Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A long-awaited night for Philly, a bright future for the Rays


I know it lasted just five games, but what a great World Series this was.

Forget the poor TV ratings; forget the miserable Philadelphia weather; forget the 46-hour wait between the top and bottom of Game 5's sixth inning.

It was all worth it.

The Phillies and Rays put together a thrilling three innings of baseball in the frigid cold Wednesday night, with the Phillies emerging victorious 4-3. The end-game scenario couldn't have been more fitting:

There was Brad Lidge, Philly's perfect closer. Which is to say he doesn't blow saves, not one the entire season. But he does allow baserunners, which was the case as Fernando Perez, Tampa Bay's speedster, took a lead off second base. Eric Hinske, who was 1-for-1 in the Series with a home run entering the game, stood at the plate.

Then Lidge, appropriately, threw his nasty slider on an 0-2 count ... and Hinske had no chance. He swung at thin air. He missed badly. And the celebration was on. Ryan Howard, Philly's burly first baseman, nearly cracked a few of Lidge's ribs with a linebacker's tackle.

But he didn't. Not on this night. Not on the night that marked the first championship for the City of Brotherly Love since the Moses Malone-led 76ers improbably swept the Lakers in 1983. That was a half year before I was born, so now I'll get to hear about and read about, for the first time, all the arrests that are made as a result of Philly fans going absolutely chaotic all night.

They deserve to celebrate, that's for sure (well, legally at least). As any champion will tell you, each title should be savored, should be soaked up until it's bone-dry, because you never know if you'll be back. Even for teams with a grand-looking future, nothing is certain. For instance, after the Tigers' 2006 march to the World Series, I never thought, with the players they had returning, they'd be left out of the postseason the next two seasons.

Something tells me, however, that these Rays will be back in the postseason, that we'll be hearing from Tropicana Field's annoying cowbells in the years to come. The future of the franchise couldn't be brighter.

Their young everyday players, guys such as Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, aren't going anywhere. That's also the case for members of their strong starting rotation. And it will only get better with the inevitable addition of 23-year-old David Price, who showed his great maturity by pitching brilliantly in the late innings of these playoffs.

And who doesn't love red wine-drinking, thick glass-wearing manager Joe Maddon. He's a great manager for his inexperienced team, and I'm 95 percent sure he'll lead them back to October baseball.

So while there was disappointment for the Rays Wednesday night — who wouldn't be upset after winning 105 games during a long season only to come three wins short? — there was also perspective. Carlos Pena, who has emerged their spiritual leader, talked positively. So did Maddon.

The lost Series will sting for a while, but well before February, the Rays will be focused and excited about the 2009 season. The Red Sox and Yankees will have a tough time overtaking them in the brutal American League East.

But back to the Phillies, because this was their night, their city's night.

The thing about this team was that it impersonated its city. As in, it didn't make anything easy. It never took the easy path to victory.

Consider how many runners the Phillies left on base in the World Series (48), consider how they fared with runners in scoring position (6-for-47 entering Game 5). They probably could have scored 10 runs in all four of their victories, instead of 3, 5, 10 and 4 runs. The Phillies let the games stay close, let the Rays fight back several times.

But then they threw the last punch. On Wednesday, it was Pedro Feliz's game-winning RBI single in seventh inning that brought home Pat Burrell, who had just knocked his first hit of the Series — a leadoff double.

When the Phillies really needed hits in the playoffs, when they were trailing or in a tie game, they stepped up and got the job done in a blue-collar manner their city appreciates. In the NLCS, the bigs hits were Shane Victorino's and Matt Stairs' two-run home runs in the top of the eight inning of Game 4. The blasts turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead.

They devastated the Dodgers, put Philly up 3-1 in the series and paved the way for a trip to the Fall Classic that was realized two nights later.

Then came the big World Series hits. In Game 1, it was Chase Utley's first-inning, two-run jack that gave starting pitcher Coley Hamels an instant cushion en route to the one-run victory. In the wild, whacky Game 3, it was the eighth man in their order, catcher Carlos Ruiz, who fought off a tough inside pitch to dribble a roller up the third-base line. It was perfect for the bases-loaded situation in the ninth inning, scoring Eric Bruntlett for the game-winning run.

There was no drama in Game 4, as Howard joined the World Series party with a pair of HRs and five RBIs. The eight-run victory was a brief respite from drama for Philly fans, who, rightfully so, could never feel completely comfortable that the Series was in the bag. After all, it was the Phillies.

Which brings us back to Lidge, the closer, the man who put the finishing touch on 48 Philadelphia wins this season. The last time a Phillies closer was on the mound, it was Mitch Williams in 1993. And quite possibly, it was the most heartbreaking moment in the team's 125-year, morbid history. In Game 6 of Series against the Blue Jays, Williams gave up a walkoff three-run home run to Joe Carter. Toronto — a damn expansion franchise! — celebrated its second consecutive world championship.

But when Lidge threw his final nasty slider of the 2008 season, finishing off Hinske in a mere three pitches, 1993 was a distant memory. Even before the climatic moment, Williams had been forgiven. He's now a popular sports-talk radio host in the city. And Thursday, I'm sure, he'll get to spend his entire show talking about his former team. How right is that? He can't wash away the pain of '93, but how happy must he be?

The most joyous man, though, has to be Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel. Before Game 2 of the NLCS, Manuel learned that his loving mother, June Manuel, had passed away. He didn't have to manage that day, but that wasn't an option. Instead, he led the Phillies to a victory ... and then six more. And he knows June is celebrating wherever she may be.

Manuel is far from the most eloquent man. In fact, he's the polar opposite of Maddon, who speaks in such great detail, sometimes I mistake him for a professor. Manuel is more of a Philly guy, speaking succinctly and in generalities. And he doesn't hide his emotions. His words never come out smoothly, but you know they're from the heart.

On Wednesday night, after four seasons of criticism, after hearing people clamor for him to lose his job despite winning at least 85 games each season, he was the happiest 64-year-old on earth.

Good for Charlie.

And good for the rest of the Phillies. Their star ace, their MVP, was Hamels. Their de facto slugger was Howard. But their ride to the championship was full of performances from the other guys, from the players non-Philadelphia baseball fans may not be aware of.

The happiest 45-year-old has to be Jamie Moyer, who somehow found the strength to pitch six and one-third innings of three-run ball Saturday night in Game 3. He didn't get the victory that rain-soaked night, but his team did in a game pundits like myself thought it'd lose because of the starting-pitching matchup. He proved us all wrong.

It was an amazing performance from not only a man of his age, but also a man who had been brutally sick the night before the game. His wife said that Friday night, Moyer was a mess. He was his usual collected self Saturday.

The play that should stand out from Wednesday's clincher was made by Utley, Philly's do-everything second baseman. With the game tied 3-3 in the seventh inning, the Rays' Jason Bartlett stood at second base with two out. Akinori Iwamura grounded the ball back up the middle.

