Friday, October 05, 2012

10/05 (What a Weekend) Quickie

Most jam-packed sports weekend of the year? Pretty close to it...

Novelty in sports is interesting. Institutional novelty -- like today's first-ever MLB "Wild Card" single-elimination game -- is fascinating. For two teams today, their hard-earned trip to the playoffs is over, more briefly than any team in the history of the league.

I'm not sure we will see any unintended consequences, but watching two managers work with their bullpens and bench players in a win-or-go-home game (even with a tough five-game LDS series starting in 48 hours) is going to be fun to watch.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in Atlanta, where the Braves will start the unbeatable Kris Medlen against the defending World Series champs. Medlen will only be available in the LDS as of Game 3 -- then again, without him winning today, Atlanta doesn't get a Game 3 in the LDS.

The American League Wild Card is no less awesome: It's unclear how anyone outside of Texas could not be rooting for the plucky (possibly lucky) Baltimore Orioles. I grew up going to Orioles games, and I know I'm pulling like crazy for them to pull it off -- their fans deserve it.

We roll from the Wild Cards today right into the LDS series, which by a questionable league decision will feature the team with the better regular-season record having to start with two games on the road. Playing 3 of 5 at home isn't quite as helpful if you are down 0-2 when you get there.

Let's get to the picks:
AL Wild Card: Rangers over Orioles.
NL Wild Card: Braves over Cardinals.
ALDS: Yankees over Rangers in 4; A's over Tigers in 4.
NLDS: Nationals over Braves in 5; Giants over Reds in 5.
ALCS: Yankees over A's in 6.
NLCS: Nationals over Giants in 7.
World Series: Nationals over Yankees in 6.

Huge weekend in college football: Plenty of "separation" storylines.
*West Virginia at Texas: Geno Smith's true Heisman moment.
*LSU at Florida: Put up or shut up for the Tigers; how far has Florida come?
*Georgia at South Carolina: De facto SEC East title game?

And some intriguing others:
*Nebraska at Ohio State: More data Urban's team is B1G's best.
*Miami at Notre Dame (at Soldier Field): What an amazing rivalry.
*Northwestern at Penn State: Arguably THE test for unbeaten Wildcats in '12.

USC survives trip to Utah: Still, Trojans are such an afterthought right now.

NFL Week 5: This week's SI cover notwithstanding, it's nice to no longer have the refs be the central storyline of the season. My five favorite storylines for Sunday:

*Peyton vs. Brady: Won't be any closer than Tebow vs. Brady was.
*Winless Saints: Sean Payton watching, San Diego ready to make it 0-5.
*Sneaky-interesting game: Eagles at Steelers. Dare to say "must-win" for Pittsburgh?
*RG3 Mania: Couldn't be a bigger win for DC than beating best-of-NFC Falcons.
*Tebow Time: If the Texans are drilling NY on MNF, it could/should be.

TNF: Rams stifle the Cardinals, and it's a signature win for Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, on national TV against a team that might have been a soft unbeaten, but unbeaten nonetheless.

Kentucky's Calipari wins again: This time landing the top-rated PG and top-rated SG of the 2013 HS class (who just happen to be twin brothers), yoinking them away from Maryland, whose coach has been recruiting them for the past 7 years and whose lead sponsor (Under Armour) has outfitted their AAU team for years.

Let's be clear: John Calipari has executed the most brilliant competitive strategy in all of sports. It is part-Moneyball, part-Yankees, part-celebrity, part-pragmatism -- it is totally unique to college hoops, but more power to him for crafting and executing it. (Want Kentucky to stop winning, college hoops rivals? Convince the NCAA to lobby the NBA to drop its age limit.)

NBA: Royce White. I'm all for the thoughtful way he and the team are dealing with his mental illness and anxiety disorder. I have no problem with him taking a bus to nearby games. But what happens when he HAS to take a plane? Will it be debilitating for him? The team clearly knew all this before they drafted him and kudos to them for working on working around it with him, but I'm skeptical the plan will work out for the long-term.

