Wednesday, August 31, 2011

College Football Announcing Watchdoggery - Preseason

Well, this could be fun.

It seems like sports broadcast journalism outlets have been under the microscope throughout this summer. It began with ESPN's gross NFL lockout coverage in favor of, you know, sports that were actually happening. Fascinating baseball stories outside of the usual Yankees/Red Sox with some Phillies thrown in have been largely ignored. And now there's the swirling controversy about ESPN's role in conference realignment and whether or not they're factoring in to it with TV deals, namely ownership of the controversial Longhorn Network. As you'll see later, they're treating it like a big time network. Anyway, with a boom in broadcast journalism interest thanks to these events and the continued "watchdoggery" of sites like Deadspin and Awful Announcing, I've decided to jump on the bandwagon.

I've long been an obsessive over sports announcers. I wanted to be one for the longest time (and still wouldn't mind the job, if offered) and they've always had a strong affect on my enjoyment of a game and even whether or not I'll watch it, in some cases. I suppose it's because of my life for words and description and storytelling but I track these guys hard and hopefully you'll see some of that over the coming weeks.

We begin with the week 1 schedule. For now, I'll mostly just give brief thoughts on the announcing crew, since there's not too much to "watchdog" yet.

Murray State @ Louisville (ESPNU, 6:00 Thu) - Rob Stone, Danny Kanell, Allison Williams
Rob Stone really belongs on the sideline, but for bullshit games like these, he's cool on play by play. Danny Kanell's just a great name to look at and have in your life. This is Allison Williams. Suddenly I might watch this game. At least until...
UNLV @ Wisconsin (ESPN, 8:00) - Rece Davis, Craig James, Jesse Palmer, Jenn Brown
Ugh. I HATE Rece Davis on play by play. He's so much more natural in the studio. Can't we move Dave Pasch or Joe Tessitore or somebody to this spot already and stick Bob Wischusen in their place? The fact that Craig James even has a job for ESPN after the Mike Leach saga is an embarrassment. Palmer is one of the few really bright spots on the network - I think only Herbstreit and Blackledge are better analysts than him. Jenn Brown tends to look better in dresses and modeling shoots, not on the sidelines, but she does decently enough. She was never going to fill Erin Andrews' shoes but she works hard.
Mississippi State @ Memphis (FSN, 8:00) - Ron Thulin, JC Pearson, Jeremy Bloom
Jeremy Bloom?! Bit of a bizarre choice for an analyst. A college football star who lost his eligibility because he took skiing endorsements and a massive flop for the Eagles in the pros. Thulin is solid though and Pearson's okay enough.
Kentucky v. Western Kentucky (ESPNU, 9:15) - Dave Neal, Andre Ware, Cara Capuano
Dave Neal used to do play by play for the SEC Network noon game but now he's moved up to ESPNU. Andre Ware's a moron. Cara Capuano is a dog. I wish this had the Murray State/Louisville team since this is a more interesting game with it being at a neutral site (LP Field in Nashville, home of the Titans) because WKU needs to meet attendance quotas with its "home games."

Youngstown State @ Michigan State (BTN, 7:30 Fri) - Tom Hart, Derek Rackley, Lisa Byington

Tom Hart? I've heard him do a game once or twice, he's solid. Never heard Rackley or seen Byington although googling the latter doesn't turn up much. What's this doing on a Friday night? Guess they can slap it there under the guise of, "there's been no football for seven months, who cares?"
TCU @ Baylor (ESPN, 8:00) - Joe Tessitore, Rod Gilmore, Samantha Steele
Class. Watch this and tell me Joe Tessitore's not a big time announcer. Gilmore's a terrific analyst and the two have a real chemistry and understanding. Man, their broadcasts are fun. Definitely not missing this one. Samantha Steele is cute, but a bit overrated by the folks over at Busted Coverage, as they tend to do with various females. Not surprised, they're a fratty joke blog after all. Of course, this one is mostly grading the female sideline reporters by their looks so I'm an asshole too. In all seriousness, I'll obviously rate their performances fairly but it's like this: if you're getting hired at least in part because of your looks, I'm going to take looks in to account.

Akron @ Ohio State (ESPN, 12:00) - Dave Pasch, Chris Spielman, Urban Meyer, Quint Kessenich

So we have Chris Spielman, an Ohio State graduate and Urban Meyer, who grew up in Ohio, providing color commentary on the Ohio State Buckeyes, the school who spent the most time under the microscope of rules violations. Add in Pasch being a usual (after)noon delight, and that'll be fun. Kessenich, a nice guy whom I've actually met, does an underrated job on the sidelines as well.
Utah State @ Auburn (ESPN2, 12:00) - Beth Mowins, Mike Bellotti
I'm not sure what's scarier - how bad Beth Mowins is or the fact that she's somehow an upgrade from the woman who used to be here: the University of Maryland's own Pam Ward *vomit.* Bellotti's a terrific analyst though, but that was with Carter Blackburn. This will be tougher.
Miami (OH) @ Missouri (FSN, 12:00) - Bill Land, Dave Lapham, Jim Knox
They're okay, I guess. FOX needs to start stepping up its announcing teams now that it's scored some tasty new TV deals. This isn't a Pac-12 game though, which is perhaps why they skimped.
Indiana State @ Penn State (BTN, 12:00) - Matt Devlin, Glen Mason, Dionne Miller
Matt Devlin's finest hour. That's far from his only embarrassing moment on play by play. But it is quite funny when he tries to get excited and yell and it just comes out as an odd grunt. Glen Mason's a joke forever and always. Dionne Miller...yawn.
Middle Tennessee @ Purdue (BTN, 12:00) - Wayne Larrivee, Joe Tiller, Jon Jansen
Oh man, Wayne Larrivee calling a game drooling with upset potential? What a way I might be able to break in Big Ten Network. Fun fact: BTN's first ever game was Appalachian State/Michigan. Since, this timeslot has become infamous for near and actual upsets as well as wild fun games. This one has all the potential to meet those standards.
Tennessee Tech @ Iowa (BTN, 12:00) - Tom Werme, Danan Hughes, Stacy Paetz
Had not heard of any of them before doing this post. As you may have guessed from the name, Paetz is a Latina and not that great looking of one at that. Seems like this team is the bottom Big Ten Network team for a reason...
Appalachian State @ Virginia Tech (ACC, 12:30) - Steve Martin, Dave Archer, Mike Hogewood
Dave Archer's a nice addition. Then again, a block of wood would be an upgrade over Doc Walker. This remains one of the worst broadcasting teams on television. You think Joe Buck sounds boring? Listen to Steve Martin call a game. And Mike Hogewood's just in the way at this point. No one cares about your southern drawl.

USF @ Notre Dame (NBC, 3:30) - Dan Hicks, Mike Mayock, Alex Flanagan, Anthony Herron
I have a feeling Dan Hicks on Notre Dame games is going to be an abortion. Doesn't seem like the football type. Then again, there was once a time that Chris Fowler didn't seem like the tennis type, so these things can change. Mayock's a brilliant analyst though that should keep the broadcast at least above average. Alex Flanagan's hot enough, even if her voice is droning and I thought Anthony Herron was suspended for the first five games of the season. Nope, that's Boom Herron.
Minnesota @ USC (ABC/ESPN2, 3:30) - Carter Blackburn, Brock Huard, Shelley Smith
I'm not a Blackburn fan. He's okay but he's nothing great. Huard is, though. I think every assignment Shelley Smith has covered over the last seven years has been related to USC football.
Western Michigan @ Michigan (ABC/ESPN2, 3:30) - Mike Patrick, Craig James, Jeannine Edwards
How little did Mike Patrick know about Western Michigan before getting that assignment? For example, there's no way he knew they were in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Do you think he knew Jason Babin went to WMU, never mind being born there? What about the fact that they played in a bowl a couple years ago? At least James isn't an asshole and Edwards isn't a horseface. Wait...
UCLA @ Houston (FSN, 3:30) - Craig Bolerjack, Joel Klatt, Petros Papadakis
Craig Bolerjack doing weekly football - as opposed to a couple CBS games a year - is a good, good thing. This is a terrific broadcast team. Klatt's a good young analyst and Papadakis is quirky but it's a good quirky. He's worked with Barry Tompkins for a while though so there may be an adjustment period here.
UL-Monroe @ Florida State (ESPNU, 3:30) - Pam Ward, Dan Hawkins
This is what Hell is. Right here. This announcing team.
Delaware @ Navy (CBSSN, 3:30) - Tim Brant, Randy Cross, Kaylee Hartung
A lot of people hate Brant but I've always been a fan. Randy Cross?!?! The hell?! He's always been an NFL guy and an obnoxious one at that. There's no way this ends well. As for Kaylee Hartung, here she is. I like. Man, I wish somebody made videos like these for Jill Arrington back when she was on CBS. Hottest sideline reporter of all time, for my money. You could tell she didn't even care, she just loved showing off her body. Okay, that's enough out of me. Fun side note about this game - these two teams have played a few times recently, including a shootout in 2007 that Delaware won when Joe Flacco was still their QB. Nope, he didn't blow it at the end; I was shocked too!
Chattanooga @ Nebraska (BTN, 3:30) - Kevin Kugler, Kelly Stouffer, Ahman Green
Ahman Green should be fun on a Nebraska game. Kelly Stouffer's sort of a hack. Kevin Kugler I've never heard of. Jeez, there's way too much football on TV these days.
James Madison @ North Carolina (ACC, 3:30) - Rich Waltz, Keith Jones, Jenn Hildreth
Keith Jones?! Oh god, not this guy. And Jenn Hildreth is really not that hot - on TV or in person. Nor is she particularly good at her job. Moments like this are when I get happy that FSN no longer has ACC Sunday Night Hoops. Never heard of Waltz, which is probably why he's doing a JMU/UNC game.
BYU @ Mississippi (ESPN, 4:45) - Bob Wischusen, Bob Davie, Jessica Mendoza
Bob Wischusen on a sneaky interesting BYU/Ole Miss game is an odd decision. He's fine enough I guess, but Tessitore/Gilmore couldn't swing over from Waco to call that one? BYU's kind of a huge deal independent - their specialty and ESPN gave them Saturday Primetime last year involving SEC teams (LSU/Florida, when Nessler/Blackledge called the Rutgers/UConn Friday game.) Or maybe I just went Tessitore/Gilmore on every semi-decent mid major game on the ESPN family after the aforementioned Boise/Nevada classic. Davie isn't a great analyst but he isn't a horrible one. Jessica Mendoza on the sideline? Has she ever done a non-softball broadcast for ESPN? Interesting.

