Saturday, April 26, 2003

State of the Red Sox Saturday

I've decided that I'm going to start using a set style for these Saturdays, where I discuss how each aspect of the team has done the last week and how I feel about them and then give my final thoughts on the team. I'll start each week by looking at their record and how they did the past week


The Red Sox are 15-8, four games behind the Yankees and two games ahead of Oakland in the still-completely-meaningless wild card standings. They took three of four from the Blue Jays last weekend before losing two of three in Texas and getting embarrased 16-5 in the final game. They rebounded to take the first game of their series in Anaheim last night. Because of the blowout loss to Texas, the Red Sox have only scored eight more runs than they've allowed and their expected record is 12-11.

Starting Rotation

This is the biggest problem so far in my eyes, as nobody in the rotation has been consistent.

Pedro Martinez has lowered his ERA to 2.97 and his WHIP to 1.05 since his awful home opener, but he doesn't seem quite right. In each of his last two starts, he's gone seven innings without allowing an earned run, but he's walked a total of nine batters in those games. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is just 2:1 (28 to 14) this year after having a 4.3:1 ratio (2,248 to 521) for his career. I suppose as long as he only allows five hits every 14 innings (as he's done for the last two starts), then the walks don't hurt. Basically, I'm not really worried about Pedro. I still think he'll win the Cy Young Award with a season along the lines of 1999 and 2000.

Casey Fossum has been very impressive in two of his last three starts, combining to go 14 innings with just one run allowed on 11 hits and a walk with nine strikeouts. In that middle start, however, he lasted six innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on six hits and five walks with just three strikeouts. He's going to need to become more consistent, but I'm still glad we didn't trade him. He clearly has great talent and we've got him for a long time.

The other three I'm not even sure I want to talk about. Derek Lowe and John Burkett are both sporting ERAs over 6.00 and both got shelled their last time out. That was only Burkett's first shelling of the season, but it was Lowe's third in five starts and only one of the other two starts was reminiscent of last year. I didn't expect too much from Burkett this year, but the Red Sox need Lowe to be able to post an ERA under 4.00 at least. Hopefully, he can get it straightened out quickly. Tim Wakefield has made two bad starts, two decent starts and one much-needed appearance as the closer. I knew he wasn't going to match last year's performance, but he's better than this (I hope).

Ultimately, I think the rotation will be fine. Pedro's still Pedro, Fossum looks like a future ace at times, and I'm confident that Lowe and Wakefield will improve (Burkett's just a spot-filler). However, I reserve the right to panic if things haven't improved after a few more turns through the rotation.

The Bullpen

I think the biggest problem with the bullpen is that it's been needed too much. Boston's relievers have thrown 76.2 of the teams 209 innings (36.7 percent). That is way too much, but it's probably not going to change tonight or tomorrow. Burkett pitches tonight and he probably won't go more than six (hell, I'd be happy with six). Tomorrow is Pedro's turn, but he threw 121 pitches last time and apparently has a cranky back, so they said they'll take it easy with him. Luckily, the Red Sox have the day off Monday, so everybody in the bullpen can rest.

Chad Fox has been impressive lately. He hasn't given up an earned run in his last seven innings, allowing four hits and striking out seven. Unfortunately, he's also walked five in that span, so he might be in for a rough outing if the control doesn't improve and a couple balls in play find holes. Ramiro Mendoza has been better recently and was able to give the Red Sox a solid 2.2 innings in the blowout loss to Texas. Brandon Lyon hasn't pitched in an important spot since getting his first save, and it's starting to look like Grady Little views Fox as the closer since he's clearly abandoned the original plan laid out by Theo Epstein (have your best pitcher pitch in the most important spot in the game).

It also sounds like everybody's diong well with their rehab assignments, so hopefully the bullpen will be a strength before too long.

The Lineup

Catcher - It looks like the Red Sox might be going to a strict platoon where Jason Varitek plays against righties and Doug Mirabelli plays against lefties. I guess I don't really have a problem with that, although I've always thought of Varitek as an every-day catcher. Varitek has pretty much hit righties and lefties the same over his career (.764 OPS vs. lefties, .767 vs. righties), but Mirabelli has a .943 OPS vs. lefties in almost 200 at-bats, so maybe this move will make the offense even stronger. Mirabelli's still struggling this year (1-for-6 the last three games and a .686 OPS on the season), but maybe regular playing time will get him going. Varitek has gone 8-for-23 in his last seven games to raise his average from .243 to .283, but his OPS has stayed about the same (.878 to .893). Basically, whichever way the Red Sox go here they will have a good defensive player and a better-than-average number nine hitter.

First Base/DH - Kevin Millar was in a 1-for-21 slump that had dropped his OPS from 1.271 to .967 heading into last night. He went 2-for-4 last night, so maybe he's breaking out of that slump. He's been one of the keys to the offense so far this season, so hopefully he can find a happy medium between being the best hitter on the team and not hitting at all. Jeremy Giami and David Ortiz are both still struggling, and I think they'll continue to get about the same amount of playing time until one gets on a hot streak. Ultimately, I think the Red Sox will get good production from first base and their designated hitter.

Second Base - Todd Walker's still not hitting as well as he can, but he is getting on base at a decent clip (.347 OBP, which is right around his career average). So far he hasn't been hitting for the power he usually displays. For his career, he's hit a double about once every 15.3 at-bats, but this year he only has three doubles in 88 at-bats. The doubles should return and he'll probably get his OPS up near .800.

Third Base - Shea Hillenbrand continues to lead the majors in RBI as he had three last night and has 25 on the year. He's hitting .329 with an .860 OPS, which would be very good if he could keep it up. But history has shown that he can't and Bill Mueller has an .837 OPS in limited playing time. I still think the Red Sox should trade Hillenbrand for pitching help and let Mueller be the every day third baseman. That said, if there aren't any good offers on the table, I guess there's not much they can do. I'm rooting for Hillenbrand to become an .800-plus OPS hitter (in which case I would want the Sox to keep him), but I just don't think it'll happen.

Shortstop - Nomar Garciaparra's numbers are just ugly right now. He's hitting .258 with a .793 OPS because he's got one hit (a single) and no walks in his last 16 plate appearances. If there's any consolation it's that the Red Sox have still managed to score five runs in three of those four games and win two of them. Nomar will have an incredible hot streak at some point and his final numbers will be just fine.

Left field - While Nomar's been cold, Manny Ramirez has been tearing the cover off the ball. He's 10-for-17 with a home run, two doubles, two walks and no strikeouts in his last five games. He's hitting .337 with a .937 OPS. When he starts hitting homers, that OPS will go up and he may contend for another batting title.

Center field - Johnny Damon isn't hitting (.250 average), but he is walking (10 in 21 games), stealing bases (4-for-4) and scoring runs (18). Strangely, 12 of Damon's 22 hits have been for extra bases (four homers and eight doubles), so he does have an .801 OPS. Further proof that batting averages are very overrated.

Right field - Trot Nixon has had the quietest good start of any Boston player. Probably because despite his .929 OPS, he only has one homer, nine RBI and 12 runs. He may not be scoring or driving in the runs, but he's certainly helping the runs get scored. As much as I like him, though, Nixon needs to be part of a full-time platoon. This year he has a 1.170 OPS against righties and a .325 OPS against lefties and for his career it's an .885 OPS against righties and a .616 OPS against lefties. Millar should be in right against lefties, with Giambi DHing, Hillenbrand at first and Mueller at third.

Final Thoughts

The most annoying part of the season so far has been the players constant battle with the Boston media. Pedro and Manny aren't talking to the press and the rest of the team is letting the press get to them too. The Boston media is the most antagonistic in the country, and it could ruin this season if the players start thinking too much about what the writers are doing. Just play ball, guys, and let the writers be the assholes. You can take solace in the fact that nobody likes them and everybody's rooting for you.

