play against Tampa Bay, I'd say the Bruins go from being a slight favorite to a slight underdog in the series. Boston was clearly the better team in the regular season. The Bruins scored only one fewer goal than the Lightning this season but gave up 45 fewer goals. Of course, some of that discrepancy is pre Dwayne Roloson who has been excellent in goal for Tampa since a midseason acquisition. As just about everyone knows, Tampa has plenty of offensive firepower with two 90+ point scorers (Center Steve Stamkos and RW Martin St. Louis). Center Vincent Lacavalier netted 25 this season. LW Sean Bergenheim has seven goals in the playoffs (he scored only 14 during the regular season). Tampa was second in the NHL in power play goals this season (69) but they gave up the most shorthanded goals (16). It should be a great series.
The Sox picked up a couple of desperately-needed wins on Saturday and Sunday, following a three-game losing streak. The bad news: the Sox are only 16-18 as they approach the one-fourth mark in the 2011 season. The good news: Boston is only four games out in the AL East. The parity in major league baseball this season has been amazing. Going into Sunday, only Cleveland and Philadelphia were better than six games over .500. In the National League, only 6 1/2 separated the team with the 2nd best record from the team with the worst (16th best) record. The AL pretty is competitive as well with only 5 games separating the 2nd best team from the 12th best team. Amazingly enough, the Twins and White Sox have the worst records in baseball. As ugly as the season has been for the Sox, they could be one great week away from first place. They could also be one terrible week away from digging a serious hole.
Sox by the Numbers -- the "good" numbers: 17, .515, 3, .407, 1.54
Sox by the Numbers -- the "bad" numbers: 2, .224, 4.94, 2-5, 7.16
Monday, May 2, 2011
With the Bruins and Celtics beginning second round playoff series, the Red Sox trying to dig out of a big hole and the Patriots engaging in a very important draft, this was a rare stretch where all four major Boston pro teams were making important news. Unfortunately, there was more bad news than good over the weekend. Let's start with the good news.
The B's played a fantastic Game 1 in Philadelphia, winning 7-3. The Bruins scored just 17 goals in seven games against the Canadiens so they are off to a great offensive start in Round 2. The biggest difference between Game 1 on Saturday and the Montreal series was goaltending. Montreal's Carey Price repeatedly robbed the Bruins on point-blank shots. Brian Boucher, on the other hand, was not nearly as sharp and gave up a couple of soft goals. The Bruins were getting a great rush from all four lines. David Kreci, who was quiet in the Montreal series, exploded for four points. The Bruins also did a pretty good job on the penalty kill. Philly did score once with the man advantage but I did not feel that the Flyers were as dangerous on the power play as the Canadiens were in the first round.
The Bruins are dominating at full strength (+12 in the playoffs) and doing a decent job on the penalty kill (86% if you exclude the 5-on-3 advantages and the de facto 5-on-3 where Paille lost his stick on the Montreal power play). The bad news for the Bruins continues to be the power play. They are now an incredible 0-for-26 with the man advantage in the postseason. What's most disturbing is that opposing teams are getting better chances on the Boston power play than the Bruins are. Some of Philly's best scoring chances on Saturday were on the Boston power play. Montreal scored a shorthanded goal in Game 7 that could have easily cost the Bruins their season. Part of me wishes the Bruins could decline the penalty like they do in the NFL.
Road teams continue to perform very well in the NHL playoffs. Home teams are just 25-30 in this year's playoffs.
The Celtics second round opener was quite the opposite of the Bruins' domination. It's was a "Murphy's Law" game for the Celtics. They came out rusty (16 points in the first 16 minutes). Rondo got in foul trouble and missed most of the first half. They were victimized by bad officiating. They gave up several points on technicals. James Jones (5.9 points per game) scored 25. Paul Pierce was kicked out of the game. I could go on. The only good news was Ray Allen, who wasted a spectacular game. If there is a silver lining it is this: just about everything went wrong and James Jones had a career game yet the Celtics still lost by just 9 points. Miami was clearly the better team yesterday, but Game 1 did not convince me that Miami is the better team.
