Sunday, October 4, 2015

2015 Football Picks, Week 4

We've hit October, which means we start getting into the fun of bye weeks.  Because there's nothing more the Patriots need after their homecoming game than a week off.  And what's with this only two teams on bye thing?  Four teams a week for eight weeks.  What's so hard about that?

And this week, don't forget, has the special 9:30 a.m. London start time.  That means at least four games for everybody on Sunday.  Football from morning to night.

Thursday Night: Baltimore (Win)

Jets (2-1) vs. Dolphins (1-2): Miami-It's interesting how they added a third London game this year--then stuck one right smack of the Rugby World Cup, which England is currently hosting.  There was an Ireland-Romania Rugby World Cup game at Wembley last Sunday, although that's the only game of the tournament scheduled for the stadium.  As for the American football game, London gets a division matchup for the first time, with the Jets taking on the Dolphins.  Miami has looked awful in its last two games and, despite being the "home" team in this one, only plays one actual home game in the next seven weeks.  Maybe a trip across the pond will fix what ails them.  Otherwise, they might as well not come home.  Because it could be a long year in Miami.

Texans (1-2) at Falcons (3-0): Atlanta-Now we get to see if Atlanta can beat a team from a division other than the NFC East, as they take on the AFC South-"leading" Texans (everybody in the AFC South is 1-2).  After back-to-back road games, the Falcons return home for the first time since their opener.  And like that Monday night game in Week 1, I think they win a close one.

Giants (1-2) at Bills (2-1): Buffalo-This week's Super Bowl rematch is one of the toughest games to call.  The Giants finally looked like the Giants last week, and the NFC East is definitely still winnable for them.  The Bills, meanwhile, rebounded from the Patriots game by going to Miami and absolutely thumping the Dolphins.  The Giants play the Jets in the preseason every year, so they're no strangers to a Rex Ryan defense.  But they haven't faced this Rex Ryan defense.  And they'll be doing it without Victor Cruz.  That's the main reason why I'm picking Buffalo.

Raiders (2-1) at Bears (0-3): Oakland-What's going on here?  Has Hell frozen over?  I'm picking Oakland?  On the road!  Jack Del Rio has certainly changed the culture on the East Bay.  The Raiders once again resemble an NFL football team.  The Bears, on the other hand.  They've got all sorts of problems.  Last week in Seattle: 10 possessions, 10 punts, 0 points.  That's tough to do.  Del Rio and John Fox were together in Denver last year.  This year, the Broncos' old defensive coordinator gets the better of Denver's former head coach.

Chiefs (1-2) at Bengals (3-0): Cincinnati-When are people finally going to acknowledge the fact that Cincinnati is one of the best teams in the NFL?  The Bengals could go two up in the ultra-competitive AFC North if they beat a good Chiefs team.  I expect Kansas City to fall to 1-3 here, but that's an indication more of the quality of their opponents (Denver, at Green Bay, at Cincinnati) than the Chiefs themselves.

Jaguars (1-2) at Colts (1-2): Indianapolis-As it turns out, all the Colts needed was to play a division game.  Indianapolis has won 13 consecutive division games, the third-longest streak in NFL history.  They can tie the 1993-94 Cowboys with their 14th straight on Sunday.  And after beating Jacksonville, Indy will be in sole possession of first place.

Panthers (3-0) at Buccaneers (1-2): Carolina-Carolina is one of the seven remaining undefeated teams in the NFL, and they don't play Atlanta until December.  But in order to keep pace with the Falcons, they need to get a win in Tampa.  They've got their bye next week, then go to Seattle, so, yeah, this is an important game for the Panthers to get.

Eagles (1-2) at Redskins (1-2): Washington-Here we find out which one of these rivals will still be in the NFC East mix.  They actually both played in New York last week, with the Redskins losing to the Giants on Thursday before the Eagles finally got their first win of the year over the Jets.  For some reason, I think the Redskins are gonna win this game.  Don't ask me why.

Browns (1-2) at Chargers (1-2): San Diego-After starting the season with Jets, Titans, Raiders, the Browns actually play a real NFL opponent this week.  San Diego has an identical 1-2 record, but hasn't been home since Week 1.  The Chargers had to play early games at Cincinnati and Minnesota over the last two weeks, and San Diego traditionally struggles in 1:00 games.  Back in the familiar surroundings of Southern California, the Chargers get back on track.  And they need to.  Their next two games are against Pittsburgh and Green Bay.

Vikings (2-1) at Broncos (3-0): Denver-Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson have combined to win four of the last seven MVP awards or something like that.  Denver hasn't been good all season, yet is 3-0, and Peyton began to find his groove at the end of that Sunday night game in Detroit last week.  The Vikings, meanwhile, are 2-1, but both of their wins were at home.  The only time Minnesota traveled this season, they got blown out in San Francisco on the opening Monday night.  Another trip out west should bring a similar result.

Rams (1-2) at Cardinals (3-0): Arizona-I think we can all agree that the Arizona Cardinals have one of the best offenses in the NFL, if not THE best.  31, 48 and 47 points in their first three games.  Will they have the same type of output against a very good Rams defense?  Probably not.  But they should still score enough to win and move to 4-0 for the second straight year.

