Celtics: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Despite Dwyane Wade’s 46-point game, there are many positives we can draw from the Celtics 5-game series victory over the Miami Heat. First and foremost was Boston’s ability to win on the road. They went 1-1 in Miami, and actually had the lead briefly in Game 4 until Wade turned into a force of nature. Despite a slow start in that game, it actually wasn’t poorly played. Had the Celtics been able to contain Wade at all during the second half, they likely would have swept the Heat. Even still, this was their easiest playoff series victory in 3 years. In 2007, every series went six or seven games, as did 2008’s. The Celtics have played well enough on the road this season that we can begin to forget about their road playoff woes of yesteryear. Not only that, but their home-court advantage is starting to return. Against Miami they were 3-0 at the Garden. All of this spells out a difficult series for the Cavaliers. The Celtics may be better equipped at winning on the road this season than Cleveland is, despite Cleveland’s better record. I think if the Celtics can pull out a win in the first two games at Cleveland, they have an excellent chance of going back to Cleveland up 3-1.

Yes, they split the season series with Cleveland 2-2, but these games all came at different times during the season. Each team has won once on the road and once at home. They are more evenly matched than you might think, but some of Boston’s role-players are starting to come into their own. Tony Allen has emerged as a more-than-competent defensive presence on the court. Considering the gap in talent, I thought he played brilliant defense against Dwyane Wade. While Allen never exactly shut Wade down, he contained Wade enough that Miami’s lack of other shooters became too much to overcome. I see the same thing happening in Cleveland. You can’t stop LeBron James, he’s just too good. But you CAN contain him, force him into deeper jump shots than he’d like, and make him pass up the ball.

I think Perkins has the advantage over Shaq at center, so that leaves it up to the Cavaliers’ other perimeter shooters. The Celtics definitely have the advantage at both guard positions, with Ray Allen shooting exceptionally well and Rajon Rondo passing and scoring with the ease that made him an All-Star this season. So then it comes down to Kevin Garnett vs. Antawn Jamison. Kevin Garnett also has the advantage here: taller, better at moving inside, but still capable of the perimeter shot. Paul Pierce is not as good as LeBron James, but we’ve seen duels between them where the two just cancel each other out in terms of shooting (either they both score a bunch of points or they score next to none). So while James is the best player on the court, you can contain him with double-teams and force the Cavs to rely on other shooters. With the advantage swinging the Celtics’ way at all other positions, I’ll take that defensive strategy even if it doesn’t work.

Bench-wise, the Celtics are a little thin but still very capable. Glen Davis had an excellent series against Miami and has cemented his spot on the second rotation. If he can keep up his level of play, it will be very difficult to cover him. He can shoot from the perimeter, drive to the hoop, rip down rebounds and take charges. He has turned into an excellent backup player. If he and Tony Allen can keep the Celtics in the game when Cleveland goes to its bench, I see the Celtics having an excellent chance to win the game. The C’s and Cavs played each other even this season. It will come down to who wants it more. I think the Celtics are coming into this series with more to prove. They want to prove their not too old to compete. They want to prove they’re a championship caliber team. And they want to prove that team chemistry and defense is still more important than having the best player on the court. They’re an old-school team going up against a new-style superpower. I can’t to see which team prevails.

Red Sox Win Ugly in Toronto

The Boston Red Sox traveled to the Rogers Centre Monday night to take on the Toronto Blue Jays. On the mound for the Red Sox was Josh Beckett, hoping to bounce back from his last outing, where he allowed seven earned runs in seven innings pitched. He was facing Dana Eveland, who came into this game with an ERA of 1.93. Neither pitcher would factor in the victory, as the game was a back-and-forth slugfest marked by lots of hard hitting and not much in the way of pitching until the end of the game. The Red Sox built a 5-0 lead in the third inning, only to see Beckett give it away in the bottom of the inning. They then went back and forth with the Blue Jays through the middle innings, going up by a run or two, only to see Toronto come back and tie the score once again (although they only took the lead for a half-inning). They finally built a 13-9 lead in the sixth inning off a series of singles and a two-RBI double from Dustin Pedroia. Coming down the stretch, Boston’s pitching was a little stronger than Toronto’s, and the Red Sox wound up winning this game, 13-12, banging out 18 hits in the process. Scott Schoeneweis picked up the win, while Jonathan Papelbon picked up his sixth save of the season. The loss went to Shawn Camp.