In addition to being rusty, the Celtics looked a little too excitable yesterday. Rondo was out of control with the ball and his silly breakaway foul on LeBron disrupted his flow and cost the Celtics in the first half. Pierce looked half asleep in the first half and though he played a great second half, he couldn't maintain his composure. He shouldn't have been thrown out but he also shouldn't have let it get to that point. Garnett disappeared early. For the Celtics to win Game 2, they are going to need a more business-like effort. No silly fouls, no crazy passes, no dribbling off their own feet, no trash talking. I'm confident that Doc will make sure his team has the right attitude going into Game 2.
Keys to the game: (1) Keep Rondo on the floor. The Celtics were +7 on Sunday with Rajon in the game, -16 otherwise. (2) Stay on James Jones. There is no reason for a bench player like that to score 25 points or anything close to it. (3) Get Garnett back on track. KG had an up and down series with New York. The Celtics need the impactful KG in Game 2.
The Red Sox ended April with a shocking 11-15 record. Saturday's game was probably the low point. Boston was 0-for-11 with men in scoring position and failed to drive home four players who were on second base with no outs or third base with less than two outs. The Sox didn't score a run despite hitting five doubles. That's almost impossible to do. A bad call at second base (Ellsbury beat the throw but was called out) with the bases loaded killed Boston's best rally. The Sox lost both series last week to the struggling Orioles and Mariners.
On the plus side, the Sox won on Sunday despite the Tim Wakefield-Felix Hernandez matchup. Carl Crawford drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth which of course was great news. Carl Crawford and the Sox desperately needed that.
Like many fans, I was puzzled by the Patriots 2011 draft. The Pats ended up with five of the first 74 picks. Their top needs were: pash rusher, tackle and deep threat wide receiver. They got the tackle with the #17 pick in the first round but then proceeded to ignore their top need (pash rusher) while picking a cornerback, two running backs and quarterback Ryan Mallett. They apparently went with value over need. The Pats needed running back depth and I certainly like the idea of getting another talented young corner to pair with Devin McCourty. However, this was one of the best front seven drafts in recent memory so I cannot understand how they could fail to address their glaring weakness at defensive end and outside linebacker. Most Pats fans are wondering who is going to chase the quarterback. Maybe they had planned to fill those gaps in free agency but it's never a guarantee that the player they want will (a) be affordable and (b) want to sign with New England.
I am really struggling to understand the Mallett pick. He's talented but troubled. He certainly has the potential to be a great NFL quarterback but the last time I checked, the Patriots had a 33-year-old Hall of Fame signal caller with four years left on his contract. Even then, Brady would only be 38 and might have a couple years left. So what's the plan? Do they expect Mallett to ride the pine for four years? Do they expect that simply being in the presence of Brady and Belichick for a year or two will bring them a future first round pick? Was he chosen because they think he is a better insurance policy than Brian Hoyer? It just doesn't make sense to me.
The Patriots' second pick, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, certainly has NFL tools but he has already had serious injury problems. It seems to me that he could have been available with their late second round pick. If not, there were other corners that are healthier and would appear to have just as much of a chance to succeed as Dowling. The 33rd pick could have been used on one of several solid pass rush prospects.
On the plus side, the Pats did their usual wheeling and dealing and now have two picks in each of the first two rounds next season. Their own plus a New Orleans first and an Oakland second.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
The Sox regressed a little in Baltimore after a great trip to Anaheim. All things considered, 6-3 was a solid road trip that at least "stopped the bleeding." The Sox can climb over .500 with a sweep of Seattle this weekend.
A lot has been made of the Sox problems against lefthanded pitching and that is certainly a legitimate concern. However, the team is currently batting .250 against lefties and .240 against righties. The real problem is clutch hitting. Boston ranks 13th in the AL with a .217 average with runners in scoring position.
The Sox rank 7th in the AL in starter ERA (3.91), 13th in bullpen ERA (5.48) and are the top defensive team in the league with only 7 errors.
The C's and Heat finally tip-off on Sunday in Miami. The plan for winning should be simple. Don't turn the ball over, get back on defense and make a high percentage of shots. Obviously, those aspects are critical is every series but against Miami, they are magnified because the Heat score such a high percentage of their points on transition. If Boston can play sharp and force a half-court game, the older, more skilled Celtics will win. If it's up and down, the younger and faster Heat will win. That doesn't mean Rondo shouldn't push the break. Boston needs those easy points but the Celtics need to be aware of how fast Miami can turn a blockef layup into points at the other end.
