Friday, October 30, 2009

NFL Pick 6 -- Week 8

As I mentioned earlier in the week, my NFL picks went 4-1 against the spread in Week 7, bringing my 2009 season total to 20-10 for a solid 9-bet profit so far through 30 games even factoring in the casino's vig. That said, the games seem to be getting harder and harder to pick as the season rolls on, in particular as Vegas keeps adjusting its lines in the blowout-type of games higher and higher, culminating this week in the Chargers being favored over the Raiders by two touchdowns and a field goal as Vegas continues not to be able to make the lines high enough to approach the inequity in many of each week's games. This week is no exception as I find it nearly impossible to come up with five solid picks against the spread, but I'm going to stay at it and force myself to pick winners in five of this week's 13 NFL contests. Here are my picks, in no particular order as always:

1. Baltimore Ravens -3 vs Denver Broncos. Denver puts its 6-0 undefeated record to the test this weekend at Baltimore, and like with my pick in the Vikings-Steelers game last weekend, I think this is the week that Denver's luck finally runs out. Not only is Denver not quite as good as their 6-0 record would indicate, but Baltimore has the kind of defense that I think presents a very tough matchup for this Denver team. With the only two solid defensive squads the Broncos have faced this year -- the Bengals in Week 1 and the Cheatriots in Week 5 -- Denver needed a miracle last-second deflection to score more than 7 against the Bungles, and they needed overtime where the Cheatriots never got to touch the ball to win that game as well, so tough defenses can definitely get to this Broncos team. And after three straight losses to tough teams, coach John Harbaugh is gonna have his team whipped into a frenzy to get back on the winning path. I can't stand having to give 3 points to a 6-0 team, but in this case I expect the Ravens to cover the spread in a fairly close game to knock the Broncos from the ranks of the unbeaten.

2. Green Bay Packers -3 vs. Minnesota Vikings. This is another game where I like the favorite but do not necessarily like having to give the points to a very good opposing squad. But the bottom line is, as I discussed last week when correctly picking Minnesota to lose their first game of the season, Minnesota is not as good as your typical 6-1 team given the nature of a couple of their wins (Baltimore, San Francisco). What's more, we saw last week that the Vikes' running game is not impervious to defenders stacking the box to stop it, and when that happens and Brett Favre is forced to throw more than the team would otherwise prefer, bad things can happen. As soon as I watched that 4th quarter meltdown from Favre in Pittsburgh last week, I immediately had the feeling that he would find himself trying too hard this week to beat his old team in front of the Green Bay fans. I like the Pack to withstand the Vikes' offensive onslaught in what will probably be a high-scoring game, thus hopefully helping the Pack to build up more than the field goal spread in nabbing its 5th victory of the season on Sunday afternoon.

3. San Diego Chargers -16.5 vs Oakland Raiders. This line is pretty much crazy, and I have to be crazy to still be picking the Chargers to win a game by this amount since they obviously couldn't care less what their margin of victory is over the Raiders as long as they win the game. But, with how hard it is to find quality picks against the spread this week, I keep coming back to this one even as the oddsmakers continue to ratchet up the lines against the NFL's worst teams to try to even out the losses Vegas has been experiencing with all the recent NFL blowouts this year. But here's what I'm seeing that has me willing to take a flyer on this ridiculous line: the Chargers have scored 24, 26, 23, 28, 23 and 37 in their six games this year, and of those games, 24 came against Oakland and 37 against Kansas City in San Diego's only two games so far against the bottom tier of NFL teams. So I would expect the team to score in the neighborhood of 30 points against the shoddy Raiders' defense at home this Sunday in California. Moreover, Oakland has scored in its seven games this year 20, 13, 3, 6, 7, 13 and 0 points, including an average of under 6 points per game over its last five outings. Given this pattern I think the Chargers minus the huge 16.5 is still probably a winning play in Week 8.

4. San Francisco 49ers +13 at Indianapolis Colts. This is one that did not jump out at me on my first pass through the games this week, but I definitely see some value here in the underdog based primarily I think on how badly the Colts have beaten their recent opponents. But when I looked a little deeper at the numbers, I found that the 49ers have played three road games this year, all of them against teams with strong passing games (Cardinals, Vikings and Texans). Even though the 9ers are 1-2 in those three games, all the games were quite close (20-16 win at Arizona, 27-24 loss in Minnesota, and a 24-21 loss last week in Houston). So it's not that I believe the 9ers are going to win this game outright necessarily, but that with 13 points to play with, the 49ers are a good value that their coach Mike Singletary will inspire enough play in this one after two tough losses to keep the game reasonably close. Here I think the line has just gotten too big as again the oddsmakers look wherever they can for opportunities to get some extra points in games involving one of the NFL's premiere teams like the Colts certainly are.

5. Miami Dolphins +3.5 at the New York Jets. I do feel like the Jets may pull out a win by the end of this game, but I'm not confident enough in them winning to be willing to give more than a field goal to the visiting Dolphins on the day. These two teams played a couple of weeks back in Miami, which saw new Miami quarterback Chad Henne make several impressive throws on his way to a 31-27 victory over the Jets and their young qb Ryan Sanchez. In general, the heart of the Jets' offense of late has been the run game (Sanchise has not thrown for more than 172 yards in any game since Week 1), and with Leon Washington knocked out for the season in last week's game against the Raiders, I think the Jets' ability to move the ball and score points will be noticeably hampered. What's more, the Dolphins have suddenly scored 38, 31 and 34 points in their last three games since Henne took the helm, so there is reason to believe that the Fins can run up some points on the Jets again this weekend in New Jersey York. I would probably take either team plus more than a field goal here, but I especially think the Jets will have a hard time covering the spread in this one.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ice Man Cometh

Seriously, everyone. I don't mean to crack out the hyperbole this early in the morning, but I can say with total honesty that I never remember seeing a pitcher dominate with the stoic attitude that Phillies' ace Cliff Lee had right from the first pitch of the 2009 World Series on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, lasting all the way through his post-game press conference. In between was one of the most brilliant gems in World Series history, as Lee absolutely mowed down the $208 million Yankees lineup for a complete game earned run shutout in front of the home town fans in the Bronx and a 6-1 victory in Game 1 for Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

It wasn't just that Cliff Lee outdueled Yankees ace CC Sabathia, and it wasn't just that he won a crucial game in the Phillies' quest to become just the fourth team in the long history of major league baseball to repeat as world champions out of the National League. It was the way Lee dominated that has baseball fans still semi-breathless even now, hours after Lee's final and slowest pitch of the night, a 76 mph curve that Jorge Posada swung about a foot over to mercifully send the fans home, all with the first twinges of worry beginning to gnaw at their self-tortured psyches. Even as he faced the best lineup in baseball in his first ever World Series appearance, from the look on Lee's face and the way he performed on the night, you would have thought he was facing a tune-up in single-A ball, because that's just what he made the Yankees look like in Game 1.

The first really striking thing about Lee's performance in Game 1 was his impeccable control. Lee threw 122 pitches in dominating the Bombers, 83 of them for strikes, or more than two-thirds of his pitches. And it's not like he's just serving meatballs up there and getting smacked around. The Yanks recorded six total hits on the night -- three of them from Derek Jeter -- but five were singles with only one double, and none of them came in the same inning until the 9th when the Yanks managed to push their one meaningless unearned run across thanks to a Jimmy Rollins throwing error. So Lee throws a ton of strikes when he's out on the mound, but the players simply cannot him them. Cliff Lee paints the corners and locates the ball as well as anyone in the major leagues when he is on his game, and he certainly is on right now. Take a look at his final line from Game 1 and you will notice that he finished the night with 10 strikeouts and zero walks. 122 pitches, 83 of them strikes, 10 Ks, 0 BBs and 0 earned runs. This is just the fourth time in major league history that a player has struck out double-digits while not walking a single batter, and it's the first time in 107 years of World Series history that a pitcher has done so while also giving up 0 runs. If that ain't the model of a money performance then I just don't know what is.

The other thing that really stood out about Lee if you watched Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday was how cool his actual demeanor, even his physical presence, was throughout and even after the game. In the bottom of the 6th inning when Johnny Damon hit a weak popup back towards the mound instead of moving out of the way like pitchers usually do in yielding to another infielder as to avoid the pitcher injuring himself on the mound, Lee didn't move his feet at all, instead just starting right up at the ball with his hands at his sides, and waiting until almost the last possible second before sticking his glove out, basket-style, and making the catch:

This was about as blase of a play as could possibly be made out in the field, and yet I'm telling you, Cliff Lee wasn't even remotely trying to showboat. He was just that cool on the day. "You know, it was pretty cool," Lee would later explain in the post-game press conference, "It was 15 feet in the air. Pretty simple catch. It came right to me." Then again in the 8th, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano led off with a smash right back up the middle. Up the middle, that is, until Cliff Lee calmly stabbed his glove out fully behind his back and half upside-down and snagged the ball clean. He turned, flipped a slow strike to first base, and that was that. And then with a shrug, a la Michael Jordan after that sixth three-pointer in the first half in Portland, Lee was back to completing his pitching masterpiece.

Even after the game, Lee's incredible sense of calm and confidence still exuded all over the reporters that filled the press room to try to get a sense of his magic. I don't think I ever recall seeing someone so confident, so calm in such a big spot, especially the first time he's ever been on this kind of a stage. Lee explained how hard he works and has worked over his career, and that game time for him is just time to go out and let those skills he has worked so hard to develop take over. He explained that he is a very confident guy, but makes sure not to go over the edge from confident into cocky, and it was believable. He wasn't brazen up there in saying any of this stuff, no matter how it sounds when you read it. He was just being candid. And accurate. And he knows it.

A big shout-out should also be made to 2008 World Series clinching Game 5 defensive MVP Chase Utley, who quieted all the doubters about his allegedly debilitating hip injury by smashing two 95-mph fastballs from CC Sabathia over the right-center field wall in the 3rd and 6th innings to give the Phils all the offense they would need behind their ace on the mound. Despite all the talk about there being too many lefthanders in the Phillies' lineup that could be neutralized by the Yanks' lefty pitchers, Chase Utley became just the second lefty ever to hit two home runs in a World Series game against a lefty pitcher, the first of course being Babe Ruth way back in 1928. Utley also set a new major league record by reaching base safely in his 26th straight postseason game, a truly great record that any Phillies fan would not be surprised with if you've watched these games. In general, you knew things were shaping up well as soon as the Phillies saw their first two batters go down on five pitches, but then managed to drag another 19 pitches more out of Sabathia before he could close out the top half of the first inning. That is another big advantage the Phillies have in this series that I failed to mention in my post yesterday -- the Phils take pitches and work the count better than any team in baseball, and not only does that help Philadelphia's batters be selective in the pitches they choose to hit, but more than anything else it enables the team to get through their opposing starting pitcher and into the bullpen faster, which is key especially when facing other team's top starters like what the Phils faced in Game 1 in CC Sabathia. When Sabathia needs 24 pitches to get out of the first, and another 20-something in the third, you just knew the Phils were in good shape to eventually wear down the pitching as they have done better than anybody throughout the past two seasons.

