Sox Heading to Playoffs

Well, they’re not playing particularly well, that’s for sure. The Red Sox lost for the 5th straight time last night, and for the second night in a row the problem lay with starting pitching. While Michael Bowden won’t be on the postseason roster, so his start doesn’t really matter, Clay Bucholz most certainly will. In fact, he will probably start game 3 of the ALDS. This does not bode well for us if he pitches like he did last night.

Bucholz started incredibly slowly last night, giving up 4 earned runs in his very first inning of work. This put the Red Sox in an immediate hole from which it was difficult to climb out of. In fact, it took until the 8th inning for them to get back into it at all, putting up 5 runs and clawing their way back into the game. Alas, even though they loaded the bases in the 9th, Youkilis struck out looking and the Red Sox lost once again.

Clay Bucholz is a young pitcher, and that means he is prone to inconsistency. He started off strong, faltered for a few starts, then was excellent. This, though, was a very poor start from him. If it’s just a one-off bad start, ok. But if he’s about to enter a slump, we’re in trouble. The 3rd pitcher in a postseason roster often pitches game 7 of a 7-game series. And frankly, I’m not yet confident in Bucholz’s ability to rise to the occasion were he to be called upon. He can pitch well, but he isn’t Jon Lester or Josh Beckett yet, and that worries me.

Offensively, I think the Red Sox are just about ready for the playoffs. No one is mired in a prolonged slump except for Varitek, and I’ve gone on the record multiple times as having said that Varitek should be played as little as possible this postseason. I know he was great for a long time, but Victor Martinez is just a better hitter and we need him, Youk and Lowell all in the game to put our best offensive lineup out there. A middle of the lineup that contains Martinez, Youkilis, Ortiz (who is looking great these days), Lowell, Bay and Drew is as dangerous as there is. Add to it the speed of Ellsbury and the competent hitting of Gonzalez and Pedroia (sorry Nick Green, but you’re done) and you have as good a lineup as there is in baseball: well rounded, fast, and strong.

And that’s why I think this team will survive the Angels. They have a stronger 1-2 punch in starting pitchers Beckett and Lester than the Angels do, and their lineup is just as strong. They don’t run the bases as well, but they make up for it in power and hitting ability. I think they can out-slug the Angels, which will make all of their running ability null and void.

As for the Yankees, I’m not so sure. The Yankees lineup is more powerful, and their 1-2 punch of Sabathia and Burnett is as strong as Beckett and Lester. We’ll have to see who can knock out whose starting pitcher first. But I think we’re looking at a rematch of the 2004 ALCS. I can’t wait.

Patriots Get it Done

Well, that was a much better performance by the Patriots than anything we saw in the first 2 weeks of the season. The recap: the Patriots won, 26-10. Our running game finally showed some signs of life. I was especially impressed with Fred Taylor, who continues to show you’re only as old as you feel. He played very well, ran for some big yards, and helped to establish a running game at least good enough to open up the passing game. Scoring a touchdown on the run was just like icing on the cake.

As for the passing game, I think Tom Brady is still working the kinks out of his system. Perhaps we all set too lofty of expectations when we figured he’d come back from a year out of football and immediately return to being Tom Terrific again. When he had that amazing 4th quarter against Buffalo, our expectations were met. But against the Jets he struggled mightily, falling short of our expectations. Today he was much better, throwing for 277 yards and a touchdown. This is less than we hoped for, but it at least shows that Tom Brady can still be effective as he continues to shake off the rust.

Defensively, I gotta say I’m beginning to believe. This Pats defense was again very good, holding the Falcons to less than 300 yards of total offense and forcing numerous 3 and outs. The vaunted talents of Matt Ryan were not on display today, as the cornerbacks were able to cover the wide receivers effectively. And the front line was exceptional at stopping the run. While they forced no turnovers and got no sacks, I think this game will go a long way towards dispelling the notion that this defense is too old to be any good. Once Jerrod Mayo comes back, this defense will get even better. And when it comes time for the playoffs, everyone knows that defense wins, not offense.

There are still some troubling features of this team. The big one is their difficulty in the red zone. They kicked 4 field goals today (kudos to Stephen Gostkowski for a pretty good day on special teams), none from further away than 33 yards. They’re only touchdown from inside the 20 came on a Fred Taylor run, not a Tom Brady pass.

