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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Shhhhh! Don't Tell Anyone: the Bruins are Solid

Lost amidst the MLB playoffs, the Patriots and the Celtics' opening night hype, the Boston Bruins are playing good hockey.

After starting out slowly (and losing three shootouts), the B's (5-2-3) have found their groove, winning three straight games.

Last night, they won their second consecutive 1-0 game, in Vancouver (4-5-0) against the Canucks.

10:16 into the first period, Michael Ryder scored his second goal of the season with assists from Marco Sturm and Marc Savard.

From there, Tim Thomas (31 saves) held the fort as the Bruins did just enough to walk away with another road win.

I'll be the first to admit that as much as I enjoy hockey, I couldn't get into the Bruins the last few years. They played the most defensive, suck the fun out of everything brand of hockey I had ever seen. Things changed last spring when they pushed the No. 1 seed Montreal Canadiens to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Boston got smoked in game seven but it was clear that this team had a lot of potential.

Granted that it was the bumbling Bruins, nobody wanted to get their hopes up too high before this season opened. The beginning was frustrating but they've obviously found their groove. One of the biggest keys to their resurgence and my interest: exciting young talent. Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel both have the chance to be pretty special. Lucic is a physical beast, that put a Maple Leaf through the glass at the Garden last week. Kessel is a wizard with the puck on his stick and he's apparently bought into three-zone hockey this season.

Savard and Zdeno Chara are the best veterans, a center and defenseman respectively and Thomas is a classic overachiever but a very reliable goalie.

The team still has plenty of issues: scoring goals and backup goalie (Manny Fernandez is a corpse) foremost but they've already made me tune into their games whenever I get a chance so they're doing something right.

Finally, the other thing that's nice is that they're under the radar; with the recent success of the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics, seemingly everyone and their mother are the biggest Boston sports fans alive. Nobody has pretended to be a Bruins fan in the last dire decade. You have to be dedicated. That makes it interesting to watch a team grow in front of our eyes as the region slowly sits up and takes note.

The Bruins conclude their Western Canada trip tomorrow with a visit to Calgary. Flames forward Jarome Iginla and defenseman/bounty-hunter Dion Phaneuf are two of the NHL's best so it should be a entertaining game.

One Last Look Back at Banner 17

Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday that the Celtics were embarassing the overrated Lakers in game 6 of the NBA Finals at the Garden and capturing their 17th NBA Championship.

Fast forward four and a half months to the Garden and the Celtics fittingly opened the 2008-2009 NBA season with the banner raising and ring ceremony.

From all reports and highlights, the presentation was top-notch. The viewers at home wouldn't have much idea of that though since for some reason TNT chose to show only small clips of it while also muting some of captain Paul Pierce's emotional address to the crowd.

Oh yeah, there was a game to be played too as King James and the Cavaliers were in the building. The teams memorably went seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before Pierce outdueled James in the deciding game.

No surprise that the game lacked the excitement and buzz of the pre-game festivities. Even more predictable, the V.I.P. corporate suits at the game failed to make any noise. What is this, Fenway in the playoffs?

Anywho, the Celts (1-0) started out slowly but eventually wore down the Cavs (0-1) with team defense and clutch shooting from Pierce (game-high 27 points) to take a 90-85 win.

Much like in the Eastern Conference Finals and for all of his young career, James didn't get enough help from his mostly average teammates. James had 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 15 points and eight rebounds while new point guard Mo Williams added 12 points.

Little has changed for the Cavs, they still rely on one player (James) more than any other team. It helps that he's one of the top two or three players in the league but I still doubt that they have the horses to win a title as currently constructed.

After really waking up late in the playoffs, Rajon Rondo continued his strong play with 14 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals on opening night. Kevin Garnett was held to 11 points and six rebounds. The keys for Boston, outside of Pierce, were Tony Allen (11 points) and Leon Powe (13 points) who were great in big minutes off the bench.

James Posey is the only notable missing part from last season's championship team. Without question, the C's hope Tony Allen can fill Posey's role, with some help from rookies J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker. Nobody thinks Tony Allen is the player that Posey is but if he can regain his pre-knee injury form, Boston will be in good shape.

Cleveland was up 28-22 and 50-43 as the Celts' shooting started out uglier than Craig Sager's typical clown suit.

In the third quarter, Boston took over with a 24-13 frame followed by a 23-22 fourth. It wasn't a work of art but it was a win on a night filled with distractions.

Neither team could shoot from the outside (the Cavs were 3 of 14 while the Celts were 3 of 15). Cleveland had five more rebounds (41-36) but five more turnovers (21-16).

Let me get this out of the way early in the season: the Boston Celtics are the team to beat. As I said, they return everything but Posey and they have the championship experience that the Big Three famously lacked. Rondo and Kendrick Perkins will only continue to get better. The chemistry of the team is apparent in every game.

The Pistons and Sixers (with Elton Brand) will be up there with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference but it's the Celtics' to lose. In the West, everyone is picking the Hornets and Lakers (who have a healthy Andrew Bynum) to be the two best teams.

Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls come to the Garden Friday night (Halloween).

Monday, October 27, 2008

When he's not smokin' trees at Lil' Wayne concerts, Kevin Faulk is a hell of a player

Can we just let Kevin Faulk start writing his speech for the Patriots Hall of Fame? When talking about Faulk (just like it used to be with Troy Brown), you run out of original thoughts. Faulk is the consummate professional, who always steps up and makes plays when his team needs him most.

