Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why the Dallas Mavericks Will Win the NBA Finals

Tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the 2011 NBA Finals will finally tip off in South Beach, which was almost expected when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to join forces. What wasn't expected was that the Dallas Mavericks would be the ones representing the Western Conference in the final series of the season.

All season long, everyone expected the Lakers to flip the champion switch in the postseason and reach the Finals with the chance at another three-peat for Phil Jackson. Or for the Spurs to miraculously find the fountain of youth and make more go of it. Or for the up-and-coming Thunder to expedite the growing process with the addition of Kendrick Perkins and claim their perch as the king of the conference sooner than expected.

What everyone forgot about was the team with the high-profile owner, understated superstar, Hall of Fame point guard and roster full of hungry, ready, battle-tested veterans dying to get their hands on the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

When you stop and look back at it, it's almost humorous how foolish we all were. I mean, take a long, hard look at the make-up of this team. Dirk Nowitzki is one of the most uniquely talented players of all time, truly an original. The man has been unguardable his entire career, and he's become even more efficient the older he gets. Jason Kidd may no longer be the best point guard in the NBA, a claim that was certainly true for years, but he is perhaps the smartest and most physical, still. Tyson Chandler was quietly one of the best and biggest offseason acquisitions in the entire league, possibly the biggest outside of anyone related to "The Decision."

Shawn Marion and DeShawn are two versatile, hounding defenders, with Marion adding strong offensive skills as well. Jason Terry has been one of the most lethal shooters and bench scorers throughout his entire career. And when Caron Butler went down for the season — imagine if he was healthy! — Mark Cuban brought in another deadly shooter to come off the bench, adding Peja Stojakovic to the mix. Then there is J.J. Barea, who looks like Steve Nash 2.0, to come in and spell Kidd, not to mention Brendan Haywood's big body and a team devoid of ego.

That's about as complete a team as you'll find anywhere. And it's a team that's going to win the 2010-11 NBA Finals. Here's why.

Sure, the Miami Heat have three of the four best players in this series. It would be really hard to argue against that. But the Dallas Mavericks have a deeper, more complete team, a team that knows how to win playing multiple styles and players that are willing to stick to their roles. Oh, and they also match up better against the Heat than any other team in the entire league.

Let me explain.

For starters, Dirk Nowitzki is playing the best basketball of anyone on the planet right now, and when his shot is falling, he is as unguardable as it gets. This postseason it's been falling all the time. Even when defenders have played him perfectly, he's simply knocked down shots anyway with his nearly unblockable jumper and array of shooting angles. There isn't really a defender alive who can bother him when he's in the zone, evident by Nick Collison playing him about as tough as anyone can — routinely getting away with fouls — and Dirk still torching him left and right. Do you really think he's going to slow down with 2006 on his mind?

Conversely, while LeBron, Wade and Bosh are all nearly impossible to stop, the Mavericks have the horses to try and contain them. DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion can make LeBron and Wade work on the perimeter, pretty much interchangeably. Of course no one stops those guys, but that duo is about as good as it gets defensively. Plus, Jason Kidd is no slouch himself, able to cover Wade in spurts so long as he can keep him in front. And Tyson Chandler can play Bosh straight up, athletic enough to step out and stay with him on those 18-footers and big and strong enough to bother Bosh down low. Oh yeah, Chandler and Brendan Haywood can help protect the paint against LeBron and Wade as well.

Then offensively, outside of Dirk's dominance, Dallas has plenty of what the Chicago Bulls lacked — shooters and scorers around their superstar. Miami disposed of the Bulls by doubling Derrick Rose and clogging the paint, forcing others around him to beat them. Chicago didn't have the players to do that. Dallas does. Not only do the Heat have the contend with one of the game's elite scorers in Dirk Nowitzki, but they also have to worry about Jason Kidd and the lethal three-pointer he's developed the past few years; Jason Terry, a true scorer who can get you 20 off the bench on any given night; Peja Stojakovic and his incredible shooting; Shawn Marion, who can score in a variety of ways, be it putbacks, floaters, jumpers, etc. Double Dirk at your own peril. The Mavericks would love to see you try it.

And of course, there is the clear advantage at the point. Jason Kidd may not be what he once was, but he is still one of the most important players in left. He's been truly remarkable this postseason, outplaying and outfoxing players half his age. And in crunch time, there isn't another player in the NBA you'd trust more to make the right decision with the ball.

While the Heat have certainly figured out this end-of-game thing in the postseason, there is still the question of who is going to make sure the right guy gets the ball in the right spot each and every trip in the 4th quarter. There are no concerns about that with Dallas, because in every game this postseason, the veteran has made sure each possession runs through Dirk, the team's best player, and then goes from there. Jason Kidd is the smartest basketball player in the Finals, and that means a lot.

When you add it all up, it means the Dallas Mavericks are really the team to beat. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, those guys have been through all the wars. They've seen it all, won't be awed or overwhelmed by Miami and its three-headed monster. There's only one things these players haven't accomplished, and that's getting that ever-elusive ring. They know what it's like to climb the summit only to fizzle out before reaching the top. They know these opportunities don't come around as often as you think. And they know their time is running out.

They also know this is their time. Just ask Jason Terry.

The Dallas Mavericks aren't as young and athletic as the Miami Heat. They aren't as well-known or polarizing. What they are is a veteran team that knows what it takes to win, knows how to win and is primed to get four more victories. They have a hunger that you really can't get until you've been around as long as they have and never won it all. And they have a team built to finally exorcise the those demons.

That's why the Dallas Mavericks will win the NBA Finals and finally put the ghosts of 2006 to rest.

Friday, May 27, 2011

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Now that the NBA Finals are set, the narrative is pretty simple: The veteran Mavericks with a slew of ringless players are out to capture the title that has long eluded them, while the bad boy Heat are looking to cap off their first season and start a three-headed dynasty around LeBron, Wade and Bosh.

Personally, I'll be rooting for the Mavericks because I'd really like to see Dirk, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and even Jason Kidd climb the summit. They've all worked so hard for so long and I'd just really like to see them get that ring. It would almost be a crime to have the greatest shooting and most versatile shooting 7-footer and the best point guard of his generation retire without a title.

So in the spirit of pulling for the Mavericks, here is Jason kid rapping back in 1994.

They wanna know.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Allen Iverson and the Crossover

This has been making the rounds, and for good reason. It's awesome. Just watch.

I'm going to have to respectfully agree with A.I. over D-Wade.

Hey Mr. Wilson!

Uh, yeah, that just happened. For real. Utility infielder/most time second baseman this season Wilson Valdez came in to pitch in the 19th inning, set down the heart of the incredibly explosive Cincinnati Reds' offense and picked up a win thanks to some small ball from Jimmy Rollins, Domonic Brown, Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez. Seriously. That happened.

Of course it brought back memories of Tomas Perez, the original Phillies pie-in-the-face gansta, taking the mound in relief back in the day during another insanely long game. Except Wilson got the win. Awesome.

Games like last night are what make baseball so great. No clock. No time limit. The chance to see something you've absolutely never seen before. And something you'd never expect in a million years.

In fact, the last thing my friends and I expected as we left the house to grab some drinks with the Phillies up 2-0 and Roy Halladay on the mound was an extra-inning game, let alone a 19-inning marathon that forced a position player onto the mound. Yet that's exactly what happened.

Shortly after Ben Francisco smoked his two-run home run to left, we set off to the bar down the street, certain the game was all but over, even though it was just the first inning. I mean, Roy Halladay was on the mound, the same Roy Halladay who threw a freakin no-hitter against these very same Reds in his first career playoff start. And when John Mayberry singled home Carlos Ruiz in the 2nd, we knew the game was over.

Still, we wanted to watch, so we headed down to Druid's Keep to get a little projector action out back. And we watched as Roy, who was getting slapped around but had only surrendered one run through 6, did a very un-Roy like thing. With a two-run lead in the 7th, he gave up back-to-back hits to start the inning, kick-started by Miguel freakin Cairo of all people. A sacrifice bunt by Brandon Phillips put runners on 2nd and 3rd with just one out, bringing up Joey Votto. Walking him was a no-brainer, and it looked even more genius when Halladay struck out Scott Rolen for out number 2.

But he couldn't get Jay Bruce, who is just torching pitchers right now, as Bruce singled to center to plate Cairo and Drew Stubbs, tying the game. Roy did strike out Hernandez to end the inning, but the damage was done. So was Halladay, who was far from his no-hit self. In fact, he gave up 11 hits in 7 innings and a walk — way more baserunners than we're accustomed to seeing from him.

Michael Stutes came in and did a fine job in the 8th, as did Ryan Madson in the 9th, but the Phillies couldn't score themselves, blowing a huge opportunity in the 9th to end the game and go home at a reasonable hour. Mayberry led off with a single. Valdez bunted him to second. Chase Utley came in to pinch-hit for Madson and was promptly intentionally walked. Then Mayberry and Utley advanced on a wild pitch, prompting an intentional walk to Jimmy Rollins to load the bases with one out. All the Phils needed was a ball hit out of the infield and the game would most likely be over. What they got was a pathetic foul out by Dom Brown and a ground out by Polanco to end the inning and send this thing to extras.

