Sports Outside the Beltway

Down on the Farm: Cheers for Buchholz Rankle Fisher Cats

Clay Buchholz is drawing rave reviews while plowing through the Eastern League this season. He’s Boston’s top pitching prospect, and is showing signs of being capable of making the leap to the big leagues in 2008. The Red Sox may have an opening, depending on how Curt Schilling feels about coming back next year, and how Theo and company feel about him coming back. With all that hype, denizens of Red Sox Nation already know who Clay Buchholz is, and some are ready to name their next born after him.

So this week, when Buchholz shut down the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the folks in New Hampshire gave Buchholz a standing ovation. The Fisher Cats, who were ostensibly the home team, were not amused.

Some Fisher Cats felt slighted. One player, who requested anonymity, said he felt like vomitting during the ovation.

“When I came to the dugout after that standing ovation, players were not happy. I just think it rubbed my team, and especially myself, the wrong way,” New Hampshire manager Bill Masse said yesterday after a day of reflection. “These guys are out there competing every night and giving the fans some awesome games, and they came away feeling like they were the visiting team.”

This is the nature of locating a minor League affiliate in New England when you are not the Red Sox. Washington’s New York-Penn League entrant – the Vermont Lock Monsters – no doubt hear a fair few more cheers for the opposition when Boston’s NYP farm team – the Lowell Spinners – comes to town. Of course, those guys were likely disappointed when Spinners players got a lot of cheers during games. The Fisher Cats (and the Lock Monsters) have reason to be disappointed. Nobody wants to hear cheers from “your” crowd for the guy you’re trying to beat.

Buchholz may be destined for greatness, or perhaps his tremendous talent will not pan out. He is being managed carefully by the Red Sox, but still has managed to post 111 Ks in 80.1 IP. He’s got a microscopic 1.79 ERA and a OBA of .187. Those are numbers that will get you mentioned with Yovanni Gallardo, Philip Hughes and Homer Bailey. Red Sox fans are understandably excited. And they will not be denied an opportunity to declare, “I was there when…” about any once, current or future legend. My advice to the Fisher Cats: earplugs and and perseverance.


Beware the Perils of Sportswriting

Think you have what it takes to cover your favorite sports team? Of course you do. Anybody can write about sports, right?

Guess again. A column that recently appeared in central Maine’s Sun Journal illustrates how hard it is to cover sports. In addition it also demonstrates that one has to work really, really hard to be this foolish. Let’s go to the blockquoted text:

Just like Curt Schilling’s near no-hitter, the Red Sox will need some help if they hope to complete a perfect season.

The team they have in place right now is obviously pretty good.

But, the bullpen is shaky at best, the back-end of the rotation is suspect and the bench could use a clutch bat or two.

First off, the Red Sox bullpen, far from being shaky is actually one of the best in the league. Their ERA of 3.03 is the best in the American League. Toronto’s Bullpen ERA is second at 3.21. The American League combined bullpen ERA is 4.22. Hideki Okajima is proving lights out in his first year. Jonathan Papelbon has had a few knuckles int he stream, but by and large has been excellent closing out games. There have been shaky performances, but, more often than not, the bulpen has been sparkling good.

Every bench is in need of a good clutch bat. So that point is irrelevant. What team doesn’t want the luxury of having an all-star coming off the bench.

As for the back of the rotation, plenty of teams would like a pair of starting pitchers with five hundred records and ERAs of 4.18 and 4.97 at the back of the rotation. Tim Wakefield has remarkably allowed two runs or less in six of his fourteen starts. He has been torched by the Yankees (17 ER in 14 IP). Remove the Yankee games from his season stat line and Wakefield’s ERA goes from 4.18 to 2.91. There is nothing suspect about that. Julian Tavarez, meanwhile has faced Johan Santana, Roy Halladay (twice) Chien-Ming Wang, Barry Zito, Mike Mussina and Danny Haren among a few lesser lights. And in spite of allowing 1.4 baserunners an inning, Tavarez has kept the ball on the ground, gotten double plays and generally landed on his feet. The Red Sox meanwhile are 7-5 in his 12 starts. Having a fifty-fifty shot of winning on days when your worst starter is on the hill is something every team wants.

Well, there are worse ways to make a point than using vacuous rhetorical argument devoid of nettlesome things like facts. Like what, you ask?