MLB: Bobby Valentine is out in Boston. Could have called this before he was even hired.

Enjoy what should be an incredible sports weekend: MLB Wild Card games tonight, incredible college football games tomorrow, standard-issue NFL on Sunday and MLB LDS series all weekend long. More updates here over the weekend.

-- D.S.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

10/04 (Wild Card) Quickie

Exhale for a minute (or a day).

There will be no frantic playoff-before-a-playoff. There will only be lead-up to MLB's first one-game "Wild Card" round, featuring the surging Braves and defending-champ Cards in the NL and the stumbling defending AL champs from Texas against the entirely unpredictable Orioles.

What makes the NL game so compelling is that there is a good argument to be made that the team that comes out of the NL Wild Card should be considered the favorite to win the pennant -- both teams are that hot right now.

What makes the AL game so compelling is that the defending league champs -- and prohibitive favorites to repeat from roughly March through August -- have all the pressure in the world, while the Orioles are playing with house money (as they have been since, oh, May).

We can disagree about the fairness of the format. We can argue whether the Rangers (or Cardinals) deserve a spot in the playoff field. But, as with the original introduction of the original Wild Card slot, it makes for compelling games that are as must-see as baseball gets.

For better or worse, it is like fast-forwarding to Game 7.


The A's win the AL West: The most improbable division champ in recent MLB history? If you look at the preseason expectations, the roster, the payroll, the state of the team back in June (or, say, 10 days ago) or any number of other factors: Absolutely.

There is a reason that (outside of Texas) we are having a kind of national love-fest over these A's: They ARE what is awesome about baseball, as Peter Gammons said last night and Tom Verducci echoed this morning. And, as much as anything, they give hope to fans of every other team that might be sitting at home right now, wondering how they fell short this year.

Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown: I'm all for this history-making and the novelty -- again, no fan under the age of 50 has any recollection of this happening before. Is "RBI" an out-dated vanity stat to care about? Absolutely. Does that diminish the milestone? Absolutely not. Despite the fact that Cabrera is (arguably) not as valuable as, say, Mike Trout (or even Justin Verlander on his own team), it's an incredibly fun accomplishment to have happen this season.

NBA Flopping Policy: If the NBA thinks fines will change player habits -- or the advantage that comes from getting opposing players in foul trouble or getting easy points at the free-throw line -- they are mistaken. This feels like a superficial move to speak to some half-hearted "outrage" by some folks in the NBA media about flopping. Fans don't seem to care. Players use it as a standard technique. It hardly degrades the integrity of the game. (Here's a strategy: Train your refs to not fall for it and/or give each coach one "flop challenge" to let refs go to the replay to judge a flop, with a technical foul assessed if they judge a move to be a bonafide flop.)

College Hoops: An interesting day today -- the "Harrison Twins" (5-star siblings) are going to pick a school to attend together, deciding between Kentucky and Maryland, but really it is about Nike vs. Under Armour.

Typically, Kentucky has been racking up the talent through a very efficient system of "Play for us for one year, compete for (or win) a title, then go to the NBA with our blessing and training," but there is one clear counter to that: "Why be just another anonymous cog for Kentucky when you can be a star with us?" And Under Armour has the cachet to pull that off -- it happened last year in football recruiting, when star WR Stefon Diggs picked Maryland (despite Maryland being terrible, with a soul-sucking coach) over Florida (which is, along with Alabama, as close to a football analogue to Kentucky as you'll find). I'm predicting the twins pick Maryland, and it's a new battle line drawn between Nike and UA.

NFL: Doesn't seem like much of a suspension if the NFL is willing to let Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt attend games. Wonder if the NFL would be making the same decision if the Saints were 4-0 versus 0-4.

Sports x Politics: My favorite quip came from the WSJ's Jason Gay: "Nobody's going to remember a darn thing from tonight, other than Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown. That will live forever."

-- D.S.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

10/03 (Game 162, Take 2) Quickie

There is a debate all good Americans should be wrapped up in tonight:

Sanchez or Tebow?