Red Sox at the Plate

When a team puts up 18 hits, you’re going to find a number of players with good offensive numbers. The only players on the Red Sox to not get hits tonight both hit out of the eighth spot in the lineup. Five Boston players had three-hit games: Marco Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Varitek, and Adrian Beltre. Scutaro, making his return to Toronto after playing most of his career as a Blue Jay, scored four runs. Varitek, meanwhile, drove in four runs. The Sox hitting was not the problem tonight. They grounded out at-bats, drew walks when possible (four in all), and built their leads with solid hitting. While they never hit better than a double (Toronto, on the other hand, hit two home runs), the Red Sox were great at stringing series of singles and doubles together to drive in runs and score in bunches of one run and two. This offense could best be described as halfway between small-ball and power offense. While it’s not conventional, you can’t argue with 13 runs off 18 hits.

Red Sox on the Mound

The pitching tonight was pathetic through the first two thirds of the game, then finally settled down. While the Blue Jays scored 10 of their 12 total runs in the first six innings, Red Sox pitchers kept the scoring to 2 in the final third of the game. Manny Delcarmen, though he did not get the win, really gets credit for slowing down Toronto’s offense. He set down all six batters he faced, recording one of the two 1-2-3 innings Boston had during this game (the other coming from Papelbon in the ninth for the save). Since mid-April he has emerged as a dominant middle-reliever. The Sox will need him to complement Daniel Bard and Papelbon, especially given the struggles of Hideki Okajima, who presently sports an ERA over 7.00.

Questions Asked, Some are Answered

A month into the season, we are starting to get answers to the questions surrounding this Red Sox team. The question of offense has been answered. The Red Sox are proving that they can hit the ball with the best of teams, score runs, and bare down during key-at bats (the Red Sox went 11-20 with runners in scoring position against Toronto). However, the pitching is nowhere near the caliber of a playoff contender, nor is it what we were expecting from this team coming into the season. Josh Beckett has looked awful in his last two outings. Having Varitek as his personal catcher has not helped in any way. While Beckett’s even-numbered years in Boston are always worse than his odd-numbered years, he has looked so bad this season that we have to wonder about injury. And the Boston bullpen is mediocre at best, pathetic at worst. Papelbon and Bard are the lone bright spots, although Manny Delcarmen is quickly joining them. The Red Sox must figure out their pitching situation soon if they want to remain in contention for the playoffs or the AL East division (and yes, it is now late enough in the season to worry about that). Tonight was an ugly win. There’s been a lot of those lately.

Roller Derby Revisited

So a couple of weeks after my first foray into the world of women’s roller derby, I went back for a second viewing. My goal was to gain further insight as to whether what I was watching was sport or some kind of voyeurism akin to mud-wrestling: mostly there just to amuse the audience, mostly male. What I got was a blowout by the Cosmonaughties against the Nutcrackers. I also found some answers to the questions I posed last time around.

To begin with, their is too much sheer athleticism to call this purely voyeurism. The ability to skate alone suggests as such, but the women of roller derby have to do far more than just skate. The jammers must navigate a pack of aggressive opponents and teammates, find the open seams, and accelerate through them. The pack must control its speed long enough to allow its jammer to get by, then react to whoever becomes the lead jammer by either accelerating or decelerating in an effort to make it easier on the leader (if they’re on the same team) or harder (if they’re on opposite teams). A fast pack will be harder for the lead jammer to catch up to, but it will cause the pack to space out, making it easier for the jammer to pass once she gets there. Meanwhile, a slow pack will be reached sooner by the jammer (who must complete a full lap before she can score), but it will remain tighter together, making penetration more difficult. If all of this sounds like strategy to you, it should.

On top of all that, there’s real, aggressive checking in this sport (and I think in the end it IS a sport). The women hit each other, and they hit hard. Knocking an opponent down in the pack will make it far easier for your jammer to score points. And knocking a jammer out means a much easier time for your team to score points. This game combines aggression, strategy, and speed. It’s like a combination of NASCAR and hockey, only on roller skates. And quite simply, it’s awesome.