Florida Atlantic @ Florida (ESPNU, 7:00) - Clay Matvick, Brian Griese, Allison Williams
I like Matvick's voice, haven't heard too much of him on relevant games. Griese's a decent analyst. Seems like they're trying to make Allison Williams the "new Erin Andrews," which is something certain sectors of the internet already believes (oh look, that's where I got that video from before!)
East Carolina v. South Carolina (SEC, 7:00) - Bob Rathbun, Tim Couch, Kristina Akra
Bob Rathbun on football. Yikes. Tim Couch?!?! That seems like it'll be yikes too. And Kristina stunningly beautiful. That is most definitely yikes. She'll move to ESPN by the end of the year.
Oregon v. LSU (ABC, 8:00) - Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, Erin Andrews
Musberger just doesn't care anymore. "This is for all the Tostitos" legitimately isn't even trying. Shame because Herbstreit and Andrews are arguably the best at what they do and that's why they're here.
Boise State v. Georgia (ESPN, 8:00) - Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe
This is the best announcing team on the ESPN family and it's not even close. Might be the best team in all of college football announcing. Each of the three is the best or among the best at their role. Just a fantabulous crew. Also, there need to be more weeks where Saturday Night Football (ABC) and Saturday Primetime (ESPN) just have duel epic games. Oregon/LSU at Jerryworld and Boise/Georgia at the Dome. Sheesh.
Tulsa @ Oklahoma (FX, 8:00) - Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Tim Brewster
This is FOX's lead team. Gus Johnson on college football on a basic cable channel (BTN wasn't for most people) is something that should've happened years ago. Particularly for sure-to-be shootouts like that one. Charles Davis is among the top analysts in the game. Not a clue what Tim Brewster's doing on this team - usually low-profile ex head coaches start on lower teams like Hawkins (who's a LOT more high profile than Brewster.) Guess the ex Minnesota man must have interviewed really well? Looking forward to seeing if he's worthy of being on this team.
Rice @ Texas (LHN, 8:00) - Mark Jones, Ed Cunningham, Samantha Steele
Okay, here we go. Mark Jones and Ed Cunningham, a solid upper midcard ESPN announcing team, announcing a Longhorn Network game sticks out like a sore thumb in light of everything that's happened over the past month. Particularly considering that other ESPN-affiliated regional networks have either the stuck-in-the-1970's Raycom broadcasts (ACC) or get donk ESPN Plus leftover announcers and ESPN3 mainstays (Big East.) This game is not worthy of these announcers. But of course they get them because Texas brings in the eyeballs and the money, which we've painfully learned over the past few months is all that matters.
Colorado @ Hawaii (ESPN2, 10:15) - Dave Lamont, David Diaz-Infante Dave LaMont's underrated. That's all.

Miami @ Maryland (ESPN, 8:00 Mon) - Sean McDonough, Matt Millen, Heather Cox

Sean McDonough isn't just underrated, he's pure class. He'll make our game fun, guaranteed. And Millen's good, Jacory/Jarrett nightmare aside. Heather Cox does an underrated job on the sideline. These guys are usually your top ABC 3:30 game, which is a good thing since that game is basically a national game every week with the reverse mirror on ESPN2.

Next week will be our first reviews. No idea how many games I'll get to watch but I'll try to toggle around. I get most of the channels the games are on (LHN and CBSSN are notables that I don't) so I should hopefully be able to get a wide array of opinion.

COMING - NCAA football preview and week 1 picks, fantasy football draft analysis, Champions League group preview

Monday, August 29, 2011

2011 U.S. Open Predictions - Men

For varying reasons, I've missed most of the grand slam tennis this year. Whether it was not having a TV, not being by a TV or life being too stressful for me to pay attention to a TV, I never really got to lock in on any of the first three slams for the full fortnight. In fact, I haven't really latched on at all until at least the first weekend, sometimes not even until the second week. The only full match I saw at the French was the final and I didn't watch a second of Wimbledon - not even round of 16 Monday, my favorite day of the year for tennis. I've tried to pay a bit of attention during the hard court season - yes, I know Mardy Fish is balling out of control right now - and I like to think I still have a decent bit of knowledge of how these things work.

I'm not going to bother with seeds and that's probably best for the both of us: tennis seeding and bracketing would probably be the biggest inanity in sports if not for a little thing called the Bowl Championship Series. I'm just gonna go round by round, starting with the third round (the round of 32, otherwise known as the first round where seeds can meet/the first round where you have mostly solid matchups.) These will almost assuredly be terrible. I have no idea what's going on. I'm trying to guess what will happen in the season finale while having only watched a YouTube recap video of the season itself. But hey, maybe Veena Sud will be directing:

Round of 32: Djokovic over Dodig, Gasquet over Dogloplov, Berdych over Tipsarevic, Monfils over Malisse, Federer over Tomic, Kohlschreiber over Haas, Tsonga over Nieminen, de Bakker over Hanescu, Isner over Soderling, Del Potro over Simon, Wawrinka over Tursunov, Murray over Lopez, Ferrer over Rochus, Roddick over Almagro, Gulbis over Melzer, Nadal over Nalbandian

Nothing too special here. Gasquet/Dogloplov could be fun. I like both players and Richie has a flair for the dramatic at slams. Berdych/Tipsy might be entertaining if the good Tipsy turns up. Federer/Tomic would be real interesting - young lion vs old. I think the German vets each take out their seeds (Stepanek and Troicki, respectively) but the younger has a bit more left at this stage of the game.

de Bakker over Fish is a shot-in-the-dark and more of a signal that I don't buy the Fish hype at all. Djokovic's crash out to Federer in the semis of the French that nobody saw coming was a lesson that no matter how dominant you are on tour, slams are different animals when that target's on your back. Mardy's been brilliant this summer, but how much gas does he have left in the tank after going deep in four tournaments over the past six weeks? Besides, his draws in each tourney but his latest one in Cincinnati were soft and while he was especially masterful in the Masters with the Davydenko domination and then straight setting Gasquet and Nadal back to back before taking Murray deep in to a second set tiebreak before succumbing in the semis, he got to the finals last year and couldn't get past the fourth in last year's U.S. Open. Even if my hail mary doesn't come through, I think Tsonga will in that round this year.

Anyhow, a quick note about Nieminen is that I have him putting a cherry on top of Fernando Verdasco's shockingly disappointing year in round 1. I'll grab Isner in the mild upset of Soderling - the speed of the court and the roar of the home crowd will make the difference there. Is it me or do Murray and Lopez play every slam? Roddick might be tested by Almagro but the Spaniard never seems to hit his potential against superior competition. It's an "on" tournament for Gulbis - one of the few people to beat Fish this summer (final of the Famer's Classic) - as he takes down mercurial Youzhny in round 1 before taking out the lefty Austrian who's better suited to clay. Nalbandian wins a potentially intriguing round 2 senior citizen battle with Ivan Ljubicic before falling to Nadal. I wouldn't call the upset out of play, just unlikely.

Round of 16: Djokovic over Gasquet, Berdych over Monfils, Federer over Kohlschreiber, Tsonga over de Bakker, Del Potro over Isner, Murray over Wawrinka, Roddick over Ferrer, Nadal over Gulbis

Richie could make that REALLY fun, but as usual, he most likely will not. Berdych/Monfils has match of the round potential. Kohlschreiber never troubles Fed. Tsonga overpowers de Bakker. Del Potro/Isner would have by far the most electric atmosphere of the round and could create a classic if they bombed away deep in to the night. I think the Argentine's got a bit more of an all around arsenal, though. Murray and Wawrinka had a classic of their own at Wimbledon a couple years ago but I don't think this one's as tight. Ferrer has disappointed at this event since his enthralling late night win over Nadal and subsequent semifinal run in 07. I only really have him here because of a pathetically easy first week draw (what's left of James Blake's career or a qualifier in round 2 and Florian Mayer is the possible seed in round 3) and Roddick should handle him with ease. An interesting note is that Andy usually runs in to fellow Americans at these things, particularly this one, and he could meet Jack Sock, the reigning U.S. Open juniors champion, in round 2. Who wouldn't love to see that one? Our generation's American star (keep your snarky comments to yourself) against the next generation's. I suppose Gulbis could stun Nadal if Rafa's knees flare up but that seems heavily unlikely.

Quarterfinals: Djokovic over Berdych, Federer over Tsonga, Del Potro over Murray, Nadal over Roddick

Berdych retired against Nole in Cincinnati and is 1-7 against him lifetime. Speaking of poor head to head records, that's Federer against Tsonga this summer, but Roger never lets anyone keep him down for too long unless he's named "Rafa." Moreover, he tends to thrive when everyone gives up on him, which seems to be occurring yet again and would seem to be likely should this matchup commence. As for DelPo/Murray, the Scot is becoming renowned for his Flushing Meadow meltdowns since his 08 final appearance. This matchup and Del Potro's pounding forehand provides the chance for another. And of course Nadal/Roddick would be the talk of America for the day, we all know it wouldn't be competitive. Unless Rafa's knees weren't right...

Semifinals: Federer over Djokovic, Del Potro over Nadal

Cincinnati was a harbinger for Djokovic. This run he's been on has taxed him physically, mentally, and emotionally. One of the few matches I've been able to catch this summer was his with Monfils in that tournament and he was treating it like it was a slam final. Every match is a war for him at this point just because of how much he's being gunned for and what this year has evolved in to. He already flamed out to Federer in the French semi and I'm not sure he'll fare much better on a considerably faster service where Federer's superior serve will be a bigger factor. Remember, Roger collapsed to lose their semifinal last year and while he's been melting down routinely this year, I don't think he loses it against Nole if he has it again this year. And then we saw Del Potro/Nadal in the semis here two years ago and it wasn't pretty. Of course the Argentine isn't playing nearly as well but if he gets to this stage of the tournament, his forehand will be popping and if that's the case, Nadal can't beat him on this surface. He's perhaps the one player on tour Nadal simply cannot grind down and Rafa's topspin won't be able to save him on concrete.

Final: Federer over Del Potro

Just when you count him out......

But isn't it this way with all of the all time greats? Sampras had the 02 U.S. Open. Ali had the Rumble in the Jungle. Tiger will have the 2012 Masters. Whenever people start telling them that they're not great anymore, that they're starting to lose it and they can't get it back, that they have no chance against the younger, up-and-coming competition, they use this as motivation to pull out whatever pieces of greatness they have left inside them. Greg Rusedski said that Sampras was, "a step and a half slower" after their third round U.S. Open match in 02 and predicted he would lose next round (or so Wiki claims.) Sampras turned around and took out the 3rd (Haas), 11th (Roddick), 24th (Sjeng Schalken) and 6th (Andre Agassi) seeds to win the tournament. Not sure if any of Fed's opposition will give him bulletin board material but he's sure to get easy motivation from all the people who recall his collapse in the 09 version of this match to give the Argentine what will probably forever be known as the best win of his career. No matter how it went down, this would be a spectacularly fascinating final.

