Archive for August, 2007

Brewers / Cubs: Does It All Come Down To This?
August 28, 2007

Even though it shoots itself in the foot more than any other sport, you gotta give baseball some props right now (sorry for the Arsenio Hall-era slang, I don’t get out much): Whoever schedules these games did a brilliant job this week, as the number one team plays the number two team in five of the six divisions — and in the remaining division — the AL Central — the leader (Cleveland) is playing the not-quite-out-of-it-but-you-have-a-better-chance-of-marrying-Erin-Andrews Minnesota Twins.

But obviously the series that matters most around these Midwest parts is the Brewers at Cubs.

For fans that have had more to complain about in the last 25 years than PETA members at a rodeo, I have personally never heard Milwaukee Brewer backers more down on the team than I hear them now. And it’s understandable: After a 24-10 start that had fans saving money for World Series tickets, the team has imploded, posting the fourth-worst record in the majors (after the last-place Devil Rays, the last-place White Sox, and the last-place Marlins). In short, the Brewers have stunk.

But you don’t get beaten down over 25 years without being tough, and Brewer fans are a resilient bunch: One gets the feeling that if the Brewers can win two out of three that fans would start to believe again, and a series sweep (one that would put the Brewers back in first place) would nearly forgive the last few weeks of misery.

Problem is, it ain’t gonna happen.

Forget that the series is on the road, where the Brewers win as often as Lindsay Lohan stays sober. Forget that Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano will return to the Cubs lineup tonight (especially if he’s not 100% healthy, which he doesn’t appear to be) after being on the DL since August 6.

Barring a what now seems unlikely immediate return by Ben Sheets to the lineup, a look at the starting pitching matchups will tell you why the Brewers will be lucky to win one of these next three games.

In Tuesday’s opener, Jeff Suppan goes against Rich Hill. Hill, no Cy Young candidate certainly, is coming off a 10-strikeout game and he has given up two runs or less is six of his last eight starts. Meanwhile, Suppan hasn’t won a game since June 22 and his ERA is 7.05 in his last eight road games.

In Wednesday’s game, Claudio Vargas battles Carlos Zambrano. Vargas lasted exactly 0.2 innings in his last start, giving up 6 runs, 5 hits, walking one and hitting a batter, while seeing his ERA balloon to 5.13. Zambrano has fallen far short of expectations (especially his own), but with an ERA a full point below Vargas’s, he’s still a stronger bet. He’s also a jerk, so if Milwaukee can only win one game, here’s hoping it’s this one.

Thursday’s closing game (for the series and for the season — ain’t both these teams making the playoffs) sees Yovani Gallardo against Ted Lilly. Lilly has the best won-loss record of any Cubs pitcher (13-7), while Gallardo has been miserable in three of his last four starts, including that disastrous game against the Rockies on August 8 when he gave up 11 runs in 2.2 innings.

As has been the case for the last three months, look for the Brewers’ starting pitching to fail them again over these next three games. Let’s just hope that Houston can hold off the charging Cardinals, or the Brewers could be in third place when they return home (thankfully) on Thursday for their next series against the Pirates.

Brewer fans, take heart: It’s almost football season.

27 Predictions
August 26, 2007

In honor of Macaulay Culkin’s 27th birthday on Sunday, here are 27 predictions for my readers to chew on. (And since I don’t quite have 27 readers, some of you will have to chew on more than one. Hope there’s not too much gristle in there.)

(BTW, remember when Macaulay Culkin seemed to be a screwed-up kid, hanging around with Michael Jackson while his parents were in the midst of an ugly public divorce? In light of Britney, Paris, Lindsay, et. al, it seems now as if he was actually fairly normal for a young star. But it’s still weird that he’s the godfather to two of Michael Jackson’s children. Not weird that Macaulay’s a godfather, but that Michael Jackson has children.)

1. Ben Sheets will return before the end of the 2007 season. However, the Brewers will by then be in third place in the NL Central and Ben’s return won’t have the galvanizing effect the team and its fans had hoped.

2. Milwaukee Brewer fans will come to two realizations at the end of the season: 1) Ben Sheets is never going to stay completely healthy for one full season, and 2) It wouldn’t matter anyway if the rest of the rotation is going to be full of guys who couldn’t get Chevy Chase out, much less Chase Utley.

3. Following a pre-game feeding, newly-acquired Dodgers starter David Wells will explode on the mound one night a la Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. He will still post a better outing than that night’s Milwaukee Brewers starter.

