A Cyclone Hits Austin

October 24, 2010

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My alma mater notched their biggest win of the season on Saturday, as Iowa State held off Texas for a 28-21 win in Austin, Texas.  Longhorns quarterback Garrett Gilbert threw three interceptions, and Cyclone defenders had their hands on several other passes.  A guy who really caught my attention was ISU punter Kirby Van Der Kamp, who blasted a 74 yard punt and had several other good efforts.

After a surprisingly good 7-6 season in Paul Rhoads’ first season as coach last year, there were plenty of reasons for pessimism going into this year.  The 2010 season featured some great opponents that were missing from the 2009 schedule – conference games against Oklahoma and Texas and the non-conference tilt against Utah.  The game against in-state rival Iowa would be in Iowa City instead of Ames.

Eight games into the season, the squad stands at 4-4.  In addition to losses to big guns Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah, the Cyclones lost a heartbreaker against a good Kansas State team.  On the plus side, Iowa State also knocked off  Texas Tech 52-38.

At the beginning of the season, I was hard pressed to find a scenario that would lead to a bowl for Iowa State.  I’m a pretty optimistic person, but generally temper things with a bit of realism, and my scenarios kept topping out at 5-7.  However, with four games left in the season, a bowl game is a real possibility.  We have games left against Kansas and Colorado, who have combined for zero conference wins this year.  The two toughest games – Nebraska and Missouri – are both home games.  Running the table is probably out of the question, but the Cyclones should definitely get to six games if they continue to “hit that line and hit it hard”.

Who sits atop the Big 12 South standings at the moment?  Yeah, you guessed it.  Baylor.

Another happy result from Saturday was Navy’s 35-17 win over the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  I have no real reason to cheer for Navy, but I do like to see Notre Dame take a beating.  The 4-4 Irish will face tough tests in at least two of their remaining games, against Utah and USC.  The Notre Dame – USC game always puts me in the awkward position of wanting both teams to lose.

In the “where the #$*^ did that come from” department, the Oakland Raiders put the smack down on longtime rivals the Denver Broncos, 59-14.  For at least a day, fans had to stop bashing Al Davis and stand in awe of that which the Raiders wrought.

Flipping the page to baseball … The Texas Rangers knocked off the “best” team that money could buy, sending the Yankees packing.  The Rangers raced out to a 3 games to 1 lead before finishing off the Yankees in six games.  On the opposite side of the bracket, the Giants put an end to the Phillies reign of terror, halting their run of NL pennants at three.  The NLCS was the only series I have picked incorrectly in my pool, but it ended up clinching a victory for me.  I have Texas picked to win it all, and my other guy had the Phillies.

An interesting note … the Rangers scored at least six runs in all four of their wins against the Yankees.  The Giants scored no more than six runs in any of the NLCS games.  What to expect in the World Series?  Some really good starting pitching.

Baseball Playoff Preview (National League)

October 6, 2010

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Yesterday, we previewed the American League playoff teams.  Today, we look at the National League.

Philadelphia Phillies – National League East Champions (97-65)

How did they get here:
The Phillies were 7 games out of first place on July 22.  Going 47-17 from that date through the end of the season locked up the division for the reigning National League champions.


  • Rotation – Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt are a stunningly potent trio.  The 33 year old Halladay paced the National League in wins and innings pitched, and will pitch in the playoffs for the first time in his career.  While Cole Hamels never seems to rack up high win totals, it’s not due to lack of performance on his part.  He posted a 3.06 ERA – the third season of 3.40 or lower in the past 4 seasons.  Roy Oswalt is the new kid on the block.  After starting the season 6-12 with a stellar 3.42 ERA for Houston, he flourished in Philadelphia, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA.  All three guys pitched at least 200 innings.
  • The big bats – Ryan Howard had an off year and still managed 31 homers.  Jayson Werth hit 27 homers while leading the National League in doubles (46).  He’s also a free agent at the end of the year – so he has extra incentive to perform in front of a national audience.  I’m not exposed to the east coast media, and perhaps he gets more coverage there – but Werth seems like a very under-the-radar star.  Chase Utley slipped a bit, but still posted numbers that are strong for a second baseman.  Carlos Ruiz put up a .302 batting average at catcher.


  • Shortstop Jimmy Rollins fought injuries and saw his OPS decline for the 3rd straight season.  It’s probably too early to yell that the sky is falling … but there is reason for concern.
  • 3B Placido Polanco doesn’t hit with the power most team expect from their third baseman.
  • Paul Hoover sucks.

Player to watch:
Jamie Moyer.  There’s not really a young breakout player to keep an eye on, so let’s focus on the 47 year old 267 game winner.  Moyer won’t pitch in the first round, but might crack the roster later in the playoffs, as a lefty out of the pen.

San Francisco Giants – National League West Champions (92-70)

How did they get here:
The Giants finished the season strong – 45-29 in the second half and 19-10 in August and September. However, it would be prudent to give the Padres some credit. A stunning collapse by San Diego – including a 10 game losing streak – allowed the Giants to snatch the division from them. The Giants won a game against San Diego on the final day of the season – and clinched the division as a result.


