Tuesday, September 30, 2008

MLB playoff predictions


It's that time of year again. Easily one of the two best sports months of the year — along with March.

Baseball playoffs + football season = lots of TV watching...

And, of course, my playoff predictions.

But first, a full disclosure: At the beginning of the season, I made inane picks such as:
- Cleveland to win the AL Central
- Detroit to win the AL Wild Card
- Tampa Bay to finish fourth in the AL East
- Colorado to win the NL West

OK, I'll be kind to myself. Even the "experts" picked Cleveland and Detroit to be good, and nobody picked the Rays to win their division. So I forgive myself, although my man Cosey won't let me forget that when I typed up my midseason picks, I chose the Tigers to win the Central.

Yep, that was a dumb one.

But enough about the last-place Tigers. It's time to predict what the teams still playing will do:

American League
Tampa Bay def. Chicago White Sox (5 games): This will be a very competitive series, but Chicago will be hurt by the fact that it used two of its three best starting pitchers on Monday and Tuesday.

L.A. Angels def. Boston (5 games): Another good series, but Boston only pitching Josh Beckett once will do the Red Sox in. The Angels' bats will be noisy unlike last year.

National League
Philly def. Milwaukee (4 games): If this series goes five games, the Brewers will win it with C.C. Sabathia on the mound. But I'm betting on the Phils urgently winning Game 4. Closer Brad Lidge has become Mr. Automatic.

Chicago Cubs def. L.A. Dodgers (4 games):
I can't pick against the Cubs this early in the postseason. The bullpen will be key in each victory.

American League
L.A. Angels def. Tampa Bay (5 games): This is the series in which baseball's best team shows exactly why they're so good. Solid starting pitching, a solid bullpen, the best closer in baseball and timely hitting. The Rays' magical season ends.

National League
Philly def. Chicago Cubs (7 games): What better way for the Cubs to go out — again — than in the seventh game of the NLCS (remember 2003?). I expect Philly's strong lineup to expose and frustrate Carlos Zambrano. And, yeah, anything can happen in a Game 7.

L.A. Angels def. Philly (6 games): It helps to have arguably baseball's best manager, and that will ring true for the Angels in a series full of close games that require tough decisions in late-inning situations. It will be one of the higher-scoring Series in recent memory, and it will feature two of baseball's best closers.

In the end, Francisco Rodriguez will save the final game, give a huge fist pump and prepare to garner the biggest contract ever for a closer. And both the Anaheim and Los Angeles Angels — go figure — will have World Series titles.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A tale of two halves at the Big House


It was as if Michigan fans knew what was coming.

There I was, standing on the corner of Main Street and Stadium Boulevard Saturday afternoon, and ticket sellers outnumbered buyers by an enormous ratio. I had walked up Main thinking it'd be hard to find a cheap ticket to the Big 10 opener. Usually a keen scalper, I jumped at the early opportunity to snag a pair of end zone seats — row 64 — for $56.

Face value for a ticket is, after all, $59. Two for less than face, I thought, was a bargain.

But I was a fool. An hour later, I bought a new pair of end zone seats — this time, ninth row — for a mere $40. And then my man Bubs and I desperately tried to lose the tickets I originally purchased. Finally, just minutes before kickoff, I sold one for $10 and gave away the other for $5.

It was as if no one wanted to go to the game.

It was as if — did I mention this? — they knew what was coming.

And the product the Maize and Blue produced in the first half wasn't worth five bucks, or even a nickel. Knowing how much I'd paid, I tried to look at the bright side during the 20-minute intermission. I texted my friend Pete, who was also at the game, "Ugly. Could be much much worse." And that was very, very true.

Despite Wisconsin dominating every aspect of the game. Despite the Badgers driving into Michigan territory six times. Despite the Wolverines mustering a total of 21 yards. And despite an abysmal five turnovers.

It was just Wisconsin 19, Michigan 0.

Still, it felt like 45-0. It felt over. With the way Michigan's offense was moving the ball — check that, not moving the ball — 19 points might as well have been 82 points. I returned to my seat for the second half, ready to cheer for any subtle positive. And sure enough, when the Wolverines picked up a first down on the initial play from scrimmage, the crowd went nuts. Of course, a punt came four plays later.

But everything changed after that.

First, there was the key stop of a Wisconsin drive that ended perilously close to field-goal range (any more points, at that point, would have killed the Wolverines). Then there was the first scoring drive, completed with the TD on third-and-10.

Two more big stops followed. Then the second scoring drive. And then, just seconds later, the interception return for a score that gave the Wolverines a 20-19 lead.

The stadium became absolutely delirious. Bubs gave me a bear hug. Fans were as shocked as they were excited. This couldn't be happening. How had a 19-0 deficit become 20-19 in just a few New York Minutes?

The Wolverines, apparently, were just as stunned, because they were a mess after John Thompson's romp to the end zone. They needed to go for the two-point conversion, but none of the right people got on the field. With the play clock near zero, and the offensive players scattered, Rich Rodriguez finally took a timeout.

Looking back on the moment, I could only laugh. They are kids, after all. I didn't blame them for getting lost in the moment. There's no way they could have believed what had transpired so furiously, so quickly.

My day inside the Big House had a happy ending, as the Wolverines hung on for a 27-25 win. The second half more than made up for the first half. In fact, those initial 30 minutes — however odious they may have been — were key in this regard: They set the stage for the greatest statistical comeback in the history of Michigan Stadium.

Rodriguez leaped in the air when it was over. The players rushed to celebrate with the students. The boo birds of the first half couldn't stop cheering their Wolverines after the final play.

What a difference a Terrence Taylor halftime speech makes, huh?

Of course, the question now is whether the second half was simply a fluke, an aberration. Wisconsin sure helped Michigan by dropping passes, committing crucial penalties and turning the ball over twice (four times in the game).

I don't know how good Michigan is. I've no idea whether the thrilling comeback will mark the beginning of a winning streak.

But I know this: The young Wolverines learned how to win Saturday. This lesson shouldn't be overlooked.