As frustrating as it was, at least it was a nice night out, we were downing some beers and enjoying the outdoor viewing. But that enjoyment didn't last long, as Antonio Bastardo came in to start the 10th and immediately gave up a homer to Bruce. He did recover to get the next two batters, but he already surrendered the crushing blow, and after he yielded a double to the ageless Edgar Renteria, that was it for Bastardo. Not his best outing to say the least.

But a funny thing happened from there. Kyle Kendrick entered and struck out the next batter. And taking a cue from Bruce, Ryan Howard greeted the newly entered Francisco Cordero with a leadoff home run, crushing one to deep center to tie the game right back up. We were pumped, and the few folks outside let out some pretty emphatic cheers. After Cordero settled down and got the next three Phils, we knew it was now a battle of attrition. We just didn't realize how much attrition was about to take place.

Kendrick struck out Stubbs to start the 11th, unbelievably facing two batters and striking them both out. I have no idea how this happened, but it did. But after Kendrick hit Brandon Phillips, that was it for him. J.C. Romero entered, walked Joey Votto, and all I could envision was either Scott Rolen playing hero or Jay Bruce killing the Phillies yet again.

Something even stranger happened. Romero picked off Phillips at 2nd. For real. I'm not making this up. Of course, then he walked Rolen and Bruce to load the bases, because J.C. has no fucking clue where his pitches are going.

That was it for him. Unfortunately, all the Phillies had left in the bullpen were David Herndon and Danys Baez, a lose-lose situation. It was simply a matter of who Charlie wanted to get pinned with the loss. He opted for Herndon, and I fully expected him to either walk Ramon Hernandez or give up a hit to him. Shockingly, he did not. He got Hernandez to harmlessly ground out right back to him, keeping the score tied. I was stunned.

And I was even more stunned when he got a 1-2-3 inning in the 12th, then another 1-2-3 inning in the 13th. That's right, David Herndon pitched 2 and 1/3 of perfect baseball. I'm as stunned as you are.

Still, when Danys Baez came in in the 14th, I was all but certain the Philies were going to lose. Mainly because Baez is a terrible pitcher. Only somehow last night he wasn't. No joking. He picked up right where Herndon left off, setting down Rolen, Bruce and Hernandez in order. Of course, the Phillies still couldn't get going.

Somewhere along the way, I believe right after the 14th inning, with Phillies' offense quiet again and the game just going and going and going, we left the bar and I headed home.

When I got there, the game was still going on. In fact, I only missed about a half inning, stunned that Baez survived the 15th without giving up a run. Then I watched and watched, popping on South Park and Workaholics on the top TV as I watched the Phils on the larger bottom TV.

At that point, all I wanted to do was go to bed, but I couldn't. I had to see how this thing would end. Plus, it gave me a good excuse to watch those two aforementioned shows. So I stayed up. And stayed up. And stayed up.

Baez incredibly made it through the 18th, pitching 5 scoreless innings and only yielding two baserunners the entire time, a hit and a walk. He even struck out three guys and struck out himself at the dish. But he couldn't go on any longer, so Manuel pinch-hit for him in the 18th. Still nothing doing. On to the 19th. But, uh, who the hell was going to pitch? Manuel had just used up all his arms in the bullpen, and I didn't see Cole or Cliff or the other Roy out there.

Nope. Because out came Wilson Valdez, a la Tomas Perez back in my high school graduation year of 2002.

To accommodate Valdez on the mound, Polanco moved to second … and Carlos Ruiz went to third. As we all know, it's not the first time Carlos Ruiz has made a cameo at third.

Crazy Curbball even went diving for a foul ball and almost made a spectacular catch. It was unreal. But not as unreal as what was happening on the mound. Wilson Valdez, the infielder, was on the hill in the 19th inning of a tie game to face the heart of the Reds' order. And I mean the heart, the 3-4-5 hitters — reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, Scott Rolen and the scorching hot Jay Bruce.

No way this could go well, right? Wrong. Valdez, out there throwing 86-90 mph, got Votto to fly out to center. Then he freakin tried to throw a breaking ball and hit Scott Rolen. I'm not even sure how he knew how to grip a breaking ball. It was insanity.

Unsurprisingly, that was the last breaking ball Valdez attempted. From then on, it was all 86-89 mph heaters. And it worked. He got Bruce to fly out, and capped it off with another pop out against the opposing pitcher. Wilson Valdez got Joey Votto and Jay Bruce out in a scoreless, hitless inning of pitching. You can't make this kind of stuff up.

As the crowd was going wild and Valdez was pitching his version of a gem, you could just sense something was going to happen. Feeding off that energy, the Phils were determined to reward their newest pitcher for his efforts. Rollins, who had made a habit all night of frustratingly hitting into the Jimmy, led off with a single on a great piece of hitting the other way, shooting it through the hole between third and short. Then Dom Brown, who had failed miserably with bases loaded and one out in the 9th, worked a very patient walk.

Up came Polanco, and my roommate and I debated on whether or not he should bunt right away. Cincinnati pitcher Carlos Fisher had thrown close to 90 pitches over five-plus innings and just walked Brown, struggling to find the strike zone. We agreed that Polanco shouldn't square to bunt until he saw a strike, which I know is crazy because if he bunts it foul, you have to take the bunt off with two strikes. However, Polanco is the team's best hitter, and when it got to 2-0 on him, I thought Manuel should have taken the bunt off. I mean, a 2-0 hitter's count for your best hitter? I say let him swing away.

Of course, bunting is the by-the-book move, and it is the smart, safe thing to do. You never know what could happen if you let Placido swing. He could get a hit and be the hero, or he could ground into a devastating double play, pop out or even strike out, though he rarely does that. So the bunt was on, smartly, and Polanco did the job, getting it down and moving both runners.

Fisher naturally intentionally walked Ryan Howard to set up the force at home and potential double play. But that wouldn't happen. Because Raul Ibanez, who everyone under the sun was killing a month ago and couldn't wait for him to be gone, continued his recent stretch of clutchness, smoking a deep sacrifice fly to center to plate Rollins and mercifully end this epic, epic game.

It was a game of unsung heroes. Ryan Howard with his game-tying home run. Rollins with his two hits and two runs scored. Polanco with his bunt. Ruiz for playing third. Ibanez with his sac fly and game-winning RBI. Franciso with his two-run shot. Everyone in the bullpen, from Stutes and Madson early, to Kendrick and especially Herndon and Baez. I mean, I can't give Herndon and Baez, two pitchers I hate and think suck and don't ever want to really see on the mound again, enough credit. Last night, they were awesome.

And of course, there was the hero of all heroes, Wilson Valdez, who not only pitched, got out the heart of the Cincinnati order and incredibly picked up the freakin win, but also went 3-for-6 at the dish.

(Disclaimer: All images Internet-borrowed from The700Level and The Fightins because they are awesome.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Can Closers Only Close?

I'm not entirely sure what being a pitcher is like psychologically. I pitched a grand total of one season in Little League, so I'm completely unqualified to speak on what goes on in a pitcher's head. And also am pretty sure what I'm about to say isn't entirely accurate.

Having said that, why does it seem that Major League closers can only close out games, struggling in virtually all other situations?

Certainly, that isn't the case all the time. Many closer, hell probably all of them, have been successful coming into games that are not save situations or close-out situations. But it sure as hell feels like closer struggle in non-save situations virtually all the time. That was certainly the case last night for the Phillies, as Ryan Madson came in during a tie game in the 9th and proceeded to surrender three runs as the Phils lost for the first time in forever against the Reds, 6-3.

It truly is a mystery to me. I understand that a closer has to have a certain mind-set to be able to handle the pressure of getting the final three outs to secure a victory. But why does that mentality seem to change when a closer is thrust into a different situation? Suddenly, it seems like they aren't themselves unless a save is in order. It's really baffling to me. It seems like if closers approached every situation like a save, it would do them good. But like I said, I've never been a pitcher, so I don't know what's going through their heads and how messing with their routines affects them.

What I do know is that Ryan Madson is the type of guy who should be able to adapt, him being a set-up man the past few seasons and all. And I'm sure he can, actually. Madson has been brilliant this year, and he was bound to have a bad outing. Chalk it up to one bad game and move on.

Yet I still kind of question bringing in the closer in that situation last night. Not because it's the wrong move — as Chris Wheeler pointed out, lots of managers bring in their closer in the 9th in a tie game at home — but because of what transpired the inning before.

Antonio Bastardo took the mound in the 9th for the Phils and pitched an easy, effortless 1-2-3 inning, getting two weak pop-outs and a strike out against the bottom of Cincinnati's order. All three batters were right-handed.

When the Phils failed to score, I figured Charlie Manuel would be wise to leave Bastardo in the game and save Madson in case this thing went to extras. Or at least let Bastardo start the inning and bring in Madson in case he got in trouble.

I know the Reds brought in the right-handed Edgar Renteria to lead off the 9th, who was to be followed by Drew Stubbs and Brandon Phillips at the top of the order, both right-handed bats. So going to Madson wasn't the wrong move by the numbers at all. But I just liked the way Bastardo was throwing, he just three righties out, and right-handers are batting just .167 off him this season. I would have kept Bastardo in.

