Thursday, September 18, 2014

Down to the Wire

A good few days for the teams I follow.  At the moment both the Pirates and the Giants are two games back (in the loss column) in their divisions, and ahead for one wild card or another.  The Pirates at home are hitting and pitching very well and have taken two from the Red Sox with the third yet to be played, for 8 victories out of the last 10 games.  The Giants took 2 of 3 in Arizona while the Dodgers lost 2 in Colorado.

But the Giants are still on thin ice, mostly because once again Angel Pagan is out of the lineup.  Without him the hitting tends to fall apart.  Brandon Belt is still working on getting back to speed, and Michael Morse has a nagging injury.  The Giants could use Belt and Morse for RBI power but they really need Pagan, especially for the 3 in LA and whatever postseason they may get.

The Pirates on the other hand are getting healthy at exactly the right time, which is often a prescription for success.

The Pirates may have a slightly tougher schedule of remaining games though.  Three games with the Brewers are at home, which gives them an edge, but they are away for 4 games with Atlanta and 3 with the Reds.  Atlanta loves to break Pittsburgh's heart.

The Giants have 3 with the Padres at home, but play the final 7 games away, 4 in San Diego and the crucial 3 in LA.  They need to dominate the Padres and hope the Dodgers' fate in Colorado transfers elsewhere.  But unless the Padres sweep in San Francisco, those games in LA will be as advertised: a deciding series.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Giants-Dodgers, Pirates and RIP Football

Neil Walker
The two NL West rivals throwing their best pitchers against each other, and each of those pitchers among the best in the league--so three very tight games, right?  Not until Sunday.  Friday it was 9-0 Giants.  Saturday the Dodgers beat up Tim Hudson and ultimately won by the football-season score of 17-0.

But Sunday it was a real pitching duel, and the underdog Petit of the Giants held his own against the superstar of the year, Clayton Kershaw.  Unfortunately, Giants veterans made key fielding and base-running errors, Petit threw one more bad pitch than Kershaw, and the Dodgers left town with a 4-2 victory, and two out of three in this key series.

But again in this game, the Giants rookies (or at least new players) stood out.  Petit pitched valiantly, and flamethrowing rookie reliever Strickland pitched a scoreless ninth.  The big hits of the game were by rookies Andrew Susac and Matt Duffy.

Now both teams play lesser teams for awhile--always a dangerous thing at this time of the year--before meeting again in LA.  But with a 3 game lead, the Dodgers just have to remain steady, while the Giants would need a winning streak plus some luck to contend for the division lead.  I assume they are still good for a wild card but as I've always demonstrated, that math is beyond me.

But I read that the Pirates are still the team to beat for the second wild card slot.  They were behind Chicago 3-0 when on defense they pulled a triple play.  That seemed to inspire their hitting, and they went on to win 7-3.  Neil Walker homered, and the hometown boy broke the record for Pirates homers in a season by a second baseman held by none other than Bill Mazeroski.  Maz, though not a Pittsburgh native (like Walker) remained a western PA resident after his long career with the Pirates, his own big league team.

Lots of news and pseudo-news in football this week but all of the usual noise won't mean anything next to the court-mandated NFL study that says it expects one in three players to suffer cognitive problems from brain trauma, and at a significantly younger age than average.  Playing football also increases the chances of various neurological diseases.  It's the most authoritative, comprehensive document yet.

It will probably take awhile, but unless football changes the way it is played and its equipment significantly, its days as a major sport are numbered.  All the publicity about concussions has I am sure already reduced the number of kids going out for football in middle school and high school.  That's only going to increase.  Then there will be high schools that drop football--especially schools in high income areas.

Football continues to be highly profitable for high schools and especially colleges, but some attrition will be felt in their ranks as well.  Professional sports has always provided opportunities for those from poor backgrounds, and this will only intensify in football until the risks are judged to be greater than the possible rewards, as those with other options opt out.  If it continues without change--or only cosmetic change-- NFL football will increasingly take on the look and reality of gladiatorial entertainment.  How long it can go on like that is anyone's guess.  But probably not forever.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Crunch Time in the NL

Joe Panik
The San Francisco Giants begin their most important 3 game series of the year under the Friday night lights, with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  They took care of business with a sweep of Arizona, a team that at this point in the season seems barely interested enough to stand at their positions, but not enough to actually field them.  The Giants have won 9 straight at home, and 6 straight overall.

Now they face the three best Dodger pitchers at home.  The last time this scenario happened, they were swept.  This is the test of the money the Dodgers have spent precisely to have this short series pitching dominance, first to get past the Giants and then for postseason.  The Giants play the Dodgers three more games in LA, but this is the series they need to win, absent real heroics in LA--where they will face the same three starting pitchers.  Their starters will also be the same.