With Laurence Maroney on IR, Sammy Morris and Lamont Jordan out with injuries, Faulk made the biggest play of the game as the Patriots held off the St. Louis Rams, 23-16, at Gillette Stadium yesterday afternoon.

Faulk had 13 carries for 60 yards and four catches for 47 yards. With the game tied at 16 late in the fourth quarter, Faulk split out wide and caught a 15-yard TD pass from Matt Cassel (21 of 33, 267 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs).

On a day when both Randy Moss (7 catches, 102 yards) and Wes Welker (7 catches, 79 yards) dropped passes they would normally haul in, Faulk showed why he is Mr. Patriot (now that Brown is retired and Brady is on IR).

There were plenty of reasons why New England (5-2) should have lost: their running game as alluded to was a mess, their secondary sucks and that's compounded by the fact that everyone is going down with an injury. Cassel, his receivers and the Patriots front seven wouldn't let that happen.

As predicted, the Rams (2-5) came out looking to win after knocking off the Redskins and Cowboys in consecutive games. New England caught a major break when Steven Jackson was held out of the game with a thigh injury. Still, Marc Bulger (18 of 34, 301 yards, TD, INT) had no trouble gashing the Pats for long gains.

Rookie receiver Donnie Avery (6 catches, 163 yards) was unstoppable on deep balls all day.

The Rams went for it on 4th-and-1 on their opening day and eventually scored on Josh Brown's 20-yard kick.

New England answered with a 2-yard TD run by rookie Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

In the beginning of the second quarter, Avery caught his second long reception. This time it was 69 yards for a score as two Patriots defenders ran into each other as Avery elluded them both.

Two Stephen Gostowski field goals (30 and 27 yards) let New England take a slim 13-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.

The only score of the third quarter was a 44-yard kick by Brown. Cassel had bad luck on two drives as a pass to Moss, bounced off Moss' hands and into O.J. Otogwe's. Later, Welker slipped, allowing Fahkir Brown to pick another pass off.

Brown added a 25-yard boot at the beginning of the fourth quarter to give St. Louis a 16-13 lead. From there, the Patriots buckled down. They tied it on Gostowski's 41-yard kick then went ahead for good with 3:13 left on Faulk's grab.

Adalius Thomas (7 tackles, 2 sacks), Richard Seymour (7 tackles, 1 sack), Tedy Bruschi (11 tackles) and Ty Warren (sack) were all standouts on the defensive side of the ball for New England.

Even Deltha O'Neal made a play, picking off Bulger as the Rams tried to tie it at the end.

It wasn't pretty but it was a step forward for Cassel and the Patriots, who are now tied atop the AFC East since Buffalo lost to Miami yesterday.

There are no great teams in the AFC (assuming the Titans come back to earth) so the Patriots are in good shape to win their division and make the playoffs. We couldn't ask for much more at this point.

The Pats travel to Indy next Sunday night for a showdown with their biggest rivals, the Indianapolis Colts. It'll be interesting to see how the Colts do tonight against the Titans; Peyton and the Colts could easily be 1-5 rather than 3-3.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Uh, Didn't See that one Coming

And you thought the New England Patriots had issues? The Denver Broncos came to Gillette Stadium last night for Monday Night Football and laid an even bigger egg than the Patriots' recent losses to the Dolphins or Chargers (which is pretty hard to do). All was right in Foxboro (for one night at least) as the Patriots rolled, 41-7.

Since the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002, I don't think I've ever gone into a game with lower expectations than last night. Part of that was the simple fact of the Red Sox hangover from the night before, when Boston was eliminated in game 7 of the ALCS by the Rays. The other thing was I thought it was clear the Patriots had way too many issues to be any kind of factor in the NFL this season. Maybe, they'd sneak into the playoffs, but they wouldn't win a game in January.

I was completely wrong and I couldn't be more happier about it. We have to temper our expectations until the Pats do this in consecutive games but at least it makes the season seem much more promising.

Denver (4-2) fumbled on its first two possessions in New England territory but the Pats could only convert two Stephen Gostowski field goals: from 31-yards and 40-yards.

Sammy Morris had probably the game of his life and it all came in the first half as he left with a knee injury in the third quarter. He carried the ball 16 times for 138 yards. Ironically, this happened on a night when New England placed Laurence Maroney on season-ending IR.

A four-yard burst by Morris put the Pats up 13-0 and they opened up a 20-0 halftime lead as Matt Cassel (18 of 24, 185 yards, 3 touchdowns) found Randy Moss (5 catches, 69 yards) for a 13-yard touchdown.

The second half was more of the same as the Patriots' offensive line and every running back they plugged in completely dominated the Broncos. Jay Cutler (17 of 26, 168 yards) hurt his pinkie on the first play of the game and was inneffective the whole night. He tossed two picks, to James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather.

It was a game to remember for Moss and Wes Welker (6 catches, 63 yards). Moss turned a screen into a 27-yard touchdown and Welker found the end zone with a 6-yard catch and run.

Former Pats tight end Daniel Graham broke the shutout with a 10-yard catch early in the fourth quarter, making it 34-7 New England.

Rookie running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis (13 carries, 65 yards) scored his first NFL touchdown, plunging in from one yard out.

Another rookie, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo continued to impress as he finished with eight tackles and a fumble recovery.

