Friday, April 23, 2010

Women's golf needs a star to save itself


In case you haven't heard — and many of you, I'm sure, haven't — the No. 1 women's golfer in the world is retiring. Yep, just like that. Lorena Ochoa might be a young 28, but the Mexican is leaving the LPGA tour after a career that included 27 victories, two major titles and almost $15 million in earnings.

And somewhere, someone cares. 

Sadly, that is the state of women's golf today — the sport is, basically, irrelevant. Apparently, the tour's first major of the year took place a few weekends ago. I had no idea. Sure, the sport has never been extremely popular, but at least you heard about it, occasionally — like during majors — when its most accomplished player of all time Annika Sorenstam was on the course. 

But since she packed away the clubs to, also, focus on her family at the end of the 2008 season, the sport has been widely ignored by the American public. Except, that is, when one name is mentioned: Michelle Wie

I don't blame ESPN, which carries a few LPGA tournaments including majors, for overhyping Wie since she was taking geometry. At this point, she's the only chance the tour has of gaining some sort of recognition, of helping ESPN garner just decent ratings. When Wie's name is mentioned, people's ears perk up. They take a minute to stop talking about third-string offensive tackles during May and hold a brief back-and-forth:

Dude No. 1: Man, that Michelle Wie is SO overrated. Why do people even talk about her anymore?

Dude No. 2: Well, she did play in a men's tournament, drove the ball farther than some guys. She can flat-out destroy the ball!

And it's true. While Wie's career resume isn't even a page long — at age 20, she has just a single LPGA victory — her potential and marketability make her the one player, at least for now, who could boost the sport out of the oblivious crevice it's sunken into. 

Ochoa was good. Even dominant at times. But she didn't have the name. Didn't have the stylish game. Wasn't about to boost TV ratings unless she did something ridiculous like win four grand slams in a row. She was the Vijay Singh of the LPGA Tour. A very good player, but no one who's going to mesmerize you. 

Wie, however, could be the Serena Williams of golf. If the sport needs a model for getting much-needed coverage, it should look no further than what Williams has done for women's tennis. She's extremely good, a bit controversial and fiery — and her career has taken many downswings and upswings. She's the face of her sport, and normal sports fans, not tennis fans, tune in to watch her play because of the power and fierceness she displays on the court.

Golf, of course, isn't about "fierceness," at least not in a physical sense. But Wie fits the Williams profile in a number of ways. She burst onto the national stage at an extremely young age because of her incredible talent and a family that pushed her to be great. She had some early success — granted, not on Williams' level — which led to extremely high internal and external expectations. 

But the approach nearly destroyed her career — her parents certainly deserve a lot of blame — and until a year ago, when she won her lone LPGA event, she had become an afterthought in the sports world.

The female Ryan Leaf, sadly.

Unlike Leaf, however, Wie's sports league really, really needs her to succeed for its well being. And its players know it. In a Sports Illustrated profile, which chronicled Wie's maturity while a student at Stanford, fellow LPGA players — who in the past had harshly criticized Wie for her childish behavior on and off the course — echoed each other in admitting how much the LPGA needs her to succeed and become one of the tour's main faces.

Heck, its No. 1 spokesperson. 

Even today, if you ask a sports fan — but not an LPGA fan; and let's be honest, they're few and far between — to name the first LPGA player who pops into their head, they'll almost definitely say Wie. Despite her lack of success, she's the most recognizable name on tour. 

So imagine the heights to which Wie could boost the flagging sport with a few major wins, with consistent success? 

The tour better hope that Wie steps up her game, because for now she's its best chance of becoming relevant — of retaining its few sponsors and gaining more. Sorenstam has moved on. Ochoa, and all of her unnoticed success, has moved on. 

These are desperate times for the LPGA Tour. And there's only one player, a 20-year-old, who can make sports fans pay attention again. We'll probably find out pretty soon if she can do it. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

NBA playoffs preview: Finally, it's LeBron's turn


While living continuously angry is no way to go about this thing we call life, there is something to be said for using the emotion for certain causes. For instance, the Cleveland Cavaliers enter this postseason a bit mad. They've clearly been the best team in the NBA all season, they've got the clear-cut MVP in LeBron James, and yet no one's labeling them a clear-cut favorite to win the NBA title.