The Moss-Brady connection is definitely starting to come back, but so far Tom is not finding his other receivers. Both Julian Edelman and Joey Galloway have been open multiple times in the last few games, only to be overthrown by Brady. Or they’re in the wrong place and the ball goes elsewhere. The Patriots will need more than one wide receiver to succeed this season, and without Wes Welker, someone is going to have to step up and fill the void.

The Patriots took some big steps today towards returning to their elite status of two years ago and before, but they were only steps. To make the playoffs, they will have to play at least at this level on defense, and much better on offense. And for that, we will need to see the return of the real Tom Brady.

Boston vs Kansas City

OK, I’m writing this entry a little prematurely. The Sox are up 5-0 in the 7th, which means there’s still plenty of time for them to blow the lead, as they did 3 nights ago. But I’m gonna go with my gut and assume they win this game. So here’s what I saw:

Bucholz is quickly rounding into an excellent pitcher. I’m very proud of how he’s seized the opportunity granted to him after the All-Star Break and just ran with it. He’s turned into a clear #3 starter. He needs to work on his control a little bit, but his pitches look good. His fastball can get as high as 97 mph. His curve ball has good movement and his change-up takes enough off to make it deceptive and difficult to hit. I would trust him to start a game for us in the playoffs, even if that spot was the 7th game in a series, as the #3 pitcher is sometimes called upon to do. I’d say give him one more start to get some more experience, but don’t be afraid to go with him in the playoffs.

As for the #4 starter, I think at this point it’s a toss-up between Wakefield and Matsuzaka, and there are definite disadvantages to both pitchers. I question the ability of either pitcher to go deep into games: Wake for health reasons and Dice-K because … well … he’s Dice-K. This means extra pressure will be put on Beckett, Lester and Bucholz to go deep into games, otherwise our bullpen will get destroyed come playoff time. With Wakefield you also have to worry about who’s going to catch him. I don’t like seeing Victor Martinez anywhere but behind the plate (as I’ve said in the past, Youk at 1st, Lowell at 3rd, V-Mart at catcher is the Sox best alignment for those positions), but he has super limited experience catching Wakefield, and you can’t have passed balls in the playoffs and expect to win. Then again, Jason Varitek has a history of difficulty catching Wakefield, not to mention his giving up several passed balls in key situations this season already. Your third option is George Kottaras, but he’s not good with the rest of the staff and hasn’t learned to really hit yet. As of now, he’s too easy an out to be included on the post-season roster, especially if you want to carry an extra pitcher to account for the lack of durability of your #4 pitcher. Overall, I say go with Wakefield just because this may be his last year. I also think he still can get you more outs than Dice-K can.

Offensively, when this team has its correct lineup on the field, they can score runs with the best of them. Victor Martinez has done a great job lengthening the middle of the line-up, making a string of 4 or 5 tough outs in the middle there. And Alex Gonzalez has answered the call for a quality shortstop on our roster. He can even hit, which is a wonderful bonus for the #9 hitter. Alex Gonzalez is like getting a brownie, then discovering it’s covered in cream-cheese frosting. The Sox have made some bad pick-ups in previous years, but this year everyone has worked out pretty well. Even Bily Wagner, who so far has proven me completely wrong.

Dick Butkus and the Nature of Football

“The truth about football is that, rather than being a game of incredible precision, it is a game of breakdowns, of entropy” (Kretchmer 403). I just finished reading Albert Kretchmer’s piece on Dick Butkus. Interesting read, well-written, and with the same down-to-earth writing style as Tom Wolfe in his piece on Junior Johnson. The piece itself is a pretty simple take on the Chicago Bears 1970 season, a relatively lackluster season marked by great defense and pretty much no offense. The season is looked at from the point of view of middle linebacker Dick Butkus, one of the lone start of the team in those days. The article paints him as a relatively normal guy who would just go blitzkrieg insane on the football field, only to shut it down pretty quickly and return to normality once the game was over.

The ferocity of football is fascinating. It starts on the field, but it can quickly spread to the fans. And it’s unique to football, I think. There are violent rivalries in other sports, sure. God knows Red Sox fans can be downright vile when it comes to games against the Yankees. And no hockey fan doesn’t love a good fight. But there’s something primal about football. I think it may hearken back to gladiatorial combat in ancient times. We have always loved to watch people beat each other up. But football carries a grace to it that other sports with similar degrees of brutality might lack. Hockey is characterized by quickness of play, chaos, of fast-break scores that catch even the announcers by surprise (to quote John Hoynes of the West Wing: “LePeiter passes to Huckenchuck who skates past the blue line. Huckenchuck, of course, was traded from Winnipeg for a case of Labatts after sitting out last season with… Oh my God, he scores!”). And actual combat sports such as UFC and boxing are solitary sports that play to our need to see someone actually injure another person.