Whatever happens, the ups and downs of this season has solved one problem and possibly two for the Giants going forward.  They have found a solid second baseman in rookie Joe Panik, who is also a solid hitter right behind lead-off hitter Angel Pagan.  Panik went 5 for 5 in one of the games with Arizona.  In Andrew Sesak they may also have found a reliable backup catcher to Buster Posey, enabling him to play first base more often and perhaps extend his career.

Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates are surging while both the Brewers and the Cards are having problems.  Like the Giants, they've been getting stellar starting pitching lately, pretty good relief, and lively bats.  But both teams have most recently beat up on inferior teams (Arizona, Philly.)

Still, they are both still in the hunt.  The Giants are just 2 games back of LA (with the third place team, San Diego, 15.5 back) in the West, while the Pirates are now in second place, 2.5 games behind St. Louis.  They don't go head to head again, but after the Cubs and Red Sox, they do have important series with current rivals for a playoff spot, the Brewers and Atlanta, finishing the season against the Reds, who are already relishing a spoiler role, having beat the Cards today 1-0.

The possible spoilers for SF are the Padres, if only for the sheer number of games left to play with them: 7, with four of those in San Diego.  But for this weekend, all eyes are on the Bay, as the Giants play the Dodgers.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Speaking of Sports: Wild Cards and Football Sadness

Excuse my math.  In suggesting that the Pirates are unlikely to make the playoffs without winning the division I was giving the wrong answer.  With three straight over the Cubs and the first game over the Phillies, both on the road, they're a game and a half ahead for the second Wild Card spot.  The Giants have the first in their sights.  But both are technically in play for division leads.

It turns out by this math that the Cards beating the Brewers two out of three was a good thing.  So now I've got my rooting straight--Brewers and Atlanta losing is good (well, Atlanta losing is always good.)

 Interesting new phenomenon reported--there are Pittsburgh Pirates fans in Philadelphia.  They were apparently the only ones left in the park to see the last innings of the Pirates 6-4 victory.  The Pirates play 3 more in Philly before returning home for 9 games with the Cubs, Red Sox and Brewers.  They then go to Atlanta for 4 games.  Those latter two series may very well determine whether they make the playoffs or not.  They've been looking strong, so when their pitching works they're tough to beat.

Returning from a 3-3 road trip, the Giants have 6 games at home, with Arizona and Los Angeles.  They face both teams for 3 games on the road.  The only other team they play for the rest of the season is San Diego, for 7 games.  If the Giants can hold their own with the Dodgers or even come out of those games with more wins than losses, they have a decent chance to hold on for a postseason berth. But taking the Dodger series is probably their only chance to win the division, at 3.5 games out.  They're capable but unpredictable.

The big news however was in football, and the events of Monday--the appearance of videos on the Internet of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating up his girlfriend on an elevator some months ago.  Within hours he was fired from the team and suspended indefinitely from the NFL.  But there are angry charges of too little too late, and calls for a range of resignations--from the top execs of the Ravens and the NFL as well as the prosecutors and judge involved.  Keith Olbermann seems to be talking about some kind of boycott.  It's interesting that this happened so quickly, as did the Sterling/Silver affair in the NBA.

There is question whether anyone on the Ravens or in the NFL saw the videos before, and there's considerable argument that it doesn't matter.  I've never liked the Ravens as a team or an organization, and their initial conduct doesn't surprise me--it jibes with my impression of them.  Maybe the NFL is finally beginning to deal with domestic violence.  But the NFL still hasn't dealt successfully or it seems even seriously with the concussion problem, and  the charge by numerous former players that their teams sent them back into action seriously hurt.

 I checked the scores of the first week, saw the Steelers highlights on ESPN online (though that site spends as much time on its commercial than the highlights) but I've got zero enthusiasm for this season.  At best I'm uncomfortable and sad.  The sport and its culture has become too violent.

So back to baseball.  I passed the local park where our semipro team plays.  Though their season was over, two uniformed teams were playing.  I was wearing my earphones and listening to music.  So even though I went into the park, sat in the bleachers and watched a couple of innings, I still don't know who was playing.  And I didn't care.  I watched the game.  There is a lot of game to watch.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Speaking of Sports: Early September Stretch

If the Pittsburgh Pirates don't make it to the playoffs, they'll probably look back at their last series with St. Louis.  The Cards are hot and swept the 3 games--the last one by the score of 1-0 in the last of the ninth.  Combined with the collapse of the Brewers, the Cards have taken over first place.  The Bucs and Cards don't play again this year.  The Cards go into a series right away with the Brewers, and all the Pirates can do is hope that the Brewers reassert themselves.  But as things are shaping up, the Pirates may have to win the division to get into the playoffs, and at the moment they are 5 back.  They have about the same number of home and away games left.

