Archive for March, 2007

Baseball preview

March 30, 2007

With Opening Day right around the corner, it’s time to take a stab at predicting how the 2007 Major League Baseball season will play out.
Feel free to cut this out and refer back to it when all of my fearless prognostications are spot on. Or, more likely, use it to line the birdcage around the All-Star break when it’s clear they’re all going to be dead wrong.
Anyway…
American League East Boston – I don’t know if Diasuke Matsuzaka is the second coming of Cy Young or even Hideo Nomo, but the Red Sox have way more pitching than “The Evil Empire,” especially with Jonathan Papelbon heading back to the closer role. That lineup will score tons of runs, especially if they can find a credible leadoff man.
New York – The Yankees boast a $190 million payroll, a modern-day Murderer’s Row lineup and the best closer in baseball history. My question is whether they have enough starting pitching. Carl Pavono is taking the ball on Monday, and the Yankees need him to start earning his money. Keg Igawa, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang all enter the season with question marks. Too many, for my taste.
Baltimore – Call this a homer pick, because I’m an Oriole fan. But when you consider that the Orioles had one of the worst bullpens in the A.L. last year, then went out and spent a small fortune fixing it, things could be looking up. The young starters – Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera – will need to continue developing for the O’s to avoid the cellar.
Toronto – This team should be better, but the Blue Jays’ pitching scares me. Roy Halladay is as good as anybody, but he always spends time on the disabled list during a season. Ditto for A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin. They’ll score some runs, but I don’t think it will be enough for them to challenge.
Tampa Bay – Ever heard of Jamie Shields? How about Seth McClung? That’s the No. 2 starter and closer for the mound-challenged Devil Rays. It’s too bad, because they have some really good position players in Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli and some outstanding young talent (Delmon Young and B.J. Upton).
A.L. Central
Cleveland – I was high on the Tribe last year, but injuries and sub- par efforts derailed them. Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore are MVP candidates and I think Joe Borowski at the back end of the bullpen makes the Indians the team to beat in baseball’s best division.
Detroit – Talk about a surplus of arms, the Tigers could be scary good if their youngsters keep developing. Their offense, as illustrated in the World Series, strikes out too much, but the addition of Gary Sheffield will add punch.
Chicago – The window is closing on this aging bunch. The White Sox will challenge for the league lead in homers, but questions linger in the outfield and on the hill. Pretty much every starting fell off last year and some of them will need to bounce back for this team to make a run.
Minnesota – Losing Francisco Liriano just kills the Twins. Brad Radke’s retirement didn’t help either. Johan Santana is still the best pitcher in the business, but unless it starts raining inside the Metrodome, the other four starters will have to exceed expectations to keep opposing run totals down.
Kansas City – Yeah, the Royals are bad. But they’re quietly stacking up young arms and bats in their farm system. They’ll be awful this year and probably next, but they could be a decent club by 2009.
A.L. West
L.A. Angels – This team could be really good. The Angels have good starters, a lights-out bullpen and enough young talent blended with some proven players to fill out a solid lineup. Oakland – Every year, this team finds a way to get it done. Last year, it was a flyer on Frank Thomas that lifted the A’s into the postseason. This year, Mike Piazza holds down the DH spot. If Rich Harden makes 30 starts, I’ll wish I flipped these first two choices.
Texas – New year, same story. Lots of offense, shaky pitching. If Brandon McCarthy blossoms and Eric Gagne returns to pre-injury form, the Rangers might hang around.
Seattle – This will likely be Ichiro’s last year in the Pacific Northwest before he starts playing right for the Yankees in 2008, and with lots of holes in the lineup and pitching staff, his last hurrah may not be much fun.
National League East
Philadelphia – This could be the year for the Phillies. A power- packed lineup and a balanced rotation make this a dangerous team. They should trade for a good setup man right away to put the final piece in place.
Atlanta – The streak is over for the Braves, and I bet they’re not happy about it. John Smoltz should be his usually dominant self while youngsters Chuck James and Kyle Davies will need solid years. The revamped bullpen, however, could be what puts them over the top.
New York – The Mets should be better than this spot, but they simply don’t have the arms. Unless Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez keep cheating Father Time and John Maine and Mike Pelfrey mature rapidly, even the loaded lineup won’t be enough to keep them in games against the better teams.
Florida – The Marlins have the opposite problem from the Mets. They’ve got pitching all over the place, but a lot of holes in the lineup. Still, with guys like Dontrelle Willis, Anibal Sanchez (threw baseball’s lone no-hitter last year) and Scott Olson, you can’t count out the Fish.
Washington – The 1962 Mets went 40-120. I don’t know if the Nationals will be that bad, but with a AAA-level pitching staff, things will be ugly in our nation’s capital in 2007.
N.L. Central
Milwaukee – The Brewers are hoping this is the year their starters stay healthy, Ben Sheets meets his Cy Young-level potential and the bullpen stays solid enough to close the games out. Really, this division is wide-open.
St. Louis – The defending World Champions turned over most of their starting pitching staff, hoping that pitching coach Dave Duncan can work some more magic. I don’t think 83 wins will cut it this time around.
Chicago – The Cubs spent money like no other team this offseason. What they didn’t buy was quality starting pitching, and eventually, that will matter to this club. Still, if Kerry Wood and Mark Prior ever get right, things could improve rapidly.
Cincinnati – The Reds play in a homer-happy park and they certainly hit their share. Past Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang, however, pitching is in short supply. A top-line closer would really help this club.
Houston – Losing Pettitte and possibly Roger Clemens hurts this team, and I don’t know if the offense can score enough runs to offset the diminished quality of the pitching staff.
Pittsburgh – Still young, the Pirates are a year away from being pretty good. They did play .500 ball after the break last year; so hanging around isn’t out of the question.
N.L. West
L.A. Dodgers – This team has everything. Depth, starting pitching, a little pop and a decent bullpen. The boys in blue have to be the favorite in a crowded West.
Colorado – The Rockies have a stacked lineup and an improving pitching staff. Willy Tavares will help at the top of the order and I really wouldn’t be shocked if Colorado contends.
Arizona – Loads of starting pitching is offset by unproven talent in the lineup and the bullpen. The new-look Diamondbacks could easily be first – or worst.
San Diego – The curse of Petco Park still looms over the Padres. They’ll have great pitching, but that punchless offense will keep them down.
San Francisco – Barry Bonds will break the home run record if he stays on the field, but with that creaky lineup, injuries will keep the offense down. That’s too bad, because I think the Giants’ pitchers could be pretty good.