Manuel didn't, and his move certainly made sense. Madson was fresh, having not pitched the night before, the game was tied, he's been fantastic, and the Reds had plenty of right-handers up. It was a good move to make. But it wasn't a save situation, and the Phillies' newest closer struggled.

After getting Renteria, Drew Stubbs laid down a bunt. It wasn't that good of a bunt, bunting it a bit too hard toward third. I thought for sure Placido Polanco was going to come in and make the play. And he would have, except that Madson made the mistake of trying to field it himself instead of letting his third baseman, with all his momentum going toward first, field it and make a relatively easy throw. Conversely, Madson was moving away from first, couldn't get his footing and had to make a difficult throw across his body with no momentum. That turned into a bunt single and a throwing error by Madson, putting the winning run in scoring position.

It was a mental lapse by Madson. A hundred times out of a hundred, with the ball bunted that hard, you want the third baseman fielding that ball, not the pitcher. Polanco would have gotten Stubbs, or at least would have had a much better shot at getting him. And at worst, Stubbs is on first, not at second.

Still, Madson composed himself and got Brandon Phillips to line out, and then he intentionally walked reigning NL MVP Joey Votto to get to Scott Rolen, a no-brainer. But Rolen singled to load the bases to bring up the red-hot and dangerous Jay Bruce. Had Madson let Polanco field Stubbs' bunt, the inning would have already been over had Polly made that play, or Madson would not have intentionally walked Votto, because Stubbs would have been on first.

Now Madson had to face the left-handed power-hitting Bruce, a player who came into this series on a tear. And while Bruce was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on the night prior to this at-bat, he's not exactly the guy you want to see in that spot. And Bruce delivered, tattooing a mistake by Madson to the wall to clear the bases.

That was all she wrote.

Another situation where a closer came in in a non-save situation and couldn't get the job done. And all I'm left to wonder is why? Why can closer seemingly only close in the majors? I just don't get it. I really don't.

P.S. Raul was awesome again, going 3-for-4 with a double, two runs and an RBI. Suddenly, he has a higher batting average than Ryan Howard and is creeping up on Carlos Ruiz. Rumors of his demise were vastly overstated. Raul is a streaky hitter. That's the facts. Oh, and Ryan Madson is still awesome. Just a bad outing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bernard the Entertainer

Over the course of his self-made championship career, Philadelphia's own Bernard Hopkins has been called many things. An exciting, entertaining boxer has rarely been one of them.

Don't get me wrong, Bernard has had plenty of entertaining moments, from his "Executioner" get-up to his Golden Boy promotions to his loud-mouthing antics to the pre-fight fights to the devastating body blow to Oscar De La Hoya. But in the ring, Hopkins has never really been known as an entertaining boxer. He's built his impressive championship résumé on intelligent, technical boxing. He's truly a student of the boxing art form, a throwback. Rarely has B-Hop taken unnecessary chances in the ring to land the big blow or huge knockout. He simply schools his opponents technically and when it's all said and done, he's dominated without you even realizing it.

But now at age 46, Hopkins doesn't have the same hand speed, the same power, the same punching precision he did in his younger days. And he knows it. So on Saturday night, with redemption, or should I say justice —  after all, it is widely agreed upon that Hopkins was robbed the first time around — on his mind and a chance to make history, we saw a side of Bernard that he's rarely shown in the ring. Saturday night, Bernard Hopkins had one of the most entertaining fights of his entire career, polishing off Jean Pascal with ease in the mid to late rounds and being crowned the oldest champion ever in the sport of boxing.

Honestly, the fight itself began like any other B-Hop fight. He came out throwing very little punches and moving around the ring, conceding the early rounds to the younger Pascal. But it was all a ploy for the wily veteran. He was simply feeling out Pascal, just as he did in the first bout, letting him expose his weaknesses and tire himself out. And from there, Hopkins simply schooled the young pup, picking him apart the rest of the way.

But it's the way he proceeded in those mid to late rounds that separated things. Bernard wasn't sitting back and just biding his time the way he so often has in the past. He was attacking, pouncing and capitalizing on every mistake Pascal made. And before long, you could see the writing on the wall. Without a knockout, Pascal didn't stand a chance. And you knew B-Hop wasn't going to give the youngster a chance to put him on his ass.

Things turned so heavily in his favor that at one point when Pascal had trouble with his footing for the third or fourth time in the fight, Kenny tweeted: "Damn, does this boy need cleats or something?"

To which I replied: "He needs rapture. B-Hop is schoolin his ass."

And that was that. Bernard was outworking, outthinking and outpunching the younger, quicker, more athletic Pascal, and there was nothing he could do but pray.

But it wasn't just that Bernard Hopkins won the fight and reclaimed the belt. It was the way he did it, with an aggressive, entertaining style we haven't seen in years. It began with his incredibly awesome entrance music, his own version of "I Did It My Way," a staple of his for a while now.

After hearing the embarrassingly bad song Pascal came out to, I thought B-Hop already had this thing won. I mean, as far entrances go, it was no contest. Bernard obliterated Pascal. That turned out to be a classic case of foreshadowing, because as the match went on, Bernard started to obliterate Jean Pascal's confidence, taking back the belt that was rightfully his.

From the entrance music, to the pushups …

… to the technical execution by the Executioner, it was easily the most entertaining Bernard Hopkins fight in years. As I said after the fight, he may say some dumb shit, but Bernard Hopkins is the fucking man.

Chase Utley — who returns tonight! — would like to congratulate you on your historic accomplishment, Bernard:

Friday, May 20, 2011

'Are You Guys Giambi's Zombies?'

True story. Back in 2002, silver fox, Arkansas Fred, The Charles and I (possibly some other people too that I can't recall at the moment) were heading to a Phillies game one summer afternoon. We hopped on the subway and took a couple seats.

A few moments later, this albino-looking old man, very creepy looking, walks up to us and asks, "Are you guys Giami's Zombies?'

That really happened. No lie.

Oh, and last night I went to the game with silver fox and Toonces to watch Jeremy Giambi's older brother Jason Giambi drop bombs on Kyle Kendrick and Danys Baez. Every game the three of us have been to together this season, the Phillies have lost and the weather has been shitty. At least we're consistent.

Free Dom Brown.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The Phillies host the Rangers this weekend. I don't feel like writing any more.

Score some freaking runs.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dirk Doing Work

Sports fan watch hours upon hours of sports because each and every game, there's a chance you'll see something you've never seen before. Last night was one of those nights. And no, I'm not talking about the incredibly wild and entertaining game between the Bruins and Lightning, although that was pretty awesome.

This is about the most efficient scoring performance in NBA history as far as I'm concerned. What Dirk Nowitzki did last night in propelling the Mavericks to a game 1 victory in the Western Conference Finals and overshadowing Kevin Durant's own 40-point performance was nothing short of majestic.

Dirk scored 48 points on just 15 shots. He went a perfect 24-24 from the line, setting the record for the most consecutive free throws made in a playoff game without a miss. And he did it all against damn tough defense. It didn't matter how close, how tight and how well Serge Ibaka and company contested Dirk's shots, because Nowitzki was in a place only a select few can get to. Last night, he was literally unguardable. And it was beautiful to watch.

"The game ends, but the afternoon doesn't end."

An Instructional Video on How to Make Your Own Runs

Dear Phillies hitters,

Please watch.

See also:


Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and those other guys.

P.S. Danys Baez sucks. Maybe if we trade him you guys can get some hits off that guy.

For serious, score some runs.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and You

Since the Flyers were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs in the second round by the Boston Bruins, the reactions out of Philadelphia have been loud and quite negative. There are calls for everyone's head, from the coach to the captain to the team's leading goal scorer. The fallout has been a mix of frustration, embarrassment, valid criticism and downright overreaction. And frankly, this is nothing new with the Flyers and their legion of fans.

Bearing the biggest brunt of the fans' ire have been Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the two players Ed Snider and his Flyers decided to build their franchise around. And while right now seemingly everyone under the sun is demanding Mike Richards be removed from his captaincy and Jeff Carter shipped off to a land far, far away, I'd like to take a moment and remind Flyers fans everywhere — both the rational and irrational ones — just how fickle we all are with the recent Flyers teams and especially Richards and Carter in particular. So let's take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

In 2005, both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter broke into the NHL as two highly touted rookies thrust into the thick of things with a veteran team that was used to winning — well, in the regular season anyway. Surrounded by hard-working veterans like Mike Knuble, Sami Kapanen, Simon Gagne, Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, Kim Johnsson, Michal Handzus and Keith Primeau still around, Carter and Richards, along with fellow rookie R.J. Umberger, were certainly expected to contribute, but the majority of the pressure was on their veteran teammates.

Both Carter and Richards had outstanding rookie seasons, with Carter posting 23 goals and 42 points in 81 games, skating at a plus-10, while Richards had 34 points himself and was a plus-6 in 79 games. Together, they helped lead the Flyers to 101 regular-season points and home-ice advantage in the first round. But the good feelings wouldn't last.