The defense carried them all afternoon, first holding Wisconsin to the quartet of field goals and then stopping key third-down plays in the third and fourth quarters that gave the ball back to the offense. And members of the offense made plays when they had to be made.

There was freshman quarterback Steven Threet putting Michigan on the board with a perfect lob pass to tight end Kevin Koger on third-and-10. And there was Threet again, two possessions later, completing an absolutely necessary third-and-9 pass to Greg Mathews for a first down. On Michigan's final scoring drive, Threet rumbled for 58 yards after a perfect play-fake.

And freshman Sam McGuffie finished off the scoring march with three tough runs in-between the tackles, the final one putting him in the end zone — barely — on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line.

All those plays were necessary. Take any one of them away, and Michigan is probably 1-3 right now. Yes, the Wolverines got lucky, too. Wisconsin was its own worst enemy in the second half. But a wise man once told me, "Son, you make your own luck." (OK, I heard it on "Lost," but you get the gist.)

Long after the marching band had stopped blaring, the field was barren and the stands empty, the fact remained that a patchwork Michigan team with a new coach had turned an almost inevitable 1-3 start into 2-2 and 1-0 in the Big 10.

And something tells me, even from 657 miles away now, that there might be a few more buyers on the corner of Main and Stadium for the Illinois game next Saturday.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'll miss Todd Jones


Behind all the baseball and football news this week, especially with the firing of a Mr. Matt Millen, I almost glossed over the headline. I'm glad I didn't.

Todd Jones
is retiring.

To most sports fans, it's not big news. Especially not during this busy time of the sports year. But to anyone who has followed the Tigers, it should strike a chord. Todd Jones has been a big part of the organization — through a lot of bad, and that magical 2006 season.

Jones, 40, is hanging up No. 59 as the Tigers' career saves leader with 235, and he ranks 14th on the game's all-time list with 319. He's never been dominant, never been a strikeout king, never made things easy, but that is part of what made him so entertaining to watch.

And, bottom line, he almost always got the job done. Even during this lost season, he was efficient — even if the fans' booing said otherwise. He converted 18 of 21 save opportunities. Unfortunately, one of the blown saves resulted in the Tigers' most devastating losses of the season and led to Jones' demotion from his role the following night. Just weeks later, a shoulder injury placed him on the disabled list, and ultimately ended his career.

The Tigers missed him. It's not like his presence on the mound would have magically rescued the sinking ship, but Detroit's other relievers were a combined 15-for-39 when trying to save games. In one word, moribund. Fernando Rodney did his best, but converted just 11 of 17 opportunities.

Some pitchers just aren't cut out to be closers.

Todd Jones was.

Here's what I'll miss about him:

His ability to make almost any situation interesting. If the Tigers led by a run, he'd often give up a base hit. If they led by three runs, he'd give up two hits. There was never a dull moment with Jonesy on the mound.

But for most of his 16-year career, he didn't walk a lot of batters. Nothing infuriates me more than relievers who come in and walk the leadoff hitter. It always seems to lead to trouble. Jones challenged batters, and if they beat him, then kudos to them. But he didn't give away free passes.

More than his pitching, Jones' personality is priceless. In an age of defensive, arrogant athletes, Jones never masked who he was. He was always quick to accept the blame for a loss — even if it wasn't his fault — and if he stunk, that's exactly what he said.

Jones never jumped on his teammates, even when they made costly errors that led to blown saves. He was the ultimate team guy, just along for the ride, or "Rollercoaster" — the nickname his penchant for drama created.

And he didn't let the game dominate his life. With the injury at his age, Jones had an inkling it was time to go, time to spend more time with his family, so he made his decision and he'll stick with it. There will be no Brett Favre-esque comeback. Jones has thrown his last pitch.

Perhaps my fondest memory of Jones stems from the final days of Tiger Stadium. It was during Jones' first stint with the Tigers that the venerable stadium hosted its final game, and Jones recorded the last out on Sept. 27, 1999.

At the time, Jones was just 31, but he had a clear appreciation of history. Jones so revered the ballpark, he slept there both the night before the game and the night after. Name me a player who's done something similar. Name a Yankee who slept in the "House that Ruth Built" last weekend.

When recalling those days, Jones teared up at a press conference Thursday. It was a rare emotional moment from the mustached, gruff ballplayer who is so down to earth, he could be a hardware store manager instead of a major league baseball player.

Todd Jones is a rare breed, folks. He didn't enter games to a song. He didn't have the girls at the ballpark swooning or holding up signs for him. Rather, he was booed and ridiculed whenever he had a bad outing.

But what made him great was how he always reacted to such ridiculousness. He took it in stride, returning to the park the next day for business as usual. And he was always quick to make fun of himself.

Now, as Jones said upon his retirement announcement, "If you're a Tigers fan, I'll never stress you out again."

Classic Todd Jones.

I'll miss him.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tigers performing the rare baseball tank job


I was lying on the couch Tuesday night, trying to come up with ideas to fill the next two hours of my life, when I noticed I had a new voicemail.

It was from my dad, saying that he was at the Tigers-Royal game back in Detroit. He had great seats, just a few rows behind the Royals' dugout, and he thought I might be able to see him — in his green shirt, he noted — on TV.

What the heck, I thought? Sure, I hadn't watched a Tigers' game since their devastating losses to the White Sox in early August. But what were my alternatives? Watch the "World Series of Poker?" I started up the laptop and logged onto mlb.com. One more 2008 Tigers game couldn't hurt, I figured.

Of course, I was wrong. Not only did I never spot green-shirted dad, but the Tigers played perhaps the most uninspired baseball I've seen from them in an absolutely uninspiring season of downs and more downs.

I tuned in during the fifth inning, with the Royals nursing a 4-0 lead. Kansas City quickly added a run and proceeded to shut down the "high-powered" Tigers' offense attack as if the Royals were pitching to little-leaguers. The Tigers didn't help themselves by swinging at almost every first pitch (note the mild hyperbole). It was as if (gasp!) they didn't feel like playing.

The game ended in a crisp 2 hours, 17 minutes, getting Dad home, I presume, with time to practice guitar and do some quality reading (at least he got something out of the night, I think).

