Sunday, May 22, 2005

Western Conference Finals

The Spurs put on an absolute clinic in the desert today, both on offense and on defense. Now, you may look at the 114 points allowed and wonder how that qualifies as a defensive clinic, but having watched the entire game, it's clear that the Spurs put a premium on forcing the Suns to score in the half court. San Antonio's transition defense was excellent, as they forced a number of turnovers via blocks and steals on fastbreaks the Suns normally execute in their sleep. As Dallas did in their victories in the previous series, San Antonio picked their poison, allowing Stoudemire to drop 41, and Nash to 29 and 13 assists. But Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson combined for only 10 points in a combined 80 minutes of play. Phoenix has shown that they are most effective when they spread the scoring load amongst their starting five, because they can never count an any contribution from the bench. Though Jim Jackson chipped in 20, it seems as if the Suns would be better off getting 20 from Marion, 15 from Richardson, and 10-15 from Jackson. These scoring spread would mean that they are scoring off the break instead of the half court, or to put it another way, are winning their way.

Then again, it's tough to score on the fast break when your opponent shoots 52% and grabs 13 offensive rebounds. The Spurs, especially in the 4th quarter, maximized the value of their possessions by deliberately working the shot clock down and moving the ball until a high percentage shot could be taken. It was textbook half court offense, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili providing the penetration needed to set up Duncan's 29 points and Brent Barry's backbreaking 21 points, 13 of which came in the Spurs-dominated 4th quarter. Time after time, Parker and Ginobili would dish out to a wide-open Barry at the top of the key. It appears as if the Suns have no one to guard Parker or Ginobili. Nash does not have the lateral ability or long arms necessary to adequately guard Parker, and Ginobili is far too athletic for Richardson and Jackson. This is where the Sun's lack of a true center is really exposed, because Marion is the one guy who does have a shot at Ginobili. Instead, Marion has to guard whomever the Spurs have at power forward.

After watching Game 1 today, I don't see any reason why San Antonio can't do the same things offensively over the course of the entire series. Even if Phoenix adjusts and starts pressing on the perimeter to reduce the number of open looks Barry gets, that will leave all the more space inside for Duncan on the post or for drives by Parker and Ginobili. However, I wouldn't put it past the Suns to start averaging 120 points a game, or something ridiculous like that, which they are capable of. If they improve their efficiency on the fast break and create more balance in their offense, they will be able to take Game 2 at home. Winning in San Antonio, however, seems like a dicey proposition.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Happy trails, Reggie

Reggie Miller played his last game tonight, thanks to the machine-like Detroit Pistons. Can anyone bet against this team in the clutch? I think they play the best 4th quarter defense I've seen. It should be an absolutely epic clash against Miami--I'm looking forward to seeing if/how Dwyane Wade can dissect the Pistons.

But back to Reggie. As a loyal Knicks fan, he tore my heart out on multiple occasions. I must admit, that as a sports fan I've only cried after losses a handful of times, and each time was because of the Knicks losing in the playoffs. Mr. Miller, quite famously, played a starring role in a large number of those defeats. I grew to despise him and his arrogance, which was probably the source of his clutch shooting ability. Miller wasn't a great all-around player--he was a shooter first, second, and third, but his utter skill at this one facet of the game made him one of the most memorable players of his time...and of course, his otherworldly performances at MSG. Miller's aura was such that no one seemed to remember all of the desperate airballs that he has launched up in recent years, a product of his failing body losing its inevitable battle of attrition.

But Reggie went out on a good note tonight, scoring 27 points on 11-16 shooting (4-8 3 pt). Larry Brown and the Pistons displayed ultimate respect, calling a 20 second timeout to applaud Miller as he exited the game for the final time. The response from the Indiana fans was surprisingly benign, although I attribute this to a combination of playoff exit shock syndrome and those damned thundersticks. His final shot was one of those desperation threes, his beanpole legs and wrists flailing, trying to catch any part of the defender to draw a foul. Apparently, he's made more 4-point plays than anyone in history. No dice tonight. Ben Wallace blocked the shot, deflecting it harmlessly into the air, a sad end to the career of a marksman.