Just one season (and one lockout) after coming within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Flyers were ousted in the first round by the Buffalo Sabres. And the following season was an unmitigated disaster. The team's biggest star, Peter Forsberg, couldn't stay healthy. Keith Primeau could not come back from his concussion trouble from the year before. And many of the other veterans either were off to greener pastures or began to fade. Before long, Ken Hitchcock was run out of town in what was framed as a player mutiny, and in came John Stevens. Slowly but surely, Stevens phased out the old and passed the reigns along to the youngsters, most notably Richards, Carter, Umberger and rookie Scottie Upshall.

What resulted was the worst season in franchise history. The Flyers finished dead last with just 56 points, one season after posting 101 points. It was an alarming fall from grace. But as horrid as that season was, hope was on the horizon. While the youngsters struggled along with the rest of the team, they showed promise and talent and potential, giving the fan base something to be excited about. For once, the Flyers were no longer going to be the aging, lumbering team that defined them in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Something new was right around the corner. And while Richards and Carter took a slight step backward in that year, the Flyers faithful had nothing but good vibes about them.

The next season, they would both validate those feelings. Ed Snider, never hesitant to pull all his resources to improve his hockey franchise, gave the go-ahead for some major changes. In were Danny Briere, Joffrey Lupul, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Jason Smith. Gone were Forsberg and Primeau and a handful of others. And now the team was handed over officially to the young forwards. Sure, defensemen Derian Hatcher, the newly acquired Timonen and Jason Smith provided a much-needed calming influence on the blue line, and Knuble, Gagne and Kapanen provided stability up top, but it was time for Richards and Carter to really make this team their own. And that's exactly what they did.

Richards in particular made an enormous leap, turning into the player that everyone proclaimed was a captain in waiting. He scored more goals and tallied more assists in his third season than he did in his first two seasons combined, finishing with 28 goals and 47 assists and skating to a plus-14 in 73 games. Just as impressively, he really showed his true self by going up against and more times than not shutting down the opposition's top line. He began his trademark of playing in all situations, becoming one of the team's top penalty killers and regular on the power play. And for his efforts, he was named an all-star, leading the Flyers in points and assists and even outshining the high-profile free agent acquisition Danny Briere. Briere, by the way, was no slouch, leading the Flyers with 31 goals and finishing second behind only Richards in assists (41) and points (72), though he was somehow a minus-22. Try and figure that one out.

Richards clearly asserted himself as the team's best player and in many people's eyes the clear captain of the future. But along the way, Richards sustained an injury and was out for a few weeks. All eyes turned to Jeff Carter to see if he could fill the considerable void with Richards out. And Carter, who was having a relatively quiet season to that point, did not disappoint.

When the Flyers really needed him to step up, Carter did just that, elevating his game to new heights. When it was all said and done, he registered 29 goals, tied for second on the team with Knuble, and added 24 assists. And when Richards was sidelined, he carried the team. For their combined efforts, Richards and Carter led an historic turnaround, going from 56 points the season before to 95, making the playoffs. And it got even better. They stunned the Washington Capitals in the first round thanks to some game 7 heroics by Joffrey Lupul.

Then they discarded the Canadiens in five games and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before they were sent home by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And as painful as it was to lose to the team from across the state, the Flyers were clearly headed in the right direction.

Everyone in Philadelphia was excited about the turnaround and thrilled with the play of the youngsters. The core of Richards, Carter, Umberger, Upshall, Hartnell, Lupul, Briere, Knuble and Gagne gave the Flyers a group that could grow together and conceivably only get better. And there was no denying it now, the Flyers were Mike Richards' and Jeff Carter's team.

The following season, the Flyers were among the best in the league nearly all year long, and it was Carter and Richards who led the way, finishing first and second for the team lead in points and plus-minus. Taking a cue from the newly minted captain, Carter had a breakout season, leading the Flyers with 84 points and 46 goals, which was second only behind Alexander Ovechkin in the entire league, and he made his first all-star team. He also led the Flyers as a plus-23. And while Richards was snubbed from the all-star game, he had his best statistical season of his career in his first season as captain, leading the Flyers with 50 assists to go along with 30 goals, a plus-22 rating and a league-leading 7 shorthanded goals. All the while, he continued to assert himself as one of the premier two-way players in the NHL.

But, as the season was winding down, the Flyers began to choke away their hold among the top spots in the conference. And on the final day of the season, on Easter Sunday no less, they choked away home-ice advantage for the first round.

We all know what happened next. The Flyers were quickly disposed of in the first round by the same Pittsburgh Penguins who had ended their season in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, on their way this time to hoisting the Stanley Cup. And that's when fan's perceptions of Richards and Carter first began to change.

Despite outstanding regular seasons, Richards and Carter were ineffective against Pittsburgh, both finishing as minus players. With the team's slump down the stretch that cost them home ice and carried over into the playoffs, Richards' captaincy was truly questioned for the first time. Was he too young? Was he a strong enough personality? Could he really fill the shoes of the veterans who wore the C before him? But at least his heart wasn't questioned, at least not yet. Night and night out, Richards threw his body around and played in all situations, never once complaining.

The same could not be said for Carter. Repeatedly against the Penguins, Carter missed wide open nets and couldn't find a way to light the lamp after a season of piling up the goals. His hesitance to hit didn't endear him to fans, and the failures in the playoffs only made things worse. After two very impressive seasons and a run to the conference finals, doubt finally started to creep in to the minds of the fans. But as much as they were frustrated and the questions started seeping in, no one was ready to give up on Carter and Richards yet. That would just be foolish. Here were two young all-stars with a world of talent. Sure, the team underachieved, but at the same time, the season before they overachieved. The next year would be the real test.

Besides, it was the high-priced Danny Briere that drew the majority of the fans' ire, having played just 29 games as the "injury-plagued" label started to rear its ugly head. And the rest of the blame was laid at the feet of John Stevens (especially by me). Still, the seeds of doubt about Richards and Carter were planted.

Then last season happened. We all remember it well. Chris Pronger was brought in to join forces with Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn on the blue line and give some guidance to Richards in the locker room. Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk were the new youngsters in town expected to contribute, Ray Emery was the new goaltender taking over for the unfairly judged (in my mind) Martin Biron, and the Flyers were expected to compete for the Cup. But then they got off to an awful start, and off came John Stevens' head. In came Peter Laviolette to save the day, but for the longest while, it looked like the Flyers were dead in the water.

All the while, Richards was being branded as a moody, horrible captain, incapable of leadership. This despite having 31 goals and 31 assists and continuing to be a force defensively. Carter was called soft and heartless, this despite leading the team with 33 goals and finishing second behind Richards for the team lead in points. Every fan under the sun wanted Briere traded for not living up to his contract, even though he was always money the playoffs. And as Scott Hartnell's goals decreased and bad penalties increased, Flyers fans couldn't wait for him to be shipped off (myself included).

Then a funny thing happened. The Flyers snuck into the playoffs with a shootout victory on the final day of the regular season and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, coming up just two games short of finally breaking the drought.

Briere and Hartnell had an incredible playoff along with Ville Leino. Suddenly no one wanted either of those two gone after that. They wanted the team's best line in the playoffs back and together for a full season. Carter basically had two broken feet and only played in 12 playoff games, but he still managed 5 goals. Though he was ineffective and looked out of shape against the Blackhawks, it could be forgiven after the injury in the first round against the Devils. There was never a peep out of anyone about Richards' leadership in the immediate aftermath of the playoff run, and Richards did finish second behind only Briere in playoff points for the Flyers.

And Peter Laviolette was hailed as the second coming. His remarkable use of timeouts, fiery demeanor and demanding style instantly rendered him a fan favorite. Hell, many fans were even happy to bring back Michael Leighton after he saved the Flyers' season numerous times despite his status as a career journeyman and his underwhelming performance in the Final. The good times were killing us, and with the beefing up of the blue line and expected improvement from Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk, the expectations for this season were through the roof.

For most of the year, the Flyers met those expectations, skyrocketing to the top of the standings and staying there damn near all season. That is until the final third of the year. Just like they had in John Stevens' final full season, the Flyers slid down the stretch, lost the top seed in the conference and could never regain their bearings. Why? Because Jeff Carter is a pussy and choke artist in the playoffs, so the story goes. Because Mike Richards is a shitty captain and moody guy and hates everyone from his coach to his giant defensman teammate, so they say. Because Laviolette lost the team and failed to address the power play, word is. Now everywhere you turn you hear cries to trade Carter (guilty here, but only for a top-notch goalie), strip Richards of his C and/or trade him too, hold Laviolette more responsible, etc.

Nevermind that the goaltending was a joke. Nevermind that the team's best defenseman, truly a difference-maker on the ice, missed practically the entire playoffs. Nevermind that Richards played the entire season with a fucked up wrist. Nevermind that Carter and Richards were tied for third in points on the team with 66, trailing only Giroux and Briere on the league's deepest scoring team, and that Carter led the team in goals while Richie was second in assists. Nevermind all of that. The Flyers lost to a deeper, more physical, more healthy Bruins team that had much better goaltending and revenge on its mind because Richards and Carter played with no heart and don't care about winning and won't take responsibility, they say. That's just the facts, according to a loud contingency.

To which I simply say, bullshit. It's not Richards and Carter who have changed, it's the fans' perception. One year, they're the future of the franchise. Then they're superstars and all-stars and untradeable. The next season they're choke artists who have no heart and no leadership. Then they're a team with nothing but heart that never quits. Finally, they are a bunch of quitters who just don't care.