Packers (3-0) at 49ers (1-2): Green Bay-Is it just me, or does it seem like Green Bay plays in San Francisco every year?  Thanks to Aaron Rodgers I went from leading comfortably to losing big in my fantasy game last week.  He might be the best player in football, and the Packers are definitely one of the two or three best teams in football.  San Francisco is not.  After winning on opening night, the 49ers went on the road and got rocked by both the Steelers and Cardinals.  At home, it'll be better, but they aren't beating Green Bay.  Fun fact, this is Green Bay's fourth game of the year, and they've already played in four of the five regular timeslots.  Only Thursday night is missing

Cowboys (2-1) at Saints (0-3): New Orleans-When NBC selected this game for Sunday night, I'm fairly certain they were expecting Romo vs. Brees.  Well, it looks like half of that combination will play after Brees didn't play last week.  And New Orleans will certainly love having him back.  Because the Saints are a different team without him.  Branden Weeden almost did enough to answer my questions about the Romo-less Cowboys, but then they went and blew that lead against the Falcons.  With Brees back and New Orleans desperate for a win to stay in contention in the suddenly strong NFC South, I'm making the call.  Dallas' regular season road winning streak comes to an end.

Lions (0-3) at Seahawks (1-2): Seattle-On Monday night, we've got a team that's desperate for a win, but will be very hard-pressed to get one.  That's how important last Sunday night's game was for the Lions.  They knew they were heading to Seattle, one of the hardest places for a visitor to win in the entire NFL.  Kam Chancellor certainly deserves some of the credit, but the Seahawks were a completely different team last week than in Weeks 1 & 2.  Sure, Detroit is better than the Bears, but not by much.  The Seahawks even their record heading into next week's big showdown in Cincinnati.

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 12-4
Season: 32-17

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pros and Cons of the 40-Man Roster

With rain cancelling games up and down the East Coast all week and the season set to end on Sunday, we've seen a lot of doubleheaders and the 40-man rosters being taken full advantage of.  Opinions are mixed on the increased roster size in September/October, and I definitely see both sides of that conversation.  But the fact that, with a few exceptions, you have to make up all September/October rainouts with a doubleheader is one of the biggest arguments for roster expansion in the final month of the season.

Take the Baltimore Orioles, who've had to deal with the rain the most.  The Orioles were scheduled to end the season with home series against the Blue Jays and Yankees.  The Toronto series was supposed to start on Tuesday, but that game was postponed and they played a doubleheader on Wednesday...with Thursday's game moved up from a 7:00 start to a 12:00 start, then still having to deal with a three-hour rain delay.  More rain on Friday led to the first game of the Yankees series being postponed and a made up as part of a Saturday doubleheader.  So, that means Baltimore's playing two doubleheaders in a four-day period.

If this was the middle of the season, there's absolutely no way Baltimore would've been asked to play two doubleheaders in a week.  But in September/October, they have the extra personnel, so it's not as big a deal.  They don't need to worry about screwing up their rotation or having to find another starting pitcher for the one game.  They don't need to ask guys in the bullpen to pitch twice in one day, either.  Likewise, there's enough position players on the roster that a starter's not gonna have to play both games, which would be the case with the 25-man roster.

For teams that are headed for the postseason, they can use the expanded roster as an opportunity to rest some of their starters down the stretch.  Did you see the lineups Toronto and Kansas City used in their first game after clinching?  They wouldn't have been afforded that luxury if a postseason spot wasn't already wrapped up.  Of course, the benefits of doing that have been questioned, but I think most managers would take the opportunity to clinch early and rest guys over having to win every game down the stretch just to get in, and requiring all of your regular guys to play everyday as a result.

It also gives playoff-bound managers a chance to set up their pitching rotations for the postseason.  This has become less of an issue in recent years with the Division Series not starting until Thursday or Friday, so starters can go in Game 1 basically on regular rest.  But you still see managers trying to work it out so that the guys they want starting on particular days in the postseason are pitching on as-close-to normal rest as possible.  Or extended rest if the situation calls for it.  The way to do this usually involves pushing back starts and inserting September call-ups where needed.

Likewise, a September call-up can be used as an audition for a place on the postseason roster.  While most playoff teams already have a pretty gauge on what their postseason roster will look like, there are usually one or two spots in the back of the bullpen or off the bench that could go to somebody unexpected simply based on the strength of a good September.  And that audition might not even have taken place if not for the 15 additional places on the roster.

While playoff teams might use September as a chance to rest guys and audition players for a potential role in the postseason, those squads out of contention might take advantage of call-ups to give guys a month of Major League experience.  Whether it's somebody they expect to have an important role the next season or someone being used as a fill-in or somebody they just aren't 100 percent sure about, September's a chance to start looking towards next year in an otherwise lost season.

Teams call up players for all kinds of reasons in September.  Most add a third catcher just in case, and you usually see a reliever or two added to each bullpen.  But the contenders tend to add more players than the other teams.  For example, the Yankees usually call up a young outfielder for the sole purpose of using him as a pinch runner.  Why?  Because his run might be the difference in a close game.