I think in the end the game comes down to who has the fastest jammer on the rink. For this game, it was clearly a woman who went by Lady Shatterly. She was backed up by another more-than-capable jammer in Hayley Contagious. They were the two fastest jammers, and no matter how well the Nutcracker jammers played, they simply could not out-skate the two Cosmo women, who were consistently racking up four to five points (maximum of five) per jam. If you have the best jammers, no matter how well the other pack plays your team is in good shaoe. The pack can only fend off a jammer for so long before a hole opens up (that’s the nature of a constantly moving pack, similar to zone defense in ultimate frisbee or basketball), and a quick jammer will always penetrate that hole.

The last aspect of the game that lends credence to its status as a true sport is the strategy involved in coaching the team. You have to balance the playtime of your jammers so as not to tire them out, but you can’t keep them on the sidelines forever lest the other team get back into the game. So it all comes down to a balancing act, and this is where the strength of your bench jammers plays into it. Just like in basketball, a strong bench can keep your starters fresh and rested for the final minutes of the game. But a weak bench will lead to tired jammers who just don’t have the strength to fight through the pack anymore.

Overall, I had a much better time the second time around at Roller Derby. I was able to better see the game for what it is: a sport featuring solid athletes, same as any other. It has the strength of hockey, the speed of football (think running backs slicing through the line), and the balance and poise of ice skating. I would encourage everyone to check it out.

What to do with David Ortiz

He’s batting .154. He has yet to hit a home run. He strikes out every other at-bat (13 in 26 at-bats). The reasons are mounting to bench David Ortiz. He can’t hit lefties. Jeremy Hermida has been on a tear. Mike Lowell needs to play if the Red Sox are ever going to trade him. So what do we do with David Ortiz? For how long do we let emotion and history dominate our desire to win? Or is David Ortiz still our best answer?

There was a time when David Ortiz was the best hitter there was. Think 2003-2007. He was unstoppable. He went over 30 home runs for five years straight. He went over 40 twice, and over 50 once. He drove in over 100 RBIs all five of those seasons. And he had an OPS of over .950 during every one of those seasons. And the stats don’t even begin to describe his contributions to the team during the peak of his career. Clutch hits. Game-winning home runs. People pitching to him because of their fear of Manny Ramirez. He and Manny were the scariest duo in baseball for a good 5 years.

But now everything has changed. The power has shifted from Ortiz to Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. Scrappiness has replaced pure power on this team. What we’re left with is a relic, in more ways than one. David Ortiz represents the old style of Red Sox baseball. This style brought the team to the playoffs four times in five years and won two World Series (not to mention garnered Ortiz himself an ALCS MVP). David Ortiz is all that’s left of that older way of playing. But that’s all it is: older. There’s no evidence that this new style of Red Sox play won’t win out. The Red Sox made it to the playoffs in both 2008 and 2009, coming within a game of the World Series in 2008. And they did it with a weakened, recovering-from-injury David Ortiz. The new Red Sox may yet prove to be as effective as the old, power-heavy Red Sox were.

But we then have to recognize David Ortiz for who he is: a hold out. The team has moved on, and he is holding the team back. Were he still able to produce quality at-bats, I would say hold onto him, keep him in the lineup. But the problem is, he’s just not producing. His OPS is o.k. at .510, but that’s just because when he does make contact he tends to hit doubles. The problem is, he’s not getting enough of them. David Ortiz is an old player playing an older style of Red Sox baseball, and I think it’s hurting the team. You certainly want a DH that can hit home runs, but first and foremost you just want a DH who can hit. And the signs are that David Ortiz won’t be doing much of that this season. His swing looks terrible: slow and out of rhythm. His eye isn’t what it used to be; he swings and misses at everything. And his judgment may be off- what was up with that stolen base attempt?

We owe David Ortiz much. In 2004, he got us over the hump of the Yankees en route to our first title in 86 years. And since then he has time and again given us his all, usually coming through when we most needed it. But it’s time to recognize that his time has past. Let Jeremy Hermida get some extra at-bats. Give Mike Lowell the playtime he needs to build up decent trade value, or at least a decent contract come the off-season. But let’s not get bogged down in sentimentality for too long. Because as long we continue to allow David Ortiz to just flail away up there, the Sox are sacrificing a minimum of three at-bats a game. And a lot of the time, three at-bats will make or break you.