The injury bug was contagious on both sides: All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey left with a strained groin and Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was carted off with yet another knee injury. It did not look good for Harrison, who has had a terrible string of injuries the last few seasons. Every opposing fan hates him but it would be sad to see such a great career like his end like that.

The St. Louis Rams, fresh off impressive wins over the Redskins and Cowboys come to Gillette on Sunday afternoon. Who knows what to expect from either team? People will no doubt be jumping back on the Patriots' bandwagon but if we've learned anything so far this year, it's that they are schizophrenic.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It is the Rays' Year

The Tampa Bay Rays have been the best team in baseball all season (forget the Angels' impressive record, the AL West was a joke) so it seems only fitting that they're moving on to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. The Rays clinched the trip with a nail-biting 3-1 win over the Boston Red Sox in game 7 of the ALCS at the Trop last night.

As a Sox fan, I'm obviously disappointed and went into the game thinking Boston would find a way to win since that's what they've done in recent big games but it wasn't to be. They lost to a better team, I don't hesitate to admit that. I'm sure a majority of simple-minded fanboys from New England and beyond won't be able to deal with this blow for a while but when you lose and there's nothing to gripe about, you have to let it go.

Matt Garza outdueled Jon Lester and Tampa Bays bullpen held the lead. Garza got off to a shaky start as he gave up a solo home run to Dustin Pedroia in the first but he settled down after that. In the biggest start of his career, Garza went seven innings, giving up just the one run on two hits with three walks and nine strikeouts.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon got all Tony LaRussa on everybody by using four relievers to get six outs but it worked. The headliner was stud David Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, who recorded the last four outs and the save. Price walked one and struck out three, leaving little doubt that the hard-throwing lefty will soon be one of the top pitchers in the AL and probably baseball.

In seven innings of work, Lester gave up three runs on six hits with eight strikeouts. Lester was good but he had to be perfect in this game since the Sox lineup couldn't give him anything.

The Rays tied it in the fourth when Evan Longoria knocked in Carlos Pena with an RBI double.

Tampa Bay would take the lead for good in the fifth as Rocco Baldelli singled home Willy Aybar.

Aybar provided the play of the game as he hit a solo homer in the seventh off Lester that gave Tampa a 3-1 lead.

Boston had five walks but they couldn't deliver the big hits as they left 18 men on base. Hideki Okajima gave the Sox another clean inning, a 1-2-3 eighth.

Price came into the game with two outs in the eighth and struck out J.D. Drew looking with the bases loaded. He walked Jason Bay to lead off the ninth but stuck out Mark Kotsay and Jason Varitek (no pinch hitter?). Jed Lowrie came up for Alex Cora and hit a hard grounder to second baseman Akinori Iwamura that took a sharp hop but Iwamura gloved it and stepped on second for the third and final out.

It's all too easy to be bummed out since the Red Sox fell short so close to another World Series appearance, where they would have had the chance to get two titles in a row. In all honesty, it shouldn't have gotten to that point. Tampa Bay dominated the first 4+ games in the series, the Sox had an amazing comeback then won game 6. Boston had too many injuries and guys in slumps to overcome a young, talented, hungry team like the Rays.

There's many questions to answer in the offseason but the Red Sox have nothing to hang their heads about. They went as far as this flawed team could take them.

World Series prediction: Rays in 6.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Red Sox force Game 7 in ALCS

I thought the Tampa Bay Rays were different. After being the better team for games 1-5 (until the final seven outs of game 5), the Rays appear to have unraveled as the Red Sox took game 6 at the Trop, 4-2.

Yet another Boston Red Sox playoff comeback that seemed so unlikely, now seems almost inevitable. How much can one crazy rally change?

Josh Beckett was the Sox' biggest question mark heading into game 6 and he submitted a fine performance given the circumstances (and his probable injury). He went five innings, giving up two runs on four hits with a walk and three strikeouts.

For Tampa, Big Game James Shields failed to live up to his name as he gave up four (three earned) runs on nine hits in 5.2 innings, with three walks and three strikeouts.

TBS had a power outage so the first 21 minutes of the game were blacked out (really). That means the national audience missed Babe Ruth, I mean B.J. Upton's solo homer off Beckett in the first.

Boston responded as Kevin Youkilis hit a matching solo blast in the second off Shields. Youkilis put the Sox up 2-1 in the third with an RBI groundout that scored Dustin Pedroia.

The Rays tied it up with another long ball, from the most unlikely of sources: Jason Bartlett (his second of the season) hooked one down the left field line.

Maybe even more improbable than that was when Sox catcher Jason Varitek recorded his first hit in the sixth: a solo homer to right center off Shields. David Ortiz made it 4-2 with an RBI single to right which beat the shift.

Coco Crisp once again was great in the leadoff spot with three hits, a walk and a run.

From there, Boston got outstanding work from its bullpen. Hideki Okajima (who hasn't given up a run in the playoffs) went two scoreless innings, Justin Masterson (how good is he?) pitched a scorless eighth before handing it over to Mr. Automatic, Jonathan Papelbon. The 1-2-3 ninth from Pap gave him the save and more importantly forced a winner-takes-all game 7 tonight at the Trop.

It'll be Jon Lester against Matt Garza. You have to feel like the Sox have all the momentum in the world plus Lester will almost certainly have a better start than he did in game 3 (five runs). Just sayin'.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sox stave off elimination in ALCS with comeback win for the ages

Where to begin? The Tampa Bay Rays were crusing along in game 5 at Fenway, nursing a 7-0 lead with nine outs to go from the World Series. Somehow, someway, the Boston Red Sox recovered to get a walk-off 8-7 win thanks to J.D. Drew's RBI double in the ninth. The seven-run deficit and comeback was the second biggest in MLB playoff history.