Though to be fair to the men's game, you could say that about any one of a number of potential finals. It's really anyone's slam at the top. And unlike the women, it's all quality and class.

2011 U.S. Open Predictions - Women

Above are my poor credentials and even poorer men's picks. Now to the women.

I took a shot at the women's game to close out the above post and for good reason. It sucks. No one has mental strength. No one can hit the ball accurately more often than not. Almost anyone in the draw, save for the qualifiers and/or greenhorns, can make a run in to the second week. How much parity is there? Here's a list of seeded players I have out in round 1: Jarmila Gaidosova (29), Andrea Petkovic (10), Kaia Kanepi (31), Shahar Peer (23), Yanina Wickmayer (20), Shuai Peng (13), Flavia Pennetta (26) and Anabel Medina Garrigues (30.) Eight of thirty two seeds, exactly one quarter of the seeded players out in the first round (and three in the top 20.) We'll see if we come anywhere close to that:

Round of 32: Wozniacki over Benesova, Kuznetsova over Hantuchova, Zheng over Cornet, Li over Date Krumm, Serena over Azarenka, Ivanovic over Mirza, Pavlyuchenkova over Jankovic, Erakovic over Martinez-Sanchez, Safarova over Kvitova, Cirstea over Radwanska, Goerges over Razzano, Sharapova over Oudin, Kirilenko over Bartoli, Stosur over Petrova, Venus over Cibulkova, Robson over Zvonareva

Wozniacki gets the first week ease she needs with Vesnina in round 2 in a match that's appointment television for anyone attracted to women before Benesova in the third. Kuznetsova/Hantuchova's an interesting matchup but I'll go with the one who's won this whole thing before. Chinese countrywomen Zheng and Li Na set up the finals of an Asian battle royal of sorts, with Li taking down Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm who I've got beating Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn in round 2.

What else is there to say for Serena/Azarenka? It makes Steelers/Ravens look like a competitive rivalry. What an awful draw for Victoria. When she inevitably goes out, she should spend a healthy amount of her press conference ripping the directors for seeding Serena 28th. Would it come off as sour grapes? Absolutely, especially considering the Belarusian is considered one of the more immature players on tour and frequently has whiny outbursts on court, but it would be more than a fair gripe. There's just no excuse to seed her that low when she's in this kind of form and the talent pool at the top of the women's game is so thin. I mean, Dominika Cibulkova is the 14th seed. What kind of odds do you think the tiny Slovakian would be getting on a fast hard court in New York City against an American who is the biggest, most powerful force to ever play women's tennis? How is it logical that she's 14th and Serena, winner of both the Bank of the West Classic in LA and the Toronto Masters this summer, is 28th?

I have Mirza upsetting Peer to soften up Ivanovic's road. I couldn't be more happy for Ana that she's climbed back in to the top 20. She's worked so hard to rebuild her career since she wilted in the lights of the paparazzi after her bombastic 2007 French Open victory. She fell completely off the map, getting the yips with her serve on many occasions but now she's putting together one solid tournament after another, save a second round slip to Petrova in Cincinnati. I'm not sure she's totally conquered the demons but she's made significant progress, as evidenced by her being able to take Vera Zvonareva to the wire a couple of weeks ago.

I think Pavlyuchenko and Jankovic's careers are going different directions and that match will showcase it. Erakovic is my random upset pick - she stuns Schiavone in round 2 because I'd fancy my chances against Schiavone on a fast court and I can't remember the last time I picked up a tennis racket. Safarova's like Pavlyuchenkova in that I've liked her for a while and Kvitova's due for an early slam exit. Radwanska is, too and Cirstea's a sleeper who takes out 09 semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer in round 1. Goerges is a cute young Brit I like who beat Jankovic and pushed Serena in Toronto and Razzano takes out Peng. The clock will strike midnight on Oudin this time. Kirilenko shockingly beats Bartoli with some ease, indicating she may be ready to make noise. Stosur handles Petrova and my Serena/Cibulkova point from above goes for Venus as well.

And then my shocker of the tournament. Laura Robson is just 17 but she's being hyped as one of the best British women's tennis players in generations. She's obviously got the talent being on the main tour at this young age and she's been pro for a couple years now. This is a pure shot in the dark but you just never know with Zvonareva and for some weird reason, I think she's in line for a major choke, even by her standards. Some shocking things are going to happen in this draw - parity's the name of the game right now on the WTA. This will be way wrong but what's right probably won't be all that predictable anyways.

Round of 16: Wozniacki over Kuznetsova, Li over Zheng, Serena over Ivanovic, Pavlyuchenkova over Erakovic, Safarova over Cirstea, Sharapova over Goerges, Kirilenko over Stosur, Venus over Robson

Could be a coming of age victory for Caroline if she can pull it off. I think she does, but moreso because Kuznetsova's starting to fade and I think she breaks down in a third set here. Li bests Zheng in the all-Chinese affair. Ivanovic's still far too fragile to take down Serena. Pavluychenkova and Safarova take advantage of broken brackets while Sharapova makes Goerges look overmatched in what could be another easy-on-the-eyes affair. Speaking easy-on-the-eyes, Kirilenko keeps her roll going as she shocks Stosur, who has been poor at slams and streaky overall this year. Venus can name her score against Robson.

Quarterfinals: Li over Wozniacki, Serena over Pavlyuchenkova, Sharapova over Safarova, Kirilenko over Venus

I'd LOVE to take Caroline here...but I can't. She's 0/2 against Li in the second week of hard court slams, although both losses were at the Australian (this year's semis, last year's quarters.) Still, I think Li's got a mental edge on her - which means everything in women's tennis. Serena and Sharapova breeze...but Venus doesn't as Kirilenko continues her fantastic run by giving me my new upset of the tournament. Lots of girls, many of them at least somewhat unexpected, have been having breakthrough runs this deep in slams over the past year or two. Yeah, most of them aren't beating a Williams sister en route but I think Kirilenko's next in line. She'll get hot after she beats Bartoli. Gut (and erotic) feeling.

Semifinals: Serena over Li, Sharapova over Kirilenko

Serena wins in a war as Li is a terrific player punching at her weight. Sharapova wins in a rout as Kirilenko is a streaky one punching above her's.

Final: Sharapova over Serena

...and that's what makes the difference in the final. Sharapova pulls off the mild upset in a classic three setter. I think she really cranks up her form in this tournament aided by a soft draw with no top 15 seed in my projected path for her. Serena, meanwhile, has to deal with Azarenka in round 3, Ivanovic in round 4 and then Li in the semis. She runs out of gas and breaks down enough for Maria to get her second U.S. Open.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011-2012 English Premier League Preview - Class Structure

Welcome to my new addiction.

I'm about sick of college football and its politics, corruption and general BS that leads to a mythical national champion almost every season. College basketball's quality has plummeted since the creation of the one-and-done rule and I never check in until conference play begins anyway. I'm beginning to fade from tennis as Federer - the man who brought me in - starts to slip and the women's tour becomes a bigger and bigger joke. But English soccer, and on a wider scope European and international soccer, has become the apple of my eye.

No, the Premier League isn't perfect. Far from it. There are twenty teams in the league. Fourteen of them can forget about the title right off the bat, no questions asked, and it would take a series of small miracles for Tottenham Hotspur to win it so that's fifteen. Arsenal, as currently constructed, have no real hope either (although this could change by the end of August when the transfer window shuts.) So that leaves four out of twenty clubs who have a realistic shot at the championship. Meanwhile, at least double that have a realistic shot at the Championship, as in relegation to the Football League Championship, with my Wolves being firmly entrenched in that group.

But the flip side of that coin leads to things like May 22, 2011 - arguably the most memorable final day in the history of the Premier League. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City and Blackpool were within a point of one another as each tried to avoid the final two trap door openings down to the Championship. Blackburn surged to a shocking 3-0 halftime lead at Wolves, securing their safety. Blackpool fell behind at champions Manchester United but a Charlie Adam free kick leveled them at half and Gary Taylor-Fletcher's flick on gave them the lead in the second half. Meanwhile, Wolves got a goal back to make it 3-1, Birmingham fell behind by a goal at Tottenham and Wigan remained goalless at Stoke City. But Manchester United quickly equalized before Blackpool put it in their own net to fall behind. United then added a fourth to seal Blackpool's fate and send them down, leaving the last relegation place up to Birmingham, Wigan and Wolves. Then at around the 80 minute mark, Craig Gardner scorched one in to the net to level Birmingham's game and put Wigan and Wolves in trouble. Immediately after, Hugo Rodallega headed home for Wigan to give them the lead and send them to safety. With ten minutes to go in the season, it was now down to Wolves and Birmingham and it would come down to one goal either way - if Wolves scored, they would tie Birmingham in goal difference (the first tiebreaker between teams with the same amount of points) but pass them in the table because they had more goals scored (second tiebreaker), while of course if Birmingham scored again, Wolves were surely out. But as it happened, Stephen Hunt curled in a goal that will be remembered in Wolverhampton forever to keep the locals up and doom Birmingham City to the Championship, just a couple of months removed from winning the Carling Cup and having qualified for Europa League competition this season.

So yeah. Things like the previous paragraph are why the EPL has become such a big deal to me. But anyhow, it's time to take a look at the upcoming season.

What's the easiest way to break down a big table? Break it down in to smaller tables. There are three "classes" per se in the English Premier League - an upper, middle, and lower class:

Upper Class - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur
Middle Class - Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Newcastle United, Stoke City, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion
Lower Class - Blackburn Rovers, Norwich City, Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City, Wigan Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers

The Upper Class is the "big six." Pretty much everyone on the planet who's projecting a Premier League table has first through sixth occupied by those clubs in some order. Even inside the upper class, there's become a clear schism between the two Manchester clubs at the top (United the defending league champions; City the FA Cup holders), the two North London clubs at the bottom (Arsenal slipped from third to fourth and Spurs from fourth to fifth last season) and Chelsea and Liverpool somewhere in the middle depending on how you feel about age, making it rain or both. Any trophy won by a team outside this group - such as Birmingham's Carling Cup - will be seen as a huge shock and these are the only teams in the league who can be counted on for consistent high quality football.