Bulls’ Back-Court Beats Up Boston

The Chicago Bulls hosted the Boston Celtics at the United Center Tuesday night. The Bulls were looking to keep their playoff hopes alive, needing a victory to do so. For the Celtics, there was still a chance to win the three-seed for the playoffs, however it would take a victory Tuesday, Wednesday, and an Atlanta loss on Wednesday to do so. There was also the issue of balancing the wish for the three-seed with the desire to rest starters in preparation for the playoffs. It was a back and fourth battle throughout the game until the fourth quarter, when the Celtics suffered one of their typical late-game collapses. The defense was completely unable to stop either Derrick Rose (39 points) or Kirk Hinrich (30 points), especially during the fourth quarter, when the Celtics were out-scored 34-25. The final score of the game was Chicago 101, Boston 93.

The Celtics on Offense

On an individual level, two players played especially well tonight. Paul Pierce started off slowly but heated up in the third quarter. He finished the game with 28 points. At a close second was Ray Allen, who scored 25 points. This is not to say that the Celtics played well offensively tonight. For the first time in a long while, the Celtics were poorer at spreading the ball around than their opponents, losing the assists battle 22-18. Too many times did they try to force it into the paint, where there would inevitably be more Bulls than Celtics. While this put Boston on the line from time to time, it did not garner enough points to make it an effective strategy. Less than half of Boston’s total points (42-93) came from inside the paint. However, it was not as if they shot well from the outside either. While they scored as many three-pointers (five) as Chicago did, they only shot 33.3% from beyond the arch. And that shot was not effective for them until late in the game when they were already down. Overall, the Celtics looked listless on offense. None of the other starters played particularly well on offense, and they got not help from their bench, which only managed 20 points between the five-man bench. While Pierce and Allen played well, the offense on the whole never really established itself, constantly getting harassed by Chicago’s swarming and physical defense.

The Celtics on Defense

The defense played decently for the first half of the game, but they began to break down during the second half. They looked especially bad against Chicago’s pick-and-roll. Rose and Hinrich found it easier and easier throughout the game to move off of Bulls screens to get open looks from the outside, and as the game progressed their shooting got hotter and hotter. By the time the final few minutes arrived, they were barely ever missing shots. While the Celtics played better in the paint (only 42 of 103 Chicago points were scored in the paint), they struggled to get back on defense on fast break plays, allowing 15 points in those situations. Overall, the Celtics looked as unsettled on defense as they did on offense, and while they played well against the front-court, they were destroyed by the back-court. They also struggled mightily to rebound, losing the rebounds battle 49-40. Rasheed Wallace botched one rebound so badly he actually knocked it back into his own basket.

Hellooooooo, Four-Seed!

This game was another case of the Celtics failing to defeat a playoff-caliber team. This situation has arisen over and over again. The Celtics struggle against good teams, and this does not bode well for the playoffs. Playoff teams play faster defense. Their starters play longer minutes and give way to capable benches. And their teams are stacked with shooters who can get hot at a moment’s notice. Fast defense, strong bench play, and singularly-hot shooters are all facets that the Celtics have shown considerable weakness towards this season. They’ll likely be able to beat their first round opponent, either Miami or Milwaukee (which will be without star center Andrew Bogut). But come the second round, where they’ll almost undoubtedly face Cleveland, they’re still not playing enough to win. If they can’t pick all the facets of their game up, it will be an early exit for your 2009-2010 Boston Celtics.

Regarding Opening Night

Much has been made of Boston’s Opening Night Ceremonies last Sunday night. Most of it has revolved around five-year-old Joshua Sacco and his recitation of Herb Brooks’ speech from the movie “Miracle.” More specifically, the part where Brooks says “I’m so sick of hearing about what a great [hockey, replaced with baseball] team the [Russians, replaced with Yankees] have. Screw em!” But a far more meaningful moment came via the ceremonial first pitch. From behind an American flag, and walking on to the song “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, emerged former Red Sox superstar Pedro Martinez. He walked to the mound slowly and jovially, drinking in the moment. He then tossed a not particularly aggressive pitch to his former teammate, catcher Jason Varitek. The signature drum bit of “In the Air Tonight” blasted, and the moment was complete.

