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Friday, September 21, 2007

a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs

Yikes. The last few weeks of watching the Red Sox has been like being front row for Britney Spears' recent wretched performance at the MTV VMA's. In both cases the viewer has been left nauseated and wondering if the garbage they just watched had anything to do with the formerly great product. The Sox have led the AL East almost all season and the same goes for owning the best record in baseball.

It all hit the fan last Friday as the Sox suffered their worst loss of the season, an 8-7 heart-breaker to the Yankees at Fenway. Down 7-2 in the eighth, the Yankees had scored six against a suddenly terrible Okajima and Papelbon. The Sox bounced back on Saturday with Beckett (the stopper of 2007) but they lost on Sunday night as Ortiz popped out against Rivera with the winning runs on base. Compounding that disappointing series, the Sox went to Canada and laid an egg vs. the Blue Jays, getting meekly swept by an average Blue Jays team that had nothing but pride to play for. Minus Youk (who got hit by Wang on the wrist last weekend), Coco (who's been banged up) and Manny (who is taking his annual September vacation with a faux injury), the Sox lineup is pathetic. Five runs is all they could muster in the three games against the Blue Jays. Meanwhile in the Bronx, the Yankees swept the hapless Orioles and currently find themselves 1.5 games back.

The Sox are treading water right now as they're on the brink of a historic collapse. This isn't just Sportscenter jive, it's the gospel truth: if the Sox lose the AL East (which they led at one time by 14.5 games) it'll be the greatest choke job in history. It would top even the '78 Sox (14 game lead), who lost in a one game playoff (Bucky Fuckin' Dent, ring a bell?).

Most talking heads in New England and the sports world are droning on about how making the playoffs is the most important thing in baseball. The Sox are basically guaranteed of that (3 game magic number) since the Tigers have folded. I'd normally agree but this season is a special exception. If the Sox lose the AL East it's a huge deal because they'll have no confidence going into the playoffs and more importantly, no home field advantage. They'll meet either the Angels or the Indians in the first round no matter what. Both teams are looking damn good at the moment so it's pick your poison. Having to beat either on the road would be a tall task, forget about playing the Yankees in the ALCS. They both have to get there first, I feel like the Yanks are destined to fall in the first round like last year with A-Rod disappearing in October and the Yankees creaky pitchers falling apart. The Cardinals last year aren't even worth arguing about. The weak National League makes no sense the last few seasons and thinking/hoping a team could duplicate that run would be a joke, especially the following year.

It's all in the Sox' hand. They have three in Tampa Bay starting tonight, two vs. Oakland in Fenway and then four vs. the Twins at Fenway to close out the season. All three teams are very beatable as none of them are the in playoff picture. They're just playing spoiler. Tonight should be a good one as Beckett goes against Scott Kazmir. If we can win tonight, hopefully we can use that momentum over the last week but who knows? We've looked god awful lately. Besides the punchless lineup, our bullpen has been a huge liability. Gagne at this point won't even make the postseason roster and Okajima can't get anybody out. Did I mention that Wakefield and Dice-K have been rocked the last month? The sky isn't falling in New England but it's pretty close.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

a Juggernaut in Foxboro

After the mess of last week-"Cameragate"as the wags have dubbed it-the Patriots needed a night like last night against the Chargers. Everyone and their mother has weighed in on the Patriots since the taping scandal and it seemed nearly unanimous that the Pats must have cheated in pretty much every game under Belichick. Throw out the three Super Bowls, the great seasons, it's all a sham.

Give me a break. Last night proved more than any words I could come up with that the Patriots are a great team-cheating or no cheating. They completely dominated what is supposed to be one of the best teams in the league. 38-14 Patriots was the final score and it could have been worse. It was 24-0 at halftime. The Chargers were motivated from last season's early exit in the playoffs and supposedly were going to take care of unfinished business with the Pats. Uh ok. They showed that they're light years away from being at New England's level. Philip Rivers looked Rex Grossman-like with a terrible INT on his first attempt. LT was completly contained. Merriman got his obligatory two sacks but other than that and a little dancing, he was non-existent. The only real threat seemed to be Antonio Gates. The best tight end in football is San Diego's only real receiving threat and he made a great stretch for a TD.