4. Contrary to popular belief, Ned Yost will not be out of work this time next year. He will, however, not be managing a major league team but will be the new spokesperson for the Just for Men line of hair coloring products. Let’s all say it together: “Rejected!” (Still beats being in that asinine “Viva Viagra” commercial, though.)

5. Your NL division winners for 2007: As much as I’d like to say the Cubs will blow it, it’ll be the Cubs, Mets, and Padres. Your wild card: Arizona.

6. Your AL division winners for 2007: Boston, Cleveland, Seattle. And yes, I’m sorry, but the Yankees will win the wild card. That New York club’s been on fire since they fired George Costanza.

7. Your World Series: FOX is going to love this: Red Sox and Mets. Red Sox in six.

8. Moving over to football: Donald Driver will be ready for the start of the regular season. Brett Favre — along with every fantasy football player who drafted him — will be more relieved than the house guests on Big Brother 8 when Jen was evicted. (What, you don’t watch Big Brother 8? Are you nuts?)

9. After opening the season 0-3 and heading to Minnesota to play the Vikings (they of the stout run defense and unbelievably bad pass defense), Mike McCarthy will drop the idea of “ball-control” offense which has gotten them nowhere and he will turn Brett Favre loose. Favre will respond with a 4 TD, 40o-yard game and the Packers will ride a “pass happy” philosophy to the division title.

10. This season’s touchdown and yardage totals of Brandon Jackson and Vernand Morency combined won’t equal Ahman Green’s 2007 stats in Houston. And this after Green misses half the season due to injury.

11. The NFC North: Packers win, then Bears, Lions, and Vikings. Don’t get too excited Lions fans: Your team still stinks and will win only win five games. Yes, the Vikings will be that bad.

12. Aided by the best offense in football, the Patriots will win yet another Super Bowl. Their receving MVP: Not Randy Moss or Donte Stallworth. This guy named Wes Welker. (C’mon, my fantasy team’s success is riding on it!)

13. The Packers defense will be very good, finishing in the top ten in most important stats. Who won’t be that good: First-round pick Justin Harrell. Luckily for Ted Thompson, James Jones will be the steal of the draft and will remain a fan favorite for years. Until Thompson decides he doesn’t want to pay him anymore and the team reverts to a “wide receiver by committee” outlook.

14. The Wisconsin football Badgers will be almost — almost — as good as the preseason polls predicted. They will lose, however, to Ohio State and Michigan toward the end of the year.

15. Tyler Donovan’s stellar performance throughout the regular season will make Allan Evridge about as relevant to the team’s success as Allen Funt. (C’mon, the Candid Camera guy. You remember. See, now you’re smiling!) Nothing against Evridge, seems like a good guy and a nice player, just won’t get much of a chance to show it. (Just protecting myself from a potential beatdown. You never know who reads these things.)

16. Michael Vick will never play football again. In the NFL. He will play in the CFL. Seems like punishment enough. Sorry Canadians, you have a nice country and I’m sure the CFL is fun and everything, just no one this side of the border follows it. (Just protecting myself from another potential beatdown. Those Canadians can be very defensive of their homeland.)

17. This PGA playoff thing will never catch on. Golfers don’t like it, viewers are turning their attention to football and the MLB divisional races, and no one understands how it works. Plus Tiger takes it about as seriously as any stupid comment made by Rory Sabbatini.

18. Yi Jianlaing and the Milwaukee Bucks will come to terms. Michael Redd will stay healthy. Andrew Bogut will continue to improve. Guess what? The Bucks will be pretty good.

19. The NBA referree gambling thing will have no impact on the sports’ popularity or TV ratings. Translation: More people will still watch The Suite Life of Zach and Cody then any televised NBA contest.

20. David Beckham will prove to be the next big thing. In overhyped, underperforming, soon forgotten sports flashes-in-the-pan.

21. The Big Ten Network will not be added to Charter or Time Warner cable systems by the channel’s September 15 live airing of the Badgers/Citadel football game. It will, however, be added before the UW men’s basketball conference opener against Michigan (slated to air on BTN, along with many other UW men’s games). Ruined will be my plans to charge neighbors to come over to my house and watch the games on DirecTV. C’mon, I was going to throw in a pizza bagel and a fun size 3 Musketeers bar!

22. The UW women’s basketball team will outperform the men’s basketball team. Not in attendance, of course, but in wins and losses.

23. Hampered by his team’s collapse in the second half of the season, Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Ryan Braun will not win the NL Rookie of the Year title. Fans will be too disgusted by the time the winner is officially announced to care.

24. Barring injury, Wisconsin Badger tight end Travis Beckum won’t finish any game this season with less than 60 yards receiving.