In the end, only time will tell how crucial this Game 1 loss was for the Yankees. If AJ Burnett comes back and nabs a win in Game 2, going back to Philly with a split is not a bad outcome for the Yankees and really was the most likely outcome after two games all along. But several factors about the loss should weigh heavily on Yankee fans. This was the first time the Yankees have lost at home in this postseason, after taking 2 of 2 in New York against the Twins and then 3 of 3 at home against the Angels to win in six. Moreover, now in four games this season between the two teams -- all of them at Yankee Stadium -- the Phillies have won three of them, with the Yankees' only win coming on May 23 when Brad Lidge blew a 2-run lead in the 9th that saw the Phillies once again bash the ball all over the place and lead throughout the entire game until the end.

The Phillies have gotten to the Yankees' ace Sabathia now on three straight occasions in big spots going back a couple of years, and the Phils have already roughed up AJ Burnett and Andy Pettite as well this season going back to that series in the Bronx in May. This is a team that has beaten already this year basically the entire New York Yankees' staff they will be facing this postseason, and now they have wrestled home-field advantage away from the Yankees before things even really got started in the Bronx.

And there were some disturbing trends in the Yankees' lineup as well. As I mentioned above, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter went 3 for 4 on the day against Lee with two singles and a double. But the rest of the Yankee team went 3 for 28, which is not going to cut in against the defending Champs in the World Series. What's more, the Yankees' power hitters at the core of their lineup -- Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez -- finished the game 0 for 8 between them. This extends a fairly weak postseason so far for Tex, who was easily the Yankees' most productive hitter along with A-Rod on the season, but even more alarming is that it stops what has been a totally dominating postseason at bat so far for A-Rod. Rodriguez had been hitting .438 so far in 10 games this postseason, with 5 home runs and 12 RBIs, so to go 0-4 to start the Series, striking out three out of those four times at that, has got to worry the Yankee fan as much as anything else they saw out there in Game 1, especially given A-Rod's history of megachoking in big spots.

Game 2 is Thursday night at 8pm ET in New York. Yankee fans: your chances of winning the World Series rest heavily right now on the shoulders of AJ Burnett finding a way to quiet down the Phillies lineup. How does that make you feel?

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yankees vs. Phillies

As previously stated, my #1 prediction for the 2009 World Series is that it should be a great one. After pretty much not a single good series in the entire 2009 playoffs so far on either side -- I know the Angels made it to six games with the Yanks, but in truth that series was never in doubt -- this World Series more than anything else will hopefully deliver. It doesn't have to be extra-innings-in-Game-7 amazing, but damn doesn't a 7-game World Series sound great right now? And despite some really intriguing pitching matchups, we are likely to see some serious power on display over the next week on both sides of this matchup, as this is the first time in World Series history that the #1 teams in home runs and runs scored from each league are meeting in the Fall Classic. I do believe both teams have the talent, the depth and the heart to extend this series to at least six games. Here's how I get to that point:

Game 1 pits CC Sabathia against Cliff Lee in what is probably the only matchup of starters in this series with the potential to create some pitcher's duels. Both pitchers have been absolutely brilliant in the postseason, and they will probably pitch fairly well against these respective lineups although I expect more runs than the roughly 1 per 9 innings each pitcher has ceded so far in the postseason. Looking at the intangibles, I am definitely convinced that Sabathia will come to play, but the Phils have roughed his ass up good in recent years, in particular last year in the NLDS against the Brewers when the Phillies beat Sabathia with the longball to advance to the NLCS against the Dodgers, so that will work to neutralize Sabathia's greatness to some extent. The Yankees went a league-best 57-24 at home in 2009, although the Phillies were a league-best 48-33 on the road, so those two also kind of balance each other out. Game 1 seems to hard to pick in my mind that I find myself thinking how this game is the first World Series game in New York in what feels like a long time, the Yankees and their fans are gonna be hungry as hell. Now I know that over recent history, home field advantage has meant very little in the World Series (see the Phils' championship win last year in five game against the homefielded Tampa Bay Rays), but it's really more the "last licks" thing that matters most about having home field advantage IMO. This is made all the more valuable when the Yankees are at home and playing a team with a shaky closer situation like the Phillies certainly have. In what is really otherwise a complete tossup for me, I'm picking the home team to find a way to eke out a win in the bottom of an inning in Game 1.

Game 2, however, is a different story, as we now know that Phillies coach Charlie Manuel has decided to pitch old man Pedro Martinez in Game 2 against the Yankees' AJ Burnett. And this matchup I think definitely favors the Phillies, for two key reasons. First, P-Mart has simply been awesome since his return to baseball in the middle of the summer, something which I find funny that even most of the big-name commentators in the media, as well as the Yankees fans out there, do not seem to have picked up on yet. There's just no other way to describe how great and gutty Pedro has been this season. His fastball has consistently been over 90 mph and he's been very effective in placing his pitches and mixing up speeds. Pedro has also shown some depth, even throwing 130 pitches a couple of months back in his first complete game in years, and going 7 strong in a 2-hit shutout against the Dodgers last week in the NLCS. Pedro has been really rested over the past 6 weeks or so, and he has had a knack with Philly for showing up for all of his big games. Getting to appear and start in the World Series should really get Pedro's juices flowing, and I expect him to pitch fairly well against the Yankees in Game 2 -- let's say 3 runs or less in 6 innings. And on the other side of the coin, I've watched AJ Burnett pitch a couple of times so far this postseason, and he is just exactly the kind of inconsistent, mentally suspect guy that this Phillies lineup feasts on. I feel confident that the Phils can get to Burnett early, as we saw in the ALCS, and Philadelphia can wear him down in the middle innings as well like they did throughout the Colorado and LA series this postseason. With the heart that this Phillies team has, going down 1-0 in the World Series will mean bupkis to them, and I expect the team to ride on Pedro's back to a Game 2 victory and even up this series heading back to Philadelphia for three key games. And I know this team can get to Burnett even here in the new Yankee Stadium -- let's not forget that these two teams played a 3-game series in NY earlier this season, and the Phils crushed Burnett in Game 1, including Jimmy Rollins hitting Burnett's first pitch out of the park and Jayson Werth becoming the first player to reach the second deck in left field on their way to smashing four homers and easily taking the series opener.

Game 3 will feature Cole Hamels against Andy Pettite. To be honest, I have absolutely no faith in Cole Hamels, which is why I believe Charlie is making the right decision in starting Pedro in Game 2, in front of a hostile New York crowd that Pedro will eat up. Giving Cole his start in Game 3 in front of the home town fans is the best chance the Phillies have of getting a productive performance out of him. Unfortunately, I don't see how anyone can expect Hamels to bounce back here, and he'll probably put up the 4- or 5-run, 4- or 5-inning performance that has become his usual this postseason. The question will be, can the Phillies get 5 or more runs off of Andy Pettite? The Phils did score 4 runs in 7 innings off of Pettite on May 23 in the Bronx, so there is some recent history on this to work from, and we know the possibility is there. I think this will be a very close one, as Pettite is a great steroid userpitcher and an incredible stopper for the Yankees over the years, but it's not like the Phillies won't be able to hit him. In the end this has a chance of coming down to the teams' bullpens, and once again I will have to go with the Yankees to win a close one based on favorable pitching matchups.

Game 4 looks like it is shaping up to be a probable matchup of Chad Gaudin against J. Happ Joe Blanton. Down 2 games to 1 in the series, at the Bank, Blanton should be tough and keep the Yankees at bay enough for the Phillies' bats to do the job against Gaudin. I think if the Yanks are not up 2-1 at that point, Girardi may opt to push it and go with Sabathia again on three days rest, but if they are up 2-1 in the series like I am expecting, I think it's going to be a good day for the Phillies against Gaudin to even up the series at two games apiece.

Game 5 then should feature Lee vs. Sabathia once again. And this time, I'm going to go with the last licks thing again, but that means this time the Phillies get the win and take a 3-2 series lead heading back to the Bronx in what should be another very intriguing matchup between baseball's two best teams.

This all is why I find it very hard to believe that this series does not end up for at least a Game 6 back in New York. I do not see the Phillies winning more than one of the first two games in New York, nor do I see them losing more than one of the three games in Philadelphia, and as long as both of those statements are true then this series has to last at least 6 games. The big question I think is whether the series score is 3-2 Phillies or 3-2 Yankees going into that Game 6. What the Phillies can do in one or two must-win games at Yankee Stadium at the end of this series is going to determine the 2009 World Championship. And with the way this Phillies team has played on the road, and especially with Burnett up again in Game 6, the Phillies will know that one is very winnable for the visitors, which could hopefully set the stage for a rockin' Game 7 for all the marbles in the Bronx. And even though Cliff Lee won't be available to start, the Phils could go with any combination of Hamels or soon-to-be rookie of the year winner J. Happ on full rest, Joe Blanton on 3 days rest, and Cliff Lee could always be available for a crucial inning or two late in a World Series Game 7 even on two days rest if it looks like the difference between winning and losing the championship. So Game 7 in New York could go any which way, although to be honest I don't know how you end up picking anyone but the home team Yankees, who once again will get to bat that incredible all-star lineup in the bottom half of the innings against the Phillies' totally untrustable bullpen. But we can cross that bridge of Game 7 when we come to it.