They're probably calling it disrespect. In truth, people are hesitant to pick the Cavs to win because, well, they've never done it before. 

But LeBron and Co. with a chip on their shoulder should be a scary thought for opposing teams. The Chicago Bulls will get the first taste. And then, three more teams will feel the wrath of the NBA's most motivated team.

And, yep, that's right — the Cleveland Cavaliers will emerge from the Longest Postseason in American Sports the unquestioned winner.


First Round
1 Cleveland def. 8 Chicago (4 games)
2 Orlando def. 7 Charlotte (5 games)
3 Atlanta def. 6 Milwaukee (5 games)
4 Boston def. 5 Miami (7 games)

Second Round
1 Cleveland def. 4 Boston (5 games): Sorry, Celtics fans, but your team simply has no fight left. The Cavaliers will own the fourth quarters, win all the loose balls, and make all of Boston realize that the run of the Big Three is over.
2 Orlando def. 3 Atlanta (7 games): This will be a great, highly exciting, high-octane series. But in the end, the Magic won't lose on its homecourt in a Game 7. 

Conference Finals
1 Cleveland def. 2 Orlando (6 games): In a rematch of last year's conference finals, the Cavs will ride the wide shoulders of James to victory in six tightly contested games. The Magic will miss the heroics of Hedo Turkoglu, as Vince Carter can't quite fill his shoes.


First Round
1 Los Angeles def. 8 Oklahoma City (6 games)
2 Dallas def. 7 San Antonio (7 games)
3 Phoenix def. 6 Portland (5 games)
4 Denver def. 5 Utah (7 games)

Second Round
1 Los Angeles def. 4 Denver (6 games): In a rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals, which provided plenty of fireworks, the Lakers will benefit from the absence of George Karl on the Nuggets' bench. Denver has been too erratic without him, and while it will win a couple games due to hot shooting, this squad doesn't have enough to take four of seven from L.A.
3 Phoenix def. 2 Dallas (7 games): Have you seen the Suns play lately? Yes, I know they're the Suns. They don't play defense. They don't advance far in the playoffs. But no one has played better of late, and they can match up with the Mavericks. In Game 7, Steve Nash will break the hearts of his former fans in Big D.

Conference Finals
1 Los Angeles def. 3 Phoenix (7 games): In yet another long series, the Lakers will finally wear out the Suns — particularly their front line. Pau Gasol will be the key player, scoring down low or feeding teammates for open 3s, which will be knocked down consistently by a to-be-named bench player who will step up.

Cleveland def. Los Angeles (6 games): This series, sadly, won't be as close as people will hope for. The Lakers will enter it beaten and bruised, having played 19 games. Cleveland, meanwhile, will be well-rested having played just 15 games. And the Cavs have the cadre of frontcourt players to wear down Gasol (and Andrew Bynum, if he's back). Oh, and James will outplay Kobe Bryant, who just hasn't had the shooting touch this year we've expected from him. L.A. will stay alive with a couple wins on their home court and talk will start of a possible Lakers comeback — because, remember, people still don't trust the Cavs to win it all. But that banter will be forgotten by the fourth quarter of Game 6, when Cleveland runs away with an easy victory to secure the team's first NBA title and the biggest celebration in the city since, well, I don't know. You tell me.

And how could James leave such an accomplished bunch? This summer, he'll keep the good news coming by re-upping with the Cavaliers. That's my prediction, and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Finally the full baseball experience in Minnesota


Go ahead. Shed a tear. If you're a Twins fan, you just lost one of the biggest home-field advantages in all of baseball.

But you also, it must be noted, gained a much grander, much more enjoyable, and, yeah, much prettier baseball-watching experience. The Twins began their tenure at Target Field Monday afternoon, and it will have to go down as a pleasant one -- even a sunny one in 65-degree weather. (They beat the Red Sox 5-2.)

