Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December Update: Steelers Challenge, Dubs Rule

On Sunday night the Pittsburgh Steelers once again came from behind and for the third straight game won on a field goal with under a minute to play (the previous two were last-second walkoffs.) This victory gave them the AFC championship.  But their defense, particularly defensive secondary, was criticized as weak.

On Monday night the New England Patriots fell to Miami because of what was described as a  chaotic offense.  The two teams meet on Sunday to decide the division champion who gets home field in the playoffs.  It's very likely they will face each other again in those playoffs.

In the past weekend's games, the Steelers felt the absence of injured defensive captain Ryan Shazier.  The Patriots missed tight end Gronkowski.  The difference this coming weekend is that Gronk will be back, but Shazier will not.  His injury suffered in a particularly brutal game against the Bengals is so severe that he may not play ever again.  And yes, I'm feeling very guilty for continuing to follow football because so little has been done to prevent all these devastating injuries.  But I feel its days are numbered and besides there's so much else I'm trying to avoid following in the news.

Tom Brady is unlikely to have two bad games in a row, and with Gronk back and the Steelers struggling to put up enough points to overcome their defensive lapses, the Patriots have the edge.  There were very good signs for the Steelers in the Ravens game Sunday, especially long pass routes (and the offensive line providing the time), which together with past victories indicates that they can win with various combinations of run, short pass and long pass offenses.  So they can't be counted out by any means.

Meanwhile in the NBA the Dubs have undergone an array of injuries in which one or two principal players have been out in one game, with a couple of elite reserves unavailable.  They've still won.  They completed a 6-0 road trip for the first time in team history.  They beat Portland at home without Steph and Green.  Top to bottom, the Warriors appear to have an historically great team.

Meanwhile, Cleveland got over its early season confusion and won 13 in a row, while LeBron is having a reportedly banner year.  OKC played its best game to beat the Dubs at home and immediately went on a losing streak afterwards.  The Clippers have collapsed, Boston has cooled only slightly, Houston continues to make noise and San Antonio once again very quietly wins games.

So at this point the East looks like a battle between Cleveland and Boston.  It still does not appear that any team in the West can win a 7 game series against the Warriors, even if they are not at full strength.  But several can give them problems.  It remains to be seen if OKC is a match-up problem, or whether they had extraordinary performances plus friendly calls and non-calls at home.

The big MLB news is Guancarlo Stanton going to the Yankees, who are once again building a superteam based on power.  There's the whiff of the Mantle/Maris years, which fascinated me when I was first getting interested in the game.  The San Francisco Giants were the first team Stanton talked to but he passed.  Judging from his comments on the Yankees' winning attitude, I suspect he passed on the Giants because he doesn't believe they're going to be contenders again for awhile.  Certainly the Yankees, who went deep in the playoffs, are a better bet for next year.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Big Tests on Thursday (with Update)

NBA teams have to wonder.  The Golden State Warriors are not only on a winning streak, and winning by an average of more than 15 points per game, but for one recent victory the team was without Kevin Durant, and without Steph Curry for another.  The pattern was the same: the opponent played their best for two quarters, the Warriors zapped past them for a big lead in the third quarter, and an entertaining combination of veterans and new players kept most of the margin through the fourth.

The only team in the NBA with a better record is the surprising Boston Celtics.  Kyrie Irving looks like this year's Durant in terms of not only the team he left but the team he went to.  That is, pretty damn smart.  As Steve Kerr said, maybe this year but in any case pretty soon, Boston is going to be the top team in the East.

On Thursday the Warriors and Celtics meet for the first time this year, and it will be a fascinating test for both teams.

Another game to be played Thursday should also be a test that may suggest the rest of the season in the NFL.  The Pittsburgh Steelers have been winning, but all facets of their game haven't come together in a single contest.  Thursday they play the Tenn Titans.  It's a short week since they barely beat a much inferior Indianapolis team, and exposed their latest weaknesses, in the defensive secondary and in completing long passes on offense.

Unless the Steelers defense is utterly stifling, they may have to actually score multiple touchdowns in order to match the Titans.  If Pittsburgh (or the Titans) expect to go deep into the playoffs this year, this game may tell the tale.