The expanded roster gives you extra depth and the ability to make moves you wouldn't be able to make over the first five months of the season.  This is one of the main criticisms of the expanded rosters in September, and it's a valid one.  I remember a game a few years ago where the Texas Rangers used something like nine relievers in a September game against the Yankees.  And it was something like six different pitchers in the same inning.  They just kept matching up lefty-vs-lefty, then bringing in a righty for the right-handed batter, then another lefty for the left-handed hitter on deck.  Is that in the spirit of the rule?  Probably not.  But it's totally allowed.

I've heard several different "solutions" to this problem, and some of them are intriguing.  Most of them involve calling up as many guys as you want, but declaring which 25 players are eligible for that particular game or series, with the caveat that all three (or four, if that's how long the series is) starting pitchers have to be included.  As a trade off for the Players Union, anybody who gets called up, whether they're on the active roster for a game or not, gets paid and gets credited with service time.

Is that the answer?  I don't know.  Is this an "issue" that needs to be resolved?  I don't know about that either.  All I know is that there really aren't that many people out there who have a problem with the status quo, even if it does seem a little silly that you play under one set of rules for five months and a completely different set of rules for the most important month of the season.  But that argument could also be made for playing interleague games all year, including the final series of the season.  (Houston is fighting for a playoff spot, but doesn't have a DH in its final three games because they're in Arizona.  That could end up making a huge difference.)

Whether you like interleague play or you hate it, it's here to stay.  So are the expanded September rosters (which predate interleague play by quite a few years).  And seeing as it's just as easy to find positives about the expanded rosters as it is to find negatives, keeping things as-is is probably the best way to go.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Vegas, Quebec Are Ready

The NHL is currently involved in the second round of expansion talks with potential ownership groups in Las Vegas and Quebec City.  They've said that "nothing imminent" is going to happen, but I don't think there's a single person that actually buys that.  When the NHL realigned into four divisions, with two divisions of eight teams and two of seven, expansion seemed inevitable.  So, while it might not be for 2016-17 or even 2017-18, I think we can all agree that the NHL wouldn't be talking expansion with Las Vegas and Quebec City if they weren't planning on putting teams there.

I think it's funny that the NHL is saying that they're not necessarily expanding, and if they do, they're not necessarily adding more than one team.  Well, they're either adding two or adding none.  They aren't going to have a 31-team league.  Is it possible they're just saying that so Seattle has time to get its act together and give them three options?  Sure.  But I think it's probably more likely the third city in the mix would be a relocation candidate rather than a potential expansion site.

When they first threw the idea of NHL expansion out there, it seemed like they were simply gauging interest to see if there was actually going to be any competition for the openings.  Because professional sports leagues don't bring up expansion if they're not seriously considering it.  (When's the last time someone talked about NFL or MLB expansion?)

You know the other 30 owners would love to get their hands on their share of that expansion fee, which is reported to be $500 million apiece.  I'm sure when it comes time to include two more teams in the revenue sharing pie, they probably wouldn't be as eager to welcome Las Vegas and Quebec, though.  However, with the increased revenue that those two cities would bring in, there'll be plenty more money to share.

On the surface, Las Vegas doesn't seem like much of a hockey town.  But it's also the biggest city in the U.S. without a major league pro sports team.  It's going to be mentioned in every expansion conversation until one of the leagues is bold enough to take the risk of putting a team there.  One of the four will eventually.  It's really just a matter of who does it first.  The NHL has always seemed the most likely to take a chance on Vegas, and I'd be shocked if this didn't lead to a team there.  Especially with that new arena being built on the Strip.  Boxing and UNLV basketball are nice.  But that arena's being built for one reason: the lure the NBA and/or NHL to Sin City.

Personally, I always thought the NBA would be the ones to make the Vegas move first.  And they still might.  If an NBA team doesn't relocate to Seattle within the next few years, you know the Sonics will return as an expansion team.  That would bring the NBA to 31, and Las Vegas seems the likely candidate to join Seattle to be No. 32 and keep it at an even number.  But if the NHL can get there first, would that change things?

Quebec City, on the other hand, is thinking about the NHL and the NHL only.  They've wanted a new team ever since the Nordiques left and won the Stanley Cup in their first season as the Avalanche.  That was 20 years ago!  There's a whole generation of fans throughout French Canada who root for the Canadiens because they're the only team to root for.  Montreal just played a sold out preseason game at the new arena in Quebec, and there were as many Canadiens jerseys in the stands as Nordiques jerseys, something that never would've been possible during that rivalry's heyday.

Winnipeg got its team back, and the NHL returning to Quebec seems the next logical place.  The passion is clearly there.  That fan base was able to support a team for a long time, and they'll embrace  a new team just as quickly as they embraced the Nordiques.  And the reason they left had nothing to do with any of that.  They left because they played in a small market (that only speaks French) with a weak Canadian dollar, which made it difficult for them to compete.  I'm not saying all of the issues that forced the original Nordiques to leave have been solved, but the NHL has since taken steps to protect these small-market Canadian teams.

Both cities are a risk--for completely different reasons.  But they both seem like risks worth taking.  Quebec City is chomping at the bit to be back in the NHL.  And, while not as obvious as its desire to return to Winnipeg, I think the NHL would love to have Quebec City back, too.  An eighth Canadian team, a second team in French Canada, a(nother) natural rival for Montreal.  And it's not like they tried and failed in Quebec City.  The situation in Quebec City was unique.  They deserve a second chance.