Trade #3: Cardinals trade Jim Edmonds and Anthony Reyes for Coco Crisp, Kason Gabbard, Craig Hansen and a first-round draft pick. Edmonds is nearing the end of his career, but he can still play great defense and has some pop left in his bat. I think all Sox fans would admit that Crisp has been bit of a disappointment, but he still has market value. St. Louis will need to look at rebuilding and a speedy centerfielder that is built more for the National League (bunting, sacrificing, stealing bases) could be appealing. Reyes helps replace the loss of Lester/Buchholz in terms of future power arms. Also, the Sox may not have to give up Gabbard and Hansen. Realistic: Actually, this one could happen.(Emphasis mine -E.P.)

Maybe we shouldn’t let him know that Major League Baseball Teams cannot trade draft picks.


Welcome to the Party, Pal – Roger Clemens Rejoins Yankees

The saga ends. The kabuki theater of the absurd that followed Roger Clemens as he contemplated retirement or return ended yesterday afternoon in dramatic fashion, as Yankee PA announcer Bob Sheppard directed fans to the owner’s box behind home plate. There stood the forty-four year old pitcher. Microphone in hand, Clemens spoke,

“Well, they came and got me out of Texas and I can tell you it’s a privilege to be back,” he said. “I’ll be talking to y’all soon.”

Clemens had more to say when reintroduced to the media.

“Make no mistake about it, I’ve come back to do what they only know how to do here with the Yankees, and that’s win a championship,” Clemens said. “Anything else is a failure, and I know that.”

Note to Clemens, failure is both an option and an expectation, at this juncture. The Yankee offense is potent, but the bullpen is already showing signs of wear and tear and with the debut of Mike DeSalvo, the Yankees will set a record for most starting pitchers used (10) in the first 30 games of the season. Eschewing a better situation in Boston, or the status quo in Houston, Clemens essentially burned those two bridges and returned to New York where he will either ride in like the cavalry and save the day of prove to be a bullpen draining five inning league-average starting pitcher.

This is not the fine whine made from the sourest of grapes. I know, could have fooled you, couldn’t I? It is a realistic look at a forty-four year old, whose expiration date may be sooner than he or the team that has invested $18.5 million in salary and $7.4 million in luxury taxes in him have imagined.

First off, since moving over to the NL, Clemens has been 2-3 with a no decision against the American League. Those wins came against the woeful Royals and the lowly Mariners. Last year in his return to Houston, he dropped his first two decisions, both against AL clubs who ended up in the post season (Minnesota and Detroit). He pitched well in both games, but his team couldn’t muster the runs for him. Well that shouldn’t be a problem for the high octane Yankee lineup. No, it shouldn’t, but Minnesota and Detroit were not exactly bruising offenses last year. Both teams won more on pitching than on power. Intra-divisional rivals, Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay all have potent lineups capable of wearing out starters.

Secondly, Clemens has become little more than a six inning pitcher. Six innings is okay, but consider the Red Sox and their rotation. To this point, Boston starting pitchers have accounted for 70.8% of innings pitched by the team, or on average 6.372 innings pitched per start. That includes Julian Tavarez who shocked Red Sox nation by pitching every bit as good as Johan Santana Saturday night. Yes, that Johan Santana. Tavarez went six innings and gave up two runs, throwing 98 pitches. Santana didn’t make it tot he sixth, as the Sox hitters took a lot of pitches early and wore him out. Clemens averaged 5.97 innings pitched per start in the National League. In the AL where clubs are more patient, and better hitting ball clubs, Clemens and the Yankees can expect a drop off in his rate stats and innings pitched, which will only strain that terribly taxed bullpen.

This is one of the reasons why Boston would have been a better fit for the Rocket. His shorter outings would have been partially masked by the rested and to this point highly effective Red Sox bullpen, not to mention the good feelings his return to Boston would have generated among Sox fans who have come to forgive and forgets Clemens initial departure from Boston, instead blaming Dan Duquette for the loss of the best pitcher of the age. Duquette’s redemption, dealing for Pedro Martinez was a soothing tonic, Sox fans felt bitter about Clemens for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his wholehearted assumption of Yankee culture when he forced a trade to the Bombers after the 1998 season, in which he won his second consecutive AL Cy Young award with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Yankees had the money to spend on Clemens. And yes it was about the dollars. Don’t believe Randy Hendricks and his nonsensical statement.

when Clemens’ agent, Randy Hendricks, spoke to the Astros and Red Sox in recent days, they said they’d prefer he join up with them in late June or early July. The Yankees, according to Hendricks, said: “We’d like you yesterday.”