But I wasn't thinking about that after a 1-2-3 ninth innings that took all of 89 seconds. Rather, I was thinking about the "T" word: Is there "tanking" in baseball, and if so are the Tigers in tanking mode right now?

It's funny. I've never, in my 24 years of following sports (yep, I started right after birth), thought of baseball teams calling it a season prematurely. NBA teams? Uh, duh. It happens every year (see: 2006-07 Boston Celtics, 2007-08 Miami Heat). It also occurs in the NFL, though it's harder to call out the tankers because of the size of football rosters.

Baseball teams tanking, though? I've never considered it. Instead, I've watched every year as teams completely out of playoff contention ruin the dreams of teams still in it. That's exactly what the Florida Marlins did to the choking Mets last season. And guess whom the Mets play this final weekend as they try to avoid a repeat? Yep, those pesky Marlins.

So in general, no doubt, my feeling for years has been spot-on. There's no quit in bad baseball teams. And this is great for September, because there are no gimme games for teams trying to sneak into October.

But still, after watching a mere five innings Tuesday, my gut tells me the Tigers have thrown in the towel on the season. And now, they're tied for last place with the lowly Royals. It's unbelievable, really.

Consider the unique circumstances around this bad baseball team. In March, many prognosticators were not only predicting the Tigers would make the playoffs ... they were saying they'd win the competitive Central Division ... and win the whole thing, you know, the World Series. Nobody was saying that about the Marlins, for instance, or the Royals. Players love to hope, but I have to think that members of both those teams thought they'd be in this position come September — playing the spoiler role.

Not the spoiled Tigers, however. After a big spending offseason, big, big things were expected. Tickets sold out at a record pace. Heck, I only made it to one game, a feat I'm not proud of.

So it's hard to imagine just how disappointed manager Jim Leyland and the players in the clubhouse are at at how the season has turned out. By mid-August, it was pretty clear that not even a great finish would propel the club into the postseason. Once September commenced, the season's story had been written.

So what did the Tigers' regulars have to play for in the final weeks? I'm not talking about the minor-league call-ups who are trying to make a positive impression. I'm referring to the regulars who have been on the big-league club all season. Leyland has already said that with a few exceptions, everyone is going to have to prove themselves all over again before the 2009 season. Starting spots will be up for grabs.

In other words, except for a few players, such as shortstop Edgar Renteria, who are trying to play their way into being retained by the team, this September's performance is meaningless. Players will be back; players will need to earn a spot in the lineup/pitching rotation.

Looking for a reason why Detroit has lost 11 of its last 12 games, almost entirely to non-playoff teams? I call it not caring that much about results. I call it tanking.

But let me be clear. While the Tigers will get a higher draft choice if they finish in fourth or fifth place compared to third, where they were for most of the season, I don't think that's a big motivating factor in baseball. It's a little different from the Heat's Pat Riley not showing up for games and resting his entire starting lineup during the home stretch of this past season so the Heat could get a chance at the No. 1 pick.

Baseball's draft is way too long. Sure-thing prospects are way too hard to nail down. Heck, teams even pass on the best players because they know their contract demands will be ludicrous.

The Tigers' lackadaisical play is more of a "let's-just-get-this-bloody-season-over-with" type of indolence. They simply don't care. Sure, they're still playing the game they love on cool, comfortable September nights, but there's no intensity on the field.

Detroit turned four double plays during the time I watched Tuesday, which was the only thing remarkable about its play. What caught my attention, too, was how unemotional the players were after each of the DPs. There were no smiles, no fist pumps, no signs of excitement. It was simply business as usual.

And another loss. Not even the thought of finishing beneath the lowly Royals can get these morbid Tigers roaring.

They've been dead for weeks now, in complete tank mode and thinking about 2009.

Monday, September 22, 2008

When Mom needs to stay quiet


Listen, I love my mom. Like a lot of young men, I now realize the time and effort she put into raising me into who I am today. And I know she's always had my best interests in mind (even if I have wholeheartedly disagreed at times).

But ... that doesn't mean I want her all up in my business, talking to the media about the difficult times I'm going through because of the brutal job market and discussing how I got screwed by my last employer.

That's what two NFL Moms did in recent weeks. And not just normal NFL Moms, but the mothers of two starting quarterbacks. First, Vince Young's mom went to the press after her son had endured a crazy two days — which included Young not wanting to reenter the Titans' opening game of the season and then having the police search for him the following night because people, including his mom and Titans coach Jeff Fisher, were worried about him.

Young's mom, Felicia Young, told reporters that her son was going through a rough time in his life, saying: "Vince has gone through a whole lot as a young person. And I think he has done pretty well up to this point. But it is hard, all he is going through right now. He's hurting inside and out. But he will be fine if people are prayerful and help my baby boy out. He is a young man. He just needs a lot of love and support."

Now just think about that quote for a minute. The part that sticks to me is "help my baby boy out." Unfortunately for Young, he is in the NFL, one of the toughest, roughest sports leagues in the world. And no defensive lineman on an opposing team is going to help him out. Rather, if Young ever gets back onto the field, he might get hit even harder.

While I admire Young's mom for her candid remarks, she should have made them to friends of Young and possibly members of the Titans organization in private. She didn't help her son one bit by speaking publicly.

Now, Young is on the bench recovering from an injury. But for all I know, his season could be done in Tennessee. Kerry Collins has played well enough to lead the Titans to a 3-0 start, and Young's teammates — no matter how much they care for him — have to wonder whether he is stable enough to lead an NFL team, especially a team with such high expectations.

After all, moms always know best, and judging by Felicia Young's comments, her son is not in a good mental state. He does not appear ready to lead the 2-minute offense in a tight game.

Young isn't the only (former) starting quarterback who wasn't helped by his mother's mouth. After Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson was benched last week following two dismal performances that resulted in Vikings' losses, his mother couldn't help but defend her son by talking X's and O's:

"But I don't think they really gave him a fair shake because, if you're running the ball more than you're throwing the ball, then how is he going to be comfortable with his position?" Sanque Jackson quipped. "How's he going to be comfortable passing to his receivers if he's not been able to throw it enough?"