The Celtics will start the series with a full week of rest under their belts. This helps their chances to steal Game 1 on the road. There will be three days of rest between Games 2 and 3. After that, there will be only be one day off between games. Given that schedule, I feel like Celtics need to be ahead in the series after Game 3 to have a shot to win it. I also feel like there will be more pressure on Miami and getting behind the Celtics in the series will only increase that pressure.
The Bruins were 3-11 in the overtime period this season and have one of the worst playoff overtime records in NHL history so I was pleasantly surprised to see them win all three OT games against Montreal. One the other hand, though, it wasn't surprising because the Bruins are arguably the best 5-on-5 team in the NHL. Regular season OTs involve 4-on-4's and shootouts where Boston clearly does not excel. It was also great to win a Game 7 after being eliminated the last three seasons in Game 7.
The two biggest stars for Boston in the first round were clearly Nathan Horton with the two OT goals and Tim Thomas, who was brilliant in the last three games. In 11 periods over the last three games, Thomas surrendered only six goals. Two of those were on 5-on-3 Montreal power plays, two were on 5-on-4 power plays (one was essentially a 5-on-3 because Paille lost his stick) and one was on a breakaway. That leaves only one non-power play/non-breakaway goal against Thomas in the last 11 periods.
Special teams was clearly the nemesis for Boston in the first round. Boston dominated Montreal at even strength, outscoring the Habs 17-10. Unfortunately, Montreal outscored Boston 7-0 in power play situations. The Bruins were a shocking 0-for-21 on the power play and actually gave up more goals on the power play (1) than they scored. Montreal converted on 22% of their power plays and that number could have been much higher if not for Thomas' brilliance.
Boston-Philly should be a great series. Like the Bruins, the Flyers were one OT goal from losing in the first round. I'm sure that most would agree that Philadelphia has more firepower than the Bruins but the Flyers goaltending situation is far from stable. You just never know which Brian Boucher is going to show up. The keys for the Bruins: (1) improve the power play - duh! (2) get David Kreci going and (3) win more offensive zone face-offs so Chara and Boychuk can load up those big slapshots against Philly's shaky goaltenders.
The Patriots are taking some heat for drafting Nate Solder and trading the 28th pick to New Orleans (the Saints took Mark Ingram). Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Pats take defensive end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Prince Amukamara or the more established offensive lineman Anthony Costanzo out of Boston College, but they certainly needed a tackle and I am willing to trust that they have found something special in Solder.
Swapping the 28th pick for New Orleans' #1 in 2012 and a second-rounder this year was a no-brainer. I like the swap for four reasons: (1) there is always the chance the Saints will have an off year which would make that pick much better than 28th (2) the Saints pick won't be any worse than four spots lower so getting the second-rounder makes it a 2-for-1 and who can pass up a 2-for-1 (3) I feel like some kind of work stoppage is inevitable and if that is the case, the progress of the rookies could be negatively impacted and (4) the next labor agreement will likely lower the cost of first-rounders. All of that points to this being a good deal. In fact, don't be surprised if the Pats deal the first pick in the second round for someone's #1 in 2012.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
What a week for the local teams! The Celtics, Bruins and Celtics are a combined 14-1 since last Sunday. Things had been going poorly for the pro teams in 2011 but, at least for now, things are looking up.
The Sox have bounced back after the 2-10 start with eight wins in nine games. Clearly, the starting pitching has been the key. During those nine games, the starters have given up just six earned runs on 34 hits. That's an ERA of 0.88. The strikeout to walk ratio is 50/19 over 61 1/3 innings of work. The best pitcher over this stretch, amazingly enough, is Daisuke who gave up no runs and surrendered just one hit in each of his starts this week. Beckett and Lackey have been great. Lester has not had his best "stuff" but the opponents are scoring which shows why Jon has become the ace of this staff. Buchholz is the only pitcher who had to be removed in the middle of an inning during this stretch but he pitched well enough to hold the A's to just one run. This has been the best stretch of pitching I've ever seen from a Sox rotation (I've been following since the late 1970s).
The offense is coming around as well. The left on base numbers are still ugly (Boston was batting .195 with runners in scoring position going into Sunday's game) but the last couple of games, the Sox have been producing more with two outs and getting runners in from third with less than two outs. Carl Crawford had two hits in each of the final two games in Anaheim and hit his first Sox homer. Ellsbury had six hits against the Angels. Youk hit three homers this week. Salty has four hits in his last four games. I think the Sox will be happy with one hit per game from the catching position.