Give me a break. Maybe Richards isn't the captain you expect him to be, and maybe he did have an immensely disappointing postseason. But to say he doesn't care, he takes no responsibility? Please. The guy never complains about ice time or injuries or his teammates, despite rumors of the contrary. He busts his ass out there every time he takes the ice and is still one of the best two-way forwards in the league. And he played nearly the entire season with an injured wrist, one that required surgery after the season.

Am I disappointed with how he played, especially after Kris Versteeg came over? Absolutely. But I'm not disappointed with his effort. Mike Richards spent the entire first half of the season with a revolving door of wingers and never complained. In fact, he was having one of his best starts ever, making every player that skated with him better. But now after a late-season swoon and disappointing exit, everyone conveniently forgets that. It's easier to label him a whiner, a moody jerk, a heartless captain that doesn't know how to lead. Because, you know, a guy who's been to two Eastern Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup Final in six seasons in the NHL clearly has no leadership capabilities.

And sure, I get frustrated with Carter not playing physical, not coming through the way he does in the regular season during the playoffs. But Jeff Carter is a natural goal-scorer, something that doesn't just grow on trees. He's a much better defensive player than people give him credit for, and like Richards, he plays in all situations, power play and penalty kill included. And he's improving in the faceoff circle, and accepts moving to wing to accommodate the logjam at center. Oh yeah, he also played in a Stanley Cup Final with pretty much two broken feet. So don't give me this no heart nonsense. I'm tired of it. I really am.

Mike Richards and Jeff Carter aren't perfect hockey players. Few players are. And this season has left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth. But do you know how many teams would kill to have one or both of those guys in their locker rooms, on their teams? Dozens, because they're really good players, winning players. No, they haven't won a Stanley Cup. Neither did Ron Hextall or Rick Tocchet during their time in Philadelphia or any number of the fan favorites. Hell, it took Rod Brind'Amour, a player every Flyers fan in the world adores, 17 seasons before he got his mitts on the Cup. It's not an easy thing to do, yet Flyers fans often sound like all it takes is for Richards and Carter to care a little more and try a little harder and the Cup is theirs.

Honestly, I don't even know why I just wrote thousands of words on the topic, because I'm not going to change the minds of those that are calling for the heads of two of this team's best players. But I guess I felt compelled to try and stop the insanity, as futile as it is.

The Flyers certainly underachieved this postseason, and players didn't perform up to snuff when it was all said and done. That happens in sports. It's rare that players just wake up one morning and instantly turn into champions. Most of the time, they have to go through the growing pains, the ups and downs, the painful losses and unexpected victories, the overachieving runs and underachieving disappointments before they finally climb the mountain. Some players never get there. Some players get there sooner than others. Sometimes as fans, I think we need to remember that.

Sports is a reactionary indulgence, and an overreactionary endeavor. It's the nature of the beast. And that's clearly evident when it comes to the relationship between Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and the Flyers fans and media.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kenny Stole My Thunder: Allen Iverson's 52 Points

Since today is the 10-year anniversary of Allen Iverson scoring over 50 points for the second time in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, this after Charles Oakley declared Iverson would not score 50 again on them after he put up 54 in game 2, I was gonna do a little reminiscing about that. But my man Kenny over at Ed the Sports Fan beat me to the punch.

So instead of rehashing that exact moment, I'll just post some videos of that epic series, and next month, around the 10th anniversary of game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, I will write a retrospective on what it was like to be a Sixers fan during that remarkable season in which Allen Iverson was named MVP, Dikembe Mutombo Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron McKie Sixth Man of the Year and Larry Brown Coach of the Year as the Sixers made it all the way to the NBA Finals.

Hopefully I'll beat Kenny to the punch on that one. In the meantime, definitely check out his post. It brought back chills.

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's Friday the 13th, Time to Dance

Friday the 13th and Jason Voorhees go hand in hand. So naturally I had to highlight a song with a Jason reference.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I See You Pete Orr (and J-Roll and Shane and Dane)

Just one short day ago, I blew my top on Pete Orr, declaring, "I can't wait for him to be back in the minors whenever this roster gets healthy." And wouldn't you know it, hours later he would be the offensive star of the night in a game in which he didn't even start.

While I'm still stewing over the fact that he swung at the first pitch and grounded out to the end the inning after Josh Johnson had just walked the bases loaded, Orr did his best to totally redeem himself. I have to admit, I didn't see it coming at all.

After Cliff Lee spotted Florida a 1-0 lead in the first by throwing an absolute meatball right down the middle to Hanley Ramirez and then watching the Phillies make Ricky Nolasco's job incredibly easy for 6 innings by swinging at every damn thing — especially YOU, Jimmy Rollins — I thought the game was pretty much over when Lee did that thing he's been uncharacteristically doing quite often this season, giving up four straight singles and two runs in the 6th to make it 3-0 Marlins.

Despite the fact this team has shown time and time again over these past four-plus seasons that they're never really out of it until that 27th out, the Phillies gave absolutely no indication they were capable of rallying last night. Their at-bats were appalling, literally flailing away at damn near everything … or watching called third strikes go by (am I right, Ryan Howard?). It was quite a frustrating first 6 innings of baseball. The frustration level hit a pinnacle when Cliff Lee smoked a hot shot toward second for a single that looked like it was going to plate Brian Schneider, who doubled two batters earlier, only to have Schneider pull up lame rounding third, grabbing his hamstring and having to leave the game. Not only did pinch-runner Dane Sardinha not cross home thanks to Rollins grounding to end the inning, but the Phillies saw yet another player go down to injury. Great. It was as if the Phillies were destined to continue to not score any runs for Cliff Lee.

But then suddenly the bats were awaken by Raul, who led off the 7th with a double. Then after Ben Francisco lined out, Dane Sardinha reached on an error by Gaby Sanchez, his first error of the entire season. I hate to do it, but I gotta give Tom McCarthy credit for the jinx on that one, saying earlier that Sanchez had made every play in the series and not had an error all year. Well done (for once), T-Mac.

That set the stage for Orr to make me eat my words. With runners at the corners and one out, Charlie decided it would be wise to pull back double-play machine Wilson Valdez in favor of Orr, which certainly makes sense. And Orr delivered, smoking a double to plate Raul. Ross Gload followed with the single best at-bat of the game for the Phils after Nolasco was relieved by Ryan Webb, spoiling good pitch after good pitch before pulling a grounder to first to plate Sardinha. Of course, J-Roll again grounded out on a piss-poor at-bat, but the two guys I absolutely killed yesterday — Sardinha and Orr — were responsible for the two runs the Phils scored to pull within one.

And they weren't done yet.

After J.C. Romero pitched a 1-2-3 7th, Shane Victorino played his own hero role, tying the game with a solo blast just over the high wall in left-center, finally getting me excited. But then Charlie Manuel did something unusual. In a tie game in the 8th inning against the team directly behind the Phillies in the standings, Charlie called on Kyle Kendrick. That's when my Twitter timeline really started to blow up. Every Phillies fan under the sun questioned why Charlie was bringing in Kendrick in that spot, virtually all of them anticipating Kendrick to give the Marlins the lead right back.

That's exactly what looked like was about to happen as Kendrick started things off by walking the speedy Emilio Bonifacio and then after getting Hanley to fly out, surrendering a single to Gaby Sanchez. But all Kyle Kendrick did from there was give everyone on Twitter a giant middle finger, getting John Buck to ground into the inning-ending double play with the game still tied.

Cue my two whipping boys from the night before. After the increasingly useless Ben Francisco popped out to lead off the 9th (though he did make a sick catch last night), Dane Sardinha improbably singled. The Orr, who didn't even start the game, followed with a double, putting runners on second and third with one out. Sadly, John Mayberry struck out pinch-hitting for Kendrick, meaning it was all on J-Roll's shoulders.

Now, we as Phillies fans know this is the time Jimmy shines. He likes nothing more than to be the hero, to come through in the big moments. I mean, just ask Jonathan Broxton. But, you know, Jimmy was enemy No. 1 on Twitter last night, getting killed for continuously swinging at the first pitch and getting out. He was 0-for-4 on the night prior to this at-bat, and he didn't have a single good plate appearance. So naturally, Jimmy cranked his Swag-O-Meter on high and delivered, plating both Sardinha and Orr with a single to right.

That was all she wrote as Ryan Madson had a 1-2-3 ninth, striking out Mike Stanton and some meaningless pinch hitter in the process. Great job by the bullpen, by the way, with Kyle Kendrick pitching a scoreless 8th to pick up the win and Romero and Madson both having perfect innings in the 7th and 9th respectively.

While Jimmy Rollins was the man who went from goat to hero on this night, it was Pete Orr and Dane Sardinha who went from whipping boys to standouts for me. The two men I couldn't wait to be sent back down to the minors were involved in four of the five runs the Phils needed, with Sardinha scoring twice, including the game-winning run, and Orr going 2-for-2 with two doubles, a run scored and an RBI.

I may not ever forget those terrible at-bats that cost the Phils game 2 of this series, but I also won't forget how instrumental both Orr and Sardinha were in helping the Phillies win the series.