If this team plays the way it should be able to, I think 100 wins are well within reach. For you Red Sox fans, keep in mind that the Red Sox will be able to acquire $12-million worth of salaries at the trading deadline because they left $4-million in the budget.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Fantasy Friday

Evaluating the hitters

After almost four full weeks of baseball, hitters who are still slumping are starting to be more of a problem and hitters who are still on a tear are starting to look like the answer to all problems. However, it's still too early to make any rash decisions in fantasy baseball. To help you out, I've picked five different hitters to represent each of four categories - sell high, hold on, buy low and cut bait. (Note: I'm writing based on 5x5 Rotisserie leagues, but I would mention the same players in most leagues).

Sell High

These are hitters who are having monster years so far and aren't likely to finish with numbers anywhere near the ones they are currently putting up. You should try to trade them now and get as much value for them as possible. Here are my five in no particular order:

Tim Salmon - Salmon already has six home runs and is batting .325 while on pace to drive in 118 runs and score 125. Salmon is a career .285 hitter who hit 39 homers combined the last two years. He hasn't had more than 100 RBI since 1997 and he's only plyed more than 140 games once in the last five years. He's 34 years old and this is not a new level of production for him, he's simply hot and you should trade him while he is.

Shea Hillenbrand - Everyone thinks Hillenbrand is off to a great start because he's batting .321 with 22 RBI. Well, his OPS is only .816. Hillenbrand is traditionally a fast starter and last year he posted a .972 OPS in April before finishing the season with a .293 average, 18 homers and 83 RBI. He has only hit one homer this year and if he cools off from this start he will end up being terrible. I find it hard to believe that he's transformed into a .320 hitter, but he should still hit about .295 with 15 homers. See if you can find somebody who thinks he'll hit .315 with 120 RBI.

Geoff Jenkins - Jenkins is hitting .355 with four homers and 16 RBI. Jenkins is a good hitter (he hit .303 with 34 homers in 200) in the prime of his career (28 years old), but he just can't seem to stay healthy. He's never played more than 135 games, he played just 172 games the last two years combined and he's already missed a few games with injuries this year. I was watching baseball on ESPN the other night and Rob Dibble said that if Jenkins can just stay healthy, he'll drive in 130 runs. Logically, that statement is true because when the antecedent of an if-then clause is false (and Jenkins will not be able to stay healthy), the entire statement is true. Realistically, Dibble is one of the dumbest people around and you should trade Jenkins if you can get anything good for him.

Jorge Posada - Posada is easily the best hitting catcher in the AL and one of the top three in the majors. However, he's not this good. He's hitting .306 with seven homers and 21 RBI. He's a career .269 hitter with highs of 22 homers and 99 RBI. His hot start combined with the extreme weakness of the catching position makes him very valuable. If you can trade him for a first or second-round caliber player, you should, especially if you have a decent backup catcher.

Jose Cruz Jr. - Thanks to beginning the season in front of Barry Bonds in the lineup, Cruz is hitting .309 with six homers and 15 RBI. Through the first eight games of the year (batting ahead of Bonds), Cruz was hitting .371 with five homers. Since then (hitting behind Bonds), he's hitting .261 with just one homer. Since he does have some power and speed, he's been talked about as a 30-30 hitter this year. I don't think he'll reach those numbers and his batting average will end up closer to his career .253 mark than his current number. See if you can find somebody who thinks he's become a better hitter now that he's in the same lineup as Bonds.

Honorable (or obvious) mentions: Marcus Giles, Mark Grudzielanek, Sean Casey, Milton Bradley, Alex Gonzalez (FLA).

Hold On

These are hitters who are off to great starts, but should not necessarily be traded. They will probably cool off a bit, but what they give you in the long run is better than what you'll likely be able to get in a trade.

Austin Kearns - He's leading the majors with nine home runs, and it does not surprise me at all. He "only" hit 13 homers in his 107-game debut last year, but he can flat out mash. If he doesn't hit 40 homers with an average near .300, I'll be a bit surprised. If you're in a keeper league, you can look forward to some home run titles in the near future. Don't trade him this year and definitely keep him for next year if you can.

Preston Wilson - After two subpar seasons, the only question about his move to Coors Field was how much it would help. Well, he's hitting .333 with four homers, three steals, 15 runs and 15 RBI. He should get back to his 30-30 level (or better) with the best batting average of his career. He is a bit of an injury risk, so if you can get a great player for him you might want to. Otherwise, keep him in your lineup and just watch for any little injuries.

Raul Mondesi - After last year, Mondesi probably doesn't have much value at all, but he still has big-time power and speed. He's part of a lineup that's an offensive machine and there's no pressure on him. He obviously won't hit .345, but his six homers and four steals aren't out of line. Trade him for a great hitter if you can. Otherwise, hold onto him and enjoy the 30-30 season.

Edgar Renteria - Renteria's been around for so long that everybody forgets that he's just 27 years old and entering what should be his best offensive years. Last year was his best all-around season as he hit .305 with 11 homers, 77 runs, 83 RBI and 22 steals. This year, I expect him to hit .315 with 20-25 homers, 100-plus runs, 90-100 RBI and 20-30 steals. He should be the best shortstop in the NL and maybe the third-best overall.

Carl Everett - No player has more bad feelings associated with him than Everett, but he can really hit when he's healthy. He won't keep hitting .348 and he's not going to finish with 52 homers, but don't just trade him for whatever you can. With that ballpark and that lineup, Everett's perfectly capable of hitting .310-.320 with 35-40 homers.

Honorable (or obvious) mentions: Rafael Furcal, Jerry Hairston Jr., D'Angelo Jimenez, Raul Ibanez, Jason Kendall.

Buy Low

Johnny Damon - Damon is only hitting .250, but he's usually a slow starter. Also, he already has four homers and four steals, so the low average isn't hurting too much yet. When he does get his average (and his OBP) up, he'll start scoring runs by the dozen with the lineup that's behind him. He's already scored 18 runs with his low .323 OBP. If the Damon owner in your league is upset with the average, see how cheap you can get him. If you have him, just leave him in your lineup.

Paul Konerko - Konerko's hitting just .211 with two homers and eight RBI. He should not be in anybody's lineup right now. However, Konerko's posted an OPS between .844 and .863 each of the last four years. He'll eventually get back up in that range and his average, home run and RBI totals will be in line as well (.280-.300, 25-30, 90-105). If you can get Konerko for a song, just stash him on your bench until he shows signs of stirring.

Lance Berkman - Berkman's hitting just .236 with two homers and four RBI, but his strikeout and walk totals (10 of each) show that he's not pressing too much. He hit his second homer of the season yesterday and he combined for 76 homers and 254 RBI the past two years. He'll be fine and you should get him cheap if you can and hold on to him if you've got him.

Ichiro Suzuki - Ichiro's hitting .273, but that's not what you want from a career .332 hitter with little power, especially if you were hoping he'd return to his rookie-year level. If you can find somebody who thinks he's a .350 hitter who will steal 50 bases, you should trade him. If you hold on to him, he'll probably give you a nice .320-.330 average with 30-35 steals and 110-plus runs.

Toby Hall - For the second straight year, Hall is off to a slow start. He's hitting .246 with two homers and six RBI after hitting .206 with three homers and 21 RBI before the All-Star break last year. After the All-Star break last year, he had the same homer and RBI totals, but raised his average to .309 and in between his 165 at-bat sessions in the majors he tore up the International League with the Durham Bulls. You may want to put him on your bench for now, but I expect him to make an impact this year. If you're in a keeper league, try and get him because he could be the next great-hitting catcher.

Honorable (or obvious) mentions: Chipper Jones, Carlos Beltran, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Pat Burrell.

