Monday, October 28, 2013

Succinct Scouting Report #2

Have this World Series all figured out now. If the Red Sox just remember to never, ever throw to third base under any circumstances, they'll beat the Cardinals tonight and clinch the Series back home on Wednesday night.

Succinct Scouting Report #1

When a National Football League team wins by 27-17, a score that strongly implies the adverb "handily" with its quarterback accumulating all of 116 passing yards, it had to have done a great many other things very well indeed.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Medical Science Stuns Blogger With Late-Inning Rally!

Not for the first time, I stand corrected. As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with Carlos Beltran that not being able to feel anything in his chest couldn't fix.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Storybooks Don't Always Have HAPPY Finishes

There is a particularly unpleasant subset of sports events which involve 99 percent of the elements of a stickily sappy sports story for boys except for their ending, which is when happiness, virtue and inspiration all get run over by the world's largest semi. They're horrible to watch, yet somehow fascinating, because deep down, we know that's how things work out more often than not for everyone. The random power of the universe thumping puny humanity is the ultimate chalk play.

The most common form of the tale comes from boxing -- as in, beloved Champ (Joe Louis, Ali) has one fight far too many. But there have been others just as excruciating to watch. Greg Norman's fold in the 1996 Masters, which made even winner Nick Faldo feel awful. Craig Morton's comeback with the 1977 Denver Broncos and its fatal encounter with Super Bowl XII. Plucky rookie pitcher Bobby Sprowl thrown into a start against the Yankees the 1978 Red Sox had to win (and he had no business being in) and suffering total annihilation.

Add Carlos Beltran last night to the long list of unjustly suffering jocks. I don't care how much of a Red Sox fan one might be. Anybody who didn't feel bad for the Cardinals outfielder has a shriveled call to a talk show where their should be.

Here's a distinguished veteran player with a borderline Hall of Fame career playing in his very first World Series game. First, he stands in right field and watches his teammates piss the game away in the first two innings with comically inept fielding. Then, the cause pretty lost, he makes a spectacular catch colliding into the bullpen wall to prevent a grand slam. And hurts his ribs and has to leave the game. Beltran is now "day to day" and my guess if he returns to action, the injury will have the same impact on his batting (and he's one of the best postseason hitters ever) as Miguel Cabrera's injuries had on his in the ALCS.

In short, Beltran's first and possibly only Series may have ended in its first 45 minutes. And sad as that is to contemplate, what's even more dismal is HOW it ended.

Beltran clocked himself with a wonderful display of hustle and skill that wound up being the worst possible thing for his team and himself. His virtue was its own punishment, not reward. I'm sure that somewhere inside manager Mike Metheny's brain, the unworthy thought floats that "you know, if he'd only dogged it a little bit, we'd still have him. So we'd have lost 11-1. Big deal."

Fate is indeed cruel. It also has a very distasteful sense of humor.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Luck Be a Poorly Defined Word Tonight

There are two kinds of luck in baseball, and one of them, the one Branch Rickey talked about, isn't really luck at all. There's word for it, accurate but a little high-falutin' for baseball discourse: serendipity. To see the pictures in the dictionary beside both words, we need only look at the 2013 Red Sox.

Serendipity is not chance. It's when things work out better than could possibly be expected. It implies prior planning on the part of its recipient, like going to the hardware store for supplies for urgent home repairs and winning prizes for being the store's one-millionth customer. And isn't that a fine analogy for the Sox?

The team planned to improve on its wretched 2012 performance, took steps that realistically insured it would improve, and watched with delight as every plan, reasonable expectation and downright forlorn hope came true. Ballplayers are by necessity confident and optimistic souls, but if they were honest, I'll bet more than a few Sox would admit that on Opening Day, their goals did not include the World Series.

It's one thing to expect that Jon Lester would improve from 2012. Career worsts are as rare as career bests. That's just baseball. Serendipity is 2013 for John Lackey, David Ortiz and Koji Uehara. All were players the Sox committed to more or less from necessity.. All had not merely competent performances, but All-Star level ones. Ordinarily, plugging three new All-Stars into a lineup costs, oh, $100 million a year for six to 10 years.

Serendipity is Mike Napoli. One of baseball's most traditional personnel moves is acquiring a guy who just kills you with his bat. It almost never works out as hoped, since the acquisition ignores the role played by the team's own pitchers in getting it killed by said batter, but Napoli sure did.