But football balances our desire for ferocity with our desire for perfection. Football is heaven and hell combined into one. Kretchmer marks an interesting contrast between two football players in his piece. He describes Dick Butkus as “an animal, a savage, subhuman” (401). Later on, in discussing a game against the Green Bay Packers, he calls their QB Bart Starr “the Decent American.” “If Butkus is the symbol of the game’s ferocity, then Starr is the symbol of its potential for innocence and glory” (415). And this is what makes football fascinating and inherently modern. Baseball is certainly a pastoral activity that evokes childhood innocence as we watch a man smash a baseball 450 feet. And hockey is purely ferocious as we scream for blood with every check and every fight. Basketball has replaced ferocity with gamesmanship, playing to our need to not only dominate one another but to make it abundantly clear just how superior a person is to another person. And fighting sports play to our need to vicariously live out our deepest violent fantasies so that we don’t act on them. Only football tows the line between all of these, and this is what makes it such a wonderful sport.

Patriots not Embarassed, but not Victorious

Well, you play like crap and that’s what happens. The Patriots escaped last week with a victory despite playing poorly, but this week they were not nearly as fortunate, facing a far superior team in the New York Jets than the Buffalo Bills. I’ll touch briefly on what I thought the Pats did well: run defense. Leon Washington was limited to less than 60 yards rushing, and they scored no rushing TDs. The defense forced the Jets to win it on the hands of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez by not allowing more than a couple of runs for greater than a few yards. This kept the offense in third and long situations most of the afternoon. This is a good thing, as long as your defense can stop the pass. Which unfortunately, they could not.

The Pats defense had lots of problems with the pass. Mark Sanchez was free all afternoon. They barely were able to get pressure on him and Sanchez made them pay, at least during the second half. I will give the defense credit for it’s first half overall performance, but Sanchez started to pick the Pats apart in the second half. He threw a touchdown early on and then did a great job of keeping Brady and the offense off the field for much of the time. I don’t have the time of possession numbers, but I bet they were skewered way in the Jets favor for the second half. And the best way to beat the Patriots is to keep their offense off the field. Their defense is only average, and it lacks speed, pass rush capability, and star power. So keep them on the field and you can beat them, especially wit the pass.

Offensively, the Patriots look one-dimensional. They have no running game that I can see, with Taylor, Faulk and Maroney all competent but not stars. Without a real running game, it forces the Patriots to rely on Brady over and over again in order to win games. And this is problematic for a number of reasons:

1) The Patriots don’t have the receiving corps they did in 2007. Moss is still there, but Welker is hurt and Galloway and Edelman have yet to really shine as receivers. With Moss as the only deep threat, teams can double team him without fear because they know New England lacks the ability to go underneath on a consistent basis.

2) Tom Brady is still regaining his form as a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. This means that he is going to still be making mistakes, and without a run game these mistakes start to look more and more glaring. Until Brady returns to his old self, New England will not be able to rely on him to carry this team. Brady had a bad game today, it’s as simple as that. But without a running game and without a dynamic defense, there’s no way for the Pats to overcome bad performances by their star quarterback. And I fear Brady may have a couple more bad games before this season is through.

Overall, I don’t understand ESPN’s preseason hype for this Patriots team. They have a recovering Tom Brady and that’s maybe all. Today they looked overrated and like they were just going through the motions. Oh well, at least the Red Sox won.

Senator Schilling

A new poll shows that most Massachusetts residents are unfavorable towards the idea of Curt Schilling taking Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat. The question is “why?” Curt Schilling is a Red Sox hero with a tremendous story about overcoming pain and triumphing in the face of adversity. He has proven himself to be an outspoken and intelligent man with clear political leanings, as evidenced by his actions during the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. He might not make a bad senator. Unfortunately, Massachusetts is probably his best chance at winning the seat, and we don’t seem to be buying what he’s selling.