To get religious, let's say the Upper Class is Heaven (the title, European places, etc.) and the Lower Class is Hell (relegation.) The Middle Class is Purgatory. Apart from the Second Season Syndrome from West Brom or Newcastle that struck Birmingham City last year, it would be a major shock if any of the Middle Class were relegated. However, only Everton has a semblance of a prayer to steal a Champions League spot with a finish of 4th (or higher) and even that would be earth-shattering. So these clubs have little to play for other than a potential Europa League spot for whoever finishes 7th (if the FA and Carling Cup finals are contested between top 6 sides) and for overall league placement, with a top half finish being the goal. It's an interesting mix of teams. Everton are the biggest fish in the small pond that is "the bottom 14" and are a model of consistency with the David Moyes era now spanning a full decade. Villa and Bolton are going in completely different directions as the Villans look tattered under Alex McLeish and the Trotters are flying high on the wings of Owen Coyle. Newcastle and Sunderland are hated North East rivals. Fulham and Stoke try to grind you down and have gotten to Europe this way, whereas West Brom will pass the ball all over the pitch fluently as they try to rise in to the top half. In a sense, this group feels like the Island of Misfit Toys but hey, a drab season in 12th will always beat an exciting one in 19th (such as Blackpool's last season.)

And then you've got the Lower Class. As always, the three newly promoted teams are here - Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Swansea City in the order they finished in last year's Championship. Also here are the three relegation survivors from last season. Wolves are the only of the three to have improved over the summer and are thusly best positioned to break out of this group and in to the Middle Class, a goal that has been set around the club this season. You've got your real minnows in this group. Swansea are the Cinderella story of the season - the first Welsh club to ever play in the Premier League (and against the odds too - Cardiff have lost in the playoffs on basically an annual basis) and their first season in the top flight since 1982-1983. QPR are up for the first time in fifteen years. The two of them are the only two clubs with stadiums that fail to seat at least 21,000 people. Norwich City have only been out of the top flight for five years but they've achieved back-to-back promotion, a sign that they're perhaps punching above their weight. Granted, Wigan's been doing that for six years now and somehow still haven't been knocked out back to League One where most clubs like them play. Wolves too have become David after being Goliath a few decades ago - they're entering just their fourth season of Premier League football. Blackburn crashed out of the Middle Class when it shockingly sacked Sam Allardyce, just one of many puzzling moves by their chicken processing ownership group, who are about the exact opposite of Gus Fring from Breaking Bad in every imaginable way.

Even the oddsmakers seem to agree with my groupings. Here's the odds of winning the Premier League by class, following the same alphabetical order of listing from above:

Upper Class: 9-1; 5-2; 10-1; 7-2; 7-4; 50-1
Middle Class: 400-1; 1,000-1; 300-1; 1,000-1; 1,000-1; 3,000-1; 1,000-1; 1,500-1
Lower Class: 2,500-1; 5,000-1; 3,000-1; 5,000-1; 2,500-1; 2,500-1

With the exception of Stoke, who's remarkably underpriced at 3,000-1 for a team that hasn't finished lower than 13th since coming up in 2008 and reached the FA Cup final last season, the odds fall in line with what's been projected. Tottenham's clearly a Lexus among Bentleys and Maybachs, but they're also clearly ahead of Aston Villa and Everton, the torchbearers for the Middle Class. Bolton, Fulham, Newcastle and Sunderland are all the exact same price and West Brom's not far off. And then you have your three survivors at 2,500-1, QPR at 3,000-1 (they're a London club so more popular for the betting world than an Anglican or Welsh club) and Norwich and Swansea at 5,000-1 top us off.

So will the table predictions fall in line with the "class structure"? We shall see. The table is below.

2011-2012 English Premier League Preview - Table and Picks

Welcome and thanks for reading down. Hopefully you've absorbed yourself in my above introduction piece, although it's far from necessary reading before you view this table and these picks; I simply put it above for formatting and visual purposes.

Green = Champions League (1st-3rd enters at the group stage, 4th enters at playoff stage)
Blue/Gray = Europa League (5th, possibly 6th and/or 7th depending on FA and Carling Cup)
Black = Mid-table
Gold = Relegation scrap (anyone projected to secure safety in the final week or two, if not the final day)
Red = Relegation (18th-20th)

2011-2012 English Premier League
Newly Relegated - Birmingham City (18th), Blackpool (19th), West Ham (20th)
Newly Promoted - Queens Park Rangers (1st in Championship), Norwich City (2nd), Swansea City (3rd, won playoff)
Last Season's Table - Manchester United/Chelsea/Manchester City/Arsenal/Tottenham Hotspur/Liverpool/Everton/Fulham/Aston Villa/Sunderland/West Bromwich Albion/Newcastle United/Stoke City/Bolton Wanderers/Blackburn Rovers/Wigan Athletic/Wolverhampton Wanderers/Birmingham City/Blackpool/West Ham