Why am I writing this about Miller? Is it because I hate him? Surely that has something to do with it. But there's more. I think deep down, every die-hard Knicks fan has nothing but respect and admiration for Reggie Miller. Only two opposing players ever really came into MSG and claimed it as theirs, Jordan and Miller, and we hated and respected them both for it. They did what so many of our players couldn't do. For all the moxie that John Starks showed, I don't think there's a Knicks fan on the planet who wouldn't have swapped Starks for Miller. We wanted him on our side. It was never meant to be, and we were resigned to hatred.

So I bid Reggie Miller a wistful goodbye. In a sense, he is the last link to those Knick teams of the mid 90s--Ewing, Oakley, Starks, Mason--teams that would elate and confound and let down, sometimes all in the same game. Saying goodbye to Reggie is also saying goodbye to all those players. Ah, that's why this is so hard.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mr. Moyer, Mr. Wells, meet Mr. Fork?

I don't want to say that Jamie Moyer is done quite yet, but judging by the early returns of tonight's game against the Yankees so far (8 H 6 ER 3.1 IP), it will be his fourth consecutive miserable outing since his only true gem of the season, 8 innings of 6 hit 1 run ball on April 24 (achieved, by theway, against the punchless Cuyahoga Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons in cavernous Safeco Field). If he endures another start like this his next turn through the rotation, it may be time to say goodbye to Moyer's ability as an effective pitcher. His decline really started to show last year (5.21 ERA, which was mostly a result of an alarming 44 HR allowed), but his first 5 starts of 2005 hinted at a recovery. It doesn't appear to be, as a K:BB ratio that used to be regularly 3:1 has now dipped below 2:1. The homers aren't flying out at the same rate as they were in 2004, but he's on pace to allow as many hits, if not more. It may have gotten to the point where he's lost so much velocity that hitters are able to sit on his changeup. That's pure speculation, but what else is there to explain this? He's not walking more batters, but they're striking out less and hitting him harder and more often. To me, that means a decline in "stuff" rather than a decline in control. He was never dominant, but if he had managed to find his niche when he was 27 instead of 33, we might be talking about Moyer in the same breath as Hall of Fame candidate Tom Glavine. Moyer only needs 4 more victories to reach 200, however, and in this era, that's nothing to sneeze at.

David Wells has had a fairly similar career, though he has commanded much more of the limelight, and has claimed more victories thanks to his success earlier on in his career. His rollercoaster 2005 took another precipitous drop today, after giving up 9 hits and 7 runs in only 1.1 innings. Wells's strength has always been his control, which has stayed true to form this year--only 3 walks in 6 starts, and he's actually been striking out more people than he had in the past 2 years. Wells, like Moyer, is allowing many more hits. While DIPS theory may tell you that hits allowed can't tell you much about a pitcher's performance, I believe that in the cases of Wells and Moyer, hits allowed tells you that they are losing their stuff. Both have had long and successful careers, so it would be a shame to see both of them tail off so badly at the end. Both of them have pitched stellar games so far this year, so there's no question that there's still a possibility of a turnaround. Here's hoping both pitchers can salvage some respectability.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

We're going streaking!

Baseball media is awash again with the Yankees, this time after they won nine straight to correct their early season blip. Everyone overreacted during the losing skid, and I'm happy to say that looking back, I hedged on the "Fall of the Yankee Empire." I pointed out that Kevin Brown pitched better than his traditional stats bear out, and he turned in two solid performances during the streak (5 K, 3 ER, 0 BB 0 HR in 13 IP). I wish I had mentioned the fact that SOMEONE on their offense would wake up, though I would have been incredulous had someone told me then that it would be Tino Martinez. More than just Martinez though, the bats have woken up in the Bronx. Thanks to the amazing Day by Day Database at Baseball Musings, I found that 6 of the Yankees' 9 regulars had OBP over .400 and SLG over .500 during their winning streak: Martinez, Rodriguez, Posada, Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Sheffield. Matusi has a relatively pedestrian .289/.310/.395 line, but has managed to drive in 8 runs with all those singles, tied with Rodriguez for second most during the streak. Womack has been his usual below-average self at the plate, at .278/.316/.333, but the times he has gotten on base, he's been a terror, going 9 for 9 in stolen base attempts. Giambi has been the only dead weight during the entire streak, but when you get .419/.406/.613 (not a typo) from Robinson Cano, that weight doesn't matter.