Baseball -- like football and so many other sports -- was meant to be played outside. On real grass. In stadiums with beautiful skylines. And, most importantly, with real wind! Yes, wind is an important element of any baseball game. If it's blowing out, pitchers have to adjust their targets, keep the ball low. If it's coming in, they can go ahead and challenge hitters to swing for the fences. Best of luck.

At the Metrodome, there technically wasn't any wind. That's what you get, you know, when games are played indoors. Of course, some opposing teams thought otherwise -- and fan-induced wind or not, the Twins possessed a huge home-field advantage. They knew how to deal with fly balls hit Mars-high into the dome's Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric. They were used to the slick turf ground balls skidded on. They knew how balls would bounce off the baggy right-field wall.

All advantages. All gone now.

So how well the Twins perform at home this season will be an interesting development. Especially in their first year at the new ballpark, they'll possess close to no home-field advantage (and no, don't tell me that fans make much of a difference at baseball games; the only case I can make for this is when balls are hit down the lines or in foul play and fans get involved).

The Twins' record at the Dome -- where they played for 28 years -- wasn't spectacular, with their .541 winning percentage just barely better than the league average for home teams of .540. But that included eight pretty pitiful rebuilding years in the 1990s, years in which they couldn't have made the playoffs by poisoning opposing pitchers. Most importantly, the Twins won their only two World Series (1987 and '91) while playing at the Dome and have quietly taken five of the last eight Central Division titles -- winning many of them by a very close margin, the kind of difference a place like the Dome could have made.

So don't discount the Metrodome advantage. It might have been relatively small when considering a 162-game season, but it did count for something.

And now, as the loquacious White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said last year, "I want to see the piranhas in a different lake next year."

Well, Ozzie, you're getting your wish. I, for one, don't think the new ballpark will hurt the hometown team. That's because this group of Twins is about as versatile and dangerous as any team the city has seen in quite awhile. They have the power to take advantage of the short right-field fence (328 feet) at Target Field -- which is similar to how far the "Baggie" wall was at the Dome. They also, however, can play small ball. And, of course, their pitching is consistently solid.

Perhaps similar in importance, Twins players should enjoy the Target Field experience a lot more than they did the Metrodome one (lack of esoteric advantages be damned). Star catcher Joe Mauer, who recently signed a huge contract to stay in Minnesota -- think the new stadium had something to do with it? -- said that at the Metrodome, you could be hit by a batting cage ball while performing bench presses in the weight room. The new joint, to compare, has underwater treadmills.

So players might actually want to come to Minnesota now. And why wouldn't they? If they can stand some chilly April and (hopefully for the organization) October weather, the experience of playing for one of the best-run organizations in the league can't be understated. The Twins have a great farm system, coaches who know what they're doing, and a pretty good fan base as well.

Not to mention a spectacular stadium (at least from my TV viewpoint). And at least on opening day at the new park, no one was missing the Metrodome. Not a single baseball fan.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Butler's historic run falls just short, but credit Duke — the Blue Devils earned it


The shot hung in the air, decended and kissed off the backboard, then softly hit the rim ... before bouncing harmlessly away. A little bit better of a carom, and it might have fallen. It might have created the greatest moment in the history of college basketball. It might have captivated 97 percent of college hoops fans in this country.

But, alas, Gordon Hayward's heave from just inside halfcourt was slightly off the mark. After his fade-away jumper over Brian Zoubek was just long seconds earlier. And Duke won the national title, 61-59, in Butler-dominated Indianapolis Monday night, surging back to the top of the college basketball world for the first time since 2001 after a game that a shocked Mike Krzyzewski — "I still can't believe we won," he said — called a "classic" and the toughest of his eight national-title game clashes.

The potential story was irisistable. Butler, the small school from the Horizon League, beating Duke, Krzyzewski, his three national titles and handful of All-Americans. But, hey, it didn't happen — and the result should not take anything away from a Duke team that, it could be argued, was just as overlooked as a national-title contender as the Bulldogs for most of the season.

"As good as the Butler story is and will be, their story is pretty good too," Krzyzewski said afterward about his team.