Clemens had oft repeated that he was going to make his decision by the end of May. Tack on four to six weeks of time to get into game shape and you have that late June, early July timeframe. To say that either team would prefer him then is garbage. If they were working to sign him, they wanted him as soon as he was ready. No team is going to sit around and say that this player they have invested large dollars in should wait longer than is necessary to begin going to work for them.

This will in all likelihood be the last season of Roger Clemens’ Hall of Fame career. Houston no longer has an obligation to pursue Clemens to the ends of the earth. He left town. They are off the hook. There is no going back to Boston now, either. He picked the Yankees after Sox fans had appealed to him, and pleaded with him to come back, one more time, for the good times. And Sox fans are feeling pretty played this morning. According to an unscientific survey, eighty-eight percent of Sox fans feel Theo was wise not to bust open the vault for Rocket Roger. It’s cliche, but Clemens decision is closure for Red Sox Nation. And like I said in 2004 (you’ll have to take my word for it, I wasn’t blogging back then) this just means it will be so much sweeter when we beat them.

So welcome back, Roger. It may end up being a dream ride. It may be a very bumpy ride. It’ll be interesting either way.


Royals call up Billy Butler from Omaha

The Kansas City Royals have called up Billy Butler from Triple-A Omaha to replace Ryan Shealy, who in typical Royals fashion, was injured while trying to score in last night’s game against the Angels.

Butler has been considered the best hitting prospect in the Royals system for a few years, with only his defense keeping him from a big league roster spot. Through 25 games in the Pacific Coast League, he has a 337/445/584 line with six home runs against 12 strikeouts.

A look at his splits so far this year shows that his only problem has been some bad luck on balls in play against left handers.

Justin Huber would seem to have been the most likely candidate to replace Shealy, but he is off to a very poor start in Omaha, hitting a paltry 200/294/333 so far.

Ennuipundit provided this scouting report on Butler earlier this year.

Unless this move is just to give Butler a taste of the big league life while Shealy rests his hammy, one has to believe that the kid will be given some significant playing time in the next two weeks. Hopefully, his bat in the lineup will help to spark Alex Gordon. The two combined for 44 homers and 197 RBIs with Double-A Wichita last year.


One Month In – The April Baseball Update

On field performances took a backseat in the final weekend of major league baseball’s first month. The untimely death of Cardinals relief pitcher Josh Hancock cast a pall over a rather extraordinary month of early season baseball. Cardinal fan Wil Leitch of the site Deadspin offered a touching remembrance of Josh, which captures the relationship that fans have to the men who play the games they love.

The relationship that we, as fans, have with the athletes we follow is as genuine as it is bizarre. Not a single day has gone by since Opening Day 2006, when Hancock first appeared on the Cardinals’ roster, that he has not been on our mental radar. We cheered him, we cursed him, we forgot about him, we repeated the process; he occupied a real place in our lives. We did not know him, and we were not particularly curious to do so; if he got batters out, he made us happy, and that was enough. His sudden departure — shocking, horrible, insane — makes us feel as if we have lost something that we never realized we had. We want to go back and cheer harder for him, forgive his mistakes more easily … treat him as human in a way we never did as a mere fan. He shifts from middle reliever to human being only in death; this can drive a fan mad with guilt and confusion.

But we did not know him. Many did, in far more depth than our parents’ fleeting encounter 10 days ago. To those, he was never a middle reliever. He was just Josh, quiet, friendly, reserved, living the contradictory life of a Major League Baseball player who toils in relative anonymity. We cannot pretend to have known him, or to understand the anguish of those who did. We can only know that we have lost something small but real, and hope and pray that those who lost more than that can find some sort of peace.

I encourage you to read the rest.

Returning to the exploits on the field, Mark Buehrle and Troy Tulowitzki both joined very exclusive baseball fraternities. Buehrle hurled the 16th no hitter in White Sox history.

Mark Buehrle became the first White Sox pitcher since Joe Horlen in 1967 to throw a no-hitter at home, and the first in USCF [US Cellular Field] history. He was tantalizingly close to pitching the 18th perfect game in major league history. A 5th inning walk to Sammy Sosa was the lone blemish on Buehrle’s pitching line, and he would erase the baserunner two pitches later by picking Sosa off of first base.

