Thursday, April 18, 2013

Down the Playoff Stretch for the Red Wings

      The Detroit Red Wings have five games left in the regular season and as it stands going into play on Thursday 4/18, they are in ninth place two points out of the last playoff spot.  If they miss the post season it will be the first time in 21 years.  Can they pull it out, make the playoffs and extend that streak?  If they want to, they need to play better and get help from other teams in these last few games.  The Columbus Blue Jackets are the team the Wings are chasing and they have four games left in the season.  The play in Los Angeles, in San Jose and in Dallas before returning home to play Nashville, which means they face two teams already in the playoffs, one team that is out and one team, Dallas, that still could make it.  The Jackets are 0-2 against the Kings this season, 2-0 against the Sharks, 1-1 versus Dallas and 3-1 against Nashville.  Detroit, on the other hand, has games at Vancouver, at home against Phoenix, Los Angeles and Nashville before going to Dallas to end the season, meaning two playoff teams, two out and Dallas fighting for their playoff lives just like Detroit.  The Wings are 2-0 against the Canucks, 1-1 against the Coyotes, 1-1 against the Kings, 2-1 against the Predators and 1-1 against the Stars.  Of course this means nothing if Detroit can't start winning their own games.  I have written a few posts about the struggles of the Red Wings and there hasn't been anything done to fix the issues I spotlighted.  The powerplay is still awful, the stars aren't scoring,   the defense is still a sieve and Jonas Gustavsson is a horrible netminder, what ever happened to Petr Mrazek?  If the Wings have any hope at all they need to start by winning Saturday night against Vancouver.  That is the game they need to focus on, if they can't win that one the season is over.  If they get by the Canucks then the Coyotes become the one game to think about.  That is the only way this will work..  Babcock and his coaches have to keep everybody focused as a laser on the next game, not what are the Blue Jackets doing, or how are the Stars playing.  Nope, the only thing they can be thinking about is the team  they play that night and if they're good enough and lucky enough  to get help from the other teams in the league, then they might get the honor of facing the Chicago Black Hawks, in which case they will be golfing really early and planing on starting the 2014 season in the Eastern Conference.  I'm starting to get to the point of writing them off this year and just looking forward to 2014.  I hope that I'm wrong and they can make the playoffs and go on a deep run but I don't think so.    

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Baseball's Unwritten Rules

      The events of Thursday night in San Diego have brought to the fore MLB's unwritten rules.  If you didn't catch it, this is what happened.  In the bottom of the sixth inning of Thursday's game between the San Diego and the Dodgers.  The score was 2-1 and Carlos Quentin was up with a full count.  Zach Greinke was on the mound and his payoff pitch glanced of the left shoulder.  Quentin, who had been hit by Greinke twice before in their careers took exception to being hit.  He took a step or two in the direction of the mound.  At that point Greinke must have said something because Quentin charged the mound, Greinke lowered his left shoulder and met Quentin just short of the mound.  They were soon snowed under by players coming from both benches.  When order was restored Matt Kemp and Jerry Hariston Jr. along with Greinke were ejected for the Dodgers and Quentin for the Padres.  If you aren't a player or serious fan of baseball then these unwritten rules and their implementation might be rather confusing.  Maybe this post will help you understand the complex dance that occurs between the lines.  In no particular order; Rule #1 Don't run up the score. Rule #2: Don't bunt to break up a no hitter.  Rule #3 don't steal the signs.  Rule #4 If they hit one of yours, hit one of theirs.  Rule #5 Don't throw at somebody's head.  Rule #6 Don't admire your homers.  Rule #7 Don't get too excited.  Rule #8 Don't work the count if the game is out of hand.  Rule #9 Don't swing at the first pitch after back to back homers.  Rule #10 If you get hit by a pitch, don't rub the spot.  OK now that we have named the rules let's explain the rules and the punishments if they are violated.
      Rule #1: Don't run up the score.  If your team is up by ten or more don't take an extra base on a hit, if you blast one in the gap all the way to the wall and it's an easy double stop at first.  Don't steal bases, it will just look like you're padding your stats and will not be viewed kindly.  No bunting, either sacrifices or bunting for hits, just go up there swinging (see Rule #8).  No hit and runs it will look like you're trying to embarrass the other team.  The penalties for violating any part of this rule  can vary from being called out in the press up to and including hitting batters or even throwing at you while on first.