Bartlett, assuming it would get roll into center field or Utley would throw to first, jogged around the bases, not even looking back toward second as he rounded third base. After backhanding the ball behind second, Utley, knowing he couldn't get the speedy Iwamura, faked toward first then fired a one-bouncer to Ruiz. The catcher easily tagged out Bartlett to end the inning.

It was the kind of play World Series champions make, a defining moment. Rarely do you see a champion not make a similar heady play. A half-inning later, the Phillies were ahead for good.

And, it should be mentioned, J.C. Romero was the winning pitcher.

It wasn't the cleanest march to the championship. The Phillies needed some help from the Rays, who made their share of baserunning gaffes (like Bartlett's) and mistakes in the field during the Fall Classic. Philadelphia wasn't at its best all the time, either. There were at-bats when Howard, even Utley, looked lost, waving at three straight pitches.

I almost expected to hear boos after such at-bats. After all, that's what Philly fans are known for. But they're also known, maybe not as well, for being knowledgeable, for knowing everything possible about their team.

And Wednesday night, they knew — they could be sure of — that the best team in baseball, the guys in white and red rejoicing on the cold, windy field, were World Series champions.

The 28-year wait since the Phillies' 1980 title, the first in franchise history, was worth it. As was the 25-year major-sports championship drought. And the aggravating 46-hour wait to complete three stinkin' innings.

One word could sum up what transpired just before 10 p.m.

Finally. Or, I guess, "Phinally."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

2008-09 NBA preview: The rivalry continues


It's amazing how Mother Nature can, just like that, change one night's column.

Just hours ago, I was preparing to write my "Philadelphia finally gets a championship" column. I had all the ghastly stats about the city laid out in front of me. The Phillies were up 2-0 in Game 5. And their ace, Cole Hamels, was mowing down Rays hitters like twigs in his backyard.

But then the rains came, Carlos Pena joined the World Series cast with a pair of clutch hits, and MLB officials suspended the game after the Rays tied it 2-2. So there's no pandemonium in Philly — yet.

Which ruined my column, but also gave me this opportunity to...

Put together, in this tiny window of time on the morning of the NBA's first day, my huge NBA preview column!

So thanks, Mother Nature, for giving me this chance to make predictions without the help of one or two days of NBA action. Thanks a lot (sarcasm). I'm sure that after Greg Oden's first game Tuesday night, I will know — no doubt — whether the Blazers are a playoff team in the West (more sarcasm).

Now I'll be watching and writing about baseball instead.

OK, enough blabbering. Here goes. Note that playoff teams have an asterisk by them and a team's finish in its division precedes the / followed by its finish in the conference. Playoff predictions are at the bottom:

Atlantic Division
*1/1. Boston Celtics (58-24): The obvious question is whether they're "hungry" enough to repeat. The obvious answer is, "Let's wait until April to answer that." They'll miss James Posey's clutch play and defense. But Rajon Rondo will be improved at the point.

*2/5. Philadelphia 76ers (47-35):
Expect Elton Brand to gradually play himself back into one of the league's best big men, although this time he'll be noticed. This team still lacks good outside shooters, especially in its starting lineup.

*3/6. Toronto Raptors (46-36):
Regardless of how healthy Jermaine O'Neal is, I liked the trade for him. Now Jose Calderon can take over the point and not worry about splitting minutes. Everything about this team says "rock solid, but nothing special." Additional pieces are needed for greatness.

4/14. New York Knicks (24-58): It's going to be a rough first year for Mike D'Antoni, and no one should be surprised. This is one heck of a rebuilding job. The main focus will be on ridding of Stephon Marbury and possibly a few other big-contract guys. They'll score a lot of points but give up even more.

5/15. New Jersey Nets (21-61): I don't like picking a Lawrence Frank-coached team to fall this far, because I believe he's one of the most underrated coaches in the game. Of course, it helped to have Jason Kidd. Now he's down to Vince Carter (for the time being, at least), Devin Harris and ... nobody. Talk about a rebuilding job.

Central Division
*1/2. Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29): Yep, I'm drinking the Mo Williams Kool-Aid. The guy can play the point, plus he's a scorer. LeBron James says the team has no excuses not to win a title now. He's right. People need to stop thinking James needs a top-five PG to win a championship. Expect an MVP year from the King.

*2/3. Detroit Pistons (51-31):
This team will play hard for Michael Curry, but the first-time coach is also smart enough to know that he'll be judged almost solely on whether his team makes it past that pest called the Eastern Conference Finals. So starters won't play big minutes, young guns will get experience, and there will be more regular-season L's.

3/9. Chicago Bulls (38-44):
Things won't be nearly as ugly as last year, and at the end of the season there will be optimism looking forward. With a new coach, Vinny Del Negro, and a rookie point guard, Derrick Rose, the Bulls will have some struggles — just enough, in fact, to keep them out of the postseason.

4/11. Milwaukee Bucks (34-48): No one can deny that the offensive artillery is in place for the Bucks. They've got plenty of guys who can score, including acquisitions Richard Jefferson and Luke Ridnour. But can they play defense? That will be a year-long project for dictator Scott Skiles.

5/12. Indiana Pacers (32-50):
I love Danny Granger, and he'll only get better with experience. And Mike Dunleavy Jr. hasn't turned out to be such a bust after all. But the big men are all soft, non-scorers or inexperienced. They'll struggle against the big boys.

Southeast Division
*1/4. Orlando Magic (49-33): The Magic won't match last year's 52-30 mark, but it won't need to as it coasts to another division title. Advancing further in the playoffs will be the goal. That will be determined by its guard play, which tends to be shaky.

*2/7. Atlanta Hawks (42-40):
People are quick to write off the Hawks despite the nervousness they caused in Boston last April. With every key cog back except Europe castoff Josh Childress, they'll be improved. Having Mike Bibby for a full season only helps.

*3/8. Washington Wizards (40-42):
Oh, the Wizards. Who knows what to expect from this injury-plagued bunch? And who knows if they'll have a better winning percentage with or without the mercurial Gilbert Arenas? What I do know is that Caron Butler is developing into a star and there's enough talent around him to barely squeeze into the playoffs.

4/10. Miami Heat (35-47):
The Heat will improve by 20 wins because of two reasons. One, Dwyane Wade will be back to his old self. That right there equals 15 additional wins. Two, Michael Beasley won't play like a rookie, putting up huge numbers and giving Miami three big-time players. If only there was a supporting cast.

5/13. Charlotte Bobcats (29-53):
Not that the preseason matters, but can it be a good thing when a team with a new coach goes 0-8? Yes, I'll admit it: When Larry Brown first got the job, I labeled this team a playoff lock for this year. After all, there's plenty of talent. I can't make the stretch anymore. The players are simply too immature. Not enough defense. No enough team cohesion. I hope I'm wrong.