So can this continue? Ominous signs--Tino can't possibly continue like this, can he? Probably not, though you've gotta give him credit for awakening his inner Constantino from 1997. Cano is the real paper tiger on that list. He drew no walks over the streak, which does not bode well for his bid to continue getting on base 4 out of 10 times. Good signs--the numbers for the other players are pretty much in line with what was expected of them this year. Posada should come down a bit as well, but Matsui should go up and offset. Jeter has finally started to draw walks again, and I wouldn't be surprised if he finished the year over .900 OPS. Sheffield and A-Rod are mashing like they're supposed to.

In conclusion, the Yankees aren't done--yet. They are an aging team, but age does not effect plate discipline and power in the same way it effects speed and defense. They still can't play defense, and that will hurt them with this non-strikeout oriented pitching staff (another ominous sign: Randy Johnson had 0 K's in his last start). But you don't need to play defense when you're smacking the ball all over the field against 2 teams in the bottom third of the major leagues in run differential. Let's see how the Yankees do when they come up against some stiffer competition...aka Boston on Memorial Day weekend.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Go-go Suns

First, I apologize for my upkeep. Real life has started putting the crunch on me lately, so it's been tough for me to watch games of any type, and the last thing I want to do is to merely ape other observations. Once I get my living situation sorted out, I should be able to start watching many more games.

One of the games I'm watching right now is Suns/Mavs, and it has been as entertaining as advertised. Growing up a Knicks fan during the the heyday of Riley/Van Gundy thugball means that only recently have I been aware of the concept of entertaining basketball. It is so liberating to watch a fast breaking team that is not reliant upon isolation sets. I have also come to recognize that Shawn Marion is one of the best all-around players I've ever seen. He does everything well, and while Nash and Amare get all the press, Marion's defensive and rebounding ability are the reason why the team is able to play a running game. I sure hope the series goes 7 games. It's fun to watch teams score 60 points in a half.

4th quarter: Of course, as soon as I publish this, Steve Nash goes completely nutty. He scored 23 points in the 3rd quarter, and has scored 10 so far this quarter. He's definitely going to go over 50...yet the Suns are behind and will probably lose. Why? Only 3 assists so far. Looks like Dallas has made good on their promise to let Nash score and keep other Suns under wraps. They are missing Joe Johnson more than ever. Back with a final update after the game.

Postgame: That was definitely an "Allen Iverson as shooting guard" type of game for Steve Nash. His 48 will quiet the MVP critics, but it also illuminates the importance of inside play in the NBA. A good penetrating guard will always be able to score, so Dallas ceded that portion. Instead, they focused on limiting Stoudemire to only 8 shot attempts and got 16 offensive rebounds, which limited the Phoenix fast break. It will be very interesting to see how Phoenix will counter in Game 5. I have to think that the Suns will shoot better from 3-range, which might make the difference in the game. What could make the difference in the series, though, is the fatigue factor. Four of the Suns five starters played at least 43 minutes tonight, while only one Dallas starter, Nowitzki, went over 40. Those extra minutes might make the difference in Game 7, which is where this series looks like it's headed. I'll be enjoying the ride.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Announcer gripes

I caught the last few innings of the Yankees/Mariners game, and Rick Sutcliffe's ineptitude bowled me over. Look, it's fine that some analysts are positive, but Sutcliffe never says a negative word about anything or anybody. Tonight, he went out of his way to praise Rey Sanchez, he of the career .308 OBP and .335 SLG, saying "he can do lots of things with the bat for you." No Rick, actually, he can only hit singles. It's bad enough that most local markets have total homer announcers, but when someone on a national broadcast is as marshmallow as Sutcliffe was tonight, it really detracts from the viewing experience. Announcers should assume some degree of unfamiliarity on the part of the viewer. Instead of saying "Rey Sanchez is a guy who can do a lot of things with the bat for you," say "Rey Sanchez is a prototypical no stick/good glove middle infielder who should definitely come in for Robinson Cano in the latter stages of a close game, due to his leather." But Sutcliffe made it sound like Sanchez was coming in for his bat! Granted, even Sanchez is probably better at the plate right now than Cano, but where Sanchez holds a significant advantage is defensively, where he has been 30 runs above average for his career. It probably would have been pertinent to mention Sanchez's career-long defensive success, but alas, Sutcliffe added nothing more.