One thing I've seen a lot of analysts doing is comparing these two teams position by position. So, for example, at catcher the Yankees get the nod, as Jorge Posada is better than Carlos Ruiz overall, even though Ruiz is better at playing the position than his Yankee opponent. At first base, it's a clash of the titans in Ryan Howard vs. Mark Teixeira, which is senseless in a way to even have to pick one over the other. Teixeira is really good in the field in a way that even Howard is not, but when I look at Howard's body of work this season and the performance of the two players so far in the postseason, Ryan Howard gets the slight nod on that one. At 2nd base, Chase Utley is a better baseball player than Robinson Cano. Period. At short, you've got Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter in a battle of leadoff men who many would argue have been the heart and soul of their teams over the years. This is another one that really feels too close to call, but if pushed I would give the slight nod to Jeter given his career and the better regular season he had than J-Roll in 2009. At third base it's not even close of course, A-Rod takes it down over Pedro Feliz. And then there's the outfield, where I contend that the Phillies win in every single position. In left field, it's Johnny Damon vs. Jayson Werth. Who would you rather have on your team? Exactly. In center it's Melky Cabrera vs. gold-glover Shane Victorino. Exactly. And in right it's Nick Swisher vs. Raul Ibanez. Again, exactly. So, looking at the series this way, the Phils are better in three outfield positions, at first base and at second base for 5 of the 8 total fielding positions, while the Yankees have the big advantage at 3rd base as well as superiority at catcher and shortstop. So does this mean the Phillies will win this series?

Looking at the upcoming 2009 World Series in still a different way, I think there are a couple of distinct advantages for each team over the other. For the Yankees, the biggest and most dramatic advantage over the Phillies as a team has got to be the bullpen. This statement has to be tempered somewhat after the Angels series which saw both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain look pretty much worthless and scared in that late-relief slot the Yanks have relied so heavily on to bridge them to Mariano Rivera in the 9th, but the presence of Rivera there means the Yankees usually only have to go 8 innings with the lead, and sometimes less as Mariano has been known to put in the 4- or 5-out save as needed as well. Not only do the Phillies not have any go-to guy for that spot, but they seem to think that 162 games worth of suckjobiness out of Brad Lidge has now all been erased in the postseason, which seems absurd to me. So the bullpen is a huge advantage for the Yankees over the Phillies, one which take it from me every single Phillies fan fears down to his or her soul for this World Series. I've said this before and I'll say it again now: the thought of Brad Lidge facing this Yankees lineup, in either stadium in this matchup, is enough to keep me up at night. I just don't see that matchup ending up in Philadelphia's favor in this series. The Phils will need to hope they don't need to use Lidge much, as happened in the Dodgers series, if they really want a chance to win the way I see it. Brad Lidge = Big Losses for the Phightins.

It should be mentioned that the existence of a designated hitter in potentially four of the games in this series is also an advantage for the Yankees in my view. They can play a great hitter like Hideki Matsui in that spot, whereas for the Phillies, who obviously do not make any effort to spend money to get a big stick like that who can't play baseball the field, they are likely to be left with a Matt Stairs or Greg Dobbs type to hit in the DH spot in the games in the Bronx. And the Yankees' pitchers include guys like Sabathia and Burnett who have played some part of their careers in the NL, and a guy like Pettite who has appeared in 58 world series, and have thus spent time batting in NL parks as opposed to being those AL pitchers who make themselves look like clowns every October because it's the first time they've picked up a bat in the past ten years.

Another slight advantage I believe the Yankees have going in to the 2009 World Series is in the overall strength of the lineup. This is the first time I've said that about the Phillies in this postseason, and frankly the Yankees are the only team in baseball I would ever say that about, but the Yankees have so many high-priced all-stars on their roster that it's hard to argue they aren't better than what any other team can throw out there, even the Phillies. In Philly, it's Jimmy Rollins (.250, 21 homers, 77 RBIs), Shane Victorino (.292, 10, 62), Chase Utley (.282, 31, 93), Ryan Howard (.279, 45, 141), Jayson Werth (.268, 36, 99), Raul Ibanez (.272, 34, 93), Carlos Ruiz (.255, 9, 43) and Pedro Feliz (.266, 12, 82). For the Yankees it's some combination of Derek Jeter (.334, 18 homers, 66 RBIs), Johnny Damon (.282, 24, 82), Mark Teixeira (.292, 39, 122), A-Rod (.286, 30, 100), Jorge Posada (.285, 22, 81), Hideki Matsui (.274, 28, 90), Robinson Cano (.320, 25, 85), Nick Swisher (.249, 29, 82) and Melky Cabrera (.274, 13, 68). When I look at those numbers, as much as the Phillies' lineup was superior to everyone else it faced in the National League, that Yankees lineup is simply even better.

The last thing I would mention is something that many people -- especially in the Philadelphia area -- would disagree with me on, but I think Joe Girardi is a slightly better manager than the Phillies' Charlie Manuel, and I trust Girardi more not to make key mistakes based on what I've seen out of Manuel in 2009. And don't get me wrong -- with the heart that this Phillies team plays with, their incredible focus on fundamentals, all the wins, Manuel has obviously proven himself to be a far better major league manager than he may come off as. He deserves a ton of credit for what this team has done over the past two seasons, and I won't take anything away from him on that. But unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact that Manuel has made a very annoying and costly habit of sticking with "his guys" for too long. He leaves his starting pitchers in the games for an inning or two longer than he should, pretty much every single game when things aren't going great, like clockwork. Hamels comes out and goes down 2-0 against the first four batters he faces in the Dodgers series, and Manuel doesn't even get anyone up in the bullpen until the 5th inning when Hamels has already given up four or five runs. All this while J. Happ -- one of the best starting pitchers in the NL this season -- just sits on the Phils' bench and rots away his arm that could easily come into any game in the 3rd inning and pitch all the way through the 9th, not even needing to give that shitbag Lidge a chance to ruin another one for the team. But Manuel has demonstrated to me a significant lack of understanding about how to use his pitching staff in this season, from about the middle of the year on in fact when it started to become obvious that Lidge was worthless, and this trend has disturbingly continued all the way through the postseason so far. Despite some idiot Yankee fans questioning his every move of course, Girardi really has done a very good job through this whole season and right into the postseason, and I definitely see another advantage there for the Yankees in terms of the decisions being made by the guys at the helm of the respective teams.

On the Phillies side of the ledger, they also have a few key advantages IMO, the biggest one of which is something that I'm not hearing anyone else talking about: pressure. Or more specifically, in the Phillies case, the total lack thereof. Now I know this team wants to defend its title and win the World Series again this year, of that I think there is absolutely no doubt. But the Phillies don't have to win it. They are already the current World Champions, and unlike the Yankees they don't play in a city that demands at least one sports title every single year. The city of Philadelphia and the Phillies franchise and fans will be just fine if they lose to the Yankees this week. Especially after plowing their way back to a consecutive World Series appearance here, this Phillies team has already proven everything it could possibly have to prove, almost regardless of what happens over the next week along Route 95 in the northeast.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have an immense amount of pressure to win this series. The team spent more than $400 million in the offseason to acquire talent that put it leaps and bounds above any other team in the sport, both in terms of payroll and in terms of raw talent, and their opponent in the 2009 World Series is not even in the top 5 payrolls in the major leagues as far spending money on their players. With all the money spent by this team over the past few years, and with how great that talent has performed here in 2009, for the Yankees not to win this series would be a big blow to the organization and to the fans. They expect to win, they know they have the best talent money can buy on both sides of the ball, and they have home field advantage to boot. Especially given my prediction that this series has to go at least 6 games, those last couple of games in the Bronx are going to be absolute pressure cookers for the Yankees, while the Phils will still kinda be playing with the house's money. This can only bode well for the Phillies, especially given the choke history of some of the Yankees' players like A-Rod, and even Sabathia last year against the Phillies in the playoffs.

One other advantage the Phillies should definitely have in this series is on the basepaths. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada -- who we should see more of this series than in the ALDS or ALCS due to the DH being available on only half the games -- has a great bat but behind the plate has only thrown out 28% of the runners who have attempted to steal a base off of him in 2009. He can definitely be run on. And the Phils have those spark-plug type of players -- the Rollins, Victorino, Utley and Werth types -- who will grind out at bats, get on base, and will definitely run. And the Phils have the big bats behind those players to drive them in once they run themselves into scoring position. Carlos Ruiz is a much better fielding catcher than Jorge and can throw the ball better as well so should have better luck keeping the Yankees runners from wheeling around the bases at will, but this is one area I expect the Phillies to have to take advantage of if they are to have any chance of winning this series.

The last advantage I would mention is the Phillies' incredible road performance this year. Yes the Yankees won 57 games at home in 2009, which is truly sick no matter how you slice it, but my point here is that the Phillies are simply going to feel more comfortable and more confident going into Yankee Stadium -- where they already won 2.9 out of 3 games in May this spring -- than the Yankees are coming into the Bank in Philly. While the Yankees lost two of three games at Anaheim in the ALCS, for example, the Phillies split two games in LA and went 2-0 in two games in Colorado in the NLDS. It's just another game to this Phillies team regardless of the location of the stadium, the unfamiliarity of the surroundings, or the noise of the fans. Just another game.

In all, I keep coming back to the fact that the 2009 World Series is going to end up back in New York for Game 6 (sorry Jimmy Rollins, I don't buy your prediction of Phillies in 5 -- that worked for the Dodgers, but they sucked balls compared to the Yankees and you should know that), and I think the Phillies will have a decent shot of getting to Burnett in Game 6 and turning that game into a Phillies W. If the Phils can get back to New York up 3-2 in the series, then Game 6 is probably the team's best chance to capture back-to-back World Series for only the fourth time in National League history. If the Series extends to Game 7, however, I think the Yankees' chances of being victorious increase dramatically as the starting pitching matchups tend to even out and the bullpen is likely to take more focus as the game wears on, a position where the Yankees have their biggest advantage in the entire matchip between baseball's two greatest teams.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

NFL Winners and Losers -- Week 7

As expected every week in the world's greatest sport, Week 7 in the NFL saw some individual breakout performances, a couple of huge team comebacks, and a whole slew of blowouts. And yet somehow, I just keep chugging along with my picks against the spread, posting a 4-1 week this week, and raising my overall 2009 season record against the spread to 20-10.


1. The New York Jets win this week's Back From the Dead Award after going into Oakland and opening up a massive can of whoopass on the AFC's biggest shitpile to the tune of a 38-0 smackdown of the Raiders. Just one week after the sky was falling, the team had lost three straight and a quarterback controversy suddenly seemed to be brewing, the Jets bounced back with another huge game controlling the ball on the ground, grinding out 300+ yards rushing for the second straight week and completely dominating all aspects of the game. Rookie quarterback sensation Mark Sanchez threw the ball only 15 times on the day, so it is less clear whether he has really broken out of his personal slump, but as far as the team goes, the season is back on track. At least until the Dolphins come to town next Sunday for another divisional matchup.