Southwest Division
*1/1. Los Angeles Lakers (59-23): The Lakers will win on the last night of the regular season to clinch the NBA's best record. Nothing will come easy for them. Andrew Bynum will be fine. The key, as always, will be which Lamar Odom shows up in the big games. He can be great. He can be nonexistent.

*2/6. Phoenix Suns (50-32):
This team will have its struggles adopting to new coach Terry Porter and the idea of not running all the time. But it still has one of the game's best point guards, Steve Nash, and one of the best power forwards, Amare Stoudemire. That's more than enough to garner this spot, if not playoff success.

3/9. Los Angeles Clippers (42-40): Pundits are predicting complete doom for this squad after the surprising departure of Brand. While no playoff berth is in store, there remains some talent. Baron Davis will have a huge year in his favorite city. And I like the frontcourt, when healthy, of Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman.

4/11. Golden State Warriors (39-43):
Another team shook up by the offseason. By the way, there was nothing wrong with suspending Monta Ellis 30 games for lying about his moped accident. He was going to miss those games anyway. But the Warriors will have a hard time in those games. And did I mention they don't play defense?

5/14. Sacramento Kings (26-56):
Kevin Martin needs to be noticed. All the guy does is score, score and score some more. But with Ron Artest gone, he'll have little to no help. This team will have a rough go at it in the mighty West.

Southwest Division
*1/2. New Orleans Hornets (57-25): There's no reason to think the Hornets will be worse than a year ago, when they posted 56 wins. Not only is everyone back and wiser, but Posey gives them the badly needed veteran toughness (not to mention his two championships). Expect big things from this fun-to-watch group, which won't settle for anything in the playoffs.

*2/3. Houston Rockets(53-29): The only word that matters with this group is "health." I'm betting they'll stay healthy for the majority of the season. I know it's a risky gamble, but it's this year or never. After all, players age (and there's my obvious fact of the preview). When all is good with the bones, backs and knees, the Rockets have a very complete — and scary — team.

*3/5. San Antonio Spurs (52-30): The Spurs will finish with the same record as the Jazz, but get the lower playoff seed because Utah wins its division. As usual, people will write them off. That's always a bad idea. If — and this is a big "if" — Manu Ginobili can get completely healthy, we all know what might happen in June. 2003, 2005, 2007 ... 2009?

*4/7. Dallas Mavericks (48-34): It's amazing how quickly expectations have fallen in "Big D." After getting dominated by the Hornets in the first round, no one is scared of this team, especially its aging point guard Jason Kidd. I do think newly focused, and contrite, Josh Howard will have a good year, which will be enough for a playoff spot — and another quick playoff exit.

5/15. Oklahoma Thunder (19-63):
I didn't want to pick this young team to lose a win off of last year, but I can't choose every NBA team to finish out of the teens in the win column, right? There simply is not much talent around Kevin Durant, which is unfortunate. At least the Oklahoma City fans will be supportive, and Durant will put together some huge nights for fantasy owners.

Northwest Division
*1/4. Utah Jazz (52-30): Jerry Sloan must feel the pinch. If he doesn't do something big with this group, much of the nucleus might be gone in the summer. That's the reality of the Jazz's situation. At least there won't be too much tension in cruising to another division title. Then Salt Lake City will brace for the playoffs and whatever ensues.

*2/8. Portland Trail Blazers (45-37):
Maybe no other team is opening the season surrounded by so much excitement and anticipation. Oden is finally ready to go (as a "rookie"), and he's joining a pretty talented bunch of players. As was the case last year, expect plenty of highs and lows from this young bunch. There will be enough highs for a playoff berth and more optimism looking toward the future.

3/10. Denver Nuggets (41-41):
It's hard to imagine this, but the team with two of the NBA's best scorers will miss the playoffs. Why? Well, with Camby gone, there's absolutely no defensive presence. Carmelo Anthony pledged he, and his teammates, will be more focused defensively. Prove me wrong, 'Melo. Also, George Karl seems to have lost his passion for coaching. And did I mention they play in a pretty good conference?

4/12. Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52): Yep, I'm predicting an eight-win improvement for this team of youngsters, something to give the city hope for the franchise's future. Al Jefferson is a budding star, and Kevin Love's presence in the frontcourt will only help him. Mike Miller's addition to the backcourt will help loosen up the paint for the talented big men.

5/13. Memphis Grizzlies (27-55):
I'm also forecasting a five-win improvement for this group of adolescents. And they'll only get better as the season progresses. If the NBA was a four-guard league, they might be a playoff team. Unfortunately, they don't have a single proven big man. The onus is on Marc Gasol to become one.

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 8 Washington (5 games)
No. 2 Cleveland def. No. 7 Atlanta (5 games)
No. 3 Detroit def. No. 6 Toronto (6 games)
No. 5 Philadelphia def. No. 4 Orlando (7 games)

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 8 Portland (5 games)
No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 7 Dallas (4 games)
No. 3 Houston def. No. 6 Phoenix (7 games)
No. 5 San Antonio def. No. 4 Utah (6 games)

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 5 Philadelphia (6 games)
No. 3 Detroit def. No. 2 Cleveland (7 games)

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 5 San Antonio (6 games)
No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 3 Houston (6 games)

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 3 Detroit (7 games): Here's the reality of the situation: This series will come down to who believes in themselves more. The answer to that is obvious. The Pistons, no doubt, will be thinking about all their exits in this round. Meanwhile, after a long season, the Celtics will be able to smell the Finals again. The group of veterans won't neglect another opportunity to reach the grand stage. Once again, they'll make all the clutch plays.

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 2 New Orleans (6 games): I'm tempted to pick the Hornets; I really like their makeup. But the Lakers simply have too much firepower, especially when Odom is playing well. They'll own the matchups in the paint, and don't forget who else they have: a man named Kobe Bryant.

L.A. Lakers def. Boston (6 games): An improved Lakers team will beat a Boston team not quite as good as the defending champions. Odom will show up. The big men will fight to a draw. And this time it will be Bryant, not Paul Pierce, knocking down all the big shots.

Be sure to remind me when all these predictions are way off.

Not that anyone will remember next summer that I even wrote this preview.

Yep, prepare for another long season.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Phillies' big hitters wake up; Rays' hybernate


Welcome to the party, Ryan Howard.

Still invited to the party, but yet to make an appearance: Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. It's almost over, fellas, appetizers are long gone, last call for drinks, doors are closing.

And that, folks, is a big reason why this is where we sit:

Phillies 3, Rays 1.

The city of Philadelphia is ready to explode as its citizens — and outsiders with connections to the city, such as myself — sense the first major-sport championship in 25-plus years. If any city deserves a title, it's Philly (although, yes, Cleveland sports fans certainly have a case).

Not that this thing is over. Any knowledgeable Philadelphia fan would tell you this. They know the heartbreak that can occur in their city. There won't be any healthy rioting until the last out is in the books.

