Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sports Notes October

First thoughts here on this topic for this month have to be about baseball. If you don't know why, I won't tell you, but the hint would be: Reggie Jackson.

The first round of playoffs has provided great clarity to the postseason scenarios. It might have been clear only in hindsight, but the first-round playoffs, as usual, were one-sided.

Three of the four first-round losers were clearly not ready for postseason competition. The Cardinals had a team as good as any on paper, featuring two of three best starting pitchers in the league this year (Wainwright, Carpenter, and the SF Giant Lincecum are the clear favorites for the Cy Young), but they came into the postseason on a serious down note, and they couldn't change it around. The Red Sox didn't look fearsome at all and lost meekly in the first two games with the Angels, then got nosed out in the third.

Minnesota really had one chance against the Yankees, after coming in to their series out of breath from a sprint to the finish and a feverish one-game playoff win over the Tigers: ride their emotional high and somehow overcome a huge disparity in talent. In the first game, that theory lasted about five innings, when the Yanks came back from a 2-0 deficit and took a commanding lead. In Game 2, they had their chances, but faced a grim reality in the ninth: closer Joe Nathan's track record against the heart of the Yankee lineup (Teixeira, ARod, and Matsui) was tragic, and the Yanks had a clear psychological advantage based on a May series in which they won three straight games from the Twins in the ninth. Sure enough, Nathan couldn't get the job done. In Game 3, Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire tried a different approach in the top of the ninth, down 2-1: he changed pitchers four times, each until fourth guy Nathan facing only one hitter. The other three guys couldn't get the third out, and Nathan gave up a two-run single to Jorge Posada which pretty much clinched it.

One losing team--the Colorado Rockies--showed up ready to compete. They went down due to a result that could never have been expected based on regular season performance. Constantly maligned (especially by phickle phillie phans) closer Brad Lidge outperformed his Rocks' counterpart Huston Street. Lidge had one of the worst regular season full-season performances in the modern history of closing relievers, while Street had been nearly untouchable, both before and after his late-season injury. It basically came down to two successful confrontations between Lidge and Colorado cleanup hitter Troy Tulowitzki (one popout in Game 3, one miserable strikeout in Game 4) and a failed one between Street and Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard. Major redemption for Lidge, who was perfect in 2008 save opportunities all the way through the team's Series victory, and for Charlie Manuel for sticking with him despite heavy criticism.

This doesn't mean Manuel won't go to Pedro Martinez in some critical late-inning situation in the next round, or better yet, in the Series. The NLCS series between Philadelphia and Los Angeles would appear to favor the Phils now that Lidge has seemingly recovered his balance. I have to say that I owned Lidge for my Rotiss team down the stretch, and he repeatedly seemed to have his control back--until he didn't. The Dodgers' punch is underrated, and I'm looking for the return of Hiroki Kuroda to provide a hidden weapon at some point in the series. My prediction is that he will appear in Game 6 with decisively positive results.

Still, I don't see either NL staff having good enough arms to shut down the Yanks, whose hitting is pretty terrifying, and their starting pitching is now good enough, with their preseason additions of Sabathia and Burnett. I'm rooting for mankind's last, best hope, Nature's Better Angels, the feel-good choice of 2009, Los Angeles de Anaheim. I'm afraid it's them, or the deluge.

Quick NBA Preview
NBA teams can basically be divided into those who are hoarding money for the summer 2010 free agent bidding season, featuring LeBron James, and those who know they aren't in the bidding. The Phoenix Suns must be in the latter category, as they traded their aging star center Shaquille O'Neal to the Cleveland Cavaliers, giving them one last chance to convince LeBron he can ever win a championship in his home city.

Exciting as next offseason might be, there's still a season to play. In the revitalized Eastern Conference, the question has to be: Can anyone stop the Cleveland Cavaliers, now that Shaq has come to get LeBron's back? The 2008 champion Celtics are getting old faster than even Shaq, but may still have one more good playoff run left in their legs. Last year's Eastern champs, the Orlando Magic, have a good case to make with the NBA's best center, Dwight Howard, and Jameer Howard back: Howard had emerged as a top point guard with a rapidly improving outside shot last year until a serious injury; the team made a great run with him not fully recovered last year. I would still bet that Shaq can do for LeBron what he did for Dwayne Wade with Miami in 2007 and that the two can ride herd in the East.

In the West, it's very simple: Is there any reason to doubt that LA will repeat? I look hard because I seek to find one, and there are some very good teams, to be sure. As contenders, I like San Antonio's move to bring in Richard Jefferson and make sure there will be a third scoring option after Duncan and Parker, no matter the health of Manu Ginobili; New Orleans' improvement by trading for center Emeka Okafor, who will do well as a third option after Chris Paul and David West; and Portland's continuing rise around Brandon Roy and Chris Oden. Still, Kobe sits high on his throne with his "chamberlain", Phil Jackson, and it will be tough to dislodge them.

A Cleveland-LA Championship series would be an all-time ratings smash, hopefully one which will not be anticlimactic, like last year's Lakers wipeout of the Magic.

The English Game
I insist that "footie" not be confused with "the English vice". For the first time in a long, long time, the English "national" team looks to be a real contender for the World Cup.

Qualifying for next year's tourney in South Africa is in its final stages; if I've got it right, 23 of 32 spots will be fixed by the end of this week, with the remaining nine determined by head-to-head playoffs (one will come from a mighty Bahrain-New Zealand re-match, one looks like a straggling survivor from Uruguay or Ecuador vs. Honduras or Costa Rica, three from among African group runner-ups, and the other four from European group runner-ups, possibly including significant soccer nations like Russia, Portugal, or France).

Meanwhile, three teams have particularly distinguished themselves in European qualifying: Spain, Netherlands, and England. The first two teams have so far won all their games, while the southern Brits lost only last weekend, after they had clinched their spot (but the English press still went ape over the loss). You'd have to add as serious contenders defending champs Italy, which perennially lays as low as possible until crunch time after the first round, and, of course, Germany, which never loses until the final eight. I will also be watching Serbia and Slovakia, two teams which have performed in the qualifiers and may be auditioning for the upstart European semifinalist role which I associate with Croatia.

That being said, history clearly indicates that a non-European team will probably win (the rule being that a European team wins when the finals are held in Europe, and the inverse). As always, Brazil would seem the most likely candidate for that role. Paraguay has impressed in qualification and won't be taken lightly. Argentina, on the other hand, has been a horror show under Diego Maradona's clownish coaching, but no one doubts they have the horses to make a run--if they make it,and they could still blow it. Their star player, Leonel Messi, might be ready to upstage even Maradona if given the chance. Finally, the US and Mexico are both earnestly seeking to rate as legitimate threats--I can believe they could pull an upset or two, at least. The US team suffered a major loss in the lead-up to their last qualifying match vs. Costa Rica (we're in; they're not quite)--emergent striker Charlie Davies was seriously injured in an auto accident, and it may be difficult for him even to make the tourney next summer.

In the English Premier League, at least for this two-week break, we can once again exclaim: Chelsea Rules OK! The Blues gained a huge 2-0 win a week ago against their nemesis, Liverpool, while Manchester United dropped a point behind by managing only a 2-2 draw against improved Sunderland. The race looks to me at this point like a two-team fight to the finish, Chelsea and ManU, with four or five teams scrambling for third and fourth (the usual Liverpool and Arsenal, joined by Manchester City, Tottenham, and possibly Aston Villa or Sunderland). The first key showdown between Chelsea and Manchester United is only weeks away (at home, Nov. 8), so it's most important our key guys stay healthy now.

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