The argument for Schilling’s candidacy, or at least his electability, is that Red Sox fans will vote for him, and that will be enough in Massachusetts. There are two major flaws with this argument. The first: Red Sox fans aren’t stupid. We’re not going to vote for someone to represent us in Congress merely because he happens to be a sports hero. We’re a Democratic state and have been for many, many years. We’re not going to change colors from blue to red just because a pitcher who did well for us for a couple of years told us to. Would we elect “Spaceman” Lee or Pedro Martinez to congress? Of course not. But because Curt Schilling speaks so intelligently (or at least he thinks he does), we’re so supposed to jump the Democratic ship and join him? No way. Being a baseball player in no way qualifies you to be a senator, and most Red Sox fans know that.

The second reason is that Red Sox fans have very short memories when it comes to their sports heroes. It takes years to build up a reputation in Boston and only seconds to destroy it. You need only look at Johnny Damon and Roger Clemens to get your proof of that. Both were beloved Red Sox fans who left the team and wound up hated for their decisions. Now Curt Schilling hasn’t elected to join the Yankees, which would doom him, but neither has he done enough recently to remain relevant in the eyes of the fans. Schilling’s one good year was 2004. He was up there in the Cy Young voting and was a postseason hero for his actions during game 1 of the ALDS, game 6 of the ALCS, and game two of the World Series. Unfortunately for him, he went on to do very little after that. In 2005 he was hampered by injury and an only semi-successful stint as our closer. 2006 was a lost season, so it doesn’t really matter how well he did. 2007 was more injuries and an unmemorable postseason. In truth, Schilling hasn’t been relevant in 5 years. Red Sox fans can shrug off what happened five years ago without a care, especially after winning a second World Series and a division title.

All in all, Schilling is neither qualified nor relevant enough to get Red Sox fans to vote for him. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s just another shortsighted and slightly insulting tactic from our friends the Republicans.

Wake Up Call in Foxborough

Phew. I’ll say that again: phew. The Patriots won, but just barely. The Bills played better than the Patriots did for about 52 of the 60 minutes in the game, and they probably deserved to win the game for the power and ferocity that they brought to the game. Unfortunately, they came up just short.

Offensively, this game was really the tale of two Patriots teams: the ones that barely showed up for the first 90% and the team that dominated the last 10%. So let’s take a look at both teams, offensively. The Patriots came out of this game flat. They have a great core of running backs in Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, and a couple of others. But they did nothing in their running game, nothing at all. Unfortunately, I think we’re finally seeing Laurence Maroney for what he is: a near-miss. He had a great two years, but between injuries and an inability to move vertically he has shown himself to just not be as good as we all hoped he would be. And that’s really a shame. But frankly, where Maroney fails the team has to be willing to try out other running backs. Taylor is a power runner and Faulk is a third-down back primarily, but I really think BenJarvus Green-Ellis could be a great running back. He just needs to be given a chance and I believe he will shine.

Tom Brady came out of this game looking rusty, and that’s understandable. A year removed from real NFL football, he showed all the signs: lack of accuracy, sloppy throwing form, poor decision making. He even gave up an interception that Buffalo converted into a TD. But the thing about rust is that it’s possible to shake it off. And that’s exactly what Brady did. As the game went on, as the running game diminished, Brady began to move back towards Tom Terrific, the future Hall of Famer. Using checkdown passes and mid-range throws, he marched the team twice in five minutes into enemy territory and twice punched it into the end zone. That’s the Tom Brady we all know and love. It took some time, but I think Tom is back to his old self, and the NFL had best fear him and his potential for this season.

Defensively, the Patriots played well in the first half and then ramped it up the second half. The main problem I saw was in their inability to stop the run. Fred Jackson is a capable but running back, but if he can cut through the defense that easily, then I don’t know what the Pats will do when real running backs come to play. They also need to recognize and prevent the screen pass much better, as that was a key weapon for the Bills all season. But in the last few minutes, the New England front line finally got the better of the Bills, forcing hurried pass after sack after hurried pass. They also showed poise by not succumbing to frustration after several key but questionable penalties were called against them.

The bottom-line for this game: the Patriots won and the Bills lost. The Patriots are 1-0 and the Bills are 0-1. But the Patriots will have to play a lot better if they want to beat better teams. Tonight was definitely a wake up call in Foxborough.