1) Manchester United - There's simply no good reason to pick against them right now. Barcelona might be the clear best team in the world but United is right there for # 2 with Real Madrid. They were nine clear of Chelsea and their City rivals last season and nothing has changed to indicate that steep of a drop. A couple of legends have retired in midfielder Paul Scholes and keeper Edwin van der Sar but the Red Devils have replaced them. It's not getting much pub, but bringing in Ashley Young for 14m (that's what I'll be using for "pounds") from Aston Villa was one of the more fantastic pieces of business this summer. Young was pretty much the only player who put in a shift game in and out for that Villa team last year and he was their star. As for the hole in net, David de Gea was brought over from Atletico Madrid for 18.5m and while he struggled in the Community Shield against City last week, that's preseason. He should be fine, United will be fine and they'll be champions once again...of England.
2) Chelsea - Just a year removed from a League title/FA Cup "double," the Blues have sacked manager Carlo Ancelotti after failing to defend either as well as a listless Champions League quarterfinal exit in April to the team who would end up taking their title a month later. Their new boss is Luis Andre de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boa. I'm going to make a concerted effort to call him by that name this season but when I slip, I'll be referring to him as Andre Villas-Boas. His name isn't the only thing bizarre about the hire. He's 33. He has exactly three years of managerial experience and one of those was back in 2000-2001 for the British Virgin Islands national team. The other two were in Portugal, first for Academica de Coimbra in 09-10 and then last year's treble winning season at Porto, taking the Liga, Portuguese Cup and Europa League. He's a wunderkid known for attractive football, which should suit him well with this side. Not much summer business went on at Stamford Bridge but it likely didn't need to. Apart from their nightmare mid-season slump, the Blues were the best team in the Premier League last season and they'll be right in the hunt this season as well. The lack of attention on the players - Villas-Boa and the teams around them will get the spotlight - should help as last year's team seemed to be dragged down by the weight of expectations at times.
3) Liverpool - The "it" team. As much of a disaster as the Roy Hodgson era was, that's how remarkable the Kenny Dalglish revival has been. The team simply found itself after the managerial switch and had they played that well under Hodgson, they would have been in the title race from the word "go." They should be this season. The Reds have somehow managed to make the sheer quantity of splashy signings that Manchester City are normally known for. After Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll came in January, now Stewart Downing for 20m, Jordan Henderson for 8m and, most notably, Charlie Adam for 8.5m have reloaded a midfield that needs the spark as Steven Gerrard winds down his career. Gerrard's still a force on his day, but injuries and age are beginning to catch up. For me, Adam's the best signing of the offseason of any team. 8.5m is an absolute steal for the man who was Kevin Durant to Blackpool's Oklahoma City Thunder. He might take this attack to a complete other level. Unfortunately, there's still a defense that isn't up to Championship par. Jose Enrique from Newcastle will help but he's a band-aid. Pepe Reina will need to be at his top form and can't afford some of the errors that cost the side dearly at times - last year's home opener against Arsenal, anyone? - if they're going to break back in to the top four. But their attack is way too good not to; it might be the best in the league.
4) Manchester City - This is lower than where most will have them but those who are picking them to do bigger and better things should remember just how much Carlos Tevez means to them. Now, whether or not he leaves, he almost assuredly won't be the same player now that his unhappiness in Manchester is public and he has Sergio Aguero waiting in the wings to step in for him. Aguero was the undisputed top signing of the summer with City paying 38m to capture him from Atletico Madrid. One of the best young players on the planet, he's very similar to another Argentine striker (who's just a year older than him, good god) that has given rivals United the same kind of fits he hopes to produce. But can Aguero live up to the Messi-hype immediately? Even if he doesn't and Tevez isn't a factor, Edin Dzeko should be able to step up to the plate. Struggling last year after he was the big striker acquired in the January window, the ex-Wolfsburg man should be more adjusted to Eastlands. But City are City and Roberto Mancini is Roberto Mancini. Until he shows he can consistently get it right in big games and until City shows they can stop the random brainfarts against weaker competition, there's a ceiling that not even Abu Dhabi money will break through. The defense is still a question mark, as is the chemistry. The good news is that they're far closer to 2nd and 3rd than 5th.
5) Arsenal - Last spring and in to summer, we watched the steady decline of Liverpool before they bottomed out in the fall and winter. Are we watching the same with Arsenal? Here's another great question - what if Robin van Persie had chipped over Steve Harper to complete his hat trick and make it 5-0? Or what if Abou Diaby never pushed Joey Barton? Because it was that absolutely stunning collapse on Tyneside on February 5 that proved to be the ultimate harbinger. Two weeks later, after a dominant win over Wolves and a shock comeback against Barcelona in the Champions League, the Gunners couldn't beat London rivals (ahahahaha) Leyton Orient in the FA Cup. A week after that came the Carling Cup collapse with Laurent Koscielny's end game nightmare costing them the silverware. Then Barca inevitably dumped them out of the CL at the Nou Camp four days before Man U did the honors in the FA Cup to leave Arsene Wenger trophyless yet again. But that's not the worst part. Wenger has done practically nothing to shore up his team's weaknesses. There are no replacements for Cesc Fabregas or Samir Nasri, two of the squad's most vital players who are heading out the door. There's no centre back or goalkeeper. The only add so far has been Gervinho, a stereotypical Wenger player right down to the fact that he spent last season in France at Lille. At best, this is treading water - which isn't and hasn't been enough for a while now.
6) Tottenham Hotspur - Well, if nothing else, they've caught up to their North London rivals. Historically the Mets to Arsenal's Yankees, they've developed a fascinating habit of coming from behind against the Gunners. At the Emirates, they improbably rallied from 2-0 down at the half to win 3-2 and then at White Hart Lane in late April, they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to snatch a draw and essentially end their rivals' title hopes. But Spurs focus this season will obviously be on themselves and preventing some of the inexplicable slips that cost them precious points last season. For example, how do you lose at home to a Wigan side that's yet to score and conceded 10 on the season just three days after you've emphatically booked your first Champions League group stage appearance in four decades? How do you get absolutely thumped at Bloomfield Road by Blackpool after winning at the San Siro against AC Milan? Maybe the answer is, "we put all our eggs in the CL basket," which: spectacular job if that was the plan as Spurs shockingly progressed to the quarterfinals before running in to Real Madrid. But a slide after that second Arsenal comeback meant no repeat Champions League place, which could be a blessing for league performance this season. Also a blessing is that Luka Modric hasn't been sold to Chelsea yet. Spurs need a pure striker in front of Rafael van der Vaart. Peter Crouch is too awkward and inconsistent while Jermain Defoe followed up a spectacular 09/10 with a dreadful 10/11. He needs to rebound or else it may be up to Roman Pavlyuchenko to step up his game.
7) Everton - 7th heaven? More like a 7th Hell for the Toffees, as they just cannot seem to be able to break in to the top six no matter what. The bigger problem is that there might be nowhere to go but down for reasons beyond the overwhelming clubs ahead of them. David Moyes has been financially strapped and shipping Steven Pienaar to Tottenham in January is the kind of shrewd economic move will hurt their chances of progression. But give Moyes credit, he's dug his heels in to the sand on the matter of Phil Jagielka to Arsenal and it will take a true Godfather offer for him to let his star centre back go. But who's going to put the ball in to the back of the net? Louis Saha is Louis Saha. When he's on form, he scores at will. Watch highlights of his four goal explosion against Blackpool on February 5 (what a day of football that was) for evidence, but he's never been and probably will never be a consistent player. The story is basically the same for Tim Cahill. Jermain Beckford started to come on at the end of last season but he's not the answer for now. The other glaring problem is staring them down right now - their form to start the season. For whatever the reason, Everton don't seem to kick it in to gear until after the new year and it's cost them dearly in the final standings the past few years. Perhaps that is the only trick to moving up the Premier League ladder but not likely.
8) Fulham - Well Mark Hughes stepped in and had a terrific season, stabilizing a club that had sunk down the table thanks to a grueling Europa League campaign that so very nearly ended in a trophy and ended up with their manager, who more or less built them up with his bare hands, leave for Liverpool. Then he inexpicably walked out and now Martin Jol, the man who was originally thought to be Roy Hodgson's replacement, steps in. This was where the Cottagers ended up last season and this is where Jol should be aiming for again. They have even less of a prayer than Everton of further progress - such is life when you play for draws - but this is a fine spot to be in and if they can sneak in to Europe again, who knows? Granted, Jol is a Dutch manager who will certainly push Fulham forward more than noted "anti-footballer" Hughes. He'll have some nice toys to play with in the form of Clint Dempsey as well as class finishing from Bobby Zamora, provided he stays fit. I'm still not sure how Mark Schwarzer's not at Arsenal yet but he remains a dominant force in net and he's got a truly spectacular centre half in Brede Hangeland leading a rock solid defense in front of him. The other key with these guys is road form - it improved last year from 1-7-11 to 3-9-7 but there was a night-and-day difference in goal differential. Fulham scored just 12 and conceded a whopping 31 away from Craven Cottage in 09/10. Under Hughes, they scored 19 and gave up only 20 on their travels. They're always going to be a rock at home for various reasons, so if they can keep grinding out results on the road, the outlook will remain bright.
9) Sunderland - Going back to the class structure thing, the Black Cats are no doubt the Manchester City of the middle class. Steve Bruce hasn't been afraid to splash the cash since he moved to Wearside, particularly at striker where he bought Darren Bent for 10m from Spurs then sold Kenwyne Jones for 8m to Stoke then bought Asamoah Gyan for 14m after the Ghanian's fantastic World Cup then sold Bent to Villa for 18m. Now he's bought Connor Wickham, an 18-year-old wunderkid from Ipswich Town for 8m. But Bruce's main focus this summer was in midfield and defense. He was one of the many who made the most of Birmingham City's financial capitulation, securing Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson as well as Blackpool's David Vaughan to bolster a midfield too often defined by Lee Cattermole's reckless and clumsy challenges. Then he raided the used DVD bin at Old Trafford (while returning Danny Welbeck there, a loss Wickham may have to offset) for Wes Brown and John O'Shea who might not be a fit for United anymore but should be for the Black Cats. If nothing else, their experience will prove invaluable. Granted, Bruce was able to fund all of this because of the sale of Jordan Henderson to Liverpool for a shocking 16m but with that extra cash, perhaps he should have bought a way to prevent pitiful form against weaker sides (particularly on the road, a recurring nightmare for the Mackems) and the annual mid season slump/scoring drought. Avoid both of those and this is the squad that I could see challenging for the top six.
10) West Bromwich Albion - Before we get carried away, let's remember what happened to the last West Midlands yo-yo club that came up, had a stunning first season with a midtable finish, brought Ben Foster in to start in goal the next season. Right, that's not even close to fair as going from Joe Hart to Foster like Birmingham City did is night-and-day different from the massive upgrade from Scott Carson that Foster (or just about anyone) probably will be. And if Carson really was as bad as Baggies fans claim, maybe it's these guys and not Sunderland who are the surprise outfit among the midsection. Here's what we know: Foster's a damn good keeper who can be brilliant at times (one example: Blackburn home from last season) and that Roy Hodgson is one of the best small-club managers in England, if not the whole of Europe. And the Albion got the second striker they were looking for when Reading's Shane Long, he of the 28 goals in 58 matches for club and country last season (ripped straight from Wikipedia), decided to spit in the face of recent Royals stars signing for Black Country rivals Wolves and head to Sandwell for 6.5m. If he's even half as good as he was in the Championship, he will form one of the deadliest striker partnerships in England with last year's diamond-in-the-rough Peter Odemwingie. For a side that was sixth in the league in goals scored last season (and tops outside the "upper class,") this may be the rich getting richer. The back line still needs work, conceding more than everyone except Blackpool, but a full season of Hodgson should cure that, as the defensive record improved considerably under him. As much as it hurts to say as a Wolves fan, things look great at the Hawthorns.
11) Stoke City - As entertaining as Blackpool were last year and for all the hype Norwich and especially Swansea City are getting for the attacking brand of football they're bringing to the Premier League, one can't help but wonder "why?!" when the Potters have proved that the blueprint for stabilizing Premier League success after a shock promotion is the exact opposite of what the new blood keeps trying. Stoke stunned everyone when it not only stayed up in 2008-2009, but did so comfortably with a 12th place finish on the back of dominant home form at the cauldron that is the Brittania Stadium as well as tough, physical play. Like noted above, it hasn't slipped further down than 13th and while their formula isn't exactly a secret sauce - Blackburn, Bolton and even the spring 2010 Wolves have all used bus-parking to force enough results to stay up - it's one they've perfected to the degree that it got them all the way to the FA Cup final before falling short against Manchester City. Tony Pulis is a fantastic manager and the core of Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Danny Higginbottam, Rory Delap and his epic throws, etc. has stayed strong and continues to beat and bloody anyone who dares cross them on a Tuesday night in Staffordshire. If Kenwyne Jones can recapture his form from his best days partnering Darren Bent at Sunderland, these guys will have a truly dangerous scoring threat for the first time since coming up. But they could suffer from the same fate Fulham did a couple years ago when the Europa League run led for a disappointing 12th place finish. Unfortunately for Stoke, they have just enough of a dearth of talent that they could be dragged in to a relegation fight if they're not careful. I'm not going to wrongfully predict one for the billionth year in a row, though.
12) Bolton Wanderers - What a curious side this is. I'll never forget when I first saw their name and thought it was some sort of cult led by this man. A lot's changed since then, most notably the fact that these guys aren't really the "blah" team in the league anymore, nor are they even one of the "blah" teams in the league. Burnley's red hot start to the 2009 season might have been the best thing to ever happen for Bolton, Owen Coyle's old home. They had just 18 points from 18 games and were 18th in the table (thanks again to Wiki for all those 18's) at the end of the year when Megson was sacked and the hunt for Coyle was on. It took all of a week to capture him and he took them to 14th while Burnley imploded and was relegated. The Clarets couldn't even get to the Championship playoff places last year while the Trotters were firmly in the Europa League hunt for most of the season before Stuart Holden went down from a horrific Jonny Evans tackle and the team went under, landing at the same position they did the year before. Because all that wasn't enough, Coyle raided his old club for Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears to shore up the left and right flanks respectively - a good thing even before Chung-Yong Lee broke his leg in preseason and won't be back until 2012. That's a huge loss in midfield for Bolton to go along with their losses at striker where Johan Elmander is off to Turkey after a quiet second half and Daniel Sturridge is back to Chelsea. Tuncay's been brought in from Stoke City to help but if you're bringing in a Stoke striker, you know you're desperate. Coyle's Coyle and so creativity and goals will happen to some degree but last year might have been Bolton's year to make its move.
13) Aston Villa - Which Premier League club has the least happy fanbase right now? Arsenal and QPR have cases but at least one is still better than 75% of the league and the other is enjoying its first top flight season in a decade and a half. And neither fired their awful manager before performing a coaching search so porous that even Kevin Anderson was blushing. Pretty much the only manager who could be less liked than Gerard Houlier would be a Birmingham City man who played cringeworthy football and had a bad habit of getting teams relegated and so Villa went out and got him. I've always been an Alex McLeish fan but his teams perennially lack pop. Of course, he's never had talent like Darren Bent and Charles N'Zogbia to work with. Bent is a top 10 striker in the Prem and when he's on form he's top 5. He underachieved after coming over from Sunderland in January but everyone underachieved to some degree during the calamity that was last spring. N'Zogbia was one of the few on the roster who didn't, mainly because he wasn't on it. He's the necessary replacement for Ashley Young after Manchester United realized just how good he was when he continued to flourish despite all the issues with team selection, chemistry, Houlier's future, etc. While the Villans were dealing with that, N'Zogbia was busy keeping Wigan up, at times practically by himself. He's yet another fantastic Wigan product that should hit his peak in Villa Park. Of course, the other wing needs a replacement as well after Liverpool got drunk and decided 20m for Stewart Downing was reasonable, but good thing Marc Albrighton's waiting in the, uh, wings. He might be in the Young Player of the Year hunt. This is a decent team that won't play up to its potential because it simply won't score enough for the fan's liking and the same poisons that propped up last term will rear their ugly heads again.
14) Wolverhampton Wanderers - We're the best and we're going unbeaten. Invincibles, baby! Okay, maybe not until next year. For now, this would be a significant step toward stability. If you keep playing with fire, eventually you're going to get burned and unless Wolves have as many or more lives than cats, they need to start making sure their future is secured before the stretch run. As much as everyone wants to heap praise on Stephen Hunt for one of the most legendary goals in club history, remember that it came in a loss and made a 3-1 game 3-2. Wolves stayed up, yes, but it was through no doing of their own despite Hunt's brilliance. Leaking three goals in the first half at home with the season on the line made it abundantly clear that reinforcements on defense are needed. Most of the problems were in the center and the defense lacked leadership with Jody Craddock's age and injuries. Enter Roger Johnson. The Birmingham City centre half was secured for 7.5m and he's not just the leader of the defense, he's the new leader of the team with Mick McCarthy giving him the captain's armband last week. Does that signal the end for previous skipper Karl Henry? He's tough, physical and puts in a shift but he simply isn't quality; nor are the fullbacks. That makes it all the more important that McCarthy made Jamie O'Hara's loan deal from Spurs permanent and made sure Matt Jarvis and Kevin Doyle stayed at Molineux. With many teams around them getting weaker, Wolves stood their ground and strengthened. Jarvis, along with Stephen Hunt, Adam Hammill (January loan from Barnsley) and Championship star Michael Kightly give Wolves one of the best sets of wingers in the league, provided Hunt and Kightly can stay healthy, which won't happen. Still, if they can play two of those guys plus O'Hara with Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher up top, that's an attack that not many outside the top 6 can rival and that can propel Wolves up the table. Home form must improve and for the love of God, beat the teams around you.
15) Norwich City - Picking all the promoted sides to go down is sort of like picking all # 1 seeds to make the Final Four. Theoretically and logically, it makes sense. In practice, it practically never happens. You have to take your shot with at least one you think can find a way to stay safe and I'm going with the Canaries this year. Arguments can certainly be made for QPR and Swansea City, particularly ones that overlap with the ones to come here, but neither has a gem of a manger quite like Paul Lambert. His first English job was at Wycombe Wanderers, a League Two side whom he took to the League Cup semifinals, beating Fulham and Charlton Athletic (then an EPL side) and drawing Chelsea en route - it was the first time in thirty years a fourth division side had made the League Cup semis. Then he had a solid year at Colchester United before beginning his second year with them in style, thrashing newly-relegated Norwich City 7-1 at Carrow Road on League One opening day. Norwich was smart enough to hire him a week after this happened and he won them the League One title before a shock 2nd in the Championship for auto promotion. They play attractive football and have a devastating 1-2 striker combination of Grant Holt, who is just a silly goal scorer with 24 two years ago and 21 last year and Steve Morison, who had 23 when Millwall went up with Norwich a couple years ago before 15 to carry a bare bones Lions outfit to the brink of the playoffs last year. Now, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake scored at will in the Championship too but Holt and Morison should play off each other well and both have a knack for scoring big goals and carrying entire teams. Anthony Pillkington, Elliott Bennett and James Vaughan are all nice signings and coupled in with a notoriously difficult home ground in Carrow Road, out in the sticks of East Anglia, these guys might find a way to stay up.
16) Newcastle United - No one saw it coming when they went down three seasons ago. Okay, it took every stroke of bad luck in the book but it happened and if they're not careful, it could happen again. They're yet another club who's crushed by the weight of financial peril and it's meant things like, "selling the heart and soul of the club to a relegated side." Inexplicably, Kevin Nolan now plays his football at Upton Park for West Ham and with Joey Barton a near certainty to follow him out of St. James Park for a multitude of reasons, the Geordies are looking like they're going to have some serious problems attacking from midfield. So they've decided to take a trick out of Arsene Wenger's playbook and go to France to get Yohan Cabaye from Lille, an unnecessary gamble when they had a rock in Nolan. There are also problems up front with Andy Carroll gone and Shola Ameobi never going to be an elite striker. Demba Ba has been brought in from West Ham to help, but he's inconsistent at best and useless at worst. The Magpies will have to be strong in defense and they should be with a brilliant defensive midfielder in Cheick Tiote, he of the goal-of-the-century to complete "The Comeback," in front of a back four that does a job well enough, although Jose Enrique will be missed. These guys are like Villa in that there's a lot of bad karma surrounding the club and its fans and so often in football, as in any sport, that can be all encompassing. Until Newcastle show any sort of thirst for spending, they continue to appear ripe for a disappointing season that might end the way their last one did.
17) Blackburn Rovers - Making it through this one while holding back on the chicken jokes will be difficult. I mean, can you blame me? But in all seriousness, the Venky's ownership group has been making puzzling moves ever since they took over. The immediate sacking of Sam Allardyce for no crime other than not being hand-picked by the new owners was immediately universally panned and as many predicted, Rovers went from a solid mid table side to a relegation dogfight. A spirited draw against a Man U team trying to win the title before the first half explosion at Molineux saved them, but now what? Surely Steve Kean won't magically become a good manager? Even if he does, his squad is bare bones. There's no prominent striker. The midfield is horrible. All that's there is Paul Robinson in goal and a solid back line, although Michel Salgado is 35 and prone to the ugly challenge and if Christopher Samba goes to Arsenal or anywhere else, the game changes and Rovers become easy relegation fodder. They might be regardless. I'm keeping them up because of their veteran core that knows to grind out results like the promoted sides might not and because I think so highly of Samba and Robinson but it might be time to stick a fork in Premier League football at Ewood Park. But hey, Leeroy Jenkins put it best - "At least I still have chicken."
18) Wigan Athletic - Come on. They HAVE to go down sometime, right? Right?!?! Wigan are the Michael Myers of the Premier League; every time you think you've killed them, they come on back to haunt you. One could run through a laundry list of results over the years that the Latics pulled out of their ass when absolutely nobody saw them coming. How about the legendary comeback to end Arsenal's title hopes a couple years ago? Or the shock victory over top of the table Chelsea in the game where Petr Cech got sent off? Or the aforementioned 1-0 stunner at Spurs after 4-0 and 6-0 losses to Blackpool and Chelsea in their first two games at home? But the one game from last term that sums Wigan up is their penultimate game. They fell behind 2-0 to West Ham at the DW in the very definition of a six pointer. But somehow they potted the last three, the final nail in the coffin coming literally at the death and the Hammers went down while Wigan kept themselves in the hunt. Then, needing a win at the Brittania on the final day, they survive a first half wiped out goal before Hugo Rodallega headed them to Premier League safety. These were their only two back to back wins all season. Absolutely improbable. So what's the secret? It might have been Charles N'Zogbia. He was everything for Roberto Martinez at times and while Hugo Rodallega is a terrific striker, he surely has always benefited from N'Zogbia's creativity. Wigan are like the 1990's Montreal Expos, creating great players and selling them off to richer clubs where they fully pan out. Tom Cleverely's also back on loan to Manchester United, which only makes a bad situation worse. The only addition to the squad thus far is David Jones, formerly of Wolves, who has a terrific left foot but lacks a right one as well as general consistency and pace. At least making Ali Al-Habsi's loan permanent is a nice boon - Al-Habsi was mostly good last season and simply wonderful at times (@Tottenham) and if absolutely nothing else, he's not Chris Kirkland. Still, it's almost impossible to see how Wigan stays up if things stay like they are. Granted, it's almost impossible to see how they've lasted since 2005.