The hypocrisy of a team like the Chargers and particularly a Grade A scumbag like Merriman was on display as he danced (which he said he won't do anymore) after getting a sack. The score at the time? 17-0 Patriots. He just doesn't get it. The Bolts made it 24-7 and recovered the ensuing kickoff from the Pats, they looked poised to make a game of it. After causing the fumble, San Diego's Kasim Osgood posed on the bench like he'd just won the Super Bowl. What a loser. Don't get me wrong, I'm not Mr. Old School NFL who hates celebrations of any kind. I just feel like you have to pick your spots. Pats linebacker Rossevelt Colvin for example seemed to do this perfectly last night. He was all over the place with a fumble caused, INT, 2 sacks and 5 tackles. His dancing heated up as the game went on. Makes sense, no?

Bigger picture, the Pats look unstoppable. They started the game and ran seven straight passing plays. It culminated with a beautiful Brady-to-Moss hookup. Before the Chargers knew it, the scoreboard read 17-0. Then another new Pats player-linebacker Adalius Thomas turned in the play of the game as he intercepted Rivers and sprinted 60+ yards for the touchdown, making it 24-0 going into the half. It was one of the best halves of football I've ever seen and against a very good team no less.

Last year, Brady didn't have enough weapons in the passing game and they still came so close to the Super Bowl (which they would have won). Now they have an overabundance of talent. Kelly Washington plays special teams and Donte' Stallworth catches two passes in a game, welcome to the 2007 New England Patriots. Moss is obviously Brady's first option and Wes Welker (a younger, white Troy Brown) is 1B. These guys have looked like video game players in the first two weeks. Keep in mind that the Jets and especially Chargers secondaries are pretty bad but you still have to be impressed with the Pats receivers.

With back-to-back incredible performances, it's hard not to be drinking the Pats Kool-Aid. They don't even have Harrison or Seymour and they look unbeatable. The AFC East is still dog shit: Buffalo, Miami and the Jets are all 0-2. Still, this is the NFL in 2007. Nobody will go undefeated. The Pats still have some tough games: at the Cowboys, at the Colts, at the Ravens and vs. the Steelers. Lets not forget that Miami has really played them tough in recent years. The Bills seem to excel in Foxboro and the Jets will certainly be tougher the second time around. Even with the success the Pats have had in recent years, these two wins have been a completely different animal. Usually, New England would outlast/outsmart/out execute teams. Now, it appears like they can hang 30+ on anybody. It should be a long and memorable season.

Don't Look Now but BC is legit.

As noted in this blog, the Boston College Eagles have a good football team. After the opening win vs. Wake, they've taken care of North Carolina State (37-17 in Boston) with their old coach Tom O'Brien and most recently went down to Georgia Tech and defeated the #15 Yellow Jackets convincingly, 24-10. Did I mention that the rest of the ACC sucks in 2007?

BC will put it on cruise control as its next three games are all at home: Army, UMass and Bowling Green. Not exactly powerhouses. After that, they go to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. The last four games are vs. Florida State, at Maryland, at Clemson, vs. Miami. Lets not get ahead of ourselves but at the very least BC will be 6-0 in a few weeks. Notre Dame is just awful so 7-0 is pretty likely as well. The thursday night game at Tech will be hard but the Hokies are looking vulnerable since they now start a freshman QB and have a pretty bad offense. Florida State, Maryland and Miami all have talent but as teams they're nothing special. That leaves Clemson. Circle it on your calendars SuperFans: BC at Clemson, Nov. 17. Should be a good one. BC will have to go into a tough environment and get a road win, in all likelihood the game will decide, who wins the Atlantic Division of the ACC. In a scheduling quirk, BC is already 3-0 in conference while only Virginia (in the Coastal Division) has played more than one game (two).