Cut Bait

These are hitters who are off to slow starters and probably won't be worthwhile fantasy contibutors this year. If you have them, you may as well cut them and look for somebody else.

Tony Womack - I've never been a fan of Womack because he doesn't hit for a good average and he has no power. He is fast though and he stole at least 45 bases for four straight years from 1997 to 2000 (with a high of 72 in 1999). The last two seasons, though, he's been unable to top 30 steals and this year he's hitting just .202 with two steals. Drop him and forget about him because he's 33 and not getting any better.

Adrian Beltre - Beltre has hit for a decent average and modest power the last four years and we've all been waiting for that breakout year because he's so young. Well, that year's not coming. He's hitting .177 and the Dodgers seem fed up. It's possible that Beltre will turn it around and eventually become a superstar, but it's also still possible that Ryan Leaf will eventually become a decent NFL quarterback. Let Beltre go just so you can stop wondering if he'll ever put it all together.

Fred McGriff - McGriff might get to 500 homers, but it won't be this year. He's 39 years old, playing with an awful lineup in a terrible hitters park. If he comes within shouting distance of last year's numbers (which weren't great for a first basemen), I'll be shocked.

A.J. Pierzynski - Pierzynski's fantasy value last year came entirely from his .300 average. This year he's hitting .254 and he still doesn't have any power. In deep league, he may be worth keeping around as a backup, but there's a reason the Twins took catcher Joe Mauer when they had the first pick - Pierzynski's just not that good. He's not in Minnesota's long-term plans and he shouldn't be in yours either.

Kenny Lofton - Lofton was able to put together 29 steals and 98 runs last year, but most of that (13 steals and 28 runs) came during his torrid April. He may steal 30 bases again, but he won't score anywhere near 100 runs and his batting average will kill your team.

Honorable mention: Mark Bellhorn, Randy Winn, Fernando Vina.

I know I said this would be up between 10 and 11 and now it's 11:45, and I'm sorry for the delay. There were problems with and I had to retype some of this, so thanks for bearing with me. Next week, I'll look at pitchers using the same four categories.

Redman good, Torborg bad

Mark Redman had his second double-digit strikeout day of the season yesterday. He pitched a complete game, allowing two runs on four hits and a walk while striking out 11. However, he should not have pitched the whole game, and Jeff Torborg will have nobody to blame but himself when Redman stinks the joint up in one of his upcoming starts. Redman threw 131 pitches to get through the game, which is extremely high and also 21 more than his previous high this season. As David Pinto pointed out, Redman is striking out many more guys this year than last. He now has 33 strikeouts in 32.2 innings after striking out only 109 batters in 203 innings last year. It would be a shame if Redman is having a breakout year and it gets ruined by an injury.

As you probably know, today is Friday and this post is not about fantasy baseball. I will have my Fantasy Friday post up sometime between 10 and 11, so please check back then. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Impressive youngsters

I've already discussed the fine performances turned in by 20-year-old Jeremy Bonderman and 25-year-old Adam Eaton yesterday (scroll down and read the next two posts if you haven't already), so now I'm going to talk about the other three young pitchers who made nice starts.

24-year-old Gil Meche threw 7.2 shutout innings, allowing five hits and walking two with eight strikeouts. Even with a bad first start, Meche is now 2-1 with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP with 25 strikeouts and seven walks in 24.1 innings. In 2000, Meche was a very promising 21-year-old who pitched 85.2 innings in the majors for the second year in a row and posted a 3.78 ERA. Unfortunately, Meche needed to have labrum surgery and has spent the last two years trying to become the first pitcher to come back from that procedure. Based on his last few starts, it looks like he's on the right track and a healthy, successful Gil Meche would be a tremendous boost to Seattle's playoff hopes.

Making his first start of the season, 25-year-old Chris Reitsma pitched eight shutout innings, allowing eight hits and walking one with two strikeouts. Reitsma was called up as part of Cincinnati's big shakeup after that terrible start, and there's reason to think he should have been in the majors from day one. Last year, Reitsma posted a 3.64 ERA and a 1.37 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 45 walks in 138.1 innings. Yes, Reitsma probably should have had a higher ERA last year and he probably will not be better this year. As impressive as his first start was, it indicates that he's still going to give up a good amount of hits and not strike many people out. Still, I'm pretty sure Reitsma's better than some of the stiffs the Reds had in their rotation and it's probably a good idea to use your promising young pitchers over your veterans who have proven they can't succeed in the majors. With the offense they have, the Reds don't need a staff full of aces. They need guys who can give them innings and give the offense a chance to win, and Reitsma should be able to do that.

Finally, 22-year-old Brett Myers pitched six innings, allowing a run on three hits and three walks while striking out nine. Myers is interesting because, so far this year, he has produced radically different results than he did in the majors last year. Last season, Myers pitched 72 innings with 34 strikeouts and 29 walks. The 4.25 K per 9 innings ratio and 1.17 K per walk ratio were both awful, and Myers posted a 4.25 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP. This year, Myers has pitched 25 innings with 27 strikeouts and 12 walks. Needless to say, his 9.72 K per 9 innings ratio and 2.25 K per walk ratio are not only improvements, they're both excellent indicators that he'll be successful. Indeed, Myers has a 2.88 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP, both better than last year (although the WHIP is still a little high). If Myers can keep striking people out like he has been while keeping his control about where it is, he could help make Philadelphia's rotation a major strength this season.

An important game

Everybody should pay extra attention to today's game at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and Padres. Why on earth would an April game between Chicago and San Diego have extra importance? Well, because an interesting wager has been made on the series by The Cub Reporter and Ducksnorts. If Chicago wins the series, The Cub Reporter gets control of Ducksnorts for a day. If San Diego wins, Ducksnorts gets control of The Cub Reporter for a day. The teams split the first two games, so it all comes down to today's game. Now that's I've informed you about the importance of today's game, I want to talk about yesterday's game.

Yesterday, the Padres won 2-0, but the story of the game was Adam Eaton. In 2001, Eaton was having a nice season with a 4.32 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP with 109 strikeouts and 40 walks in 116.2 innings. Then he got injured and needed to have Tommy John Surgery. He came back at the end of last year to make six starts and now, 20 months after the surgery, he seems to be fully recovered.

Eaton threw seven shutout innings yesterday, allowing five hits and walking two with 12 strikeouts. He is now 1-1 with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP with 29 strikeouts and 11 walks in 32.2 innings. However, there is another series of numbers that should not look so good to Padres fans: 94, 97, 102, 111, 117. Those are Eaton's pitch counts in his five starts, respectively, this season. The first two, and probably the third, are fine and it's not even the end of the world that he threw 117 pitches in a game this year. What bothers me is that a 25-year-old who is recovering from a serious injury has seen his pitch count increase in every game this year. If that trend continues, or if he continues to throw 110-plus pitches per game, he will probably get injured again in the not-too-distant future.

The Padres are not going to contend this year. It would be a nice story, but it's not going to happen. However, if they keep their young players healthy, get their currently-injured players back and sign a couple of good free agents, the Padres might be able to contend next year in the first season in their new ballpark. If I were Bruce Bochy, I would err on the side of safety and risk Eaton getting 20 no decisions rather than risk him getting hurt again. Of course, Eaton's pitch count was six lower than fellow Tommy John survivor Kerry Wood's. Head over to The Cub Reporter and check out the table that shows how Chicago's young pitchers have been abused by Dusty Baker.

There was another interesting development in this game, at least for fantasy baseball players. After Eaton was removed from the game, Matt Herges came in and pitched two perfect innings for his first save of the season. When Trevor Hoffman went down with his injury, his most likely replacements seemed to be Jay Witasick, Brandon Villafuerte and Jaret Wright. Well, Witasick's still hurt, Villafuerte has a 7.71 ERA and Wright has a 1.59 WHIP. Herges has a 1.23 ERA and 0.68 WHIP (albeit in a very small sample) and I would bet that yesterday's performance cemented him as the closer for the forseeable future.