Oh, and seriously Cliff, I know you're all sorts of awesome and all, but stop throwing pitches right down the middle of the plate. That would really help all of us out. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I Hate Stupid Baseball

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever the Phillies should have lost 2-1 to the Marlins last night. Absolutely none. Yes, Josh Johnson was his usual awesome self, but the Phillies didn't lose solely because Johnson worked around trouble and pitched his usual great game. No, the Phillies really lost last night and saw their lead over Florida shrink to 2 games — instead of extending it to a 4-game lead — because they played completely stupid baseball.

There is nothing in sports I hate more than stupidity, especially in baseball — the thinking man's game. Yet that's exactly what the Phillies treated us all to last night. The amount of stupid baseball was at a staggering high.

In a game featuring two of the best pitchers on the planet, it was vital for both teams to "maximize their opportunities" against Josh Johnson for the Phillies and against Roy Halladay for the Marlins, as Chris Wheeler not so subtly reminded us about 8 million times last night. (Seriously Wheels, we heard you the first 2 million times. No need to repeat yourself. Again.) The Phillies seemed to do the complete opposite of that.

It began in the 2nd inning, when it looked like the Phillies were going to give Halladay more than enough runs to get a win. Looked like. Ryan Howard did that thing where he remembers he's big and strong and awesome, leading off the inning with a solo home run to the opposite field. That seemed to ignite the Phils, who went down weakly in order on just 10 pitches in the first, and get to Johnson a bit. Raul followed up with a double, and then after Johnson got ahead of Ben Francisco with two strikes, he hit him with a pitch. Johnson looked a bit rattled, and that showed as Pete Orr worked an incredibly patient 7-pitch walk, not even swinging at a pitch until the count was full, fouling the sixth pitch of the at-bat off before walking to load the bases.

So there were the Phils with the bases loaded and nobody out, already with one across in the inning and looking to add more. Of course, it wasn't going to be easy. The next two batters were the 8 and 9 hitters, the little-used Dane Sardinha and pitcher Roy Halladay. Even with the bases loaded and no outs, Johnson had to feel pretty confident he could get two strikeouts against two weak batters. He is, after all, a strikeout pitcher. And he did exactly that, striking out Sardinha and Halladay, then getting Jimmy Rollins to ground to end the inning with no damage done beyond Howard's solo shot.

Now, I can't be entirely angry at Sardinha and especially Halladay for striking out in a spot that you really need anything but a strikeout. Frankly, Halladay's was for the best, because had he made contact, there was a pretty good chance he would have grounded into an inning-ending double play without even giving Rollins his two-out chance with the sacks full. It is frustrating that Sardinha couldn't get his bat on the ball and even more annoying that he went down while trying to check his swing on a ball that clearly wasn't a strike. It was a pretty piss-poor at-bat. But still, you don't exactly expect Dane Sardinha to be a hero with a stick. The guy did make a nice throw on a tough pitch to handle to throw out Emilio Bonifacio in the first on a great snag and tag by Pete Orr at second. So I'm not going to kill Sardinha for that at-bat completely.

But I will question why he was even in the lineup at all. I understand that with Carlos Ruiz out, Brian Schneider has played more than anyone expected him to thus far in the season. So it's understandable to look to give the guy some games off. But I don't understand at all why Manuel would sit him last night. Runs were at a premium last night. Against Josh Johnson, you want your best offensive lineup out there, and it's hard to argue that Sardinha is a better hitter than Brian Schneider. Then you add the fact that Schneider is a left-handed hitter and Sardinha is right-handed and it gets even more baffling going against the right-handed Josh Johnson. And then you look at the Schneider's career numbers against Johnson and it's even more crazy. Schneider is 4-for-15 against Johnson in his career, a .267 average. Nothing special, no, but that's a better lifetime average against Florida's ace than Ibanez and Polanco, and the fact that he's faced him 15 times gives me a whole lot more confidence that he could be successful against Johnson than a guy who has never faced him and has barely played in the majors.

I don't know, maybe it's just me. But I'd much rather have the veteran, left-handed hitting Schneider who has faced Johnson several times in his career in the game over a soft-hitting right-handed guy who has spent most of the season splitting time in the minors behind the plate. I just really don't understand why Charlie chose last night to rest Schneider. Seemed like ill timing. Some might call it a stupid baseball move. Like me.

That's not saying Schneider would have come through there. For all we know, he could have done the exact same thing as Sardinha and gone down on strikes. But I sure would have liked to find out.

Anyway, that awful job by the bottom of the lineup certainly wasn't smart baseball, but it was hardly as bad as the stupidity that followed.

Again, as Wheeler said time after time after time last night, the Phillies needed to do everything they could to maximize their opportunities against Johnson. A nice way to do that is to take the extra base and steal some bags with your speed guys. Yet the Phillies refused to do it. In the third, Shane Victorino led off with a single. It was the perfect time to steal. Have Shane swipe second, let Polanco do what he's so good at doing by hitting the ball to the right side to move him over and have yourself a runner on third with one or no outs, or maybe even have Polanco drive him in with a hit. But Shane never went, Polly flew out, Howard struck out and then Raul came up. Again, both Tom McCarthy and Wheels were saying now would be a great time for Shane to steal. I agreed. Shane and Sam Perlozzo did not. Raul singled, but since Shane was on first, he didn't score. He did go first-to-third, but had he been stealing or had already stolen second, he would have scored easily and put the Phils up 2-0. Instead, it was first and third with two outs.

OK, the Phillies weren't aggressive and it may have cost them a run, but at least they still had a shot to get a run across. And those odds increased when Johnson walked Ben Francisco on six pitches to load the bases. Up came Pete Orr, who came into the game batting .400 against Johnson in his career and who had an absolutely fantastic, patient at-bat just the inning before, working a walk to load the bases. I was actually kind of relieved that Orr was up in that situation given his first time up. A walk meant a much-needed insurance run.

So what does Pete Orr do with the bases loaded and two outs? The complete fucking opposite of what he did his first at-bat. Orr stupidly swung at the very first fucking pitch Josh Johnson threw to him, harmlessly grounding out to end the inning. I was absolutely beside myself. That at-bat is absolutely indefensible and just plain stupid baseball. There is absolutely nothing I hate more in all of sports, seriously, than a guy swinging at the first pitch after the pitcher just walked the bases loaded. Nothing. I fucking despise it. Unless you hit a grand slam, in my eyes, it's just fucking horribly stupid baseball. And Orr didn't even hit it hard. He hit a weak grounder to end it. And I wanted him dead. Seriously dead. I can't wait for him to be back in the minors whenever this roster gets healthy.

Let me paint this picture for you to get across how incredibly dumb Pete Orr is. In the second inning with runners on first and second and nobody out, and with the 8 and 9 hole hitters behind him, Orr didn't even swing until the count was 3-2. That's fine, he worked a very good at-bat and walked to load the bases. But, he also put the inning in the hands of two awful hitters against an elite pitcher. An aggressive guy would have realized that, looked for a pitch to hit and tried to capitalize on an RBI opportunity, knowing the guys behind him aren't likely to get the job done. Still, I'm OK with it because Johnson was wild at the time and there were no outs. He could have just as easily walked Sardinha or even Halladay to force in a run.

But with the bases loaded and two outs, Orr goes after the first pitch right after Johnson walked the guy in front of him to load the bases in a spot where a walk is an RBI. Basically, Pete Orr should have had the complete opposite approach in his first two at-bats. Had he swung at the first pitch of his first at-bat, a four-seam fastball for a strike, he may have gotten a hit and been able to drive in the run that never came home. Maybe not, but no one would have faulted him for an out there or for being aggressive and trying to make something happen early in the game. Had he worked Johnson his second at-bat the way he did the first time up and walked again, Victorino scores and the Phils go up 2-0. Maybe he doesn't walk, but you had to take at least one strike there given the circumstances. It was just stupid, stupid baseball by Orr. Embarrassingly so. And if you try and defend Orr for that second at-bat, you can go get fucked. Seriously. I don't want to hear it.

The stupidity was so rampant for the Phils that it started to spread to damn near everyone. Not even the great Roy Halladay was immune. Because right after Orr had the single worst at-bat of the season for the Phils, Halladay made a bone-headed play of his own. He did get Omar Infante to ground out to start the inning. But then he did something he's never, ever done in his career, literally. He walked the opposing pitcher, giving Josh Johnson a free pass on six pitches. It was the first time in his entire career that he's walked the opposing pitcher. Yeah, he's played all of his career except last season and the games played so far this year in the American League, but still. That's damn impressive to have never walked the opposing pitcher in this era of inter-league play. They say there's a first time for everything, and that first time couldn't have come at a more inopportune moment.

Roy Halladay, who barely walks anyone ever, walked the opposing pitcher. That cannot happen. Ever. You don't walk the pitcher. Even a big guy like Josh Johnson who is not an altogether awful hitter. Throw it down the middle three straight times if you have to. But don't walk him. Ever. Halladay did, and of course Johnson would eventually score to tie the game.