But unless two Rays bats wake up, it's only a matter of time.

Stat of the series: Pena and Longoria, two of Tampa Bay's most potent bats, are 0-for-29. That, in a word, is ghastly. With their No. 3 and 4 hitters somewhere in Panama, the Rays are lucky this thing isn't over yet. They're lucky those riots aren't occurring right now.

Meanwhile, Philly's big bat has finally come alive. Howard, who is fascinating because of how bad he can look one at-bat before smoking a long ball the next time up, has done a lot of the latter in Philly's two home wins. The regular-season home run champion hit his first round-tripper of the postseason in Game 3, and Sunday night he connected on a pair.

Howard's three-run shot, off a breaking ball — usually his weakness — and to the opposite field, was the Shot Heard Round Philly, extending the Phils' tenuous 2-1 advantage to 5-1. From there, the final innings were academic.

The Phillies hit another pair of long balls, including Howard's second. The Rays, meanwhile, continued to get nothing from the middle of their order and squandered quality scoring opportunities in the sixth and seventh innings.

By the eighth, you knew it was over. Trailing 6-2, there should have been a sliver of hope for the Rays. After all, Pena, Longoria and Carl Crawford — the "meat" of the order — were due up. But in this Fall Classic, the meat has been rawer than raw. And Pena and Longoria further proved this, meekly striking out before Crawford grounded to second.

For comparison's sake, Philadelphia's No. 3 hitter, Chase Utley, hit the key two-run homer in Philly's 3-2 Game 1 win and also homered in the most dramatic game of the Series, the Phillies' nutty 5-4 win Saturday night/Sunday morning.

Howard is a prime candidate to be named the MVP if the Phillies can close it out. Besides the three home runs and the five-RBI performance Sunday, he's hitting .353. His manager Charlie Manual wasn't kidding when he said that Howard, and his wide shoulders, could carry the team to a championship.

Of course, he's getting plenty of help. You know things aren't going the Rays' way when Joe Blanton — large, pudgy pitcher Joe Blanton! — hits a no-doubt shot over the left-field wall. It was the Game 4 starter's first career home run, and at the most opportune time.

But Blanton didn't need the run. Or Howard's five RBIs, for that matter. Just like Jamie Moyer a night earlier, Blanton was the better starting pitcher. Most pundits, including yours truly, thought the back of Tampa's starting rotation would be stronger than the Phillies'.

Shows what we know.

We also thought Pena and Longoria would continue to hit like they had all season and into the playoffs.

Um, wrong on that one too.

What has happened is this: Despite continuing to struggle mightily with runners in scoring position, the Phillies have scored enough runs for the commanding 3-1 series lead. Credit Utley, Howard and company — Blanton included — for stroking a few momentum-snagging long balls into the dark sky.

And the City of Brotherly Love is on the brink of a large, unabashed love fest.

Unless the Rays' big bats wake up.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lidge the Phillies' comforting blanket


If Phillies fans are still extremely nervous about their team's fortunes in this World Series — even after a solid Game 1 win, 3-2, in St. Petersburg, among the cowbells, Wednesday night — I completely understand.

After all, in the franchise's dismal 125-year history, it's won a single championship in 1980. (Yep, that's right: Even the lowly Cubs, with their back-to-back titles in 1907 and '08, have twice as many.)

So "optimism" is not a word thrown out in the streets of Philly, especially when not a single of the city's four major-sports teams has won a championship since the 76ers in 1983. There will be no celebrating, no champaign toasts, no burning of couches/cars/cheese steaks until the last out is recorded, until the Phillies have won four games against the Rays.

That's just knowing your team.

But if there is a comfort blanket on this Philadelphia team, someone whom Philly fans can place at least a tad of trust in, it's Brad Lidge.

Forget Mariano Rivera (and his Hall-of-Fame career and dominance in the playoffs). Forget Francisco Rodriguez (and his single-season saves record). At this moment in time, Lidge is the best closer in baseball.

What makes a closer good — besides, of course, not blowing a save all season? When you're watching a dominant ninth-inning pitcher, you just know that he will get the job done. Your heart might tell you there's a chance he will slip, he will lose the slim one-run lead thanks to one bad pitch, but your mind — your most trusted source of smarts — tells you there's no chance. It's over.

That's what I think when Lidge takes the mound.

So when the Rays brought up the middle of their lineup — Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford — to face Lidge in the bottom of the ninth, I was positive he would finish the job. I didn't necessarily think he'd be as dominant as he was, striking out Pena and Longoria on nasty sliders before getting a foul popout to close it, but I knew he'd finish the Phillies' victory.

Only the best closers give me that feeling. This season, anyway, Lidge is one of those guys.

He has all the key ingredients of a top-notch closer:

1. He gets ahead in counts and has a good fastball that he's not afraid to throw down Main Street for that first strike.

2. He has the nasty "out pitch," his slider, which fools hitters even when they're expecting it.

3. He has a great presence on the mound, never getting flustered when a baserunner or two may reach.

4. Finally, he has proved over the past couple weeks that he's just as good in October as he is during the regular season. All closers must prove this before they can gain elite status.

Lidge's steadiness has to be especially cathartic for Phillies fans who witnessed the Mitch Williams Debacle in the 1993 Fall Classic. That memorable series was capped off with Williams giving up a ninth-inning, three-run homer to Toronto's Joe Carter, which won the Blue Jays a second consecutive championship in six games.

It was Williams' second blown save of the series. In an incredible Game 4, Toronto came back from a 14-9 deficit with six runs in the eighth inning, three off Williams, to win 15-14. Williams got the loss and death threats from angry fans.

The 1993 experience had to have scarred many Philly fans for life, and there may be some who will never trust another Phillies closer. But Lidge is one man who can be trusted, if "trust" is indeed still a word in the City of Brotherly Love.

Unlike the long-haired, often erratic Williams, Lidge is calm, cool and collected when on the mound. Sure, he shows emotion after a big strikout or a critical double play, but that's natural and it doesn't affect his approach toward the next hitter.

Now, I have to stand by my predicition that Tampa Bay will win the Series in six games, but let me add this: If the Rays want to win their first World Series, they better figure out a way to get leads before the eight inning. Yep, even before Lidge takes the stroll in from the bullpen, because he's got a nasty setup man in Ryan Madson, who set down three consecutive Rays Wednesday.

Madson and Lidge give Philly a nasty eight-nine punch at the end of games. A comforting combo, if you will, for those never-been-kissed Phillies followers.

This Fall Classic could be dramatic, could be heart-throbbing. But this much I'm convinced of, Philadelphia:

There will be no repeat of the end of the '93 Series. Your closer won't be on the mound, watching as an opposing hitter rounds the bases celebrating a walkoff dinger.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Letting a name and tradition fool you


It's an easy trap to fall into, so I won't laugh at a friend for the text messages he sent me after Boston's wins over Tampa Bay in Game 5 of the ALCS Thursday night and Game 6 Saturday night.

