Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Behind the Mets' 8-Ball

It has fallen to Paul Hagen to write the latest Phillies think-piece in the local papers- full of the requisite hang-wringing and evasion. Paul encapsulates their problems professionally:
On paper, the Phillies haven't had the best talent in the National League East this season. Not with Freddy Garcia winning only once before going on the disabled list; closer Tom Gordon sidelined by a strained rotator cuff after nine appearances; Brett Myers shelved with a strained right shoulder; only four home runs from the third-base position; reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard missing time with a strained left quadriceps; leftfielder Pat Burrell seeing less and less playing time as his average slips toward .200; and a bullpen era (4.79) that entered yesterday fourth worst in the league.
To read that, it is frankly a sort of wonder that the Phillies are hanging around. But to me, the wonder is misplaced. The Phillies 40-36 mark is directly reflective of the myriad of concerns listed above. Well- that and the injuries they’ve suffered haven’t been a season-ending disaster (for the most part). Ryan was going so bad, that it actually helped the club to get Howard out of the line-up for a few days. Garcia was no great shakes- replacing him with a AAA player meant they were able to keep his 5-ish ERA in the rotation; as the Sharp Cereal Professor would say: nothing wrong here! Alfonseco has been the best closer they’ve had this year- and got his job by default. The Phillies aren’t bad, the injuries short term haven’t mattered much- but they simply aren’t real great either.

It feels mysterious because their level of contention is not merely a reflection of them. Candidly, it is mostly a reflection of the Mets. When the Mets were cruising to a super 100-win season, the Phillies wholly lacked the essentials, the winning criteria, to get to that sort of number. But when the Mets go out there and tank two dozen games in three weeks- well, heck, Philly can do better than that! Even with Rollins batting lead-off!

I think the Phillies are on a sort of glide path to 85-88 wins- it is up to the Mets to decide if that is competitive in National League East or not.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

The God of Love and Mercy

Ralph Peters today devotes his column to: "Will the god of love and mercy triumph over the god of battles?" Gosh, I don’t know Ralph. But I know where love and mercy is not the way to go- racing Juan Pablo Montoya on a road course. Montoya, right in front of us, is working out years of passive frustration, making sanitary laps in a fragile F-1 car.

Yes, NASCAR took one of its two detours to road courses this weekend. No one dislikes road course racing really. Even David Poole, who cheerleads against in constantly, can’t work up any real venom for it. Yeah, it is different- and this sport is designed for oval racing- but once or twice a year it is sort of fun.

I thought yesterday was a good example of why road racing is, on the whole, a good part of the schedule. The races are quick. The COT shined yesterday- lots of passing, the smaller fuel cell made for lots of strategy, and the finish was interesting and intense. Even the number of caution laps- the interest killer at the big tracks as cars crawl around an interminable amount of time- where kept to a manageable number (although if you blow an engine, get off the track- don’t force NASCAR to throw a caution when you can get off- I’m talking to you Sterling). I don’t want to watch it every week- but if it means adding another cookie-cutter race or Poco-snooze; I’ll take the Glen.

As to the race itself, Juan Pablo Montoya has twice this year climbed into cars in the top strictly stock divisions and whipped all comers. Good on him. Particularly impressive when you consider neither team that fielded those two race cars is known for its road racing prowess. Ganassi Racing has not won anywhere for five years- let alone a road course. Dodge hasn’t won a race this year- forget about the COT. I doubt Juan had the best car either time- but it is hard to argue he ain't the best road racer going right now.

The other point is that for years we've been told by NASCAR that the "quality" of driver in NASCAR is equal to that of Formula One. Boy, that is a hard sell today- as Montoya took our "good" road racers: Stewart, both Gordons, etc. to school yesterday. And that Busch field in Mexico had some ringers too: Boris Said, Hamlin, etc.

A semi-good Formula One road racer, or at least this one, seems much superior to the NASCAR crew touted as road racers. They didn’t seem too good today.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Jeff Garcia is back in the papers today- playing golf or something- but since he was doing it with McNabb it is what passes for news. I guess because the story came out before the Flyers decided they’d rather compete next seasons as Nashville. Yo Flyers' guys- we still have too many Finns!

Now, I am sympathetic to Jeff Garcia here- up to a point. He had a great year, played out a great story, for half a year in Philadelphia. Press and fans were sure Jeff deserved a term as caddy to Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia. And leaving such a great situation- really tailored for Garcia- had to distress him some.