Now I don't think Sanque Jackson's comments hurt her son's future career nearly as much as those of Vince Young's mother, but they definitely didn't help. It's not as if Vikings coach Brad Childress picked up the newspaper, saw the quote and thought, "Geez! What was I thinking? All we need to do is let Tarvaris throw the ball 40 times a game!"

No, I haven't done research, but I'm going to hop out on a limb and say that Sanque Jackson is not a football expert, not a former offensive coordinator. So why the comments? I know she was contacted by the media about Jackson's benching and wanted to say something. That's fine. I understand. But why not simply say, "I'm disappointed in the decision. Hopefully Tarvaris will play his way back into the starter." Nice and bland. The type of quotes the media is used to.

Instead, by shedding more light on the benching, Sanque Jackson gave people more reason to talk about it. She opened the door for critics to discuss why Jackson is such a poor QB at this point in his career. She kept the issue on the front of the sports page when it would have been best for Jackson to slip into his backup role and begin working on reproving his worth to the Minnesota coaching staff.

Because, ultimately, the opinions of Felicia Young and Sanque Jackson don't matter. They're not going to influence any NFL coaching staff into reinserting their their son into the starting lineup. But their voices are heard and their words are taken seriously, because mothers know their sons best.

So now Vince Young is considered an unstable and soft person, which will not help him get his job back anytime soon.

And let's just hope that Tarvaris Jackson learned how to ignore his mother, because if he actually listened to her comments and believes them, he might not work as hard to regain his starting spot in the Vikings' offense. He might actually think that the team's offensive strategy is why he struggled so much.

I love my mom. Most young men do. But we all know that sometimes she simply gets in the way.

Unfortunately for high-profile NFL players, the ramifications can be devastating.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How the Astros got screwed


Welcome to the life of a Houston Astro.

You win six straight games in September, are feeling good about yourself for the first time, really, all season. And then this happens:

Your family, your home, your neighborhood are attacked by Hurricane Ike, a storm that doesn't discriminate while causing mass chaos to everything in its way. All of a sudden, you're not just worried about catching the Brewers in the Wild Card race. You've got much more important issues to think about.

Of course, it's a bummer that the first two games of your crucial home series with the Cubs are Iked out — considering the momentum you're carrying on the field — but hey, that's life on the Gulf Coast. You figure you'll take the weekend to take care of non-baseball issues and then get back to the grind.

That's the case until Sunday, when suddenly you learn the news: You're making up two of the series' games the next two days. Great, you think. Back to baseball. Getting back on the field is always a nice distraction. But then you're told to prepare for a flight to Milwaukee.

"Milwaukee????" you think, "I thought this was a home series." You realize that you still can't play in Houston because of conditions, but why go all the way to Milwaukee when you could play two in Arlington (where the Rangers don't start a home series until Monday night); Atlanta; or, worst-case scenario, St. Louis? At least you wouldn't feel the Sears Tower looking down on you.

Instead, you're to hop on a plane for a city that lies less than an hour from Wrigley Field.

You're a professional, so you do what you're told. But your head's not into it. Your situation at home post-hurricane still isn't settled. And now you're embarking on a road trip that won't have you home for over a week. You arrive at Miller Park in time to get dressed and prepare for the game. Meanwhile, the Cubs could have carpooled up I-94 W. In no way are you ready for what's basically become a road game; that's not good, considering the importance of the contest.

Add to that the fact that you get to face Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano. Sure, he's coming off an injury, but on this night he has his best stuff. It's not fair. Zambrano no-hits you, sending the Miller Park crowd into a frenzy.

The only good news of a hectic day? The Phillies swept the Brewers, so you didn't lose any ground in the Wild Card race.

Instead of resting, however, you must wake up the next morning for a day game back at the Cubs' second home field. Again not in your best form, you manage just a single hit in a 6-1 loss. The two L's mark the first time in baseball's long history that a team has managed just a single hit in two games. You hate the statistic, but know there should be an asterisk next to it.

You lose a half game to the Phillies and Brewers, who got to rest for a day. But you don't get that opportunity. Instead, you hop a plane for the nice, short flight down to South Beach for a three-game set with the Marlins. It's always nice to zig-zag north and south when flying.

After another loss Tuesday night, you're back to three games out in the Wild Card. There remain just 12 games. Your six-game winning spree has dissolved into a dismal three-game losing slide. All the momentum and good feelings are gone.

Yes, you're a professional, so you move on, prepare for the next game. That's all you can do. But you wonder: Did Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner/Milwaukee Lover, do all he could to accommodate our best interests? Did he look into all the options?

Then you ask yourself the ultimate question: Did we get screwed?

Well, I've got the answer for your, dear Houston Astro.

Yes, you got screwed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Wolverines looked good ... minus the fumbles


If you're able to judge a football team without considering wins and losses, you're taking away many good things from Michigan's game against Notre Dame Saturday.

Topping this list is that the offense, for the first time under Rich Rodriguez, actually looked coherent for most of the afternoon.

Steven Threet
, clearly the better of Michigan's quarterback duo, was in control of the offense. He looked like he knew what he was doing, getting his 10 friends to the line of scrimmage early and setting up the play. Add to that the many pretty throws he made, including an absolute beautiful rainbow toss for a completion in the monsoon that engulfed South Bend, Ind.

Threet completed 16 of 23 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He didn't throw an interception. It should be noted, too, that a few of his incompletions were drops.

And he wasn't the only offensive bright spot. Freshman Sam McGuffie is living up to his Youtube-created hype. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound running back darted left and right, spun off tackles, rushed for 131 yards on 25 carries and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass.

McGuffie has established himself as Michigan's starting man in the backfield, but when he tires there is plenty of depth behind him. That's not a bad thing.

Yeah, yeah, I'll get to the bad. Michigan absolutely killed itself Saturday, which is why it lost 35-17. Give Notre Dame credit for turning Michigan's miscues into points.

Here's what happened before I evened turned the TV on: Michigan fumble, Irish touchdown; Michigan fumble, Irish touchdown. It was 14-0 Notre Dame in the game's initial 4 minutes. Then a Michigan drive stalled and the Irish scored again. Make that 21-0.