Following the exact same script from the first two games at Fenway, the Rays jumped on the Sox' starting pitcher immediately. B.J. Upton (who at the moment looks like the greatest player in MLB history) had a two-run bomb off Dice-K that just got over the Monster.

Carlos Pena (2 hits, walk) followed suit with another two-run homer in the third off Dice-K and Evan Longoria added a solo shot. Like Lester and Beckett before him, Matsuzaka had nothing in Boston's most important game of the year. He lasted only four innings, giving up five runs (all earned) on five hits with two walks and two strikeouts.

When Tampa Bay scored twice more in the top of the seventh, Upton (2 runs, 3 hits, 4 RBI, walk) knocked in two more with a double, I can't even blame the frauds that filled the seats at Fenway for leaving. Down 7-0, the Sox bats had been completely lifeless in the last 2+ games, who really thought they'd have such an epic ending?

Lost in all the chaos after such a dramatic win was the great performance by Rays starter Scott Kazmir. Countless lazy Boston writers had criticized Joe Maddon for going with Kazmir in game 5 yet all he did was throw six scoreless innings (something that the Red Sox would kill for at this point). Kazmir allowed two hits with three walks and seven strikeouts.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, the Red Sox finally woke up from their cryogenic slumber. Dustin Pedroia singled in Jed Lowrie to make it 7-1 Tampa Bay. David Oritz came up with two men on and for the first time in the 2008 playoffs, Big Papi delivered. He blasted a three-run homer off Dingo-herder Grant Balfour.

The season was hanging in the balance so Terry Francona smartly went to his best arm in the seventh-Jonathan Papelbon. He let two inherited runners score in the seventh but settled down to pitch a scoreless eighth.

In the home half of the eighth the Sox tied it up on J.D. Drew's two-run homer off Dan Wheeler and Coco Crisp's clutch 10 pitch at-bat and RBI single. When it was happening live, I thought in my head that it was Crisp's best at-bat of his Red Sox career.

Justin Masterson worked around a hit and walk in the ninth to retire Longoria on a double play ball to end the inning. At that point, you had a feeling that there was no way Tampa was winning this game.

Drew did the honors as he drove in Kevin Youkilis with an RBI single off J.P. Howell. Youkilis had a great 10 pitch at bat as well before he singled. Howell walked Jason Bay before Drew delivered with another chapter cementing his place as a Boston sports legend (grand slam in game 6 of the 2007 ALCS says hello as well).

Hideki Okajima was another unsung hero in the win as he pitched two scoreless innings after Dice-K's meltdown. It had to be the earliest Okajima has ever entered a game for Boston.

So the series shifts back to Tampa Bay tomorrow night with the Phillies waiting at home for the winner, in the World Series. The Rays had all the momentum in the series and looked like a sure bet to wrap it up last night. However, I can't think of many other soul-crushing losses like last night in any sport. The fact that the Rays are such a young, inexperienced team means that this loss might linger even longer than it would with a more veteran team. Who knows? It all comes down to if Josh Beckett can give Boston anything tomorrow night against James Shields. It's been three straight dogshit starts from Red Sox pitchers. If Boston wins game 6, you can bank on them winning the series. But let's not get too ahead of ourselves, the Rays have shown themselves to be a ridiculously talented team all year, particularly in the first two plus games at Fenway.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Counting on (another) Miracle

The Tampa Bay Rays aren't just beating the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, they're setting records in the process and embarrassing the defending World Series champs. The Rays became the first team to score 9+ runs in three consecutive playoff games yesterday as they cruised to a 13-4 win in game 4 at Fenway. Tampa Bay takes a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

It didn't take long to see that Tim Wakefield didn't have anything for the Sox. Carlos Pena (3 runs, 2 walks) hit a two-run homer in the first and Evan Longoria (2 runs, 2 RBIs, walk) followed that with a solo shot.

Willy Aybar had a career night (4 for 5, 5 RBIs) and he blasted a two-run homer in the third, giving Tampa Bay a 5-0 lead.

Boston got a solo homer from Kevin Cash in the bottom of the inning but that was it.

In 2.1 innings, Wakefield was charged with five runs on six hits with two walks and two strikeouts.

Once again, the Rays got an solid start from its pitcher. Andy Sonnanstine went 7.1 innings, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits with a walk and two strikeouts.

Tampa put it away with a run in the fifth and five in the sixth. Carl Crawford was 5 for 5 with 3 runs, 2 RBIs and two steals.

Kevin Youkilis had an RBI groundout in the seventh but the Rays scored twice more in the eighth. The Sox finally found a Rays pitcher they can handle as Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis had an RBI single and double respectively off of Edwin Jackson in mop-up duty in the eighth.

Need some positive thinking? The last two times the Red Sox have faced a 3-1 deficit in the playoffs (2004 ALCS and 2007 ALCS), they've comeback and swept the World Series. When you think about it, it's not like we could have expected those results when they were facing elimination. Still, the Rays couldn't have any more momentum at this point. Everything is going their way for good reason. Boston can't hit, isn't getting starting pitching and the bullpen is a mess.