After Boston's improbable 8-7 comeback for the ages Thursday: "Well that sucks that might break the Rays."

During Boston's hotly contested 4-2 win Saturday, when I texted him that I smelled a Game 7: "It will happen and tampa will probably lose which sucks."

My friend wasn't the only one. Without doing a lick of research, I can guarantee you that even with Boston down 3-2 and needing two wins in St. Petersburg, a good portion of this country smelled two Boston wins. I'll bet my house — OK, I don't own a house; but you get the point — that prior to Game 7 Sunday, the majority of America thought Boston had another World Series berth in the bag.

The reasons for these thoughts? It's very simple, actually: name recognition and tradition. In other words, Boston had won two World Series in four seasons; Tampa hadn't sniffed the postseason ... ever. Fenway Park is one of the most recognized sports venues in the country and hundreds of books have been written about the Red Sox; the Rays haven't even been the "Rays" for a year and have only been a franchise for 11 seasons.

To make a bad analogy, you walk into a store to buy a six-pack. On one rack is Samuel Adams (no Boston connection intended). You know what you'd be getting. You've sipped hundreds of SAs over the years. On the other rack is an ale you've only seen at a party yet. You took one from a friend, but you aren't convinced you want to buy it yourself.

You take the Sam Adams simply because of its name and your history of drinking it.

It's a poor call. Just like giving up on the Rays to win the ALCS after their Game 6 loss.

The series went seven games, but the Rays dominated the first six games. There was no arguing that they weren't the better team. Just examine Games 3 through 6, because the first two games — Boston 2-0, Tampa 9-8 in 11 innings — cancel each other out as very tight ballgames.

Tampa dominated Games 3 and 4, both at Fenway, by scores of 9-1 and 13-4. Their hitters owned Boston pitching, sending seven balls out of the park and slamming 27 hits. The big bats in Boston's lineup, primarily David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, were as silent as Red Sox Nation during the blowouts.

We all know what happened in Game 5. The Rays dominated the game for six innings before two big Bostons swings, by Ortiz and , got the Red Sox back into the game after being down 7-0. A couple clutch hits later, Boston had an 8-7 victory.

Game 6 was a close contest throughout, with the most unlikely of home runs by Boston catcher Jason Veritek — his first and only hit of the series — and a Tampa Bay error allowing Boston to turn a 2-2 game into a 4-2 victory. It was a solid victory, closed out by Boston's bullpen, but in no way was it backbreaking. In no way was it a "Don't even bother showing up at the ballpark tomorrow" kind of win.

So the Rays showed up Sunday, loose and confident like they should have been. Of course they couldn't forget what had transpired the previous three days, but hey, they were still a game away from the Fall Classic. That's the attitude the precocious team took, and it worked wonders.

There was never a sense of panic, a whiff of desperation. When asked after Tampa's 3-1 Game 7 victory to "honestly" say whether there was doubt in the clubhouse, winning pitcher Matt Garza said there wasn't. I believe him.

You see, it's one thing when you get lucky in a game or two and squeak out a couple other games to get to a Game 7. In that scenario, it's hard for a team to be completely sure of itself. Living on the edge will do that to you. But entering Game 7, the Rays — have I said this already? — were the better team; they were the superior team during 162 regular-season games, and they were for the first six games of the series.

Still, the money was on Boston because it's, well, "Boston." I can't say I blame people. I'm no betting man, but with my minimal income, it would have been tough to bet on the Rays Sunday.

It happens in all sports all the time. The newcomer to the grand stage is written off — again, and again and again. Never mind that they've proven themselves countless times. Until they win that first championship, people doubt they have the chutzpah to pull it off.

Just look at the Pistons' easy series win over the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. People kept doubting the unfamiliar group of Detroit players, even as they dominated the familiar Lakers. Picking Kobe and Shaq, and their three previous championships, was easier (and, of course, just plain dumb, especially after wins by Detroit in Games 1, 3 and 4).

It occurs in college sports as well. I was inside Michigan Stadium last year when Appalachian State knocked off the mighty Wolverines. Even as the Wildcats led Michigan for most of the game, there was a sense among the Big House faithful that it couldn't possibly happen. That a tiny school from Boone, N.C., couldn't knock off fabled Michigan.

We all know what transpired.

And now the Rays are in the World Series, and anyone who continues to doubt them — regardless of how they fare in the World Series — is a complete nut job.

In fact, barring major offseason developments, anyone who doesn't predict the Rays to repeat as American League East champs next season will be disillusioned as well. With a super young team full of improving starting pitchers and everyday guys who play great defense, run the bases well and have power ... well, this team is here to stay for the long haul.

Oh, and did I mention that the man on the mound for Boston's final four outs Sunday was a kid, 23, who had pitched in a whopping five regular-season games?

Yep, that's right. David Price isn't going anywhere. And neither are most of his teammates.

You can doubt them if you want. Go ahead and pick the older Yankees or Red Sox to win the division next year.

Just know that you'll likely be basing your prediction more on the past than what's actually the case today.

And you probably won't be the only one.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A magical night at Fenway, but Rays remain in control


Terry Francona said it best in his postgame news conference:

"That was pretty magical."

Indeed, it was. What transpired in Boston Thursday night was almost surreal, like one of those dreams that you never want to wake up from. As the Red Sox continued to bite into Tampa Bay's seemingly insurmountable 7-0 lead, I almost expected to wake up to reality.

But there was nothing fake about it. And if Boston can somehow turn it into two wins in St. Petersburg followed by four victories over the Phillies, Oct. 16, 2008, will go down in Red Sox lore along with those incredible nights in mid-October 2004.

I, for one, don't see that happening. Despite the devastation the Rays must be feeling right now, despite the absolute collapse by their usually stout bullpen, how can they not still feel good about themselves?

It might not feel this way, but the Rays are actually up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. And they're going home to their cowbell-banging fans in Florida. You can add to that the fact that their No. 1 pitcher, James Shields, will start Game 6 Saturday night.

I liked the Rays before Thursday's game to win the series, and I still think they'll close out the defending champions. I give them a 75 percent chance.

But back to the magic. Late Thursday night was why I watch sports, why I never turn off a game prematurely, why most goosebumps I've experienced in 24-plus years are a direct result of moments like David Ortiz's three-run, seventh inning home run to slice the Rays' lead to 7-4...

And J.D. Drew's two-run shot in the eighth to narrow the gap to 7-6...

At that point, it didn't matter that I wanted the Rays to win the series. For a few spine-tingling innings, I joined Red Sox Nation. And when Coco Crisp fought off so many 3-2 pitches that my phone died as I talked with Dad — in the middle of the crucial at bat — I knew the magic wasn't gone.

A few seconds later, Crisp drilled the baseball into right field, tying the game 7-7. I got goosebumps for the third time of the night and called Dad back. It was a moment, a game, a comeback to share with others.