So much for all those 13-12 and 14-10 predictions.

But when the Wolverines held onto the ball, they were clearly the better team. That's how they got back into the contest, cutting the score to 28-17 at halftime and driving deep into Notre Dame territory — and the heavy rainstorm — late in the third quarter.

Of course, that's when Kevin Grady coughed up the football, making it quite clear that it simply wasn't Michigan's turn to win. The Irish had suffered back-to-back dismal defeats in the historic rivalry. Charlie Weis had his left leg busted by one of his own players in the first half, relegating him to crutches the rest of the afternoon.

Yep, Notre Dame needed the win more than Michigan. And the Irish sowed up the victory when Threet cemented Michigan's "Fumbleroosky" day by fumbling away the pigskin, which ended up in an Irish defender's hands as he raced toward the end zone. Game over. Go home soaked.

But anyone who thinks Notre Dame outplayed Michigan is just kidding around. Yes, it did a better job of stripping the ball from weak-armed Michigan ball carriers. But the Wolverines outgained the Irish in total yards, 387-260. That's not very close.

If not for six giveaways — compared to two by Notre Dame — and a few missed tackles here and there, Michigan would have won Saturday.

But enough about winning, because that's not what this season should be about for this team. It's about progress, especially in learning Rodriguez's offensive system. And for the first time in three games, real progress was evident on the field. Threet threw accurately. A plethora of receivers made the catches they were supposed to make. McGuffie was a spark.

The defense was solid. Not great, but solid. That's the grade for a unit that missed too many tackles, but didn't allow 300 yards.

It was an effort deserving of a victory ... except for the fumbles.

Moral victories aren't accepted in Ann Arbor — and they shouldn't be — but the Wolverines might as well take one from their second loss of the season. And they can feel good about this: Their 1-2 record this season isn't any worse than last year's 1-2 mark put up with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long and Mario Manningham.

Plus, with next weekend off, they've got plenty of time to figure out how to hold onto the pigskin.

I suggest having every player who lost one Saturday sleep with a ball for the two weeks.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Federer's mediocre year


Man, what a terrible year for Roger Federer.

What a fall from grace.

What happened to the best player in men's tennis?

Only one grand-slam title? Only two runner-up finishes in grand slams? And he only reached the semifinals of the other major tournament?

Geez, a career change might be in order (barber, perhaps?). How can a dude who had to travel through 18 time zones (or so) to reach Beijing possible feel good about only winning a gold medal in doubles — doubles!

(Note the severe sarcasm.)

But that's what some of the murmurs were regarding arguably the best men's tennis player of all time. At least that was the case before Federer silenced those voices with a dominating victory over Andy Murray in the U.S. Open championship match Monday evening.

If you need evidence that Federer is the Tiger Woods of tennis — you shouldn't — look no further than his 2008. When he hadn't captured one of the first three majors, the whispers started.

Forget that he was under the dark cloud of mononucleosis for most of the first half of the year. Forget that he went up against the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, in the French Open final. Nadal's victory, his fourth consecutive French Open title and third straight title-match win over Federer, was no surprise; his straight-sets domination, though, gave people fodder with which to question Federer.

And forget that Federer's loss to Nadal in the Wimbledon finale is considered by many the greatest match of all time. Forget that a point here, a point there, and Federer would have won a record sixth consecutive title in London.

When Federer finally lost his No. 1 ranking after a record 237 consecutive weeks, he was almost forgotten. The focus shifted to the younger players, the guys whose careers were on the upswing rather than the downswing.

There is this great inclination among media members and fans to dismiss tennis players as "over the hill" once they reach a certain age. All that's needed is a little evidence, a "down year." That's what happened to Federer this year.

All I know is this: I watched Federer, 27, throughout the Open, including his beating of Murray, and he looked pretty strong on the court. He covered the baseline well, looking nearly as quick as the 23-year-old Murray. He was brilliant at the net, taking advantage of Murray's tendency to stay well behind the baseline.

Just like 26-year-old Serena Williams, Federer displayed great versatility in winning his 13th grand slam. And that will help him win a few more majors before he retires from the sport. Yes, there's no doubt that Federer — barring an injury or catastrophe — will break Pete Sampras' record of 14 grand-slam titles.

What makes Williams and Federer special is that they're able to make up for their age by bringing an all-around game to the court. While Murray was effective against Nadal because of his defense — he was able to cover the entire baseline — Federer was able to frustrate Murry by hitting solid approach shots and winning several points at the net.

I'm sure the serve-and-volley Sampras would agree that charging the net is a great way to beat youth when you're not quite as spry as you once were. Just think about it. It diminishes the angles that a player can use to whip a ground stroke past you. In Federer's easy 6-2 third set over Murray, the Scot became visibly disgusted when all his passing shots were put away by perfect volleys. It was as if there was nowhere for Murray to hit the ball.

Federer, like Williams, must have benefited from his doubles victory in Beijing. He looked better at the net in New York than I'd ever seen him. Was his one-handed backhand as nasty as a year ago? Nope. Did his serve yield as many aces? I don't have numbers, but I highly doubt it.

It didn't matter. Playing with an emotion that demonstrated just how badly he wanted a 2008 major, Federer played perhaps his easiest match of the tournament. The 7-5 second set was a tough one — punctuated by a missed call that would have given Murray a break — but the 6-2 first and third sets left no doubt who the better player was.

Unfortunately, there was no Federer-Nadal rematch in the finale, because the two have created quite a rivalry. But something tells me 2009 will be a special year for men's tennis. Anyone who expects one player to win more than two majors is kidding themselves. Those day are over — at least for now. Federer's years of winning three grand slams (2004, '06 and '07) are gone. Winning two (like in '05) would be a tall task, too.

But don't chalk this up to a declining Federer. Rather, the competition has caught up to him. That's what happens in sports. There's always an up-and-coming opponent. Federal, Nadal, No. 3 Novak Djokovic, Murray and others will beat each other up throughout 2009.

And Federer is well aware of this. During the trophy presentation, Federer noted that he is very pleased with where men's tennis is. It was a diplomatic thing to say, and also very true. The sport has gotten very competitive, and the man who remains right in the thick of the top slate of players was kissing another trophy Monday evening.