As for Las Vegas, it's a matter of you don't know until you try it.  Will they embrace the NHL, especially an expansion team that's likely not going to be any good, when there are so many other entertainment options in the city?  Are there even hockey fans in Las Vegas to begin with?  If the answer to both those questions is "Yes," imagine the potential!

Seattle's the wild card here.  I'm pretty sure Seattle's priority is getting back its NBA team that never should've left, but the basketball team would need an arena, and it would be a lot easier to convince the taxpayers to finance an arena for two pro teams to play in.  I think it's more likely Seattle will be used as a relocation target, though.  If the NHL was thinking about Seattle for expansion, they'd be involved in these talks.  They're not.  The new teams will be in Las Vegas and Quebec City.  That is, of course, if there are new teams at all (wink, wink).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Baseball/Softball Return?

When the IOC announced that there would no longer be a 28-sport cap and Olympic hosts were free to propose sports/events for their specific Games, starting with Tokyo 2020, everyone knew that it was inevitable the Japanese would push for the reintroduction of baseball and softball to the Olympic program.  So it came as no surprise that baseball/softball (it's a combined bid from the international federation that governs both sports) was included on the list of sports that Tokyo 2020 has proposed for inclusion.  The others are a little more surprising.  Skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing and karate, but no squash.

Now, I love that the IOC has eliminated the 28-sport cap.  It seemed incredibly arbitrary, and, since the only way for a new sport to be added was for another to be eliminated, it was the source of a lot of controversy.  Hence the great wrestling debacle.  This new rule keeps the Olympics fresh and relevant without sports having to pay the ultimate price (Olympic status) simply because they aren't popular enough on TV.

However, I have problems with this new method, too.  The main one being that you're proposing sports only for your Olympics.  So, if any of these are added for 2020, they could just as easily be gone by 2024.  Baseball and softball are the prime example of this.  If the 2024 Games go to Los Angeles, there's no question they'd stay on the program.  But that's the only guarantee.  They'd probably be safe with Rome or Hamburg, but do you really think the organizers of the Paris and Budapest bids have any interest in holding an Olympic baseball tournament?

Once a sport's in the Olympics, it should be in the Olympics.  That's it.  There are 25 "core" sports that have nothing to worry about.  They're guaranteed to be on the Olympic program.  Rugby and golf are guaranteed at least Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, but is there any doubt they're now permanent Olympic fixtures?  Same thing with wrestling.  When it was reinstated, it was technically just for 2020 and 2024.  But seeing as wrestling never should've been dropped from the Olympics in the first place, there's no way they're ever going to try removing it again.

Anyway, my whole point here is that baseball and softball are the favorites to be brought back in Tokyo, but what's the point if it's only for one Olympics?  How would that be any less damaging to the sports than when they were dropped in 2005?  In fact, it would probably be worse.  They're already the first sports to be cut from the Olympic program in more than half a century.  No sport has ever been cut twice.  Yet I have a feeling that's exactly what will happen with baseball and softball if they don't put some sort of provision in that says the added sport must be included in at least two consecutive Olympics.

With all that being said, however, I'm glad baseball and softball will likely be returning to the Olympics, at least for Tokyo 2020.  This rule change was made after Tokyo was awarded the Games, and many think the reason why was so that the door could be opened for baseball and softball to be brought back, especially since there are plenty of people who think it was a mistake to drop them in the first place.  Remember, it was by no means unanimous to eliminate them.  The vote in 2005 was close, and baseball/softball both almost made the cut (as separate sports) when they added rugby and golf for Rio and again (as a combined bid) when wrestling was kept on the program for Tokyo.

So, yeah, I'm fairly confident baseball and softball will be played at the Tokyo Olympics.  Baseball is Japan's national sport, they won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the Japanese Major Leagues are the second-best in the world.  And they obviously wouldn't need to build a venue.  The Yomiuri Giants, Japan's version of the Yankees, play at the Tokyo Dome.  No, Major Leaguers won't be there, but the Japanese pros will, and so will (presumably) the Cuban National Team.  That's enough.

While baseball doesn't need the Olympics and vice-versa, softball does need the Olympics, and it was softball that felt the blow of the 2005 decision more deeply.  Baseball players have the Major Leagues and the World Series.  Softball players had the Olympic gold medal as their ultimate.  Then that was taken away.  And let's not forget, the United States won the first three Olympic softball gold medals, but the defending champions are?  Japan!

As for the other sports, they're an obvious attempt to make the Olympics "appeal more to youth."  Surfing makes very little sense to me.  Only a handful of countries are capable of being good at it, and I can't see any Olympics in Europe including surfing.  Likewise, I doubt there would be need for a "surf park," which can apparently work as a venue in lieu of the ocean (I'm not sure how).

Same thing with skateboarding.  It's technically listed as "roller sports," but roller speed skating and roller figure skating weren't included in the proposal.  Just skateboarding.  Skateboarding, which has its own international federation (two in fact), was listed as "roller sports," while speed skating and figure skating, both of which actually require the use of roller skates, aren't?  Please!

They're obviously looking at it in the same way as BMX, but, and it might just be me, I just don't see skateboarding in the Olympics.  The X-Games athlete and fan is an entirely different demographic than the Olympic fan.  I know the IOC is trying to change that perception, but I'm not sure it would be the mutually-beneficial relationship everything thinks it would.