2. Dallas Cowboys receiver Miles Austin. Former Cowboys kickoff returner Austin is really having his coming out party as a wideout this season, in particular over the past two games which have now seen him record 10 catches for 250 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Chiefs, followed by this weekend's 6 catches for 171 yards and 2 more td's vs. Atlanta. All of a sudden, Austin rockets from kick returner to clear #1 option for Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, and you can be sure that defenses, starting with the Seattle Seahawks next week, will be focusing on him as a wide receiver for the first time in his three-year NFL career.

2a. Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys team, who are now back from the dead with the re-emergence of a true downfield threat in Miles Austin to replace Terrell Owens who was cut during the offseason. The Cowboys looked strong in handling a good Falcons team, with Romo looking particularly sharp as compared to recent weeks in going 21 for 29 for 311 yards, 3 touchdowns and no picks. This is clearly Romo's best game since at least Week 1, and arguably his finest effort of the entire season so far, which bodes well for Dallas as they head into a stretch that includes games against Seattle, Philadelphia and Green Bay over the next three weeks in what may prove to be a key 3-game set in terms of NFC playoff implications.

3. The Cincinnati Bungles and Cedric Benson. If this keeps up, I may have to stop calling the Bungles the Bungles! After the Bungles lost by 9 at home to the Houston Texans in Week 7, the Chicago Bears and their quarterback Jay Cutler walked into an absolute bee's nest in Cincinnati this weekend, and the Bungles commenced the balls-kicking. This game was 31-0 at one point and long over at 31-3 by halftime, on the strength of four 2nd-quarter touchdown passes from Carson Palmer who ended the day 20-24 for 253 yards and five touchdowns. But the real story for the Bungles, other than another strong defensive effort, was runningback Cedric Benson getting his chance for revenge against the team that refused to re-sign him, as Benson took major advantage of the opportunity by running for 189 yards and a score on 37 carries as he helped his team just all over the Bears right from the getgo. The Bungles now move to 5-2, their best start in several years, and good for first place in a hotly-contest AFC North that is just packed with some of the best defenses the NFL has to offer so far in 2009.

4. The Buffalo Bills. The Bills aren't going to make many appearances on my Winners list this season, but I figured this was as good a time as any to give props to a team that tries real hard despite some serious shortcomings in the talent arena. The Bills' defense has not been so bad this season actually, giving up 6, 13 and 9 points over their last three games, and the team has managed to find a way to win 3 of its first 7 games so far despite facing serious struggles to make plays each time they go on the field. This weekend in beating the Carolina Panthers 20-9, the Bills made enough plays to win despite being outgained 425 yards to 167 yards and giving up 20 first downs while making only 9 of their own, relying heavily on three interceptions and four overall turnovers to nab their third win of the year. Considering the complete lack of quarterback skill, wide receivers, tight end, and really much else on the Bills' offense these days, 3-4 is pretty respectable for this point in the season IMO in a year when so many other teams seem to have rolled over and given up already.


1. Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears. For the first time since Week 1 of this NFL season, Jay Cutler once again looked absolutely, utterly lost in a game against the Bungles this weekend, and Bears fans have got to be getting pretty upset at the former Broncos quarterback's inconsistent play through six games so far this year. After throwing three more key picks against the Bungles, Cutler's raised his season interception total to 10 picks in 6 games, and for a guy who has yet to throw more than 300 yards in a game all season, 10 picks is just not cutting it for the former all-pro qb in Denver. After the crushing loss that was 45-3 at one point in the 4th quarter, the Bears drop to 3-3 on the season, now looking up in the division at both the Packers with one more win and the Vikings with already three more wins on the year, not to mention the 9 out of the other 15 NFC teams with equal or better records than the Bears'. Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? It is the sound of is the sound of your playoff hopes being doomed.

1a. Matt Forte. After 6 carries for 24 yards and 0 touchdowns in the crushing by the Bungles this weekend, the guy who I might have picked as the #2 overall fantasy runningback if I were donk enough to still play fantasy football coming into this season continued his hideous performance so far in 2009. On the season, Forte has 92 carries for 318 yards and one score over 6 games. Gross for all you fantasy donks out there. But if the Bears keep being forced to play from behind in games and keep giving up the turnover via thoughtless interceptions from Jay Cutler, prospects do not look good for Forte to resume his studliness from last season in the NFL.

2. Brett Favre / Minnesota Vikings. This is the first time the Vikes have appeared on my Losers list so far in 2009 thanks to their 6-0 start, but I did call this game and picked the Steelers even minus the points as one of my games this week so it's not like I didn't see this coming. The bottom line is that the Vikings have been in position to lose a couple of their games so far this year, in some cases (San Francisco) requiring truly miraculous plays to somehow find a way to win, so having their offense reined in so well by a truly great Pittsburgh defense should not really come as that much of a surprise to the real football fans out there. Sure Brett Favre ended the day with 334 yards passing, but when he's doing that on 34 receptions then you know he's not exactly pounding the ball downfield. What's more, Favre was forced to throw 51 times on the day, thanks to an ineffective running game that saw league-best runningback Adrian Peterson garner only 69 yards in the game, and when Favre's attempts get up like that, he ends up throwing interceptions like the pick-6 he busted out with during a drive to take the lead with just minutes remaining in the 4th quarter on Sunday. The ball did scoot through AP's hands, but the bottom line is that Favre just yukked it up there, off his back foot and under pressure, and the throw came out a little bit high and a little bit hard, just enough for the deflection from AP that led to the Steelers' final score and the icing of the game for the defending superbowl champions. Not the worst game Favre is capable of by a long shot, but the Vikings showed today that a potent defense with a solid game plan can for sure dampen the floodgates of the Vikings' previously impenetrable offensive attack.

3. The New York Giants. Now this one really surprised me, I have to say. In losing 24-17 to the Arizona Cardinals at home this Sunday evening, the Giants simply could not stop Kurt Warner and the defending NFC champs when they needed to on defense. And, although bruising runningback Brandon Jacobs seemed to come out of his funk a little bit with a 76-yard, 1 touchdown rushing performance, Eli Manning was held under 50% completions and to 243 total yards on the night, including just one passing touchdown. Most harmful were Manning's three picks in the game, including one in the final drive of the game to try to tie things up, as Eli looked a lot more mortal in this game's fourth quarter than he has several other times this year and over his short career so far. In dropping to 5-2, the Giants now fall even in the loss column with the Cardinals, as well as the Eagles and Cowboys in the division, and the Packers and Falcons elsewhere in the early NFC playoff picture, while they are a game behind the Vikings and two games behind the NFC-leading Saints, who crushed the Giants last week as it is. With matchups against the Eagles, the Chargers, the Falcons, the Broncos, the Cowboys and then the Eagles again coming up over their next six games, this was a game at home that the Giants could ill afford to lose and will probably end up impacting their playoff position as a result.

4. Competitive balance in the NFL was the real loser in Week 7 of the NFL, that is for sure. Just take a look at these scores from the Week 7 games: 31-3 Packers over Browns. 37-7 Chargers over Chiefs. 42-6 Colts over Rams. 35-7 Cheatriots over Bucs. 38-0 Jets over Raiders. 45-10 Bengals over Bears. In fact, over the 13 games on the schedule in Week 7, only the Cardinals (7) and the Texans (3) won their games by fewer than 10 points. Only two single-digit games out of 13, including six of those 13 games decided by four touchdowns or more? Something is definitely up with the bad teams this year in the NFL. I wonder if it is somehow related to the economy or something else external?


New Worst Team in the NFL award: Even after turning the ball over repeatedly in a 27-17 loss to the Eagles on Monday Night Football, the Redskins proudly pass this baton back to the St. Louis Rams after this weekend's 42-6 shelling at he hand of the Colts. So far this season, the Rams have lost 28-0, 9-7, 36-17, 35-0, 38-10, 23-20 (OT), and now 42-6. That's two shutouts by at least four touchdowns, six of seven games giving up at least 23 points, and five of seven games scoring 10 points or fewer. There are some really awful teams in the NFL this year to be sure, but right now the Rams seem to really be distinguishing themselves from the rest of the crowd.

TO Watch: 3 catches for 27 yards and 0 touchdowns in the win this weekend over the stinky Carolina Panthers. TO's 2009 season stats so far: 18 catches for 242 yards and 1 touchdown, in 7 games. Har har har.

The JaMarcus Russell Award for this week goes to...JaMarcus Russell! JR finished his performance on Sunday going 6 for 11 for 61 yards, 0 tds and 2 interceptions. It got so bad that head coach Tom Cable actually replaced Russell for Brad Gradkowski (!!) around halfway through the game, a move which the team has been clear it did not want to make all season long so far. Finally. Mercifully.

World Series prediction, coming tomorrow right here.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

2009 World Series Preview

And so it has been decided.

With the Yankees' Game 6 ALCS victory over the Anaheim Angels in the Bronx, the AL representative for the 2009 World Series was officially decided, and we now know it will be the New York Yankees who will attempt to dethrone Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies over the next week starting this Wednesday night. Although the Yankees just won late on Sunday evening, Yankees vs Phillies has been a foregone conclusion in my mind for a while now, so I have had plenty of time to reflect on the reality of this matchup from several different angles.

For starters -- and I acknowledge going in that it is impossible for me to fully eliminate any bias that might be present as a result of my being from Philadelphia -- but it seems to me that this year's Fall Classic matchup of the Phillies and the Yankees is the best World Series matchup on paper, featuring the best core of great players, in several years. Think about it -- nobody would argue that last year's Phillies - Rays series holds a candle to Phillies - Yankees, and then just start going back from there. 2007: Boston vs. Colorado? Ugh. 2006: St. Louis vs. Detroit. Not terrible I guess, but nothing compared to Yankees - Phils. 2005: White Sox - Astros. Oh. My. God. 2004: Boston - St. Louis. Now this is a matchup that was absolutely huge at the time because Boston had just come back from down 3 games to 0 against the Yankees in the ALCS and because the Sox had not won the World Series in nearly 90 years since trading away Babe Ruth, so that one might have been bigger for that reason, but the actual matchup with the Cardinals' roster is certainly no great shakes. 2003: Yankees - Marlins. Not as big as Yankees - Phillies. 2002: Angels - Giants. Fun if you live in the Bay Area or like steroid-pumping cheaters I guess, but it's no Yankees - Phillies. 2001: Yankees - Arizona. Nope. 2000: Mets - Yankees. This one was probably bigger than Yankees - Phils, although it certainly focused the fan base in one very small area of the country moreso than any World Series in recent history.

