Friday, August 28, 2009

Yanks AL East lead down to six games after losing two of three to Rangers

While the Red Sox were busy taking three of four from the fading White Sox, the Yankees lost the opener and finale of their series against Texas, who now trails Boston in the Wild Card race by 1.5 games.

I said I was interested to see how Joba Chamberlain would react to pitching on eight days' rest, and the results were terrible. Texas has one of the American League's better offenses and they pounded Chamberlain over four innings to the tune of seven runs, as Joba allowed nine hits and walked three.

The Yankees scored four runs in the first inning on a two-run double by Hideki Matsui and a two-run homer from Jorge Posada. It was 4-2 heading into the fourth inning when everything came undone for Chamberlain. After retiring the first two batters of the inning, he walked Ivan Rodriguez and allowed a single to Chris Davis.

Future All-Star shortstop Elvis Andrus singled home Rodriguez for his third RBI of the game and three consecutive singles later, the Yankees were facing a 7-4 deficit. That deficit would grow to 10-5 heading into the ninth inning, when Jason Grilli and Frank Francisco almost gave it all back.

Grilli walked Johnny Damon to lead off the inning and allowed a single to Mark Teixeira, leading manager Ron Washington to summon Francisco to protect the lead. After a walk to Alex Rodriguez and an RBI single from Matsui, Posada reached on a swinging bunt to third that cut the lead to 10-7.

Robinson Cano singled in two runs to cut the lead to one and put runners on first and second with no outs. A failed sacrifice bunt by Nick Swisher set the stage for Melky Cabrera to be the hero. But Cabrera ripped a line drive right at Andrus, who doubled off pinch-runner Jerry Hairston Jr. at second to end the game.

Andy Pettitte would help the Yankees bounce back in game two with his fifth quality start in his last six outings, allowing just two runs over seven strong innings to pick up the win and tie Lefty Gomez for third on the Yankees all-time wins list. The Yankees took a 4-2 lead into the seventh and exploded for five runs, starting with a based-loaded two-run single from Derek Jeter. Swisher followed with an RBI double and Teixeira drove in two with a long single off the base of the right field wall as the Yanks took game two of the series, 9-2.

Pettitte has pitched great of late for the Yankees, which is nothing new as August has been one of his strongest months over the course of his career. And the Yankees have needed him more than ever with the struggles of Chamberlain, who is proving most of the New York media correct that this innings limit is not helping him or the team right now.

If this limit continues to hamper Joba's consistency, the Yankees should consider putting him back on regular rest for the final two or three weeks of the season, especially if he's going to be a part of their playoff rotation. Limiting his innings has had extremely negative results so far and if this continues the Yankees won't have much choice in the matter, especially if they have legitimate World Series aspirations.

A 7-2 loss in the final game of the series marked the first time the Yankees have lost a series in a month. A.J. Burnett finished an uneven August with a solid performance, striking out a season-high 12 batters over six innings of work and allowing just two hits. But one of those hits was a three-run home run by Ian Kinsler in the fourth inning, which proved to be enough for Texas.

Phil Coke relieved Burnett in the seventh only to allow three hits including another three-run bomb, this one to Davis. Kinsler added a solo shot in the eighth as the Rangers crept closer to Boston in the Wild Card standings with a 7-2 victory.

After a strong June, Coke has struggled in July and August, allowing 17 earned runs in 18.1 innings. Alfredo Aceves has struggled for the past two months as well, allowing 21 earned runs in 31 innings. The resurgence of Brian Bruney (nine August innings, one earned run) has certainly helped in the late innings, but the Yankees will need at least one of Coke or Aceves to return to early-season form if they plan on shoring up their bullpen outside of Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes, as David Robertson has struggled in his last two outings as well.

With the Angels on the verge of adding Scott Kazmir to their rotation, the Yankees are slowing down at a bad time. No one could have expected them to stay as hot as they were out of the break, but their recent inconsistencies in the bullpen and the rotation are scary.

As good as their lineup is, pitching is what wins playoff games, especially in the bullpen. The Yanks still have work to do in the season's final month if they want to prepare themselves to win the AL pennant, and putting a damper on Chicago's playoff hopes in their next series would go a long way towards that goal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sanchez to start season for Jets, even after sub-par performance in Baltimore

What a difference a week makes.

Kellen Clemens started at quarterback in the Jets preseason opener against St. Louis, fumbling on his first drive and once again proving his inability to perform as an NFL starting quarterback. Rookie Mark Sanchez, on the other hand, entered on the team's third drive and made an immediate impact, completing a 48-yard pass to preseason wonder David Clowney.

Fast forward to ten days later. This time it was Sanchez getting the start on a Monday night in Baltimore, facing the aggressive, intimidating defense that new coach Rex Ryan built. After a promising start in his first game, Sanchez looked a rookie in game two.

His first pass of the game turned into a touchdown. For the Ravens. Facing pressure from All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, Sanchez tried to check down into the flat, but threw it right into the chest of defensive end Haloti Ngata, who put the Ravens up 7-0 after a 25-yard return in the game's first minute.

The next possession didn't look much better for Sanchez, who threw a pass that should have been intercepted and taken to the house by Lewis. In four first-quarter possessions, the prized rookie could not move the Jets into Ravens territory, resulting in three punts and the aforementioned turnover.

In the second quarter, Sanchez would show the poise that jumped him up draft boards across the league in April. One trait an NFL quarterback needs is a short memory, and Sanchez bounced back from a rough first quarter to lead the Jets on an 11-play, 64-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 19-yard touchdown pass to Leon Washington.

Washington was the true star of the drive with 54 total yards, including a 16-yard screen pass on third-and-12 and a 15-yard run on third-and-10 to keep the drive alive. The drive also came after the Ravens pulled multiple first-teamers, including Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Nonetheless, it was a positive sign to see Sanchez fight through adversity.

