Friday, October 12, 2012

10/12 (Werth!) Quickie

The most remarkable thing about Jayson Werth's remarkable walk-off at-bat -- and, to be sure, it was about the at-bat (all 13 cliff-hanging pitches) just as much as it was the home run itself -- was that it not only pushed the Nats-Cards series to a previously improbable-seeming Game 5, but it totally neutered the national discussion -- lashing, frankly -- about the Strasburg Shut-Down.

The Strasburg replacement, Ross Detwiler, pitched the game of his life -- hardly dominant, but so thoroughly "good enough" that the guy just redefined his otherwise middling career. The Nats' relief corps was so good that the combined effort of the three pitchers could only be described as "Verlandian."

But it was that marvelous, magical at-bat by Werth -- The At-Bat, as it should be known forever in D.C. sports legend, regardless of what happens tonight -- that gave D.C. its first real (read: classic October) baseball moment in a half-century or more.

Just ask Orioles fans: At some point (namely, when you face elimination in Game 4), all you want to do is get yourself to an ultimate win-or-season-over Game 5, in which anything can happen. (Just ask the Braves.) The Strasburg debate is behind us; Nats ace Gio Gonzalez gets a chance to make up for his oddly ineffective Game 1 start -- a month ago, I sat 10 rows from the field as he dominated the Cards in D.C.

It is Game 5 in D.C., between the NL's best story in 2012 and the reigning World Series champs.

It is Game 5 in N.Y.C., between the AL's best story in 2012 and the biggest bullies in the sport.

It is hard to ask for much more, and if you were looking for a symbol of how gripping this 2012 MLB postseason has been so far, last night's 13-pitch sequence between Lynn and Werth captures it. It is too much to ask that today's LDS finales match last night's drama -- but it gives us a template for how good it has the potential to be.

We have a terrific lineup in college football tomorrow -- as far as unexpected results go, I'll take LSU at home over South Carolina (tomorrow's must-see game), Stanford over Notre Dame, BYU giving Oregon State its first loss of the season and TCU doubling down on last week's loss with another loss at Baylor.

And it will be a typically compelling Sunday in the NFL -- as far as I'm concerned, the No. 1 story is the state of Robert Griffin III and the national (and nation's capital) cringing every time a defensive player approaches him.

But for today, baseball rules. Enjoy the games tonight and the weekend's action.

-- D.S.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

10/10 (Ibanez! Ibanez Again!) Quickie

Turns out I was a day ahead of what is going to turn out to be a stampede to run over Nats GM Mike Rizzo when the Nationals' season ends today with Strasburg replacement Ross Detwiler.

(Whew: It's a good thing Rizzo guaranteed that we would win at least a couple of World Series championships in exchange for accepting him tanking our best shot to win a title right now.)

But let's get to the name of the day: Raul Ibanez.

Now, let's be clear: I hate the Yankees. And I am entirely partial to the Orioles franchise I grew up following from 45 minutes away.

But it is impossible to not marvel at the circumstances on Wednesday night: A-Rod sucks just enough to get benched, then his replacement not only hits the game-tying HR in the bottom of the 9th, but comes back around in the bottom of the 12th to win the game with a walk-off HR.

It is as dramatic of a single effort as any Yankee has produced since Reggie Jackson's 3-HR game in 1977.

Translation: No one born anytime after Ibanez -- that would be 40 years ago -- has any recollection of anything that insane.

Not those walk-off Yankee home runs in 2001 (which didn't even result in a championship, so who cares?) Not Aaron Boone in the '03 ALCS. Not O'Neill or Tino or Bernie or Jeter or Rivera.

Nope: Raul Ibanez. 40-year-old Raul Ibanez, plucked from obscurity for a little more than a million bucks, replacing a guy still owed more than a hundred million bucks.

As someone turning 40 in just a few short months, I appreciate the unlikely uber-contribution of a 40-year-old more than I can muster my typical loathing for Yankees success (or even my disappointment that it probably cost the Orioles any shot at winning this series).