Pedro Martinez last played at Fenway Park on June 28, 2006, during his tenure with the New York Mets. He was summarily defeated, giving up seven hits and six earned runs in just three innings of work. After the game, he reflected that while he enjoyed the experience of returning to Fenway, he would’ve preferred not to have played the game in the first place. It was a mediocre epilogue to what was a brilliant career with the Red Sox, one that included Cy Young awards, an All-Star Game MVP, and a world series ring. Bringing Pedro back to Fenway one last time was a nice way of reminding us how good a pitcher Pedro Martinez was, and what a quintessential Red Sox member he was as well.

This is not to say that he should be brought back. Pedro was a great pitcher, but the emphasis is on the word “was.” He attempted a comeback in 2009 with the Philadelphia Phillies, and he DID pitch well that season. However, injury prevented him from having a true season with the team. His longevity and durability are gone at this point. Also, he pitched in the National League. He did quite well, but against the New York Yankees in the World Series he went 0-2. Martinez struggled to beat the Yankees during his final season with the Red Sox as well. And considering they’re in Boston’s division, there is a significant danger to bringing in a pitcher who in all likelihood won’t win any of his starts against the primary rival of the Red Sox. Even if the rotation struggles, Pedro Martinez, another aging pitcher with durability issues, is not the answer. There will always be something either in Triple-A or on the trading block. It may not be vintage Pedro (what ever could be?), but it will likely be something that will be more than just a stop-gap measure for Boston.

Pedro Martinez may not realize it, but he has a golden opportunity to end his career on a high note. He pitched well for the Phillies, helping them get to the World Series, even if he couldn’t help them win it. He might have the strength left for a mediocre partial season, but he should resist the urge to try for it. Instead, he should just retire. Let him enter the Hall of Fame with dignity, not as a washed-up has-been who stayed in the league far too long. And let his final moment be one in a Red Sox uniform, the team with which he enjoyed the greatest period of his career.

Joe West is Right: These Games are Slow!

ESPN.com reported Thursday that umpire Joe West believes Red Sox and Yankees games take too long to play. He called the games “embarrassing” and “a disgrace to baseball.” These comments came in response to Tuesday night’s game, in which umpire Angel Hernandez refused on several occasions to grant extra time to batters during their at-bats. Player responses to these comments were almost unilaterally negative, citing that if someone has something better to do, let he or she go and do that. The consensus is that no one is forcing people to stay through the entire game, so what right do the umpires have to criticize the pace?

The Downside of Slow Games

The fact is, Red Sox-Yankees games are too slow. There are too many visits to the mound. Too many step-outs during at-bats. Too many pitching changes. Every Boston-New York game is played as if it’s the end of the world. Both teams are stocked with good, patient hitters, so walks and full-count at-bats are inevitable. But more SHOULD be done by both teams and the umpires to speed up the game where it’s possible. There are a number of reasons why, including but not limited to:

1) Advertisement revenue. When a game starts to go long, viewers go to bed. Although there are many viewers who will stay up until the wee hours to watch a full game, more viewers will go to bed if the game runs too long. That means advertisements between later innings are getting less viewers. This devalues the advertising space. A brisker game ensures a full complement of commercials viewed by the maximum number of people possible.

2) Risk of incident. Whenever you have a rivalry as fierce as Red Sox-Yankees, you’re going to get a fair contingency of people at the ballpark drinking throughout the game. Sometimes this is to enhance the enjoyment of the game. Sometimes this is to mitigate the boredom (such as the middle innings of Wednesday’s 3-1, 10-inning game). And sometimes this is help ease the tension that fills the air whenever you get rivalry games like this. But the bottom line is that longer games mean more drinking in the stands. And the more drinking their is, the more likely an incident is to occur. This could vary from a fight in the stands to throwing things onto the field or at players. But no good comes from excessive drinking at the ballpark, and you run the risk of it the longer a game goes on.