19) Queens Park Rangers - When QPR started its surge up the Championship table, there were rumblings of their Indian owners having tons of money that they were going to throw around once they got promoted. The general sense was that Rangers would be Man City Lite and spend their way to the top of the Premier League. But now we're here and the opposite is true - the owners are frugal to the point where QPR couldn't match an offer for a goalkeeper under 1m and they let Newcastle loanee Wayne Routledge walk to promotion buddies and relegation rivals Swansea City. What? And for the imports? Jay Bothroyd is a good Championship striker but not as much in the Premier League. DJ Campbell had success at Blackpool last year but a lot of people did with Charlie Adam getting them the ball. And Kieron Dyer is chronically hurt and not even that great when healthy. At least they kept Adel Taarbt after that was looking doubtful for a time but are these moves really going to be enough to keep the team in the top flight? On paper, it doesn't look like it. Maybe Loftus Road can become a bandbox home field advantage of sorts but unless the owners open their wallets, the fanbase will go from pissed off to pissed off and in the Championship again.

20) Swansea City - If this roster were the exact same but, say, the team name were Reading or Hull City, would people be as excited about this team? Of course not. But those who are getting sucked in to the Swansea story might very well be the same as those who believed in Blackpool. The bottom line is that more often than not, going for it when you don't have the horses leads to failure over success. But that won't stop Brendan Rodgers from going for it. Danny Graham is a fantastic 3.5m signing from Watford, Rodgers' previous employer, where he popped 24 in to the back of the net last season. He's been given the # 10 shirt, meaning he'll be expected to be a focal point of the attack immediately. Helping him will be Scott Sinclair and the shrewd addition of Wayne Routledge while QPR were asleep at the wheel. And as for the defense, it's worth noting that Swansea actually had a reputation as an "anti-football" side before Rodgers showed up and their strong defenders from that time have stayed on. Throw in the Liberty Stadium being a nasty place to play even apart from the fact that it's the strangest road trip in Premier League history and more than a few travelers to Wales will return to the mothership surprised. But at the end of the day, Burnley were tiny. Blackpool were tiny. Swansea City are tiny. That's what makes it such a great story, but it also wouldn't be a great story if success was easy to come by. For the sake of the league I'd love to be wrong but like with Blackpool, I fear I ultimately won't be when it's all said and done.

Friday, August 12, 2011

MLB Landscape: Dog Days - National League

Granted, that title's hopefully inaccurate seeing as how if we get heat anywhere near as bad as most of July, I might become a serial killer. And I know I'm not alone. Alright, I hope I'm not alone. Let's just move on to baseball.

It's funny how similar Major League Baseball has become to the English Premier League, which I will have a post or two about later tonight before I head to bed in anticipation of the season kicking off tomorrow morning. You have a few superpowers with all the money - Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies and Manchester United/Liverpool/Chelsea - and they win everything. Then there's everybody else. You've got your second tier teams that can usually compete with the big boys but hardly ever beat them - say Rays/Rangers/Central team du jour in the AL and Braves/Brewers-Cardinals/West team du jour in the NL. Those would be your Spurs/Everton/Aston Villa types. And then there are the bottom feeders who never have any hope: Orioles, Royals, Pirates (other than for a couple months), etc. being your Wigans and West Broms of the world.

The point here is that you can watch 162 games and track anything and everything but at the end of the day, three teams have a shot at the title. Okay, if the Giants pitching can discover itself or Justin Verlander starts doing angeldust and throwing no hitters then it could be a different story but honestly, probably not. Going in to the weekend, only three teams have topped 70 wins. I'm guessing you can figure out who they are.

Then again, if Billy Beane and the sabermetricians are honestly and truly correct about the postseason being a "fucking crapshoot," maybe the tagline of not being able to script October will ring true after all. But for now, let's take a look at how things stand going in to the weekend of August 12th. With a month and a half to go, the stretch run is starting to kick in to gear. Things won't start to really get serious until after the calender turns to September but last weekend's Yankees/Red Sox series as well as Arizona's shocking series victory in San Francisco to ring in August and this week's Brewers/Cardinals battle have already had playoff-like atmospheres and feeling. By this point, most of the pretenders (we're looking at you, Bucs and Twins) have been weeded out and the actual pennant races are starting to take shape. Let's look at them.