At that point, I almost felt as if the comeback was complete. The Red Sox might have felt the same way, considering there was a minor ninth-inning letdown. Two Rays runners reached base, and suddenly the thought occurred to me that everything accomplished the two previous innings could instantly be for naught. A Carlos Pena base hit could give the lead right back to the Rays.

But it simply wasn't meant to be. This was the Red Sox's night — like so many have been the past three years. When Pena hit a groundball directly to second baseman Dustin Pedroia, setting up an easy inning-ending double play, the outcome became clear to me.

What followed was almost anticlimactic. Tampa Bay threw the home team a bone when third baseman Evan Longoria threw away Kevin Youkilis' two-out grounder up the line. Two batter later, Drew sent the Fenway fans — those who remained in the stadium, at least — home delirious with a final base hit, one last RBI.

The magic show was over. And what a show it was.

Consider just how badly the Rays had dominated Boston for two straight games plus six innings Thursday (all at Fenway): They'd outscored the Red Sox 29-5; they'd fooled Boston's big hitters — Ortiz, Pedroia included — into looking meager; they'd pounded pitch after over or against the Green Monster.

There was no reason — none at all — to expect anything out of Boston after the seventh-inning stretch. Even when Pedroia plated a run with a single to make the score 7-1, the only notable was that Boston wouldn't be shut out in a home playoff game, continuing some streak that I can't even remember.

Heck, Tampa hadn't given up more than a three-run lead all season.

But when "Big Papi" jacked the homer into the right-field stands, the impossible suddenly became quite plausible. Just like that, with one swing of the bat.

Isn't it amazing how 7 seconds, or so, can alter the course of history?

Considering the magnitude of the game, at this moment I'll call it the greatest comeback I've ever watched. This opinion will change, of course, if the Rays close out Boston Saturday or Sunday. If that's the case, this story loses much of its luster.

But at least for two days, what the Red Sox did Thursday night in one of two great ballparks left in the country — and we all know the stigma the other park carries — should be embraced as nothing short of remarkable, as one of the great feats in American sports history.

And in an ironic twist of fate for Red Sox Nation: Drew's game-winning hit occurred within a minute of the five-year anniversary of Aaron Boone's walkoff homer that sent the Yankees to their last World Series and Boston fans weeping and cursing the Bambino.

Since that moment, all the magic's been on the Red Sox's side.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Did the Phillies win too soon?


I know this sounds preposterous, but the Philadelphia Phillies might have been better off losing Game 5 Wednesday night.

Provided, of course, that they return to the city of Brotherly Love and win Game 6 or 7 of the NLCS.

I know this sounds equally ludicrous, but the Tampa Bay Rays might be better off if they lose Game 5 Thursday night in Fenway Park.

Provided, of course, that they close the deal on their first World Series invitation in Game 6 or 7 back at Tropicana Field.

Before you call me a nut job or sports gambling addict, let me explain myself. This was, after all, the final Debate Night in America. Please, my friends, don't cross the aisle just yet.

I'm not suggesting, at all, that the Phillies shouldn't have given maximum effort in Wednesday's clinching game. And I'm not suggesting that the Rays shouldn't do the same against the defending champions Thursday night. Ask any Philly right now about how they feel, and they'll give you the typical, "Words can't explain..."

But numbers can explain that winning the NLCS or ALCS too soon can result in an odious Fall Classic experience. Just ask the Detroit Tigers of 2006. Just ask the Colorado Rockies of '07.

Two years ago on Oct. 14, the city of Detroit was in a frenzy. I wasn't there. In fact, I was 9,093 miles away in Sydney, Australia. But people back home relayed the craziness to me. The Tigers had just swept the Oakland A's in the ALCS. They were playing their best baseball of their remarkable turnaround season.

Meanwhile, St. Louis was slugging its way through a burn-for-burn series with the Mets. It wasn't decided until New York's Carlos Beltran got caught staring at a nasty curveball for a called strike three in Game 7. The date was Oct. 19.

On Oct. 21, the Fall Classic finally got underway. And you couldn't find a baseball fan — or expert — outside of St. Louis who thought the Cardinals would win the Series. Of course, we all know what transpired after that.

Cardinals 4, Tigers 1, with the lone win coming in controversial fashion as Kenny Rogers had some foreign substance on his left pitching hand. Five errors by Tigers' pitching. An absolute no-show by their suddenly impotent lineup.

All it took was a week away from the competitive diamond for the Tigers to lose their magic. Some say their pitchers should have practiced throwing the ball to first and third during the time off. I think they should have scrimmaged some fall-league teams.

Then came 2007. And another magical story. This time it was the Colorado Rockies, winning 14 of their final 15 regular-season games — including a one-game, 13-inning playoff drama against San Diego — and then breezing through an NLDS sweep of the Phillies and a four-game undressing of Arizona.

Before the people of Denver realized there was a professional team in their city besides the Broncos, the Rockies were in the World Series. A shocking euphoria followed. But, alas, the winner of 21 of 22 games ran into its toughest opponent yet.

A long break from baseball.

It was even worse than the Tigers' respite a year earlier. The Rockies clinched the N.L. pennant on Oct. 15. The World Series wasn't scheduled to begin until Oct. 24! Matt Holliday could have visited all seven continents, solved global warming and started a campaign for president in that time.

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox were in the midst of gaining as much momentum as possible leading right up to the beginning of the Fall Classic. As they battled back from a 3-1 ALCS deficit to the Indians, Coco Crisp had to cancel his three-day mini vacation in Cabo. There'd be no time for fooling around.

Heck, the Red Sox barely took off their uniforms after winning Game 7 the night of Oct. 21. The Series commenced on the 24th.

After three dominating victories over the Indians, the red-hot Sox — whom nobody questioned was the better team — put a stake in Colorado's 10-game winning streak in the opener and proceeded to roll to an easy four-game sweep.

Since then, Denver sports fans have once again forgotten about the baseball team that inhabits their football-crazed city.

I hate to play the what-if game, but once every couple months or two is OK. Not to take anything away from the '06 Cardinals — whom have been called, by the way, the worst World Series champion in baseball history — or the '07 Red Sox, but I'd be curious to see how those series would have turned out if the Tigers and Rockies, respectively, hadn't faced such long breaks between series.

Which brings me back to this season. Right now the Phillies are riding high, playing great baseball, brimming with confidence. But will they be this sharp in a week? Will Cole Hamels hit his targets like he did in two dominating NLCS performances? These, I believe, are legitimate questions.

Part of me wants, for the sake of fairness, the Rays to close out the Red Sox Thursday night. At least that way both Fall Classic participants would face almost equally long breaks. They'd both have to deal with the issue of how to spend five or six days away from the diamond. How to stay sharp? How to stay focused?