      Rule #2 Don't bunt to break up a no hitter.  If the opposing pitcher has a no hitter going late in the game go up there swinging.  If you bunt successfully everybody, including your own team, will think of you as a pansy and a sneak.  Be a man and try to get a real hit!  If you violate this rule you will be thrown at the next time you come up to the plate against that team.
      Rule #3 Don't steal the signs.  There has always been an acceptable level of cheating in baseball, throwing spitballs and corking bats are against the rules but viewed as OK unless you get caught but this rule has a little bit a gray in it.  If you are a runner on second and figure out the signs and can alert the batter that is acceptable but if you have someone in the stands with binoculars reading the signs or trying to get them off the TV broadcast that, is over the line.  If a team is caught violating this rule they will be called out in the press and it could even attract the attention of the Commissioner.
      Rule #4 If they hit one of your's, hit one of theirs.  This is the rule most casual baseball fans are familiar with and the one that Matt Kemp should keep in mind starting on Monday 4/15 when the Padres come to town.  There are rules that cover this as well.  The player from the other team that is hit should be about the same talent level as the one that was hit from your team.  Don't hit a player high (see Rule #5) and one is all you get.  Even if your best player is plunked you can't hit everybody in their lineup.  Hitters have to remember rules in this situation as well.  If they are next up after back to back homeruns they need to expect at least a brush back pitch and, depending on how bad the pitcher has been pitching, maybe to get hit.  If you are a star on a team and your pitcher hits a star on the other team you should expect to get hit in return.  If you spend too long admiring your homer (see Rule #6), you will get brushed back or maybe hit the next time.  If the rules are followed by your pitcher he will hit one of their hitters in retaliation.  Bench clearing brawls like in the Dodgers/Padres game should be rare if everyone understands the rules.
      Rule #5 Don't throw at someones head.  This one seem fairly simple but you never know.  If you are a pitcher and need to hit someone for whatever reason, don't go up and in with the pitch.  Hit them in the back, on the hip on the lower arm or the leg but stay away from up high.  A sure way to get a batter to charge the mound is to hit him, or even try to hit him, up high.  As we've seen if you start hitting people there will be retaliation and it can get very messy.
      Rule #6 Don't admire your homeruns.  If you crush one that everybody in the stadium knows is gone as soon as it leaves the bat, don't stand at the plate and watch it fly out of the park.  If you do you are showing up the pitcher and he will take it out of your hide the next time you face him.  There are a few exception to this rule; if your name is Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Ken Griffey Jr. you can get away with it for a little while but if you are a rookie, you best put your head down and run.  If it is a borderline foul ball it might be OK to slowly trot towards first but if it goes out speed it up.  In fact if you take too long to run the bases that might get you hit as well.
      Rule #7 Don't get too excited.  Except in very specific circumstances it is not considered proper to show a lot of emotion on the field.  This is the rule that most non-Major Leaguers don't understand.  If you get a walk off hit. run to first and then celebrate with your team mates, unless it is to win the division, the pennant or the World Series don't carry on too much.  If you make too big of a deal about it the other team will notice and remember and make you pay.  You will never see a baseball player jump into the stands when crossing the plate after a homerun or see the pitcher do a complicated dance after getting a strikeout.  OK, maybe Jose Valverde has a borderline celebration but he is a veteran and has been doing it for awhile.  There was a rookie a few years ago that hit his first Major League homerun and pranced around the bases and even gave some fans high fives on his way back to the dugout.  There was a lot made about this, and how it against those unwritten rules.  Baseball favors the Barry Sanders attitude rather than the Terrell Owens attitude, which means act like you've done it before rather than making a big production out of it.