3) Decrease in overall enjoyment. Let’s face it: baseball can be kind of boring. When teams are scoring (like in the season opener), that’s exciting. When the pitchers are dominating (like during a no-hitter), that can be exciting too. But your standard low-scoring baseball game where there are lots of base-runners but no runs (like Wednesday night’s game) can be kind of boring. It’s not entertaining to watch mediocrity. Baseball games cost a lot of money; it’s fair for fans to expect to be entertained if they’re going to pay for it. And while the players are right that no one is forcing the vfans to stay, as the entertainers the players are complicit in making sure they are entertaining. And sports is entertainment, first and foremost. Players should not intentionally diminish the entertainment value of the game they play. While they should still play to win, certain acts such as meaningless trips to the mound and excessive stepping out of the batter’s box could be reduced to help speed the game along and keep the fans happy.

The Umpire’s Place

Joe West was the perfect person to come out and indict both teams for their slow play. Since he’s not a player, he has no stake in who wins or loses, so he can remain neutral. And since he isn’t a fan either, he has no emotions or money invested in the game. He is there simply to observe. And what he observed is that the games take too long to play. He’s not the first to make such a comment, but he IS the first with the authority and credibility to act on something we’ve all been aware of for a long time. So he came out against both teams equally and fairly. The Red Sox and Yankees are two of the biggest teams in baseball from a fan and media perspective. They are the models by which the other teams are judged, both by their fans and themselves. Seeing the Red Sox and Yankees grinding games into boring nothingness could convince these other teams to follow suit. So before a league wide increase in game-times occurs, the one man who could speak dispassionately about the subject came out and said something. And he was right to do so.

Scutaro Error Proves Costly in Red Sox Loss

Tuesday night saw the continuation of the opening series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The pitching match-up featured both teams’ number two starter: Jon Lester for the Red Sox and A.J. Burnett for the Yankees. This game was a back and forth battle. The Red Sox jumped on the scoreboard in the first inning, however the Yankees tied it up quickly thereafter. Boston put up two more runs in the third, but New York took the lead with three runs of their own two innings later. Boston tied it up in the bottom of the fifth, but the Yankees put up single runs in the seventh and eighth innings to take the lead for good. The key play of the game was Marco Scutaro’s erroneous throw in the seventh inning. On a routine ball hit to him, he fielded it cleanly, however he then threw it into the dirt trying to get it to first. This allowed the Yankees to load the bases (instead of ending the inning), and they scored on a Hideki Okajima (who took the loss for this game) bases-loaded walk. The final score: Yankees 6, Red Sox 4.

Red Sox Pitching

Jon Lester did not look nearly as sharp tonight as he did during spring training. He went just five innings, allowing four earned runs on five hits. While he struck out four, he also walked three and hit two Yankees (not necessarily a bad thing, but still). He struggled with his command all evening and had a lot of trouble putting hitters away. This led to too many full counts, and it raised his pitch count too quickly to allow him to go deep into the game. Other Red Sox pitchers fared better, with Manny Delcarmen and Daniel Bard both throwing scoreless innings. All the same, the bullpen pitchers could not bail out the starter like they were able to Sunday night, and inevitably the loss falls on their shoulders. Had Okajima thrown more strikes and fewer balls he might have had an easier time keeping the Yankees off the bases.

Red Sox Hitting

While this was not the offensive explosion of Sunday night’s game, nor that of any of their preseason games during the final week, the Red Sox did manage to bang out nine hits Tuesday night. Victor Martinez had a huge night for Boston, going 2-3 with a walk, including a two-run home run off Burnett that at the time gave the Red Sox a two-run lead. He also hit a double later in the game to tie the game at four apiece. The other big hitter for the night was Jacoby Ellsbury, who went 2-5 with a double, a stolen base, and two runs scored. If they can get that kind of production out of the hitters at the top of the lineup each night, the Red Sox will win more games than they lose.

Keeping Perspective

Remember how last season the Red Sox beat the Yankees the first nine times they played them? The Yankees still wound up winning the World Series that year. This was one game. The second game. Of a 162-game season. There is plenty to talk about in this game, such as the potential effectiveness of Hideki Okajima this season and whether Marco Scutaro will be one of those error-prone shortstops Boston occasionally gets (think the 2005 season and Edgar Renteria). But we must all keep in mind that it is incredibly early in the season. It will take a month before we really get a sense of what kind of team we have this year. The Sox showed Sunday night they are capable of coming back from deficits and that the bullpen can keep the team in the game. Tuesday night they showed the opposite: that this team struggles with holding leads and that its bullpen can let games get out of hand. Which team is the real deal will take a long time to discover.