Maybe it was that second-quarter drive that led to Ryan naming Sanchez the Jets' starting quarterback for Week 1 against Houston on Wednesday. Maybe it was Kellen Clemens' continued inability to perform at a high level (or even an average one), as he had an interception of his own returned for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half, on a pass thrown well behind his intended receiver. Regardless, it was the outcome expected by many.

It was clear when the competition was deadlocked at the start of training camp that the job was Sanchez's to lose. Overall, he played well enough not to lose the job and Clemens didn't do anything to win the job, a combination that likely led to Ryan's decision.

I am a believer that rookie quarterbacks should sit and learn for at least half a season before being thrust into a starting role. But I have said all along that the Jets should start Sanchez, even before I saw him throw an NFL pass. I've seen enough of Clemens to know what he can do, and it isn't much. What is there to learn from watching an over-matched quarterback compound his mistakes over and over again?

Sanchez looked good in his first action last week and, while he looked shaky against the Ravens defense, what rookie quarterback wouldn't? He impressed me by staying composed through all the ugliness in Baltimore, a trait which should serve him well in his future, which seems bright.

The road will be bumpy this season, but if the Jets' running game can dominate time of possession and the defense can hold opponents under 20 points more often than not, the Jets could surprise in 2009, much like rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens did last season.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yanks take two from Sox, push lead back to 7.5

With 38 games left to play, the Yankees have what seems like an insurmountable lead in the AL East after taking two of three from Boston over the weekend, the 10th series they've won out of 11 since the All-Star Break. The Red Sox still hold a one-game lead over the Rangers in the Wild Card race, which seems like their only path to the playoffs now.

The Yankees brought their bats in game one, scoring twice in the first inning, four times in the second and six times in the fifth to open up a 12-1 lead. The runs kept coming on both sides but Boston never climbed closer than eight as the Yankees cruised to a 20-11 win.

Hideki Matsui had two homers and seven RBI to lead the Yankee outburst, while Mark Teixeira went 3-5 with three RBI and three runs scored. Nine Yankees in all registered RBI on the day while Andy Pettitte went five innings, allowing seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and two walks.

Pettitte struggled in the fifth and sixth allowing six runs, but Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte came in to clean up the mess. Sergio Mitre continued to struggle in every role the Yankees use him in, pitching the final two innings and allowing four runs in a pressure-less situation.

The Sox got revenge the next night, winning 14-1 on the strength of two home runs and six RBI from Kevin Youkilis. A.J. Burnett struggled mightily on the mound for the Yankees, missing locations consistently and allowing nine earned runs in five innings, including three home runs. Burnett and Jorge Posada couldn't get on the same page all night, but Joe Girardi downplayed any potential conflict between the two after the game.

The Yankees couldn't figure out Boston starter Junichi Tazawa, who allowed the game-winning home run to Alex Rodriguez in the epic 15-inning game two weeks earlier. Tazawa threw six scoreless innings, scattering eights hits and walking two.

New York bounced back in the rubber game, as C.C. Sabathia outdueled Josh Beckett and led the Yanks to an 8-4 victory. Beckett went eight innings and allowed just nine hits, but five were home runs. Matsui hit two more homers, his third multi-homer game of the month. He's finally healthy and is hitting .323 in August with eight home runs and 21 RBI, making a strong case for a new contract after this season.

Neither pitcher walked a batter, but Sabathia threw 6.2 innings of three-run ball, scattering eights hits while striking out eight. Phil Hughes finished the seventh and the eighth and Mariano Rivera closed the door in the ninth in a non-save situation in his first appearance since August 19.

The Yankees continue to roll on the strength of their star-studded lineup, which has proven itself to be the best in baseball from top to bottom. Sabathia threw the best of their starters in the Boston series, but he was rather average. The bullpen also struggled and their pitching staff will need to bounce back for Yankee fans to feel truly confident in the championship hopes.

I'm very interested to see how Joba Chamberlain throws on eight-days rest Tuesday against the contending Rangers, who have one of the more potent lineups in the American League. Chamberlain has struggled in his last three starts after throwing on seven days rest against Boston in early August, after pitching great in his first three starts out of the break on regular rest. This will be his second start on extended rest as a part of his innings limit and it will be intriguing to see how he reacts. If he continues to struggle, the questions will continue from local media outlets on whether the innings limit is helping or hurting him as a pitcher.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

From Super Bowl hero to prison inmate: The rise and fall of Plaxico Burress

In February 2008, it was Plaxico Burress' game-winning touchdown catch with 35 seconds left that lifted the New York Giants to a 17-14 victory over the unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIII. Just 18 months later the tides have turned on Burress, who pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon and will serve two years in prison.

Burress was indicted on two counts of criminal possession of a weapon and one count of reckless endangerment in early August and faced a minimum of 3 and 1/2 years if convicted. By taking a plea bargain that may only require him to serve 20 months, Burress would be out of jail in time for the 2011 season, when he will be 34 years old.

Unlike Michael Vick, who was 27 when he went to jail, Burress is on the wrong side of 30 entering his incarceration. It will be difficult enough for Vick to make it all the way back at age 29, but at 34 it was be nearly impossible for Burress to resume his playing career after two seasons away, let alone be an elite receiver. There have also been rumors of an NFL lockout before the 2011 season, which would further hinder Burress' prospects of returning to the NFL.

Burress had arguably his best season in 2007 when the Giants won the Super Bowl, catching 70 passes for 1,025 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns and easing the maturation process of now-overpaid quarterback Eli Manning. After catching 10 balls for 133 yards in last year's season opener, Burress managed just 25 receptions, 321 yards and four touchdowns in the following nine games. But his declining performance was only the beginning of Burress' troubles in 2008.

Burress concealed a loaded handgun in his waistband at a Manhattan nightclub and shot himself in the thigh when it slid down his leg, nearly shooting a security guard in the process. He was with teammate Antonio Pierce at the time and Pierce, who took the unlicensed gun to his own home to protect Burress, was later cleared of any wrongdoing. But the damage had been done to Burress, the Giants' season (they finished 2-4 without Burress, including an opening-round loss to the hated Eagles) and now, Burress' NFL future.