Sport climbing, on the other hand, would be a really cool addition.  There's nothing like it currently in the Olympics.  It's been in both editions of the Youth Olympics and was a big hit.  You've all seen (and probably tried) the rock climbing wall at your gym.  That's all you would need to set up.  They've proposed two different events: speed (think "The Wall" from American Gladiators) and bouldering (which is the type where you don't use a rope).  Sport climbing has been included on finalist lists of proposed Olympic sports before, and it would be a fun addition to the program.  It's also one I could see sticking around.

Like baseball/softball, karate seemed likely to make the cut.  It's included in pretty much all of the continental Games and is native to Japan.  But do we really need another martial art?  There's already judo and taekwondo, and you've also got the combat sports of boxing and wrestling.

Squash, bowling and something called wushu didn't make the cut.  That's another tough blow for squash, which has come so close to Olympic inclusion too many times to count now.  Every time squash seems like it's on the cusp of being added to the Games, it once again isn't, leaving the International Squash Federation wondering what they have to do to make Olympic organizers change their minds.

The other five sports now move on to the final IOC vote during the Rio Games.  It's possible that they could decide none of them will be added, but I think we all know that's unlikely.  It's also possible they add all five, increasing the total number of events by 18, although that also seems unlikely.  My guess is that baseball/softball and one or two of the others will be added to the Olympics for Tokyo 2020.  Beyond that, though, who knows?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

2015 Football Picks, Week 3

Rough week last week.  Some unexpected results across the league, with surprising upsets and teams that I thought were good once again underperforming.  It's still early, though, so I guess there's plenty of time for things to get straightened out on the Road to Super Bowl 50.  And with some significant injuries already coming into play, it's going to be an interesting season indeed.

Thursday Night: Giants (Win)

Raiders (1-1) at Browns (1-1): Cleveland-These are two of the teams that surprised me last week.  I think the Raiders just took advantage of a shell-shocked Ravens team that spent a full week on the West Coast prior to the game.  Now a trip to Cleveland for their third straight matchup against an AFC North opponent.  The Browns got a win last week with Johnny Manziel at quarterback, leading to the inevitable calls of Johnny Overrated being the permanent starter.  But Josh McCown is back and Manziel returns to the bench for this one.  It's a chance for Cleveland to go above .500 before heading west to San Diego next week.  The Browns are a better team than the Raiders, and Oakland's traveling for a 1:00 game.  I like Cleveland.

Falcons (2-0) at Cowboys (2-0): Atlanta-Over the first two weeks of the season, Atlanta, despite playing in the NFC South, has proven to be the best team in the NFC East.  In fact, both of these teams have beaten both the Eagles and Giants in their first two games.  Except Dallas suffered a big loss last week when Tony Romo went down.  This is now Branden Weeden's team for at least the next two months, although they did trade for Matt Cassell just in case.  In a weakened NFC East, Dallas is still in a good position to win the division if they can hold out until Romo's back.  I need to see the Romo-less Cowboys first, though.  That's why I'm going with the Falcons here.

Colts (0-2) at Titans (1-1): Tennessee-My parents are actually going to this game during their trip to Nashville that also included a Saturday night stop at the Grand Ole Opry (so jealous).  Anyway, Marcus Mariota makes his home debut after looking great in Tampa and shaky in Cleveland.  The Colts, meanwhile, a popular preseason Super Bowl pick (including by this guy) don't look like it after two lackluster performances against the Bills and Jets.  Where is this vaunted Colts offense?  Indy badly needs a win, but I think Mariota and the Titans are going to be amped up to finally play at home.  I'm calling the upset.  Titans match last year's win total.

Steelers (1-1) at Rams (1-1): Pittsburgh-Where was that St. Louis Rams team that beat the Seahawks last week?  Did they stay in St. Louis while some other guys borrowed their uniforms and flew to Washington?  Now they return home to face a Steelers team that sure got over the sting of opening night by absolutely thumping the 49ers.  The Rams should be 2-0 right now.  Instead, they'll come out of this game 1-2.

Chargers (1-1) at Vikings (1-1): San Diego-Another matchup of 1-1 teams in the Twin Cities.  San Diego travels east for an early game for the second time in as many weeks.  The Chargers lost in Cincinnati, but it was a close game against a good Bengals team.  The Vikings won their home opener against the Lions, but I still haven't seen this team some are calling a sleeper playoff pick.  Even though the chalk says to pick Minnesota, I'm feeling the Chargers here for some reason.

Jaguars (1-1) at Patriots (2-0): New England-Don't look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars are in first place in the AFC South.  Well, actually, look now, because they're headed to New England this week.  It's conceivable that the entire AFC South could be 1-2 at the end of the day, while the Patriots will be among the handful of teams that are 3-0.

Eagles (0-2) at Jets (2-0): Jets-It hasn't quite clicked for Chip Kelly's Eagles yet this year.  Hence all the DeMarco Murray memes that have popped up all over social media this week.  The Jets, though.  They look like the real deal, especially on defense, after that performance in Indianapolis on Monday night.  I still think the Eagles are a better team than the Jets, and I do expect Philly to turn it around.  But not after they fall to 0-3 in their first of two visits to the Meadowlands this year.