Dice-K will face Scott Kazmir tomorrow night at Fenway in game 5. The Sox need a spark, something to get them going and send this series back to the Trop. Otherwise, it's going to be a long offseason as the team is forced to reflect on its collapse against the Rays.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rays demolish Red Sox, 9-1

The one sure thing in the Red Sox rotation couldn't get the job done yesterday afternoon at Fenway. Tampa Bay got to Jon Lester and made it a laugher, 9-1, in game 3 of the ALCS. The Rays take a 2-1 lead in the series.

Lester lasted 5.2 innings in a game where Boston needed more from their ace. He allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits with two walks and seven strikeouts.

Matt Garza on the other hand, gave the Rays a perfect start. He went six innings, giving up a run on six hits with three walks and five strikeouts.

Evan Longoria scored in the second on Dioner Navarro's RBI groundout to make it 1-0 Tampa Bay. The Rays added four in the third on B.J. Upton's three-run bomb and Longoria's solo shot. Those two guys are currently killing the Sox.

Boston got runners at first and third in the seventh but could only come away with one run as Jacoby Ellsbury knocked in Jason Varitek with a sacrifice fly. Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Varitek are a combined 0-for-34 in the series.

The pride of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Rocco Baldelli sent Red Sox fans to the exits with a three-run homer in the eighth off Paul Byrd. Carlos Pena, from Haverhill, MA/Northeastern added a solo shot in the ninth.

Something needs to be shaken up with the Sox' lineup. Varitek will sit tonight as Kevin Cash catches starter Tim Wakefield. Coco Crisp (never thought I'd say this) should be in there over Jacoby Ellsbury. Coco is a terrible leadoff hitter so have Pedroia do it (which he proved capable of during the season).

It's pretty much a must-win for Boston tonight with Wakefield going against Andy Sonnanstine. If Boston loses tonight, they might not even make it back to Tampa. Right now, the Rays are beating them in every facet of the game.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Well that was painful: Super Chargers smoke Pats, 30-10

So this is how the other half lives, huh? With Matt Cassel as quarterback of the 2008 New England Patriots, the team is wildly inconsistent and I guess at this point we have to accept that it'll be like that all season. The Patriots were in San Diego last night and got absolutely destroyed, 30-10 by a Chargers team that's not even that good.

Probably the most worrisome thing about the Patriots (3-2) is that not one part of the team is playing well. The offensive line has been terrible since the Super Bowl and they look worse when Cassel takes about 10 seconds to make a decision downfield (even Drew Bledsoe thinks he should get rid of it sooner). Laurence Maroney and LaMont Jordan both sat out and as a result, the duo of Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris while likeable is woefully average. The running back situation needs a playmaker and Maroney is the only guy that has that ability, not saying he'll ever stop dancing and run hard downhill. The receivers are fine but they're nullified since Cassel can't get them the ball (other than short dumps to Welker).

The defensive line has been terrible, there's been no pressure on quarterbacks. The linebackers other than promising rookie Jerod Mayo have shown their age. The worst group on the team is the cornerbacks. Oh man, if you thought Ellis Hobbs is bad (he is), Deltha O'Neal is looking like a poor man's Duane Starks from a few years ago. Ugh. The Chargers repeatedly picked on O'Neal and he couldn't do anything to stop it. Finally, punter Chris Hanson is a complete bum. You wouldn't notice or care about that but with the current state of the Patriots, we need a good punter.

The Chargers (3-3) were coming off a loss at the Dolphins but you wouldn't know it as they stepped on the gas immediately. Philip Rivers had a Peyton Manning/Tom Brady-esque performance, 18 for 27, 303 yards and three touchdowns. The only reason I didn't vomit on the keyboard while typing that is because Rivers helped lead one of my fantasy teams to a win.

Nate Kaeding opened the scoring with a 25-yard kick in the first quarter. A sign of things to come was when Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first kick of the season.

Even without Chris Chambers, the San Diego passing game was unstoppable. Malcolm Floyd caught a 49-yard TD pass from Rivers in the first quarter. Gostkowski finally got New England on the board with a 47-yard kick in the second quarter. Vincent Jackson (5 catches, 134 yards) put the Chargers up 17-7 with a four-yard catch with 1:07 left in the half.

New England could be best summed up by their first drive of the second half. They moved it down to the 1-yard line and with four cracks at the end zone, they failed to score. It went incomplete play action pass, Morris stuffed, incomplete pass and Cassel was sacked when he tried to scramble in. Shoot me now. At that point, I think Brady turned off the TV. I wouldn't blame him either.

To nobody's surprise, San Diego made the Patriots pay by marching down the field and scoring on a 1-yard toss from Rivers to Gates. A 35-yard Kaeding kick made it 27-3 going into the fourth.

Kaeding's 23-yard kick made it 30-3 Chargers before Morris' 1-yard TD plunge hopefully helped a fantasy football player somewhere. Didn't mean anything to the real game.

After two weeks in California, the Patriots finally come home. They host a good Broncos (4-2) team next Monday. It can't get much worse than two out of the last three games (Dolphins and Chargers).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mike Timlin shouldn't be on the ALCS roster, let alone in a close game

For a playoff game that lasted five hours and 27 minutes over 11 innings, it might be surprising to hear that one decision made all the difference in the final outcome. With only Paul Byrd and Mike Timlin left in the bullpen heading into the bottom of the 11th, Red Sox manager Terry Francona made the wrong decision: he put Timlin in over Byrd (who hasn't appeared yet in the playoffs).