And he's right. This win, this season, was never about Coach K going for his fourth national title. Rather, it was about a group of players who struggled through three years in which they improved but ultimately were judged, perhaps unfairly, against the Duke pedigree. Blue Devils seniors Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Zoubek didn't win an NCAA Tournament game their freshman season, won just one two years ago and were rudely dismissed by Villanova in the Sweet 16 a year ago.

Throughout this season, even as the wins piled up, Krzyzewski refrained from calling his team great. First they were good. Then really good. But not great. It took until late Monday night, after all the confetting had fallen, for Krzyzewski to finally huddle his exuberant players together and tell them twice: "You are a great team. You are a great team."

And great they were. You can talk about the Devils getting an "easy" NCAA Tournament draw and a few lucky bounces along the way. But the bottom line, all that matters, is that winning six consecutive games is never, ever easy. Duke earned this title as much as any championship team, and got the absolute most out of every player's ability.

"It means the world to us, especially our senior class," Thomas said. "To leave champions, we maxed out our season, maxed out our practices, played every game the season had to offer us."

The last one won't be forgotten for a long time. This was one of those games that clarifies for all of us what great competition is all about. There weren't any highlight dunks. No SportsCenter Top 10 nominees. No, this was all about stellar defense on both ends; about gritty pileups for loose balls; about both teams earning every point, every free throw.

Appropriately, no two teams better exemplified during this season the ability to win without shooting the ball well than Duke and Butler. Heck, the Bulldogs somehow beat Michigan State in the semifinals despite shooting 15-for-49. They weren't much better Monday, making just 20 of 58 shots (34.5 percent) including a putrid 12-of-50 performance by their starting five.

Yet they remained in the game, never allowing Duke's lead to eclipse five points in the second half. They got stops against the bigger, stronger Devils, and after two Matt Howard layups, were within a point, at 60-59, in the final minute.

But Hayward's baseline jumper over the towering Zoubek clanked off the back of the rim. And after Zoubek made a free throw and then missed the second intentionally with 3.6 seconds remaining, and after Hayward took the perfect amount of dribbles and benefitted from a knee-buckling screen Howard set on Kyle Singler (maybe legal, maybe not), his final heave was barely off the mark. Oh, so close.

"I thought Gordon’s shot had a chance," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "Anytime you have a player of Gordon's caliber and he’s got the ball in his hands and lets it fly, you feel like you have a chance to win."

And, really, what more could the Bulldogs have asked for, but a chance to win a national title in the final seconds? Well, how about winning that championship?

Don't get this team pinned wrong. It had every intention of coming out on top Monday night, of providing college basketball fans with perhaps the greatest story in the history of the modern era of the sport.

"For me, it’s going to be the loss (I remember)," a devastated Hayward said. "I hate losing. … It’s great for us to be here, but that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to win."

Said Stevens, after his three players had been dismissed from the postgame press conference: "You could see listening to our three guys, they’re crushed. This mattered. They wanted to win. It’s really hard for them to come straight in here and answer questions."

And as Stevens admitted, it will take awhile for the Bulldogs to get over this disappointment, to be able to put a season that included a 25-game winning streak in perspective. As for the winners, they felt for the Bulldogs afterward.

"It was the toughest game we’ve played in all year," Scheyer said. "It’s hard that one of those teams had to feel that way."

But as we all know, every great game, every instant classic, must have a loser — sometimes more lovable than others. On this occasion, most of a nation mourned for a Bulldogs squad that kept proving people wrong, kept surprising opponents when the pundits thought they had finally met their match.

It's OK, though, to mourn for one team and feel elated for another. And that's the best way to view this classic. Be happy for Zoubek, the big, bruising Duke center who overcame two summers spent on crutches — "It was really hard to imagine being in this position (then)," he said Monday night — to become, as Coach K said, the key player who elevated his game down the stretch of the season and had 11 big rebounds Monday.

Be happy for Nolan Smith, who played the game of his life against Baylor in the Elite 8 on the road to winning a national title in the same city as his late father, Derek Smith, who did it for Louisville in 1980. Be happy for Scheyer and Thomas, Duke's other seniors who withstood three subpar seasons — at least by Duke standards — to return the program to the top.

