The baseball postseason starts tonight with the AL Wild Card game, and I have to say I am looking forward to postseason games, but without much of a dog in the hunt (due to the predictably bad season for the Cincinnati Reds). In a season of insurgents, my spring predictions were quite bad: by my count, I had about 3 1/2 of the 10 teams into the postseason correct (Cards, Dodgers, Pirates, and Royals, sort of). I did spot rising tidings for the Cubs, Rangers, and Astros, all of which made the postseason, but didn't expect them to have quite so much success as to make the playoffs this year. The moves of the Mets, Yankees, and Blue Jays, I missed entirely, and I was like most in picking the favored Washington Nationals to do a lot more than they did.
In recent years, I have looked for the teams that were hot going into the postseason to do well--this year, there aren't any, really. None of the postseason teams have better than a 6-4 record in their last 10 games (KC, Toronto, and Houston). The AL teams that have done particularly well in the second half of the season are Texas and Toronto, so I would pick the winner of their series to win the league's Championship Series.
Wednesday's NL Wild Card game shapes up as one of the highlights, a do-or-die showdown of two top starting pitchers, the Cubs' Jake Arrieta and the Pirates' Gerrit Cole, and the teams with the second- and third-best records in the major leagues. I pick the winner of that game to defeat their divisional series opponent, the team with the best regular-season record, their divisional rival the Cards, who have struggled late in the season. The Mets have a great young rotation, but their pitching cannot match the Dodgers' supreme 1-2 punch of Zach Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. I expect the key will be Game 4, in New York, when the Mets will either have to go to a rookie with a bad back (Stephen Matz) or the ancient guile of Bartolo Colon, probably to save their series, and possibly against Greinke going on short rest.
My sentimental pick is the Cubs, but they are no better than 50-50 to get past their first game. I will go with the Blue Jays vs. Dodgers in the Series, but will drop in a comment if these choices are obviated in the first round.
The surprises of the 2014-15 regular season were the conference-topping performances of the Golden State Warriors in the West and the Atlanta Hawks in the East. The Hawks flamed out rather badly in the playoffs, but the Warriors confirmed their status in the top flight by cruising through to the championship with surprisingly little difficulty.
Still, league watchers doing previews of this upcoming season are having trouble recognizing or accepting the Warriors' pre-eminence. One very good reason is the restructuring of the lineup of the San Antonio Spurs, who return their veterans and their rising star Kawhi Leonard, but have also added a major piece, through the free agent signing of LaMarcus Aldridge. In the West, there are two or three other teams with all the pieces to make a possible run, including Houston, the LA Clippers, and Oklahoma City (assuming Kevin Durant stays healthy this year).
The East race is considered to be no contest, with the Cleveland Cavaliers far in front and several possible contenders, including the Hawks, for the moderately prestigious #2 slot. As a Chicago resident, it will be interesting to see if the Bulls can return to their previous Conference Finals form; in particular, whether Derrick Rose still has it, similarly whether Pau Gasol and rising star Jimmy Butler can meet prior standards of performance, and whether the departure of coach Thibodeau, who to my view always got overachievement from the team, though perhaps at the cost of exhaustion, will hurt them. My former favorite team (from the '90's, basically), the New York Knicks, will remain the target of jokes and their GM Phil Jackson the subject of endless speculation, but their selection, at the #4 draft pick, of a 20-year-old 7-foot Latvian work-in-progress (Kristaps Porzingis) suggests to me that they are playing the long game, and that achieving mediocrity this year will have been a successful campaign.
I will make some NBA predictions in a follow-on comment when I have seen a bit more.
In college hoops I have to be even more reticent as the season approaches. My co-favored team (U. of Kentucky) had an undefeated regular season, but lost in the NCAA semifinals, with their six or seven top players going pro. Fear not, coach John Calipari and the Wildcats return with a fresh crop of prospective one-and-dones, but I will have to watch some games before I know whether they have actual possibilities to compete at the top level or are more likely (as happened one recent year) to lose in the first round of the loser tournament, the NIT. As for the other co-favored, U. of Louisville, Rick Pitino's organization just got rocked with the disclosure that one of his assistants has been accused of pimping ho's for prospects. I kid you not; the consequences could be very heavy.