On the final day of baseball’s regular season, are we better off now than we were a year ago?

If you’ll recall, last year’s “Game 162” took its place next to “Game 6” as one of the most memorable single days in recent baseball history -- almost certainly the most exciting day of regular-season baseball in the game’s long history.

“Game 162, v.2012” has a slightly different vibe. Last year was about the dramatic conclusions of epic collapses by the Braves and, to great schadenfreude over (not to mention the seeming institutional collapse of), the Red Sox.

This year is about affirmation: Playoff places are secure; the new uncertainty is whether teams are headed to the LDS round or the entirely unpredictable one-game Wild Card.

The upstart A’s and quasi-dynastic Rangers are playing today for a division title or -- more specifically -- avoiding playing in the Wild Card. It isn’t quite the same as “Lose today and you’re out,” but adds a new and more intriguing level of pressure.

The magical Orioles are scoreboard-watching: If the Yankees beat the Red Sox, Baltimore will travel to the loser of the A’s-Rangers game for the Wild Card. If the Yankees lose and the Orioles win, the AL East -- and, again, who goes to the Wild Card -- will be decided in a one-game playoff on Thursday in Baltimore.

It is a new dynamic: Competing to avoid having to play a toss-up “one-and-done” game that, at best, drains your best pitching and emotional energy heading into a best-of-five Divisional series and, at worst, ends your season as abruptly as we have ever seen in the sport.

In the absence of the Wild Card game, the Yankees are phoning it in today, knowing they are set for the ALDS. (Instead, we have the unlikely outcome of Raul Ibanez as New York’s latest October hero.)

The Wild Card may remain a contentious debate, but across the spectrum of baseball politics, we can agree that anything that makes the Yankees sweat is good for the nation.

Today’s Games to Watch:
3:35 ET: Rangers at A’s
7:05 ET: Red Sox at Yankees (ESPN)
7:10 ET: Orioles at Rays (ESPN2)

Today's Best of Sports on Earth: Mike Tanier on the NFL at the quarter-turn, including his league-wide power rankings (topped by the Texans) and awards (Ryan, Watt... Kolb?!)

Adam Greenberg Watch: Greenberg’s K in his high-profile appearance last night was fitting -- he was only guaranteed a second chance at a Major League at-bat, nothing more. Once in the batter’s box, he was baffled by R.A. Dickey (no shame there). Greenberg might have side-stepped baseball’s meritocratic process to get back up to The Show, but there is no avoiding it against Cy-level pitching. Hopefully, the experience gives Greenberg a new and welcome sense of closure.

Miguel Cabrera vs. the Triple Crown: AL MVP debate aside, it is thrilling to be on the cusp of seeing something we haven’t since 1967 -- no fan under the age of 50 has any recollection of watching a player put together a Triple Crown season. That the pre-eminent value of RBIs as a vanity statistic has been largely debunked is beside the point, although it would be fun if someone would create a New Triple Crown, featuring HR, OPS and WAR.

Orioles magic, cont’d: As if you needed any more evidence that Baltimore is putting together one of Those Seasons, last night’s win might be the most unlikely yet -- Tampa’s James Shields put together one of the most dominant pitching performances of the season (arguably in Rays franchise history), and yet a single Chris Davis monster shot gave Baltimore the W. It is unquantifiable, but we are about to find out if “sheer self-belief” is enough to win a championship.

Penn State Scandal: As long as Mike McQueary is filing a defamation suit against Penn State, is he planning to donate the entire salary he collected while a Paterno assistant for the decade following the shower incident? He didn’t seem to mind sporting the Penn State colors while he put his nascent coaching career ahead of the welfare of Jerry Sandusky’s victims.

NFL: If we’re being honest, a healthy Santonio Holmes wasn’t exactly going to solve the Jets’ larger problems on offense. It doesn’t help, but a depleted roster of receivers sets the stage for a running-heavy “Jetbone” offense under Tebow. (Don’t laugh: It worked for the Broncos last year.)