Finally, some hope

After being made fun of and written about all over the baseball world recently (including in this space yesterday), the Detroit Tigers finally gave their fans a sign of hope. The game actually went just as you would want it to. The Tigers took a lead early, added to the lead late and the bullpen came in to save a fine performance by the starting pitcher. The interesting thing is to take a look at the people who contributed to Detroit's second win of the year.

The starting, and winning, pitcher was 20-year-old rookie Jeremy Bonderman, who came into the game 0-3 with a 10.22 ERA and a 2.35 WHIP and 10 strikeouts to six walks. Yesterday, he pitched eight innings, allowing one run on three hits with five strikeouts. He retired 17 batters in a row from the final out of the second until he gave up a triple with one out in the eighth. He threw 102 pitches (12.75 per inning) and 64 for strikes (62.7%). Coming into the game he was averaging 18.9 pitches per inning and was throwing 58.8% of his pitches for strikes. The Tigers would not have tried to promote Bonderman this quickly if he didn't have a ton of ability, so it's not too surprising that he was able to harness that ability for one night. It will be interesting to see if he can make another good start his next time out.

The closer for the Tigers is still 26-year-old Matt Anderson, who came into the game with one save and a 6.43 ERA and a 2.00 WHIP with just three strikeouts and three walks in seven innings. Yesterday, he walked the first batter he faced in the ninth, but then got the next three outs with little trouble. As hard as Anderson reportedly throws, he's only been able to keep his ERA under 4.80 during his 44-inning rookie season in 1998 when he posted a 3.27 ERA. It would be a big boon to the Tigers if he started to pitch as well as he's supposed to be able to.

The key hitter in the game was 26-year-old Craig Monroe, who had played 44 games in parts of three seasons and has a .574 career OPS even after yesterday, when he hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning to give Bonderman all the support he would need.

As bad as the Tigers are right now, they do have some promising young players (although I don't know that Monroe is one of them). If fans can suffer through this year and probably next year, Detroit may actually be able to put a decent product on the field in the near future.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Will they keep coming?

A crowd of 36,879 fans showed up to watch the Expos shut out Arizona yesterday in Montreal's third opener of the season (Opening Day, Home Opening Day in Puerto Rico and Home Opening Day in Montreal). The big question is how many fans will show up today for the second game in Montreal. If they like seeing a good baseball team (especially one with good pitching), then the answer should be a lot.

Much has been made of the excellent young pitching staffs for the A's, Cubs and Astros. Well, Montreal deserves to be mentioned in that group also.

Tomo Ohka pitched six and two-thirds shutout innings yesterday, allowing six hits and walking three while striking out four. The 27-year-old is now 2-2 with a 1.78 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP with 14 strikeouts and eight walks in 25 and one-third innings. Last year, Ohka posted a 3.18 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP with 118 strikeouts and 45 walks in 192 and two-thirds innings. I see no reason why he can't approximate those results this year.

The ace of Montreal's staff is Javier Vazquez. The 26-year-old is 2-1 with a 3.16 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP with 37 strikeouts and just four walks in 25 and two-thirds innings. The last two years, Vazquez combined to go 26-24 with a 3.67 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP with 387 strikeouts and 93 walks in 454 innings (4.2 K's per walk and 7.7 K's per 9 IP). Those numbers put him among the best starting pitchers in the NL and if he improves the strikeout numbers a little (as he has shown he's capable of so far this year), then he could be a Cy Young Award contender.

Next on the list is Tony Armas Jr., who came over to Montreal in the trade for Pedro Martinez. At 24, Armas is starting to provide a return on that trade as he's 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP with 23 strikeouts and eight walks in 31 innings. After getting his feet under him with three years of 4.00-4.50 ERA's, Armas looks like he's finally ready to turn his vast potential into actual results. It would not surprise me at all if he's the most improved pitcher in the majors this year.

The youngest member of the rotation by a couple months, 24-year-old Zach Day may lose his spot when Orlando Hernandez gets healthy, but he's already shown that he will be a valuable contributor for years to come. Day is currently 1-1 with a 2.59 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP with 13 strikeouts and 10 walks in 24 and one-third innings. He probably needs to improve his strikeout ratios to remain effective, but his stuff has been touted as potential closer material.

The Expos finished second, albeit a distant second, in the NL East last year. They lost their best pitcher, but they've still got a very good staff. If the offense can score enough runs, the Expos will hang around in the division race all year and it would not surprise me to see them win it. If baseball can keep all of their talent together for the near future, this will be a very fun team to watch.

Bad News Tigers

For awhile there, the Detroit Tigers were just plain bad. Now things are getting ugly. As almost everybody knows, the Tigers are 1-17. They lost their first nine games, won a game, and have now lost their last eight. As bad as the Tigers were five days ago, at least they weren't toying with the few fans they have left. Now they are, as they've lost three of their last four by one run with all three losses of the "walk-off" variety.

On Friday, the Tigers served up a home run to Ken Harvey leading off the bottom of the 11th inning to lose 4-3 to the Royals. Detroit had actually led that game 3-0 before giving up single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. The Tigers even gave their fans hope that maybe things were going their way that day when Kansas City loaded the bases with nobody out in the 10th and failed to score.

After a blowout loss the next day, the Tigers again lost 4-3 to the Royals on Sunday. With the score tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Kansas City scored the winning run without hitting a ball out of the infield. Desi Relaford singled and went to second on a throwing error by shortstop Omar Infante. Joe Randa then bunted Relaford over to third, and pitcher Mike Maroth sped up the losing process by throwing the ball away.

After an off-day Monday, Detroit was back at it yesterday, falling 6-5 to Oakland. Trailing 4-0 after seven innings, the Tigers rallied for three runs in the eighth and (after giving a run back) two in the ninth. Alas, they were just setting themselves up for more heartbreak, as Miguel Tejada homered leading off the bottom of the 11th.

The Tigers have scored 39 runs and allowed 99, so even their expected record is just 2-16. I still think they'll win around 50 games as very few teams in the history of baseball have had a winning percentage near .250, which is what the Tigers would have if they only managed to win 40 games. However, if they want to keep people around the country interested, they should keep finding more agonizing ways to lose and they should try to lose at least 130 games.

Pitcher of the Month candidates

Raise your hand if you thought the top two candidates for the AL Pitcher of the Month award on April 23rd would be Esteban Loaiza and Runelvys Hernandez. Now raise your other hand if you're lying... That's what I thought. As strange as it may seem, however, there is a very good chance that one of them will win the award as both pitched well again yesterday.

Loaiza pitched eight and one-third innings, allowing just one run (a solo homer in the ninth inning) and four hits and striking out eight. The win improved his record to 4-0 and he has a 1.24 ERA and 0.62 WHIP with 27 strikeouts and five walks. Loaiza has definitely been the White Sox ace so far, but Chicago is going to be in big trouble if they need him to be a good pitcher in order to keep winning. For his career, Loaiza is 13-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with 126 strikeouts and 43 walks (2.9 K's per BB and 6.3 K/9IP) in April. In every other month combined, he's 60-70 with a 5.11 ERA and 1.48 WHIP with 659 strikeouts and 319 walks (2.1 K's per BB and 5.4 K/9IP). While Bartolo Colon and Mark Buehrle are unlikely to pitch much better than they currently are, Loaiza is a good bet to pitch much worse than he is right now and that means trouble in Chicago.