Even going back beyond 2000, this year's Yankees - Phillies matchup stacks up very nicely in terms of what most people (myself included) are expecting to see from two of the best playoff baseball teams in recent memory. It was Yankees - Braves in 1999 (another great series on paper), Yankees - Padres in 1998, Marlins - Indians in '97, Yankees - Braves again '96, and then Atlanta - Cleveland, Toronto - Philly, Toronto - Atlanta, Minnesota - Atlanta (which turned out to be an absolutely incredible World Series) and finally Cincinnati - Oakland to round out the 1990s. When I compare this Phillies team, the fact that they are the defending champions and have beaten down the rest of the National League now two years running, matching up against this $208 million beast of a Yankees team, as I said I don't see how you can argue it does not stack up very favorably against most or all of those WS matchups from recent history. And the television ratings I can only assume will back that up over the coming week or two. Baseball ratings may never hold a candle to the NFL in the U.S., but obviously this is going to be much more watched than last year's Phillies - Rays series, for example. The inclusion of the vaunted Yankees in the Fall Classic always brings with it the hordes of fair-weather fans (many of them miraculously Mets fans twenty years ago) around the country and around the world to tune in and see if the Yanks can nab their 27th World Series title in this, the franchise's 40th appearance in the final series of the year in Major League Baseball.

And this leads to my second major focus regarding the 2009 World Series: both of these teams are absolutely awesome. You just can't or wouldn't say that about many of the teams in the above paragraph that have participated in the Fall Classic over the past twenty years or so. But one thing the 2009 Phillies did without a shadow of a doubt is put to rest any silliness about anyone claiming that the Phils' 2008 World Championship was a fluke. This team came back out in 2009 hungrier than I ever would have expected to defend their title. After taking over first place early in the spring, the Phils simply never looked back, scoring the most runs in the National League while posting the second-best fielding percentage and featuring probably the three best offseason or intra-season acquisitions in the league in Raul Ibanez, Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee. And once the playoffs came back around, the Phillies once again elevated their game right to where they were at in 2008. Solid pitching at the top of the rotation, scoring runs in droves and just generally displaying the heart of a champion is what the 2009 Phillies have been all about, and at this point, with the team just the third squad in the divisional area to repeat as National League champions, it is clear as a bell that we are looking at a seriously great Philadelphia team, a fact with which the Yankees certainly would not argue.

And the Yankees, well there are a lot of reasons they are also a great team. 208million of them in fact. Although the Yanks have always been the best team that money can buy during my lifetime, the bottom line is that all that money was not spent very well over the past several years, typically leaving the team with a passable pitching staff but one which would not hold up in the shortened-series format forced by the baseball playoffs every year these days. But this year that is all different. After the team went out and spent over $220 million in the offseason to acquire pitchers CC Sabathia from the Brewers and AJ Burnett from the Blue Jays, the Yankees ended the 2009 regular season with the 4th best team ERA in the American League, the 2nd lowest opposing batting average and OPS against, the third-best WHIP in the AL, and of course, the most saves in the majors thanks to stalwart Mariano Rivera in the 9th. This combines with a lineup of pricey all-star after pricey all-star that finished the season with the most runs in the majors, posted the second-best batting average, and the best on-base %, slugging % and OPS in baseball. In short, the Yankees have been hands-down the best team in baseball in 2009, and have been since the midway point of the season at least in fact, and their 103 wins prove it as they won several more games than their closest competitors, the Angels whom the Yankees just dispatched in six games in the ALCS.

But more than the clear greatness of the two teams involved, there are some individual matchups coming up in the 2009 World Series that should really be intriguing to say the least. To begin with, the matchup that everyone's been looking forward to after the past couple of weeks of baseball is the Yankees' CC Sabathia squaring off on the mound vs. Phillies' ace Cliff Lee in Game 1. On the one hand you've got Sabathia, who was the Yankees' MVP of the ALCS after he pitched two games, going 16 innings and giving up 9 hits and 2 earned runs total in the two starts. Eight innings of 1-run, few-hit ball before giving way to all-time best closer Mariano Rivera for the 9th in each of Sabathia's two starts against the Angels, to go along with 2 runs allowed in 6.2 innings against the Twins in the Yankees' LDS matchup as well. Sabathia's overall postseason ERA stands at an enviable 1.19 so far here in 2009, after less postseason success earlier in his career. And then you have Cliff Lee for the Champs, who might just have outdone Sabathia in the playoffs so far in going 2-0 with an incredible 0.74 ERA in three starts in the postseason, also good enough for LCS MVP honors for the first-year Phillie. That 0.74 ERA, by the way, is the lowest career postseason ERA for any pitcher in major league history with at least three starts, for what that is worth. Lee pitched very similar against the Rockies in the NLDS to what Sabathia did to the Angels in the ALCS, throwing 16.1 innings, giving up two earned runs and a total of 11 hits. But then Lee followed that up by plowing down the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLCS in his last appearance, throwing eight complete innings of a 3-hit shutout against the team with the best record in the National League. The Sabathia vs. Lee matchup should be a real clash of the titans in the 2009 World Series, and the best part is we should get to see it multiple times, as things have lined up such that both teams can go with their preferred starters in the order they would like, so we could see Sabathia vs. Lee in Game 1, Game 4 and then again in Game 7 on three days' rest, if necessary. That right there should be a whole lot of fun, especially to watch these two aces pitch to these two all-star lineups in two of the most home run-inducing parks in the major leagues today.

But there is another matchup among the starting rotation that I think is almost equally interesting, but for some very different reasons, and that is the likely Game 2 matchup of AJ Burnett for the Yankees against the Philles' Cole Hamels. This is another matchup that we could see in both Game 2 and again in Game 6 of the World Series (if necessary), and yet it is one that the fans of each team will be looking forward to more with trepidation and concern than anticipation and confidence as is likely the case with the Game 1 matchup discussed above. Hamels, the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, has had a very inconsistent 2009 that saw him go 10-11 on the year with a 4.32 ERA. What's more, in three postseason starts so far this fall, Hamels has failed to make it even halfway through the sixth inning in any of them, giving up 11 earned runs in a total of 14.2 innings pitched for a 2009 postseason ERA so far of 6.75. Which is quite disgusting. Burnett, meanwhile, who went 13-9 with a 4.09 ERA during the regular season, has fared a little better in the postseason, lasting 6 innings in each of his three outings so far and ceding a total of 9 runs for a postseason ERA of 4.42, but failing to secure a win in any of his three postseason starts so far for the Yankees. But with Burnett I think it is his latest start last week against the Angels that has the Yankees' management and fans concerned as the pitcher was touched up for four runs in the first inning and then gave up two more in the middle of the game before being lifted after looking generally shaky as he did for sustained periods of time during the regular season. Especially given that these are likely to be the World Series starters for two of the games in the 2009 Fall Classic, which of these two pitchers can hold his own better for longer against the opponent's all-star lineup is likely in my view to play a major role in who ultimately is crowned the 2009 World Champions.

The last matchup I will mention today is something which almost always looms large in the World Series -- the bullpen. More specifically, the Phillies' bullpen, and most specifically, the team's closer situation. As I chronicled here in totally unabashed terms throughout the 2009 season, Phillies' closer Brad Lidge -- who went a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities in a magical 2008 including closing out the final game of the 2008 World Series -- was just about the single worst player in the major leagues throughout 2009. Plain and simple, can't say anything else about it. And even though Lidge appeared in and closed out two of the games against the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS this year, Lidge was amazingly not needed at all in the NLCS against the Dodgers, mostly because the Phils had the lead from the 4th inning on in their 8-6 win in Game 1, they crushed 11-0 in Game 3 and again 10-4 in the clincher. The Phillies just beat the vastly undermanned and under-hearted Dodgers too badly all throughout the NLCS for Lidge to have gotten any real work, and as a result it is still verrrrrry much up in the air which Brad Lidge is going to show up to face those potent Yankees bats in the World Series. But given the way the Phillies season has shaped up this year, it is likely that the team will rely on Lidge to close out at least one or two of the games it wins in the World Series, should they be in a position to do so. And let me tell you, I'm not the only Phillies fan in the country who is man enough to admit being scared to freakin death about the thought of Brad Lidge against Jeter, Damon, Cano, A-Rod, Teixeira, Godzilla et al in the 9th inning with a 1-run lead. In either of these ballparks particularly. Much as I desperately wish this were not the case, Brad Lidge against the Yankees' all-star bats is sure to be one of the key determinants of how the 2009 World Series shakes out.

That's my preview of the World Series as I look ahead to what should be one of the best pure baseball series in years in the major leagues. I'll be back on Wednesday with my predictions and what I think will be the key advantages and disadvantages for each team before things kick off Wednesday night around 8:30pm ET in New York City.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

NFL Pick 6 -- Week 7

Week 6 in the NFL was another 3-2 week for me, raising my overall season record (remember I skipped Week 1 this year) to 16-9 against the spread over five weeks. Last week I tried to continue my trend of picking some favorites, picking some dogs, picking some home and some away teams, and picking some big lines and some close ones, a trend which is likely to continue throughout the 2009 NFL season if I were a betting man. For a 3-2 week, my Week 6 certainly didn't feel very good, as I squeaked by with my Carolina and Atlanta picks over the weekend -- even though neither one of them played very well or looked particularly like they wanted to win their game -- and I got wiped up picking Seattle by a little at home and picking my Eagles to win huge on the road. So I struggled my way to 2-2 on a very rough Sunday for my picks, and then I was left with my "opposite" pick on Monday night of the Broncos +3 over the Chargers. Just like the game a couple of weeks ago where Indy at 6-0 was only a 3-point favorite over the 0-6 Titans, a line so small that it immediately smacked me and many others who are familiar with NFL betting as one of those "too good to be true" lines that usually indicates something, for the second time this season the "too good to be true" line ended up being, in fact, too good to be true. The undefeated Broncos not only covered with the points, but they beat San Diego outright in a game that wasn't really all that close after the Broncos clamped down on the Chargers in the second half. Anyways, that's about as scrappy a way as possible to get to another over .500 week, so I'm looking to continue the trend this week with some better calls as I attempt to extend my season against-the-spread percentage above the 64% where it currently sits. Documented, bitches! So here come the picks, again in no particular order:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers -5 vs. the Minnesota Vikings. I say the buck stops here this week with the Vikings and their undefeated season. I really can't stand having to give five points when playing the 6-0 Vikings, but Troy Polamalu is back prowling the secondary for the Steelers, Mendenhall is moving ahead having taken the starting runningback job away from Willie Parker with several good performances in a row, and of course Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball should give the Steelers a good chance to win at home and give Minnesota their first taste of defeat in 2009.