Update After the Games:

No question now that the Celtics are for real, as they squeezed out a dramatic 92-88 victory over the Warriors.  Poor shooting (the lowest point total ever when the big four all play), stellar defense by Boston, an off night for Steph Curry after his game off for injury and some very friendly calls and no-calls for Boston in Boston, and that was the game.  Most important to Boston was their ability to come back from 17 point deficits not once but twice with runs.  They blocked shots that the Warriors aren't used to seeing.  Too bad the game was technically won on a bad call.  Promising for the Warriors: the Celtics have no answer for Kevin Durant.

Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Steelers began to answer doubts with an offensive explosion primarily through the air, as they topped 30 points for the first time this season with their 40-17 victory over the Titans.  Antonio Brown was the star, and Big Ben was his most impressive.  But despite that bundle of points, the Steelers still suffered from an uncertain offense at times.  Though they exploited Titans weaknesses in their defensive secondary, whether the Steelers can play with the best teams is still to be tested.  But they are in good position for the playoffs.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Early Season NBA with the Warriors etc.

After a sloggy start the Golden State Warriors rose to the occasion for big victories over the Clippers and the Spurs, as October became November.  There seemed to be fatigue from the long season and more particularly the trip to China, but the Warriors faced teams not only upping their game to play them, but playing their game.

Team after team changed their characteristic play to assault the Warriors with speed, passing, three pointers and floaters.  Some of the younger teams have the energy though not quite the skill, and the older teams have the skills but not the speed, but still, it must be weird seeing your game mirrored by the other team.

Also of note this essay on the new Golden Age for the NBA.  Interesting in contrast to the NFL.  Over there, the Pittsburgh Steelers have steadied their offensive game--eating up yards and possession time--while sharpening their defense.  Still not scoring touchdowns which could hurt them, and there's the week to week question of whether Big Ben's heart is in the game much anymore.

Don't know what New England is thinking, placing their season and near future entirely on Tom Brady not getting hurt and maintaining his play in his 40s.

Meanwhile in MLB, the SF Giants are hiring new coaches more into analytics, the effectiveness of which remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn't add much to the romance of the game that carried baseball for so many decades.  Now that the Dodgers are likely to be in the market for an elite starting pitcher after they fell one shy in the World Series, it's going to be tempting for the Giants to give one up to get that elusive power hitter.  But let's face it, the Giants need more than one new power hitter.  And they probably need more starting pitching, not less.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

October Can't Come Fast Enough (with Postscript)

Postscript Oct.1: It's finally over.  The last two SF Giants games summed up the season.  Matt Cain made his last start before retiring Saturday, pitching a 3 hit shutout for 5 innings, going into the 9th with the victory, but the closer lost it, aided by a throwing error by the usually spectacular Brandon Crawford.  Then Sunday the Giants couldn't really hit a pitcher who was more or less trying out for a starting job, but ended up winning on a walk-off home run in the 9th--by Pablo Sandoval.  It was the depressingly, maddeningly repeated futility of this season, with the wistful echo of winning days past. Sunday after the game, the team celebrated Cain's 33rd birthday, and probably knew they were celebrating the end of an era.  It's likely that Matt Cain won't be the only one who played in these two games who won't be back in a Giants uniform next year.  I didn't see attendance figures for Sunday, but Saturday's game was not a sell out.

San Francisco Giants fans used to look forward to October for the playoffs and winning the World Series.  Now we just can't wait for this horrific season to end, and look forward to October for Warriors basketball.

The only suspense left for the Giants is whether they lose 100 games and/or whether they get the top draft choice because they finish with the worst record in MLB.  Then comes the long winter of discontent, as priorities are set and new players are pursued.  Right now the rookies getting some playing time must be swinging for the fences every time, as the power hitter priority is at the top.

The season of futility is symbolized by the return of Pablo Sandoval, who had a good start and then went into an epic hitting slump.  Only injuries to others have kept him in the lineup.  But SF will always remember the players who contributed to three championships and provided plenty of joy and thrills at the ball park.  Some are unlikely to be back, along with players who've joined since.

Meanwhile in the NBA, the musical chairs of big stars clustering in a few teams to compete with the Warriors will climax with the reported move of D. Wade to Cleveland.  Until this move, it seems Cleveland was going to have its hands full just winning the relatively anemic East.  But unlike K.D. coming to Golden State, several of these moves are by players who are probably past their prime, and that includes Wade and the other Cavs acquisition, Isaiah Thomas.