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An open letter to Wolfpack nation

March 12, 2007

It’s easy to write a column predicting doom and gloom and then run away from it when things turn out totally different than you thought.
It’s tougher to write another piece, fork in hand, in front of a plate of crow.
Yet, here I am wondering if the black bird tastes more like chicken or turkey?
The simple fact is this: I owe Sidney Lowe and Wolfpack nation an apology.
I wrote a less than flattering piece at my last paper on the departure of Herb Sendek and the hiring of Coach Lowe. I’ll spare you the entire article, but here’s the jist:
“Yeah, sure. It’s all about fun now at N.C. State. Let’s get it up and down and stick out their chests when they play Duke and Carolina.
“It’s a page out of the N.C. State football playbook. Walk loudly and carry a twig. What you have here is a trade-off that most State fans will welcome. The straight-laced, soft-spoken coach that wins more than he loses firmly in the shadow of his neighbors for the tough-talking State alum that isn’t scared to yell at Coach K or Skip Prosser to fire up his team.
“Style over substance never works over the long haul.”
In the words of Steve Czaban, “how’s that working out?”
Pretty well for State fans, not so much for me.
Looking back at the 2006-7 season, it’s hard not to be impressed by the job Lowe has done in Raleigh.
With limited scholarships, a rash of injuries and mixed and matched players from a previous – and completely different – coaching regime, the Pack made a remarkable run to the ACC title game, notched wins over Duke and Carolina and were rewarded with a trip to the NIT – a notion that was pretty far-fetched about six weeks ago.
And this is only the beginning.
Brandon Costner, Gavin Grant, Ben McCauley and Courtney Fells are all coming back next year. Add in a couple of high-impact transfers and what’s shaping up to be a top-notch recruiting class – something else I was dead wrong about – and things are certainly looking up in our state capitol.
Am I saying that N.C. State will be smacking around Duke and Carolina on a regular basis? No, I’m not going that far.
But it’s safe to say that the disaster I predicted isn’t coming to pass.
I was wrong and the legion of fans that peppered me with e-mails were right.
And to answer one in particular, I’ll take the crow boiled, over a bed of rice.
Maybe a little wine, too.
Red, of course.