I realize that's but one example, but I really wish ESPN would get some color guys to be a bit more critical. Joe Morgan plays this role rather well, but his utter dismissal of statistical analysis is a bit strange (especially considering that statistical analysis proves that he was an immortal).

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Quick hits

I keep misunderestimating the amount of free time that I'll have to adequately address every team in baseball...let me first start out by congratulating Mike Hampton, who made me sound like an idiot today. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to watch much baseball this weekend, but I did catch some of what could be the start of Jon Garland's unraveling on Saturday. It counts as a win for him, but most days the White Sox won't be able to score 10 runs to support him. Of course, the Sox have kept their improbable streak alive. I imagine they'll start playing worse at some point, but they're off to such a big start, that it almost guarantees a pennant race between them and Minnesota. And thanks to the mediocrity of the AL West and the collapse of the Yankee empire (they've allowed the second-most runs in the majors...yep, even more than Colorado), it's more likely that either the Twins or the White Sox will grab the wild card.

The NL West looks to be just as weak as the AL West, if not more so. Frankly, the Padres have been disappointing--I expected their pitching staff to be better than this. Arizona has surprised people so far, but they look more like a 78-82 win team that has gotten lucky enough to have a winning record so far. San Francisco is old, brittle, without a closer, and their staff ace is not living up to his reputation. I don't think it'll get much better than this for the Giants, especially if Bonds is out until July.

I think most people thought Houston would regress in 2005, but nothing like this. Lance Berkman is about their only hope. His presence in that lineup should make a big impact, but you never know how a player is going to perform coming off an injury. The Cubs have also been a disappointment, although their record probably should be better than what it is. Defense and bullpen are their main weaknesses, but then again, they've had those weaknesses for the past 5 years. The Cubs need to string together 6 or 7 wins, or else the Cardinals are going to run away with the division, just like last year. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cubs trade for a bat in July, and then go on a run like the Astros did in 2004 to capture the wild card. Milwaukee has clearly improved, but I don't think they're a deep enough squad to keep this up for the whole season. I expect them to hang around until July, by which time injuries and slumps will catch up with them.

It will be interesting to see how the Yankees play in May. Kevin Brown's defense neutral ERA was around 3.50 over first few starts, meaning the Yankees horrible defense was responsible for well over half of his bloated ERA, and that if he had playing in front of even an average defense, no one would be calling for his head. Brown pitched very well today, confirming that he hasn't completely lost it, but I wonder how all these older pitchers are going to keep it up against the Yankees defense, which is on pace to be historically bad. Only Randy Johnson is equipped with the strikeout stuff necessary to cope with such a bad D--Pavano especially relies on his defense to make plays for him. The Yanks have to deal for a solid defensive center fielder, because Matsui won't cut it. They'd also help themselves immnesely by moving A-Rod to short and Jeter to third, but politics won't allow that to happen. Can the Yanks turn it around? Maybe, but they have to leap over a lot of teams to get into a playoff spot. They should be capable, but unless their defense gets new personnel, I don't think it'll happen.

I think the Orioles are for real. Their offense will be good all season, and all the stats indicate that Erik Bedard and Bruce Chen are legitimately earning their stripes. They should create an exciting 4-team race between themselves, the Red Sox, White Sox, and Twins for the divison/wild card.

Friday, May 06, 2005

NL East musings

Might as well start with the NL East, which is just as intriguing as many people thought it would be--4 teams over .500 and within 3 games of first place.

Atlanta Braves: 17-11, 0 GB, 120 RS, 95 RA
Somehow, the Braves still keep on trucking. This year, so far, it's been due to a perfect storm of starting pitching. Mike Hampton sports a 2.47 ERA built on a pithy 3.3 K/9 rate, compounded by 2.3 BB/9. ERAs that low do not last an entire season with those peripherals. Credit Hampton with getting the job done, but I don't expect this to last. John Thomson has also been very successful. In contrast to Hampton, he's built his 2.81 ERA on 6.8 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9, even though opponents are hitting .282 against him. That number will probably go down, and if Thomson can maintain his K rate, he should continue to be successful. Smoltz had one terrible outing--other than that, he's done quite well, though his 3 BB/9 rate is alarming. Hudson has posted solid numbers in an understated fashion, which is pretty much what people expected of him. So far, the whispers of potential health problems have not manifested. Though the pitching will slide somewhat, the Atlanta bats should pick up from the currently anemic .717 team OPS to offset the loss. With washed-up sinkholes like Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan in the lineup, however, they'd better hope the pitching doesn't slip too far.