Raul Ibanez, with an instant classic moment of baseball history that fans will remember and talk about for years. Let's overlook that he is a Yankee and celebrate that sometimes the most marvelously insane things happen in a baseball game.

-- D.S.

UPDATE: It is impossible (unless you are a Tigers fan) not to root for these amazing A's. Watch last night's 9th-inning rally.

10/10 (Nats Mania) Quickie

Phew! In what feels like a must-win game for the Nationals in Game 3 this afternoon, it sure is reassuring to know that the team will be sending out its ace, Stephen Strasburg.


Oh, sorry: Instead of Strasburg, they will be sending out this season's No. 4 pitcher -- Edwin Jackson -- to face his old Cards mates, who are entirely familiar with Jackson's postseason pitching. It might have made them cringe last October, but this year, it is cause for celebration.

This is it: The moment that the Great Strasburg Shutdown goes from being a theoretical debate to having entirely practical -- perhaps brutal -- consequences.

There is no guarantee that Strasburg -- had he been saved over the regular season for this very moment -- would pitch a Game 3 gem.

There is no guarantee that Jackson won't pitch well (after all: most Nats observers didn't think Jordan Zimmermann would get hammered in Game 2), but no guarantee he won't get shellacked.

The point of agreement in the Strasburg debate is that Strasburg would give the Nats a better chance of winning his game in a 5-game series (or his two games in a 7-game series) than Jackson/Detwiler.

This afternoon, in the first MLB playoff game that DC has hosted since 1933, it feels less like a moment to flex home-field advantage with cheers than a moment where fans will be whistling past the graveyard, hoping the team's stop-gap Strasburg-free solution can hold up against a nasty Cards lineup.

Nats fans will be hoping for the best, but this is the moment to recognize the trade-off that was made by GM Mike Rizzo back in April when he had no faith his team would be playing in October, a trade-off he doubled down on after the team's hot start by not creating a scenario where his team's ace would be available for precisely a game such as this.

Thanks to (or perhaps irregardless of) Rizzo's foresight, Steven Strasburg may yet win 200 games in his career, en route to the Hall of Fame. None of those games could possibly be as important to the franchise as this damn-near-must-win Game 3 today.

It should be Strasburg out there today, leading the Nats to a pivotal win that carries them into the NLCS, one step closer to a World Series championship. It won't be.

As a Nats fan, I hope this isn't the moment where Rizzo's original sin of the springtime -- a fundamental lack of faith in his team's chances to contend this year -- punishes the rest of us.

-- D.S.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

10/09 (LDS-ish) Quickie

As a Nats fan, I'm new to this: At what point do we get to freak out that the absence of Strasburg will result in the Nationals being bounced from the playoffs during the NLDS round?

I'm not saying that starting Strasburg over Zimmermann on the road in St. Louis for Game 2 would have ended in a different result -- although it's hard to imagine how Stras would have pitched worse.

But if you stipulate that even if Stras was healthy that Zimmermann would have gotten the call in Game 2, then Game 3 in D.C. becomes the moment where Strasburg's absence is officially acute.

The Nats' starting pitching -- the strength of the team throughout the season -- has, thus far, abandoned them. Gio flailed and Jordan failed.

Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson is a mystery -- his performance in last year's postseason (as Cards fans themselves will giddily tell you) hardly inspires confidence.

And Ross Detwiler -- instead of being available for long relief on the off-chance (or, as it turns out, the reality) that Gonzalez or Zimmermann truly struggled -- is suddenly the Game 4 firewall.

It's not fair to panic -- it's too early. Then again, if/when the Nationals lose at home in Game 3 tomorrow, it may be too late to panic. The series might effectively be over.

So why not start the panic now?


*Regardless of how the Orioles finish their LDS series vs. the Yankees, they will always have Game 2, where they gutted out a W and split the opening two games at home. It was the kind of gritty win that has defined their entire season. There will be no shame if Baltimore loses to the Yankees -- the AL's top seed. And maybe -- just maybe -- last night's win puts just enough doubt in New York's mind that Baltimore can steal Game 3 in the Bronx and turn Game 4 into the most must-see game of the MLB season so far.