And simply be happy that you witnessed a game — not to mention a tournament — that won't be forgotten for a long time.

"I think it'll become a historic game," Krzyzewski said. "It's the best one I've been involved in of the eight (national title games he's coached in).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLB National League preview — no big surprises here


While the American League should be chock full of surprises this season, I don't anticipate a similar result in the NL, where the best teams from a year ago will stay that way, some teams will get better but not good enough to contend, and some will get worse (sorry, fans).

So my apologies for mostly picking the favorites in this league, and not making any sexy reaches, but I just don't see such things happening. Seriously — who could beat out the Phillies in the East over a 162-game season? Shorten the season by 60 games, and maybe the Braves or Marlins could hang with 'em. But the Phils are way too strong. Same thing with the Cards in the Central.

The West will probably be the most interesting division, with the Rockies and Giants two young, improving clubs that could challenge the Dodgers for the division. So as with the AL, it will be worth your time to stay up late and watch those West Coast games (or, simply, move it there; I'd do it in a heartbeat — place to be in the U.S.). 

Anyway, with all that said, here's my "expert" analysis:

1. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65): There's cause for concern in Philly: The team only has two players among the top 100 prospects in the game and the least impressive farm system in the division. Who gives a hoot? With this team assembled, even the angry Philly fans won't be worrying about the future. Roy Halladay will bolster a solid rotation, and Placido Polanco will only make the lineup — Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and friends — even more dangerous than before. That's scary.

2. Atlanta Braves (88-74): Speaking of scary, apparently the Next Big Thing Jason Heyward hit a 450-bomb during spring training that busted an executive's car. How good is Heyward? Well, I doubt he had to pay the $3,500 in damages. With young guns like Heyward and pitchers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, this team might be the future of the division. Just not this year. 

3. New York Mets (82-80): Call me foolish, but I think the Mets will be much better than the train wreck everyone's forecasting. Don't forget that when healthy, they're still one of the most talented teams in the entire league, and I'm portending a catastrophe-free season for a team that's had its share of hardships lately. Jason Bay will make the Mets' lineup explosive. Yes, I'm calling it.

4. Florida Marlins (78-84): I know the Marlins always surprise the masses and contend for the division, but forgive me for abstaining from drinking the Kool-Aid this time around. Yes, they have a ton of young talent. But their pitching is still shaky, and what's to say Ricky Nolasco will be a consistent force or the back of the rotation will give them anything? Give this team another year to develop, then I'll put it higher.

5. Washington Nationals (73-89): This team will be much improved and fun to watch, and come June I'll be hitting up the ballpark frequently – as in every fifth day. Because, yep, that's when Stephen Strasburg should be called up from the minors. He's the real deal, sports fans, and will give the Nats' unimpressive rotation a real boost. 

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65): C'mon, people. Nobody is going to challenge the Cardinals for the Division. No, not even the Cubbies! Four words: Carpenter, Wainwright, Pujols, Holliday. Yep, the Cards have two of the best starting pitchers and two of the best slugging hitters in all of baseball. And as long as the rest of the lineup and rotation are solid, which they are, this team won't have a problem cruising into October, when they'll finally really be challenged. 

2. Chicago Cubs (88-74): The Cubs hardly did a thing during the offseason, except for Geovany Soto reportedly losing 40 pounds (damn, what did the man eat?). So there's no real reason to think they'll change much from last year, except for the fact that maybe the clubhouse will be more relaxed. For one, no one is forecasting a division title or playoff berth. Secondly, Milton Bradley is gone. The locker-room misfit certainly didn't help the Cubs, who might just benefit from his absence.

3. Houston Astros (85-77): The Astros are making a desperate bid for the playoffs, having kept all their old fogies instead of rebuilding. It's a dangerous move, and sadly it won't pay off in this division. But they'll play hard and win a lot of games, with Brett Myers putting together a solid season that he can shove in the faces (maybe literally) of his old Phillies pals. But playoffs? Nope.