But these moves, including those by the Thunder and Houston, will likely make for more competitive basketball this season than seemed likely when last season ended.

The injection of politics into sports, especially by the lunatic tweets and speeches by our racist demagogue in chief, puts a different spin on the season, especially as Steph Curry and the Warriors were two of his specific targets.  Fortunately Curry is a class act and coach Steve Kerr a highly articulate and thoughtful class act.  I like being a Warriors fan.

And props from a Warriors fan to LeBron for his now famous tweet and his forthright stand.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Return of the Panda

The trade deadline came and went without much impact on the San Francisco Giants roster, surprising many professional observers. Third baseman Eduardo Nunez was the only notable to go, and the young players received in the trade were not immediately on the roster.

But soon there was a surprising new addition, especially in that he was the prodigal returned: After being picked up on waivers and sent to a couple of minor league teams for prep, Pablo Sandoval was back at third base.

Nobody expects the Giants to do anything much this year, but any hope that can be generated would be welcome.  The Panda not only perked things up at the ball park, he seemed to boost morale in the club house and generate some play more consistent with the Giants when he was a vital member of championship teams.

In particular he seemed to perk up Hunter Pence who started hitting, and hitting for power.  The two of them were really the hitting sparkplugs of the 2014 playoffs and World Series.

Meanwhile the Giants keep trying new players and different combinations, partly because more guys keep getting injured (Joe Panik most recently) as others heal up.  Positives have been the return of Parker in left field, the starting pitching of Ty Blach and Sam Dyson's work as a closer.  And my guy Kelby Tomlinson continues to be invaluable.  The Giants started winning some games.

Meanwhile, Pablo penned an emotional essay about coming home to San Francisco.  There's no guarantee he'll be back next season, but his effect on the team will have to be part of that decision.

Right now the Giants are finishing a series with the Marlins, the team I saw them play in San Francisco.  Giancarlo Stanton homered in the first two games, extending his consecutive game streak and continuing his power surge.  Someday I'll probably need to say that I saw him play, although I didn't actually see either of the two homers he hit in the July game.  I was ducking out of the sun and saw the first one on a stadium TV, and when he hit the second I was already on the train.  But if he really breaks a record this year, I can always lie.  Who will know?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Baffling Giants, From the Stands

I saw the San Francisco Giants host the Marlins last Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Exactly a year before, the Giants had the best record in MLB. Many of the players on the field last Sunday were on that team. But if the Bay Area sports media is right, that may no longer be true even a month from now.

 Except for the unsurprisingly bad Phillies, the Giants ended the first half with the worst record in baseball, and have just lost a series in San Diego (due in part to 2 homers by their former backup catcher Hector Sanchez), where the Padres are almost as woeful.

 This is the worst Giants record in a generation, and it's baffled everyone. It's a proven team of highly skilled players just a year past predominance. Yet that year has been an ongoing disaster. And now a lot of people are expecting a lot of trades, and maybe for the first time are willing for them to happen.

 I tried to discern some difference at AT&T Park. I maybe didn't see the same intensity from Johnny Cueto on the mound, but that may not be valid. (He's now on the disabled list.) Otherwise, nothing I could be sure of. Maybe there wasn't the same electric buzz in the stands as there had been at some previous games, but the park was full on a clear warm afternoon, with a bright hot sun. Maybe the scoreboard emphasized past glories a lot, and they got the biggest cheers. As usual there were a lot of fans wearing Giants gear, including players shirts--often players of the past.

 But it wasn't a bad game. The Giants took the early lead on a titanic 2 run homer to the deepest part of the yard in right center by Brandon Crawford. The Marlins immediately tied it, then went ahead on a Giancarlo Stanton homer on a pitch that Cueto grooved. Then sub catcher Hundley homered right back to tie the score again.

 But over the past year, Giants fans have come to expect the bullpen cave, and it came when the Marlins scored 4 runs in the 7th. At 7-3, the script for the past year says the game is about over. But not this time.