Tulowitzki turned the first unassisted triple play since Rafael Furcal nabbed a line drive touched second and then caught the runner retreating to first base. Only the thirteenth such play in the 107 seasons since 1901, but the fifth since 1992. David Pinto has the details, plus a the link to the list of all 13 unassisted triple plays.

Troy Tulowitzki turns the rare unassisted triple play against Atlanta. His play prevented Atlanta from scoring in four straight innings, and the Braves ended up losing in eleven frames 9-7.

Baseball’s leaderboard at the one months mark has a few surprises. The Brewers, a fashionable spring training pick to win their division are proving to be fashionable, leading the six team division, with the defending World Series Champion Cardinals five and a half games off the pace tied with Houston and the Cubs in the cellar. In second place the Pirates, even with Adam LaRoche and his abysmal batting average. Cincinnati can’t decide who they want to be, contender or pretender. Check back in a month and they may still be a game under .500, and still vacillating on competing.

The new-look Diamondbacks are pacing the field, in the NL West, a division that only two seasons ago almost didn’t have a team over .500. This year only the Rockies have won fewer than they lost. The Dodgers, Giants and Padres are all chasing the youthful leaders.

Atlanta is enjoying a revival in the NL East, with the Mets keeping pace with them. Florida and Philly are off the pace, but both have enough talent to make a run. The Nationals are as bad as advertised, illustrating that just because a team plays in RFK doe snot mean that baseball has returned to the Nation’s Capital.

In the junior circuit, The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, California, USA, Earth, have won eight of their last ten to sit atop the heap in the West. Oakland’s solid rotation and regular second half dashes keep hopes up in the other city by the bay. Seattle’s collection of aging-veteran-has-beens and youthful rushed-to-the-majors-never-will-bes are keeping Ichiro company in what might be his last season in Seattle. Texas rounds out the field in what may be the weakest division in baseball.

The Central by contrast looks to be the strongest. Kansas City is scuffling, again, for what the fifteenth straight year? Meanwhile Cleveland has gotten off to a good start, showing the promise of the team that nearly hunted down the White Sox in 2005. The Twins and Tigers, last season’s central division post season participants are both a game and a half back. The White Sox are a game further behind. The ChiSox have to worry about the slimness of their run differential at this point. At one game over .500, their record is a little better than it should be with a 95-97 run scored versus runs allowed ratio. And remember Buehrle’s no-no night also feature multiple homeruns from Jim Thome (now on the DL) and a grand slam from Jermaine Dye.

Finally, baseball’s overhyped division, the American League East. The Red Sox are off to a hot start, behind a very stingy pitching staff. Their combination of good pitching and acceptable hitting has them ahead of the Blue Jays, Orioles and Devil Rays, oh and the last place Yankees. With the talent that New York has, they are unlikely to remain cellar dwellers for long, but the potential Vesuvius that is George Steinbrenner has let it be known the play of the Yankees to date has been unacceptable. Heads may roll in New York, which would spell the definitive end of the calm years of Yankee success that began in 1995 and produced the great Championship teams of the late 90′s. Teams, that featured homegrown stars and complementary role players and unlike the current Yankee incarnation did not have the bloated payroll, and aging all stars at every position.

May begins with a full slate of games tonight. And baseball’s season continues forward.


Jay Payton and the State of the Orioles

Yes Orioles fans, your team is ahead of the Yankees, the Blue Jays and the Devil Rays, one game behind the front running Red Sox. Yet it is April and the season is a long hard slog. But when your squad has not found the postseason in a decade, you celebrate the little victories.

Soccer Dad knows of what I speak.

This comment reported in today’s Washington Post, though must terrify serious as well as casual O’s fans.

Payton’s presence gives the team more versatility. As the Orioles shopped around for another outfielder this offseason, Payton was, “exactly what we were looking for,” vice president Jim Duquette said. He can play anywhere in the outfield or bat anywhere in the lineup. As he showed Sunday, he can lead off, and last season in Oakland he batted behind Frank Thomas for protection.

The mere idea that Payton, with a career rate stat line of .285/.330/.439. OPS+ is a state that compares a players OPS to the league average. Payton on his career has an OPS+ of 99 – a tick below average. Which Jim Duquette says is “exactly what [they] were looking for.”