Blue, blue, oh so blue

March 5, 2007

How’s this for a sneak peek? This won’t run until Tuesday in the Daily Dispatch:

Some things are better seen on TV than in person. Hot dog eating contests, golf tournaments and NASCAR races are good examples of afternoons better spent watching on the magic box instead of witnessing the event first-hand.
The same cannot be said for a Duke/North Carolina basketball game.
I had seen somewhere between 20 and 25 meetings between the bitter rivals on TV, but on Sunday, I sacrificed my day off and made the drive to Chapel Hill to catch the game in person.
Tough life, huh?
Anyway, after winding my way through Atlanta-style traffic on 15-501, making the turn onto Manning Drive and then finally ending up in a parking garage – thanks to the guys in the day-glow yellow vests – I found my way inside the Smith Center.
Only the sky has as many shades of blue as were on display inside the Dean Dome. I imagine the effect would have been even more powerful if I were not shade color blind, but even I was struck by the light-blue, dark blue and medium-blue hues on little kids, teenaged girls, their grandparents and everyone in between.
I wandered onto press row – after asking for help from two more people wearing yellow – and found seats for folks from the USA Today, New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer.
“Where am I,” I asked yet another yellow-clad help giver. “Henderson Dispatch? You’re up there,” he said, pointing up to what looked like the top of Mount Everest.
It was a dark gray-looking area at the top of the first level, where I’m told the “other” media people sit.
Hey, I was happy. I had a chair at the end of the row. There were people sitting on stools close enough to tell time on each other’s watches.
Mike Sosna, our ACC columnist, introduced himself before tip-off before scurrying off to find a seat. I didn’t see him again. He could have ended up on the roof for all I know.
I’ve seen college basketball games before, but nothing like this. I’ve heard that there are more than 20,000 seats in the place. I’d say about half of them are decorative. Everyone on my side (somewhere near Section 112, if you’re curious) stood for almost the entire game.
Former Florida State guard and current NBA player Sam Cassell once referred to the Smith Center patrons as a “wine and cheese crowd.” With cups and small Domino’s boxes scattered around the vacated area at halftime, it looked more like a soda and pizza bunch to me.
There were lots of cool things you missed if you watched on CBS, like high school football players, complete with little football name stickers, taking in the game. I saw recent UNC signee Greg Little. He looks taller than 6-2, a fact that Tar Heel football fans might enjoy in the coming years.
Speaking of tall, I ran into Carolina radio announcer and former Tar Heel center Eric Montross in the media room.
OK, I didn’t really run into him. Sportswriters don’t “run into” guys who are seven freaking feet tall and live to write columns about it. Seriously, that guy is like a walking doorway. Only taller and much more polite.
Oh, there was a game, too. Duke gave a nice effort, but North Carolina erased the dark blues with a strong start and a spirited second-half run.
I wish I could tell you about the shirt I saw on the way out. Let’s just say that it provided a suggestion for what the present tense of “Duke Blue” might be if viewed through glasses of a lighter shade.
Can’t see that on TV, either.
I’ll leave the bloody nose analysis to the experts, but for me, a little red looked really odd in a place with so much blue.
Didn’t look intentional to me, though I doubt it made it hurt any less.
I’ll have to wait until next year to sample the rivalry from Cameron Indoor, but I learned one thing Sunday.
What used to be must-see TV for me, is now simply must-see.

Contact the writer at rcapps@hendersondispatch.com.