*Texans go to 5-0 at expense of Jets: Is it better or worse that the Jets basically gave that game away? Houston was clearly the superior team, but New York had plenty of chances to grind out a win. His receivers didn't help him much, but Mark Sanchez is clearly unnerved by the QB rotation with Tebow, who -- as always -- seems energized every time he comes onto the field, regardless of whether or not he gets yanked right back out.

Consider that it wasn't until Week 7 a year ago that Tebow was installed as the Broncos starter and the team proceeded to turn their season around. Denver was 1-4 heading into a Week 6 bye -- New York's 2-3 record seems more despondent than Denver's, which is all the more reason they should shelve Sanchez (who clearly isn't a top-tier QB the team can rely on, ludicrous offseason contract extension notwithstanding) and go with Tebow full-time, perhaps with Sanchez rotating in occasionally to mix up the defense. A year ago, it worked for Tebow's last team -- the Jets shouldn't be so conventional that they ignore the potential. At this point, they have nothing to lose.

*Brian Cushing injury: As with the Falcons, I had no faith that the Texans were going to win the Super Bowl anyway, so Cushing's injury merely provides a quality excuse when Houston falls short. (Apparently, I feel so sure about there not being an Atlanta-Houston Super Bowl that I should probably find some small way to bet myself about it, perhaps with a small donation to a charity in the city of the team that makes it to the SB -- two donations if both make it.)

*I will say this: Arian Foster is so fun to watch. I love that he was undrafted and yet has emerged as the NFL's best RB, and I love that he just pummels opposing defenses. As NFL fans, we could do a lot worse than having Foster carry Houston to a Super Bowl.

*RGIII Mania: Anyone else have a problem with the Redskins rushing RGIII back for this Sunday's game against the Vikings following his concussion on Sunday? What happened to "The NFL takes brain injuries seriously." If the team will disregard common sense, isn't it incumbent on the league to step in and say "No go. He has to sit out this weekend."

Aside from a sense of decency -- that no opposing team in the NFL has ever felt particularly obligated to offer, mind you -- why wouldn't the Vikings go straight for RGIII's noggin to try to knock him out of the game? Is a fine -- even a suspension -- worth what would almost assuredly be a guaranteed win, in a season where Minnesota is suddenly in playoff contention?

I make myself sick even suggesting that, but I think that speaks more to the absolute insanity of playing Griffin next week than it does anything else. Even if the Vikings don't target Griffin's head, what if -- as with last week -- he gets an inadvertent shoulder to the helmet? Different intentions, same result -- and possibly far longer-term implications. I just don't see why the Redskins are messing around here with their franchise future.

*The most interesting thing I read yesterday: Grantland's Bryan Curtis on Josh Hamilton -- Hamilton isn't much of a story this week, but as closure on his Texas career, it's a fascinating read.

-- D.S.

Monday, October 08, 2012

10/08 (Chuckstrong) Quickie

Two words: Chuck. Strong.

The worst news out of the NFL this season -- Colts coach Chuck Pagano's leukemia diagnosis -- was book-ended by the most emotionally heart-warming storyline we'll get this season:

The ageless Reggie Wayne -- a Pagano protege dating back to college -- coming up with a career-best performance to lead the Colts to a thrilling comeback win over the Packers.

Wayne's touchdown lunge in the game's final seconds, capping an incredible drive managed by Andrew Luck, was so incredible, it was almost as if you could feel his inspiration through the TV.

Obviously, you wish there was no need for the inspiration -- that Pagano would be healthy and the Colts would be continuing their rebuild with their focus entirely on the field.

But that's not real life -- and when real life impacted the franchise in a meaningful way, they delivered a meaningful response, both off the field and on it.

NFL, briefly:
*Congrats to Brees on the TD milestone. Curious if Sean Payton did any coaching when Brees met with him briefly in the owner's box after the game.