This is just the latest in a string of legal issues involving NFL players. Michael Vick has gotten a second chance with the Philadelphia Eagles, while Donte Stallworth has been suspended without pay for the 2009 season after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter and serving 24 days in prison.

Vick served his time in prison for killing dogs and Burress will serve his too. Whether Burress deserves to spend two years in prison is another debate. It seems like an example is being made out of Burress due to his celebrity status, especially after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out and asked prosecutors to "throw the book" at Burress. He was stupid, but stupidity alone is not a crime deserving of two years in prison.

Stallworth committed possibly the most egregious crime of the three in taking a human life while driving under the influence and the fact that he got away with just 24 days in prison is a joke, especially in comparison to the punishments Vick and Burress received for their crimes. But I digress.

It seems unlikely that Plaxico Burress will return to the NFL when he gets out of prison, considering his advanced age and declining performance in 2008. If he does return, one can only hope that his next shot will be nowhere near his own leg.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brett Favre has his swim trunks. And his FLIPPY-FLOPPIES!

If I was tired of hearing about Brett Favre until a few weeks ago, now I'm absolutely sick to my stomach that he's actually coming back. I was so happy to not have to turn on my TV and hear about Favre non-stop for two weeks, but when the news broke yesterday that multiple Vikings players expected him to be their quarterback, the reality dawned on me. This saga wasn't over. And now that's he's "officially" back, we will continue to hear about him way too much for anybody's good.

Yes, Favre is an upgrade over the Vikings current stable of quarterbacks, but in no way is he the Brett Favre of old. He struggled down the stretch with the Jets last season due to a small tear in his right rotator cuff, an injury which still hasn't gone away. So why anybody thinks this old man can make it through an entire season of football and playoffs is beyond me.

Favre started last season healthy and couldn't make it through and now he will be starting this season injured. It also seems like he just didn't feel like going to training camp this season, which is why he "retired" again in the first place. What does that say about the man's commitment to his new team? I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't even pass his physical.

Even if he does, my guess is that this rotator cuff injury flares up at some point late in the season, enough to significantly affect Favre's on-field performance or relegate him to the bench. Then the Vikings will have the pleasure of telling Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels that they now need them to come in and play after stringing them along throughout the Favre situation, basically saying they weren't good enough to lead this team where it wants to go. That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, as neither Jackson nor Rosenfels is good enough to step in at a moment's notice and perform at a high level.

If Favre stays healthy, he will definitely be better than both of those quarterbacks. And he will lead the Vikings to a division title, the playoffs and maybe even the Super Bowl. He has the best running back in football at his disposal in Adrian Peterson and two play-making wide receivers in Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin, as well as tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

The Vikings defend the run as well as any other NFL team and the addition of Favre will definitely make them a more complete club. Plus Favre has the added motivation of playing his former team twice, the team he feels forced him into retirement after he led them to a 13-3 record in 2007 in favor of 2005 first-round pick Aaron Rodgers

There are just way too many ifs right now to say whether or not this move will backfire on the Vikings like it did on the Jets last season. But at least the players are on board with bringing Favre in. When Favre joined the Jets last season at the expense of Chad Pennington many players were upset, including top receiver Laveranues Coles, who had a very close personal relationship with Pennington.

Favre fits in much better with the weapons the Vikings have on offense and he is familiar with the offensive scheme. Whether he's on the field in December and January to make an impact at the season's most important juncture is the real question. Personally, I will be rooting hard for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this season. Cheeseheads unite!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Yanks open up 7.5-game lead on Boston after taking three of four in Seattle

The Yankees are playing the best late-season baseball I've seen them play in years. The youthful exuberance brought on board by the likes of Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett has turned this team into a fun-loving group that enjoys watching each other succeed, especially in important late-inning situations. General manager Brian Cashman has done well to hang on to young players in the system over the past few years (Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and the ever-excitable Joba Chamberlain come to mind). This year's version of the Yankees has a solid mix of old and young and they couldn't have picked a better time to bring it all together.

After allowing 28 hits in his previous 19.2 innings, second-half stud C.C. Sabathia has allowed just five in his last 15.2, striking out 19 Boston and Seattle batters and allowing just one earned run. The Yankees gave him plenty of run support in the series opener, with Hideki Matsui belting two homers and driving in five against ex-Pirate Ian Snell on their way to an 11-1 win.

This is the same Ian Snell who just a few weeks ago refused a recall from AAA in Pittsburgh, saying he was "happy" where he was (talk about motivation and desire). He was then traded to the Mariners along with shortstop Jack Wilson and promptly added to the major-league roster, where he has surprised nobody by struggling. Snell allowed eight earned runs in six innings, while Sabathia got his fifth win in his last six starts. Seems like not even below-average players like Snell want to play for the Pirates anymore.

In game two of the series, Seattle put up a two-spot against Andy Pettitte in the first inning but Pettitte settled down and threw five scoreless innings after that, allowing the Yankees to tie the game. Pettitte battled through those six innings, throwing 111 pitches, but struck out a season-high 10 batters and kept the Yankees within striking distance.

Mark Teixeira (pictured right) hit the go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth inning, a moon shot to right field that was gone the moment it left the bat. He has been building a strong case for the AL MVP with his power and Gold Glove defense, which has saved the Yankees infield (Robinson Cano in particular) from numerous throwing errors. The Yanks would add an insurance run on a Swisher single to make it 4-2, providing plenty of cushion for Mariano Rivera to shut the door.

After Pettitte's departure, Brian Bruney and Phil Hughes pitched scoreless innings to set up Teixeira's heroics. Bruney seems to be putting it together once again, as he hasn't allowed a run in his last five innings of work. A healthy and effective Bruney would go a long way to making this Yankee bullpen even more effective. Good pitching from Bruney will allow Alfredo Aceves to work in long relief and Phil Coke to work situationally, while Bruney can handle the seventh and Hughes can continue his dominance in the eighth on the path to Rivera.