Florida Marlins: 15-10, .5 GB, 122 RS, 77 RA
As you can see from the run differential, the Marlins have been significantly better than the Braves, but have a similar record to show for it. I expect the Marlins will be in first soon enough. Josh Beckett (9.2 K/9 3.6 BB/9) has been striking out enough batters to offset the blip in his walk rate, Dontrelle Willis has been baffling hitters all season long, holding opponents to a miniscule .223 OBP, and A.J. Burnett is offically "back," to the tune of 9.0 K/9 and a 2.72 ERA. The back end of the rotation is a bit of a concern, with Al Leiter finally losing the battle to father time, but I think the offense will improve enough to get them into the playoffs. And once they're in, nobody will want to go up against this staff. And a word about the offense--it hasn't been doing half bad. Lo Duca and Castillo are getting on base, and Delgado, Cabrera and Encarnacion have been slugging them in. The Marlins hope to add "Lowell" to that latter list, and pray that Encarnacion's career year continues. Nonetheless, I see the Marlins as the favorites to come out of this division.

Washington Nationals: 15-13, 2 GB, 117 RS, 122 RA
Hope Nats fans enjoyed that brief stint in 1st place, because it probably won't happen again. The run differential there isn't terrible, but I think the gap will widen once the inexplicably hot bat of Vinny Castilla cools off, and John Patterson starts giving up some more hits. Though Zach Day and Tomo Okha have been the main contributors to the 122 RA, Patterson will probably become a culprit unless he cuts down his walks, because eventually, he's going to start giving up hits. Then again, it's very difficult to determine when pitcher has actually progressed--a BP article I read described improvement as a series of leaps rather than a slow progression--so maybe Patterson is for real. Even if he is for real, the rest of the staff is too pedestrian to come out on top of a pennant race.

New York Mets: 15-14, 2.5 GB, 134 RS, 130 RA
Reasons to like the New York Mets:
-Pedro Martinez hasn't lost a beat
-Jae Seo may be for real (14:3 K:BB ratio)
-Carlos Beltran hasn't hit his stride yet
-Once Cameron comes back, they should have one of the best defensive outfields in the majors
-Youngsters David Wright and Victor Diaz have shown both consistent power and plate discipline
-Manny Aybar is going buck wild in the 'pen (16:3 K:BB)

Reasons not to like the New York Mets:
-Beyond Pedro and Seo, the rotation has been frightful Glavine looks just about done, Zambrano and Ishii look like the never-weres they are, and Heilman is mediocre
-Their closer stinks, and their setup man, despite pitching well, is 40 years old.
-It can only go downhill from here for Cliff Floyd
-Reyes and Matsui both have horrible OBP--not exactly what you want from your 1-2 hitters. Matsui looks like a bust, while Reyes could probably stand another year's seasoning
-Piazza is done. Ride into the sunset Mike, as the greatest slugger the catching position has known, and take your 2005 .349 SLG with you.

Conclusion: a very maddening .500 team--about what I expected.

Philadelphia Phillies: 12-17, 5.5 GB, 119 RS, 146 RA
The Phils are making me look dumb for picking them to win the division. The offense has done remarkably well considering that both Jim Thome and Bob Abreu started off in horrendeous slumps. Abreu looks to be turning it around, but Thome has yet to awaken. At his age, who knows if he will? Even the harshest pre-season critic couldn't have predicted the utter collapse of the pitching. Lieber isn't really an ace, but that's what he's forced to be despite his mere 16 Ks in over 40 innings. Brett Myers is showing that he has harnessed his stuff, striking out 44 in 40 innings, and limiting his walks to only 10. But the rest of the staff--it's ugly. Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla, once so promising, look to be busts. Cory Lidle is the definition of mediocre. He's supposed to eat innings, but he doesn't even average 6 innings per start. In the bullpen, only Billy Wagner is excelling, which is leading to speculation that he will be dealt if the Phils fall any further out of contention. With the 5th highest payroll in baseball, Philadelphia is the most disappointing team in the NL so far.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Too much baseball

I realized that I had more to say about baseball than I bargained for, so I figured I might as well just go through the divisions and spout off everything I can about each team. Hopefully something useful will come out of this. It's strange how I feel compelled to address every team's situation.

