Tuesday, September 13, 2005

WAITING TO EXHALE

There is one great thing of beauty about baseball that never changes: late-season games that help determine the pennant race. These games are actually the first round of the playoffs today, the pre-post-season if you will, as the teams finish waging an epic 160 game battle just to get into position to play in the postseason. With multiple fantasy football and pick leagues kicking off this weekend, plus a hunger for football that had built all off-season, I thought nothing would tear me away from the joy of the Jets being stampeded by the Chiefs (Who said the J-E-T-S Jets, Jets, Jets were vulnerable to the run without Jason Ferguson in the middle of the defensive line? Damn straight that was me!) and during commercial breaks flipping to the emotional game of New Orleans versus the Patriots next opponent, the Carolina Panthers. However, as much as one could try to stay away, the great playoff caliber contest between the enemies for over 100 years, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees pulled me in. Two senior citizens (in baseball playing terms) allowed four hits between them, struck out twenty, and allowed one measly pop-up home run. Forget who won and who lost, the game was the thing; and it was a game of beauty.

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RED SOX:

FOLLOWING THE LEAD OF THE PATRIOTS:

Red Sox fans and media amaze me: the team is in first place and they all act like they are chasing the Yankees for a playoff spot. The Sox are the defending World Champions. They are in first place by three games. In two weeks of September, the Yankees have been unable to make any sizable dent in their lead. The Yankees and Sox have essentially flipped positions: last year the Sox were desperately trying to cut into the lead and hold off challengers for the wild card, this year the Yankees are in that role. Like the Sox last year, they needed to sweep the division leader or the series really had no effect. When the Sox won Sunday, I let out a deep breath and smiled. The Yankees, at best would come in and pick up one game in three days. Had the Yankees swept, slight panic would be appropriate. They did not, however, and that leaves the Sox in position to take of business.

Taking care of business is what the Patriots do best. They do not concern themselves with the record of the Jets, Dolphins, or Bills. They do not concern themselves with Pittsburgh or the Colts unless they are playing them that week. They are focused on winning. Win one game, move on to the next. They have no control over a Jets-Dolphins match-up, so they do not concern themselves with it. Bill Belichick knows that if his team takes care of what they can control, everything else will fall into place.

This is what the Red Sox need to do: think like Belichick. The Yankees are unlikely to run the table here down the stretch. The Sox need to keep winning, beating the Orioles, Blue Jays, Athletics, and Rays that show up to oppose them. The Yankees are not their concern. They Yankees need to be concerned with their opponents and the fact that they still trail Cleveland in the wild card. They Yankees, like the Sox last year, need to concentrate on just getting to the playoffs, and that involves forgetting about Boston and focusing on winning more than Cleveland and Oakland.

Think like the Patriots and act like a first place team. That is what Sox fans, management, and the media following them need to remember.

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STARTING PITCHING:

Of course, the most encouraging news for the BoSox continues to be the great run by the Sox starting pitchers. Wakefield, Clement, Schilling, and Wells is looking pretty good for October, mere weeks after the media spent countless pages frantically wailing about Pedro this and D-Lowe that. Speaking of Pedro, the Mets are finding out what all the money they spent on Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez gets them: about an eight game improvement over the previous season. Following up their 72-90 campaign, new GM Omar Minyana emptied the pockets of the Mets ownership and imported the two biggest names out on the open market. Now, the Mets are coasting to the finish on pace for a whopping 80 wins as they struggle to stay above .500. The Sox are doing just fine without him, and the Mets still stink with him.

Not to toot my own horn (OK, expressedly to toot my own horn), way back in February I wrote the following about the Sox starting rotation right at the start of spring training:

Finally we get into who is going to replace Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe in the starting rotation. Following the Bill Belichick 2-for-1 plan of building depth, the Sox imported four starting pitchers this off-season to offset the turnover in the rotation.

First, let’s be frank: Pedro Martinez was the #2 man in the rotation - not #1, not #1A or 1B, he was number two behind Curt Schilling; furthermore, at the end of last season, Derek Lowe was the #5 man in the rotation. Schilling, Martinez, Arroyo, Wakefield, and Lowe - that was the post-All-Star break rotation in order of effectiveness.

So how do you replace one of the best #2 men in the league? Not to segue, but I don’t want to bash Pedro’s performance on his way out - his me-first attitude, surliness, and general “diva of the clubhouse” routine, yes, I will bash - but not his performance on the mound. He wore down in September, no doubt, but that was in part due to pitching so many innings. When he got his rest in the playoffs, he did fine.

Back to my question of replacing Pedro: You make the rotation #1, #2A, #2B, #2C, & 3. After Schilling, the Sox can trot out crafty lefty David Wells; fire-balling Matt Clement; ERA under 4.00 while pitching injured Wade Miller; and journeyman lefty John Halama. Also, they still have holdovers Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo.