      Rule #8 Don't work the count if the game is out of hand.  If you are up by nine or ten especially late in the game, don't go up to the plate looking for a walk, go up there swinging.  If you are deep into the bullpen don't make the relievers work too hard by being really picky.  This doesn't mean you should chase bad pitches but you should take close ones.  The umpire will help out with this by expanding the strike zone to speed up the game.  The size of the strike zone will be directly related to the size of the lead and the temperature in the ball park.  Pitchers will remember if you get picky in a blow out and there could be consequences later.
      Rule #9 Don't swing at the first pitch after back to back homeruns.  If you are up next after back to back home runs take a pitch to let the pitcher calm down a little bit.  It's OK to swing at the second pitch but the Ms. Manners of baseball says to let that first one go by.  Of course that first pitch could be at you so keep an eye out (see Rule #4).  As with most of these rules pitchers have long memories and plenty of chances to make you pay.
      Rule #10 If you're hit by a pitch don't rub the spot.  This rule is in regards to your team mates, as well as the opposing pitcher.  If that pitcher hit you in the upper arm, let's say, don't rub it because it is a sign of weakness, that pitcher will remember that and throw inside your next at bat.  Other pitchers will see that and follow suit.  As for your own team, you will most likely pay a fine in kangaroo court and your team mates will look at you differently and maybe even question your toughness.
      These are the main unwritten rules in baseball, there are others, but these are the important ones.  If all baseball players remember and follow them they will all get along, if they don't there will be issues.  Today's Major Leagures seem to be most sensitive then past players and get their dander up much quicker.  In the past, players understood these rules and played by them.  Batters knew that if the previous player hit a home run then the first pitch will be inside and if their pitcher hit the other team's star then they could expect to get hit.  When it happened, the batter didn't take offense but just ran to first base and if he felt ill will he tried to make the pitcher the only way he could, by scoring, These rules have been in place for decades and will remain in effect as long as there is organized baseball so players need to learn them and take them to heart.  If they do baseball will remain one of the greatest game in America.     

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Playoff Fate of the Detroit Red Wings.

      The last time the Detroit Red Wings missed the NHL playoffs George H. W. Bush was President, the Soviet Union was still in power, Dances With Wolves won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Bette Midler won the Grammy for Record of the Year.  Pump up the Jam was burning up the airwaves and Cheers and Seinfield were number one TV shows.  2013 might be the year the Wings miss the post season again.  The standings going into play Thursday 4/11/13 have the Red Wings with 43 points in the eighth and last playoff spot.  They are three points behind the Minnesota Wild in seventh but only one point ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes in ninth and two points ahead of the Dallas Stars and Columbus Bluejackets in eleventh place.  Can the Wings hold off the Coyotes, Stars and Jackets and extend their playoff streak, the longest in North American sports, to 21 years?  The Wings have nine games left against, the Sharks, Blackhawks, Flames, Canucks, Coyotes, Kings, Stars and two against the Predators.  That is six games against teams already in the playoffs and three against teams behind them battling for that last playoff spot.  There are a few aspects of their game the Wings need to improve if they have any chance at staying in eighth. 
      The powerplay is an area of concern, as it has been all season, the Wings rank 14th on the powerplay at home with 21.4%, 20th on the road with an anemic 14.5% and 14th overall with 18.3%.  This stat almost as much as any other is the reason the Wings are struggling this year.  I have already written posts on the powerplay and how it can be improved and the Wings have not done enough to improve it.  They still haven't found a person to replace Tomas Holmstrom in front of the net, a good powerplay quarterback is still missing and they are still losing the battles in the corners.  The lack of powerplay scoring effects most other aspects of the offense and if it isn't changed, and fast, then Detroit will either miss the playoffs or lose in the first round.  The Wings are 10-11 in one goal games, 2-4 in two goal games and 7-6 in three or more goal games.  They allow 2.60 goals per game but only score 2.53 goals a game, ranking them 24th in goal differential at -3.  All these stats mean two things; one, the Wings don't have the horsepower to make any kind of comeback especially if they are down by more than one goal.  The other thing it means are teams aren't afraid of the, once potent, Detroit offense which always used to play into Detroit's hands.  If teams are afraid of the offense then they will play tight and when you play tight, mistakes will be made and the Wings used to feast on other team's mistakes.  Without those mistakes the Wings are having to rely on their talent it it just doesn't seem to be there this year. 