The Giants meanwhile are better positioned by their situation if not their play.  Only two games behind the Dodgers, they play Los Angeles six more times.  That gives them more control over their fate.  Plus they are in pretty good shape for a wild card even if they don't overtake the Dodgers.  But they are such an inconsistent team it's still a crap shoot.  When they are going good, they are great and fun to follow.

However the true wild card might be the games the Giants and Pirates play against American League teams.  Those are always hard to predict.  The Giants begin a series in Detroit, and they've had some trouble with AL teams.  The Pirates play the Red Sox, and it's hard to know which Sox team will show up.

Meanwhile, I've watched the 2004 Western Conference Finals.  The Minnesota Timberwolves won game 2 and their first elimination game in 5, and were playing a close game in 6.  Kevin Garnett was mesmerizing at times, all his moves before the shot, and the shots that he made.  Kobe and Shaq had their moments, as did Malone, but the Lakers were behind by 1 point at the end of the third quarter.  Then the Lakers took over in the fourth, with the key shots made by two of the newer and least known Lakers,  Slava Medvedenko and especially Kareem Rush, who hit 6 three pointers.  The Lakers won the game at home and the series, but it was clear at the conference trophy presentation that they considered this a minor moment on the way to the NBA championship.  Instead it would turn out to be the last championship of any kind that this particular team would win.

This 6th game would also turn out to be the high point of the careers of Medvedenko and Rush.  Injuries would short circuit both of them.  Rush would have some successful moments in the NBA and even taste stardom in Europe, but at this point he seemed to have the skills to become a Kobe-like NBA star.  It just wasn't to be.

Doug Collins was doing color commentary and he highlighted how coach Phil Jackson had prepared these two young players for playoff success during the season.  Particularly he built Kareem Rush's confidence by giving him playing time.  As Collins also noted, Jackson orchestrated this fourth quarter perfectly by putting sharpshooters Rush and Derek Fisher on the court with Shaq, Kobe and Malone (subbed for awhile by Medvedenko.)  Rush in particular got open shots and he hit them.

After the game Collins suggested the Lakers might have trouble with the defense of Detroit in the finals, and that certainly proved to be true. They shut down those "role players" and the heavily favored Lakers won only one game.   I'm not sure how much of the finals I'm going to watch.  I recall the fifth game as a bitter and pitiful loss, a surrender.  I recall there was dissension, and I remember Malone's injury being catastrophic.   I don't know if my curiosity is strong enough to check these impression by watching.

It was a one year experiment that was considered a failure, despite how far they got.  The end was just about total: Phil Jackson resigned as coach; Shaq and Gary Payton were traded, Derek Fisher left, Karl Malone and Rick Fox retired.  Malone never got his championship, though Payton did, with Shaq on the Miami Heat.  It would be several years before Kobe and the Lakers, with Jackson back as coach, won another championship.  My viewing so far has shown a lot of fun basketball, so even if this was hubris etc.  I don't think this experiment was doomed from the start or a complete failure.  There were games when this team was as good as it gets.

Now ten years later, Derek Fisher is starting his first coaching job, of the Knicks for Phil Jackson.  Steve Kerr, who played for the Bulls under Jackson and did color commentary for some of these games, is starting his first year of coaching Golden State, and Doc Rivers, also broadcasting some of these games, is back coaching the LA Clippers.  Kobie is still a Lakers star, after winning two more championships with coach Phil Jackson, but even one more in his future seems increasingly unlikely.  The oddest thing for me is that the core of the Spurs that lost four straight to the Lakers in the 2004 playoffs is still intact (Duncan, Parker, Genobli) and the Spurs are the reigning 2014 NBA champs.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Speaking of Sports: Giants Pitching, Kobe's Satori

After the pitching debacle Sunday, the San Francisco Giants have had an unexpectedly stellar week of starting pitching.  Madison Bumgarner came within one batter of a perfect game.  Tim Hudson came within one batter of a no-hitter.  Then in a start replacing the erratic Tim Lincecum,  Yusmiero Petit set a major league record by retiring 46 consecutive batters (though he did so mostly as a reliever over many games) and gave up only a single run.  The Giants won these three games against a club they should beat that was nevertheless a nemesis this year, the Colorado Rockies.  It took a walk-off homer to win one of them, after again losing the lead in the late innings.

Update: And the incredible starting pitching continued.  A day after Ryan Vogelsong pitched 7 strong innings in a 13-2 laugher, Jake Peavy took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and wound up with a 1 hitter and the victory--both of these games against the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers.

Position players were at last getting some timely hits. If nothing else, this year's adversity has given some rookies a chance, and so the Giants have some young players proving themselves in what had been an aging lineup.  One of the Giants' announcers made a good point after their 13-2 victory: with rookie Joe Panik hitting second after a reasonably healthy Angel Pagan, the Giants have a pretty solid lineup (even absent Brandon Belt.)