BC has everything in its hands. They've opened up the season playing well in a down year for the ACC as a whole. They have a legitimate Heisman candidate (quarterback Matt Ryan) and enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to win the ACC. And keep this in mind: Wake Forest won it last year, really. The key for the Eagles will be not to choke like they seem to always do in the late season, winnable game. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few recent late season games (home to Syracuse and at Miami) where BC has simply choked when a win would have put them in a conference championship game. BC finds itself sitting at #12 in the USA Today Poll and #14 in the AP Poll. Heady times for the Eagles no doubt but if everything goes as planned, they should continue to climb the polls as the weeks go on.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

College Football at the Heights

The 2007 college football season started with a bang yesterday as visiting Appalachian State pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history, beating #5 Michigan at the Big House. Locally, the Boston College Eagles got off to a solid start by beating the reigning ACC-Champs from Wake Forest, 38-28.
Let me just get this out of the way. I hate BC. Can't stand the people that go there, their mostly overrated teams that year after year fail to win the big game in a variety of sports and the throne that they receive by virtue of being the only true Division 1 power in New England. Full disclaimer: I didn't get accepted there coming out of high school and went to Providence College instead. It seemed like a big deal for about a day but I'm happy I went to PC and not BC. Anyways, despite all this, I still find myself reading about and watching BC sports season after season. They play hockey in the Hockey East and other sports in the ACC so they're always involved in huge contests. BC is the car crash that you find yourself staring at while you go by in traffic, the ex-girlfriend that you have no feelings for but you still somewhat keep tabs on what she's doing. It doesn't make sense but that's how we're wired.
As I watched Wake jump out to a quick 14-0 lead yesterday, I wondered which was better: to see BC lose their first game (rendering most of their remaining season useless) or letting them gain some momentum before losing an important game at the end of the season (they're M.O. in recent history). I decided to wait for the big payoff. BC complied too as the Matt Ryan led offense shined and cornerback DeJuan Tribble had a Ty Law or Asante Samuel like three interceptions. The Eagles have numerous holes: currently no running game, average defense, bad special teams but we can gloss over that for now. In New England, our pro teams are for the most part fascinating and strong. What we lack in our local sports are the lower levels: powerhouse colleges and high schools. Boston College is the only Div. 1 football team in these parts whereas almost any boonies locale in the US has a couple schools to choose from. I'll take the pro teams over the college teams any day but you have to admit that we're missing something when you venture to other places that take their college football seriously-I'm thinking of Virginia Tech and Penn State which I have seen first-hand.
BC will never have that atmosphere. The "Super Fans" at BC are mostly lame suburban kids from New England, New York and New Jersey. Plus, it's in the middle of the city, not exactly prime tailgating real estate. This could be the year though for BC. The ACC is just not very good. It's broken up into two divisions and only Virginia Tech really scares you (in the other division)and BC embarrassed them last season. With some luck, the Eagles could find themselves in the ACC Championship. Quarterback Matt Ryan is really good and there's a bunch of decent receivers for him to throw to. They need d-lineman B.J. Raji (your prototypical big fat guy in the middle) back but he might not get his eligibility and linebacker Brian Toal is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Between Ryan, Tribble, and linebacker Jolonn Dunbar, they have some stars. Here's hoping they have a great run, until that final agonizing defeat to Miami or some scumbag team.