But if Tampa Bay is lucky enough to face a short Boston Renaissance before closing out the Red Sox in Game 6 or 7 Saturday or Sunday, I'll give a clear edge to the Rays over the Phillies. Not only are they a great team, overflowing with confident young pitchers and a lineup every bit as explosive as the Phillies', they'd still have the taste of bubbly in their mouths when they take the field Wednesday night.

Don't underestimate that factor.

Of course, I haven't even mentioned the other possibility, but I think we all have a pretty good idea of what would transpire in the World Series if the Red Sox somehow pull off another ALCS comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.

Yep, three titles for Boston in five years.

I don't see that happening, however. Tampa Bay is playing way too well right now. The Rays aren't simply beating the Red Sox, they're embarrassing them — and in front of the Fenway Faithful.

But don't think that another dominating Game 5 performance would necessarily carry over to a still-distant Fall Classic. And definitely don't assume that the Phillies' brilliance in the NLCS will carry over.

Just ask the last two World Series runners-up.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tyson Chandler understands the common man


Tyson Chandler
gets what a lot of athletes can't seem to grasp.

The New Orleans Hornets center doesn't pretend to know a lot about politics. In fact, he clearly stated on his blog that he doesn't understand what a lot of politicians babble about (I'm with you, Tyson!).

But Chandler, 26, gets this: With the millions of dollars he's making, he can afford to pay higher taxes as a sacrifice for millions of others (no pun intended). Chandler attended a presidential candidate's rally in Indiana last Wednesday, and he came away overly impressed with the candidate.

I'm just as impressed with Chandler.

One reason for the divide between normal working-class Americans and professional athletes is the absurd difference in salaries. And athletes don't help themselves by greedily scrounging for that $67 million instead of $60 million. Average Americans making $35,000 a year shake their heads and turn off the tube.

Tyson Chandler is not one of those athletes. Hey, anyone has a right to their earnings and to vote accordingly (although, of course, there are many other issues to consider come election day). That's why lots of pro athletes vote Republican — so they can keep more of their millions.

There's nothing wrong with that.

But there's a lot right with what Chandler wrote on his blog. Chandler scribed how he might have to pay more taxes under a Barack Obama presidency, but he noted that all of his relatives would be helped by tax cuts. That's because Chandler is the only member of his extended family who makes more than $250,000.

It's a lot easier to make a decision — even a sacrifice — when you know it will benefit those whom you're close to. Chandler found that out at the rally in Indiana.

And, I'm positive, he earned a lot of fans in the process.

The more athletes like Chandler show they understand the everyday man's situation — and speak out about it — the less people will be turned off by their actions and words.

Who knows? Maybe down the line, Chandler will educate himself on the issues and turn politics into a passion.

In today's political climate, we'd be lucky to have such a man in a leadership role. And to think, he jumped straight for the NBA from high school.

Plus, at 7 feet 1 inch, he kinda stands out in a crowd.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Laimbeer deserves NBA opportunity


I don't think the WNBA could have scheduled what turned out to be the deciding game of its championship series for a worse early October day.

In case you haven't heard — and believe me, I ain't mad atcha if you haven't — the Detroit Shock rolled over San Antonio Sunday night to claim the WNBA title. Yep, that's right: on an NFL Sunday with a little postseason baseball mixed in. Niiiice.

If it had happened, say, last night or even tonight when there is no football (outside of the most obscure college teams going at it) and no baseball, the Shock's accomplishment might have garnered a headline. It might have even been read about by bored businessmen browsing the sports section.

But instead, nobody noticed.

Well, here's a reason that people, even if they think the WNBA should disappear, should have paid attention: Bill Laimbeer is a damn good coach. Now I'm no WNBA expert, and I can't say that I watched more than half a quarter of the three-game sweep, but Laimbeer's numbers as coach of the Shock speak for themselves:

In six seasons as the head honcho, Laimbeer has led the Shock to three championships. For you NBA followers, that's what Gregg Popovich has done for the Spurs. We tend to think of him in a pretty glowing light.

Now consider what Laimbeer did this season. Actually, I'll start prior to play beginning, when he traded his biggest and most marketable star, Swin Cash. They didn't see eye-to-eye, so Laimbeer didn't hesitate to unload her. He knew he'd miss her production, but hey, a coach needs a good working relationship with his players.

Then the season began. And chaos ensued. In the middle of the season, the Shock and Los Angeles Sparks created the biggest WNBA story of the season (sadly), when they brawled at The Palace (sound familiar?).

The melee was devastating on many levels for Laimbeer's team. For one, seven players — not to mention assistant coach Rick Mahorn — were suspended, leading the Shock to actually play a game with 50-year-old, long-time retired player Nancy Lieberman. But even worse, star forward Cheryl Ford tore her anterior cruciate ligament while trying to restrain a teammate, sidelining her for the season.

The team was in a tough spot, but Laimbeer didn't waste time sucking his thumb. Instead, he quickly found a suitable replacement in Taj McWilliams-Franklin, getting her in a trade with the Washington Mystics that was as big a steal as the deal the Pistons made for Rasheed Wallace back in '04.

Then, Laimbeer simply did what he now does best: win basketball games. There's no doubt the Shock are stocked with talent, led by Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan. But no championships — or even berths in the championship round — are guarantees. Just ask the Pistons.

Laimbeer led Detroit to the WNBA title in his first season, 2003, and then in '06 and Sunday night. And did I mention that the Shock didn't even have a true homecourt during the finals, playing its lone home game at Eastern Michigan's Convocation Center? I'm going to guess it didn't bother Laimbeer, or his players, one bit.

The man has established himself as a very capable coach, who doesn't let outside distractions negatively affect his team. For those reasons, at the very least, the man deserves a shot at an NBA job. Period.

Especially in this modern age of professional sports, when the words "job security" don't exist, it wouldn't hurt to give Laimbeer a chance. Give him two, three seasons to show what he can do in the world's premier basketball league.

I don't have to tell you that there are huge differences between men's and women's basketball. We all know that. But the basics are the same — developing a playing rotation, fitting different players into roles, running practices and, of course, coaching games from the bench.

Laimbeer has more than shown his ability in all these areas.

Meanwhile, the Bulls hired a guy in Vinny Del Negro as head coach despite the small fact that, well, he's never coached before. Go figure.

Of course, Chicago would never consider hiring Laimbeer, and Laimbeer would never, I'm sure, consider working for the Bulls. Those reasons are beyond transparent.

But that leaves 29 other NBA teams. And I'm sure there will be a few openings before even the next WNBA season tips off.

Laimbeer deserves a chance to show a much larger audience his coaching acuity.

His players would tell you he's already done that once, twice, make that three times.

Too bad close to no one's noticed.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

So much for that Michigan defense


The optimistic Michigan fan might say Saturday was an aberration.

The 45 points Illinois hung up in the Big House. The 501 yards registered on the Wolverines' defense. Juice Williams' 310 passing yards and 121 rushing yards.