At that point, I knew it was over (most likely in that inning). I'm not that cynical but after watching Timlin completely lose his stuff the last two seasons, I felt like it was impossible that he'd be able to hold off the ultra-resilient Rays. Lo and behold, he walked three (one intentionally) and B.J. Upton hit a shallow sacrifice fly to right that scored pinch runner Fernando Perez. Tampa Bay won game 2, 9-8, evening the series at one game apiece.

You can't really say the Red Sox deserved to win. A couple players were outstanding and it's not like Tampa was that much better, however the law of averages had to tell you that there was no way Boston would take the first two games at the Trop.

Neither Josh Beckett nor Scott Kazmir were anything like they're capable of showing. In 4.1 innings, Beckett gave up eight earned runs on nine hits with one walk and five strikeouts. Kazmir lasted 4.1 innings, giving up five earned runs on six hits with three walks and two strikeouts. The two supposed aces each allowed three home runs.

The loss for Boston did spoil amazing performances by Jason Bay, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. Bay had three hits (including a double and homer), a walk and four RBIs. Youk had three hits (homer), two runs and an RBI. Finally, Pedroia cranked two homers off of Kazmir, a single, four runs, two RBIs and a walk.

Other than that, the Red Sox had some black holes in the lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury was 0-for-6, Mark Kotsay was 0-for-6, Jason Varitek was 0-for-3 before he was lifted for a pinch hitter. Jed Lowrie and David Ortiz didn't get a hit but they both walked three times and Coco Crisp added three hits.

Evan Longoria was the headliner for the Rays. He was 3-for 5 (2 doubles, homer) with three runs and three RBIs. Upton had a homer, two RBIs, two runs, walk and steal. Carlos Pena had two hits, two runs and an RBI while Carl Crawford had two hits and two RBIs.

Bay put Boston up 2-0 in the first with a two-run double which scored Ortiz and Youkilis. Longoria responded in the bottom of the first with a two-run blast off Beckett, scoring himself and Pena.

Pedroia hit his first homer in the third while Upton tied it back up with a moonshot of his own in the bottom of the third. Crawford gave the Rays the lead later in the inning with an RBI single.

The most unforgivable mistake by Beckett was in the fourth when Cliff Floyd hit a solo homer to center, making it 5-3 Rays.

Boston hit three homers in the fifth, retaking the lead at 6-5 and knocking Kazmir out of the game. Pedroia, Youkilis and Bay did the honors.

Hoping to get one more inning out of Beckett, Francona left him in there to start the bottom of the fifth. Pena touched him up for an RBI single, Longoria had an RBI double and Crawford took Beckett out with another RBI single.

Bay cut it to 8-7 in the sixth with an RBI single and Boston tied it in the eighth when Pedroia scored on Dan Wheeler's wild pitch.

Wheeler was the unsung hero of the game for the Rays as he went 3.1 scoreless innings (48 pitches), with four strikeouts. Think the Rays wanted this one?

The fact that David Price, the No. 1 pick in 2007, was the last reliever that Tampa used (he got the win), is funny when you think about who the Red Sox were forced to use. No idea why Francona went to Timlin vs. Byrd who could go multiple innings and has great control (he wouldn't have walked all those hitters).

Both teams used all their best arms out of the bullpen. Delcarmen, Okajima, Masterson and Papelbon for the Sox. Balfour, Howell, Bradford and Miller for Tampa Bay.

The series shifts to Fenway tomorrow afternoon for game 3, followed by games 4 and 5 which will also be in Boston. The Sox need to take at least two out of three. They can't go back to Tampa down 3-2 and forced to win two elimination games at the Trop. Jon Lester goes against Matt Garza in what should be much more a pitcher's duel than game 2.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Rays ride the Dice-K roller coaster, puke Problem Child 2 style

When Red Sox manager Terry Francona announced that Daisuke Matsuzaka would be the ALCS game 1 starter, many Red Sox fans questioned the move. Why not start Jon Lester or Josh Beckett? I'll admit, that I didn't have much confidence in the Dice-Man going into tonight but he proved me and many of my fellow Masshole brethren wrong by spinning a gem.

Boston shutout Tampa Bay, 2-0 as Dice-K threw seven scoreless innings. In true Dice-K fashion, he never made it look easy yet he was spectacular. He walked the bases loaded in the first but got out of the jam. He had a no-hitter through six innings before Carl Crawford singled to lead off the seventh. In 7+ innings, Matsuzaka gave up four hits, walked four and struck out nine.

He ended up throwing 115 pitches and Francona made the curious decision to leave him in to start the eighth (instead of a reliever?) but was bailed out by Justin Masterson who got slumping rookie Evan Longoria to ground into an inning ending double play.

The Red Sox scored a run in the fifth as Jed Lowrie's sacrifice fly brought home Jason Bay. Kevin Youkilis (3 hits) added the key insurance RBI in the eighth as his shot to left was dropped by Crawford. Dustin Pedroia (run, hit, walk, stolen base) scored on Youkilis' double.

Tampa Bay starter James Shields was good. He lasted 7.1 innings, giving up two earned runs on six hits with two walks and six strikeouts.

Jonathan Papelbon got a 1-2-3 ninth inning with two strikeouts for the save. He's now set a major league record by going 20-2/3 scoreless postseason innings to start his career.