In game three, Sergio Mitre finally put together a decent start for New York, pitching into the sixth inning and allowing just one earned run, the first time all season he has allowed less than three. He allowed seven hits and walked two, but kept the Mariners at bay after the Yankees scored four unearned runs in the second inning, capped by a two-run home run by Swisher.

Going for the sweep in game four, the Yankees came up well short, losing 10-3. But in the process, Derek Jeter become the all-time leader for hits as a shortstop with 2,674, passing Luis Aparicio in the process. Chamberlain, who was initially supposed to start Sunday but was pushed back to Wednesday and then back to Sunday again, allowed four earned runs for the third straight straight. His first three starts after the All-Star Break were outstanding and his last three have been pedestrian. So what gives?

Lots of pundits will look at the proposed innings limit and blame that for Joba's struggles, despite the fact that his last two starts have come on regular rest. Many Yankee fans, including myself, probably got a little too excited about Joba's performance out of the break. He's still just 23 years old and prone to bouts of wildness (12 BB in his last 16 IP). And as I mentioned in my last Yankees blog, he has thrown more innings already this season than any other season in his career.

Chamberlain's next start will be on Tuesday, August 25 after eight days rest and I'm very curious to see how he will react to the extended rest. He is a prime example of why pitchers should not be treated with kid gloves in the minor leagues.

If the Yankees continue to pitch him on regular rest and tax his arm for an extra 50-60 innings, they may compromise his future. But by throwing him intermittently for the final month and a half and not preparing him for the rigors of playoff baseball, they may compromise the best chance they have to win a World Series THIS SEASON: A four-man rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte and Joba that few teams in baseball, if any, can match. In the end, protecting Joba's young arm over the past few seasons has put them in a no-win situation this season.

For now, New York has a 7.5-game lead on the Red Sox, who dropped two of three to Texas over the weekend. The Rangers now hold a half-game lead in the Wild Card race, a game ahead of Boston in the loss column. If the season ended today, Boston would be out of the playoff picture, a dream for all Yankees fans.

The only problem with that is I don't see Texas' pitching holding up the rest of the way, as their starters outside of Kevin Millwood came into the season with just 12 career victories. But they can hit and the back end of their bullpen is solid, so if their patchwork rotation can hold up for another month or so, we may see a Rangers-Yankees divisional matchup, one in which the Yankees could average 7-8 runs per game on their way to the ALCS against the Angels (yes, I'm discounting whichever team wins the sad AL Central).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sanchez comes out firing in preseason loss to Rams

Most Jets fans tuned in to their preseason opener against the Rams for one major reason: To watch rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez take the field for the first time in a New York uniform. And Sanchez made quite a debut.

On the last play of the first quarter, Sanchez entered on the team's third drive which began from inside their own 10. Brian Schottenheimer challenged Sanchez to make a play down the field and he responded with a 48-yard connection to David Clowney down the right sideline on his first NFL snap.

Sanchez dropped back into his own endzone, looked left, shoulder faked to hold the safety and turned back to the right. Seeing Clowney a step past the corner, Sanchez lofted a perfect pass into a tight window before the safety could get over to help. After two completions to Dustin Keller, including one on third down to keep the drive going deep in Rams' territory, Thomas Jones ran it in from a yard out.

On his first drive as a Jet, Sanchez led the Jets to a touchdown, throwing for 88 yards and completing three out of his four pass attempts. It would be his only drive of the game (left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was also pulled after the drive, so the Jets likely didn't want to expose Sanchez), but talk about making a first impression.

Sanchez has already been named the starter for the next game against Baltimore over Kellen Clemens, who was 4-4 for 24 yards but didn't protect the football on the first drive, losing a fumble that set up a St. Louis field goal. Word out of camp already had Sanchez in a close race with Clemens and if he continues to outperform Clemens on the field, the starting job should be his to start the season.

If that's the case, I expect Sanchez to have a similar season to Joe Flacco's 2008 campaign. Like last year's Ravens, the Jets have a strong, deep running game with Jones, Leon Washington and rookie Shonn Greene and a reliable possession receiver in Jerricho Cotchery, like Flacco had with Derrick Mason. The presence of a playmaker at tight end will also help Sanchez, as Dustin Keller has a chance to really shine in his second season.

The Jets should have a strong defense even without Calvin Pace for the first four games after his suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy. They looked very aggressive at the outset of this game, coming up with big plays on the blitz to stifle Rams drives. Outside of the lack of a true number-one receiver, the situation is perfect for a rookie quarterback to succeed. And I think Sanchez has the tools to do just that.

As for some other Jets, Jones gained just 13 yards on nine carries and didn't seem like he was running at game speed just yet. Washington only received two carries but the rookie Greene showed his patience, vision and quick feet against the backups in the second half and if he continues to impress, the Jones-for-a-receiver trade rumors will only heat up.

The Jets really should hang onto Jones this season unless a true number-one receiver falls into their lap. His presence in the backfield will do more for Sanchez than a non-star receiver will, and I don't see the Jets getting a star in return for Jones at this point in the preseason.

The Jets receivers aren't much to write home about, but Sanchez will have options to throw to. Clowney had two long catches in this game and should be able to stretch the field, while Cotchery and Keller will be the two reliable targets that Sanchez will likely lean on. Washington, Chansi Stuckey and Brad Smith have all shown potential in the passing game and will give Sanchez plenty of options to work with if he indeed wins the starting job.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Eagles take a flyer on dog-fighting Vick's second chance

Until yesterday, there had been much speculation of teams that were interested in Michael Vick and teams that weren't. Twenty-six teams were supposedly "uninterested" but one had a change of heart, possibly when their backup quarterback went down with a strained knee. Kevin Kolb's injury, as serious as it may or may not be, might have opened the door for Vick's return to the NFL, at least in a Philadelphia Eagles uniform.