The Red Sox have a great opportunity to continue to build up their win total this week. They play Baltimore (2-11 in their last 13) and Seattle (6-15 after a 2-0 start).
The C's followed two lackluster performances at home with two great performances (except for a poor ten minute stretch in Game 4) in New York. The Celtics will now be rewarded with what I'm guessing will be five or six days off. I'm assuming that Miami will finish off Philly on Wednesday and that the NBA will want to start the Miami-Boston series next Saturday or Sunday.
It was a great series for the Big Four. Rondo was spectacular in Game 2 and really didn't have a subpar game in the series. Pierce was spectacular in Game 3. Allen was a ridiculous 17 for 26 (65%) from three point range in the series and Garnett made some big time baskets in the clutch. Jermaine O'Neal had a great Game 1 offensively and played some solid defense throughout most of the series. On the down side, the bench has not been very good. The bench will have to play better if the Celtics want to have a chance to beat Miami in Round 2.
Two incredible overtime wins for the Bruins since Thursday. Last night was all about Tim Thomas. The Vezina Trophy candidate was just that in Game 4. He saved the game numerous times for a Bruins team that is struggling to score goals at home. The B's have just three goals in 11 periods at home as opposed to nine goals in seven periods in Montreal. I'm at a loss as to why the Bruins play better hockey on the road than at home. During the regular season, they had 24 road wins and only 22 at home. Last season, they had three more road wins than home wins. A team needs to be able to protect home ice to win a Cup. Hopefully, the Bruins are up to that challenge.
The first line finally got some offensive pressure going last night and netted the winning goal. Horton has been very streaky this season. Hopefully, he is ready to go on another hot streak. The same can be said for Lucic.
Montreal played a great game last night. Like Thomas, Price made great save after great save. In the first two games, it was Montreal getting all the fortunate bounces. The Bruins got the lucky breaks last night. Michael Ryder was forced to make a glove save in the first period and later on (can't remember if it was the 3rd or OT) a Montreal shot beat Thomas but bounced off the leg of a Bruins defenseman inches from the goal line. As I always say, luck plays a bigger role in hockey than in any other major sport. I'm happy the Bruins grabbed a little luck last night, offsetting Montreal's luck in Game 2.
It will be tough to beat the Canadiens in their building three times in a row and, of course, anything can happen in a Game 7. I wouldn't be shocked to see one or two more OTs before this series is over.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
The Red Sox held on today in Oakland for their fourth victory in five games. Though there are still major concerns, things seems to be turning around, mainly thanks to the starting rotation. In the last five games (one trip through the rotation), Sox starters have given up just 4 runs in 31 1/3 innings for an ERA of 1.15. Daisuke and Lackey bounced back after terrible outings. Buchholz was not great today, but he only gave up one run. Lester has been solid after a tough Opening Day. The best news of all is Josh Beckett, who appears to be in 2007-2009 form. The bullpen remains very shaky, to say the least. The Red Sox ERA among starting pitchers has moved up to second-to-last in the AL (Yankees are last) but the bullpen ERA is dead last (6.56 entering Wednesday's game), nearly a run worse than the second worst bullpen (Seattle).
It was great to see Clay Buchholz pitch a solid game today. Clay gave up more than three runs in a game only twice after May 8th last season. Both of those outings were in Oakland.
The offense has been inconsistent. After bashing the Blue Jays around on Sunday and Monday, the Sox were shutout on Tuesday night. Today, they belted three homers. I worry less about the offense. Crawford will come around. Youkilis is heating up. Gonzalez will do a lot more. The weather has been cold, they have faced a lot of lefties and the schedule has been pretty tough. This doesn't excuse the .235 batting average, but it does help to explain it.
One guy who can't be blamed for the lack of offense is Jed Lowrie. Lowrie is now batting .462 with 3 HR and 11 RBI in only 39 at-bats. Of course, Lowrie won't keep up this ridiculous pace but there is no reason to believe that this is a total fluke. Last season, Lowrie batted .287 (and reached base 38% of the time) in limited action. He hit 9 homers and drove in 24 runs in 2010. If you project those numbers using Scutaro's total at bats last season, you get 33 homers and 89 RBIs. Bottom line: Lowrie has a chance to be an excellent major league hitter if he can stay healthy. His versatility in the infield means that Francona can give Gonzalez, Pedroia and Youklis days off. For example, Gonzalez may get a day off against a lefty with Youklis moving to first and Lowrie taking over at third. Lowrie will certainly get more action at shortstop than Scutaro, who is batting .222.