In between Johnson's walk and him crossing home plate, Chris Coghlan got a double thanks to another stupid play by the Phils. Following the walk, Coghlan hit a liner to right center. Victorino was shaded the other way, and Francisco had a long run himself. Coghlan saw this and never stopped at first. Francisco took too long to get to the ball, then neither Orr or Rollins were covering second as Coghlan was wisely trying to leg out a double, and Francisco then threw it to no-man's land between Orr and Rollins. So the Phils just gave Coghlan second base thanks to lazy, stupid baseball. Awesome.

Bonifacio brought Johnson home with a sac fly, but then Roy did another thing he never does, walking his second batter of the inning by giving a free pass to Hanley Ramirez. He did get Gaby Sanchez to end the inning, but Halladay and the Phils literally gave Florida a run by walking the pitcher, and they almost surrendered more by being lackadaisical in the field. Seriously, my head wanted to explode.

The game did settle down after that, with Johnson and Halladay steadying themselves as both started to deal. But the Phillies weren't done doing stupid things just yet.

In the 7th, after being silenced for a few innings, Jimmy Rollins led off with a single. Again, it would have been a great time to either steal or have Victorino bunt him over to get the go-ahead run in scoring position. Instead, Victorino this time played the role of moron after it looked like he was going to be smart. Shane took three straight balls to go up 3-0. He then took a called strike, 3-1. In this situation, he either has to take again to let Rollins steal or try and pull the ball to let Rollins go first-to-third. Or of course take a bad pitch and walk. So what does Shane do? He flies out to left field, pretty much the only thing you can't do besides ground into a double play with a 3-1 count. Terrible. And terribly stupid. Again.

With Polanco up, it was again the perfect time to send Rollins. Get him into scoring position to give Polanco and/or Howard the chance to drive him in. Add to that that Polanco rarely strikes out and is more than willing to hit with two strikes, and it was a no-brainer. Let Polly take a pitch or two, send Rollins and get him into scoring position. But Jimmy never went. And Polanco nearly grounded into a double play, but did manage to beat it out as Rollins was out at second.

I really miss Davey Lopes. So do the Phillies. Because we all know Lopes would have picked up on Johnson's move in that game and sent Rollins there or Victorino earlier, giving the Phils a better chance of winning the game. Sadly, Lopes is back in Los Angeles these days, and Sam Perlozzo is no Davey Lopes.

Then to top the inning off, Ryan Howard did his best NLCS impression of himself, striking out looking to end the inning on a fastball that was literally right down the middle of the plate. Way to go, Ryan. Seriously, get the fucking bat off your shoulder. Ryan Howard is awesome and many times clutch and an RBI machine and has improved his defense a million-fold, but I have to be perfectly honest with you, I liked Ryan Howard better when he was fat and bad at defense and hitting 50 home runs and winning Rookie of the Year and MVP and winning games left and right for the Phils better. That guy used to at least go down swinging. (Seriously, I love Howard. Consider this a reverse-jinx.)

Of course, the ending of all stupid endings occurred in the 8th. Leading off the inning, Omar Infante reached on a double error by Jimmy Rollins, three-time Gold Glove winner who rarely makes errors. Technically, it was only one error, a throwing error. But Rollins first bobbled the ball, which made him rush his throw, which drew Howard off the bag. And the way last night was going, you just knew that error was going to turn into an unearned run, and it did thanks to more bad baseball. Halladay, who never throws wild pitches, threw a wild pitch to allow Infante to get to second, a wild pitch that actually should have been caught. Yes, Halladay missed his spot badly and Sardinha had to go a long way to get it, but it hit off a ton of his glove. He should have stopped it. He didn't. It was a tough play. I get it. But it's the type of play you have to make as a catcher. There is no reason Dane Sardinha should be on an MLB roster. None. I miss Carlos Ruiz as much as Roy does.

After Osvaldo Martinez grounded out to second to move Infante to third with just one out, Chris Coghlan, the offensive star of the game, brought him home with a single. It turned out to be the game-winning run. And while no more runs would score the rest of the game, the Phillies made one more stupid play before the night was through, and it came from Placido Polanco of all people.

Polanco casually fielded a Hanley Ramirez grounder, took his time and sort of double-clutched instead of just throwing the ball, and Hanley beat it out for an infield hit. It was just another instance of stupid, lazy baseball. And it was plays like that, stupid baseball plays, that cost the Phils last night.

You know things are going bad when Roy Halladay and Placido Polanco of all people make stupid plays. Not even Roy's impressive line — 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9 K — could overcome the stupid baseball the Phillies played last night.

And there's nothing I hate more than stupid baseball.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Patron Saint Speaks (to Me)

You know, after the Flyers' loss on Friday night to end their season and complete the sweep, I planned on doing what just about everyone who writes about the Flyers planned on doing/did: Write about the needs of this team, specifically the options in net. But every Philadelphia writer under the sun has already done that, so I'll just say this: Ideally, I'd like to see the Flyers sign Ilya Bryzgalov, having him be the starter for the next 3-5 years while at the same time mentoring fellow Russian Sergei Bobrovsky.

If you have to trade someone like Jeff Carter or even Matt Carle or not sign Ville Leino, so be it. Obviously, I'd like all those guys to come back, but a proven, reliable goalie is much more necessary to this team than any one of those players individually. I'll leave it at that.

And as far as the Phillies are concerned, the weekend sucked. They couldn't even win a game in which Cliff Lee struck out 16 guys. So instead, let me refer to you my Twitter account, specifically this exchange:

Yeah, so, Doug Glanville and I are pretty much best friends now.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Nice Phillies Hat

Ah, the things you find under 95 in Fishtown.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Doug Glanville Is Gangsta

I can't not straight up pilfer and repost this. I mean, it has a Phillies-Braves fight, Doug Glanville, Ron Gant, a bunch of other terribly memorable Phillies and arrogantly good Braves. I just have to.

I apologize in advance, Meech. But the allure of the patron saint was too much for me to resist.

Enjoy the weekend.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Yesterday was Cinco de Mayo. Today I may be more tired than I've ever been in my entire life. Buenos tardes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hide the Razor Blades

via, who else, The Fightins

Gary Matthews may have been referring to Raul Ibanez's psyche during his very well-publicized hitless streak, but he may as well have been talking about the Flyers and their fans last night.

Listen, we all know about last season's miraculous, unexpected, epic, historic comeback against these very same Boston Bruins. But let's not kid ourselves. This isn't last year, and it's not going to happen again. It just isn't.

There is no Chris Pronger to come and save the day. No goaltender playing way beyond his capabilities the way both Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton did last season. No moral victories or saviors this time around. The Boston Bruins are simply manhandling the Flyers in this series, and given that the wound is still very fresh from last season's collapse, I suspect Boston comes out tomorrow night and finishes off the sweep. The last thing the Bruins want to do is give the Flyers any sign of life the way they did last season.

To be frank, the Bruins deserve to be winning this series, 100 percent. Perhaps they should not have won game 2, but they went out and tossed the Flyers around in games 1 and 3, and frankly have been the better team for far more periods than not. Last night, I didn't even have time to get angry. Before you could blink, Boston was up 2-0 at no fault of the goaltender. The Flyers simply got outworked and outplayed once again. Blown defensive assignments have become all too common, with Kris Versteeg abandoning his area on the game's first goal and both Andrej Meszaros and Nikolay Zherdev allowing David Krejci to get behind them on the second goal. Barely a minute in, and the game was over for all intents and purposes.

In the end, the Bruins won because they deserved to win. They were the more physical, stronger and smarter team. The Flyers looked more deflated after game 2's difficult-to-swallow overtime loss than even the Flyers fans were. It was one of those games where the Flyers looked like they slit their wrists at the opening faceoff and then slowly bled to death.

It's going to take a minor miracle just to slow down the bleeding, and as much as I hate to admit it, I don't think that bleeding will stop. All the bad qualities the Flyers let seep into their game toward the end of the regular season have resurfaced, from poor goaltending to blown defensive assignments to a lack of a forecheck and goal-scoring to losing the face-off battle. A return to the Stanley Cup Final just isn't in the cards this time round.

As awful as that fourth goal Brian Boucher gave up, and as shaky as the goaltending as a whole has been this postseason, I can't fault Boosh last night. Boston was going to win last night no matter what. They were better in every facet of the game. Don't let that 38-28 shots on goal total fool you. The Bruins literally only got outplayed on only a handful of shifts all night.

Having said that, I feel that last night's game should be the last time we ever see Brian Boucher in net for the Flyers. Don't get me wrong, Boucher has been more valuable than anyone could have ever expected. He was incredible as a rookie way back when, and last season he played the role of savior more times than not. But his time has come.

Boucher will always be a guy Flyers fan have the utmost respect for. And they should. He played fantastic hockey against Buffalo excluding one bad period in game 5. And while he has been less-than-stellar in these past three games against Boston, the man has been hung out to dry by his teammates. But this franchise has gone as far as it can go with Brian Boucher in net. It's time to let Sergei Bobrovsky get another full playoff game under his belt and go from there.

Bobrovsky has room to grow and one day may develop into a reliable goaltender in this league. He has a lot of work to do, but he's young and athletic and has his full career ahead of him. Brian Boucher is what he is: an excellent backup netminder who can step up for stretches of time when called upon, nothing more. It's time to throw Bob fully into the fire for however many more games Philadelphia has left this postseason, then re-evaluate the position in the offseason.