On the surface, Hernandez appears to have been better than Loaiza as he's 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA. However, you don't have to look far to see that he's teetering on the brink of disaster. He's so far managed the difficult task of ranking fifth in the AL in WHIP (0.98) and fourth in the AL in walks (15). He's also only struck out 17, so almost all of his success comes from the fact that he's somehow only allowed 17 hits. Last night was more of the same as he allowed one run in six and two-thirds innings while striking out three, walking six and giving up three hits. He also threw 109 pitches, by far the most he's thrown this season.

If we check back at the end of June (or maybe even May), I don't think we'll find either of these pitchers among the league leaders in ERA. That said, they'll both probably get one more start in April. If either one can have as good an outing as the ones they've had so far, it would probably lock up the AL Pitcher of the Month Award. If they both get shelled, the award will probably go to a Yankee, with Mike Mussina the most likely.

If you're trying to predict who will win the NL award, keep an eye on tomorrow's St. Louis game. Woody Williams (3-0) takes the mound for the Cardinals, and he's yet to allow a run (earned or otherwise) in 19 and two-thirds innings. His 0.71 WHIP is the best in the NL and he has 13 strikeouts to just three walks. This should not really be a surprise though. Since coming over to the Cardinals in 2001, Williams has made 31 starts and 24 of them have been quality starts (at least six innings pitched and no more than three runs allowed). The only problem he's had has been staying healthy, as he was only able to pitch 103 and one-third innings last year. If Williams can stay healthy this year, St. Louis has two legitimate aces and that combined with their offense should be enough to win the NL Central.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

O's blanks Rays

In the final game yesterday, Baltimore shut out Tampa Bay 4-0. Rick Helling allowed four hits in eight innings.

From 1998 through 2001, you could count on Helling winning games as a mediocre pitcher. Over those four years, his ERA was between 4.41 and 5.18, he pitched between 215 and 220 innings and he won at least a dozen games (and as many as 20). Last year, his innings dropped to 175, but he still won 10 games with a 4.51 ERA. If you're looking for a pitcher who you know isn't going to kill you but also won't carry your staff, you can do a lot worse than Helling. That said, I don't know that a team like the Orioles needs a pitcher who can just take up a spot in the rotation without being too bad. Baltimore should be looking for young players who they can give a chance and see if something good happens.

The best news for Baltimore fans is not that the Orioles won their second straight series to reach .500 (9-9). It's that they seem to have found their leadoff hitter for the future. Jerry Hairston Jr. is doing about everything you want from a leadoff hitter. He's batting .292 with a .388 OBP and even has some pop as his .458 SLG shows. He's stolen six bases and been caught just once and he's drawn 11 walks and struck out only eight times. This is Hairston's sixth year with the Orioles, and not much in his first four and a half years suggested that he could become a great leadoff hitter. Last year, however, he posted a .777 OPS in 251 at-bats after the All-Star break. Prototypical leadoff hitters are about the hardest thing to find right now and if Hairston can keep up this level of success he could be in for a big payday in the near future.

For Tampa Bay, Rocco Baldelli singled in the ninth inning, so he's reached base in all of his major league games and has gotten a hit in all but one. However, he's clearly starting to come down from his early season high. After the April 15th game, Baldelli was batting .426 with a 1.032 OPS. Since then, he's 6-for-24 with a walk and seven strikeouts. I think he'll ultimately end the season with an average in the .280 range and a high-.600's OPS.

Burks and Garcia power Indians

Ellis Burks and Karim Garcia each hit two home runs yesterday in Cleveland's 9-2 win over the White Sox.

Since leaving Colorado in 1998, Burks has been one of the most consistently good hitters around. In his four full seasons since 1998, Burks has hit at least 24 homers in each one with an OPS above .900 each year. After yesterday, his OPS this year is .942. He's been around so long that his career numbers sneak up on you: 1,951 games played, 2,070 hits, 348 homers, 1,226 runs and 1,189 RBI. He's played mostly for winning teams and has been to the playoffs six times, but his teams are 0-6 in those playoff series. Here's hoping the Indians trade him to a playoff team this year and he can finally taste a playoff series victory.

Garcia is interesting because he's only 27 years old, but he's playing in the majors for his seventh different team. He's only gotten regular playing time twice: in 1998 when he posted a .641 OPS in 113 games for Arizona and the following year when he had a .729 OPS in 96 games for Detroit. In each of his other seasons, he had appeared in 20 big league games or fewer until last year when he arrived in Cleveland after having played two games for the Yankees. The Indians plugged him into the lineup on August 6th and he was a revelation, playing 51 of the final 52 games with a .901 OPS. He hit 16 homers and drove in an astounding 52 runs. After starting slowly this season, Garcia is 5-for-10 with three home runs in the last two games to raise his OPS to .828.

Interestingly, Cleveland has now scored 73 runs and allowed 85 runs. Minnesota has scored 73 runs and allowed 89. Cleveland is 7-12 and thought to be a couple years away from contending and Minnesota is 9-10 and thought to be a favorite to win the AL Central this year. This should be as close as Cleveland gets to Minnesota this year (both in the standings and the run differential department) as the Indians begin a 24-game stretch against the AL West tonight while Minnesota has Tampa Bay, Kansas City and the White Sox on the upcoming schedule.

Speaking of the White Sox, aside from the loss there was good news and bad news in this game. The good news is that Carlos Lee homered for the fifth straight game. Lee had a .174 average, .255 OBP and .174 SLG after the April 16th game. He now has a .246 average, .319 OBP and .492 SLG. He's 26 years old and doubled his walk total last year, so he looks like he's primed for a breakout year. We'll see if it happens.

The bad news is that Billy Koch pitched in a non-save situation, allowing two earned runs on three hits in one inning. He now has an 8.68 ERA and 1.82 WHIP and has blown two saves. Last year, Keith Foulke struggled to start the season and lost his job as the White Sox closer after blowing his second save of the year on May 29th. His ERA was 5.56, but he had come into the year off three straight seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA and had saved 76 games the previous two years. He was supposed to be going to middle relief just to get himself straightened out, but he never got his job back even though he finished the season with a 2.90 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP.

Koch came into this year with much worse credentials than Foulke, although he had saved 30 games four years in a row. Has Jerry Manuel learned from last year's mistake of taking away Foulke's job? I think he may feel more pressure to keep Koch in the closer's role this year because the White Sox crowed so much about how important Koch's acquisition was. Either way, the Oakland A's are going to laugh all the way to the end of the season as Foulke easily outperforms their old closer.

Yankee dominance continues

The New York Yankees continued their embarrasing two-year ownership of the Minnesota Twins with a 15-1 win yesterday. The Yankees have won 13 games in a row against Minnesota (every meeting between the two teams in 2002 and 2003) and have outscored the Twins 90-36 (41-23 in six games last year and 49-13 in seven games this year). In this four-game sweep, the Yankees held advantages of 38-9 in runs, 12-1 in homers and 20-11 in walks.

David Wells should petition to make all of his starts against Minnesota, because he'd be a lock for the Cy Young Award if he could. In two starts against Minnesota this year, Wells has pitched two complete games and allowed just one run on 10 hits and one walk. That walk came yesterday and was his first of the year, compared to three wins on the season. In his career against the Twins, Wells is 17-6 with a 2.33 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. He's pitched 178 innings with 121 strikeouts and 30 walks. He's thrown seven complete games, including three shutouts, one of which was a perfect game.

I still think the Twins will win the AL Central, but they better hope they don't have to play the Yankees in the playoffs. If the two teams do match up, maybe Joe Torre should consider throwing Wells in game one,

For more on this game and the Twins recent struggles, Aaron Gleeman's last two posts cover the subject better than I could. I do want to touch on one more thing that happened in this game though.