Predicting the NCAA Championship

Actually, the fact of the matter is that I’m no expert on either of these two teams. I watched both Final Four games, sure, but I really can’t name any players on either team. Duke looks to be the more dominating team, considering how easily they dispatched West Virginia, who was a two-seed. Compare that with Butler, who struggled mightily just to be a five-seed in Michigan State. But I don’t really care about any of that. What’s important to me is the storyline.

Sports journalists love the storyline. The little tidbits of trivia and trend that imbue any particular game with more meaning than that of the game itself. And this game has a great storyline. Butler is the hometown team, playing in a stadium that’s a mere 15-minute drive from their own campus; Duke is a powerhouse basketball franchise with a head coach who’s won an Olympic gold medal working with professional athletes. Butler graduates have played in a total of 166 NBA games combined; Duke graduates have played in almost a hundred times as many games. And Butler was barely ranked this season; Duke is a one-seed. Butler is Cinderella or David. Duke is Goliath. The storylines for this game are spectacular.

And for that reason alone, I’m rooting for Butler. Generally, I don’t go in for the schmaltzy stuff. It’s cheesy and, like I said, it has no bearing on the game whatsoever. But this time I’ve successfully been sucked in to the hype. Not that I think Butler WILL win. I just want them TO win. It’s their first NCAA championship game, it’s being played in Indianapolis, and the school is where “Hoosiers” was filmed. How do you not vote for them?

That being said, Butler has some tremendous problems they will have to overcome. Two of their biggest stars in Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are game-time decisions. Without them, Butler lacks a lot in shooting and rebounding. And rebounding is their biggest asset. Duke rebounds offensively very well, whereas Butler does it defensively. But without Howard they’re going to have  a much harder time doing it. Duke may also play to put Howard in foul trouble, and Butler lacks a backup who can really rise to the occasion.

So in the end, I’m picking Duke to win this thing. They just seem to be bigger and badder than Butler is. They’re the Big Bad Wolf and Butler is the three little pigs. The only question is whether or not Butler’s team is built of straw or of bricks. They’re a strong team, definitely, with some very good play makers. The problem is Duke has these too. And I think if the MSU game is any indication, Butler is going to be tight in this game. I see a lot of shots going awry for Butler and just missing the mark. Meanwhile, I see Duke playing calmly and collectedly. I don’t think Butler will get blown out, I actually see them getting an early-game lead. But look for Coach K’s superior coaching to become a factor in the second half as Duke slowly pulls away and turns Cinderella back into a pumpkin (or however the story goes). That’s how I see it going: early Butler lead, followed by dominant Duke second half, leading to an NCAA title. I just hope I’m wrong.

Red Sox Weekly Review, 3/29-4/3

Welcome to the final installment of Red Sox Weekly Review, covering all things Spring Training. The Red Sox had a full slate of games this week in an effort to get their starters fully stretched out and ready for Sunday night’s opener against the New York Yankees at Fenway. So let’s get right to the games.

Red Sox vs. Rays

Monday’s matchup against Tampa Bay featured a strong performance from starting pitcher Josh Beckett. He went six innings and only gave up two earned runs while striking out eight. The problem with this game wasn’t the starting pitching, it was the relief pitching and the hitting. Boston didn’t get on the scoreboard until the seventh inning, and by that point the Rays were already up 5-0. Despite 13 hits from the Red Sox, nobody had a particularly strong day. There were no home runs, and none of the starters had multi-hit games except for Marco Scutaro, who started this game despite being slated for ninth on the final roster. Compounding problems was Alan Embree, who gave up three earned runs in less than an inning of work. His ERA sits at over 40, and he clearly is not yet capable of pitching in the major leagues. I wonder if he ever will be again. The final score was Tampa Bay 9, Boston 3.