Lolo Jones’ misstep: Jones had no idea Eric LeGrand was a quadriplegic when she trash-talked him after he playfully tweeted her that he wanted to race. LeGrand didn’t take it personally, and it’s hard to believe so many people are giving her grief. Should Jones know of LeGrand and his story? Probably, if only because it is one of the most inspiring sports stories of the past decade. But can you hold it against her if she didn’t?

CFB: Looking ahead to Ohio State-TCU in 2018 and 2019. On the one hand, Ohio State will regret signing a series with TCU, because I think TCU is going to sweep the Buckeyes. On the other hand, in a “four-team playoff” world, where a selection committee picks the field, teams in the small cadre of contenders on the bubble will get extra credit for tough scheduling, even if they don’t win the game. In other words, an 11-2 Ohio State team that wins the Big Ten but loses to TCU will get more favorable treatment from the Selection Committee than an ACC champ that went 12-1 with no tough non-conference games to point to. (By the way: 2018 and 2019? Urban Meyer will be long gone.)

In case you missed last night’s “30 For 30” premiere, “Broke,” about pro athletes burning through their money, the lesson is simple, whether you are an athlete or not: Be sensible about your money, and if you can’t, put in some protections to save you from yourself.

Stadia: More teams should follow the Mariners’ strategy and move outfield fences in.

Last thing: Happy anniversary to Mrs. Quickie. Our wedding eight years ago today set us down a path for the three beautiful kids we have today -- not to mention cemented my status as a die-hard Florida Gators fan.

-- D.S.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

10/02 (Romo! Nats! Kobe!) Quickie

"It's just going to suck for a few days now, obviously." -- Tony Romo

Aside from Romo’s lament -- and he’s not wrong -- let’s flip the traditional “power rankings” on its head and think about the “Sucks to Be You” rankings at the NFL quarter-turn. No unbeaten (and loving it!) Houston Texans or feel-good Arizona Cardinals here. Just Romo-like disappointment:

1. Saints (0-4). The NFL story of the year.
2. Chiefs (1-3). Weren’t they supposed to win the worst division in football?
3. Panthers (1-3). It’s not Cam’s fault. But it’s his face on the front.
4. Steelers (1-2). Feel that whoosh? It’s the window of contention closing.
5 (tie). Jets & Giants (both 2-2). But only one team feels in control of its future.

MLB Playoff Races:
A’s into playoffs: Along with Baltimore and D.C., the best team story of the year.
Nats clinch N.L. East: Over/under on Nats division titles over next 5 years: 4.
Tigers win AL Central: Not a reason to vote Miguel Cabrera AL MVP.

With two games to go, the big storyline: Can Oakland catch Texas in the AL West, either forcing a debilitating one-game playoff to see who goes into the one-game playoff or pushing the defending AL champs into the unpredictable Wild Card round against (presumably) unpredictable Baltimore? And can Baltimore do the same thing to the Yankees in the AL East? (And can you imagine a Yankees-Rangers one-game Wild Card playoff?)

Today’s Must-Read from Sports on Earth: Posnanski on the Nats. (Money quote: “I would say even with the amazing Orioles run and even with the extraordinary drive of the Oakland A’s, the Nationals are the story of the 2012 regular season.”)

NFL: More fun with Jay Cutler. After the Bears QB ignored Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Tice in front of a national-TV audience, USA TODAY Sports’ Chris Chase had this reaction: “Tice looked like a guy getting shot down in a bar. He swoops in and his target shuts it down immediately. The coach's pink-brimmed hat and hipster glasses only added to the hilarity.”

NBA Media Day: “On its face, it’s the best talent I’ve been around.” NBA Media Day is typically a mix of awkward “picture day” in elementary school and banalities about improvement that every team can get away with. But Kobe’s quote is notable for two reasons: (1) He has been on some pretty good teams, and (2) he’s right. Kobe’s most admirable quality is his demand that every season be judged “Championship or Failure.” Yesterday’s stake in the ground lets his new (ringless) teammates know what the expectations are.