In the fourth inning, Alfonso Soriano hit a grand slam for his seventh homer of the season. In his career, Soriano now has 67 home runs and just 59 walks. Unless I missed somebody (and I checked three times), nobody on the top 500 list for career homers has ever had more home runs than walks. The closest are Juan Gonzalez (409 HR, 438 BB), Tony Armas (251 HR, 260BB) and Don Demeter (163 HR/180 BB).

Aside from his obvious lack of plate discipline, the biggest reason Soriano has more home runs than walks is probably his spot in the lineup. Batting first, he's only been intentionally walked four times in his career. Compare that to Gonzalez, who has batted in the heart of the order most of his career and has been walked intentionally 72 times. Soriano obviously isn't going to finish his career with more home runs than walks. He's already starting to show a little more patience at the plate (he's on pace for 51 walks, which would be just one fewer than the previous two seasons combined) and he'll eventually move to a spot in the order where he'll receive more intentional walks. In fact, he's received three of his four intentional walks in this young season even though he's hitting leadoff (so maybe he's actually not showing more patience at the plate). At any rate, it will be interesting (to me at least) to see how far into his career Soriano can go before his walk total passes his home run total. If it happens this year, I'll try to make sure I let you all know.

I'm going to take a break from posting now and will have my thoughts on yesterday's other two games later this afternoon.

Toronto, Boston reverse trends

Heading into yesterday's Patriots Day matchup, the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays were two teams heading in opposite directions. Boston was riding a seven-game winning streak and making everybody feel better about the bullpen. Meanwhile Toronto had lost four straight and 10 of 11 to make everybody feel worse about the youth movement.

John Burkett had his first really bad start for the Red Sox, giving up seven runs (all earned) in two and two-thirds innings. Burkett's first three starts weren't masterpieces, but they were good enough to give the offense a chance to win, which is what you want from your fifth starter. Boston did, in fact, win each of Burkett's first three starts (Burkett only got credit for the win in one), but the Red Sox will not be able to stand many more starts like yesterday's. From what I heard on the radio, it sounded like the umpire had a bit of a small strike zone, which would explain a lot. Burkett does not have good stuff, so he has to be around the edges of the plate and hope the hitters help him out. If he has to come further over the plate to get strike calls, he's going to get hammered. I'm hoping that's what the problem was yesterday, because the Red Sox don't really have any great candidates to replace him as the fifth starter.

So Boston trailed 7-0 right away, but most Red Sox fans weren't putting this one in the loss column just yet because Boston had trailed 5-0 on Sunday before coming back to win. Sure enough, the Red Sox scored six runs in the next three innings, but the closest they got was 9-6. The bullpen, which had been so incredible during the winning streak, gave up single runs in the fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth innings. It's hard enough to come back when you spot the other team seven runs. It's harder still if you keep letting them tack on a run at a time.

This loss really wasn't a big deal for Boston. They're still 13-6 and they've got Pedro Martinez on the mound tonight against Texas. The 11-6 win was a huge deal, however, for Toronto. Not only was it just their second victory in 12 games, it also gave them hope that one of the keys to their future isn't going to struggle all year.

I've seen and/or listened to at least part of eight or nine Blue Jays games this year and Eric Hinske has looked and/or sounded lost at the plate in almost every one. Before yesterday's game, he was hitting .200 with a .257 OBP and .338 SLG and just one homer. This after hittin .275/.357/.473 last year to win the Rookie of the Year Award. The Blue Jays gave him a five-year contract this offseason (they already had control of him for those five years, the contract just set his salary in stone), and I'm sure they were at least a little worried that he would prove to not be worth it.

Well, yesterday Hinske went 4-for-5 with three doubles and raised his numbers to .243/.293/.414. Aside from not being able to get a hit to save his life, Hinske's walk rate was also much lower this year. He walked 77 times and struck out 138 times in 151 games last year. Through 17 games this year, he had walked five times and struck out 22 times. Hopefully it was just a case of him pressing a little too much while he tried to break out of his slump. He has a chance to be one of the cornerstones of an exciting, young Toronto offense and it would a shame if he had a sophomore slump so bad that it messed up his career.

Monday, April 21, 2003

Blowout Monday

Not many games on the schedule today, but that doesn't mean there weren't a lot of runs on the scoreboard. It's starting to look like I'm going to be staying home sick tomorrow, so since there are only four games today I'll post my thoughts on all four games and the teams involved tomorrow. However, I'll probably sleep in a bit to try and kick this cold, so bear with me if the post's not up in the morning.

Brotherly fun

The scary thing about the hot starts by the offenses of the Yankees and Red Sox is that each team's Giambi is struggling. If yesterday is any indication, however, they may be getting back on track as each of them homered in victories.

Jason Giambi hit a three-run homer for the Yankees. It was his fourth homer of the year, but his first since April 3rd. Jason's now batting .197 with a .763 OPS, but hardly anybody has noticed because the Yankees have been so good.

Jeremy Giambi hit a solo homer for the Red Sox. It was his second homer of the year, his first since April 1st. Jeremy's now batting .158 with a .702 OPS, but hardly anybody has noticed because Boston's bullpen stole the early spotlight and now the Red Sox have won seven in a row.

Coincidentally (I think), it's the second time this year the brothers have homered on the same day, as Jason hit his first two homers on April 1st. Last year, the Giambis went deep the same day five times (May 12th and 21st, June 19th, July 15th and September 18th) and in 2001, when they both played for Oakland and Jeremy hit just 12 homers, they both hit one on the same day twice (June 21st and August 11th). So, since the beginning of 2001, there have been 32 days on which Jeremy has homered, and Jason has also gone yard on nine of those days.

Beginning of the end?

The Yankees are off to the best start in franchise history. Their starters have yet to lose a game (13-0) and their hitters are putting 6.6 runs on the board per game. So why is there so much unrest in the Bronx?

As I'm sure all of you know, Jose Contreras was demoted this weekend. As many of you probably know, Joe Torre told him that the demotion was to Columbus, only to have George Steinbrenner override that decision and send Contreras to Tampa.

As soon as I saw that, I thought that Torre's stay in New York would end after this year. He's fairly old and he's clearly starting to get annoyed by the Boss' meddling. There has been a lot of speculation about how long Torre might keep going and I think this year will be his last, especially if Steinbrenner keeps undermining his authority.

Judging by some of the stories I've seen (both on the wire yesterday and the Internet today), it seems that some of the New York writers think that Torre's tenure in the Big Apple might not even last the year. I don't think Steinbrenner would really fire the well-liked manager of a first-place team, but Steinbrenner's baffled me before. He's a very proud man, and he likes people to know that he's the reason the Yankees are so damn good. I'm sure it bothers him to no end that Torre gets most of the credit for New York's success the last seven years.


Shawn Chacon and two relievers combined for the 21st shutout in Coors Field history yesterday. With everybody clamoring over San Francisco's 15-3 start, Colorado's impressive 12-7 start has gotten lost in the shuffle.

It's not surprising that the Rockies lead the majors in runs with 124 (although not runs/game, in which the Yankees lead the majors), but it's the Rockies pitching staff that has made the difference by posting a 4.48 ERA (17th in the majors). The amazing thing is that the pitching staff's ERA is over a run better (3.98 to 5.00) at home. Now that I've got you all excited about the Colorado pitching staff, here's the bad news: they're doing it with smoke and mirrors (or at least a lot of luck). Colorado's WHIP is 1.58 and the pitchers are averaging just 5.33 strikeouts per 9 innings. That WHIP ranks 26th in the majors, which is not a good sign. The pitching staff with the ERA closest to Colorado's is Boston (4.55). Colorado's allowed opposing hitters to have an .811 OPS while Boston has limited opposing hitters to a .717 OPS.