2. Green Bay Packers -7 at the Cleveland Browns. The Packers have scored at least 23 points in every game this season, both at home and on the road, including dropping 36 at St. Louis and then 23 at Minnesota in Week 4, so this team knows how to score the ball away from Lambeau and can be counted on to do so again this week against a bad Browns team. Looking at how the Pack has fared this season against the NFL's worst -- a group of which the Browns are certainly a part -- they crushed the Rams 36-17 in St. Louis, and they also smacked down the Lions at home 26-0. Plus, Cleveland has allowed 34, 27, 34, 23, 3 (Buffalo) and 27 in their six games so far in 2009, including an average of 28.5 points per game allowed at home, while scoring in the single-digits three times and never more than 20 points yet on the year. This one just sounds like a solid beating by the Packers to me, and although you never like to give a touchdown on the road, in this case there seems to be ample evidence to put my money where my mouth is.

3. Indianapolis Colts -13.5 at the St. Louis Rams. Coming off an overtime loss to Jacksonville in the Rams' last best chance to win a game this year, I'm predicting the Rams to be off their game, and let me tell you even when they're on their game it's hard to tell the difference. The Rams have huge problems scoring the ball, with no receivers and only Steven Jackson who faces a stacked box every time he touches the ball, and on defense they're even worse. In six games this season, the Rams have given up 28, 9 (the Redskins), 36, 35, 28 and 23, and the two largest of those numbers both came against good offensive teams at home (36 to the Packers in Week 3, and 38 to Minnesota in Week 5). If the Pack dropped 36 on the Rams in the dome, and the Vikes put up 38 two weeks later, I'm thinking Peyton and crew should be good for at least 30 as well. And since I don't see the Rams scoring more than 15 points or so, that sounds like a Colts cover even with a nearly two-touchdown spread.

4. Atlanta Falcons +4 at the Dallas Cowboys. I know that Atlanta is the better team outright here, and I'm getting four points to boot? That's definite value in my book, even with the Cowboys coming off a bye week. Against many coaches that bye week thing can be a big difference, but for Wade Phillips I imagine the extra week just amounts to an extra week of loafing around and not really preparing for "America's Team". To think that a superior Falcons team is coming into town, and they could lose by a field goal and I still win with the Atlanta pick, this is one I just cannot stay away from this week despite the whole bye week thing.

5. Cincinnati Bungles -1 vs the Chicago Bears. This one is just a "feeling" game, as I don't think there is anything strongly pointing to one team or the other here, but I have a feeling the 4-2 Bungles aren't going to lose two straight games at home to teams with worse records than theirs. The Bears have not played well on the road this season, going 1-2 in giving up 21 to Green Bay, 19 to Seattle sans Matt Hasselbeck, and 21 to Atlanta, so I would expect a similar number around 20 or so for the Bungles this weekend. And at home, Cincinnati only gave up 12 points to Denver in Week 1 (really 6 points until that absurd miracle touchdown catch by Stokely to win in the final seconds) and 20 points to a solid offensive squad in Pittsburgh. The Bears' offense is somewhere between those two teams' in my view, and I expect them to score somewhere in the teens on Sunday at Cincy. So I'm looking for the Bungles to come out hard to avenge last week's loss to Houston which I know bothered them as a team, and find a way to win a fairly close game at home, maybe something in the 23-17 range, over the Bears.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009


Congratulations to the 2009 Phillies, the first back to back NL Pennant winners in Philadelphia Phillies history!!!

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fun With Phillies / Dodgers

By now everyone has heard about that incredible ending in Game 4 of the NLCS on Monday night that saw Jimmy Rollins bash in two runs with two outs in the bottom of the 9th of a game that seemed essentially hopeless for the Phillies to win and very close to impossible for the Dodgers to lose. In all honesty, without rehashing the whole thing at this point, suffice it to say that I thought that was truly one of the most dramatic moments in nearly 130 years of Phillies history. And right here you can listen to three calls of that historic play -- only the fourth walk-off postseason hit in Phillies history and just the third time in baseball history that a team won with a walk-off when losing and down to their last out in the 9th inning -- first the television call, which I thought was very good all things considered, then the local Philly radio call which is great mostly because of the clowns screaming and cheering like crazy in the background, followed by the Dodgers radio call which is downright boring and sounds like it's being delivered by an 85-year-old man taking a dump. But it's good stuff, and I definitely recommend taking a listen to this link if you haven't already to enjoy a little bit of what that moment felt like for the fans of the teams involved.

The one thing about Rollins' incredible smash and the Phils' comeback win in Game 4 is that the game had really been ratcheting up the tension for the better part of an hour at that point and that contributed greatly to the tremendous release of that tension when the game was finally won. After giving up the lead in the 6th inning because Charlie Manuel again left his starting pitcher in about two innings too long, the Phils' bullpen clamped down and did not allow another run, leaving the team just one run down at 4-3 after we got one run back in the bottom of the 6th inning. While closing the floodgates on the Dodgers' lineup for the rest of the night, the Phillies went to work in their three remaining innings on chipping away at the Dodgers' slimmest of leads. In the 7th inning, the Phillies got two men on with one out before failing to advance either runner to third base, but it was exciting for anyone awake interested enough to stay up to see if the Phils could reach down into the magic hat one more time. Then again in the 8th inning, the meat of the Phillies' lineup managed to get two guys on base with just one out, but once again they could not satsify the Philly fans' increasing tension by knocking one of those guys in.

So the Phillies had scored one run in the 6th inning to cut the Dodgers' lead to just one run -- and thanks to Manny Ramirez's ridiculously accidental shoestring catch they did not tie it up right then and there -- and then they made a real run at tying it up in both the 7th and again in the 8th inning. So by the time the 9th rolled around and Brad Lidge actually somehow did not ruin yet another game in the top of the 9th, there was no way I was turning it off even though the bottom of the Phillies' order would have to be the hero if the Phils were to come back and win. Which is exactly what happened, including Dodgers' fireballing closer Jonathon Broxton -- throwing 100 and 101 mph fastballs all throughout his short appearance on the night -- walking Matt Stairs on four pitches after Broxton clearly just could not get this blast out of his head from, ironically, Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS. Then Broxton, clearly still shaken just from the thought of having to face Stairs again in the same spot one year later, hit the Phillies' remarkably clutch catcher Carlos Ruiz with his first pitch after the Stairs walk, setting the stage for J-Roll to work his magic. It's one of those games that encapsulates true sports drama at its best, and having sat through the previous four innings of this game, I can tell you that the tension in the 9th was as high as it ever gets outside of a Game 7 extra innings battle to decide the World Series.

Although certainly at this point this series is far from over, and if the Phils don't manage to coax a win out of new father Cole Hamels in Game 5 on Wednesday night then it's back to LA for the final two games of the series, the Game 4 win has given birth to a number of funny things that us Phillies fans have had a blast with over the past couple of days. For starters there was this screenshot:

which was accidentally put up by on their homepage just minutes before J-Roll's historic double gave the Phils the win. With two down in the bottom of the 9th and the bottom of the order up at the plate, I guess just wanted to get the jump on putting the freshest baseball headlines up on their site. Sometimes, though, I guess a little patience is called for, especially when predicting things as unknowable as sporting events. It reminds me of back in 1986 at Shea Stadium, Game 6 of the World Series, just minutes before Bill Buckner would make -- or extend, as the case may be -- baseball history letting the ball go between his legs, when the Mets accidentally flashed a message saying "Congratulations to the 1986 World Champion Boston Red Sox" on the big screen at the stadium before quickly taking it down (you can read some accounts of that occurrence here). Of course, the greatest example of this is the classic "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline run by the Chicago Tribune on November 3, 1948 which incorrectly reported the result of the previous night's presidential election, but as far as sports go, I really enjoyed seeing the false report of the Dodgers' victory over the Phillies in Game 4 the other night.

Another great snapshot I saw yesterday from one of my Phillies fans was this one, which those of you who enjoy the Fail Blog as much as I do will probably enjoy quite a bit:

The best part of this snapshot has got to be not only the triumphant pre-slide pose captured of Carlos Ruiz just milliseconds before officially ending the Phillies' incredible comeback, but the fact that Dodgers pitcher Jonathan Broxton happened to be right in the background of the picture, already walking off the field and into the dugout before Ruiz had even yet touched home. The Dodger "faithful" can cram it, the tofu-eating vegetarian non-fans that they are. Fail!

Lastly, a few of my Philly fan friends also hooked me on to some incredible message board threads resulting from the Game 4 debacle at the Bank (my new name for Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia). First, there is the Dodgersblues board forums, where I assure you any baseball fan can find hours of fun and enjoyment, mostly of the unintentinoal comedy variety. But the best board of all has got to be this one, which is of all things a Mets message board where all these loser fans have to focus on is who they will root for if the unthinkable evil of a Yankees - Phillies World Series comes to fruition. Honestly I must have spent two hours (on a very busy work day no less) just reading through all these posts over the past 24 hours or so, and it still isnt' getting old for me. At all. There is so much great stuff for a Phillies fan buried deep in that Mets forum thread that I can't even begin to describe it all or narrow it down to some of the best posts or ideas. One thing I can say for certain is that one post caught my eye more than any others, essentially (I think) implying that the Mets are every bit as good as the Phillies this year and the last, but that it's just the different stadiums the two teams play in that is the only thing separating the Mets from back to back World Series appearances and at least one world title. Uh huh. That post I will reproduce in its entirety here for your viewing pleasure:

We added Shawn Green, at age 33. With a career OPS of .850.
Flash in the pan? 10 straight seasons over 110 OPS+ is a flash in the pan? Watch something besides Mets games, or be older than 16.

The Phillies added Raul Ibanez, career OPS of .826. He posted a .899 in their cheese box this season.