Back to Francona's gutsy call on Dice-K that paid off. By starting Dice-K in game 1, Francona was stacking the deck (on normal rest) by pitching Josh Beckett in game 2 and Jon Lester back at Fenway in game 3. In essence, this was a game the Rays had to have since you'd have to bet that Beckett will only improve on his start vs. the Angels and Lester has been the most dominant starter in the playoffs this season.

I wouldn't call Saturday night a must-win for the Rays since they've defied so many expectations this season but it's mighty close. If they lose and/or if Beckett shakes off some of the rest, they're done. Lester in game 3 is almost a given. Scott Kazmir (who's struggled for most of the second half and in his start against the White Sox last week) gets the ball for Tampa at the Trop.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jed Lowrie carries the Red Sox to their fourth ALCS in the last six seasons

I alluded to it during the Celtics title run in the spring and summer but I can't emphasize the fact enough that I'll never take this for granted. Sure in the company of my fellow Massholes, I will talk a big game and boast that this success across New England pro sports will continue forever but I see the writing on the wall (especially with the Cubs collapse fresh in my mind). Despite how great they are at this moment, each local franchise will go through downtimes in the future (except for the Bruins who will always be mediocre). Hopefully, by that time I'll be married to Jessica Biel and will have no use for sports.

The Boston Red Sox won game 4 of the ALDS, 3-2 over the Angels as rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie came through with the key hit, a walk-off RBI single in the ninth off Angels reliever Scot Shields that scored Jason Bay.

On a related note, Julio Lugo was arrested for robbing a 7-11 in East Boston last night. Just kidding,a although I'll be the first one to help Lugo pack his bags and get the hell out of town. No use for that bum anymore.

Hate to be redundant but Jon Lester once again delivered in a huge game. The workhouse and second best lefty in MLB (behind Johan Santana) pitched seven scoreless innings on a cold night, which was just what the Sox needed since every bullpen arm had been used the last few games. Lester allowed four hits, walked two and struck out four. He left with a 2-0 and should have gotten the win if not for some shaky moments by Hideki Okajima and especially Justin Masterson.

Boston broke the scoreless tie with two runs in the fifth off Angels starter John Lackey. Jacoby Ellsbury's groundout drove in Mark Kotsay and Dustin Pedroia broke out of his series-long slump with an RBI double off the Monster which scored Jason Varitek.

After Mark Teixeira and Vlad Guerrero walked, Torii Hunter scored them both with a clutch RBI single off Masterson in the eighth. All the air went out of Fenway as fans realized how screwed the Sox would be if they had to fly back to Anaheim for a game five with Dice-K starting. Yuck.

The Angels series could be summed up by what happened in the ninth. Pinch hitter Kendry Morales led off the ninth with a double and yet he couldn't score. Howie Kendrick bunted him over but then Erick Aybar blew a squeeze play with one out. Aybar missed on a bunt attempt, Jason Varitek caught the ball and ran up the third baseline to tag pinch runner Reggie Willits who was too far off third (anticipating the bunt).

Kevin Youkilis and Kotsay both had superb defensive plays earlier in the game, another thing which separated these two teams in such a tight series.

From there, Jason Bay hit a bloop ground-rule double to right, Kotsay hit a rope that Teixeira (how good is he?) dove and caught before Lowrie stepped up.

The Red Sox will go to Tampa Bay on Friday for Game 1 of the ALCS. Facing off against a division foe, especially such a fresh-faced up and coming team means this best of seven series should be pretty exciting.

The only bad news coming out of Fenway last night was that Mike Lowell is out for the ALCS and probably the rest of the playoffs with the hip injury.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Stop the presses: Angels win a game and stave off elimination

The Boston Red Sox had a perfect opportunity to put away the Anaheim Angels last night in game 3 of the ALCS but the Angels survived by winning 5-4 in 12 innings.

Big game ace Josh Beckett was not his usual dominant self as he labored through five innings of work. He gave up four runs (all earned) on nine hits with four walks and six strikeouts.

Out of all the Angels' bats, catcher Mike Napoli would never be considered the most feared Anaheim hitter. Yet last night he came through when his team needed it the most. He hit two homers off Beckett and added another hit, driving in three and scoring three runs on the night.

Anaheim led 1-0 in the first as Beckett walked Juan Rivera with the bases loaded.

Boston responded with three gift runs in the second as Erick Aybar and Torii Hunter let a Jacoby Ellsbury pop up fall between them, scoring three runs.

Angels starter Joe Saunders had bad numbers but it wasn't his fault since his team made that terrible mistake. He went 4.2 innings, giving up four runs on five hits with four walks and two strikeouts.

Napoli tied it at three in the third with a two-run homer then put Anaheim ahead in the fifth with a solo shot.

Kevin Youkilis' RBI double scored Ellsbury in the fifth before the bullpens surprisingly both pitched six shutout innings in a row.

I lost track of how many times the Sox relievers escaped trouble in the top of the inning, only to see the hitters fail to produce the walk-off hit that would clinch the series.

Aybar was the other unlikely hero in the win as he made his first hit of the series count. He knocked in Napoli with an RBI single of Javier Lopez.

Jered Weaver got the win as he pitched two scoreless frames.

The teams get back at it tonight in game 4 as Jon Lester faces John Lackey, a rematch of game 1. Boston faces pretty much a must-win as it can't go back to Anaheim after choking away two chances to end this against a clearly frazzled team.

Maybe this season won't be a complete waste after all

After stewing for two weeks (during a bye) following the thrashing by the Dolphins, the Patriots played a complete game yesterday in San Francisco, beating the 49ers, 30-21.