If Colorado's WHIP and OPS allowed stay where they are, I'd expect that ERA to get up in the neighborhood of 5.00 or higher. That said, I thought the Rockies were much improved coming into this season and it wouldn't surprise me too much to see them finish second. And with mediocrity reigning in the NL East and Central, they should stay alive in the wild card race into September.

Before I finish this post, I'd like to get back to Chacon for awhile. He's 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP. He's allowed just one homer in 27.2 innings and is holding opponents to a .175 batting average (17 hits total). Even more impressive is that he's made three of his four starts in Colorado and hasn't given up more than two runs in any of them. He only has 17 strikeouts (5.53 per 9 innings), but he's kept the ball on the ground (1.68 GB/FB ratio) and the Rockies have played good defense behind him. It will be interesting to see if he can keep his WHIP (and ERA) that low without increasing his strikeouts.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

A.I. Answers Call

I wasn't going to write anything about Sunday's final NBA game, but then Allen Iverson went and dropped 55 points on the New Orleans Hornets. Iverson's a pretty prolific scorer, so it's not a real shock that he scored 55 points (not that you ever expect somebody to go off for 55). What is a shock is that he was 21 of 32 from the floor. Usually when he has big nights, he takes close to 50 shots and makes about a third of them.

When he's on fire like he was tonight, Iverson is just a joy to watch. He's one of the smallest players in the league, but he's so fast and his layups high off the glass are a thing of beauty. As nice as it was for the 76ers to win game one, however, they're going to need more than 43 points from the rest of the team to keep beating the Hornets.

By the way, I think I figured out why I don't really like New Orleans. Those jerseys are absolutely hideous. Anyway, that'll do it for this "Super Sports Sunday." It's back to baseball tomorrow morning. Thanks to everybody who stopped by this week. If you liked it, tell a friend or two to check it out.

Super Sports Sunday

One-man teams go 1-1

Everybody knew that the fortunes of the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves would rest on the shoulders of their lone superstars - Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett. McGrady proved to be up to the challenge, but Garnett was not. Of course, it helped that McGrady was facing the Detroit Pistons, who some writers have called the worst No. 1 seed in at least two decades, instead of the three-time defending champions.

McGrady scored 43 points including his usual dazzling display of aerial maneuvers (if you're a fan of basketball and did not see this game, you MUST watch the highlights until you see the shot where he took off from one side of the lane, altered his body in mid-air to avoid conact beneath the hoop and spun the ball into the basket just past the other side of the rim). The other encouraging sign for Orlando fans is that this may not be a one-man team for too much longer. Drew Gooden more than held his own against Ben Wallace, who was probably still hampered at least slightly by the knee injury that forced him to miss the final two weeks of the season. Gooden's final line was 18 points and 14 rebounds, but 12 of those boards came in a dominating first-half display, which allowed the Magic to increase the lead with McGrady on the bench for most of the second quarter.

Detroit was able to stay in the game with an astounding 47 trips to the free throw line, of which the Pistons made 40, but McGrady made sure the Magic never lost the lead.

Shortly after that game, the Lakers put on a clinic in the first and fourth quarters in Minnesota. In between, the Timberwolves played decent basketball, getting the score within a handful of points a few times. But there was never really any doubt that the Lakers would win. Garnett had 23 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists, but that's not nearly enough when you're playing the Lakers and there aren't any other stars on your side. Garnett's one of my favorite players, but he seems to disappear for stretches at times. He's fun to watch, but he's not like McGrady or Kobe Bryant where you always know when they're on the court.

I still think the Lakers will have problems with a team like the Spurs or the Kings, but Minnesota may not even win a game in this series. It's a shame too because it's not Garnett's fault that he has to play the Lakers and I think he finally would have gotten the Timberwolves out of the first round if Portland had only been able to beat the Clippers in the last game of the regular season.

More overtime hockey fun

No sooner do I talk about how much I love overtime NHL playoff games than we get another triple-overtime treat. Since I was at work, I was unable to watch the game in its entirety, but it was clear from what I saw that the story of this game was the goalies.

Washington peppered Nikolai Khabibulin with 61 shots - a number which would have been much higher if not for the Tampa Bay defenders crowding the front of the net and blocking countless shots - and the Lightning netminder only let one slip by.

At the other end of the ice, Olaf Kolzig made some absolutely ridiculous saves and got a little bit of help from the post. None of the three goals were scored at even strength and Washington will probably be thinking about their stupid too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty all offseason.

Super Sports Sunday

The NBA on UBB

As I was watching the Celtics fall apart in the third quarter of their game against Indiana, I started planning to write about how tough it is to cheer for them right now. The Celtics have two of the top 20 or so players in the NBA in Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, but they can't surround them with decent talent because of their salary cap situation. Also, the team is heavily reliant on 3-pointers, which results in brutal blowouts from time to time, and has no point guard or inside presence.

So that was my plan, but I'm happy to report that my plan changed. Pierce, as he did in countless games during Boston's playoff run last year, put the Celtics on his back and Boston stole a game from Indiana.

Pierce scored 21 of his 40 points in the fourth, including nine in the last 40 seconds with stifling defender Ron Artest on the bench after fouling out. Pierce sank two free throws after Artest's last foul to give Boston a 96-95 lead. After two Indiana free throws, Pierce nailed a step-back 3-pointer with 27.5 seconds left for a 99-97 lead. Pierce then got the rebound on an Indiana miss, was fouled and made two more free throws with seven seconds left for a four-point lead. After Jamaal Tinsley's 3-pointer, Pierce was fouled again and hit two more free throws with two seconds left to secure the game.

Pierce was 21-for-21 from the free throw line and had 11 rebounds and six assists. And so it was that I went from thinking the Celtics had no chance of beating Pacers to thinking they could very well be the Eastern Conference team that loses in the NBA Finals.

Paul Pierce can do these things to you. Watching him sometimes leaves you shaking your head, not even wanting an explanation of how he did what he did. He's not on the same level as Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, but in the fourth quarter with a game on the line, I don't know that there's anybody I'd want holding the ball other than Pierce.

And yet, as good as he is, as good as Walker can be, the Celtics may never win a title with the two of them because it will be at least three more years before they can put better talent around them. By then it may be too late, but that won't stop me from enjoying every moment of this year's run - however long it may last.

Of course, there were some other games yesterday, so I may as well talk about them too.

Suns rise out West

It was my favorite upset of the night, but the sixth-seeded Celtics beating No. 3 Indiana wasn't even the biggest upset of the day. The eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns used two miracle 3-pointers to stun the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs 96-95 in overtime.

Phoenix rookie Amare Stoudemire banked in a 3-pointer with 8.7 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 87-87. Stoudemire finished with 24 points and nine rebounds as he continues to redefine what a player can do right out of high school after averaging 13.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game during the season. For comparison: as rookies, Bryant averaged 7.6 points, McGrady averaged 7 points and 4.2 rebounds and Kevin Garnett averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds.

After Stoudemire's third 3-pointer of the season, the Spurs had a chance to win the game, but Tim Duncan was forced to take an awkward outside shot and missed badly. There are two situations I would be comfortable with for San Antonio on an end-of-game play - Duncan in the paint or Tony Parker from outside - but the Spurs apparently couldn't get either one set up.

The Spurs had the worst regular-season free-throw percentage (.725) of any team in the playoffs and it hurt them in this game. San Antonio shot 26-for-41 from the line and hit just 2 of 8 free throws in overtime. The Spurs had Parker at the line with a one point lead with six seconds left in OT. He made the first and missed the second, but Duncan grabbed the rebound and was fouled.

Assuming the game was over (and because I was at work), I stopped watching. So I didn't see Duncan miss both free throws. I didn't see David Robinson tip the rebound right to Stephon Marbury (at least not until I watched the highlights later in the night). And I didn't see Marbury bank in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win the game.