a no-hitter placates the masses after a shitty week

Last week was terrible. I was too pissed about it to even write. The Sox went into Yankee Stadium, up eight games on the Yankees. With two wins or a sweep of three, the Sox could effectively bury the Yankees. Surprise, surprise, the Yanks swept them and the lead was back to five. The games were particularly painful as the Yankees outpitched us with Pettite, Clemens and Wang. And Rivera closed out the first two games. The fireworks came in the ninth during the final game, Yanks rookie phenom Joba Chamberlin threw two pitches over Youkilis' head in a blowout game. Joba was thrown out and everyone freaked out. He was later suspended for two games but that is pretty lame since he would have rested for that amount of time anyways.
What does it all mean? Well as I've said all along, the Sox are going to win the AL East (finally). It's looking more and more likely however that the Yankees will take the Wild Card. The Mariners have lost eight in a row and the Tigers can't get their act together. The Yankees come to Fenway for three last games in a few weeks. The Sox having a small lead means that the series can be extra hyped which makes the media happy. I still maintain that the Yankees don't have the consistent pitching and bullpen to make a real playoff run. The offense is such a juggernaut and they've been getting good outings lately which has shielded the fact that they're no different than last season when they laid an egg vs. the Tigers. The Yankees have been playing catch up for so long that it has to catch up to them at some point: either in September or the playoffs.
Right after the Sox came home from New York, they experienced one of their worst losses of the season on Friday vs. the Orioles. Down 9-3 to an Orioles team that came in riding a nine-game losing streak, the Sox made a valiant comeback. It was 9-8 in the ninth as the Sox had runners on first and third with one out. Varitek promptly grounded into a game-ending double play.
Luckily, the Sox had something very special happen on Saturday which might give them some positive momentum over the last month. Rookie pitching stud Clay Buchholz pitched a no-hitter in just his second MLB start. No-hitters are one of the things that make baseball so great. You never know when something so improbable like that will happen. That's why you watch such a long, mostly boring season. Buchholz is only 23. He's been on the Sox radar for a few years as everyone knew he had star written all over him. They didn't trade him and they're already reaping the rewards. He'll be a staple of the pitching rotation for years. The Sox are up five games with 26 left. No need to get ahead of ourselves but they're in a good position to make some noise in October.

Pats defense has big holes to fill

I was minding my own business at a bar in Cambridge on Friday night when I saw the following message pass on the bottom line: Rodney Harrison has been suspended four games after admitting he used HGH. I had to wait for Sportscenter and make sure I wasn't in an alcohol-fueled haze. Sadly, it was true. He'll miss the first four games: at the Jets, home to the Chargers, home vs. Buffalo and at Cincinnati.
Without getting too dramatic, this was heart-breaking. Rodney has missed good portions of the last two seasons after suffering numerous injuries. He's won two Super Bowls since he's been here, quickly proving that he wasn't washed up like the Chargers believed back in 2003. Sports fans are naturally naive about their own teams and players; we feel like they're saints on and off the field, never doing anything wrong. The fact that the Sox and Patriots have been so good lately makes the blinders that much more powerful. While the wins pile up, we tend to look the other way more and more. Did I see this coming? Certainly not. Harrison has looked great in the preseason and in training camp. Somewhat surprising for a 34-year-old coming off so many career threatening injuries. Will I look down on him when he comes back? That's a little complicated but I'd say no. Everyone makes mistakes and being in the public eye as a professional athlete tends to magnify any transgression. It's inexcusable but he's been a model teammate prior to that. Truth be told too, the Patriots defensive secondary has also learned how to adjust to him being out in recent years. They'll use a patchwork secondary until Rodney comes back and hopefully has a healthy season.
The other big news this weekend from the Pats was that Richard Seymour will be on the PUP list at the beginning of the season (meaning he's out the first six weeks). Seymour hasn't participated in the preseason games and much of training camp so this shouldn't have been a surprise. Still, the Pats mask injuries better than anyone else in pro sports so who outside the team ever knows the full story? Seymour being out hurts obviously but the defensive line is probably the biggest strength of the team outside Tom Brady. Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork-the other starters in the 3-4 are budding stars while Mike Wright and Jarvis Green are capable backups.
At the beginning of the week, Asante Samuel finally agreed to a one-year deal, proving that his holdout was simply a waste of his time. The Pats won't franchise him next year but he's risking getting hurt since he didn't have a full training camp and preseason to get ready to go. It's great to see him back though. Going into the season with Ellis Hobbs and Randall Gay as the two starting cornerbacks was a nightmare. It'd be hard for Samuel to surpass his production last season (10 INT's) but he's an upgrade over the mostly bums who would replace him.