He is now the first player — ever — to win two grand slams five times in a row. No, not a bad accomplishment to be recognized for.

As CBS commentator Dick Enberg said, "Cancel those obituaries."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Serena's versatility wins her U.S. Open


Jelena Jankovic
made a match of it, but there was never any doubt in my mind:

Serena Williams would win Sunday night's U.S. Open championship match. Did I anticipate the younger Williams' sister jumping up and down six times after the final point, the most excited I've ever seen her? Nope. But I was sure she'd end up with her ninth grand slam by the night's end, going two up on sister Venus.

Why was I so positive? Well, I'm no tennis expert, but Serena is clearly the best player in women's tennis today. It'd be a crime if she didn't gain the No. 1 ranking after winning the tournament(thankfully she did).

Serena played in 14 sets over two weeks.

Serena won 14 sets over two weeks.

Of course, Venus should have won a set in the sisters' quarterfinal match. Older sis blew 10 set points before Serena clandestinely stole the match in straight sets.

Which brings me to point No. 2: Venus is the second best player in the world, and the margin's as slim as Marissa from "The O.C."

Over the course of 10 seasons — since Serena won the siblings' first grand slam at the 1999 U.S. Open — the sisters have had their ups and downs. But, for the most part, their downs haven't been ability-related.

Injuries and off-the-court distractions have held them back at times. And they've been criticized by many, me included, for not always dedicating their lives to the sport they've dominated the past two majors.

One of the reasons for the skepticism, at least from me, is that I know how good — and dominant — the sisters can be. Venus' on-court prowess deserves a look, but Sunday was Serena's night, so she get the attention — for now.

When someone unfamiliar with Serena sees her on a tennis court, the following thought might creep into their mind: "Wow, with her size, there's no way she can move that well on the court. If I played her, I'd drop-shot her to her demise." They'd be as wrong as Bush was about WMDs.

Almost every time Jankovic hit a short ball, Serena hustled to reach it. And then she finished off the point with a strong backhand here, a backhand volley there. When Jankovic managed to lob the ball back, Serena slammed it toward the stands with an overhand smash. Point over.

She didn't miss a single overhand all night.

That was the difference in the match. Jankovic's ground strokes were strong. She served just as well — if not as fast — as her opponent. Jankovic is faster than Serena, especially laterally. But the 23-year-old Serbian had no net game, no versatility. Even when she hit a strong approach shot that had Serena on the run, she hesitated to approach the net. She simply didn't look comfortable when off the baseline.

And that's why Jankovic has no grand-slam titles, compared to Serena's nine.

Serena doesn't have the best net game on tour. She doesn't hit the best ground strokes on tour. But she's the strongest player, and, most importantly, she's the premier all-around player.

Will it last? That's a question I don't have an answer to. With her 27th birthday approaching on Sept. 26, she's not getting younger. But with, what her mom referred to as, a renewed dedication to the game, Serena can certainly win a few more majors.

Still, consider the whirlwind 2008 season in women's tennis: Maria Sharapova was phenomenal at the Australian Open, leading me to write a column pronouncing her the world's best player. She gained the official ranking in May when Justine Henin unexpectedly retired.

But Sharapova disappeared after that, and ended her season prior to the Olympics and U.S. Open because of a shoulder injury.

Ana Ivanovic won the French Open for her first grand slam, but no one expected the 20-year-old to take over the tour. Sure enough, the No. 1 ranking switched hands a few times throughout the summer before it ended up back in Ivanovic's possession heading into the Open.

But the young Serb suffered early exits at each of the year's final two grand slams.

In July, Venus reclaimed her Wimbledon dominance, winning her fifth title at the All England Club in an epic match verse Serena. It was the opposite of Serena's quarterfinal win in New York, with the younger sister failing to capitalize on several opportunities.

The Williams' sisters followed Venus' accomplishment by pairing up to win the doubles' title at the Olympics. This is important to note, because playing doubles has undoubtedly improved both sisters' net play. Eight years ago, they got by on sheer power. Today, their ability to play well both from the baseline and net is why they're my No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.

For now, Serena is No. 1. But Venus is a close second.

And I'm sure she's fine with that. After all, Venus was in Arthur Ashe Stadium Sunday night, applauding every single Serena overhand — and other winners.

It's been a great two months for the sisters. A return to greatness — again.

Come January and the '09 Australian Open, who knows what player will step and start thew new year with a bang Down Under? That's a long way off.

But if Serena and Venus are healthy and motivated, I'll be flipping a coin to predict my winner.

Because right now, they're on another level.

Sound familiar?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

NFL preview: my (probably horrible) picks


It's that time of year again. Time for me to make my NFL picks, throwing out predictions that — more often than not — end up being so far off base, I'm mistaken for a violinist rather than a sports journalist.

Anyway, I still hang on to that ounce of hope that one of these days I'll pick the NFC Wild Card teams correctly. And that, yes, I'll actually get the Super Bowl winner right. http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif

Like any team (even the Lions), hope springs eternal on this first day of the season. I'm working with a clean slate:


AFC East
1. New England Patriots 13-3: Doubt the Pats at your own risk. That's what they want you to do. And then they'll make you look sillier than string. As long as Tom Brady stays healthy, another division title is in the books.

2. New York Jets 8-8: Brett Favre doubles the explosiveness of the offense, and Jerricho Cotchery will be a huge beneficiary of the new quarterback. But the defense will be porous. No return to the playoffs for Brett.

3. Buffalo Bills 7-9: They overachieved with this record a year ago. And I don't seriously expect Trent Edwards to lead them to more wins this season. At least they'll keep the die-hard fans in Buffalo thinking playoffs until December.

4. Miami Dolphins 5-11: No, Chad Pennington won't throw any bombs. But he's one accurate quarterback. And if he can hit Ted Ginn Jr. in the open field with room to run, this offense can have a few bright spots. The defense will miss "Dancing with the Stars" stalwart Jason Taylor.