If Baltimore needed an outfielder to go alongside Corey Patterson and Nick Markakis, wouldn’t Carlos Lee, a big bopper to hit behind Miguel Tejada be a good fit, and exactly what the Orioles might need. At least Lee, with a 113 career OPS+ and only one season below 100, can be considered an above average hitter. An inexpensive alternative with less stick would be David Delucci. A speed guy like Dave Roberts was also on the market and could hit atop the lineup with Roberts, Markakis and Tejada behind him to drive him in.

The Orioles with their incessant band-aid responses to bigger problems have poised themselves for another year of mediocrity as an also ran in the American League. With the Yankees pitching scuffling an opportunity existed for a different team to claim the title in the East. Most experts would award that crown to Boston, the runner up for the last billion or so years. But why not the Orioles, who had held first place in the East with a vise like grip for the first half of 2005 before the wheels came off. The injury to Kris Benson gave Baltimore the opportunity to find a creative solution tot he roster hole, instead plugged with Steve Trachsel, last seen being run out of Queens.

Oh well, another pedestrian solution. Should the Orioles can continue to suffer along and not make any effort to put a real winning franchise on the field, the fans protests will continue to grow louder and teams like the Red Sox and Yankees with their large traveling contingents will enjoy a quasi home field cheering section when visiting Charm City.


College Athletics

Editorial Boards of college newspapers, even ones with good J-schools, are not often the place to begin a discussion of the merits and failings of the current revenue centric world of college sports. The University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel took a stab at that topic in today’s edition. And they took issues with a son of Carolina without cause.

Former UNC baseball player Adam Greenberg was beaned in the head by an errant pitch in his first major league at-bat.

Suffering from vertigo and diminished hitting skills, he was sent to the minors in 2005. Greenberg chose UNC for baseball, switched to an easier major to accommodate practices, then turned pro before graduating.

That same year, Georgetown basketball head coach John Thompson III recruited Marc Egerson despite his 1.33 grade point average and an SAT score in the 600s.

Both of these indicate a problem in college athletics: allowing players to drop the “student” from student-athlete.

One problem is that when athletes coast through college, they risk losing it all if they become injured, as Greenberg was.

Adam Greenberg will become a very popular topic of discussion, thanks to the wonderful profile of him in the New York Times Magazine from March 25th. Alas, that profile has been walled off from the world of commentary but not before a few folks commented on it. Most marveled at Greenberg’s determination. Not a single comment on the piece that I found mentioned anything about him “losing it all” as the editorial board of the DTH implies.

In the interest of full disclosure, graduated from UNC-CH in 1997. I found the DTH unbearable then and it seems that even a decade removed, the ability to editorialize has not yet been discovered in the paper’s offices. I posted the point on their website, this morning, that Greenberg is more than just an athlete who sped through his time at Chapel Hill in pursuit of his career of choice – baseball.

There is much that is wrong with college athletics. The fundamentals of games are not taught in the major revenue sports, especially in basketball. And the graduation rates at many major programs have become more humorous than the editorials that attempt to decry them.

If the Editorial Board of the Daily Tar Heel wanted a real example of a player at UNC who gamed the college athletics system, they would have done a little digging to find Joe Forte.

Enters his sophomore season looking to improve on an outstanding freshman campaign • Is a preseason candidate for the Wooden Award and the Naismith Award, which are given to the National Player of the Year • Preseason first-team All-America, as named by Dick Vitale/ESPN • Joins Troy Murphy (Notre Dame), Terrence Morris (Maryland), Jamaal Tinsley (Iowa State) and Shane Battier (Duke) on the first team • Set a number of UNC freshman scoring records and was selected the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA South Regional • Scored 28 points in the regional championship against Tulsa to lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four • Showed remarkable poise and savvy as a young player, leading his team in scoring the entire season • The 2000 Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year

This Joe Forte

After a 2-year college career at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (highlights which included winning the 2000 ACC Rookie of the Year as well as 2001 ACC Men’s Basketball Player of the Year) that was marked by flashes of both brilliance and temper, he was selected by the Boston Celtics with the 21st pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. His most memorable moment with the Celtics came when he wore a Scooby-Doo shirt on the sidelines during the playoffs. In two seasons with the Celtics and the Seattle SuperSonics, Forte averaged 1.2 points and 0.7 assists per game, struggling to convert from his natural shooting guard position, to point guard. He was eventually waived by the Sonics due mostly to attitude and legal problems. While with the Sonics, he was arrested on gun and drug charges in Maryland, as well as an assault charge in which he allegedly punched a man in the face during a pickup game. After being released by the Sonics, Forte could not find a roster spot in the NBA.