At any rate, I will start putting up division capsules this weekend, possibly as early as tomorrow, when I'm sure to be bored at work.

NBA tidbit

I've gotta say that this was one of the sweeter shots I've seen in my life. I remember thinking, "Dear God, Arenas is holding onto the ball way too long...he's going to have to force a 30-foot three pointer!" But with about 2 seconds left on the clock, he flashed inside the arc, jab-stepped Hinrich, and created just enough room for a fadeaway. All net. I was pulling for Chicago, but my lord, what a shot. Everyone is already writing off the winner of this series against Miami. If Washington can close this one out, however, I think they will make the Heat sweat (HAHA GET IT?). If anything, the Wade/Arenas showdown will be something special.

Baseball post coming later tonight.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Champs League semi

Quick recap of the Chelsea/Liverpool match--it ended 1-0, but Liverpool scored the goal. Papers in England are calling it "controversial," but it looked in to me, and that was in real time. Even if it hadn't been ruled a goal, Liverpool likely would have been awarded a penalty for Petr Cech's interference on the play. The goal came in the 4th minute, which enabled Liverpool to retreat into a defensive shell for the remainder of the game. They never really posed a serious threat to score until late in the game when Chelsea brought their defense forward in a vain attempt to score. Chelsea probably should have scored and advanced, but they squandered every opportunity. Overall, the quality of play didn't seem up to normal European standards, but that's to be expected when two domestic rivals clash (much like the Milan/Inter matches). I came away from the match knowing these things:

-Chelsea do not have a world-class striker. Whether they need one is debatable. Chelsea were without their normal sources of offense, wingers Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. The latter played about 30 minutes as a substitute, and while he threatened goal twice, he was clearly not fit. Still, it's tough to succeed in Europe without a guy up front who can give you goals by himself. I wouldn't be surprised if Chelsea made a run at Inter's Adriano.

-Chelsea will be very good for a very long time. Their foundation--Lampard, Terry, Cech, Robben, Duff, Cole, Gudjohnsen--will all be 27 or younger next season. And with a free-spending owner, expect all of them to stay at Stamford Bridge.

-Liverpool's Steven Gerrard will probably want not want to spurn his current team for Chelsea after this result.

-Based on their domestic performance, there's no way Liverpool should be this far in the tournament. Yet, they have excelled in the Champs League, advancing convincingly in every stage (if holding Juventus and Chelsea to a combined 1 goal over 4 matches isn't convincing I don't know what is). It appears likely they will face AC Milan in the final, where Liverpool will once again be underdogs. I don't see any reason why their form will change--Liverpool could very well bring their 5th Champions Cup back to the Merseyside. Don't want to get ahead of myself though. Injuries could very well determine who wins the cup.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Death to saves/Champs league

After watching the Reds bullpen immolate themselves tonight it occurred to me that the Reds might not realize what makes up a good bullpen. Their idea of a bullpen "fix" was to bring in three players older than 35 years old, all of whose strikeout and walk rates have been steadily declining. One of these hurlers, the hopelessly medicore Dave Weathers is conning the Reds out of $1.25 million this year, and has posted a 6.75 ERA with 11 walks in a little over 13 innings. Tonight he couldn't even manage to hold a 6-run lead, with help from Danny Graves whose status as a paper tiger was confirmed tonight. A closer must get strikeouts and he must limit homeruns. Graves can no longer do these things. It will be tough for the Reds to swallow his *gulp* $6.25 million salary by putting him in middle relief, but that's what they must do. Graves can no longer be counted on in high-leverage situations.

This is the latest example of how the save stat has ruined baseball. A save is one of the worst indicators of performance, considering that a pitcher can enter a game with a 3 run lead, surrender 2 runs in an inning (for an ERA of 18.00) and still be rewarded with a save. I'm sure Graves's 41 saves from last year were on the team's mind when they retained him as closer, but his puny 40 strikeouts in 68 innings should have tipped the scales in the other direction. This year, he's struck out 3 in 11 innings and walked 8 over that same span. This isn't an aberration--this is the signal of a steep decline. It's time for them to cut bait and let "closer of the future" Ryan Wagner--with his 11:3 K:BB ratio--start closing games now and get much-needed experience in high-leverage situations. Closing ballgames is too important to bank on past glory--the best pitcher in the bullpen should be in the game during high leverage siuations, no exceptions, and saves be damned. Credit the Astros and Red Sox for recognizing this last year in their uses of Brad Lidge and Keith Foulke--I swear I've written that before, but it bears repeat mentioning. If the opposition is in a position to take the lead in the 8th inning, BRING IN THE CLOSER.