Wisconsin vs. Fresno State

Woot! Go Badgers! I went to a Division 3 school for college, and my parents went to Wisconsin, so I’ve always been a fan of Wisconsin football and basketball (also UConn, for proximity to my college reasons). So with nothing else to do this afternoon I watched Wisconsin take on Fresno State. The short story is that they won. If that’s all you wanted to know, you can quit reading my blog now. The long story is that they just barely won and maybe didn’t deserve it. They played well, and came back from a big deficit, but I thought Fresno State was the better team. The biggest mismatch was definitely the Fresno wide receivers vs the Wisconsin cornerbacks. The WR’s were quite simply taller and faster than the CB’s, and it led to a highly effective Fresno passing offense. That combined with Mathews’ running, made it a long day for the Wisconsin defense. What saved the Badgers was their ability to buckle down when the backs were up against it. They picked off 3 Fresno passes in the second half and overtime, the last one setting them up for an easy game-winning field goal. I was especially impressed with O’Brien Schofield and his tackling.

The defense did enough to overcome what I felt was a relatively weak offense from Wisconsin. The rushing game was strong, but the passing game was not. Tolzien passed about as well as Fresno’s QB did, but he was unable to punch it into the end zone at all except for right at the end. Granted, this was an overtime touchdown that forced Fresno to respond in kind, so it was a huge play. But going all game without a touchdown pass and just 225 throwing yards to show for it is not enough if you want to get to a bowl game.

All in all, I felt that with a few less interceptions from Fresno the Badgers would’ve lost this game heartily. But throw the ball away they did, and Fresno was defeated. Wisconsin’s quest to get ranked continues. It was a rough game, but the roughness is what makes college football great. Pro football is glitzy, with everything looking cleaner and more polished. College ball is harsher, with more emphasis on power running and less emphasis on the long pass due to the weaker caliber of quarterback. And power running is what Wisconsin has always done well. Numerous running backs have come through Wisconsin, the most famous of recent probably being Ron Dayne, he of the Heisman Trophy and phenomenal Rose Bowl performance.

For Wisconsin to succeed, it will need its running backs to continue to perform well. Quite honestly, I wasn’t impressed with Tolzien at QB. More then anything else, he just struck me as an only “OK” quarterback. His arm strength seemed just OK, his running speed seemed just OK, his overall composure seemed just OK. And OK isn’t going to cut it by itself. But with a talented corps of running backs like the ones shown off by Wisconsin today, they might just have enough to have a decent season despite an only OK QB. Until next time, always remember to “jump around!”

Tennis and its Champion

Hey everyone, sorry for the delay between postings. I’m back now and should be posting regularly again. Lately, I’ve been enthralled by the U.S. Open. Tennis fascinates me; it’s a major sport worldwide, yet it is always considered second tier to sports like baseball and basketball in the U.S. and soccer worldwide. I find it very fun to watch however- the skill, the strength, the strategy. It has all of the same heartwarming stories that major league sports do. In this tournament alone we’ve seen the rise of two new American stars in Melanie Oudin and John Isner, both of whom have taken down multiple ranked opponents to reach the quarterfinals and round-of-16, respectively. They make for wonderful human interest pieces, with touching stories such as Melanie Oudin’s idolization of Justine Henin. And as Americans we still find we have players to root for.

But the true joy of the U.S. Open, and the man I’m rooting for to win it all, has without a doubt been Roger Federer. I’ve commented in the past on how I think people like sports because they represent the peak of physical prowess. They want to see superhuman feats, they want to see perfection, and they know the closest they’ll ever come is to watch sports. Because Roger Federer embodies tennis perfection. This is not to say he never loses, but he looks phenomenal at all times. His serve is as fast as a rocket but as swerving as a screwball. His backhand, both the two-hander and the slice, are brilliant in their consistency. You just can’t seem to get it by him, no matter what you do. And his forehand is pinpoint in its accuracy. He is a truly transcendent tennis player and we are all lucky to be able to watch him work in the prime of his athletic career. I choose to root for perfection, and so I root for Roger Federer.

As I watched him take on his opponent today, I watched a man strategically plan every point he won. I watched him run Robredo ragged, moving from left to right across the court, over and over again, until the man simply had no legs left. Then all it took was one more cross-court shot to solidify the win. His very presence is menacing. Every time he would rush the net, he would so scare Robredo that he would force another error and earn another point. The number of times Roger actually had to use his short game is small because every time he moved up he would either get the narrow-angle shot or Robredo would once again mess up. He plans so well that sometimes he does not even have to execute.

But execute he does. He is an executioner, lining up his opponents and rifling ball after ball past them, until they are left defeated and exhausted on the hard court. He combines loads of power with a brilliant strategic mind and an athletically gifted body. He never shows emotion, he rarely looks nervous. Gods rarely do.