Saints (0-2) at Panthers (2-0): Carolina-OK, I'll admit it.  I was wrong about the Saints.  Their time may be over.  They're 0-2, they just lost at home to the Bucs, and now they won't have Drew Brees behind center for the first time since he came to New Orleans.  Maybe it'll be just a one-week thing, but this was the worst possible week for that to happen.  Because they'll effectively be four games behind Carolina after just three weeks.

Bengals (2-0) at Ravens (1-1): Cincinnati-Here we go.  An AFC North battle between two playoff teams from last year.  Baltimore finally gets to play at home after starting with two out west.  Unfortunately, that first home game is against a division rival that's on a roll.  The Bengals went out to Oakland and got a win, then knocked off San Diego.  Can they make it 3-for-3 in Baltimore?  The Ravens sure hope not.  Especially with a short week before a Thursday-night visit to rival Pittsburgh.

Buccaneers (1-1) at Texans (0-2): Houston-I really don't know what to make of either of these teams.  The Texans are 0-2, but they've played two good teams in Kansas City and Carolina.  Tampa Bay got completely destroyed at home by Tennessee, only to go to New Orleans the next week and win.  Unfortunately for them, Jamies Winston hasn't met J.J. Watt yet.  Gimme the Texans to finally get in the win column.

49ers (1-1) at Cardinals (2-0): Arizona-Last year's Super Bowl host and this year's Super Bowl host square off in Phoenix with first place in the NFC West on the line.  I think the 49ers team we saw last week in Pittsburgh is a more accurate representation of what we can expect from them this year.  My confidence in them as they take a road trip to Arizona for a matchup with a Cardinals team that seemingly scores at will is limited.

Bills (1-1) at Dolphins (1-1): Buffalo-They're both coming off losses, and falling to 1-2 in a suddenly ultra-competitive AFC East isn't an intriguing possibility for either.  The Bills losing to the Patriots could've been expected, even if Rex's vaunted defense was anything but.  I'm still trying to figure out how Miami lost to Jacksonville, though.  That shouldn't have happened.  But since it did, that's enough of a reason for me to go with the Bills.  Although, they hate going to Miami early in the season when it's still hot.

Bears (0-2) at Seahawks (0-2): Seattle-Can someone explain to me why a game between two NFC teams is the doubleheader game on CBS?  I'm still trying to figure out how this whole "cross-flexing" thing works.  Anyway, the Seahawks limp home at 0-2 after looking like a shell of the two-time defending NFC champions.  However, Kam Chancellor's holdout is over, so I think we can expect Seattle to get a lot of its swagger back.  Especially since they're playing a Bears team that isn't good.  They'll be the one that drops to 0-3.

Broncos (2-0) at Lions (0-2): Denver-For the first time in its 10-year history, "Sunday Night Football" comes to Detroit.  They go there to see Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who haven't played well at all this season (except for maybe five minutes in the Kansas City game), yet are 2-0.  The suddenly awesome Denver defense might have a lot to do with that.  For all the talk about who's got the best defense in football, I think it might be the Broncos, who are barely mentioned in those discussions.  Peyton will be Peyton again before the season's out.  But until then, I expect the defense to lift Denver to another win.

Chiefs (1-1) at Packers (2-0): Green Bay-We've got another Super Bowl rematch on Monday Night Football.  It's fitting that on the 50th anniversary of the main event, the teams that met in the first one square off in the regular season.  Kansas City has had extra long rest after giving the game away against Denver on Thursday night.  The Steelers have that same thing coming up, and I don't like it.  You shouldn't get two extra days off before a Monday night game (or go 11 days without playing!).  But that's just me.  Anyway, the Packers made a statement with their Sunday-night win over the Seahawks.  Green Bays is my pick to win the Super Bowl and just might be the best team in the NFL.  The Packers should be 3-0 come Tuesday.

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 8-8
Season: 20-13

Thursday, September 24, 2015

It Ain't Over Til It's Over

Like many people, I never met Yogi Berra.  But that doesn't matter.  Because like most, I felt like I "knew" him.  The baseball world has lost a true icon.  A quotable legend whose presence brightened up any room he was in.  A figure beloved by all generations, from those who remember him as a player in the 50s and 60s, to those who followed his managing exploits in the 70s, to those around my age and younger who only saw his as a sort of unofficial Yankees mascot.

Yogi Berra was the link between the eras.  His rookie year was 1946, when Joe DiMaggio was still the big man on campus.  His prime coincided with the rise of the dynasty in the 1950s, when Mickey Mantle became the team's larger-than-life figure.  Then in the 60s, he became the manager--and won the pennant in his first full season, 1964.  After winning another pennant across town as manager of the Mets, he was the straight man during the Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson circus that was the Bronx Zoo era of the 1970s.

Despite a career spent seemingly entirely in pinstripes, Yogi stayed away for 15 years due to a long-running feud between him and George Steinbrenner.  It started when Steinbrenner fired Yogi as manager 15 games into the 1984 season (despite promising he wouldn't) and didn't end until 1998, when Steinbrenner personally apologized to Yogi.  From then on, Yogi Berra was once again a constant at Yankee Stadium, and we were all the better for it.