Forte played two seasons in Chapel Hill. His failure in the NBA is hardly a surprise. Flashes of brilliance and temper are not the way to garner success in major professional leagues – even the notably dysfunctional NBA. When fusing vast sums of money with raw, immature young men, who have trouble with self-control, chaos is a natural fellow traveler.

A so-called success story is found in the more recent short term Tar Heel, Marvin Williams. His one season in the Southern part of Heaven ended with an NCAA title and a ticket to Atlanta when he declared for the NBA Draft after just one year in college. Marvin Williams, averaging 12.6 points per game in his second professional season. He turns 21 after this season ends in June.

Though his career is more of a success, Marvin Williams exudes the get out of school quick attitude that the Daily Tar Heel decries. Notice they overlook Williams in their list.

It’s problematic when athletes clearly aren’t enrolling in college to get an education. Increasingly the Kevin Durants and Carmello Anthonys of the world are looking to college basketball as a place to show off for NBA scouts instead of a place of learning. Athletes like these are sure to only increase in number with the new NBA rule requiring players to be at least 19 and a year out of high school before entering the draft.

But the problem doesn’t lie only with the athletes. The culture existing in college athletics denotes athletes as sources of entertainment, not as students at a university.

We aren’t suggesting that athletes be required to graduate from college. Clearly that isn’t an option for everyone. The allure of the NBA, NFL and MLB and their million dollar signing bonuses is hard for a poor college kid to turn down. The problem arises when college teams become farm teams.

The reality is that NCAA basketball is an enormous revenue generator. If the Daily Tar Heel wants NCAA basketball to cease to be a developmental farm league, it will require colleges to forego the cash from the heavily marketed and wildly successful tournament. Good luck getting that changed.

Athletics are a means to an end for many college attendees. The players use the universities for exposure. The universities use the players for their talent. Both use each other for the money that their union generates. Fans get the benefit of entertaining rivalries and another entertainment option on a winter’s night or a Saturday afternoon. As such, the fundamental purpose of college basketball and football has become a cog in the world of sports marketing, instead of a part of a university community. The athletes, due to their fame, are isolated from their fellow students, accorded special privileges, and held to a lower standard. Once athletes were students. Many still are.

But for all the failure, there are many successes. In spite of the disparaging comments about Adam Greenberg’s academic achievement, Greenberg has been very smart with his investments and business options outside of baseball. Even if he never gets back to the show, he has much to look forward to going forward with his life, post-baseball. Similarly, Brian Barton, a graduate of the University of Miami and minor leaguer in the Indians farm system, stayed for his entire college career with the University of Miami, earned a degree in Aerospace Engineering and interned at Boeing for good measure. His contract, as an undrafted free agent called for $100,000 in salary and $100,000 for his education.

The success or failure of a team often comes down to abilities of the players and the skill of the coach. So is it with the sports we watch. If teams and leagues and Athletic Associations are eager for short term payout without serious development of their sports, they will suffer in the long run. The NBA has been diminished by an emphasis on talent over character in the game, leading to the dysfunction I alluded to before. One hopes college athletics chooses not to follow that path, but it is their game, their moneymaking venture and their choice. We the fans as always will vote with our wallets and our time.


Opening Night: New York at St. Louis

Let the games begin!

Baseball season returns to the scene of triumph, one of baseball’s truly great cities and its newest ballpark to open the 2007 campaign with a rematch from last season’s National League Championship Series. The New York Mets who had the best record in the National League are visiting the Cardinals, winners of the 2006 World Series.

Sunday night will be a night for the Cardinals to celebrate their Series victory one last time. The rings will be handed out and the new players joining the Cardinals roster can get a taste of the triumph from the previous autumn. The Mets will get an idea of what they missed and it will make them hungry.

Tom Glavine faces Chris Carpenter in the mound matchup. Glavine who gave the Cards fits in October will look to miss bats and keep the potent St. Louis lineup at bay. Carpenter meanwhile wants to pickup where he left off last season, shutting down batters and getting easy outs.

The Mets bats showed signs of clicking, thumping a split squad Dodgers team yesterday but have been more pedestrian in other clashes as the spring season has worn down. New York needs their lineup to carry them. April poses significant challenges for hitters. Pitchers benefit from colder weather typically and it is easier to disrupt a hitter’s timing int he days immediately following the trip north.