Livan, Alou, Redding and Castillo? That's Fing retarded.
Livan and Redding were brought in to COMPETE for the #5 spot in the rotation.

Like Chan Ho Park and Brett Myers for Philly this season, or Adam Eaton (5.80 ERA) in 2008, Kyle Lohse (4.72) or Jon Leiber (4.73) Chad Durbin (5.15) in 2007.

Castillo and Alou are starters. Alou was awesome but hurt.
Castillo sucked last year and was good this year.

Luis Castillo is better than Pedro Feliz. The Phillies added Pedro Feliz at age 33. Career OPS+ of 83. Last two seasons, 80 and 81.
Last three seasons, Castillo has a .712 OPS and Feliz is rocking a .704. In tiny a** Philly's park.

And both are better than Abraham Nunez, who had a .600 OPS for the Phillies in 2007.

"Oh, the Phillies have good players and not Jeremy Reed, Corey Sullivan, Ramon Martinez, Argenis Reyes, and Anderson Hernandez"

Meet Matt Stairs, Geoff Jenkins, So Taguchi, Tadihito Iguchi, Wes Helms, Andy Tracy, Greg Dobbs, Paul Bako, Miguel Cairo, Eric Brunlett, Michael Bourn, Chris Roberson, Pete LaForest, Russell Branyan, etc.

Take a look at their bench this season. They have one guy with an OPS over .800 this year. Ben Francisco. And we have Angel Pagan with a number remarkably close.

They've had an endless stream of ****ty guys, too. JUST LIKE EVERY TEAM. IT'S CALLED A MOTHERFING BENCH.

Hmmm, how can we emulate the Phillies.

Well, we could get a power-hitting first baseman (Carlos Delgado)
We could get a power-hitting infielder who's one of the best at his position (David Wright)
We could get an All-Star SS with speed and defense (Jose Reyes)
We could get a ****ty fourth infielder (Castillo vs Feliz)
We could get a gold glove CF (Carlos Beltran)
We could get a 38 year old LF to OPS .900 (Moises Alou .916 in 2007)
We could get a great athlete who was a top prospect but his team has given up on because of his .750 OPS at age 25, and hope he's a late bloomer (Werth: .753 OPS guy when the Dodgers cut him. Church was .810. Francouer kinda fits the bill too.
And we'll get a ****ty offensive guy to catch.

For the bench, we'll bring out a pile of crap, because that's what bench players are and hope they match up. See above.

Now we need a pitching staff.
We need one home grown guy top prospect with a sub-4.00 ERA (Mike Pelfrey 3.72 in 2008)
We need an older than dirt veteran oozing puss (Pedro, Glavine, Orlando take your pick)
A young guy who suddenly blossoms at age 26 (John Maine 3.91 ERA at age 26 in 2007)
A guy with stuff who's erratic as hell, but has good stuff (Myers, Oliver Perez)
Now let's go the extra mile and get a lefty ACE who won a Cy Young (Johan Santana)

Closer, what about a guy who Fed up as a closer in Houston? (Wagner)
Ok, how about a guy who was lights out in 2008? (K-Rod)
Can we get a situational lefty? (Feliciano)
No, no, no... we need someone who got busted for steroids! (Shoeneweis vs JC Romero!)
30 year old average guy? (Chad Durbin vs Sean Green)
Old ****ty starter who does a good job as a RP for us? (Darren Oliver, Elmer Dessens vs Park)

Ok, well there's one spot they got us beat...
How about a great lookin setup man with nasty stuff (Parnell vs Madsen!)

See, we shouldn't take a guy like that and F him up by asking him to start! (Madsen 17 GS in 2007, 5.69 ERA)

Our team's are built pretty much the same... only they play in a cheese box; they've been healthy this year; That's basically it except for one difference:

Our team defied logic and rational thought with an epic collapse one year; their team defied logic and rational thought by having a bullpen that was ridiculously unstoppable one year.

Any Fing questions?

Just one question: What color is the sky in your world?

Good luck to Cole Hamels tonight in Game 5 at the Bank. I know nobody on the team wants to have to travel back across the country and win one of two on the road to end this series, so the pressure will actually be palpable tonight to get this one wrapped up and send the Dodgers home in five games in the NLCS for the second straight year. And to Charlie Manuel, if you're reading this: If Hamels looks like shit, pull his ass out of there early and just put Happ in there to finish out the game! Why have a starter like that who is conditioned mentally and physically to go the distance sitting in your bullpen but then never use him for that purpose?

Why I have to keep reminding the Phillies' manager of this I will never understand.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NFL Winners and Losers -- Week 7

Week 6 was another awesome week in the NFL. Let's get right into the week's Winners and Losers report, along with some special awards I like to throw in for good measure.


1. Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. The Saints welcomed in fellow NFC powerhouse and undefeated New York Giants, and they summarily dismissed the Giants like they didn't even belong on the same playing field. Even with the final score of 48-27, in reality it wasn't even that close. The Saints ran up 34 points by halftime on what was thought to be a strong Giants defensive squad, and qb Drew Brees finished the day an efficient 23 for 30 for 369 yards and four touchdowns. And the Saints' defense did a great job on the Giants' solid offense, not allowing even 50 yards rushing to any player on the Giants and holding the team to just 17 points before giving up some trash time points late in the 4th quarter. The Saints came out this week and showed the rest of the NFL that they are now officially the clear team to beat out of the NFC this season.

2. The Denver Broncos. What more can you say about this team that has now started off 6-0 in the AFC West? Head coach Josh McDaniel -- a great Erick Lindgren lookalike, btw -- shows himself to be more and more of a genius every single week in Denver, and Monday night's shelling of the Chargers was no exception as McDaniel took control of the game from his headset from start to finish. The Broncos have one of the best offensive lines in the game (as always), but it's the defense that continues to amaze me and to stymie the Broncos' opponents now 6 out of 6 times this season. And talk about doing a great job making in-game adjustments -- McDaniel takes these guys into the locker room at halftime, and so far in 6 games they have now given up 10 total points in the second half. That is one of the sickest things I've heard so far this year, but it's true. Nobody scores on the Broncos in the second half of games, the team has brilliantly-designed blitz packages, run plays, and let's be honest -- Kyle Orton is looking better and better every single week at the helm of what is by far the biggest surprise in the NFL this season in the Broncos.

3. The New England Cheatriots. I know they ran up the score and left in pussyboy Tom Brady a lot longer than they probably should have in the team's 59-0 rout of the spiralling-out-of-control Tennessee Titans. But what in the hike is up with 59 points against an NFL team, huh? I honestly don't ever remember a team in the NFL scoring 59 in a game. I'm pretty sure the Eagles have scored 58 points, once I think in that ridiculous playoff game against the Detroit Lions in the mid 90s and I think once again in the regular season not too many years ago, but I honestly do not recall seeing 59 points in an NFL game, especially when coupled with a 0 on the other side. While the Cheats have had their issues against strong defensive teams this year, against the poor teams they are still the great Cheaters of old, and Tom Brady looks awfully good back there with no pressure put on him whatsoever.

4. Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. Is there any more exciting story week-to-week in the NFL this year than Brett Favre and what is now quite for real a quest for the superbowl? Favre led the Vikes to a huge lead early over a solid Ravens team and then he was able to make the key long throw on the game-winning drive to lead his team to victory, with Favre ending the day with a very productive and efficient 21-29 passing for 278 yards and 3 touchdowns (no picks). On the season, Favre is now a sick 124-178 (69.67%) for 1347 yards over six games, with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions, for an overall qb rating of 109.5. That is just disgustingly great football out of Old Man Favre, and his team is responding with one of the best records going so far 6 games in to the 2009 NFL season.


1. Mark Sanchez. Wow. 10 of 29 for 119 yards on the day, including no touchdowns and an astonishing five picks, for an overall quarterback rating of 8.3 in the game. And no, that's not a typo, Sanchise's qb rating really was 8. Point 3. Not only could Sanchise not find any of his own receivers on the day, but he clearly did not have the arm strength to move the ball well through the wind, a bad sign for a guy heading into his first NFL winter and playing in a northeastern non-dome stadium. Sanchez looked utterly and completely lost in what is clearly his worst outing of the season so far -- the third week in a row we've said that now -- and at this point you have to believe there is a full-fledged quarterback controversy brewing in New Jersey York if Sanchise has one more week as bad as his last couple have been.

2. The New York Jets. Joining in the woes of their rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, the New York Jets' switch from boom to bust shows just how quickly things can change in the NFL these days. After a nice win to start the season at Houston, an early career-defining victory over the Patriots and then beating the Titans, the Jets started off 3-0 and were looking like the clear favorite to take down the always-tough AFC East. But now less than a month later the team is 3-3 and out of first place in the division, and the scariest part about it is that 100% of the confidence that surrounded this year just three weeks ago is gone at this point. Jets fans might or might not admit it to you right now, but the anticipation of watching Sanchise's and Rex Ryan's next game with the Jets has turned to abject dread at this point, and after losses to Chad Henny in Miami and Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, believe me when I say that Oakland, Miami, Jacksonville and New England over the next four weeks is not something anyone in town is looking forward to. This weekend's loss to the crappy Buffalo Bills is especially painful because the team somehow ran for more than 300 yards but still lost the game to an inferior opponent. The Jets are now at the precipice, and no matter what they do during the week, that's where they will stay until the come out and beat the Raiders on the road next Sunday afternoon.

3. Philadelphia Eagles. What do you even say about the Eagles, who had been utterly trashing bad teams week after week all this season, but then went out on Sunday and lost to Jamarcus Russell and the Oakland Raiders 13-9? I mean, just one week ago, the Giants visited Oakland in their own stadium, took a 21-point lead within minutes, and it was never even as close as that again on their way to a 44-7 rout of the league's thought-to-be worst team. So far in 2009, the Raiders had given up 24, 10, 23, 29 and 44 in their five games, while the Eagles had scored 38, 22, 34 and 33 in their four games, so it wasn't hard to predict where this game was going. But then the Eagles show up and lay a complete egg, managing only three field goals after inexplicably throwing the ball 46 times as compared to only 14 rushing attempts, and at the same time the Eagles' defense allows hapless Oakland qb Jamarcus Russell -- who couldn't even sit the bench in my dead grandma's touch football league -- to go 17-28 for 224 yards and a score. Do those look like Jamarcus Russell numbers to you? 17 for 28? 224 yards? A passing touchdown? Who is this guy, and how on earth do the Eagles expect anyone to respect them after a performance like this? Can they even respect themselves? Easily the biggest embarrassment of the week in the NFL, hands down.