But I never for a moment thought he’d be coming back- and it was pretty obvious the Eagles from Day One thought that too. I am not going to re-hash all the reasons- see the post- but quickly:

We know Andy Reid thinks AJ Feeley can play and serve as a very effective back-up. Heck, he’s already won in that role under Reid here before. Throw in the fact AJ’s younger and cheaper, and Garcia’s retention was always unlikely. Also, from the moment the season ended, the Eagles clearly were taking a first day quarterback in this draft- which means that guy was ticketed soon for a role on the active roster. With McNabb’s recent inability to finish a season, the Eagles were not entering 2007 without a back-up they think can play and a high round draft choice to develop. That is three qbs who aren't just roster filler, one making franchise wages and two making qb money (ie. higher than average for a non-starting roster spot), and tieing up even more money at the back up quarterback position for Garcia- at the expense of the cost effective AJ- becomes problematic.

You can’t feel too sorry for Garcia- who has gone from being washed up to making $5 million as the starting quarterback-to-be in Tampa. Both sides got what they wanted- and it is hard to argue the separation now isn’t in the interest of both parties.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Racer Eight

I am a pretty neutral observer on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Like most NASCAR fans, I always was partial to his charging father- who was one of those guys in sports who got it: a real competitor who appreciated the fans and sport that paid his salary. But I was never fired up for Junior as a racer. Frankly, his step-mother had a valid gripe when she postulated that the younger Dale needed to decide whether he was a champion or a spokesman for Drakkar Noir first.

That being said, it seems to me that if you are both a Junior fan, accordingly want to see him win- well, he is with a team that can most definitely win. Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) just isn't anymore. Frankly, it is an “either or” situation. He could either ride around in twelfth place for another three years at DEI, sulking about his step-mother and muttering about the team’s decline- or move to a team that definitely could win. And if his "fans" grousing about "being teammates with Gordon" was the major downside... well, please. Yeah, Jeff Gordon is a phony- we all know that- but it isn’t like Dale has to marry the guy. Or even share haulers.

One of the best reasons for this switch is that sometimes a change of scenery is good for people. Whatever dynamic that existed at DEI just wasn't working too well anymore. It wasn't terrible: there is nothing inherently "bad" about being a key participant in one of the top ten-fifteen individual stock car teams in the entire USA.

But these super multi-car teams that dominate NASCAR now made huge investments in engineering, technology and talent development. Hendricks is a totally bigger and tech savvy organization than it was a decade ago with the Rainbow Warriors. Compare that to Dale Jr.’s existing organization. DEI is still largely a collection of Earnhardt family members- particularly in the decision-making roles. Along similar lines, does anyone think it helps matters that his sister is his agent? I mean, if that is not a graduate PhD psychology experiment waiting to happen- then what is?

Talent selection was based on relationships. Martin Truex was there largely because he was Dale’s pal. Michael Waltrip drove the second car there for a long time. I am not sure it is a real smart move to run your second car with a second tier veteran rather than trying to develope a real grade one talent. But again, Waltrip was “family”- and evaluated on a different curve. Also, DEI was a strong team; it really was. But Dale Jr insisted on this clubhouse atmosphere- and bears a goodly share of the responsibility for the team’s decline. Yes, it was cute when family ties made Dale Jr. and his pals the guys who cut the grass at the shop. It isn't so cute when the exact same lawn mowing team is still in charge of building the cars and executing the racing organization.

The pressure is on Dale squarely now. Put up or shut up time for him. Hendrick wins. The team wins with different people, different crew-chiefs, different tracks, different teams and different cars. They win and win and win. If #8 can't win here, it means he probably is- outside of restrictor plate racing- a whole lot closer the past couple of years to Dave Blaney and Bobby Hamilton Jr. than a lot of his fans will want to admit. Maybe his fans need to swallow their pride and anger toward Hendrick's team- and realize they lost this battle with Gordon, etc.- but now could win a Championship. Isn't that why you are a fan of the guy- or is it to justify tossing beer and stuff at Gordon?

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

#5 is Back


Monday, June 11, 2007

America's Filly

In a really thrilling race- particularly if you had $30 on the filly at 4 to 1- Rags to Riches won the Belmont Stakes. Even if you are not a fan of thoroughbred racing, take a minute and click on the video replay. Listen to, and enjoy, Tom Durkin going nuts, literally screaming craziness about the battle of the sexes, desperate driving finishes, etc. Our girl got it done- and now deserves to be on both the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.