Vick will make $1.6 million in his first season with a team option for a second year at $5.2 million, as well as up to $3 million in incentives. With Donovan McNabb already entrenched as their quarterback, the Eagles will likely look to deploy Vick as an offensive weapon multiple times on every drive. These options include the Wildcat formation, splitting Vick out as a receiver or having him share a backfield with McNabb, Brian Westbrook or possibly both. Defenses won't be able to key on just one player. Add rookie running back LeSean McCoy to the mix and Philadelphia's backfield could become a nightmare for opposing defense.

But let's remember how Vick got to this point. In six seasons in Atlanta, he amassed 92 total touchdowns (21 rushing) in 74 games and led the Falcons to the NFC championship game in 2002, losing to McNabb's Eagles. Now let's forget about football for a second.

I am a dog LOVER but I'm not PETA, nor do I want to be. But when I heard Vick was indicted for dogfighting in 2007, I was repulsed. I became even more disgusted when I found out exactly what he did to these dogs, besides bankrolling the operation and related gambling. He fought them against one another in a battle to the death. He personally electrocuted, drowned, shot and hung dogs. Just let that sit in your mind for a minute, and tell me that you can accept that. It's hard. Really, really hard.

Without his money (don't forget the 10-year, $130 million contract extension he signed in 2005 which made him the highest-paid player in the NFL), this federal ring would have never gotten off the ground. Vick began fighting dogs at his parents' house in 2001, according to his father, the same season he was drafted and signed to a six-year, $62 million dollar deal (the largest ever for a rookie). And people say money hasn't corrupted sports? But that's a topic for another day.

Vick spent 18 months in prison and came out remorseful, or so it seems. Then again, after costing yourself millions of dollars, including filing for bankruptcy in 2008, and spending two seasons in the middle of your prime in federal prison, who wouldn't? That being said, I believe Vick deserves a second chance and Roger Goodell obviously agrees with that assessment, as he has set Week 6 as the latest date he will reinstate Vick from his suspension. Personally, I think Vick chose a very interesting destination for that opportunity.

I was in "The City of Brotherly Love" over the July 4th weekend to watch the Mets-Phillies series, so I know firsthand how unbrotherly and unloving the brutal Philly fans can be. And I wasn't even wearing Mets clothing. Some New Yorkers will sarcastically snide that he'll fit in great, but he will undoubtedly be on a short leash with many dog-loving fans.

Vick's best bet is to continue the contrition he has shown, which seems genuine but is really nothing but talk at this juncture. He needs to go out and make an impact in the community to put an end to dogfighting, whether he legitimately means it or not. It's his only option, and it's definitely the only way fans will even considering overlooking his past disgressions.

I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sincerity. At the very least he has to be remorseful for selfish reasons. Vick has to realize his involvement in dogfighting and subsequent time spent in prison likely ruined what had the potential to be a Hall of Fame career, not to mention one with a great deal of financial security towards the future. Vick obviously regrets his actions even if it's only because he got caught, and I think he will do whatever is necessary to repair his virtually irreparable image.

Now back to football. Vick has essentially no chance of being an impact player in the season's first half. He has been out of the league for two seasons and will have to sit multiple games at the beginning of the season. Once reinstated, he will need a few weeks to work up to game speed, meaning he likely won't make an impact in the season's first 10 weeks.

But if he quickly develops an understanding of the Eagles' offense (or a few unique packages) and the Eagles find useful ways to deploy his explosive speed and ability in the open field, Vick can become an impact player and quickly. If I was offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, I would be salivating at the idea of adding a dynamic player like Vick to my offense regardless of the uncertainty surrounding what "position" he will play. Vick is a football player and a really good one, at least he was.

He is the quintessential quarterback for the Wildcat offense. He can line up in the backfield, he can split out wide and come in motion and he can even line up under center or in the shotgun formation. The options are endless with Vick's skill set and if Mornhinweg can find effective ways to utilize his game-breaking ability, this offense has the potential to be dangerous. When everything starts to come together for Vick is anybody's guess.

I'm intrigued to see what happens with Vick down the line. McNabb has two years left on his contract, so the Eagles could look to develop Vick into McNabb's replacement if they don't see a starting position in Kolb's future. If Philadelphia picks up Vick's option for year two, both him and McNabb will have expiring contracts in 2011.

Everything Michael Vick can do on the field for the Eagles is purely on his shoulders. But it won't be enough if he doesn't work even harder off the field. This will not be an easy task for Vick and the Eagles are taking an obvious risk, less in terms of money and more in terms of the perception of their fan base. Signs of protest in Philadelphia have included "Hide your beagle, Vick's an eagle."

If Vick can't shake the dog-fighting tag that will follow him wherever he goes, he may struggle to live up to the on-field expectations of some. But in a fall to rock bottom, some people gain perspective. Let's hope Michael Vick turns out to one of them. Maybe then he will have my respect. Maybe.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Yanks win third straight series, seventh of eight post-Break

The Yankees came out of the All-Star Break firing on all cylinders, winning their first eight games and 11 of their first 13. After losing three of four to the White Sox in Chicago, the Yanks have gone back to their winning ways, taking eight of nine against Toronto and Boston, including a seven-game winning streak. Overall, they stand 20-6 since the Midsummer Classic and have gained 8.5 games on the Red Sox, who led the AL East by three games before the break.

The runs came early in the series opener, which Toronto took by a 5-4 score. The Sergio Mitre-Mark Rzepczynski pitching matchup played a large part in that, as Mitre allowed five runs (three earned) in five innings and has yet to allow less than three earned runs in any of his five starts this season. Rzepczynski allowed four earned in three-plus innings, but the Jays bullpen shut down the Yankees after he was pulled, as a fifth-inning Lyle Overbay home run proved to be the decisive blow.