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6: Ben Roethlisberger will continue to develop into one of the league's best QBs, and he's got himself a No. 1 wide receiver in big-play guy Santonio Holmes. The running-back situation is solid. So is the defense.

*2. Cleveland Browns 9-7: Yep, the Browns are headed back to the postseason. A couple of new linemen will do enough to help the defense, and Derek Anderson will prove that he's no one-year wonder. Of course, having Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow helps.

3. Cincinnati Bengals 7-9: I can't pick a team with such a quality QB to finish in the division's cellar. Carson Palmer will have a strong year, with fewer interceptions. And his receivers, including new tight end Ben Utecht, will put up huge numbers. Of course, a running game would be nice. And there's always the question of defense.

4. Baltimore Ravens 5-11: I don't care how mean-looking Ray Lewis is and how fast and sneaky Ed Reed is. If you're starting a rookie Q.B., you're in trouble. That's the Ravens' situation with Joe Flacco.

AFC South
1. Indianapolis Colts 11-5: What a division this will be. I would pick the Colts for more wins, except for the six division games they'll have to play. Anyone who thinks the Colts' time has passed is insane. The offense will be even more explosive with a healthy Marvin Harrison back. And Dwight Freeney's return benefits the defense.

*2. Jacksonville Jaguars 10-6: A schedule that shows zero easy games will make earning a playoff spot difficult. But it'll happen — barely. The big question will be what the wide receivers do to help out the offense. If they have breakout seasons, there will be more holes for Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

3. Tennessee Titans 8-8: The defense will remain one of the best in the business. The offense, on the other hand? Well, Vince Young still has a lot of improving to do. And he doesn't have the WRs around him to get it done. I'm not sold on Lendale White as a No. 1 running back.

4. Houston Texans 7-9: The Texans better hope that rookie Steve Slaton is ready for action, because the backfield situation is dire. Ahman Green is ancient and Chris Brown is on injured reserve. I like the WRs, but if defenses key on them — well, they're not Randy Moss. The defense remains weak.

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers 14-2: An easy schedule, a weak division and a damn good football team adds up to 14-2. This team is already thinking playoffs, and we're a few months away. The story to watch will be the health of Shawne Merriman, who's risking a lot by playing.

2. Denver Broncos 8-8: You never know what you're gonna get from these guys, but Mike Shanahan always has them competitive. That will be the case once again. The young offense should be improved, and the defensive backfield remains star-studded. Of course, Champ Bailey and Dre Bly can't run around covering WRs all day. Pressuring the quarterback — not to mention stopping the run — could be an issue.

3. Oakland Raiders 5-11: Well, you can say this about the Raiders: They'll be unpredictable. Young guns JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden should have people watching in the Bay Area. Besides that, things will remain ugly.

4. Kansas City Chiefs 4-12: Memo to defenses playing the Chiefs: Focus on stopping the run, specifically Larry Johnson. Why? Because no one should be scared of quarterback Brodie Croyle. Glenn Dorsey was a good draft pick, but he won't replace Jared Allen's production.


NFC East
1. Dallas Cowboys 12-4: They play in a tough enough division that four losses is a certainty. But no one can question the immense talent that you can smell while sitting in an El Paso eatery. This team figures to be explosive on both sides of the ball. The key will be not beating itself.

*2. Philadelphia Eagles 9-7: The big question: Will Donovan McNabb actually stay healthy? I'm banking on yes. The second big question: Will Brian Westbrook ever sit out because of an injury? I'm also banking on yes. He'll miss a few games, which will almost cost the Eagles a playoff spot. But not quite.

3. New York Giants 8-8: There will be no sneaking into the playoffs this time around. Losing Osi Umenyiora was a killer, and the defense won't be as scary up front. The offense will be explosive, but still mistake-prone. And Plaxico Burress will be constantly harrassed by defenses, since there are no other dangerous pass-catchers.

4. Washington Redskins 7-9: Don't count out the Redskins. They'll be in the playoff race until December. Jason Campbell continues to progress at QB, and Clinton Portis will have a big season running the ball. That still won't be enough, however, in this brutal division.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif

NFC North
1. Minnesota Vikings 10-6: I'm not buying the Vikings as a team to get to the Super Bowl. No, not this year. But they're good enough to win this division. Of course, Adrian Peterson could get hurt and completely ruin this prognostication. That's the fragility of running backs. The continued development of will be key.

*2. Green Bay Packers 9-7: No, the Packers won't be as good without Favre. But Aaron Rodgers will do enough to get them into the playoffs. And that, really, is all Packers faithful can hope for. He'll be helped by some of the best YAC WRs, led by Greg Jennings.

3. Detroit Lions 6-10: Oh, the tricky Lions. I've learned to never expect great things out of this team, so don't expect me to ever pick them to make the playoffs — until they actually do. It'll be interesting to see if the pushed-around offensive line can actually open some holes for rookie Kevin Smith.

4. Chicago Bears 6-10: The defense will dictate the Bears' win total, because the offensive is going to be mediocre at best. If the "D" can get back to its 2006 form, the team could do some things. If it plays like it did a year ago, expect an abysmal season. My question: Will safety Mike Brown finally say healthy?

NFC South
1. New Orleans Saints 10-6: This team is simply too sexy not to pick to make the playoffs. The offense has all the skill players, led by underrated quarterback Drew Brees. Players must, however, cut down on dumb turnovers. We'll have to wait and see if the defense is improved.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7: The defense will once again be very solid, but the offense looks, well, really old. The thought of Jeff Garcia throwing to Joey Galloway makes my skin wrinkle. At least running back Earnest Graham is younger than 30. The team will need his energetic running to move the ball.

3. Carolina Panthers 8-8: Losing Steve Smith for the opening two games — yep, he punched a teammate — doesn't bode well for a team playing in a tough division. The good news: Jake Delhomme says he's playing pain-free for the first time in a few years. The bad news: Julius Peppers might not be the player he used to be.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif

4. Atlanta Falcons 3-13: I'll give them home wins over the Chiefs, the Bears and the Rams. Otherwise, it's going to be another morbid year for the franchise. Of course, the Falcons are in full rebuilding mode, so wins and losses won't exactly be the bottom line. But I wouldn't want to be a fan in the stands this season.