There is no cheapening it either. You can’t say the favorite colt Curlin didn’t fire. If Rags to Riches ran the last quarter in a superior sub-24 seconds, Curlin matched her almost stride for stride. So if she fired, he did too. He’s a real nice colt, he ran a real nice race, but the filly is clearly bred to be a twelve furlong machine- and she ran it out.

Hard Spun was the other contender- and for the second classic race in a row- got a ride by one of those dense little elves that can only be described as "nonsensical". The field ran a tactical race for a mile (translated: they ran real slow), and Hard Spun cannot be allowed to not set the pace in that sort of scenario. He isn’t a tactical colt- he is a runner- and someday they’ll get a jockey up here that understands that- and he’ll win one of these things.

The rumor is the filly will face the boys again- but is pointed toward the Alabama at Saratoga- the summer’s prestige race for the girls- as opposed to the Travers. But she is probably ticketed for the Classic in November- a little juice for a sport that needs some.

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Friday, June 08, 2007


Curlin comes to tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes the very solid favorite: 6-5 on the morning line and probably 4-5 when they get around to putting this field of seven actually in the gate. He is, right now, clearly the fastest thing on four legs- boasting the best set of speed figures coming into this race since the liquid quick Smarty Jones.

But horse racing is never just about who you think is going to win- but rather the best risk-reward payout. Curlin is the best on paper- and all indications are he’ll be a popular choice. So the public will be giving up return in bunches for agreeing with the status quo. That is a big price to pay considering three good angles working against him here.

First of all, the Belmont is far. Far, far, far. No one in this race has ever run this distance or ever will again- and the extra two furlongs makes it a different sort of animal than the rest of the classics. At a minimum, Curlin is a solid classic distance horse- but he probably isn’t a Grade I caliber miler or sprinter- and he might not be a super 12 furlong horse either. We just don’t know. A difference of two furlongs is a lot in horse racing.

Second, this Triple Crown is tough stuff. Just recently War Emblem, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide came in here with short prices- and got beat by horses that in no way could run with them most days. The grind got to all of them. I’m not willing to take even oney that it won’t happen to Curlin either.

Lastly, there are two other candidates here that clearly have enough talent to win should Curlin regress back a few lengths. Hard Spun (second in the Derby, third in the Preakness) and Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches bring good things here: speed, recent form, fire each time out, everything.

Now, Curlin has beaten Hard Spun twice in these classics- so if you are going to argue Curlin is worn down, you gotta sort of dismiss Hard Spun too- which brings us to Rags to Riches.

Do you know who Ruthless and Tanya are? Ruthless won this thing in 1867 and Tanya in 1905- and like Rags to Riches- they are all fillies.

So, no filly has gotten this done since 1905. So sure, they are stretching a little here. I mean, I doubt she would be here if Todd Pletcher had one of his umpteen Derby and Preakness male entries to fire. I guess he’s not the first man to reach for a girl when flailing. But her regular jockey was named to ride Hard Spun- until he found out she was entered, and he went crazy trying to scratch off his mount and move over to his girl (he couldn’t).

She is fresh, will be at a fair price (not too generous, say 3-1, I’m not the only one who thinks she is in this to win this) and can run all day. The boys have been campaigning, the extra distance probably doesn’t help and they won’t offer much pay back in return. I can’t believe I’m writing this- but I am taking Rags to Riches, a filly, straight up to WIN the Belmont Stakes in New York.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Panic in the Post

Last night, I was at Shea for the Phillies entertaining second straight win over their division overlords. There was a lot to feel good about: another three innings of shut-out relief by three guys it would help to really get going, Victorino displaying his deadly outfield arm, big two-out home run, Eaton looking like he might be righting himself

But what I left with was a little sense of “uh-oh”- a little doubt about the Mets’ air of inevitability- from the assembled Met partisans. Sigh… if they are doubtful now after facing an enigmatic right-hander, now they get to see the ace lefty. Big start Cole. Get back to five games- put some pressure on these coasting Mets and inscrutable Braves.

My sense of “doubt” was confirmed when Kevin Kernan in the Post started to look for the panic button. Not that he is panicked- but it might be a good thing to know where it is, right Kevin? Read and enjoy his doubt:
DON'T be fooled…..

Aaron Heilman is still giving up big home runs, injuries are taking a toll on Willie Randolph's club, the lack of clutch hitting is a major issue and the Phillies are back over .500. Jimmy "We're the team to beat" Rollins single-handedly made sure his Phillies were not beaten last night, lining a three-run, two-out, two-strike home run off a Heilman changeup in the seventh, lifting Philadelphia to a stunning 4-2 victory at Shea.