4. Cincinnati Reds (80-82): They're getting there, folks. The Reds are the team in this division with the most future potential. Aroldis Chapman won't pitch this year, but other young flame throwers such as Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey will continue to improve as starters and the lineup will only get better as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce mature. Reds fans should book season tickets for 2012 and '13.

5. Milwaukee Brewers (75-87): This team is uninspiring to me. I don't see a real plan in place, I don't feel like it's committed to certain players for the future, and in the meantime it'll just be mediocre. Ryan Bruan should be one guy to hold onto for a long time, and he'll put together another solid season, but the rotation is about as frightening as an ant in a cage.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (65-97): Oh, the Pirates. I wish I could say something good about this team or organization, but to do that I have to think back to the Roberto Clemente days and how proud I am to own a Clemente T-shirt. Sadly, these days it's hard to say a good thing about the Pirates except that their stadium, purportedly, is pretty sweet. I can't wait to check it out, and don't anticipate having trouble getting great seats. Oh, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen is supposed to steal a lot of bases.

1. Colorado Rockies (90-72): In what figures to be a super, super competitive division, the Rockies will come out on top thanks to great balance from both their rotation and lineup. If No. 1 starter Ubaldo Jimenez goes down for a period of time, Jeff Francis or Aaron Cook will pick up the slack. The lineup isn't great, but it knows how to produce runs at Coors Field and will do enough on the road to get the needed wins to claim the West.

*2. San Francisco Giants (89-73): My apologies to the two-time reigning NL champ Dodgers, but I love this Giants squad. Will they score a lot of runs? Nope. But with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and a rejuvenated Barry Zito atop the rotation, plus the solid Brian Wilson closing games, the Giants will not give up many runs. As far as producing runs, expect a huge season from Pablo Sandoval and surprising contributions from others along the way.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74): Don't get my above comments wrong, folks — the Dodgers will still be in contention throughout the season. But I see the rotation being a bit shaky and not helped by the loss of Randy Wolf to the Brew Crew, and the lineup is good but will be outdeuled by the Rockies' and Giants' pitching staffs. Oh, and Manny's still good, but not scary good. There's a big difference.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (84-78): I like this team, I really do. With Brandon Webb back healthy and the addition of Edwin Jackson, the D'Backs have three solid starters (Dan Haren is the other). Add to that the explosive bat of Mark Reynolds — forget about the hordes of K's for a moment — and some capable hitters around him, and Arizona will make the NL West the most competitive four-team race in the league.

5. San Diego Padres (62-100): But not a five-team race... Yep, the Padres are going to be the worst team in the majors, especially after their only offensive weapon, Adrian Gonzalez, is traded to a contender before the trade deadline. I consider myself to have a decent amount of knowledge when it comes to baseball lineups, but sadly I can't name a player other than Gonzalez nd Tony Gwynn Jr. in San Diego's lineup. The rotation isn't much better. Thank goodness fans have the San Diego weather and beach to distract them.

*Wild Card team

MLB American League preview — a year of surprises


Early last November, sadly, the baseball world was put back on its axis. To conclude a decade featuring a different World Series winner every year, the team that dominated the last half of the previous decade, the team with — easily — Major League Baseball's highest payroll, the damn Yankees won the World Series.


Sorry, Yankees fans, but baseball isn't as fun when your team dominates, it doesn't have that shock factor, that feel-good-story factor. It's, simply, too logical. It's like a man with the most degrees getting the job over the harder-working man (no, I'm not implying that the Yanks didn't earn their title — they worked as hard as any team over the past decade).

And now the Yankees return with all that talent, plus some next acquisitions. So what's to keep them from repeating their feat, from starting another streak of boring, numbing blindness? I can't state a whole lot of statistical evidence, but I've got a feeling that playing in a super competitive division, New York won't have an easy go of it.

That, sports fans, will be a theme of this 2010 season, especially in the American League — competitiveness among three or even four teams in each division. Nothing will come easily. Pennant races will come down to the final weeks in September.

And that is what you have to like, have to crave, have to hope for as you read my always tenuous predictions:

1. Tampa Bay Rays (93-69): During an injury-plagued year in the division, the Rays have the most depth to withstand such setbacks and a solid corps of young pitchers. They won't wow you, won't be on national TV 483 times, but with everyone back from a year ago, expect a stellar season out of Joe Maddon's bunch.

