Monday, May 01, 2017

Spring Sports Report

A little later than I wanted to get this, but not ridiculously so.

European Soccer
I greatly enjoyed the British FA Cup semifinals the previous weekend; both games were close, dynamic affairs with tons of top players in evidence at the famed Wembley Stadium. They moved the semis there a few years ago and converted to the single-game, must-decide outcome format used in the final. When all four of the teams are as good as in this year's matchups (Chelsea-Tottenham, Man City-Arsenal), it works.

It certainly helped, from my biased point of view, that Chelsea won its match, 4-2. Both teams approached the game seriously, not quite playing all their top XI, but close and with eminently reasonable substitutes where they didn't.  The rivalry is at a peak; though they will not play again in this Premier League's season, they are 1-2 in the table (four points apart), and Chelsea's win should provide a needed psychological  boost to help 'dem Blues reach the finish line first. As such, it should complete their recovery from a frankly disastrous 2-0 loss a week previously to Man United. Chelsea Rule OK in 2017!

Winning the Cup final vs. Arsenal will just be icing on the cake (and may complete Gunners' coach Arsene Wenger's long-awaited departure).

I should mention Barcelona's incredible comeback from 4-0 down in the first leg of a Champions League series against Paris St. Germain.  They had to pull off a 6-1 win to do it, scoring three goals in the final seven minutes.  I have rarely seen anything more outrageous (and that includes the PSG goaltending at the end).  They pushed it too far in the next round, though; a 3-0 away deficit to Juventus was more than they were capable of erasing.  I don't usually root for Juventus, but I'm thinking they might break through the recent Spanish domination this year.  Somewhat surprisingly, they haven't won since 1996. 

ML Baseball
It appears the trends toward more home runs (tighter wrapping of the ball, maybe?) and more strikeouts will continue this year.  Hitting the ball somewhere within the ballpark is out of fashion (too many good fielders?  I doubt it), and stolen bases, too--unless it is a sure thing.  The Earl Weaver philosophy (two walks and a 3-run homer) never went completely out of style, but now it is in, "big league" (as our Fearless Leader, "POTUS minus the TU", would say, somewhat slurringly).  Arm injuries remain a strong trend for overthrowing pitchers, but the greatest harm so far has been the 80-day suspension for a steroid for one of the key players on my Rotisserie team, Pirates' outfielder Starling Marte. 

I shed my rooting interest in the hapless, rebuilding Reds last year in favor of the lifelong favorite team of my aged father, the Cubs.  Their having won the World Series, at last, in 2016 (and what a joyride it was!), I have fulfilled my commitment to them.  I do favor the Indians, who competed nobly last year and have a long schneid (winless streak) of their own  (appears to be since 1948).  I am also hopeful their downstate "rival", my Reds, will be able to avoid last place in their highly competitive division.

My preseason picks were as follows:
  AL division winners--RedSox, Indians, Astros; with Orioles over Rangers in the Wildcard game
  NL division winners--Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers; with Diamondbacks over Cards in the WC
  ALCS - Indians over Orioles; NLCS - Nationals over Dodgers
  and World Series:  Indians over Nationals.
So far, I see no reason to regret any of these picks, though it's early.

The first round ended up very predictably, after some early excitement.  In the East, the #8-seeded Bulls defeated the #1 Celtics in both of the first two games at Boston, but then Rajan Rondo got hurt and the team chemistry dissolved, the Celtics winning the next four.  Similarly, the #6 Bucks folded after giving #3 Raptors a bit of a scare.  The best first round series, in terms of quality of entertainment and play, were the Rockets-Thunder matchup of MVP candidates and the strong effort the Grizzlies produced against the Spurs before succumbing.

Now, I would say the main question of the next two rounds is whether the anticipated Spurs-Warriors showdown in the West will happen, and can anyone stop the Cavaliers in the East?  On the latter question, I had some thought that the Washington Wizards might be the team to stop LeBron James' streak of six straight years in the championship playoffs, but they disappointed in Game 1 vs. Boston and will now be serious underdogs to pull it off (as would the Celtics against the Cavs).  Spurs-Warriors seems extremely likely to me, and the odds are increasingly pointing toward a third straight year of Cleveland-Golden State in the championships, with GSW looking like the better team at this point.

College Hoops
 I found justification for my rooting interest in favor of the U. of Kentucky in this English press article, which argues correctly that Kentucky's frequent practice, in which they recruit the top high school stars, get them to play one year, and then actively assist them in landing on a NBA team if that be their intention, the so-called 'one-and-done", is the most honest in college sports.

The Wildcats' current crop were "very freshman" in their play but showed tremendous talent and matured by the end of the regular season.  They got a very tough draw in their region, coming up with big wins over Wichita St. and UCLA in the first two rounds, but then hitting the wall against a more seasoned group of future pros, the eventual winners, North Carolina.  My other main rooting interest (besides Yale, which came up short in the Ivy League championship game), the U. of Louisville Cardinals, had a decent team, competitive in their "new" conference, the refurbished ACC, but didn't make it too far.

Finally, I did happen to catch the end of the most amazing event in college basketball this year, the upset of Connecticut in the NCAA women's semifinal by South Carolina.  After an incredibly emotional victory, breaking UConn's 100+ game winning streak, South Carolina came up short in the final.  A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory, still will be remembered in history.

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