J-Roll supplied the dose of reality the Mets and their fans desperately need. This season is not going to be a cake-walk….

…. but this team does not have what it takes to win the club's first World Series in 21 years. There are too many holes.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Mystery That Only Charlie Can Be Responsible For

The Phillies continued their season of one step forward, one step back, with a pretty feel good win over the Mets here in New York last night. How they can be 4-0 versus the Mets and Braves on the road, and 2-5 versus the Giants & Diamondbacks at home, in their last eleven is a mystery of the sort that only Charlie Manuel can be responsible for.

Today, Jay Greenberg is pretty cocky. He got my hackles up about the Phillies vis-à-vis the Mets- particularly considering Philadelphia has won more games in the National League than anyone the last month or so. The Phillies were left for dead- and have crawled back to some sort of relevance. Far from “being alive for one more day”- they are alive period. So lay off.

Watching the game, I found it confirmed one old and one fairly new truism of baseball. The first is that pitching ultimately wins out. The Phillies ran the bases like Little Leaguers (before they start keeping score even), got picked off, dropped routine pop-ups- and still won the game because they out-pitched the Mets. Moyer got a hard earned draw with Glavine- and the bullpen probably pitched its best game in a big spot all year.

Second, or the new truism: the Mets announcers were marveling over the fact the Phillies lead the National League in runs scored- despite having an indifferent team batting average and a ton of strikeouts (the biggest run killing stat going).

The Phillies sort of survive and better, score a goodly number of runs, by being a sort of inadvertent testament to the Moneyball approach to offense: conserve your outs, get on base. This is not by any design mind you; the Phillies are not a smart team. And the other parts- team speed and situational hitting are certainly not strengths.

But the team OBP is top third, and they walk a lot. Utley gets on, Rowand gets on, Victorino gets on. Burrell doesn’t hit- but he walks an absolute ton and is on base every game. The seventh and eight spots provide zero “pop”- but they also aren’t .230 hitting black holes like they are on a lot of clubs. I think you can successfully argue that at five or six of the eight position player line-up spots the Phillies generate baserunners at a rate above normal- and a rate higher than their hitting would indicate. Mix that with a healthy dose of home run power, a three hole hitting machine, and it is a recipe for run production. (ed. Or at least overcoming the cancer that playing Jimmy Rollins at lead-off creates.)

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Bruce Bochy = Dope?

One good thing about having NASCAR rained out Sunday afternoon is that you get to waste a whole afternoon at work tuning in- as opposed to wasting you own Sunday afternoon! And the rain did give me a chance to cast more than an occasional glance over at the Phillies. I find less and less joy in the wins- as opposed to simple marvel at the vagaries that occur. I mean, I dunno: how was your belly when “closer” Ryan Madson- after being allowed to bat in the bottom of the 8th- walked two guys with one out in the ninth? Candidly, I was sick.

Fortunately, for maybe the second, third time in his entire career managing a bench, Charlie out-coached his peer! Okay, it was largely due Bruce Bochy electing to- get this, seriously- pitch to Ryan Howard, with two on, up two runs in the seventh. Look, I know the book is “don’t put the go-ahead run on base”- but the Phillies best chance to get back in this game late was Ryan losing one somewhere- which he promptly did. And Ryan hasn’t been a cripple with the bat since he’s come back…. I just don’t get that decision. Didn’t some member of the Giants have a civic obligation to stage some sort of intervention? Bruce, do we really want to do this? Bruce?

In other news, I don’t follow the fight game all that closely- other than to visit the Legendary Blue Horizon twice a year. But, the PDN today draws attention to the fact that no one, other than a Russian, holds a world championship in the heavyweight division. To put it another way, it is sort of like saying that in fifteen years the top five players in the NBA would be eastern Europeans- that is the sort of seismic, pretty unexpected shift we’re looking at here. Seriously, look at the guy. He just doesn't look bad. He just looks very tired.

I have a thing for the decaying sports- ice hockey, boxing, horse racing (another article here from the New York Post giving yet another example of why it is in decline in the US)- which is why the immediate introduction of ESPN Ocho is increasingly important. Shoot, if ESPN could put the spelling bee on the map- the Ocho could help revitalize these sports. I guarantee you all three are better than women’s softball currently clogging up the nation’s airwarves.

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