This takes us to the ALCS. Here's where luck, true luck, unpredictable random chance, has stepped in to assist the Sox. Luck is Miguel Cabrera. Injuries have transformed a batter of historic accomplishment into a weak singles hitter barely able to stagger from base to base without the assistance of a handtruck. Can't plan for that. Just take the break and be grateful.

We will point out that said luck blessed the Oakland A's just a week or so ago, and they couldn't do much with it. The thing is, in the realm of ineffable, indefinable and despite what Nate Silver will tell you, quite real cosmic phenomena, serendipity is far, far, far more powerful than luck.

Not as powerful as Justin Verlander, though. Serendipity had better be on its game tonight.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Working the Count to Death That's Anything But Premature

Can't speak for millions of other baseball fans and observers, but he's what I've learned for sure during the American League Championship Series. I am getting old.

I am so superannuated as to recall a time when strikeouts made baseball games go faster, and when pitcher's duels got everybody home for dinnertime or a decent bedtime. They were among the most exciting games, not the most endless. My age is so advanced as to have experienced a time when "change speeds, work fast, throw strikes" and "on or out in three" were the slogans of extremely successful pitching staffs. I am so ancient, I remember that batters who didn't hit 40 homers a year were humiliated (and unemployed) if they couldn't put the ball in play.

The Red Sox and Tigers are excellent teams, and it's not their fault they are built on a style of baseball that's a grave threat to the sport's status as a spectator attraction. Their job is to win, and that's how they do it. But any style carried to its extreme becomes a self-parody.

I wouldn't presume to guess whether Detroit or Boston will advance to the World Series. But based on what I've seen, the only possible ending to the ALCS is for the winning team to clinch the series with a four hour-plus perfect game.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

If Races Ended at the Quarter Pole, I'd Be Too Rich to Waste My Time Doing This

Jumping to hasty conclusions is America's REAL national pastime, and the long spaces of time between games just custom made for such leaps ares why pro football is our country's most popular sport. But every time I am tempted to generalize on the meaning of the first month of the 2013 NFL season, I can't help remembering that on October 1, 2012, the most impressive team in the league had been your Arizona Cardinals.

Another reason to eschew the power ratings, straight-line projection forecasting and all the other sophistries of pro ball punditry is their crushing banality. The sad truth is, there's very little we've learned about the NFL in September 2013 we weren't all pretty sure we knew in August 2013.

Oh, there have been a few unexpected team disasters (Hi, Ben!, Hi, Eli!), but they were far outnumbered by the expected ones. By and large, what logic said should have happened, has.

On the macro level, let's take the big thumb-sucking think piece question of the offseason -- could NFL defenses come up with a way to stop the fearsome read-option offense and all its stirring young running quarterbacks? Logic and history said the answer was "sure, of course." All NFL tactics are recycled old ideas or variations on old ideas. Therefore, there are recyclable old ideas about thwarting them.

Lo and behold, we haven't read much about the read-option this season. Colin Kaepernick and RGIII aren't vaporizing defenses. Score one for football's refreshing lack of originality.

And with the possible exception of the Kansas City Chiefs (I say possible because really, is it so amazing that a team with six Pro Bowlers on its roster should improve dramatically after big upgrades at coach and quarterback?) there have been no upside surprises which weren't of the extremely mild variety.

Take the local franchise. The Patriots were thought to be a good team whose offense might have an early struggle to adjust to a raft of new players. This came to pass. That New England went 4-0 during the coping process speaks very well for the team, but things are really upside down if we have come to see Patriots victories as surprises.

Pick a team, find the conventional wisdom holding up. Seattle was expected to be good, and has been. The Jaguars were expected to be terrible, and have exceeded (or failed to reach, I'm not sure which) those expectations by many, many lengths. The Broncos offense was seen as formidable in August. So far, so formid.

In fact, there has been only one development this past month that I find startling as an NFL observer. So far, one of my most confident preseason assertions has been utterly inaccurate. The non-Patriot section of the AFC East has not been a symphony of suck by discordant and dysfunctional football teams. Quite the contrary. The Dolphins are 3-1, with one outstanding road victory over the Colts. No one would go so far as to say the Bills and Jets are good teams just yet, but they've each been a competitive 2-2. That's sure better than I expected. I suspect it's better than their head coaches expected.

Come to think of it, seeing as the Patriots have two of their four wins against the non-suck versions of the Bills and Jets, this surprise speaks well of the local franchise, too.