      Goals are down across the board.  The Wings don't have one player in the top 40 in goals scored, in fact they only have two players, Pavel Datsyuk and Damien Brunner, with ten goals or more.  There are only seven other team in the entire NHL that have only two ten goal scorers, and only one, Dallas, that has less than Detroit and that includes the other 14 teams not making the playoffs!  Brunner started out fast but has only scored one goal in the last 21 games, Henrik Zetterberg only has eight goals and Johan Franzen only has seven.  The Wings need to do something to get those guys on track.  Detroit is not getting much third and fourth line scoring which puts more pressure on the first two lines, and this year, they're not up for the challenge.  Of course offense isn't the only problem facing the Wings.
      The defense this year is another area in which the Wings need to improve, although it has improved since the start of the season.  Even though he will be the first to admit it Nicklas Kronwall is no Nicklas Lidstrom and is a weaker cornerstone to the defense.  Teams are still getting way too many chances once a puck is around the net and, just as in the offensive zone, players are getting beat to loose pucks and losing the battles in the corners.  The passing in their end has been bad at best and is leading to entirely too many chances for the opposition and Howard's backup Jonas Gustavsson has played poorly this season shifting a bigger burden onto Howard to play well every time.
      These are the issues facing the Red Wings and with only eight games left before the start of the playoffs, they need to figure them out in a hurry or they may miss the playoff for the first time in a long time.  Would that be such a bad thing?  Yes, in a way it would, the fans of the Red Wings expect their team to make a run at the Stanley Cup ever single year, so it would be quite a shock for them.  However, every team needs to go through a rebuilding phase and this looks like the start of Detroit's rebuilding and maybe a lowering of fan expectations is a good thing.  I know players have said time and time again that they feel the pressure to win it all every year in Detroit and who knows how much of a role that plays in their success or failure.  I know that it is a disappointing year for the last year in the Western Conference but hope springs eternal and next year they move to the East and will only have fifteen game outside their time zone and that can only help.  Besides, there is always next year!  Detroit fans have gone long periods of time without winning the Cup and managed to get through it, and they will again.        

Sunday, April 7, 2013

April in the "D"

      Since my last post a lot has changed in the world, I spent a week in Florida where it was too cold and I couldn't even get to Lakeland to see a Tigers game.  I found out I have to have rotator cuff surgery and will have my right arm immobilized for six weeks.  Spring training ended and the regular season started for the Tigers, the NHL trade deadline came and went and The Red Wings didn't make a move.  The Tigers signed an old friend and the Wings just can't seem to get any breathing room in the race for the playoffs.  Every year when April rolls around Fox Sports Detroit calls it April in the "D" because of the start of the Tigers regular season, the start of the playoffs for the Red Wings and if their really lucky, playoffs for the Pistons.  It is always a time of great hope in the hearts of Detroit fans, every year they believe this will be the year the Tigers win a World Series and the Wings will win another Stanley Cup, of course this is not often the case but April is always an expectant time in the "D".
       I always start to get butterflies around this time, I can feel the playoffs and can't wait to see the Wings hoist another Cup, but this year not only is that unlikely to happen but their streak of 21 years of making the playoffs is in real jeopardy.  The Wings can't catch a break and get a little breathing room in that seventh playoff spot.  In their last eleven games they are 8-3 but still only six point ahead of the 13th place Dallas Stars.  How am I supposed to feel secure going into my surgery if I can't even be sure the Wings are going to be playing come the end of April.  What can Detroit do to increase their chances to see their playoff streak extend to 22 years?  Well, the first thing is stop giving up goals!  I know this sounds simplistic and it is but it also is the key to winning.  With the Wings offense just not up to their usual levels their defense need to step up and shut down the opposition.  The offense doesn't need to look up at the scoreboard and see they are behind because, unlike past years, this team just can't make big time comebacks.  In the last eight games the Wings were a disgusting -42 as a team!  That needs to change and change fast, they have started to get players back from injury and their defense is as healthy as it has ever been so they should be able to turn that around.  The Wings haven't been known for a bruising defense but they are still giving teams a running start at their end, they need to start standing those forwards  up and clogging the passing zones.  The other team is still getting way to may chances around the net and Detroit's defense needs to do a better job of clearing out the crease.  The forwards aren't above blame in this instance because they seem to be hanging around the blueline instead of collapsing to the net and helping the defense.  The Wings also seem to have concrete in their skates and are getting beat to every loose puck, getting run down by defensemen on breakaways and just don't seem to be as fast as the other teams.  