NOTE - There won't be much analysis of wild card races here. We'll wait until September to get in to those as well as whatever division races remain (example - there won't be an NL East section next time.) For now, we're just going division by division for a true "landscape."

The Philadelphia Phillies are 8.5 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves. The Atlanta Braves are two games clear of the rest of the National League. Hell, the Phillies are five wins clear of the rest of baseball. Despite a lineup that struggled to some degree before getting Chase Utley back and some hiccups here and there from Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, the starting pitching is just as ridiculous as we all thought it would be. Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels might be 1-2 in the Cy Young race and Lee has rebounded to the point where his ERA is sub 2.9. In fact, Vance Worley's 2.85 is the highest ERA among the top four right now, which isn't even human. Even Kyle Kendrick has a 3.26 ERA, which means that everyone who's made at least 11 starts for the team has a sub 3.3 ERA. I honestly don't even know what to say to that and neither does the rest of baseball. We'll go through the charade of this division's race but the Braves are going to need a series of miracles to make this interesting.

At present... See above. The Phillies just swept the Dodgers to complete a ho-hum 9-1 west coast swing. The Braves are coming off a road sweep of their own in Florida and have won 6 of 7 since dropping 2 of 3 in the nation's capitol to start their 9 game interdivisional road trip.
This weekend... Philly hosts the Nationals with Hamels, Oswalt and Lee going so anything less than a sweep would be a disappointment for this team who has raised the bar to unfathomable heights.
The Braves at least get a similarly easy series as they host the Cubs. Granted, the North Siders have been playing some good baseball lately but this still needs to be a victory at the least, if not a sweep. Problem is there's no Jurrjens or Hanson this weekend while they have to deal with both Zambrano and Garza. If they're not careful, they could lose this series and...well, drop even further behind the Phillies but still. If nothing else, this series is big for wild card purposes.
And going forward... The Phillies conclude their brief homestand with an interesting series against Arizona. That'll be a measuring stick for the Diamondbacks, who have had a terrific month to pull in to first in the NL West and who might have the best pitching staff outside of Broad Street in the NL right now. Then they go to Washington in what might be a decent chance for me to finally go to Nats Park and then it's another six game homestand, this time against divisional foes New York and Florida. A four game NLDS rematch in Cincy ends the month but with 12 of the next 15 at home, the lead should only grow.
Atlanta kicks off a ten game homestand this weekend with seven MONSTER games next week against the Giants and Diamondbacks. Then it's seven on the road against lighter competition with four in Wrigley and three in Citi before coming home to close out the month with three against the Nats.
Next meeting... Not until September 5-7 in Philly, a Monday-Wednesday joint. Their only other meeting the rest of the way is a three gamer to end the season in Atlanta.
And the rest of the division... It's actually been a successful season for the Mets with Jose Reyes' MVP caliber season, a nice first half from Carlos Beltran to turn him in to top prospect Zack Wheeler and fine performances from young guys like Daniel Murphy and Dillon Gee. Terry Collins has done a hell of a job getting a .500 record so far out of a team that on-paper shouldn't challenge for one. The Nationals were actually looking good back in June with an 8 game winning streak, but then the Jim Riggelman mess happened and they haven't been the same since. Still, one can only wonder if their start would have been as messy if Ryan Zimmerman didn't get hurt. The Marlins are a surprising last place team in some respects, considering that they surprisingly went 3/3 with Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison all panning out. The pitching still isn't there (the Javier Vazquez experiment failed miserably) and Hanley Ramirez's colossal bust of a season certainly hasn't helped.

It's the division so bad, the Pittsburgh Pirates led it in July! Fine, that's not fair to the Brewers, who have gotten red hot since the end of July and actually look like a formidable playoff team. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun continue to tear the cover off the ball and they have a sneaky good pitching staff if consistency can be found. They also might have one of the most dangerous 8th/9th inning combos in Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford. The Cardinals continue to hang around because that's what the Cardinals do. They've survived the Albert Pujols injury and subsequent underachievement, as well as some disappointing starting pitching to prevent the kind of slippage that the Pirates and Reds have faced. They have the MVP caliber season of Lance Berkman as well as Holliday's continued production when he's not suffering from some minor injury or another to thank for that. Pittsburgh was always a fraud but it's still not fair how their season pretty much imploded after the Jerry Meals disaster. The Reds have been one of the National League's biggest disappointments, having never really made much noise in the race over the past couple months and now having backslid out of it for the time being. Both are 10 back and we'll give them the same long leash we gave the Twins for the AL Central since the division's so bad but for now, it's down to two.

At present... The Brewers have a semi-comfortable 4 game lead after going in to Busch Stadium and taking two of three. This following up the series victory in Wisconsin last week has given Milwaukee its breathing space.
This weekend... Milwaukee hosts the Pirates, a team they absolutely own at home dating back years. Jeff Karstens has regressed lately but it's still a plus to not have to face him. They need to think sweep with the form they're in, Pittsburgh's in and the history in this series.
St. Louis hosts the Ubaldo-less Colorado Rockies with the final game being Sunday Night Baseball for some reason. This is a crucial series on the back of blowing the home set against Milwaukee earlier this week.
And going forward... The Brewers welcome in the Dodgers for four next week before a seven game trip to the Empire State and then to Pittsburgh. The Cubs then come in for three before the month-ending three gamer against the Cards.
St. Louis goes to PNC for three before Wrigley for three next week. Then they come home for a seven game homestand against the Dodgers and Pirates before the trip to Milwaukee. If Pittsburgh stays dormant, that's a cupcake rest of August until the big Brewers battle. The Cards would be wise to take advantage of it.
Next meeting... End of the month, same as above. There are three more in St. Louis from Monday, September 5 to Wednesday, September 7. Unsurprisingly considering all of the recent games, the two don't meet again after the 7th.
And the rest of the division... Everyone knows the Pirates story. Surged in to the race and even in to first on the back of pitching that overachieved to some epic degree. That stopped happening, the lineup never found some consistency behind Andrew McCutchen and they went splat after the Meals atrocity and a weekend sweep in Philly in what was a measuring-stick series. Then the nightmare continued, getting swept by the Cubs AND Padres at home with some horrific performances mixed in and the clock struck midnight. As for the Reds, there's not much on offense behind Joey Votto (Drew Stubbs has been a big disappointment apart from weeks when he faces me in fantasy) and Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo have been gas fires at the top of their rotation. Very disappointing defense of the division title from them. And the Astros and Cubs might be 1-2 for worst franchises in baseball (Orioles and Mariners are also in this conversation.) Chicago couldn't offload any of its awful contracts and hasn't had a lot to feel good about this season aside from Stalin Castro. And the Astros...well, they got nice return from Hunter Pence. They somehow have *TEN* more losses than the Orioles, which means I'm not going to bother going on further about them.

Well hasn't this been something. Since the fading of the Pirates, the Arizona Diamondbacks have stepped in as the surprise story in the National League. They've actually been in the race pretty much all year but only recently have they turned heads, most specifically so with a series win in San Franciso last week. They've got a very dangerous top three of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter and their offense continues to produce, led by Justin Upton who has been going ballistic the past few weeks. But the defending World Champions aren't going to go away quietly. They've had a wild season with the Pablo Sandoval injury early on, the Buster Posey season-ending injury and subsequent debate about plays at the plate, the Carlos Beltran acquisition which has been a gigantic bust thus far and even the overarching tragedy of Bryan Stow, the Giants fan who was senselessly beaten at Dodger Stadium by a pair of Dodgers fans and suffered brain damage. But they too have ridiculous pitching and it's even better than Arizona's. Tim Lincecum is Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain is Matt Cain, but the real stories have been last year's playoff sensation Madison Bumgarner and the first, second and third choice for Comeback Player of the Year Ryan Vogelsong filling out a dominant rotation. If you like pitching, this is your race to follow.

At present... The Diamondbacks took over first place on Wednesday and continue to hang on to it, albeit by only one game. The Giants couldn't shake their hangover from dropping 3 out of 4 to Philly over the weekend and inexplicably dropped 2 of 3 to Pittsburgh this week. Meanwhile, Arizona took 3 of 4 from Houston to take pole position.
This weekend... Arizona hosts the Mets, whom they have yet to beat this season in just three games at the end of April. Kennedy and Hudson pitch Friday and Saturday while new acquisition Jason Marquis, who has struggled mightily in his new digs, caps things off Sunday.
San Francisco, who has now lost 10 of 13, goes to Miami (or hours outside of it, if Marlins fans are to be believed.) Lincecum/Vazquez on Saturday is a game that absolutely cannot be lost and Vogelsong will need to bounce back from his disaster against the Pirates on Sunday. Cain goes tonight.
And going forward... The Diamondbacks have their NL East road swing coming up, with the measuring-stick three gamer in Philly to open before Atlanta for three and the Nats for four (side note - maybe this should be my introduction to Nats Park since one of my roommates is a D'Backs fan.) They close August with six at home to divisional foes San Diego and Colorado.
The Giants continue an SEC roadtrip with the Braves for four and then the Astros (hey, Texas counts as SEC now!) for three. Then they finish out August at home with a weird nine game homestand against the Padres for two, Astros for four and Cubs for three. Very similar schedules between the two teams with whoever does better against the Braves and/or screws up less against inferior competition holding the advantage going in to...
Next meeting... September 2-4 in San Fran, the first weekend of the month. Three more in the desert in the penultimate series of the season is all that's left after that.
And the rest of the division... The Rockies were in the hunt for a little while but Carlos Gonzalez's injury was a real setback to them and once it became apparent they didn't have the horses to compete, they dealt Ubaldo Jiminez to Cleveland for four players. Apart from Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise is a mess by almost any definition. The Frank McCourt saga couldn't have been much more of a disaster and now picking up the pieces will be immensely difficult. And the San Diego Padres are performing like the San Diego Padres are supposed to perform. Their late season slide and shipment of far-and-away team MVP Adrian Gonzalez to Boston make this season's outcome unsurprising.

MLB Landscape: The Dog Days - American League

Granted, that title's hopefully inaccurate seeing as how if we get heat anywhere near as bad as most of July, I might become a serial killer. And I know I'm not alone. Alright, I hope I'm not alone. Let's just move on to baseball.

It's funny how similar Major League Baseball has become to the English Premier League, which I will have a post or two about later tonight before I head to bed in anticipation of the season kicking off tomorrow morning. You have a few superpowers with all the money - Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies and Manchester United/Liverpool/Chelsea - and they win everything. Then there's everybody else. You've got your second tier teams that can usually compete with the big boys but hardly ever beat them - say Rays/Rangers/Central team du jour in the AL and Braves/Brewers-Cardinals/West team du jour in the NL. Those would be your Spurs/Everton/Aston Villa types. And then there are the bottom feeders who never have any hope: Orioles, Royals, Pirates (other than for a couple months), etc. being your Wigans and West Broms of the world.