 The Giants got a run back in the 7th and then staged a very exciting rally in the 8th, tying the game. Buster Posey (the lone Giants All-Star) got an ovation as a pinch-hitter but he inexplicably swung on an 3-0 pitch and grounded out without bringing in a run. Still, after Gomez two strike pinch hit single, the lead run was on third with one out. But one of the younger players--don't remember which--couldn't get a long sacrifice. With 2 out Denard Span smacked a deep ball to right that just got caught. A game of inches--if the ball had gone over the fielder's head, it would likely have scored two-- and how the dice falls, because one batter earlier and Span's ball would have easily scored the lead run, even if caught.

 A game also of instant heroics and instant humiliation. With the score still tied in the 13th, Brandon Crawford--who had a homer and run-scoring hit in the 8th inning rally for three RBIs, plus several clutch fielding plays and throws to first--scooped up a tough grounder and threw hard over Belt's head at first base for a two-base error. A couple of batters later, Kontos gave up a two run homer. By the time Stanton had homered again as well, and Kelby Tomlinson tripled in the bottom of the inning but the Giants could manage only one run for a 10-8 loss--we were on our way to, and sitting in, the train. In prior years, the chances of coming back again in the bottom of the 13th would be excellent enough to stay. This year, not so much.  (I do regret not seeing the Tomlinson triple.  He's a personal favorite.)

 As for the experience, I saw Matt Cain pitch in relief, and Ichiro pinch hit. I had the most expensive mocha I've ever purchased. I don't know how to compare this to previous years because I mostly kept to my seat before, but on this day there seemed an awful lot of people walking around and watching the boats in the marina. Maybe they were escaping the sun as I was. The people were a big part of the show. It will take a lot before people stop coming, I'm sure. It's such a San Francisco experience now--a very diverse crowd, all together here in Giants gear.

 But it may not be long before the players they see are different. (And in fact, we heard somebody yell "Trade 'em all!") Posey, Crawford, Bumgarner will remain the core. They've already broken up that perfect infield of Duffy, Crawford, Panik and Belt, and at least one of those left could go soon, as well as players added later. As for outfielders, though Hunter Pence is enormously popular, Span is probably more likely to be kept. But that's just guessing.

 Still, expectations that it will all change in a month aren't realistic. The starting pitching rotation was carefully crafted and looked so formidable before the season, and it is in shambles. Unfortunately you can't pick up a quality pitching staff in a month. The bullpen is so dispirited that nobody is completely safe. But contracts etc. enter in, and that's a level beyond my interest.

 I can see why people enjoy looking back, not only because those were championship teams--and pretty lucky teams at times--but several were definable teams. The team that played most of the first half of last season was a real team. But despite the familiar players, there's less sense of that now. Partly due to another season of injuries, but also to this baffling inability to win, players have been coming through, lineups and roles juggled. Things are likely to get even less stable before they settle, which will be when they jell. And become a team, a winning team, again.

Postscript: On Monday (July 17) the Giants' streak of consecutive home game sellouts ended at 530 games.  SF holds the record for the National League, and it is the second-longest streak in MLB to the Boston Red Sox 794.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Dubs Progress and Giants Revival

It's only been a few weeks since the victory parade but already prospects for the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors looks awfully good.  The Dubs have awarded a huge new contract to Steph Curry for five years, and are about to sign Andre Iguodala for three.  Also back on board are Shaun Livingston and David West.  Everyone expects that Kevin Durant will now re-sign, since he was willing to take less for next year in order to keep Iguodala.

Already under contract are Draymond, Klay Thompson, Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell.

Jordan Bell was a surprise steal when the Dubs bought a draft pick from the Bulls. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, he is said to have Draymond potential with the size of KD.

Plus the Warriors got Bell's Oregon Ducks teammate Chris Boucher as an undrafted free agent.  Hobbled by a serious injury until October, his upside potential is considerable.  

Meanwhile, several western conference rivals have strengthened themselves so far--notably Houston and Minnesota--but notably the Cavs have not.

While we weren't looking, the San Francisco Giants have gone on a five game winning streak, notching blowouts and today's 11th inning win on the road in Pittsburgh.  The injuries continue, but trades and call-ups are rotating new players all over the field as well as in the bullpen.

I may get a look at them next weekend when they return to San Francisco to play three games with the Marlins.