Game two saw the Yankees hit back-to-back home runs for the fourth time in the last eight days. With the Yankees trailing 4-3 heading into the eighth, Hideki Matsui led off the inning with a home run to right field off Jesse Carlson and Jorge Posada followed with one of his own to put New York up 5-4. This came just a day after Robinson Cano and Jerry Hairston Jr. went back-to-back in the first game of the series, while Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira did it twice the week before. The Yankees would add two more runs to give Mariano Rivera a three-run cushion for the save, as Rivera allowed an Edwin Encarnacion solo shot but still picked up his 33rd save of the season.

The Yankees would win the series in walk-off fashion in game three, their 11th win in their final at-bat this season. It seems like every night there's a new hero for this well-balanced offensive juggernaut, and yesterday it was Robinson Cano coming up big in the bottom of the 11th inning. After Alex Rodriguez was hit by a pitch and Posada singled him to second, Cano drove one off the base of the wall in right field to plate Rodriguez with the winning run and give the Yankees a 4-3 victory.

A.J. Burnett faced his former team for the third time this season, allowing 10 hits and three earned runs over six innings, walking two and striking out seven. Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Romero also allowed three runs in six innings, and both bullpens held for the next few innings. Chad Gaudin picked up his first win as a Yankee with two scoreless innings in relief, and will be counted on for greater contributions in the near future.

With Joba Chamberlain closing in on his organization-imposed innings limit, the 23-year-old will make his next start on seven days' rest with Gaudin taking Joba's spot in the rotation on Sunday, pushing the young phenom back to Wednesday against Oakland. Chamberlain, who threw just 112.1 professional innings in 2007 and 100.1 in 2008, is already over 120 innings this season and the Yankees would like to keep that number as low as possible heading to the playoffs. After three great starts after the break, Joba struggled against Boston and Toronto, allowing 11 hits, nine walks and eight earned runs in 11 innings.

The Yankees are right to be cautious with their future ace because of the way he has been handled (read: babied) to this point in his career, especially since he will be a big part of their playoff rotation. Manager Joe Girardi was quoted as saying, "All hands on deck," when asked if Chamberlain would be fully available for use in the postseason

There have been plenty of horror stories of young pitchers being overworked. Last season, the Reds' Edinson Volquez threw 196 major-league innings, more than twice what he had logged over the previous three seasons in the big leagues. After an injury-plagued campaign this year, Volquez will undergo Tommy John surgery. Kerry Wood had Tommy John surgery in 1999 after throwing 166.2 innings as a rookie, and Burnett threw more than 375 innings before his 25th birthday before going under the knife. Francisco Liriano lost the 2007 season to Tommy John after throwing 121 innings at age 23, eerily close to Joba's age and workload this season. And if the Yankees plan on using Joba full-throttle in the playoffs, this is the right move for the next seven weeks.

As for Gaudin, he has had sporadic success as a starter in the past but has been inconsistent. His control issues prevent him from lasting deep into games, as he reached the seventh inning in just six of his 19 starts with San Diego. He posted a 5.13 ERA with the Padres before being acquired by the Yankees, leaving spacious Petco Park for homer-happy Yankee Stadium.

Hopefully a new start will rejuvenate Gaudin, who has 108 strikeouts in 107.1 innings this season. With the Yankees trotting him and Mitre out twice every six games the rest of the way, one of them has to step up if the Yankees are to keep Boston at bay. The Red Sox got back on track taking the first three from the Tigers at Fenway, closing the gap in the division to 5.5 games.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Yanks sweep Sox with timely hitting, dominant starting pitching

On Friday night, it was A-Rod's first home run in 72 at-bats in the bottom of the 15th inning. On Sunday night, it was Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira going back-to-back for the second time in a week to put the Yankees up for good, 3-2. And after a 13-6 victory in the series opener, it was A.J. Burnett, C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte throwing 22.1 scoreless innings against a depleted Red Sox lineup that, if it weren't for a two-run home run by Victor Martinez in the eighth inning on Sunday, would have been shut out for 33 consecutive innings in the final three games of the series.

It was complete dominance by the Yankees at the Stadium this weekend, in stark contrast to the 8-0 mark Boston had compiled against the Yanks this season. And with the four-game sweep, New York has opened up a comfortable 6.5-game lead in the AL East, the largest lead of any division leader. They also dropped the Red Sox into a tie with Texas for first in the Wild Card race, with Tampa threatening just 1.5 games out.

The Red Sox are now left with plenty of questions heading into the season's home stretch, riding a season-high six-game losing streak. After allowing eight earned runs in three-plus innings on Thursday, 42-year-old John Smoltz was designated for assignment by the team, another blow to their weakened rotation with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield already on the disabled list. The health and effectiveness of Jason Bay, who missed the first three games of the series and is batting just .252, is up in the air and David Ortiz has fallen into another slump since his rumored use of performance-enhancing drugs became public. Speaking of Ortiz, does anybody really buy his explanation? I certainly don't.

The Yankees, on the other hand, now have the best record in baseball at 69-42, ahead of the 67-45 Dodgers by 2.5 games. After Joba Chamberlain imploded in game one, allowing four earned runs, six hits and seven walks in five innings, the starters were lights-out in the next three games. The bullpen did solid work in relief of Joba and put together seven-plus innings of shut-out baseball in the marathon that was Friday night's game two, while the Red Sox were down to the final man in their bullpen, rookie Junichi Tazawa, who allowed A-Rod's game-winning blast into the left field seats.

The one negative to take from the series, if any, is the fact that the Yankees did struggle against Boston aces Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who combined to allow just one earned run in their 14 innings on the mound. It isn't every day you get to face the John Smoltz's and Clay Buchholz's of the world, so the Yankees will need to hit good pitching to make noise in the playoffs. When the bottom third of your lineup consists of Robinson Cano (.313 average, 16 home runs), Nick Swisher (18 home runs) and Melky Cabrera (.279 average, 11 home runs) that shouldn't be a problem, especially once Brett Gardner returns from injury and gives the Yankees the base-running threat they lack in his absence.