Linsanity continues: The answer to the question “Why did the Knicks let Jeremy Lin go?” is pretty simple: Money. Knicks GM Glen Grunwald: “Basically, it comes down to the fact that Houston made a commitment to him that we weren't prepared to make.” In the absence of winning a championship the Knicks have no shot of winning, dumping Lin remains the franchise’s signature move of the post-Isiah era.

Meanwhile: How can you not love the Nuggets canary-yellow alternate jerseys? From the Wizards’ reboot a year ago to Northwestern’s new Under Armour-designed football uniform, the horizontal stripe is totally in.

Sports x Politics, Part 1: “Well, I think so you always have to put country first.” (Jets owner Woody Johnson, asked on Bloomberg TV whether it is more important for his team to win or his preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, to win.)

Sports x Politics, Part 2: “America needs a comeback team – Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are that team.” (John Elway, endorsing Mitt Romney last night in Denver. Colorado is one of the few states considered a “toss-up” -- let’s keep an eye on the Broncos’ win percentage in October against the state of Romney in the state tracking polls.)

Heisman Watch: As of now, it’s West Virginia QB Geno Smith in a runaway, in part because Matt Barkley choked early and in part because of Saturday’s signature stat-line. In USA TODAY Sports’ new Heisman straw poll, all but one of the 30+ voters gave Smith the nod. He is the rightful heir to RGIII and the poster guy for the evolution of the Air Raid offense into college football’s mainstream.

Quote of the Day: “I don't think LeBron James would be too happy with this drug-dealer dude using his name on these street bags.” (Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood, via Philly Daily News.) 

Tonight's Best: Adam Greenberg, getting one more Major League at-bat (after his ill-fated first -- and only -- MLB at-bat in 2005, where he was beaned in the head), in the greatest thing the Marlins have done this season.

Best wishes to Chuck Pagano.

-- D.S.

Monday, October 01, 2012

10/1 (NFL Monday) Quickie

Shallow Monday-morning analysis, just like you want it...

*NFL Quarter-Season MVP: Matt Ryan.
*But the best storyline? That the Saints are 0-4.
*Also a lot of fun: That the Cardinals are 4-0.
*Are the Texans the best team in the NFL? Right now? Yes. In 16 weeks? No.
*Surprise of Week 4: The "Refs Return" thing turned out to not be a big deal.
*What's wrong with Cam Newton? Nothing. Seriously, relax, haters.
*Are the Vikings for real? No. I'll still take the under on 8 wins.
*Plenty of games left for... the Eagles to fall apart (and Giants to surge).
*RGIII Mythology, cont'd: His headset was out on the final drive to set up the GW FG.
*RGIII is the NFL's best rookie, but...: That Rams K Zuerlein is damn close.
*If the 2013 NFL Draft was today: I'd take Geno Smith over Matt Barkley.
*I'm in the tank for TT, but what is the downside of the Jets benching Sanchez for Tebow?

MLB: Last year's "Game 162" was just about as thrilling as a single-night of sports gets, but I'm really looking forward to the fun scoreboard-watching over the next three days.

CFB: I'm still ga-ga for Geno Smith's performance. I couldn't care less about "But is WVU really a great team?" because the universal premise is moot: No team is beating Alabama anyway.

Ryder Cup choke: Who's with me in the "Eh, who really cares?" category?

Thoughts with family and friends of Ravens coach Chuck Pagano, who is battling leukemia and is expected to recover enough to get back on the sidelines later this season. We can only hope.

-- D.S.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

This Week's BlogPoll Top 25 Ballot

West Virginia put on enough of a show to zoom into the coveted Top 4, and a smidgen of "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" vaults Oregon over last week's No. 2 Kansas State. FSU drops to No. 5. In the end, let's root for entertaining games, because the season is one long lead-up to Alabama throttling Oregon or FSU or West Virginia or whoever.