Now, I may have expected a lot better performance from Halama-llama, but Clement, Wells, Wakie, and Arroyo have been the bomb lately and all have ten or more victories. That looks like a 2A (Wells), 2B (Wakefield), 2C (Clement), and a 3 (Arroyo) to me. Of course, no one could predict the year Curt Schilling has had, but if he continues to round into shape and get sharper as September progresses into October, the Sox are looking pretty set at the top of the rotation. Arroyo still scares me, but he can punch his playoff ticket to the bullpen where he becomes a vital set-up man in the seventh and eighth innings along with Papelbon, Bradford, and Myers. If Foulke can give anything this fall, even better, but the bullpen looks fairly solid with Timlin holding down the closers role.

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FOOTBALL:

Tomorrow I will have the picks recap, and going forward I will pick all the games as this weekend I just ran out of time and energy.

QUICK HITS:

Drew Bledsoe + Bill Parcells + Terry Glenn = Dallas Renaissance? Well, maybe not. But if Myron Guyton comes out of retirement to play safety next to Roy Williams, all bets are off.

J-E-T-S Jets, Jets, Jets. They were debating on ESPN Gameday whether the Jets were the most overrated team in the league, and other than Steve Young, no one had the guts to say that they were. Of course, I was screaming at the TV in the Laundromat while folding clean laundry about Jason Ferguson being missed and Laverneous Coles as being the anti-christ, so I had no problem with Young making the point for me. A Methodist and a Mormon in agreement: what could be next, world peace?

Add Minnesota to the overrated list, and Denver and St. Louis while we are at it. Of course, the season is still young and the Pats won the Super Bowl after being pasted 31-0 by the Bills in the opener a few years ago during the Lawyer Milloy fiasco. Of course, that was one of those moves that in the short term stunk but in the long term paid huge dividends. It showed the team that Belichick and Pioli would cut anyone for any reason to improve the team, friendship, loyalty and contract be damned. Those players started playing after that, and other than the occasional reminder (Shawn Meyer being cut after the Pittsburgh game last year where he whiffed a few tackles on special teams), the players got the message.

Do you think there a few teams that wish they hired Charlie Weis (Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Minnesota, and Arizona). He clearly has learned from Little Bill Parcells and Big Bill Belichick.

It will be interesting to see how Carolina responds to losing to New Orleans and then facing the Pats. Can they score any points if the Pats double team Steve Smith and put seven or eight in the box? Where is Muhsin Muhammed when you need him?

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SOCCER:

I NEED MORE TOFFEES:


I am still in withdrawal without the Fox Soccer Channel not part of my already ridiculously priced Comcast cable package, and with the boy starting fall soccer soon, I guess it is time to check in with the best soccer in the world: the English Premier League. A quick side note, yes that is my brother-in-law Tommy who just started cursing me out loudly in Portuguese yet again for making this claim. Soon I will hear how Porto and Benfica can beat anyone in the EPL, but, like him, I will stick with my heritage and go with who stirs the passions of the homeland four generations removed.

Anyway, my adopted Everton Toffees (with a striker named Marcus Bent, how could I root for anyone else save ManU and whoever is playing Everton?) are struggling mightily out of the gate scoring one goal in four games and looking up at nearly everyone (yes, even West Ham) with a 1-3-0 record. Meanwhile, Chelsea, the best team Russian Mob Money can buy, is 5-0-0 without having allowed a goal yet. ManU is up near the top (3-0-2) though they tied surprising ManCity. Arsenal has started slowly, but will likely heat up soon as it is early and most teams have only played four or five matches.

I like EPL soccer not only because of the high quality of play, but because the league has a very American-ish soap opera quality to it (even with Mr. Posh Spice riding the pine for Real Madrid). ManU is the team loaded with tradition and always near the top of the league while Arsenal boasts similar credential without the national love-fest for the team (Personally, I detest the bastards!). Everton is the Oakland Athletics of the league, having sold Wayne Rooney, the most exciting young player in the league to ManU (This is the common way players move around the league), yet young Mr. Bent stepped in and put up stats very similar to Rooney while leading the Toffees into the upper half of the division after having been written off before play began. Chelsea is the 1977 New York Yankees, except with a Russian owner instead of a Cleveland shipbuilder. Chelsea was a run-of-the-mill team until the flamboyant and media-loving owner started throwing money around like mad buying players until he assembled an all-star squad. Like I said, sounds very familiar to a team in the Bronx.

It is a long season with lots of time for my toffees to recover, and there is still much entertaining footy to be played (if only I could get it without paying another arm and a leg to freaking Comcast!).

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