*2. Boston Red Sox (92-70): Yep, that's right — the Sox will beat out the Yanks for the Wild Card. With a superbly improved defense and the best 1-2-3 combo of starting pitchers in all of baseball, this group is primed for the postseason. And they won't need a lot of fireworks in the batter's box to make it happen.

3. New York Yankees (90-72): There's no real reason to expect a falloff, except if injuries occur. And that's what this guy is boldly predicting. Derek Jeter won't have close to the season he had a year ago. Curtis Granderson is a good pickup, but he still can't hit lefties. And at least one pitcher in a thin rotation — who's left to fill in? Joba's in the pen — will go down for a long period.

4. Baltimore Orioles (70-92): The talent is starting to form in Baltimore, and in a couple years the Orioles could be a formidable team. But in this division? In this year? Forget about it. Nick Markakis and Adam Jones will provide fans with some glimpses of the bright future. But by August, the Ravens will be grabbing the city's headlines.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (67-95): Sadly, this team is going to be really bad for a while. It was the right move to trade Best Pitcher in Baseball Roy Halladay, and the prospects the Jays received will likely contribute down the road. But not this year. And if you can name one player in Toronto's lineup that scares you, I'll call you a wimp and buy you a chicken caesar salad!

1. Minnesota Twins (89-73): This division, like always, will come down to the final weekend. There will be heavy breathing, the Royals will create some havoc despite having nothing to play for. And as has happened three of the past six years, the always-consistent Twins will persevere. The only obstacle? Doing it sans rock-solid closer Joe Nathan, who is out for the year. At least ninth innings will be a little more unpredictable this season.

2. Detroit Tigers (86-76): I'm not sure what to think of my hometown Tigers. Bottom line — they're a team that could be really good or, potentially, really bad. For one thing, how will rookies Austin Jackson (CF) and Scott Sizemore (2B) perform in place of Granderson and Placido Polanco, respectively? Secondly, what will happen with the pitching rotation? There are trillions of question marks. I'm guessing they'll be good, not great.

3. Chicago White Sox (85-77): The White Sox will be the second-best pitching team in the AL behind the Red Sox. They, also, won't score many runs. Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle will provide a pretty damn capable 1-2 punch at the front of their rotation, and the rest of their pitchers are solid. But when Juan Pierre is leading off these days, that's not a good thing.

4. Kansas City Royals (71-91): Well, Zack Greinke's good for 20 wins, right? He won 16 a year ago, and now the talk is that he'll be even better since he found his changeup late last season. Watch out, opposing hitters. As for the rest of the Royals? Um, yawn. Billy Butler will hit a lot of home runs and doubles, and also strike out a lot. And ... name me another regular player. The team lost the most games of any during the 2000s. This decade won't start off much better.

5. Cleveland Indians (69-93): Oh, how the Indians have fallen. Remember when we were talking about all the pieces they had in place for a decade of contending? CC, Fausto, Cliff, Grady, Travis? Yeah, that was just two years ago! They made the ALCS in '07, but since then have been awful. CC's gone. So is Cliff. And Fausto spent two months last year in the minors. Travis is mediocre, and no one considers Grady so unbelievable anymore.

1. Seattle Mariners (92-70): I'm telling you, East Coast peeps, it will be worth staying up late and watching the AL West this season, because it'll be just as competitive and just as good as the AL East. So set aside the EC Bias and check out a team such as the Mariners, who will feature possibly the best 1-2 pitching punch in the majors in Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee, not to mention a stellar defense. They won't give up more then three runs a game.

2. Texas Rangers (89-73): This squad will be just as fun to watch, thanks to speedy youngsters Julio Borbon and Elvis Andrus. Add in a rejuvenated and healthy Josh Hamilton and a ready-to-prove-people-I'm-not-over-the-hill Vladimir Guerrero — plus an underrated pitching staff bolstered by acquisition Rich Harden — and they'll be in contention until the end.