25. Barring injury, Wisconsin Badger running back P.J. Hill won’t finish any game this season with less than 95 yards rushing. Why 95? Eh, my kid is into Cars and that’s Lightning McQueen’s number. Seems to make sense in some cryptic way.

26. The football Minnesota Golden Gophers will finish the season with more victories than the Minnesota Vikings.

27. Your 2007 National Champions in college football? I don’t buy that there is one until there is a rational playoff system implemented. And it’s only a matter of time — that’s the prediction.

Good (Saturday) Night For Packers
August 19, 2007

Say what you want about the NFL preseason (and say what you want about my love for CBS’s Big Brother; I’m not ashamed), one thing you have to admit about football’s annual preamble to the regular season is that it’s bloody unpredictable.

Take Saturday’s Packer/Seahawk game. After struggling to score 13 points in the previous game against the Steelers, the Pack exploded for 48 points at home, including two defensive touchdowns. In case you feel I’m exaggerating by using the term “exploded,” bear in mind that the Packers hadn’t scored that many points in a preseason game since before World War II.

It wasn’t necessarily a pretty game, with the teams combining for 19 penalties and a whopping eleven turnovers (most of which admittedly were committed by players who will see as much playing time this year as Michael Vick), but it was an important victory in the sense that it — for at least a week, anyway — wiped out the doubts that this team could score; doubts which had been building up all offseason and which boiled over following the Pittsburgh game.

But what I found most interesting was how the Packers chose to move the ball; in stark contrast to recent comments made by several members of the organization (comments which I questioned here in light of the talent the Packers have and don’t have), the team didn’t adopt the grind-it-out, ball control style of play they had warned us to anticipate. Rather they called 38 pass plays to 27 run plays, achieving 197 yards through the air compared to just 79 on the ground. In fact, the most troubling aspect of the rout was the Packers’ run production — a paltry 2.9 yards per rushing attempt.

I know we’re not supposed to read too much into the preseason and in particular not too much into any one preseason game. But maybe, just maybe, the Packers are on the road to realizing where their offensive weapons lie — in the passing game. (Again, it’s early, but rookie James Jones may just make Packers fans — and more importantly, Brett Favre — forget all that anger over passing up on Randy Moss.) And maybe, just maybe, Favre’s days of being “frustrated” with the 2007 Packers will be as short-lived as his acting career.

Packers: Trying To Fit A Ball-Control Peg Into A Downfield Hole
August 17, 2007

The Packers are parting ways with injury-prone wide receiver Robert Ferguson, an interesting development from which several conclusions can be drawn:

1. The Packers have finally given up hope that Ferguson, who found more new ways to injure himself than the Brewers have found ways to lose games recently, will ever consistently be able to play up to his status as a second-round draft pick (in 2001).
2. The Packers feel that they have wide receivers to spare, with Donald Driver and Greg Jennings as a solid tandem, plus rookie James Jones, Ruvell Martin, and Carlyle Holiday impressing early.
3. The Packers aren’t interested in keeping offensive veterans around just in case their familiarity is comforting to Brett Favre. It’s clear that the organization expects the self-described “frustrated” Favre to adapt to the young players and not the other way around. And frankly, that’s the right way to approach it, as it’s more reasonable to expect Favre to help the young players mature rather than expect the young players to play like wily veterans overnight. You can’t instill the nine years of experience that Donald Driver has playing with Favre in less than, well, nine years.

I have no problem with releasing Ferguson. You don’t want to keep players around that are more known for their injuries than for their performance. (The Brewers must be reaching that point with Ben Sheets.) Yet the fact that receivers are expendable in Green Bay and running backs are at a premium runs completely counter to all the talk from the Packers about the type of offense they are going to be running this year.

Everyone from offensive coordinator Ron Philbin to head coach Mike McCarthy to Favre himself (who for years has been the primary source of turnovers) is stressing the need for the 2007 Packers to be let their improving defense control games, which in turn means that the offense has to play the game of field position by limiting turnovers as much as possible.

The only thing wrong with that strategy is that the ball-control, field-position type of football that is being touted as the way the 2007 Packers will win games needs something crucial to succeed: a solid run game. Right now, the Packers don’t have that. They don’t even know who will rank number one on the running back depth chart when the regular season begins.

Not that the running back situation is hopeless. Brandon Jackson looks like he will be at the very least a dependable starter. But the type of offense that the Packers are telling their fans to look for needs more than that. And if it doesn’t magically materialize over the next several weeks, don’t be surprised to see Brett Favre trying to open it up by using the best weapons he has — his wide outs. Especially if Favre feels like this is his last season, Packer management can’t expect Favre to ride off into the sunset as a hand-off machine. If he’s going out, he’s going out as he came in — slinging it.