The Yankees will stay home for another three-game set with the Blue Jays and Roy Halladay is not scheduled to pitch. Boston will try to get back on track at Fenway Park as the AL Central-leading Tigers come to town. Detroit is just 23-33 on the road this season, so this opportunity will be as good as any for the Sox to right the ship. If they don't they could be looking up at teams in both the AL East and the Wild Card race.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Yanks take down Jays, get help from Rays

The Yankees did Tuesday what they have been generally unable to do in recent years. Beat Roy Halladay. Halladay went the full nine innings for Toronto but allowed three solo home runs in the final two innings, including just the second pair of back-to-back home runs of his career to Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira in the eighth.

Andy Pettitte threw 6.2 innings of one-run ball and Mariano Rivera came in with two outs and two on in the eighth, allowing a two-run double to Vernon Wells that cut the Yankee lead to 4-3. Hideki Matsui gave Rivera all the insurance he would need with a bomb over the center field wall in the ninth. It was just the fourth time in their last 16 games facing Halladay that the Yankees won.

Sergio Mitre struggled again the next night, lasting just 4.1 innings and allowed three earned runs on eight hits. But Toronto counterpart Mark Rzepczynski didn't fare much better, allowing four earned in six innings. New York was down 3-2 after an Adam Lind solo homer in the fifth, but exploded for four runs in the seventh inning.

Nick Swisher led off the inning with his 18th home run of the season and Robinson Cano doubled to knock out Rzepczynski. Matsui, Damon and Teixeira all added RBI singles in the inning. Alfredo Aceves gave one back in the bottom of the inning on a home run by Marco Scutaro, but Phil Hughes and David Robertson shut the Jays down in the eighth and ninth to seal the Yankees' 8-4 win.

While the Yankees won two, the Red Sox lost two to division rival Tampa Bay. Evan Longoria hit a two-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the 13th off Takashi Saito in game one, while David Price outdueled Brad Penny the next night as Tampa picked up a 6-4 victory to pull within three games of Boston for the Wild Card and 5.5 of the Yankees in the AL East.

Now it's showtime for the Yankees, who will host the Red Sox for four at the Stadium. The Yanks are 31-16 since the last time they played Boston, a three-game sweep at Fenway. The Yankees went into that series hot as well, having won 19 of their previous 25 games. With an 0-8 record against the Sox this season and riding another extended hot streak, this is by far the Yankees most important series of the season to date.

They will throw their top four starting pitchers and if they can take three of four from Boston, they can increase their lead to 4.5 in the division. And if they can completely reverse this season's results and pull off a sweep of their own, they will send the Red Sox back to Fenway down 6.5 games in the division. The absence of Jason Bay for games one and two will surely help the Yankees cause as they look to stay hot against their biggest rival.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cabrera's cycle saves Sabathia and Yankees from sweep in Chicago

Coming up with one out in the top of the ninth and the Yankees hanging on to a 7-5 lead, Melky Cabrera knew getting on base could get the Yankees an extra insurance run in the final game of their four-game series with the White Sox. He also knew he was just a triple away from the cycle, a hit that had eluded him all season. Cabrera ripped a shot to right field and Jermaine Dye misplayed it, trying to make the catch and instead letting it sail well over his head. Cabrera and every other Yankee was thinking triple once the ball rolled to the wall and as Melky slid into third just ahead of the relay throw from Chris Getz, he registered the first Yankee cycle since Tony Fernandez in 1995.

Derek Jeter singled him in three batters later, and Cabrera was able to provide that insurance for the Yankees and make history in the process. Since regular center fielder Brett Gardner hit the disabled list on July 26, Cabrera has played great, going 10-for-28 with two home runs, five runs and five RBI. His strong throwing arm has also been a welcome addition to the Yankees outfield.

Cabrera was 4-for-5 in the game, driving in four of the Yankee runs and scoring three more. C.C. Sabathia continued to get hit hard, but didn't walk a batter in seven innings and struck out five, allowing five earned runs on ten hits in the process to get the win. New York roughed up Mark Buehrle, who allowed seven runs on twelve hits in four-plus innings and has struggled since throwing his perfect game and retiring a major-league record 45 consecutive batters.

The Yankees needed a game like this after dropping the first three to Chicago, allowing 27 runs in those games. The first game was a battle which the Yankees dropped 3-2 on a walk-off single by perfect-game hero DeWayne Wise, who made one of the best catches of all-time to rob Gabe Kapler of a home run in the ninth inning of Buehrle's perfect game. Phil Coke gave up the slow-rolling ground ball up the middle to Wise with speedster Scott Podsednik on second and Cabrera had no chance to throw him out. Wise's heroics came just a half-inning after Nick Swisher homered to tie the game at two.

Sergio Mitre and A.J. Burnett couldn't get the job done on the mound in the next two games, as Mitre has struggled to summon the ghost of Aaron Small. After three starts, his ERA stands at 7.90 after allowing five earned runs in just three innings of work. Alfredo Aceves struggled for the second straight outing after entering facing a one-run deficit, allowing four runs in 1.2 innings after David Robertson gave the Yanks a chance with two innings of one-run ball. New York went from being down 6-5 when Aceves entered to being down 10-5, which held as the final.

Burnett didn't have much better luck the next day, ending his string of eight straight quality starts with a horrific outing. It started with a second-inning bases-loaded walk to the ninth batter in the lineup, Jayson Nix, and three straight hits later the Yankees found themselves in a 6-0 hole. The Yankees clawed back for two runs in the third, but Burnett issued his second bases-loaded walk of the game to Nix in the fifth, ending his day.

Things went from bad to worse for the Yankees in the eighth as Phil Coke, pitching for the first time since allowing Wise's walk-off, allowed six earned runs in just one-third of an inning, culminating in a 14-4 blowout for the White Sox.