*An RG3 concussion is a worst-case scenario. Yes, worse than a torn ACL, because it forces fans to confront the NFL head-injury conundrum: You want him out there, sure, but at what cost?

*Do the Falcons look unbeatable? Hardly. This fast start is all one big set-up for the inevitable playoff implosion. (If it can happen to the Packers last year, it can totally happen to Atlanta this year.)

*The 49ers, on the other hand, look like the toughest out in the league, come playoff-time. The league's most balanced offense combined with its best D (and best head coach).

*Anyone else feel like the Brady-Peyton game was a total let-down? Possibly not even a Top 5 most interesting storyline coming out of Sunday.

*I don't know what's wrong with Cam Newton and the Panthers, but my 6-year-old Gabe still loves him and the team -- he can't understand what is going on (and I can't explain it to him).

*I'm a "booing as essential right of fandom" person, but still, there are times it is entirely bad form, as with KC fans jeering the head injury to Matt Cassel.

MLB Playoffs: Yankees show the Orioles what's what. I dislike (but regularly deploy) hindsight narratives -- back-filling the analysis based on the result -- but it is hard not to watch the Yankees slam the door on the Orioles last night and not see the difference between a perennial playoff team and a team whose fan base defines "just happy to be here."

That said: Look at the Nats and Cards. Save for Tyler Moore's incredible at-bat that gave the Nats their game-tying and -winning runs, we are totally talking today about the grit of the defending champs wearing out the nouveau-riche Nats and Gio Gonzalez. Instead, the Nats double-down on the vibe of being a team of destiny. (And it WAS an incredible pinch-hit moment by Moore.)

Meanwhile: The Reds are (relatively) quietly rolling their way to the NLCS, and there's no reason to think that they will stop there.

And finally: Tough break for the A's, who will have to win 3 straight in Oakland to take down the Tigers. That said: It's not like they haven't been in this position before -- they were there just last week. So it's not like the moment is strange or new for them. They just need to do what they do.

Takeaways from a wild weekend in college football:
*Does the uncertainty among unbeatens matter if Alabama-Oregon feels like a foregone conclusion?

*New "Game of the Year": South Carolina at Florida, in two weeks.

*Last night I was going through the "Wins of the Year," and four results from Saturday -- WVU, S. Carolina, Florida and -- most incredibly -- NC State -- all made the list.

*Oregon's weak schedule gives it an advantage -- presuming Alabama throttles whoever comes out of the SEC East, I would give a title-game nod to the West Virginia-Kansas State winner, if that team ends up going unbeaten (which they won't.)

*Folks, it looks like we are an Oregon upset loss to, say, USC (or Oregon State) from being dangerously close to Notre Dame being the title-game pairing with Alabama. We're many weeks away and college football is amazing precisely because of the uncertainty that flows all the way through conference-championship weekend, but the fact that the Notre Dame scenario is even on the brain is absurd enough.

NBA preseason: If there is one reason I'm picking the Heat to repeat, it's because Ray Allen makes it a Big Four... Limited debut for Steve Nash with the Lakers (5 pts, 3 ast in 15 min), but LA won't be judged until at least late May... Anthony Davis is going to be awesome... Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may already be one of my top 5 favorite players in the NBA... Bradley Beal is going to be just fine (even if his team isn't.)

Soccer: Even if it ended in an unsatisfying tie, you can't ask for more than what the latest Clasico delivered, with pairs of goals from Ronaldo and Messi both.

Today's must-see: Nats-Cards Game 2, starting in the late-afternoon... And on MNF tonight, the only question is how much Tebow we'll see. If the game is out of hand (and it might be, pretty quickly), let's hope Rex Ryan is ready to give the fans (and the media) what we want: Tebow Time.

-- D.S.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

This Week's BlogPoll Top 25 Ballot

Alabama, as always, joined by Oregon, although I'm going against my "resume-based" voting philosophy to vault Oregon over South Carolina or West Virginia or even Florida.