And really, on some thrill-seeking level — the same level on which we like to ride rickety-looking carnival rides and eat thousand-calorie Double Quarter Pounders — isn’t that what we want to see?

10 Questions for Your Sports Weekend
August 10, 2007

1. Does anyone want to win the NL Central? Look at the Milwaukee Brewers: They’re 11-16 since the All-Star break, and currently seem more dysfunctional than the Lohan family. The pitching’s been lousy, the players and managers are sniping at each other, nobody seems to know when Ben Sheets will return, and Tony Graffanino is out for the season. Replacing Graffanino with Rickie Weeks is sort of like replacing your REO Speedwagon collection with Styx. It’s a bit of a downgrade, but not by much.

2. Have the Cubs peaked? Since overtaking the Milwaukee Brewers on August 1, the Cubs are just 2-6, and things don’t appear much brighter for Chicago with OF Alfonso Soriano out for several weeks. A week ago I would have bet the house that the Cubs would end the year in first place in the NL Central, now I would only bet the garage. Wait, I love that garage. If it wasn’t there, where would I hide my Sun Country wine coolers? Maybe I’d just bet the tomato plants. Tomatoes are overrated.

3. Do people really think the Brewers are so hard up that they should pick up David Wells?The Brewers have enough problems without Wells coming in and eating everyone’s Funjuns and drinking everyone’s Milwaukee’s Best.

4. Can you get enough preseason football? I don’t think so. Between Friday, August 10, and Monday, August 13, the NFL Network will run 11 NFL preseason games. Hey, I want to know how that third-string TE for the Jaguars is going to pan out. Might need him for fantasy football. The NFL Network is great. Sure it’s a niche network (like Charter says), but are you going to tell me that the Game Show Network — carried by Charter on its most popular package — isn’t?

5. How can WKOW-TV bill itself as the official Packers station when it is the only one of the four traditional Madison TV affiliates absolutely guaranteed NOT to broadcast a single regular season or playoff Packer football game this season? Perhaps WISC-TV should begin to market itself as the official American Idol station. Makes as much sense.

6. Can Rory Sabbatini make the cut at the PGA Championship? He’s only in 120th place, 43 strokes off the projected cut. Is Rory Sabbatini — he of the Tiger Woods is “beatable” comment — now officially the stupidest person in professional sports? Nope, not as long as Kevin McHale continues to draw a paycheck from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

7. Does anyone remember when David Beckham joining the Los Angeles Galaxy was pitched as a big deal? This story has fizzled faster than John McCain’s presidential campaign.

8. With Vernard Morency out with a knee injury, will Brandon Jackson use the preseason — starting Saturday night against Pittsburgh — to secure his role as the Packers’ number one running back? Will Noah Herron challenge Jackson? Is anyone comfortable that these are the names being thrown around for such a crucial position on the most storied NFL franchise ever?

9. Now that he’s broken the record, will ESPN shut up about Barry Bonds? I don’t care how many more home runs he’s going to hit, and him hitting 757 doesn’t qualify as “breaking news” under anyone’s definition. Come on, ESPN: Less Barry Bonds, more Erin Andrews. It’s not rocket science.

10. Will the Wisconsin Badgers really be as good as the pollsters predict without certainty at the quarterback position? Seems mighty optimistic, doesn’t it?

The Sports Blog: Land of 10,000 Lakes Edition
August 3, 2007

Even before Wednesday’s horrific bridge collapse, I had planned to dedicate my next blog entry to Minnesota sports. It’s no secret to most of you that I am from the Twin Cities and although I’ve now lived in Wisconsin about as long as I lived in Minnesota (i.e., I’m getting real old), I still maintain a high level of interest in what’s happening sports-wise in the land of Prince and Mary Tyler Moore. (Another sign I’m real old is that I can’t think of pop culture references that don’t date back to the 1970s and 1980s.) And although it’s now overshadowed by what happened Wednesday, this was still a very interesting week in Minnesota sports.

But things are getting more interesting closer to home as well. Especially in light of the beating that the Mets gave the Brewers on Thursday and the heated argument that took place in the dugout during that game between manager Ned Yost and players Tony Graffanino and Johnny Estrada. There’s several ways to look at the blow-up: One, that it’s no big deal, happens all the time and this one just happened to be caught on camera. Two, that it represents some sort of “bottoming out” for Milwaukee, which has slowly but surely gone from what was a seemingly insurmountable lead to falling into second-place (albeit by the slimmest of margins) behind the surging Chicago Cubs. Three, that the incident is actually a positive in that it shows that the team — well, at least the persons involved — is frustrated, fiery, and knows it can and should be playing better. In short, that they are not passively watching the team fall apart.