When you allow 32 runs in a four-game series, it's usually safe to say pitching let you down. But it was a team effort for the Yankees, as the defense committed three errors (two in the opener) and both the starters and the bullpen crumbled away from Yankee Stadium. After losing just once on their ten-game homestand to start the second half, the Yanks have dropped four of seven on their current road trip, which will end after a two-game series with Toronto Tuesday and Wednesday.

Andy Pettitte will go against Blue Jays ace (still) Roy Halladay, who Toronto was unable to unload before the deadline. The Yankees are 3-12 in their 15 games against Toronto that Halladay starts. The struggling Mitre will get the second start of the series before the Yankees welcome the Red Sox to Yankee Stadium for a four-game set.

Boston has climbed to within a half-game of the Yanks and will play two in Tampa in the meantime, with the Jon Lester-Matt Garza first-game matchup looking particularly intriguing. Based on their probable starters, the Yankees could go into that series looking up at Boston in the standings and will need to break their winless streak against the Red Sox, as a four-game sweep would prove devastating to a team that was up 3.5 games on July 29.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

MLB trade deadline passes, biggest name available goes nowhere

From the moment Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi put ace pitcher Roy Halladay on the trading block, he represented by far the best player available to contenders looking to upgrade their rotations. And with a year left on his deal after this season, the time was now for the Blue Jays to trade Halladay. Any team who acquired the Cy Young-caliber pitcher would pick up a front-line starter who could essentially affect two pennant races, and would hopefully pay a hefty price for a year and a half of his services.

The Phillies were the first team to become heavily invested in the Halladay sweepstakes, but when the Blue Jays demanded top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek, outfield prospect Dominic Brown and 26-year-old pitcher J.A. Happ, who has allowed just 29 earned runs in 84.1 innings since moving into the starting rotation in May (3.09 ERA), the Phillies said thanks, but no thanks. Instead, Philadelphia traded four lower-level prospects, keeping both Drabek and Brown, to the Indians for starter Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco.

Lee was great in his first start for the Phillies, going the distance and allowing just one earned run on four hits. Despite a 7-9 record in Cleveland (thanks to some of the worst run support in baseball), Lee had a 3.14 ERA and an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 107:33. Winning the American League Cy Young award last season was no fluke for Lee, who has proven this season to be one of the more dependable starting pitchers in the league.

In other National League moves, the Cardinals traded three prospects for Matt Holliday (not Halladay) to give Albert Pujols some protection in the lineup. All Holliday has done in his eight games with the Cards is go 17-for-29 with a home run and eight RBI. One of the only knocks I had on the Cardinals entering the second half was a lack of protection for Pujols, and with this trade I think they have entrenched themselves as the favorites in the wide-open NL Central race.

The Brewers could not acquire another starting pitcher behind Yovani Gallardo before the deadline and Felipe Lopez won't have half the impact Holliday will in St. Louis. The Cubs were also unable to make a big splash and despite a hot start to the second half, could fizzle out as the dog days of summer wear on, especially if the aging Alfonso Soriano hits another terrible slump.

The Dodgers still control the NL West and the trade for Orioles closer George Sherrill will only strengthen the back of their bullpen alongside Jonathan Broxton and Ramon Troncoso. The Rockies and Giants have shifted their sights to the Wild Card race, with Colorado acquiring reliever Joe Beimel from the Nationals and the Giants picking up second baseman Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates to improve their middle infield. San Francisco's pitching will keep them in the race until the end, but the Rockies have been playing great baseball in all facets of the game and look to be the favorites to pick up a Wild Card berth.

Turning to the American League, the biggest splash was made by the Red Sox, who were also amidst the Halladay talks for a short period of time before they also decided Toronto's asking price was just too high. Like Philadelphia, they turned to the Indians, who were the biggest sellers at this year's deadline. Boston acquired All-Star Victor Martinez, giving up pitcher Justin Masterson and two prospects. Martinez has split time between catcher and first base this season and should be in the lineup every day, with the only question being at what position. He was hitting .284 with 15 home runs and 67 RBI and will be a welcome addition to a Boston squad that has scored just 61 runs in 14 games since the break, going 6-8 in that span.

The Martinez acquisition makes the AL East even more interesting, as the Yankees made a few moves of their own, but none of the Martinez/Holliday impact. Eric Hinske was acquired from the Pirates at the beginning of July and has had a big impact in a part-time role, slugging five home runs with eight RBI in just 21 at-bats. Hinske has been relieving Nick Swisher in right field, but has the versatility to play both corner infield positions as well.

Jerry Hairston Jr. was also acquired by the Yankees hours before the deadline for catching prospect Chase Weems. Hairston is your typical jack-of-all-trades utility man who can spell A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and any of the New York outfielders on a given day. Hairston is hitting .254 with eight homers and seven steals in 307 at-bats and will allow Joe Girardi to keep his starters fresh heading into the playoffs. With just a 1.5-game lead over Boston in the division, this should be an extremely fun race to watch.

All three AL Central contenders make moves at the deadline, with the Tigers trading for Mariners pitcher Jarrod Washburn, the White Sox getting pitcher Jake Peavy from the Padres, and the Twins acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera from Oakland. The Tigers currently lead the division but both Chicago and Minnesota are within two games of first place. I will stick to my pick of the White Sox to win the division, especially if Peavy can return from the disabled list in August like he hopes. Washburn has been a revelation this season for the Mariners, and if he can continue that success in Detroit he gives them a scary rotation along with Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, while Peavy would join Mark Buehrle and John Danks at the top of the White Sox rotation and make for another great race down the stretch.

The only AL West contender to make a move were the Mariners, who took advantage of the Pittsburgh fire sale to acquire defensive-minded shortstop Jack Wilson and unhappy starting pitcher Ian Snell. Seattle is eight games out of the Wild Card and 9.5 games back of the division-leading Angels, so this seems like more of a value trade than a move to push for the playoffs. Both the Angels and Rangers were quiet at the deadline, and I expect Texas to fall out of contention soon, leaving the Angels alone at the top of the division.