Red Sox vs. Rays (part 2)

Boston continued its torrid offense on Tuesday with a follow up game against the Tampa Bay Rays. They belted out 16 hits against Tampa pitching, scoring early and often. In a game that featured mostly players who will play in the minors, the Sox played were still able to stay with Tampa’s starters and pulled out a tie, 9-9. Big hitters of the night were Josh Reddick (3-5 with two runs scored), Anthony Rizzo (3-5 with two RBIs), and Tug Hulett (2-4 with two runs and two RBIs). The pitching staff for this game was also comprised almost entirely of soon-to-be minor leaguers, with the exception of Daniel Bard, who allowed four earned runs in his 0.2 innings of work. This game says very little about the Red Sox this season, but it says a lot about the potential of our farm system. To hold their ground against a major league roster like Tampa Bay’s is impressive. I predict big things in Pawtucket this year.

Red Sox vs. Orioles

The name of the game Wednesday was score early and score often as Boston took on the Baltimore Orioles. The Red Sox banged out a whopping seventeen hits against the hapless Orioles, winning the game 14-6. Dustin Pedroia had a strong game, going 3-5 with two runs scored. Victor Martinez had an even stronger game however, going 3-5 with two home runs, driving in a whopping six runs. This solid hitting was complimented well by starter Jon Lester, who went seven strong innings, giving up just one earned run one three hits and three walks (also three strikeouts). Lester looks ready for the regular season. He will make an excellent #2 starter behind Josh Beckett, and the 1-2-3 punch of them and John Lackey will make the Red Sox incredibly difficult to beat in a three-game series.

Red Sox vs. Twins

Thursday’s match-up against the Twins had little at stake, seeing as the Red Sox had already clinched the “coveted” Mayor’s Cup. Boston got another strong start out of its starter, this time John Lackey. While only able to go five innings, he succeeded in allowing just one earned run to cross the plate. The Red Sox responded by putting up three in the fifth inning and two in the eighth, winning the game 5-3. The offense did not play as well as it had in the previous few games, belting out just eight hits (the Twins actually out-hit the Red Sox 10-8). Marco Scutaro continued to improve his batting average, however, going 2-3 with two RBIs from the lead-off spot. His batting average has finally climbed above the Mendoza Line (.200), and if he keeps this momentum up he may wind up surprising a few people with his production from the nine-hole. He may yet join the long list of above-average shortstops that no one expects.

Red Sox vs. Nationals

The Red Sox took on the Washington Nationals on Friday, beating them 7-2. The game featured the two things we’ve come to expect from this team so far: great hitting and strong starting pitching. The pitching star of the game this time was Clay Buchholz, who went six innings while only giving up one earned run and two hits overall. He may yet prove he can pitch in the major leagues, although the Nationals are a far cry from the Yankees or the Rays. Offensively, Boston returned to form with 12 more hits, out-hitting Washington 12-5. The hits were very evenly distributed this game, with no player getting more than one. Jason Varitek’s hit did drive in 3, however, which helped break the score open for Boston in the sixth inning. In that inning Boston scored six times and put the game out of reach. Solid relief pitching after that was enough to seal the game and get Buchholz the win.

Red Sox vs. Nationals (part 2)

Boston finished it’s preseason with another game against Washington on Saturday. The goal of this game was most likely to evaluate two pitchers: Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Whoever pitched better in this game should have cemented his spot as the fifth starter come Opening Day. While Boston won this game, 6-1, Wakefield out-pitched Matsuzaka by just a hair. They both went four innings, however Wake gave up no walks and no earned runs, while Dice-K gave up a run and walked three. Taking Wake’s preseason 4-1 record into consideration, it seems most logical to me that Wakefield should start in the rotation and Dice-K should not. Wakefield will almost inevitably go down with an injury in the second half, at which point Matsuzaka will make a fine replacement. But for now, Wakefield is still the better and more experienced pitcher. Of course, should he struggle in this position, Daisuke will be right there to take his place. Offensively, the only things of note were home runs by Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew. Considering Drew’s poor preseason (batting average under .200), this may be a sign that he’s turning things around at the best possible time.

Wrapping it All Up

We learned a lot this preseason about our Boston Red Sox. We learned how strong our starting rotation is. We learned that the offensive can still be incredibly dynamic despite its off-season losses. And we learn that should there be struggles or injuries, there are a core of minor league players who are ready and raring to go. The Red Sox did an excellent job building up momentum heading into this regular season. They went 4-1-1 in the final weak and are riding a four-game winning streak into tonight’s game against the Yankees. But all of that will be for naught if Boston can’t keep it up in the regular season. After a full month of game, practice is finally over. Now the real games begin.