NFC West
1. Seattle Seahawks 9-7: I love how Seattle takes advantage of its terrible division every season, just barely winning enough games to take first place. There will be no modification to the story this season. It will be interesting to watch the running-backs-by-committee show, but will keep the offense running. The defense is just so-so.

2. Arizona Cardinals 8-8: With a dangerous offense, they'll make a run at the Seahawks. But, as usual, they'll fall just short. Both sides of the ball will benefit from the continuity of just about everyone coming back, which should help with chemistry. But ultimately, there will be a couple close losses and the same record as a year ago.

3. St. Louis Rams 6-10: With Steven Jackson healthy and happy, the offense will be much improved and much scarier than the 2007 version. The WRs, however, don't scare anyone. Rams fans are hoping rookie Chris Long makes an immediate impact for an otherwise similar-to-2007 — and sorry — defense.

4. San Francisco 49ers 4-12: So the coaching staff has given up on QB Alex Smith, meaning the ball will be in the hands of J.T. O'Sullivan. Hmmm. Doesn't sound appealing to me. The one bright spot will be watching linebacker Patrick Willis tackle everyone around him. He's an absolute beast.

*Wild-Card team.


Wild-Card Round
AFC: No. 3 Indianapolis def. No. 6 Cleveland; No. 5 Jacksonville def. No. 4 Pittsburgh.
NFC: No. 6 Philadelphia def. No. 3 Minnesota; No. 4 Seattle def. No. 5 Green Bay.

Divisional Round
AFC: No. 1 San Diego def. No. 5 Jacksonville; No. 3 Indianapolis def. No. 2 New England.
NFC: No. 1 Dallas def. No. 6 Philadelphia; No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 4 Seattle.

Conference Championships
AFC: San Diego 23, Indianapolis 17: Rough day for Peyton Manning against stellar San Diego defense. No six INTs this time, but far from pretty.
NFC: Dallas 34, New Orleans 24: Back-and-forth offensive battle goes to the Cowboys, who ride the dreadlocks of Marion Barber back to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XLIII
Dallas 28, San Diego 20: In turnover-plagued game, Cowboys make fewer mistakes and capitalize on Chargers' errors. The MVP: How about sweet redemption for Tony Romo, who hasn't exactly enjoyed tranquil exits from the playoffs his first two seasons as the starter in "Big D"?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fantasy football: attracting NFL fans every day


Baseball may retain the moniker of "America's Pastime," but no civilized American can argue that it's this country's most popular sports league.

That honor firmly belongs to the National Football League, which will take center stage Thursday night when the Super Bowl-champion New York "Football" Giants take on the Washington Redskins.

I, for one, will remain more focused on baseball and college football for the next few months. Why? Because the end of a season -- baseball's -- is always more thrilling than the beginning of one, and I enjoy the college-football season more than the NFL's (at least until the bowls). Every games means so much more.

That doesn't mean, however, that I won't pay attention to nearly every NFL game each week, watching bits and pieces of several -- some from home, some from congested bars -- and keeping track of them all online.

And I hate to admit this, but fantasy football is a big reason.

Before I enter Fantasy Land, let me say this: I consider myself a sports nut. Translation -- over the years, I've developed a penchant for watching games that mean absolutely nothing to me just for the sheer excitement of the action, the drama of the final minutes. I consider myself rare in this aspect.

Being from Michigan, am I a huge Detroit Lions fan? No. I watch them when I can -- and bare with their losing ways -- but I'm no die-hard, blue-paint-wearing idiot (seriously, who would wear paint for the Lions?). But you can find me watching the end of a close Denver-Oakland game on a random Sunday evening. That's just the Sports Guy in me coming out.

But now, my interest in the NFL is headed to another level. For the first time, I am in two fantasy football money leagues this season. In one, I'm a joint owner. The other team is solely under my direction. That means checking the NFL news every day to see who's hurt, who's available and who's in their coach's doghouse. It's a bit time-consuming, but addictive as well.

And it's just another reason to watch the NFL on Sundays, Mondays and sometimes Thursdays. Normally, I might tune in -- on a mundane Thursday night -- to the final quarter of a Giants-Redskins season-opener. That is, of course, if the game is close. But with Washington tight end Chris Cooley on both my fantasy teams, I'm sure I'll watch more than a quarter this Thursday.

Call me a fantasy nerd. That, I guess, is what I'm becoming. Now, granted, I'm not even close to the upper echelon of fantasy players, who, among other things, keep track of Denver's fourth-string running back situation. Heck, I can't name the Broncos' second R.B. But random games mean even more to me now.

Not only will I hope for another epic Colts-Patriots game this season. I'll hope for a great performance from Tom Brady, whom I drafted No. 6 -- I know, risky pick -- ahead of the Colts' Joseph Addai in my solo league.

Of course, fantasy football also creates conflicts in a fan's head. For instance, my hometown Lions take on Jacksonville on Nov. 9. Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew is on my joint team. What if it's a late-game situation and the Lions need a defensive stop, but I desperately need rushing yards from Drew?

Issues, issues.

I like to think that I'm still more of a football fan than a fantasy football nut, but I won't be able to determine this for sure until well into the season. It should be a revealing experience for me.

And I'm sure millions of other NFL fans experience similar conundrums. But no one's hopping off the fantasy bus. It's simply too intoxicating. Too easy to get hooked on.

To add to this, running a team doesn't take much time. Rosters are small and there's only one slate of games a week. Additionally, there's so much information available, you don't have to dig to find out who's probable, who's questionable, which running back's carries will decrease and which wide receiver has a bad rapport with his coach.

It's an easy game to play, and -- I'm hoping -- not that tough of a game to win (I'll let you know in four months).

I'm just glad I've resisted the fantasy baseball urge, and college football fantasy games are few and far between (and, with thousands of unknown players, don't interest me).

So for now I'll focus on the baseball playoff race and the beginning of the Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor.

But simultaneously, I'll be keeping my eye on the number of carries the Broncos' Selvin Young, one of my RBs, gets.

Because if they dwindle, I might need to learn the name of that second-string guy out in the Rockies.