For the Cardinals the hope is to get out to a quick start. Their starters have looked strikingly good this spring, and while the games don’t count, the amazing rotation of Carpenter and four other guys has produced an ERA of 1.89 in 119.3 spring innings. Those four other guys have been Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper and Anthony Reyes. Wells’ sparkling 1.16 ERA is only bettered by Wainwright’s 0.98.

St. Louis has used internal promotion, crafty trades and bargain free agents to good effect. This rotation may be the best example of Walt Jockety’s work to date. Staff ace Cris Carpenter rewarded the early patience of St. Louis, who signed him to sit out a season after Tommy John surgery, four years ago. Wells was a relatively cheap signing this past November. Looper worked out of the bullpen last year, the first of a three year contract he had signed in 2005. Reyes, a home grown Cardinal, has been touted by Baseball America and other propsect watchers for the last few years. Wainwright, who may be the best of the lot, came over from Atlanta when the Cardinals dealt J.D. Drew to Atlanta in 2003. Four years in the making, this rotation has potential to be great.

Sunday’s game is the first one to mean anything since October for either team. Welcome Back Baseball.


Let the Madness Commence

Play-in game fever, baby! Dick Vitale has been sedated. Dayton is rocking. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament tips off tonight. Niagara and Florida A&M do battle in the opening game of the tournament. The winner gets to become fodder for top seeded Kansas in the West Bracket.

For the sixty-fourth and sixty-fifth ranked teams in the tournament, March Madness is not the boon it is cracked up to be.

“If we’re the 65th best team in this tournament this year, that surprises me,” Florida A&M coach Mike Gillespie said Monday of his Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament champions. “I don’t think that’s possible.”

Niagara, meanwhile, took its cue from coach Joe Mihalich, who said Sunday night: “Let me be diplomatic here: I’m confused.”

“We feel disrespected,” Niagara forward Charron Fisher said. “I’m sure you’ll be able to see when we play on Tuesday how disrespected we feel.”

Unlike other games that make the NCAA’s one of the most dramatic spectacles in sport, the play-in game features the two most evenly matched competitors in the eyes of the tournament bracketologists. The winner is almost certainly guaranteed to be shown the door with their next game. No sixteenth seed has ever beaten a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Unlike the beloved anything goes eight-nine games, where the winner is one at the regionals and two primed to take on a top seed looking ahead to the Sweet Sixteen, the play-in game marks the beginning of the end. Sure, some teams lose in the first round, but only two teams have to play in order to lose in the first round.

Because lesser conferences typically populate the play-in game, the schools who miss out on the full feel of an NCAA tournament are the schools that have fewer shots to get there, anyway. Both Niagara and Florida A&M are appearing in their second NCAA tournament. Florida A&M made it for the first time in 2004, when they won the play-in game. Niagara’s original appearance was in 2005, as a 14 seed.

The automatic qualifiers should get spots in the regionals. Even if they lose their opening round game, they have earned the right to play in the tournament. The NCAA dubbed “opening round game” should be the territory of the lowest ranked at large teams, not the automatic qualifiers from small conferences.

Built on the idea that an extra night of programming for CBS plus a little drama can’t be a bad thing, the NCAA has used the play in game to its advantage. But don’t tell the kids at Niagara and Florida A&M to be happy to be there. They aren’t. They earned a place in the tournament, not the “opening round game.”


Red Sox Closer Update

In what is certain to be a series that eclipses 60 Minutes in terms of recurrence and longevity, the Boston Red Sox are hinting that their closer will be…someone. Sean McAdam has the details

[T]here are subtle indications that the Sox may be rethinking their position and considering Mike Timlin as the odds-on favorite to open the season as the Red Sox’ ninth-inning man.

While Pineiro has struggled to find a consistent release point in his delivery, he has struggled mightily on the mound. In three appearances covering three and one-third innings, Pineiro has given up six hits, three walks and four earned runs.

Tuesday in Jupiter, Pineiro threw better, but still walked a batter and fell behind hitters.

Timlin, on the other hand, has yet to appear in a game, his spring slowed by a minor oblique strain that sidelined him for the last 10 days or so.

Opening Day is still more than three weeks away. So don’t go drafting Timlin for your fantasy team. This is bound to change. Probably weekly. But it does indicate the Red Sox are more than willing to explore all of their options. Even the old ones.


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