But, like Alabama, you watch Oregon and you just wonder how even a tough D like South Carolina or Florida could stop them. (Then again, that's kind of the point: Oregon and all of those crazy Big 12 offenses of the past few years turned out to be foiled by the brand of defense played at the very top of the SEC.) Let's rank the best wins of the season so far:

(1) Kansas State (at Oklahoma)
(2) Florida (vs. LSU)
(3) South Carolina (vs. Georgia)
(4) West Virginia (at Texas)
(5) Stanford (vs. USC)
(6) N.C. State (vs. Florida St.)
(7) Iowa State (vs. TCU)
(8) Washington (vs. Stanford)
(9) Florida St. (vs. Clemson)
(10) Florida (at Texas A&M)

Anyway, I add Florida to the Top 5 a bit begrudgingly -- their resume merits it, but I'm too much of a fan to want to jinx them. Guess by putting South Carolina ahead of them, I even it out for the big game two weeks from now. Nevertheless, this week's ballot:

10/7 (CFB Hangover) Quickie

The original visceral appeal of becoming a Florida fan was the expectations -- win or failure.

The past two seasons, that eroded. The frustrating Addazio offense of that final pitiful year of the Meyer Era begat the frustrating Weis offense of that first frustrating year of the Muschamp Era.

Yesterday, as I danced around the living room with my 6-month-old daughter accompanying every productive Florida play throughout that staggeringly effective second half in the win over LSU, I felt a jubilation that I hadn't since the night Florida beat Oklahoma for the national title.

It wasn't just because of the stout effort against a formidable opponent. It was because I felt the return of those "win or failure" expectations.

Those renewed expectations will make any loss on the 2012 schedule all the more painful -- South Carolina in two weeks at The Swamp suddenly has me very nervous -- but I would rather feel let-down because I expected too much than let-down because I expected too little.

Speaking of "win or fail": Florida State, suddenly entirely out of the national-title picture and irrelevant on the national scene for the rest of 2012. Congrats to NC State fans on a signature win.

And suddenly South Carolina is in "win or fail" territory: They have to beat a wounded and angry LSU team in Death Valley next Saturday, then beat a surging Florida team in Gainesville the Saturday after that, then fend of Clemson and THEN topple Alabama in the SEC title game. But after last night, it feels possible -- which is a hell of a statement.

Meanwhile: West Virginia staked its claim as the best of the Big 12 and as one of the four teams that would qualify for a mythical four-team college football playoff. They waltzed into DKR and steamrolled a Texas defense that even WVU doubters will acknowledge was much, much better than Baylor's. Is WVU's defense still suspect? Sure. Does it matter if they keep out-scoring their opponents? Not at all. I tabbed WVU as Big 12 champs in the preseason -- feeling very good about that now. The only question is how we could be denied a WVU-Oregon bowl game. Rather than see Oregon get shellacked by Alabama, couldn't we just line them up against the 'Eers for the most entertaining single-game match-up in the sport's history?

Early BlogPoll Top 25 ballot: (1) Alabama, (2) Oregon, (3) West Virginia, (4) South Carolina, (5) Florida, (6) K-State, (7) Ohio St, (8) Notre Dame, (9) Oklahoma, (10) LSU.

And a few quick notes about the MLB playoffs:

*Does Justin Verlander beat the A's in front of the rabid fans of Oakland if the LDS round had a proper home-field advantage? Maybe, maybe not. But in Detroit, he cruises and Oakland will find itself unable to dig out of an 0-2 hole if they lose today.

*The Reds' path to victory in Game 1 was non-traditional to say the least, but fascinating -- Cueto out (but possibly available for Game 3), substitutes in... a victory follows. It's almost like the Giants were more thrown off than Cincy.

*Let's go O's. Can't believe anyone outside of Yankee Nation wouldn't be pulling like crazy for Baltimore.

*And please: Let's go Nats. If they lose this opener in St. Louis, suddenly the decision to sit Stephen Strasburg will be under a lot more pressure.

-- D.S.