Tuesday is probably the biggest club soccer match in England's history. Liverpool and Chelsea, at Anfield, a true temple of the game, with a berth in the Champions League final at stake. The tie is level at 0-0 after last week's scoreless match in London, but Chelsea are fresh off clinching the league title on Saturday. The big question is whether Chelsea will feel any hint of complacency after having won their first league championship in 50 years. I seriously doubt they will, but it will be awfully hard for them to beat Liverpool in Anfield. Fortunately for Chelsea, the away goals rule means that they go through even with a 1-1 draw, and that result wouldn't surprise me. Liverpool's defense, so shaky during league play, inexplicably tightens up during Champs League competition. Chelsea's defense is always stout--only 13 goals allowed in 35 league matches so far. I expect the game to come down to a single play, be it a critical blunder by a goalkeeper, or a stunning display of skill. Both sides have the personnel to make magic happen, but Liverpool's keeper Jerzy Dudek has been known to flub a ball or two. I suspect that will be Liverpool's downfall. My prediction: Liverpool 0-1 Chelsea.

The other semi kicks off Wednesday, and pits AC Milan, already up 2-0, against PSV Eindhoven who will make their last stand at home. They will have to do so without my favorite American player, winger DaMarcus Beasley (lost for a month with a knee injury), and possibly without their other winger, Jefferson Farfan. PSV scrapped through against Lyon, but without the two wingers, I can't see them mustering more than a goal agaist Milan's defense. With Andriy Shevchenko on the pitch for Milan, expect them to score at least one goal. I predict PSV 1-2 AC Milan, setting up a dream final between the two most complete and balanced teams in the world.

Monday, May 02, 2005

NBA Playoffs

I'm not one to get excited about the NBA unless the Knicks are in contention, but after watching a few of the first round games so far, it's good to see that the play is starting to open up a bit, which is leading to some high-scoring shootouts, especially in the Western Conference. The much-publicized Phoenix fast break offense is a joy to watch, and last night's Seattle/Sacramento shootout was fantastic as well, highlighted by Ray "He Got Game" Allen's 45 point masterpiece. Though the other two Western series are more likely to be defensively oriented, they are intriguing nonetheless--Denver's exciting young roster goes against battle-hardened San Antonio, while the I-45 grudge match features the Trans-Europe Express (Nowitzki) against McGrady and the Orient Express (documentary subject Yao Ming), a series that has 7 games written all over it. I've seen plenty of those "road team wins the first 4 games" series turn into "home team wins the next 3 games" faster than you can say "Dirk." Not sure if Denver can drag out San Antone for that long, but I'm hoping they will. The more Western Conference games I can see, the better, because...

The Eastern Conference is never on the air in primetime, with the exception of any games featuring the Heat and Allen Iverson. Don't get me wrong, the Bulls/Wiz feature some scrappy players, but honestly, the quality of play has been quite low. Too many missed shots and too few fastbreaks. I can understand why the networks are shying away from this series. I haven't seen any of the Boston/Indy series, but I can only assume it is a half-court borefest with every possession resulting in a jacked up 3-pointer with a 36% chance of going in (what else do you expect with Pierce and Walker back together?). I will say that Detroit is about the only defensive-minded team that I enjoy watching, probably because they've embraced the "team-only" mindset as well as any NBA team in recent memory. If a late-game sniper like Chauncey Billups played with Shaq-Fu in Miami, I'm sure he'd get much more publicity than he does now.

Finally, I'd like to devote some space to Iverson, who is the most amazing player I've ever seen. I cannot fathom how this guy can score 30 points a game. 42 minutes, 30 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2.5 steals from a 6 foot tall twig. He's truly the most exciting player in the game, and probably the most deserving player not to have won a championship. It probably won't happen this year thanks to the Pistons, but with all of the Sixers' young players likely to improve next year, Philly could be a title contender for the next couple years. If he still comes up empty-handed, however, I'd like to see him dealt to a championship team, a la Drexler to Houston in '95, because Iverson deserves it even more than Drexler did.