3. Los Angeles Angles (88-74): It's hard to pick against the Angels, since they've been the Atlanta Braves of the American League, simply winning the division every year even as their division comrades bulk up their rosters. But they did close to nothing to improve during the offseason and lost Chone Figgins to the M's and Guerrero to the Rangers. This September, they'll feel the pressure for the first time in a while and just fall short.

4. Oakland Athletics (72-90): This squad will be improved — that is, if Ben Sheets can actually stay healthy. I can't remember the last time the recently acquired $10-million man pitched a game. Their lineup still reeks of a lack of everything, even if Coco Crisp can spice things up a bit. They'll remain an above-average pitching team, but there'll be a lack of excitement to fill the hordes of empty seats in Oakland.

*Wild Card winner

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Final Four preview: Blue Devils to take down Spartans in final


So we've come to this. The most unexpected, unpredictable and, yes, exciting Final Four in a long time. Seriously. Who knows what will happen? No one's been able to predict the tournament to this point, so why would that change now?

I, for one, have close to no idea who will come out on top in the games tonight. But if I were playing the "You have to choose, otherwise you'll lose a finger in horror-movie excruciating style," game, here are my picks. Just don't actually bet on them.

So I wanted to use as evidence for this pick the fact that the Spartans have won four close games in the tournament, four nailbiters. But then I realized that, well, Butler has won three such contests. So that doesn't really fly. So I had to become even more myopic: The Spartans have won two games that came down to the final possession. The Bulldogs only have one such victory. 

The fact is, the Spartans are the more talented team (barely) even sans Kalin Lucas and have learned how to win the nitty gritty games during this Dance. They're also the most physical team left alive, and I think that'll bother the Bulldogs who haven't faced such a foe. Finally, there's the Tom Izzo factor: This is his sixth Final Four in 12 years. Brad Stevens is making his first. Stevens is a great, deserving coach, but the advantage in coaching experience can't be overlooked.

This is a rematch of a second-round game I covered two years ago in which the Mountaineers absolutely manhandled the Blue Devils on the boards. After the 73-67 loss, Duke's Kyle Singler, then a freshman, said: "They're not a big team, but they're a physical team and they're able to get into us and push us underneath our basket. And they're able to grab a lot of offensive rebounds." Well, that quote could now apply to these Blue Devils, who have dominated teams in the rebounding category and have been lauded for their physical play, which was lacking the past three years.

The Mountaineers return many of the players from that team and promise to be just as physical as the Blue Devils. They are, after all, just as strong of a rebounding team. But 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting will be the difference down the stretch. If WVU chooses to go to the 1-3-1 zone that flustered Kentucky last week, Duke will kill it with offensive rebounds that lead to 3s (as was the case in the waning minutes against Baylor). If the Mountaineers play man, the Devils will find ways to get to the FT stripe late and make them. WVU, on the other hand, looked tenuous at the line down the stretch against the Wildcats. I'll be another barn-burner, but the Devils will persevere at the end.

And so for the second consecutive year, it'll be ACC against Michigan State representing the Big Ten. And also for the second straight year, the ACC will deny the Spartans a title. This game will be much, much closer than the blowout that was predictable in the first 3 minutes a year ago, but the Devils' upperclassmen will have an upper hand against this crew from the Spartans that has overachieved in the tournament sans its star.

The big matchup will be Duke's Nolan Smith guarding MSU point guard Korie Lucious. He'll be on him like white on rice. Smith has been an underrated defender all season, and he won't allow Lucious the penetration he's been able to use to create open outside jumpers and easy buckets down low for his teammates. It won't be pretty on the other end, but I expect the Devils to take advantage of the Spartans' pursuing defense with some back cuts for easy scores — and that'll be the difference. 

Of course, I shouldn't even be making a championship-game prediction, considering my Final Four picks have a great chance of being wrong. Silly me. Whatever happens, this Final Four, I'm positive, will live up to the hype that's surrounded this entire tournament of buzzer-beaters, last-second defensive stands, bench-clearing celebrations and tears wept on the hardwood.

It's pure madness, folks. Just how March (and April) should always be.