I think this is the weekend that makes or breaks Kevin Millar and his future with the Boston Red Sox. Whether Millar will be sent to the purgatory that enveloped such Sox first basement like Jack Clark, Carlos Quintana (We still love the Q!), Todd Benzinger, and Sam Bam Horn, or if he breaks out and tears through this slump like Eddie Andelman tearing through the chili dawgs at his annual hot dog safari.
Millar started slowly last season, but finished with a bang; however, this season the pressure is mounting in the form of a first baseman with a sweet left-handed swing who wears a batting helmet while playing first base. John Olerud is hitting the cover off the ball in Pawtucket, and the allure of adding another left-handed bat to the middle of the Sox order has to be tempting. It will be interesting to see if Millar gets the support from the manager he received last season when his swing looked like a cross between a limping duck and mime pantomiming Sergio Garcia addressing the ball.
Millar, of course, is not to blame for the Sox struggles. In addition, I firmly believe that some players hit better when the weather is warm and they can get a little sweat going and get comfortable. But the Curt Schilling-less pitching staff has, much like the New England spring this year, weathered wave after wave of noreasters blasting them with the cold raindrops and gray skies in the form of injuries to Curt Schilling, David Wells, the Bronson Arroyo suspension, and the inconsistencies inherent in having a knuckleballer in the rotation.
The Sox need to start hitting, which will happen sooner or later. They need a couple of consistent starts, which will happen sooner or later. So much for the post-World Series honeymoon for the Red Sox; the anxious and testy fans and talk show hosts have allowed for a honeymoon the length of a Brittany Spears or J.Lo marriage.
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The Patriots finished up passing camp this week, giving the team a chance to get together and evaluate where they are and what final pieces need to be gathered before training camp opens in July. A quick rundown position-by-position before the June 1 cut-downs, which likely will be negligible here:
QB: Tom Brady, with Doug Flutie as the veteran back-up, Riders of Rohan Davey as the young back-up, and Matt, not Sam, Cassell as the project. Expect no change here.
RB: Corey Dillon, with Patrick Pass at the barely used FB, with Kevin Faulk as the third down back, and Cedric Cobbs as the primary back-up to Dillon. There are some undrafted free-agents in camp (DeCori Birmingham and NFL Europe player Kory Chapman) who, if they impress on special teams, may stick around. The position centers on Cobbs and if he can show the inside running skills that got him drafted. If Cobbs is indeed the heir apparent to Dillon, then no changes are expected at RB.
TE: Daniel Graham is the blocking star, and if healthy, first round pick Ben Watson will be the receiving star out of the two tight end set that Belichick seems to favor. Jed Weaver is the back-up and Andy Stokes who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings is the project (wait, that was Andy Serkis, sorry. Well, he was obsessed with getting a ring. The Patriots are the team to be on for that).
WR: I touched on this position yesterday, so I refuse to bore everyone with the same drivel day after day (what do you mean why do I continue to write this blog everyday?).
OT OG C: Here is where the competition is thick. Matt Light is penciled in at left tackle, Dan Koppen is locked in at center, and, based on his play last season, Stephen Neal is a lock at one of the guard spots. The rest of the positions will be an elaborate game of musical chairs to see who ends up getting the seat in the starting line. The right tackle spot will be likely won by incumbent Brandon Gorin or first round pick Logan Mankins. Also in the mix will be Tom Ashworth. The other guard spot (whichever spot opens as Neal is not a lock to stay at right guard) will be fought out between Russ Hochstein and Gene Mruckowski (Mruckowski also is the back-up at center). Expect third round pick Nick Kaczur to get a look at guard, as he can play guard or tackle. The Patriots also have a plethora of undrafted free agents fighting for roster spots on the offensive line. Belichick likes having big bodies that line coach Dante Scarnecchia can mold like play-doh into shapes that hopefully come out better than my play-doh works of art, which always come out as the same thing: a rock. Some names to keep an ear open for are tackles Lance Nimmo and Victor Leyva, and at guard Billy Yates.
DT: Belichick cleared up a little cap room by sending the white puffs of smoke from the Gillette Stadium chimney to indicate his choice of young stud (I can call him a stud, he weighs as much as a horse) Vince Wilfork as the centerpiece of his defensive line. By releasing veteran Keith Traylor he either signaled his faith in back-up Ethan Kelley, or else he feels he can a veteran back-up nose tackle on the cheap after June 1. This position bears watching as it is an integral part of the 3-4 defense and there is no one else likely to play the position on the roster other than a couple of the defensive ends like Richard Seymour, Ty Warren or Jarvis Green. I doubt anyone on the coaching staff wants to see these ends fighting the centers and guards in the 3-4. There are a couple of future practice squad players in camp as well, but I have no idea who DeMarco DeNeil is other than to say dename is debest I have deheard of in some detime.
DE: This is the deepest position, with talented starters Seymour and Warren, and backups who would start on most any other team, Warren and Rodney Bailey. Also, the team has prospect Marquise Hill who is expected to show something this year out on the field.
ILB: Expected to be a weak spot with the likely loss of Tedy Bruschi, this spot is suddenly full of potential. Ted Johnson is expected to start alongside import Monty the Diesel Biesel. Expect Dan Klecko to get a number of reps in training camp and the exhibition games. Also, special teams ace Matt Chatham should get a significant look at the inside position. Fifth round pick Ryan Claridge can play inside as well, as can special teamers Wes Mallard and Larry Izzo. It is also not out of the realm of possibility to see Roman Phifer return and get some time inside.
OLB: An aging position, but it still remains a position of strength for the team. Willie McGinest, Rosie Colvin, Mike Vrabel, and Bad Chad Brown make up a strong rotation. Impressive youngster Tully Banta-Cain may get some reps in pass rushing situations. Also, if he returns, Phifer can get some time in on the outside. Special teamer Don Davis can fill in as well as could fifth round pick Ryan Claridge.
CB: With the loss of Ty Law, this too was expected to be a weak position. Ty Poole returns to fight for a starting position with imports Duane Starks and double first name Chad Scott and with hold-over starters from the Super Bowl, Randall Gay and Asante Samuel. That is not bad depth at all for a position that loses Law who with his salary cap number had a deathgrip on the flexibility of the team to make moves. Veterans Hank Poteat, Ike Charlton and rookie Ellis Hobbs are also expected to provide further depth at the position.
SS & FS: The starting positions are locked in with Rodney Harrison and the ever-impressive Eugene Wilson. The depth is not really an issue, with youngster Dexter Reid looking to build on his rookie season and fellow draft pick Guss Scott who, before being injured in training camp last year, looked very impressive. Added to the mix is fourth round pick James Sanders. A long shot in camp at safety is undrafted free agent from Catholic Division II powerhouse Villanova, Ray Ventrone.
So, all-in-all, not too many holes are left to be filled for the defending champions. There should be some competition for a few starting positions on the offensive line, cornerback and possibly at linebacker. As always with the Belichick and Pioli team, expect heated competition for back-up and special teams roles.
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