The point here is that you can watch 162 games and track anything and everything but at the end of the day, three teams have a shot at the title. Okay, if the Giants pitching can discover itself or Justin Verlander starts doing angeldust and throwing no hitters then it could be a different story but honestly, probably not. Going in to the weekend, only three teams have topped 70 wins. I'm guessing you can figure out who they are.

Then again, if Billy Beane and the sabermetricians are honestly and truly correct about the postseason being a "fucking crapshoot," maybe the tagline of not being able to script October will ring true after all. But for now, let's take a look at how things stand going in to the weekend of August 12th. With a month and a half to go, the stretch run is starting to kick in to gear. Things won't start to really get serious until after the calender turns to September but last weekend's Yankees/Red Sox series as well as Arizona's shocking series victory in San Francisco to ring in August and this week's Brewers/Cardinals battle have already had playoff-like atmospheres and feeling. By this point, most of the pretenders (we're looking at you, Bucs and Twins) have been weeded out and the actual pennant races are starting to take shape. Let's look at them.

NOTE - There won't be much analysis of wild card races here. We'll wait until September to get in to those as well as whatever division races remain (example - there won't be an NL East section next time.) For now, we're just going division by division for a true "landscape."

With third party Tampa Bay dropping out of the race, it's our first true Yankees/Red Sox divisional campaign since 2007. Boston won that battle and went on to win the war that October, but the Bombers can take some inter-sport comfort in that the last time their city lost a division title to Massachusetts, it quickly made that meaningless in the playoffs. Whoever loses out here will almost certainly get the wild card, with the Angels being the closest challengers at 8 back.

At present... Boston leads by a game after both held serve during the week; the Sox taking two out of three in Minnesota while the Yanks did the same at home against the Angels.
This weekend... The Sox head out to the west coast to face Seattle. There's an absolutely delicious pitching matchup at Safeco on Saturday when Josh Beckett and Felix Hernandez face off, but the Red Sox get rookies Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush the other two days so they need to be thinking sweep if they can get to Felix like they did a few weeks ago in Boston.
The Yanks missed Cy Young candidate Jered Weaver (and Ervin Santana, he of the July 27 no hitter) midweek but the piper's paid as they get Price, Hellickson and Shields in order when the Rays come to town. Tampa's always been a thorn in New York's side, particularly at Yankee Stadium, so this might be a chance for Boston to extend its lead - although the Bombers can at least limit the damage, if not prevent it should Sabathia outpitches the former # 1 pick tonight.
And going forward... Boston's got a doubleheader on Tuesday against those same Rays before a Wednesday matinee closes the series out. Then they go back on the road for a pair of four gamers with one not so daunting (KC) and then one very daunting (TEX.) It's worth noting that the only series the BoSox and Rangers have had this year was the first one of the season in Texas and of course it was a Rangers sweep to kick off Boston's nightmare start. Then the Red Sox come home for three against an Oakland team they've dominated (4-1 this year.)
The Yanks spend next week on the road, going to Kansas City and Minnesota before coming home for three against the A's just like their rivals and then four next weekend at Yankee Stadium Mid-South in Baltimore. And then...
Next meeting... August 30 to September 1 in Boston, a midweeker. Welcome to the final month.
And the rest of the division... Tampa Bay's 9.5 out and has been at arm's length for a while now. They simply don't have the offense this year although Desmond Jennings has been a breath of fresh air. Toronto continues to hit but not pitch, although the Colby Rasmus deal was a steal and now super prospect Brett Lawrie's up to show what he can do. And Baltimore continues to be Baltimore. Adam Jones is having a true breakout season and J.J. Hardy's been a nice surprise but that's about it. They're four clear of Kansas City in the AL cellar.
Before the season, everyone predicted a three horse race between Detroit, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota. Well we indeed have a three horse race in the middle of August but it's the Cleveland Indians - expected to share the basement with Kansas City while having a much dimmer future - who have been the surprise club, leading the division for pretty much the entire spring on the back of a ridiculous home record. They backslid in June and allowing the surging Tigers to make up seven games in three weeks, but some - myself included - expected them to fade out of the race over the summer, particularly as the White Sox and Twins recovered from horrific starts. But they've hung in there and now they've gone all-in by selling the farm (literally and figuratively) for Ubaldo Jiminez at the trade deadline. Game on.

At present... The Tigers lead the pack with the Indians three behind (two in the loss column), while the White Sox are right there as well at four back. The Twins caught fire for a time in the summer and went from the worst record in the American League to as close as 5 back on July 20, but they've since faded and are 10 back. We won't count them out yet in this always-fluctuating division (particularly for schedule reasons, see below) but for now, it's down to three.
This weekend... The Tigers are reeling a bit after dropping 2 of 3 in Cleveland this week. Lucky for them they're at Oriole Park this weekend. They don't burn Verlander, which is a plus as they should get the series victory regardless and they need to be thinking sweep after the White Sox took 3/4 in Charm City this week. They actually dropped 2 of 3 in their only series with the Birds in the second series of the year (and Baltimore's home opener) but don't expect that to happen again.
The Indians came up with an absolutely massive series victory against the division leaders this week, their first series win of any kind since July 4-July 6. Can you believe that? You can certainly believe who it was against, but unfortunately for them, Detroit's playing that team this weekend. That's even more reason why the Tribe need to make sure they don't screw around at home to Minnesota. Win that series and the Twins might be buried for good. The pitching matchups aren't too inspiring though, with Cleveland trotting out Masterson, Tomlin and then Sunday's starter has yet to be determined.
The White Sox took 3 of 4 in Baltimore to complete a highly successful road trip that started with a sweep in Minnesota over arguably their most hated rivals in the division. They've recovered from the beatings the Sox and Yanks laid on them in their home park and should keep the good times rolling this weekend as they return home to face the Royals.
And going forward... Detroit spends next week at home, warming up with three against the Twins (who could be looking to get back in the race if they steal a series in Cleveland) and then the Tribe come in for three next weekend. After that is a seven game roadie with four in Tampa and three at Target Field (which: if the Twins get hot this fortnight, that could be REALLY damn fun) before a needed breather in the form of a four gamer at home to KC closes out August.
Next week is one of those weeks that might define Cleveland's season when it's all said and done. Three in Chicago. Three in Detroit. Like I said in the opening paragraph, it's game on. Granted, getting just one of those crucial series could be a boon because August ends with an eleven game homestand against Seattle (4 games), Kansas City (3) and Oakland (4.) What a chance they've got to move up the standings the rest of this month.
The White Sox might have an even more crucial stretch coming up than Cleveland's. This weekend marks the start of a nine game homestand against the Royals and then (gulp) the Indians and Rangers next week. After that is a weird two-gamer in Anaheim before three in Seattle. To close out the month, the Pale Hose come home for three against their friends in Minnesota.
Next meeting... Already talked about the Indians warzone that is next week. The Tigers and White Sox open up September in Detroit; a weekend series from the 2nd to the 4th.
And the rest of the division... Minnesota's already been talked about plenty but it's worth noting that if they get out of the six game trip to Cleveland and Detroit alive, the Yankees are waiting when they get back to Target Field for four. But if they're somehow not knocked out by all of that, the Orioles come in for four right before the Tigers and White Sox series to end the month. What a story that would be if they can fight their way back in it. As for Kansas City, they've gotten nice production from some of their young guns, like Rookie of the Year candidate Eric Hosmer but they're still the Royals and pitching remains a massive problem. They're the Orioles with a far better farm system.
For some reason, it feels like everybody's counting the Angels out for months. Okay, they're overachieving a bit and the Rangers are underachieving a bit. And yes, there's not a single hitter on LAA's roster that has an OPS above .800. But Jered Weaver continues to have a Cy Young-caliber season (1.78 ERA! Are you serious?!) and Dan Haren's not too far behind (0.98 WHIP to Weaver's 0.94.) Add in Ervin Santana catching fire since the end of June and a rock solid bullpen being anchored by Scott Downs and Jordan Walden at the back end and this team doesn't appear to be going away and if it does indeed get to October, no one is going to want to face a Weaver/Haren/Santana rotation with that bullpen. Want a longshot World Series pick? Look no further than these guys. But the Rangers are the team with the mashing lineup that we all know and love. Nelson Cruz has 25 dingers and Michael Young gets on base 37% of the time to lead the high powered reigning AL champions. But the pitching has been a problem, even a glaring one at times. The young guys like C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis haven't progressed as much as needed to fill the gaping hole left by Cliff Lee but the bigger problem is in the bullpen, where Neftali Feliz has been rocky and everyone else has been worse. That's why they went out and got Mike Adams and Koji Uehara to be their set-up men but it remains to be seen how Adams will perform outside PETCO and if Uehara can keep pitching well above his head to this point in his career.

At present... Texas holds a 2 game lead after a 4-2 homestand against the Indians and Mariners. The Angels took the opener in New York but couldn't get either of the next two when none of their "big three" pitched, making a spirited charge in the 9th yesterday but falling a run short.
This weekend... The Rangers go to Oakland for three, with the Saturday game being a FOX game meaning that only tonight's game is a late start, for whatever that's worth. Wilson, Lewis and Harrison go in that order so dumping this series would be a really bad idea.
Meanwhile, the Angels continue their AL East roadtrip north of the border in Toronto. They too have their big guns going in the order of Santana, Haren and Weaver. Haren goes up against Ricky Romero, who's having one of the more underrated seasons by a top end starter in all of baseball, on Saturday afternoon. The offense needs to step up this weekend though, since Toronto can mash it in their yard against anyone.
And going forward... After the weekend, these two teams meet up in Orange County for four crucial games that will help define the race going in to September. Then Texas finishes off its eleven game roadie in the Windy City whereas the Angels have five more at home against the Orioles and those same White Sox. While the back end of that Angels home stand is happening, the Rangers are greeted in their home park by the American League leaders, whom they haven't seen since sweeping them opening weekend. And because all of that wasn't enough, round 2 between these two happens in Texas the weekend of the 26th for three crucial games that probably will end up defining the race going in to September. If you pick one race to follow the rest of this month, this one's as good a candidate as any.
Next meeting... Hopefully you were able to read the above paragraph.
And the rest of the division... Oakland's had a flop of a season, fancied by many to at least contend for if not win the division and they've never really been close, apart from when the entire division was close a few months ago. And the Mariners were looking like the same kind of team the Angels were for a while...and then their offense reminded us that it might be the worst of our lifetimes during the 17 game losing streak. For good measure, Michael Pineda has fallen off the map since the All Star break, seeing his ERA rise by almost a full point. He should still be in Rookie of the Year conversations, however.