All nasty figures. All indications of the true nature of this Michigan defense.

That's not to say the unit that carried Michigan against Wisconsin a week ago was an aberration, either. That was no fluke.

The big difference between the two weeks was the offense the Wolverines faced. In Wisconsin, they took on a run-oriented team with strong — but slow — bruising running backs. Nobody was scared of Badgers quarterback Allan Evridge.

In Illinois, however, Michigan faced its most feared weapon: the spread offense led by a running quarterback. As has been the case since the spread became popular a few years back, the Wolverines struggled with it.

Ohio State did it a few times with Troy Smith. Illinois just followed the script.

Some thought this Michigan team, led by spread-offense guru Rich Rodriguez, would defend the spread better. After all, the Wolverines practice against it every day.

But here's this column's obvious thought: No offense to Steven Threet, but he can't even study in the same classroom as Juice. That's just how he's built. He's had a few nice runs this year, but Juice could beat him in a race — running sideways.

So there was no way to prepare for Williams besides watching film, which isn't the same as chasing the guy (sorry, that's another obvious thought, isn't it?). And after jumped out to a 14-3 start, Williams and Illinois' offense figured out the the defense, became comfortable and didn't look back.

Illinois 45, Michigan 21.

Lucky for the Wolverines, they play in the Big 10. Explanation: They won't face too many more spread attacks this season. Or, more accurately, there's only one Juice Williams in the conference — though plebe Terrelle Pryor is coming along nicely for the Buckeyes.

Michigan's defense — more motivated than ever, I would assume, after being embarrassed — will put together some more dominating performances this season. It won't give up 45 points again ... I don't think.

But at least during Rodriguez's inaugural season, this remains the same Michigan defense. The same group of players who are too slow to stay in front of the spread offense, who still don't know enough about the system to cover it well.

And, it should be mentioned, don't help themselves with missed tackles in the open field.

With time, they should improve. As Rodriguez brings in his players, kids to fill his system, days like Saturday shouldn't occur very often. Quarterbacks like Williams shouldn't be made to look so unstoppable.

The focus of people's frustrations up until Saturday revolved around the offense. And with good reason. I've previously written that it would take time for Threet and company to become adequate within the new, complex system.

What had been overlooked was the old Michigan defense having to make adjustments, as well.

Now, we all know, not everything is bliss on that side of the ball. Both units have issues, both have plenty of learning to do.

At least the special teams units — minus a late fumble — were rock-solid Saturday.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

October means time for Cubs to lose


The most entertaining part of watching the Cubs get blown out on consecutive nights, pushed to the brink of more playoff disappointment, more talk about next year, the continuation of the curse?

Watching the fans at Wrigley Field.

It's as if they don't know what to do with themselves. After Wednesday's Game 1 loss, I told a friend that this much was very obvious from the fans' behavior during the game: They were nervous and feeling as much pressure as the players on the field. After all, name another team under the heap of expectations that the Cubs entered the postseason with.

Sure, the Angels led the majors in wins. But they won a World Series a mere six seasons ago. I won't mention how long it's been for the Northsiders.

When James Loney erased a 2-0 Cubs' lead in Game 1 with one sweet swing of the lumber, sending the ball into the center-field bleachers — and four runs to the Dodgers' side of the score — the air went out of Wrigley. Forget the fact that there was plenty of baseball to be played. Forget that it was just a 4-2 game.

Even here in North Carolina, I could hear the whispers in the stands, "Here we go again." The regular season quickly became a distant memory — all 162 games. Not even a few brewskies could lighten the mood. The fans stayed that way for most of Wednesday night, as their Cubs forgot how to hit in a 7-2 loss.

But, thank heavens, they went to sleep and woke up to a new day — much like a new season — and a new opportunity. There was another game to be played, a great chance for their boys to even up the best-of-five series at home.

And they were going to do their part to help.

So even after two Chicago errors and a bunt single, even after Russell Martin cleared the based with a heat-seeking double, even after 0-0 became 5-0 in a matter of minutes Thursday night, the Cubs faithful stayed behind their team.

They were not picky when it came to cheering and making noise. A two-strike count on a Dodgers hitter? Time to get loud. A baserunner, any baserunner, with any amount of outs? Time to get boisterous.

It was as if fans figured, "Hell, I better get the most out of this $237 I spent for the ticket and six beers." (And, believe me, I'm sure the booze was flowing at an all-time high — especially when 5-0 became 6-0 ... and then 7-0.)

Around that point, I believe, is when sobriety set in. And as is usually the case, reality was its partner. As was the case Wednesday, the beautiful stadium became morbidly quiet. The seventh inning passed quickly, though the Cubs did get on the board (7-1). So did the eighth. The Cubs showed no signs of life, gave no indications that there is any chance of a Game 5 back at Wrigley on Tuesday.

Chicago hitters went quietly, swinging at so many balls, I had to wonder if they were looking at a different home plate. The opportunistic Dodgers, meanwhile, played like the team that had won 97 games — not 84 — in scoring runs whenever they got a chance. And, of course, having Manny Ramirez is always beneficial. He belted a solo home run for the second straight game.

(By the way, how cool would a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series be? I'd like to see what kind of reception Manny would get at Fenway.)

Back to the miserable Cubs fans, though. I actually stopped watching during the eighth inning due to boredom (and I felt like some "Law and Order" – in that regard, I'm sure Cubs followers think the last 100 years have been lawless). Anyway, I checked back in on the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. And that's when it got interesting.

OK, I'll stop. Not interesting interesting. But about as interesting as a 10-1 game could get. The Cubs got their first three batters on base, scoring two runs to make it 10-3. Then they got a walk — with still nobody out. I actually started calculating in my head how close they were to bringing the tying run to the plate. I thought — and this, obviously, was completely ludicrous — that maybe, but very unlikely, I'd get to witness the greatest comeback ever.

I doubt the fans remaining at Wrigley were thinking the same thing, but they sure did get pumped up by the mini rally. With each ball thrown by the Dodgers, the cheers got louder. Some fans rose to their feet.

The meaning of their actions was transparent. They had decided that the series, and thus another season, was over. The Dodgers will close things out in California. So the fans tried, as painful as it must have been, to cheer on another disappointing team that saw all its good work of six-plus months just about fly out the window in a neat 30 hours.

I don't blame them. What else could they do? Stop being a fan? Forget about it, because when you love a team that much, when you religiously follow its ups and downs season after season, you become hooked. You can never stop being supportive — even if you know your efforts will be fruitless.

So despite the fact that another sad chapter in Cubs history has been written. Despite the fact that these Cubs forgot how to hit once September became October. Despite unforgivable — and costly — miscues by normally reliable Mark DeRosa and Derekk Lee...

That won't stop 'em from flocking back next year. And the year after that ... and after that.

To think, for a moment, that this might be The Year. And, come October, to feel that burden of expectations.

Only to have it quickly lifted by more painful losses.