Meanwhile, the Pirates took 2 of 3 from St. Louis, so winning the second series in a row against the two teams ahead of them in their division.  Then two straight over the Reds.

In my tape review of the 2004 Lakers playoffs, I'm now on the 5th game of the second round, with San Antonio.  After defeats in the first two games, the Lakers blew out the Spurs in the third, and in the fourth they eventually won handily propelled by a remarkable game by Kobe Bryant, scoring 40 points and dominating the action.  They won the 5th on the miracle shot of all miracle shots--Derek Fisher's swish as the ball was inbounded with .4 seconds on the clock.

 Once again, the tragic dimensions hover.  Not just that again Karl Malone is identified as the key player, or that the rumbles of discontent among the Lakers threaten to intrude.  Kobe played this game hours after flying back from Colorado where he entered a not guilty plea on the charge of sexual assault.  After the game he talked about playing basketball since he was three, and how great it feels to be on the basketball court.  He said the key to the Lakers success was playing every possession as if it might be their last.  Clearly he was talking about himself.  He was facing the possibility of jail, and the end of his basketball career.  Every moment on the court was probably heightened, and precious.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Speaking of Sports: late August

Because I follow the fortunes of the SF Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates, I've noticed what seems an inordinate number of times that they've won or lost on the same day, even by identical scores.  It's probably an illusion, but still...On Monday they both lost home games by the score of 3-2, and both had the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth.

If it means anything it may be that these are two teams going nowhere this year, both about 5 games out of first and both looking for the same second Wild Card.  I've written before that the Pirates are more likely to be in it than the Giants, and I'll stick with that.  The Pirates are at least nearer full strength, and their valiant two wins against the division leading Brewers in Milwaukee suggest they can't be counted out.  I suspect they're the more exciting team to watch, with at least a little objectivity.

The Giants however appear to be falling apart.  Their tired bullpen got blown out on Sunday, they committed multiple errors in losing to Colorado at home--again--on Monday.  Tim Lincecum has been such a misadventure on the mound since the All Star break that he's been demoted, losing his spot in the starting rotation to a pitcher who has had much more success as a reliever than a starter.  They've definitely lost Scutaro for the season (he may well retire) which thanks to Joe Panik taking over at second hasn't been fatal, but Brandon Belt is still at least a couple of weeks away from returning, and their lineup misses his bat badly for timely hits (though they have been hitting better lately.)

  I've even begun to wonder whether Bruce Bochy is managing too much by the analytics and not enough by who is playing or pitching well on the day.  Lefty/righty percentages work out in the long run, not necessarily in a given game.  Monday in the ninth he pinch hit for a batter who'd hit a home run earlier in the game, and got nothing.

Meanwhile, I've been watching my tapes from the 2003-04 LA Lakers season.  My memory was colored by how it ended--I had forgotten what an amazing team they were at times, when everyone was healthy, including Carl Malone.  Even Gary Peyton, who I never liked, was a major asset in how he pushed the ball and gave the team speed and excitement.  Early in the year and then at the end of the season when everybody was at least back (if not fully healed) they just demolished the best teams in the league.

But knowing how they fell apart in the finals, a lot of this is like watching some NBA version of a Greek tragedy.  Announcers like Bill Walton confidently predicted this team would rule for several seasons to come.  They noted how important Karl Malone was to them, and how Shaq and Kobie adjusted to new roles, and how for all the talk of rivalry, the player who got the most assists for passing to Shaq when he scored was Kobie.

But the season played out with Kobie's legal and personal drama as an ongoing feature.  He seemed superhuman in flying back from court in Colorado to the game and playing extremely well.  But how long could that last without emotions showing up elsewhere?  Then just before the finals started, Malone got hurt again and didn't play.  I'm just getting into the second round of the playoffs, as the Lakers annihilate San Antonio, but I know what's coming.  Which was ignominious and acrimonious losses in the finals, and the subsequent dismantling of the team, losing Shaq,  Peyton, Malone (who retired without playing again), Rick Fox and (for awhile) Derek Fisher and coach Phil Jackson.

Finally, congratulations to Chicago's Jackie Robinson West, the Illinois/Great Lakes Region team, now the US Little League World Series champs. They lost the world title to South Korea. It's been fun and inspiring to watch some of this year's Little League WS. This all-black team of inner city Chicago kids that has their city rooting them on in watch parties across Chicago, as well as the Girl of Summer, Mo'ne Davis, are the prominent stories. But for all the attention (and the incredible mental and well as physical baseball skills of Davis, for instance) this is still Little League. Kids get scared and upset when they screw up, they cry when they lose. Their emotions are part of the game. But it does seem that coaches and officials take a lot of care to recognize they are kids and respond to their needs.