Monday, August 30, 2010

A Weekend of Hope

Despite standing in a tie with Tampa Bay for the best record in baseball, August has provided ample opportunity for skepticism about the 2010 Yankees. Our starting pitching is in tatters, we don't have a reliable right-handed arm for the 6th and 7th innings, and the offense is prone to multi-game slumps that infect each batter, one through nine. On the surface, this team looks a lot more like the playoff duds of 2005-2008 than last year's championship squad.

But what marked the 2009 champs was their ability to win close games, often at the last possible moment. A team character was fashioned, and it oozed with self-belief. In the same way that Yankee fans never thought they'd lose to Boston pre-2004, even in the direst circumstances, it seemed impossible that Girardi's Yanks could succumb under pressure. They'd find a way to win, no matter how dicey the situation appeared.

That hasn't quite happened to the 2010 team, but the weekend wins over the White Sox was a huge step in the right direction. After dropping 2 of 3 to Toronto and losing Friday's opener on the south side, the Yanks stood at 12-13 for the month of August. But on Saturday, the bats came alive, staking big CC to a huge lead that he and the bullpen maintained. The next day, two early runs were enough in a pressure cooker of a game that resembled something you might see in October. Ozzie Guillen's late ejection showed just how much this rubber game meant to the Sox, and it was no less important to the visitors. A surprising competent turn by Joba made the win possible, and the Yanks have practically cemented their place in the postseason.

That last accomplishment is due in large part to the Rays, who took their series against Boston with a 5-3 win on Sunday night baseball. The Sox are now 6.5 games back of both teams, which is exactly where they were on August 1st. Despite sub-par month-long performances from the Rays and Yanks, Boston could not capitalize. As we've learned before, it just won't do to tread water in the AL East. If the current leaders both finish 16-16 (which is on the extreme low end of sensible predicting), Boston would need to finish 22-9, a ridiculous win percentage of .709. The bells are tolling in Faneuil Hall.

Other news:

-The European Ryder Cup team is set in stone. Captain Colin Montgomerie, one of the more contentious and hateable Euros around, chose Padraig Harrington, Edoardo Molinari, and Luke Donald with his extra picks. The U.S. squad won't be firm for another week, but they certainly won't look quite as nice on paper. It's an absurdly strong European side this year, and Wales will be an uphill battle for the good guys.

-Apparently becoming a fan of UNC football was enough to curse the entire institution. To add injury to the ongoing NCAA probe, the school has now begun investigating academic infractions. Apparently, a tutor wrote several class papers for some of the players without their intellectual input. Some folks on the Scout forums are raising the good question of whether this would be a big deal at an SEC school. It also makes you wonder this: is it possible to build an elite Division 1 college football team without opening your program up to various improprieties? Are the characters of elite athletes (broadly speaking) too corrupted? It's certainly enough to make you cynical.

-The US Open begins today! ESPN has a nice story on the possibility of Rafa and Roger meeting in the final. It's never happened in Flushing before, and it could only happen this year if both make it to the final. The article even produces a bit of humor from Rafa:

Nadal shared Federer's sentiments.

"I would like to play against him in this year, because I can only play against him in the final," Nadal said.

"[If] we play in five years, maybe we can play in third round."

There's nothing quite as exciting in tennis as the night-time matches in New York, and it will make the next couple weeks very interesting.

-Japan took down Hawaii for the Little League World Series championship. The Japanese team was a lot of fun to watch, and they had to fight for their lives against Mexico and Taipei earlier in the tournament, but the championship was a bit ruined by a ridiculous strike zone. Hawaii's biggest rally was killed when the Japanese pitcher exploited the possibilities by throwing "strikes" that crossed beyond the opposite batter's box. Each time, Musberger and Hersheiser made sly comments about how the strike zone is different, but they stopped short of openly criticizing the umps. But I shall not! It ruins the game when balls that the batter couldn't even reach are considered strikes. And some of the wacky commenters at YahooSports agree with me. That said, it was still a fun tournament, and I'm ridiculously impressed at how good these kids are, particularly on the defensive side.

-Coach K and the US are out to a 2-0 start at the World Basketball Championships. As you might expect, the play is pretty lackadaisical, and there's a lot of griping and moaning from Team USA. It's interesting to watch Coach K on the sideline being sort of passive about it all; he definitely takes a calmer approach to the pro game. If Duke players acted like that, they'd be benched, but obviously that kind of discipline is impossible with professionals. It will be interesting to see whether pure talent can take the US to the title.

That's it for Monday, enjoy yourselves.

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