U. of North Carolina is the preseason favorite--I would be happy with anything non-Carolinian winning the championship in my preliminary assessment. The college regular season has become a four-month learning exercise for talented freshmen, as their coaches seek to develop the chemistry needed for a tournament run, and the players prove their professional mettle or decide to return for further schooling.
My principal preoccupation early in the international season (the US season is in midcourse, but I don't follow it much) is the disastrously bad performance of my favorite English team. Something is rotten in the Borough of Chelsea (leaving aside that the stadium is in Fulham and the practice grounds in the fashionable western suburb of Cobham), and the Blues got'em in a serious way so far.
Despite his leading the team to a very successful 2014-15 season (above all, Premier League champions, but also League Cup winners who had respectable F.A. Cup and Champions League seasons), the start of this season is so bad that head coach Jose Mourinho has already been targeted for a quick hook, which Chelsea in its 21st-Century supersized version has readily employed. So far, though, he has received a vote of confidence from the Board of the club--which is fine, as long as it lasts--and Mourinho has stated he will not quit, they will have to fire him.
Really, though, the team is in 16th place (out of 20) in the league, and the start of their Champions League group has not been auspicious, either. Mourinho relied heavily--perhaps excessively--on a consistent selection of his top 11 last year (as long as they were healthy), and the team has not changed much, but all of the returnees are playing noticeably worse, so far, than they did last year. So, there is a possible charge of overuse, and I would add another, of being profligate with the talent acquired. It is possible one could construct a team of just the players Mourinho has discarded in the two years he's been there--names such as Mata, DeBruyne, Lukaku, Cole, Schurrle, Cech, Salah, Cuadrado...--that would be better than the ones he's got; they didn't fit into his scheme of team defense. Yet it is exactly that defense which is the problem so far; with defensemen he has been less wasteful, but his returning defenders are the ones who seem tired and slow. To be fair, though, in today's game and in Chelsea a lot of the strategy is about the midfield maintaining control or blunting the counterattacks of the opponents, and that seems also to have been lacking. I'd say Mourinho has until February--there will be an opportunity to fill gaps during the transfer window in January, and if he can plug holes he might be able to survive even a subpar season; if, however, they come out of that period still looking like this, it will be time for a total rethink and yet another team manager.
On the positive side, my Italian side Fiorentina is a surprise leader in Serie A. I have followed them, somewhat inconsistently I admit, for longer than Chelsea, some thirty years, and their performance is usually like Chelsea's used to be, pre-Roman Abramovich unlimited budget days: middle of the pack, occasionally better, generally hanging on in the top level. Their team this year is fairly anonymous, filled with Slavs and Hispanics, but they are playing well and playing together. The teams of the larger markets--based in Rome, Milan, Naples, and Torino--are playing quite badly so far. I doubt this will last.
One thing to watch is the qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a contest of national teams that has gradually risen in significance. It has some peculiar specifications, with three players allowed over the age of 25, but that is less of an impediment than it seems with the strong youth development in many nations. The US has important games toward its qualifications coming up .
Football (The Other Kinds)
I have seen one college game so far this year, an inspired bid by the usually-lowly Indiana Hoosiers to defeat #1-ranked Ohio State (last year's national champion). I should root for Ohio St., which has broken the stranglehold the SEC teams have had on the top spots, but I feel the Buckeyes have just cloned the SEC formula for success. Anyway, OSU won by holding Indiana on a series of downs inside its 10-yard line in the last minute. Questionable but acceptable result for the #1 ranked team (the commentators were suggesting down the stretch that one loss may not disqualify OSU for the national championship playoffs, which will be four teams this year); and a moral victory for IU, which has been getting wiped out by Ohio St. in its Big 10 games as long as I can remember.
The NFL is gradually assuming the character of the WWE (pro wrestling): highly entertaining, but results without much credibility. Cheating is rising, as are players' misdeeds, lawsuits, and, unfortunately, permanently disabling injuries, with sportsmanship totally evaporating; now we know not even the playoffs are immune. ("Deflategate")
There is also a form of football known as rugby (union, or league, I don't know which, and does it matter?) that is holding its world championship tournament now. I know the US made the field but probably is already eliminated; I think England is out, too. The big news was a huge upset by Japan of South Africa in the first game they played in the tourney, but I don't think they could sustain the momentum. That about covers my knowledge of the event.