New England (3-1) started slow but ultimately controlled the game as they held a 39:52-20:08 time of possession advantage over San Francisco (2-2).

Matt Cassel answered many critics-myself included-with his best performance of the young season. He was 22 of 32 for 259 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. The touchdown pass was the highlight of the game as he found Randy Moss (5 catches, 111 yards) for a 66-yard strike which tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter.

Wes Welker was his favorite target as he hauled in eight catches for 73 yards.

Things did not start out so well for the Pats as Cassel was hit by Takeo Spikes on the first drive and was intercepted. J.T. O'Sullivan (130 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) promptly threw a pick right back as Brandon Meriweather did the honors. Shortly after, the 49ers got on the board as running back Frank Gore (54 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving) split out wide and beat Ellis Hobbs for a 16-yard TD catch.

Right after the Moss bomb, San Francisco retook the lead when O'Sullivan found 98-year old Isaac Bruce (49 yards, 2 TDs) for a 6-yard score.

The Patriots offensive line (which has famously been terrible since the Super Bowl) finally started to give Cassel some time in the second quarter while Cassel also got rid of the ball a little sooner (one of his issues). Stephen Gostowski's 35-yard field goal cut it to 14-10 San Francisco in the second quarter and the Patriots took a 17-14 lead into halftime after a Kevin Faulk (32 yards rushing, 29 yards receiving) 2-yard direct snap with six seconds left.

Lamont Jordan got hurt in the first half and Laurence Maroney didn't get off the sideline after the first few series but nevertheless, the Patriots' running game established the balance the team so desperately needed. Sammy Morris (16 carries, 63 yards) was his typical productive yet unspectacular self.

At the same time, the rested New England defense stepped up when it had to. Rodney Harrison made an interception in the second half, Tedy Bruschi made a stop on Gore and Adalius Thomas showed why he's such a beast.

Another 2-yard run by Faulk put New England up 24-14 in the third before Gostowski added another field goal (this one from 40-yards out).

Old man Bruce caught another score, from 5-yards out but a final kick by Gostowski (49 yards) iced it as the Pats got a satisfying win on the road.

One win over a pretty average team doesn't mean much, especially so early in the season but still New England fans have to be encouraged after the nightmare they witnessed two weeks ago. The Patriots look like they made some serious strides in practice and watching film. They'll stay out in California as they travel to San Diego next Sunday night for a game against the struggling Chargers (2-3).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hey look, J.D. Drew's alive

Game 2 of the ALDS was exactly the type of game the pre-2004 World Series champion Red Sox would have lost. Boston jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first and looked like they would cruise to a commanding 2-0 series lead.

However, the Angels scored one in the first and slowly started to come back until they eventually tied it at five in the eighth. The script has changed for the Red Sox since that historical win over the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. This team is clutch. Everyone seemingly makes a big play at one time or another. Nobody is afraid of the moment.

These days the Chicago Cubs and in this case the Angels seem to be playing the role of the hapless losers (aka the old Red Sox). Boston won tonight 7-5 as J.D. Drew crushed a two-run homer in the ninth off all-world closer Francisco Rodriguez.

Josh Beckett pitches in game 3 back at Fenway as the Sox look to sweep the Angels and extend their MLB record 11 game win streak over Anaheim in the postseason.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Will the Angels ever beat Boston in the playoffs (10 games and counting)?

In the offseason, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim picked up perennial gold-glover Torii Hunter and trumping that, they made the biggest trade deadline move in baseball by picking up switch-hitter Mark Teixeira. The Angels had an unbelievable regular season and rolled to the AL West title.

Yet last night in game 1 of the ALDS versus Boston, the Angels continued to fall apart against the Red Sox in October. Boston won 4-1 and has now won 10 games in a row against Anaheim in the playoffs, spread over four postseasons.

As expected, Jon Lester delivered an awesome start for Boston. He went seven innings, gave up one run (unearned) on six hits with a walk and seven strikeouts.

Anaheim starter John Lackey was good too. He lasted 6.2 innings, allowing two runs on four hits with three walks and five strikeouts.

The Angels took a 1-0 lead in the third after Jed Lowrie's error begat Torii Hunter's (2 hits, RBI, walk) RBI single which knocked in Garett Anderson.

Boston came back in the sixth when Jason Bay (2 hits, 2 RBIs, run) blasted a two-run bomb off of Lackey, which scored Kevin Youkilis. Nursing the slim 2-1 lead going into the ninth, Boston gained some breathing room with two more runs. Jacoby Ellsbury (3 hits, run, RBI, two steals) knocked in Lowrie with an RBI single and David Ortiz beat the shift by lining a single up the middle which plated Ellsbury.

Justin Masterson-one of Boston's postseason keys-gave up two hits (both bloops) in the eighth but was able to wiggle out of the inning without allowing a run. He got two great plays: Youk gunned down Vlad Guerrero, who tried to take third on a single. Ellsbury also made a web gem worthy diving catch in center.

All that was left for the Red Sox was a save by Jonathan Papelbon and he obliged by striking out the side while giving up a hit.

Winning game 1 was huge for both teams as it gives Boston the split it needed on the road while also placing even more pressure on the favored Angels. Game 2 tomorrow night finds Dice-K opposing All-Star Ervin Santana. If the Angels win, it's a whole new series. If they lose, I'm saying it ends Sunday at Fenway.