Today the Red Sox completed a stretch where they faced seven lefthanded starters in nine games. They were 4-3 against those leftiest. Given how many lefthanded batters the Sox have, I think they will be happy if they can win four of every seven against the caliber of lefthanders they have faced. The Angels will start four consecutive righthanders in the upcoming series.
Reason #1 why I often hate listening to sports talk radio: I was listening to WEEI callers on Saturday (Boston was 3-10 at the time) making the argument that "it was going to be tough for the Red Sox to get back into the race." It's hard to believe that there are people out there who think being five games back with 149 left to play is more or less a death sentence. It's true that there was, and still is, reason for concern but not because of the record. The Sox are now 6-11. If they match that record in the next 17 games, they will be in real trouble but it is waaaaaay too early to panic. Let's do the math. If a team wins 10 out of every 17 games, they finish with 95 wins which is normally good enough for a playoff spot. At 6-11, Boston is only four games off that pace. They are certainly not where they want to be, but making up four wins (or more) in five-plus months is not a tall order, especially for a team with this much talent.
In fact, the last three World Champions started slowly. The Phillies started 8-10 in 2008, the Yankees were 15-17 in 2009 and the Giants were 41-40 at the midway point last season. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Celtics are ahead 2-0 in their series with the Knicks but it's hard to feel good about it. Last night, Carmelo Anthony and a bunch of players who probably couldn't win a WNBA title nearly defeated the Celtics on their home court. The major problem was pretty obvious - rebounding. The Celtic halfcourt and transition defense was great but New York grabbed 20 offensive rebounds which led to much of their scoring. There is a gigantic void in the middle where Perkins has been in recent years and where Shaq would be if he were healthy. I am not one of those people blasting the Celtics for the Perkins trade. Perkins' health is questionable and I thought they could be a better team with Green coming off the bench, provided that Shaq was available for 20-25 good minutes per game. Of course, Shaq isn't playing and Green has been a disaster. The Celtics should win this series but if they play Miami without at least a relatively healthy Shaq, I don't see any way they can advance beyond the second round.
Here's the good news. Boston stands a very good chance to taking care of New York in four or five games. That would result in extra days off prior to the next round. The extra rest would mean a lot to Pierce, Garnett and Allen.
The Bruins and Canadiens are meeting in the playoffs for the 14th time since 1984 (Boston is 5-8). It wasn't too surprising that Boston and Montreal met often in the 80s and early 90s when each of the four NHL divisions had it's own playoff bracket. With only five teams in the Adams Division, there was a reasonable chance that the two would meet. It's very surprising, however, that the Bruins have faced Montreal in the first round five of the past seven years that they have made the playoffs. There are 15 teams in each conference yet somehow the Canadiens and Bruins seem to find each other.
Strangely enough, Montreal's best game in this year's series came in Game 3, the one game they lost. They key to the series, obviously, has been the first three minutes of each game. Montreal scored in the first three minutes of Game 1 and twice in the first three minutes of Game 2 (they only scored once in the final 57 minutes of each game). The Bruins scored just 3:11 into Game 3. The Bruins dominated most of Games 1 and 2 but lost. The low point for the Bruins was during a roughly five minute stretch in the second period of Game 2 where Boston hit the post twice and beat Carey Price on another shot that trickled past the post. Meanwhile, Montreal scored on their only scoring chance during that time. Montreal dominated the final half of Game 3 but lost. It's been a strange series to say the least. I've always said that luck plays a larger role in hockey than in any other major sport. It's part of what makes the sport both exciting an infuriating.
Speaking of infuriating, are the refs going to continue to fall for (pun intended) Montreal's diving and pretending to be hurt to draw penalties? In some cases, the refs have not been fooled, but in a couple cases they have. If I were a ref and I saw a team diving the way Montreal does, I simply wouldn't call any penalties on the other team until it stopped. The Canadian women's hockey team shows more courage and toughness than the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey players should act like grown men and respect the sport. The Canadiens clearly do not.
Game 4 should decide the series. Obviously, if Montreal goes up 3-1, you have to like their chances. If Boston wins, they will have all the momentum and the home ice advantage (though the Bruins seem to be better on the road so that might not be a good thing).