Last year, this would have meant trouble for the Spurs, but the first round is seven games this year and San Antonio has plenty of time to recover. Then again, Phoenix has now won four of their five meetings this year, so maybe the Spurs should be worried.

Kidd takes control

While Phoenix beating San Antonio was a shock, No. 7 Milwaukee was a trendy pick to upset the second-seeded New Jersey Nets. The Bucks won eight of their last nine games in the regular season, with the only loss a two-point overtime setback. Meanwhile, the Nets stumbled to the finish line with five losses in their final eight games.

When the playoffs opened, however, the New Jersey team that tore through the Eastern Conference last year showed up. Jason Kidd had 14 points and 14 assists and Kenyon Martin added 21 points and 15 rebounds as seven Nets scored in double digits. Gary Payton, on the other hand, scored just eight points, all in the fourth quarter. He did have 10 assists and three steals, but Kidd clearly got the best of their matchup.

If Kidd is focused and has enough gas in his tank to play his style of bastetball and get everybody involved, the Bucks don't have a shot at winning this series.

Dirk dominates

Dallas received a bit of a scare from Portland, as the TrailBlazers led by 13 points with 1:05 left in the first half, but Dirk Nowitzki was just too much in the end. Nowitzki, who is the only player ESPN's Bill Simmons has even considered comparing to Larry Bird, scored 46 points on 16 of 27 shooting from the floor and 10 of 11 from the line. The rest of the Mavericks only scored 50 points, but it was enough to dispatch Portland.

Dallas' ability to beat quality teams - such as the Lakers, Spurs and Kings - has been questioned all season, but the Mavs may have caught a break with their playoff seed. They should have no problem getting past Portland (I'd guess five games) and they wouldn't have to face the Lakers - the team they're least likely to find a way to beat - until the Western Conference finals.

Kings are just better

The Jazz actually gave Sacramento a tougher game than I thought they could. Utah trailed by as few as two points, 80-78, with 2:41 to play. Sacramento pushed the lead back up to seven points, but John Stockton had a 3-point attempt that would have cut the lead back to two points with 34 seconds left.

In my mind, this was the easiest series to call. Sacramento just has better players at every position on the floor (the best you could do is argue that it's a wash at point guard and power forward) and a deeper, more talented bench. I'll be surprised if the Kings don't sweep the series, although I thought the same thing last year and Utah was able to win a game.

Today's lineup

There are three more games today and the Game of the Day is the three-time defending champion L.A. Lakers at the six-time first-round losing Minnesota Timberwolves. Garnett willed Minnesota to the fourth seed and home court advantage and his reward is date with Kobe and Shaq.

After starting the season 20-23, the Lakers went 30-9 to surge into fifth place. Kobe and Shaq appear to be completely healthy and are playing their best basketball of the year. The only ray of hope for Minnesota might be that L.A. went 19-22 on the road, including seven losses in their last 15 road games, which shows that the ugly road record wasn't just skewed by early season struggles. Still, if the dynamic duo play like they are capable of playing, the Lakers will win this series pretty easily.

I'm torn about the other two series that start today. Detroit is just an ugly team and could be without its best player, at least at his highest level. In addition to the fact that I don't think Detroit's style of play translates to the playoffs real well, the best player in the Eastern Conference plays for Orlando. In a close series, which this one should be, the team with the best player often ends up on top. Today's game will tell us a lot about whether or not that will hold true here.

For some reason, the Philadelphia/New Orleans series just doesn't capture my interest at all. I think Allen Iverson will be able to carry his team to victory, but that may just be because somethings about the Hornets bugs me (sorry about the pun). i don't know what it is, but New Orleans just doesn't feel like a really good team to me. Of course, they won their last five games, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

Since I'm 25 minutes later than I said I would be, I'll throw in my predictions (even though they're a little late):

Eastern Conference: Orlando over Detroit, New Jersey over Milwaukee, Boston over Indiana, Philadelphia over New Orleans.

Western Conference: San Antonio over Phoenix, Sacramento over Utah, Dallas over Portland, L.A. over Minnesota.

Second round: Orlando over Philadelphia, New Jersey over Boston (any other matchup and I'd pick the Celtics), San Antonio over L.A., Sacramento over Dallas.

Conference finals: New Jersey over Orlando and San Antonio over Sacramento.

NBA Finals: The Spurs beat the Nets, then decide they don't need Jason Kidd after all.

Super Sports Sunday

Late night Saturday edition

While watching parts of four of today's five NBA games, I wrote my "Super Sports Sunday" post about the NBA playoffs and planned to put it up when I got home from work. The problem is that it's pretty long and would take me awhile to code up and I'm pretty tired. I still want to have something up first thing in the morning though, so I'm going to write about the NHL playoffs (without any links, sorry) now.

Let me start off by saying that while hockey is at best No. 4 on my list of favorite sports, there are few things I like better than NHL playoff overtime games. This postseason has not disappointed. I watched the final 20 minutes of the 100-plus minute triple-overtime thriller between Detroit and Anaheim and was on the edge of my seat even though I don't care about either team. As if that wasn't enough, less than a week later there were to double-overtime games on the same night! Only one (Toronto vs. Philadelphia) was on TV here and since I was at work I couldn't follow every second and actually missed the winning goal, but it still made me happy to see some overtime action. Then there was another overtime game (Tampa Bay vs. Washington) the next night and another triple-overtime effort (Toronto vs. Philly again) the night after that. I was hoping tonight's Dallas/Edmonton game would go into OT, but the Stars spoiled my fun (and Edmonton's too).

Aside from my love of overtime playoff games, I only have a couple of observations. First, I was not at all surprised that Boston lost. I actually thought the Bruins would get swept, but New Jersey fell asleep in game four and I guess I can't blame them. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" picked Boston as his upset special and I'm not sure why. The NHL playoffs are all about defense, especially goaltending. New Jersey has the best defense in the league and a great goaltender. Boston has a so-so defense and no goaltender to speak of (if you're a casual fan of a team other than the Bruins, you probably can't name either of Boston's goalies). I don't live and die with the Bruins like I do with the Red Sox, Patriots and, to an extent, the Celtics, and I don't see how anybody could. Over the past few years, Boston's allowed Jason Allison, Bill Guerin, Kyle McLaren and Byron Dafoe to leave town because of money.

The other series I wanted to comment on is the Detroit-Anaheim series. It was an absolutely stunning result. I didn't think the Red Wings would even be tested much until the Western Conference finals and they got swept in the first round. What happened to them this year is similar to what happened to the Bruins last year.

Boston earned the No. 1 seed in the East last year and drew a hot Montreal team. The Bruins had a good, but not great goalie in Dafoe and ran up against a human wall in young Jose Theodore. Theodore was actually just decent in the first four games as the Bruins and Canadiens split. Then he stopped 77 of 79 shots in the final two games to win the series for Montreal.

This year, Detroit was the No. 2 seed and drew a streaking Anaheim team. The Mighty Ducks were 22-22-7 (with four of the losses in overtime) on January 30th. They then went 18-9-2 (with one of the losses in overtime) to finish the season. The Red Wings have a good, but not great goalie in Curtis Joseph and Anaheim has rookie Jean-Sebastien Giguere in net. Giguere was ridiculous, stopping 165 of 171 shots to lead Anaheim, which was badly outshot in each game, to four one-goal victories.

That's about all I have to say so far about the NHL playoffs. I'd like to see Toronto, Minnesota, Washington and Vancouver each win their next game just because I like seventh games (and if any of the seventh games go into overtime it would be extra fun). My pick to win it all this year (I know it's not as impressive when you wait until the first round is almost over) is New Jersey. The Devils just look like a team that's built for playoff success.

Thanks for stopping by and if you're interested in what I have to say about the NBA playoffs, stop back around noon. I should have it up by then.