I firmly believe that the final interpretation mentioned above is the most accurate. While I still believe the Brewers will not finish the season in first place in the NL Central (read my previous posts), I find it encouraging that they’re at the very least ticked off at how things are going. You don’t want players or certainly the manager to have the blase attitude of “hey, we’re only a percentage point behind the Cubs with two months of baseball left to play.” You want them to be thinking “hey, we better wake up. We’ve let two dangerous teams (including the defending World Champion Cardinals) back into a race that based on our play at the start of the season we should be running away with by now. We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

I think we’ll see some improvement from the Brewers starting this weekend against the Phillies. Unfortunately, it won’t be enough to hold off the Cubs or maybe even the Cardinals.

Now on to Minnesota: Certainly the biggest sports story (with the emphasis on sports) to come from the Twin Cities this week is the trade of Timberwolves superstar Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics for about seven players, two draft choices, a selection of fine wines and cheeses, and a rare bootleg copy of the never-officially-released Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried. Although Minnesotans have a right to be angry about losing one of their few remaining sports superstars (Moss and Culpepper long since gone), they should be more angry about how the franchise has squandered KG’s best years than over the trade itself. After twelve seasons and only one legitimately successful year (2003-2004), the time had obviously come for the Timberwolves to try something radically different.

But while the Timberwolves probably won’t be good again for a long time (at least as long as Kevin McHale is in charge), I don’t buy that the Boston Celtics, who now boast starters Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, will just waltz to the Eastern Conference title. Though no one would dispute Garnett’s overall greatness as a basketball player, he has, like Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki, a reputation of under perfoming in big games. It also seems like more than a coincidence that throughout his time in Minnesota, he never seemed to develop any chemistry with any of his teammates, the most promising of which — Tom Gugliotta, Stephon Marbury, Sam Cassell, and
Wally Szczerbiak — seemingly couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Minnesota. Could have been McHale or Flip Saunders or maybe just the lousy winters, but I don’t doubt that Garnett had something to do with it. I just don’t believe that three major superstars like Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are going to be able to put egos aside and play as a cohesive unit. Will they be good enough to go deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs? Likely, since the Mandrell sisters could get to at least the second round in the East. But it’s way too early to hand them their pass to the NBA Finals. I don’t think they’ll get there.

With Garnett gone, the biggest sports star that the Twin Cities has is now probably Twins starter Johan Santana. But he’s not happy either. After the Twins — still very much in contention for the AL Central and the AL Wild Card — not only failed to sign a needed bat but traded away steady performer Luis Castillo — Santana verbally attacked the team, saying that the team will “never get beyond where we’ve gone” and that “it doesn’t make any sense for me to be here.” While I have no problem with wanting to win championships, the fact remains that many clubs would be happy to be the perennial contenders that the Twins are; in fact, they are on track to post their seventh consecutive winning season. Pretty remarkable for a team that MLB commissioner Bud Selig wanted to contract just five years ago.

Santana’s words sound remarkably like a quote that Randy Moss gave about the Vikings and his future with the team after Minnesota was embarrassed in the NFC Championship Game in January 2001. What happened to Moss? He was eventually cast off to the seventh circle of NFL Hell, or as it is most normally referred to, the Oakland Raiders, where he subsequently disappeared for two seasons. Perhaps the same fate awaits Santana. Maybe he’d be happier as a Tampa Bay Devil Ray or as a Washington National. Perhaps never being close to sniffing the postseason is less frustrating than getting there but never making it to the Fall Classic. Or perhaps Santana should just shut up and pitch.

Speaking of Moss and the lousy franchise that is the Oakland Raiders, Moss’s former Viking teammate Daunte Culpepper just signed a one-year deal there, based largely on the Raiders’s ineptitude at getting first pick JaMarcus Russell signed. Culpepper going to the Raiders is like if Britney Spears were to date Dick Cheney. A miserable union with two miserable partners that is assured of ending miserably for all involved. The Raiders stink and Culpepper stinks (and, except for one over performing season, has always stunk) and together they will cause a stench of the sort not experienced since the time my father accidentally ate some jalapeno poppers thinking they were chicken nuggets. I would be stunned if Culpepper starts more than one game for the Raiders. Oakland, meet Josh McCown and enjoy having the first pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

Before I go, best wishes to everyone affected by the Twin Cities bridge collapse, including all of the brave rescue workers.