Undoubtedly, Bobrovsky has potential, and the Flyers probably won't want to part with him. But they cannot go into next season without a proven player in net. Not with this team built to win now. Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere aren't getting any younger. While the Flyers still have more than enough youth on their team — in fact, only six key contributors (Pronger, Timonen, Briere, Boucher, O'Donnell and Betts), oh, and Jody Shelley, are in their 30s — this team can't and shouldn't wait around any longer. Especially with the emergence of James van Riemsdyk and plenty of offensive talent giving the Flyers options. Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell are two players who come immediately to mind as trade chips if a proven, reliable, preferably top-tier goaltender becomes available.

But that's neither here nor there right now. The Flyers aren't done quite yet, even though it sure feels that way. They have at least one more game tomorrow, and that game should be in the hands of the 22-year-old rookie goaltender. Sometimes you have to just hand the keys over to the young guy and ride him out, even if it's too little too late.

Speaking of handing the keys over to a youngster, 23-year-old Vance Worley had himself another outstanding outing for the Phils last night, picking up his second win in as many starts by tossing 6 innings of four-hit, one-run ball and striking out 7.

He also went 1-for-2 at the dish and scored a run, and he handed the ball to the bullpen with a six-run lead. Good work by J.C. Romero in his return and Mike Stutes pitched another scoreless inning, but of course Danys Baez and his stupid silent "S" had to make things interesting, giving up a three-run bomb to Danny Espinosa, before finishing things off for the 7-4 win.

Perhaps even bigger news than Worley's second straight impressive performance and Romero's successful return though was Raul Ibanez finally putting together a big night, going 3-for-4 with two runs and an absolute bomb of a home run. It was enough for him to suppress those suicidal thoughts that Sarge assumed must have been going through his head during that insane slump. So, yeah, it's safe to break the razors out again. At least for the Phillies.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Where I Make Amends With Cole Hamels

If you search "Cole Hamels" on this absurd piece of Internet real estate I created in the summer of 2008 — a mere four months before the Phillies became World Fucking Champions by the way (Coincidence? I think not!) — you'll find a ton of posts mentioning the man. Hell, there's 64 of them tagged with his name alone.

In those archives, you'll find me both praising and bashing Cole Hamels throughout. Truthfully, I've been slow to blindly hand out praise for Hamels, scarred from years and years of can't-miss Phillies pitching prospects that, wouldn't you know it, missed, but quick to give him credit when he pitched well. Seriously, I've run the gamut on the guy, from asking why his teammates hate him and never score runs the way they do for Jamie Moyer despite Cole being about 8 million times better than the old man to declaring he's no ace just yet before what turned out to be an historic playoff run.

I've crowned him king, and told him he won me over (how could he not?) after pitching the Phillies to the title and winning both NLCS and World Series MVP honors. I officially declared him an ace and vowed to never say another bad word about him.

Then 2009 happened, and it was back to the drawing board. As Cole struggled through the worst season of his life and did a complete 180 in the playoffs, I broke my vow, going so far as to say Cole Hamels blows and even ridiculously harshly titling a post Cole Hamels Fucking Sucks after blowing up against the Yankees in the World Series.

It's been quite the love-hate relationship between Cole and me, and by that I mean I've loved him and hated him while he has consistently gone through his life without knowing I even exist. Last season, there was far more good out of Hamels than bad, and the harsh criticisms of him subsided around these parts. But I'm not sure I ever properly acknowledged his maturation and the admiration I've gained by watching him these past few years. You can blame that on Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay stealing away a very large portion of my attention.

Now I think is the perfect time to make my amends with Hamels, fresh off one of his most impressive outings of his entire career. In case you were stuck in a cave, you know Hamels did something he rarely does last night, pitching a complete game in a 4-1 victory over the Nationals — a complete game in which he surrendered just five hits and one run on a solo homer to Mike Morse while striking 6, including Jayson Werth in the 9th. Oh, and he got the offense going with a two-out triple in the third and scoring the game's first run when Jimmy Rollins singled him home. Hamels later added a single to finish 2-for-4 on the night in addition to his tremendous pitching performance. It was quite a night for him.

Anyway, back to making amends. The more I watch Cole Hamels, these past two season especially, learning from the likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, I see the guy we've really been waiting for. The reason I and countless others in Philadelphia have been so hard on Hamels is because we've seen the potential this guy has to be great. He showed it as a rookie and kept getting better. But he never really nailed down this ace thing until that incredible 2008 playoff run. And as wonderful and magical as that was, something neither Cole or any Phillies fan alive would trade for the world, it expedited everyone's expectations.

Coming off that performance, everyone expected Hamels to take Major League Baseball by storm and become a perennial all-star, if not Cy Young candidate. What we forgot was he was still in his professional baseball infancy, forgot that he was coming off his shortest offseason ever, forgot that with success and expectations comes even more pressure. And Hamels didn't meet our expectations or his own in 2009, angering all parties involved. His immaturity really showed, and it looked like he lost all the confidence he had so much of the year before.

But instead of bitching and moaning and pouting about it, no matter what we thought, Hamels used it as fuel to focus even further on his craft. Working alongside Lee and Halladay and Oswalt no doubt has helped, and last year Hamels really started to tap that potential on a whole new level. So far this season, he's taken yet another step. After last night's outstanding outing, Hamels is now 4-1 on the season. He has a 2.66 ERA, good for 10th in he National League. His 40 strikeouts place him 7th in the league, and his 1.01 WHIP has him at 6th in NL. All those numbers are better than teammates Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. So far this season, Hamels has been the second best pitcher on the National League's best team, trailing on Roy Halladay statistically. He may have pitched like shit in the game I was at, but he's really been coming into his own early on this season. Truthfully, it really started last year.

Hamels tasted the ultimate success in 2008 and hit rock bottom in 2009. Now, at 27 years old and in his 6th Major League season, Cole Hamels is the pitcher we were told he'd become. On his ascent, I was pretty harsh on him, as were so many of us here in Philadelphia. Consider this me making amends for that.

And oh by the way, Jayson Werth showed a ton of class last night in his first at-bat, tipping his cap to the real fans that gave him a standing ovation and a chorus of cheers — (very classy by Cole as well, not even toeing the rubber until Werth got his props from the crowd).

For those of you in attendance who booed, I'll refer you to my friend Chase Utley.

Normally, I'm 100 percent in favor of booing if you want to boo — if a player is playing badly, not showing maximum effort, if a guy says something bad about the team or the players or the fans, if the opposition is particularly hated or does something that is an affront to the city, if the team is lacking energy or effort, etc. But to boo Jayson Werth in his return to Philadelphia after all that guy did for this franchise, well, you're the reason Philadelphia fans get a bad rap. And you're an idiot. And an asshole.

Sure, Werth left Philadelphia for an enormous contract in Washington — an astronomical raise for a guy who had never had a huge contract in his career. Who in their right mind would turn down that kind of money? (And don't say Cliff Lee. Sure, Cliff took fewer dollars to come back to Philadelphia, but he's still making $100 million over 5 years, whereas Werth was making far, far less during his time in Philadelphia than he is now in Washington.) It was his one chance at a big payday, given that he was almost out of baseball before signing with the Phillies and is now in his 30s. So he left instead returning for a hometown discount, and wasn't all that pleased when he found out his expensive friend Cliff Lee was making his return to the Phillies. Fine. I get that.

But Jayson Werth never said anything bad about his teammates or the fans that adored him for four seasons as a Phillie. In fact, he embraced them. Fully. And he played his ass off for us. He turned himself from an injury-proned platoon player into an all-star. He stole two bases off Billy Wagner to ignite this streak of playoff appearances. He was an integral part of the World Fucking Champions. He busted his ass every day, truly bringing damn near everything to the table: speed, defense, a rocket arm, power, protection. Jayson Werth did a whole hell of a lot for the Phillies, and without him, this franchise isn't in the position it's in right now as one of the elite in baseball.

Those of you who don't realize that and can't appreciate that enough to just not fucking boo for one at-bat, well, you are retarded. And I mean that in the most negative way possible. Boo him his second time up, boo him when he takes the field, boo him for the rest of his career if it makes you happy. I wouldn't harbor any ill will toward you for that. But to boo him at that moment was classless. And stupid. And you're the reason Philadelphia fans have the reputation they do. You're also probably the ones who complain about that reputation the loudest. Congrats for that.

Sometimes you get the recognition you deserve. Sunday night was Philadelphia at its finest. Last night, those who booed Werth during his first at-bat only gave the haters more fuel for the fire.

P.S. Jimmy loves him some leadoff. Rollins looked a whole hell of a lot more like his old MVP-ish self last night at the top of the order, going 2-for-4 with a run, an RBI, a triple and a steal. Probably best to leave him there even though he's the most frustrating leadoff hitter in the history of ever, because when Jimmy hits, the Phillies win. Simple as that.

P.P.S. Zoo With Roy's Sag-O-Meter worked perfectly, as Raul broke out of his 0-for-80 billion slump with a rocket ground rule double to center. Way to go, Raul. ZWR is a genius!