      After not making any moves at the trade deadline the Wings announced the signing of coveted free agent defenseman Danny DeKeyser.  He just finished his junior season at Western Michigan University and after going undrafted in this year's NHL entry draft, has much sought after by at least five teams.  DeKeyser decided to sign with this boyhood favorite Red Wings and stay near his childhood home in southeastern Michigan.  He is 6'3" and 205 lbs and amassed 12 goals, 37 assists for 49 points in 138 games for the Broncos.  He will be a welcome addition to a defensive corps in need of a stay at home defensive presence, DeKeyser was named the CCHA defensive defensman of the year the last two seasons and should add another hitter to the Wings blueline.  DeKeyser has already played two games and although hasn't made the stat sheet has played well for a young defenseman.  Mike Babcock is showing confidence in him playing him in shorthanded situations.  If the Wings can string a few wins together and get some of the other teams to lose then they should make the playoffs and once they enter the post season you can't tell what will happen.  Of course Red Wings hockey isn't the only game in town right now and the other team for the Detroit fans to follow are the Tigers.
      After the World Series appearance for Detroit last year expectations are high going into this season.  They still have the reigning American League MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.  Victor Martinez is back from injury and with the addition of right fielder Torii Hunter the Tigers seem to have a potent lineup as least on paper.  Now whether that will translate to success on the field, is another matter.  There are still some questions that need to be answered as the season starts; Will the bats come alive unlike last year.  Who will fill the closer role?  How well will Martinez play this year and can the pitching staff match the success of last year? 
      Last season the Tigers looked like they would have a potent lineup and score a lot of runs but that never quite happened.  The bats started the season as cold as the weather and except for some brief flares stayed that way.  A team that I thought would be scoring ten runs a game were struggling to score five.  This lack of offense effects every aspect of the game and everybody suffered because of it.  Will 2013 be a replay of this or will their lineup live up to it potential?  So far this season it seems to be the former in the Tigers six game so far they have scored a grand total of 24 runs an average of four a game, and that includes to game against the hated Yankees were they scored eight in each game.  If you knock out those two games the Tigers have scored two runs a game.  Of course it is early and the weather is cold but that is what we said last year and it never changed.  Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera have all had good starts but just as last year it drops off precipitately.  After those players Alex Avila is hitting .167 and Victor Martinez is hitting .143.  Jhonny Peralta, another lightning rod for criticism in the off season because of lack of production, is hitting .250 and left fielder Andy Dirks is hitting .154.  If that doesn't change this will be a long, long season for the Tigers and barring another late season swoon by Chicago or Minnesota they will miss the playoffs.        
      In my last post  I wrote that Bruce Rondon had the inside track to be named the closer and it was his job to lose, well, that is exactly what he did.  After a very shaky spring, where he showed a lot of wildness and lacked a strong second pitch, Jim Leyland decided to send him to Toledo for more seasoning.  You have to remember that he had never pitched in the majors and had only eight AAA innings coming into this year.  I'm not saying he won't be the closer of the future or even later this season perhaps, but he needs more experience at the higher levels of baseball.  That said, it still doesn't answer the closer question.  Leyland has said he is perfectly comfortable with a closer by committee approach, I however am not, the Tigers need to name a closer and stick with him.  So much of the closer role is mental and a bullpen staff not being sure who will be called on in any game to close, doesn't allow them to mentally prepare.  Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz, both great closers and starters have said the mental preparation for closing a game is so much more important then the mental prep to start.  If the mental aspect of closing isn't important then every MLB pitcher could do it and that has been proven time and time again to not be the case.  Phil Coke has been called on in the two save situations so far this season and got the save in one and blew it in the other.  After the blown save GM Dave Dombrowski announced the signing of 2012 Tigers closer Jose Valverde to a minor league contract.  This was met with mixed reaction with fans upset at the signing and baseball insiders saying it was a smart move.  According to reports Valverde has dropped 20 pounds, has regained velocity on his fastball and is looking more like the perfect Valverde of 2011 then the Valverde that pitched himself out of a job in the playoffs of 2012.  The contract has an opt out clause for the Tigers, if they don't feel he will work out by May 5th then they can release him with no penalty and they are no worse off then now.  If he can recapture the 2011 form when he was 43 for 43 in save opportunities then the Tigers can have a valuable piece of the puzzle that would allow then to return to the Fall Classic.