4. Washington Redskins. For what must be the first time in modern history, the Washington Redskins have somehow faced winless opponents in each of their first six games this season. That's the 0-0 Giants in Week 1, followed by the Rams, the Lions, the Bucs, the Panthers and now the Chiefs this week. In the Chiefs game, after finally benching qb Jason Campbell in favor of Todd Collins (omg), the Redskins failed to score a touchdown, gave up a safety and got beat down by Todd Haley's previously 0-5 squad. Against those six winless teams so far in 2009, the Redskins now shockingly fall to 2-4. 2-4 against the NFL's winless, in a year where the worst quarter of the league is worse than it's ever been. And with that and the Raiders' win this weekend over the Eagles, I am thrilled to present the new Worst Team in the NFL award, to your 2009 Washington Redskins.

5. Redskins head coach Jim Zorn. So let's see...Mort, Berman and everyone else in the national sports media is either calling for your job or reporting that you will be fired during the team's upcoming bye week. Now you can't score and lose to the 0-5 Chiefs for your 4th loss to a winless team in just six weeks this season, and after the game you go to the press and directly blame yourself for poor coaching, and within minutes management announces it is stripping you of your play-calling duties. Hmmmm. Hope you have a good real estate agent, Jimmy.

With the Raiders' qb apparently being possessed by someone with some actual skills this week against the Eagles, this week's Jamarcus Russell award has to go elsewhere, in this case to Jake Delhomme of the Carolina Panthers. In a win against the 0-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Delhomme finished the day 9 of 17 for 65 yards, one score and two picks. In a victory. Man does Carolina stink out loud this year or what?

TO Watch: 3 catches for 13 total yards in the overtime win against the Jets this weekend. For the season, that is now 15 catches for 215 yards and one touchdown, in six games for the formerly good wide receiver. Plus at least four or five bad drops for good measure.

Lastly, I was thinking this week how funny it is what perspective can do to one's opinion of a given team. For example, look at three .500 teams right now in the NFL: The Jets, the Ravens and the Jaguars. These teams are all sitting at the identical 3-3 records after six games, but just look at how differently the three teams are perceived by fans (including myself). The Ravens to me are a very solid team, they have a great defense and a constantly improving, strong-armed quarterback in Joe Flacco. I have very little doubt that, come season's end, the Ravens will be in the playoffs and a team that nobody wants to run into in a big spot. Then there are the Jets, who started off the season 3-0 but have now dropped three straight to drop back to .500 through six games. The Jets, sitting with the exact same record as the Ravens, are not confidence-inspiring at all at this point, as I would say it is very much in doubt right now whether the Jets can bounce back and make it to the playoffs. Shit, at this point after watching Sanchise's balls twist in the wind last weekend, I'm not even sure if the Jets have a guy whose arm is strong enough to make it in this league. And then we can look at the Jaguars, who also rose to 3-3 this week after beating the winless Rams in overtime. This team also has that same record through six games as the Jets and the Ravens, but I don't think anybody in their right mind would consider picking the Jags to make a playoff run. They're not particularly strong in the passing game, their defense is suspect compared to previous years, and the team's three wins this year are against 0-6 Tennessee, the 0-6 Rams (in overtime, no less) and the 3-3 Texans who have been up and down. So while the fans in Baltimore may not be worried, believe me when I say the Jets fans in New York metro are crapping their pants right now, and I'm pretty sure the (few) fans in Jacksonville aren't even considering the playoffs a realistic outcome for their team come the end of the 2009 regular season in the NFL.

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That Ain't the Way I Heard It!

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Monday, October 19, 2009

LCS Crunch Time

Well, despite all the talk about how great the last four teams standing in the major leagues were heading into the ALCS and NLCS playoff series, so far the two matchups really haven't been all that close. As I've been writing about here for a long time at this point, both series ultimately feature one team with both superior hitting and superior starting pitching, and the other team left with a bunch of intangibles -- be they coaching, history, home field advantage, you name it -- that so far simply have not been able to add up to much in the face of a whole team full of better baseball players on the other side. Either series could still change on a dime and turn into something better, but in order for that to happen, the Angels and the Dodgers will both need to win on Monday or in my view both series are pretty much over.

In the ALCS, which to me is the less interesting of the two series, the Yankees are up 2-0 after taking both games at home in new Yankee Stadium. CC Sabathia shut the Angels down in winning the first game 4-1, and Game 2 saw the Yankees rally to win in the 13th after another decent pitching performance out of Yankees starter AJ Burnett. Nothing much has surprised me so far out of this series, and I highly doubt there is much surprise among baseball fans in general who've paid attention to the sport, and in particular the Yankees, throughout the 2009 season. The 2009 Yankees' recipe of starting some solid starting pitchers, throwing in the best lineup the sport has seen in a long, long time, and sprinkling in the best closer to ever play the game has consistently produced delicious baseball this year, and this continues as the team matches up with an Angels team that is simply undermanned when compared to the Yankees' $350 million all-star machine.

The one significant point to make about the ALCS from my perspective is the fact that A-Rod continues to shine in the playoffs for the first time in his career, including smacking a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 2, thanks to a more calm outlook on life and probably in no small part to some fine star-fuckery poontang from Kate Hudson. And talk about a relationship that is destined to end badly for A-Rod. Kate Hudson is not only a star fucker but also a life-ruiner, making the world worse in her wake wherever she has gone. The Black Crowes? Broken up. Owen Wilson? Suicidal. A-Rod? Who knows what lies ahead.

Oh, and the Angels better find a way to get a win on Monday afternoon. Down 3-0 will become a sweep out of the playoffs real quick me thinks if the Angels cannot find a way to liven up their bats and make some noise here as that series shifts to the west coast.

The NLCS is where it's at for me these days, and personally I expected the series between the Dodgers and Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies to be the more closely-fought of the two final four matchups. Much like I said when predicting the Phillies-Rockies matchup in the NLDS, the Phillies simply have the better starting pitching, and the far better lineup, than the Dodgers, and I stated quite simply last week that I was (and remain) highly confident that the Phillies would hold late leads in at least four of the games in the NLCS. So far, I'm three for three on that prediction, as the Phils more or less crushed in Game 1, winning 8-6 but holding the lead straight through from the 4th inning onwards, and then they led 1-0 in the 8th inning of Game 2 after a dominating 2-hit shutout performance out of Pedro Martinez, which unfortunately turned into a loss thanks to the Phils' bullpen and some very strange managerial decisions out of Phils' skipper Charlie Manuel. In Game 3 on Sunday night, as the series moved back to Philadelphia, the Phillies apparently decided they didn't plan to leave things to their shaky bullpen, busting out with four runs in the 1st inning, two more in the 2nd, and five more late in the game while Phillies ace Cliff Lee totally manhandled the Dodgers to the tune of 3 hits, no runs and ten strikeouts in an 8-inning masterpiece that ended 11-0 in favor of the Champs.

At this point I think we can safely make a few conclusions about the National League playoffs. For starters, everybody stop talking about home field advantage. Over time baseball has proven itself not to have much of a home field advantage in the playoffs anyways, but as I mentioned last week the Phillies are simply not affected by playing on the road instead of at home. In the NLDS, Philly split their first two games at home, but then promptly walked into Coors Field and bashed the Rockies right out of the postseason with two straight wins at the Rockies' home field. Then the Phillies traveled to LA, promptly put up 8 on the Dodgers in winning Game 1, and were six outs away from winning Game 2 before the bullpen caved. There's a reason this team was 16 games over .500 on the road in 2009, and with the experience of last year that included winning the World Series against a Rays team with home field advantage, Dodger fans cannot feel comfortable even with the final two games of this series (if needed) scheduled to take place at home.

Secondly, how fucking awesome is the Phillies' lineup? For those who don't know, Phils' first baseman Ryan Howard set a new major league record on Sunday night by getting at least one RBI in his seventh consecutive postseason game. Howard ended the day 1 for 4, but the one hit was a biggie, a triple in the first inning that knocked in two. Jayson Werth joined Howard at 1 for 4, but his first-inning jack knocked in both himself and Howard to get the Phils far more run support than Cliff Lee would need right off the bat. Chase Utley went 2-4 on the day, and Shane Victorino rounded out the Phils' top-of-the-order domination with a 2-for 3 day that included a home run and 3 RBIs as well. And defensive catcher Carlos Ruiz -- long considered a dead spot near the bottom of the Phillies lineup -- continued his amazing postseason so far with a 2-for-3 day that included an RBI and two runs scored as Ruiz raised his postseason average to .429 (.538 on base % and a massive 1.158 OPS) with nine hits and seven RBIs in seven games so far this month. If not for Howard's clutch bat and a certain pitcher to be discussed momentarily, Ruiz would get my vote for team MVP so far this postseason.

And lastly, how fucking awesome is Cliff Lee? Where would this team be if league-best GM Ruben Amaro had not acquired Lee at the trading deadline this year? So far in three postseason games for the Phillies this year, Lee has pitched 24.1 innings, averaging more than 8 innings per start for the World Champions. In those 24 innings, Lee has given up just 14 hits -- just over 4 hits in just over 8 innings per game -- and just two earned runs. Two earned runs total allowed in 8+ innings each against the Rockies at home, the Rockies on the road, and now the Dodgers at home. Even sicker is the fact that Lee has just three walks in those 24.1 innings, to go along with 20 strikeouts. In fact, every time Lee pitches, he seems to be good for at least 100 pitches, and at least 75% of them are strikes. This guy has sick control, and even more important given the Phillies' bullpen woes, sick longevity as well. In 2008, the Phillies rode the hot arm of Cole Hamels to five wins in the five games he started in the postseason, including the World Series clincher, and in 2009 with Hamels struggling to find his focus, Cliff Lee has filled the role that Hamels held so dominantly in 2008, hopefully to the same results in this NLCS against the Dodgers.

If the Dodgers lose on Monday night, they will drop down 3 games to 1, with presumably Cole Hamels to go at home in Game 5, P-Mart back in LA in Game 6, and Cliff Lee primed to run again in Game 7 if necessary. The Dodgers, like the Angels if they lose to the Yankees on Monday, cannot reasonably expect to come back from that. So the way I see it, Monday night it is do-or-die in my view for both of the teams that are currently behind in their respective LCS series.

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