The timing of his return to the Yankees couldn't have been more perfect.  Up until that time, it was always Joe DiMaggio who threw out the first pitch on Opening Day and was introduced last on Old-Timer's Day.  Whenever DiMaggio was at the ballpark, you knew it was a big event.  Joe DiMaggio died in January of 1999.  Who threw out the first pitch on Opening Day that year?  Yogi Berra.  All had been forgiven.  Yogi was back where he belonged.  For the next 15 years, he'd be that guy.  He took over that role from DiMaggio, and was the perfect man to do it.  Despite the fact that Yogi was a little man, those are big shoes to fill.

And of course, Yogi had another something special up his sleeve.  On July 18, 1999, the Yankees welcomed him back by celebrating "Yogi Berra Day" at the old Stadium.  On that day, Don Larsen threw out the first pitch and Yogi caught it, recreating the scene of one of the iconic moments in all of baseball history--Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.  So what happened on "Yogi Berra Day?"  David Cone threw a perfect game against the Expos.  What else?

That was one of the many special memories Yogi Berra would provide after his return to the Yankees.  At the 2008 All-Star Game, Major League Baseball welcomed all living Hall of Famers onto the field for a pregame ceremony.  The catchers were introduced last.  And the last catcher announced was Yogi Berra.  Later that season, as baseball and the Yankees said goodbye to the old Stadium, Yogi wore his uniform one last time and stood at home plate waving to an adoring crowd.

What most people remember about that final game was Derek Jeter's speech at the end.  Evidently, that was Yogi's idea.  It was supposed to be him, but he convinced Jeter to do it instead.  Whether that story's true or not is irrelevant.  Because Jeter giving the speech was the right call, and he nailed it.  That final night at the House that Ruth Built couldn't have been more perfect.

After I went to see the Broadway play Bronx Bombers, where Yogi Berra is the main character, I argued that Yogi Berra was the only person they could make the main character and have the story make any semblance of sense.  The final scene of that play takes place in the Yankees clubhouse on that night.  It's just Yogi and Jeter.  It's perfect.  Because Yogi's relationship with Jeter was something special.

Everyone who knew Yogi Berra had their own humorous Yogi story, and a lot of them were shared yesterday.  Ron Guidry called in to YES during the Yankees-Blue Jays game last night and talked about all the times he picked Yogi up from the airport during Spring Training.  One time, Yogi was coming back from filming an AFLAC commercial and said to Guidry, "You know, that duck doesn't really talk."  Ken Singleton then shared his Yogi story.  So did Al Leiter.  In the studio, Jack Curry told a story about Yogi giving directions back from somewhere, which were the exact reverse of the way they had gone there.  When that was pointed out to Yogi, he replied, "I told you my way was faster."

It's probably that quote and the many others like it that made Yogi Berra so well known.  Some have said that he's the most quoted figure of the 20th Century that wasn't a U.S. president.  One of his most famous lines is, "I never said half the things I said."  Well, according to Mets announcer Gary Cohen, that might actually be true.  Yogi grew up on the same street in St. Louis as Joe Garagiola, who went on to a long broadcasting career.  It's possible that Garagiola might've embellished some of these stories a little bit (or made them up entirely), so Yogi might actually be credited with "saying" things that he never actually said.  To me, that doesn't matter.  They'll always be Yogisms.  (Between Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, I don't know how anyone understood a single word that was said in the Yankees clubhouse during the 1950s.)

He became such a lovable figure later in life, that it's easy to forget Yogi Berra was a damn good ballplayer.  He won three MVPs and got MVP votes a whopping 15 years in a row, led the Yankees in RBIs eight consecutive years at a time when they had Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and made the All-Star team 18 times.  Then there are the World Series records that will never be touched: 75 games and 10 rings.

So much more than a Hall of Fame ballplayer, Yogi Berra is one of the most famous figures in all of American history.  He was beloved by all, and his absence will definitely be felt by anyone he ever came in contact with (and those he didn't).

His most famous quote has got to be, "It ain't over til it's over."  Well, I guess it's over.  Goodbye, Yogi.  You'll never be forgotten.

Monday, September 21, 2015

October Pitching Questions

Even though there's two weeks left in the regular season, Major League Baseball's playoff picture is becoming more and more clear.  Especially in the National League, where the five teams have been set for like a month now.  (No need to freak out Mets fans, you don't have the 2007-08 Phillies on your tail, you're not gonna blow it this time.)

But just because we know the teams, there are still plenty of questions that need to be asked and answered before the wonderfulness of October baseball gets underway.  Most of them involving pitching.  Everybody needs to figure out their rotations, while the makeup of the bullpens could make the difference between losing the Division Series (cough, Tigers, cough) and getting to the World Series (Royals).

Let's start with the inevitable NL Wild Card Game matchup between the Cubs and the Pirates.  Chicago has arguably the National League's best pitcher over the second half in Jake Arrieta.  But they also spent a lot of money on Jon Lester in the offseason basically for this moment.  Lester's won a World Series in Boston and started last year's AL Wild Card Game for Oakland.  At least they have the "problem" of choosing between their two aces, but what if they're not a position to use either (which seems unlikely given the standings)?  Same thing with Pittsburgh.  Do they line up Gerrit Cole, their best pitcher overall, or Francisco Liriano, their best pitcher recently, to start the one-game playoff?