      Another piece of that puzzle would be the play of Victor Martinez, if Martinez can play at the level he did in 2011. In 2012 after the opposition got through Prince Fielder the rest of the lineup was pretty easy.  The return of Martinez will add another big bat to the middle of the lineup, further protecting Cabrera and Fielder.  The season Martinez will have is anybody's guess, after missing the entire 2012 season with a knee injury he could go either way.  He could return with a vengeance well rested and ready to go or he could be out of sorts and trying to catch up.  If he is lagging behind it could be a long season for V-Mart and he will hear the questions from the press and maybe even the boos of the fans.  If he is in 2011 form the Tigers could go deep into the post season.  Of course hitting isn't the only issue for the Tigers they need their starters to be as good as they were last year.
      On paper, a phrase you hear a lot in regards to the Tigers, Detroit has one of the best one-two punches in any rotation with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, a pretty good number three in Doug Fister but after that there are concerns.  Anibal Sanchez needs to pitch as good as he did done the stretch and Rick Porcello need to prove that Leyland made the right decision in naming him the fifth starter.  There shouldn't be any worries about Verlander and he should contend for the Cy Young award and the strikeout title.   unless he has the worst season of his career.  Verlander has had 17 wins or more in six of his seven seasons and this year should be no different, unless he has the worst season of his career.  That gives the Tigers maybe the most feared number one pitcher in baseball, what about number two?  MLB analyst and World Series champion catcher Tim McCarver said before the start of the season this year that he believes Max Scherzer will win the American League Cy Young Award.  The 28 year Missouri native has pitched for the Tigers since 2010 and has averaged 14 wins, 196 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.89 in that span.  2012 was a break out year for Scherzer where he finished second to Verlander in strikeouts and had a career high in wins.  We will see if he can build on that success this season and take it to the next level but I think a Cy Young season might be a little over optimistic but I hope I'm wrong.  The third spot is more then ably held down by Doug Fister and he should have another good season, he has averaged 97 strikeouts and a minuscule 21 walks in his two seasons with Detroit and his strikeouts should only go up as his average ERA of 2.65 goes down.  After Fister doubt creeps into the rotation Sanchez ended 2012 on a high note but struggled after his trade to Detroit ended the season with a 4-6 record, 3.74 ERA, 15 walks and 57 K's.  There was a lot of chatter about Sanchez's fate in the off season but the Tigers decided he needed a full season with Detroit and signed him to five year deal worth $80 million, he will now need to prove that it was a wise choice and there isn't a better way to do that then good pitching.  The biggest question in the rotation is Rick Porcello in the fifth spot.  Porcello was the only Tiger pitcher, pitching a full season, that had a losing record, he had the highest ERA among the starters and gave up more hits then any other American League pitcher.  In the off season he was dangled as trade bait and there were many, myself included, that said the Tigers would be better off without him.  After much thought and the failure to get a decent trade offer, it was decided to have a competition between Porcello and Drew Smyly for the fifth spot, the loser ending up in Toledo.  Porcello had a strong spring and won the job but he will be watched like a hawk every start and a few bad ones will restart this debate all over again.  If the rotation can perform up to expectations then a good season might be the result.
      Those are the highlights for April in the "D" the most exciting time to be a fan of Detroit sports.  It is a time of great hope and great expectations and unless the Lions finally pull their heads out the only time of fulfilled expectations.  So there is only one more thing to say: Go Red Wings and Go Tigers!