It's a worthwhile question.  Because not only are you choosing your starter for the Wild Card Game, you're choosing which starter would pitch twice in the Division Series.  That's a decision the Dodgers have to make, too.  I'm sure it doesn't really make a difference to LA if Greinke or Kershaw starts Game 1 against the Mets, but they made the wrong decision against the Cardinals two years in a row and paid for it.  (Personally, I'd start Greinke in Game 1 and Kershaw in Game 2, but where they are in their rotation might have a lot to do with it.)  The Dodgers' real problem, though, is who's going to be their third starter?  And do they only use three so that Greinke and Kershaw can both possibly start twice (leaving neither available for Game 1 of the NLCS)?

As for the Dodgers' opponent, the Mets have a problem that every team would love to have.  They currently use a six-man rotation.  They have to cut it down to four.  Maybe the Matt Harvey innings thing (which is a situation I'm sure they didn't expect themselves to be in when Harvey was going eight innings in April) will solve this problem for them.  But Harvey says he's ready to go for the postseason and Terry Collins has said he'll make at least one start, so that means he's in for the Division Series.  You'd have to think Jacob de Grom, the Mets' second-best pitcher, is a lock, too.  So is Bartolo Colon.  He's developed a cult following and is the only Mets starter with playoff experience.  Have to use him.  So, that leaves Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jon Niese for one rotation spot.  It's probably safe to say Niese is headed to the bullpen.  The choice between Syndergaard and Matz isn't an easy one, but Syndergaard has proven himself all year, so you'd figure he'll get the opportunity.

Whoever gets home field for the Mets-Dodgers series could dictate a lot of things, too.  Greinke and Kershaw are starting Games 1 & 2 in whatever order.  Whether they're at Dodger Stadium or Citi Field doesn't matter.  But for the Mets, that could be huge.  Knowing that neither is pitching Game 3, do you hold Harvey back in case you're down 0-2?  Likewise, Syndergaard is a much better pitcher at home.  Do you set it up for him to pitch in Citi Field?  If they end up tied, the Mets get home field since they won the season series 4-3.  But if the Dodgers do get home field, I'd set up the Mets rotation like this: Games 1/5-Colon, Game 2-de Grom, Game 3-Harvey, Game 4-Syndergaard.  If the series starts in New York, though, I'd go: Games 1/5-de Grom, Game 2-Syndergaard, Game 3-Harvey, Game 4-Colon.

Over in the American League, things are a little more unsettled.  I'm confident in saying the Royals, Blue Jays and Yankees are in, but I've got no idea what's gonna happen in the AL West.  If Houston ends up in the Wild Card Game, you'd assume they want Dallas Keuchel to start it if possible.  Same thing with the Rangers and Cole Hamels.  That's the reason they got him.  Minnesota and the Angels, though?  Beats me.

I say Houston would like to start Keuchel and Texas would like to start Hamels with the caveat that only one of them is going to end up in the Wild Card Game.  And this division's gonna go down to the last day, so neither one will be able to hold a pitcher back for the potential one-game playoff.  Should it get to the situation that Keuchel and Hamels are both unavailable, Houston would probably be in better shape for the Wild Card Game since they could start either Collin McHugh or Scott Kazmir.  If Texas goes into Yankee Stadium with somebody other than Cole Hamels pitching, they'd better hope their hitters bring their bats.

The Yankees, of course, would prefer to have Masahiro Tanaka start the Wild Card Game (or, at the very worst, Michael Pineda).  But Tanaka's missing his start on Wednesday in Toronto because he strained his hamstring running the bases on Friday.  For the Yankees, it would almost be a good thing if the Blue Jays clinch the division earlier.  That way they can set up Tanaka to pitch in the Wild Card Game, even if it means skipping his final regular-season start.  And if the Yankees do win the Wild Card Game, the rotation for the Division Series seems to have settled itself out: Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia and Severino.

Toronto, meanwhile, has a similar problem to the Yankees' crosstown neighbors.  After David Price, who are their starters going to be?  Assuming Drew Hutchison (who started on Opening Day, mind you) gets sent to the bullpen, they still have to choose three of their remaining four starters.  Toronto loves Marcus Stroman, but he only just came back from a torn ACL and will have made about five starts before the postseason.  He's looked great so far (but what Blue Jays pitcher hasn't looked great against the Yankees this season?), but, as much as you love him, how much can you count on Stroman to start in the playoffs?  The Blue Jays have shrewdly kept Mark Buehrle from pitching against the Yankees this year, so I haven't seen that much of him, but he won a ring with the White Sox and is one of the few players on that team with any playoff experience.  I say you've gotta start him.  I'd leave Game 4 as TBA between R.A. Dickey and Marco Estrada, but if I were John Gibbons, I'd be leaning towards Estrada making that start.  That also leaves open the possibility of Price on three-days' rest if need-be.

Two weeks is a lot of time in a baseball season.  A lot can still change.  And a lot of this stuff will probably sort itself out as divisions are clinched and teams set themselves up for the postseason.  Hopefully not, but an injury may derail plans, too.

All I know is that if I'm this excited for playoff baseball now, imagine how I'll be come October!