  • Rotation – Reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum’s 3.43 ERA ranks 4th among Giants starters – Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez all posted ERAs of 3.14 or lower. This is the best rotation in the playoffs. However, it may be worth noting that Bumgarner is a 21 year old kid with a total of 19 career starts.
  • Hitters who rose to the occasion in limited roles. Rookie catcher Buster Posey made the most of his opportunity by batting .305 with 18 homers. Pat Burrell hit his 18 in just 289 at bats. Veteran players Aubrey Huff (26 homers) and Juan Uribe (24 homers) also had strong seasons.


  • 3B Pablo Sandoval saw his number drop dramatically across the board. He hit .330 with 25 homers in 2009, but just .268 with 13 homers this year.
  • An awful lot of players filled roles for the Giants this year. Only 1 outfielder (Andres Torres) got more than 500 at bats. Sure, some of the limited role players succeeded with their opportunities, but will the familiarity with teammates be there at critical junctures in the game?

Player to watch:
Buster Posey. 18 homers and a .305 average from a rookie CATCHER! Heck, he doesn’t even strike out very much. I was high on the kid when he was drafted, and I’m still a fan.

Cincinnati Reds – National League Central Champions (91-71)

How did they get here:
A 19-8 August, combined with an unexpectedly underperforming Cardinals team, allowed the Reds to claim the division title. They didn’t finish the season on a strong note, going 14-16 in their final 30 games.


  • Hitting, top to bottom. SS Orlando Cabrera was the only regular to finish the season with an OPS lower than .758. MVP candidate Joey Votto hit .324 with 37 homers.
  • Chemisty – This group should also have good cohesion, as everyone other than catcher Ramon Hernandez recording at least 494 at bats.


  • Rotation – Only Bronson Arroyo (17) and Johnny Cueto (12) won as many as 9 games. Edinson Volquez served a 50 game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, and wasn’t great after he returned – he’ll need to step up in the post-season in order to have this rotation match up with the other teams.
  • Closer – Francisco Cordero’s notched 40 saves, but his 3.84 ERA and 11 decisions (6-5) are indications that he wasn’t as dominant as the Reds would have liked.

Player to watch:
22 year old Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman touched 105 mph on the radar gun. He had a bit of an up-and-down season in the minors before his call-up, but there have been more ups than downs. Chappy was used exclusively out of the bullpen late in the season, pitching just 13 1/3 innings.

Atlanta Braves – National League Wild Card (91-71)

How did they get here:
The Braves were in first place by 7 games on July 22, before fading and finishing 7 games behind the Phillies. Had the Padres beaten the Giants on the final day of the season, the Braves would have ended up in a tie for the wild card – but the Giants prevailed and punched playoff tickets for themselves and the Braves. The Braves were 14-16 in their final 30 games.


  • Bullpen – Billy Wagner notched 37 saves and posted a 1.73 ERA. He led a bullpen corps that included 5 guys who pitched in at least 56 games and record an ERA below 3.00.
  • Emotion – this is the final year for Braves manager Bobby Cox. Cox won more than 2500 games during a managerial career that dates back to 1978 – and 2149 of those wins were for the Braves. He took the team to the World Series 5 times, winning one title. He also holds the distinction of being ejected more times than any other manager in history (yes, they track this stuff), earning him the appreciation of his players. The players want to send Cox out on a high note.


  • Hitting – there are some serious holes in this lineup. Chipper Jones, the heart and sole of the team for a decade and half, suffered a season ending injury. OF Nate McClouth was an All Star in 2008, but was the worst hitter on the team this year. Once promising SS Yunel Escobar was traded to the Blue Jays. Only one player, catcher Brian McCann, managed to hit 20 homers (he had 21). There are still some solid hitters in the lineup, but it’s not as scary as what other teams will put on he field.
  • Rotation – Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83 ERA) and Tommy Hanson (3.33 ERA) should be able to hold their own with the other top guns, but the Braves lack the third elite arm that their opponents are going to be able to throw at them.

Player to watch:
21 year old outfielder Jason Heyward is one of the best prospects in the game and could become a household name with a strong performance.

Who is my choice? I’m going to go with the Phillies. They have the second best rotation of the 4 teams, and their offense is much better than the Giants.

The NL West Race

September 21, 2010

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It’s the 19th of September, and only two division leaders in baseball have a lead of less than 4 games.  One of the tight races is in the AL East, where the Yankees hold a 1 1/2 game lead over the Devil Rays.  There is a nice consolation price for the loser of that race – the Devil Rays currently hold a 6 1/2 game lead over the Red Sox for the Wild Card.

The other tight race is in the NL West, where the Giants hold a 1/2 game lead over the Padres and a 1 1/2 game lead over the Rockies.  Had the Rockies not squandered a 6-1 lead against the Dodgers on Sunday, this race could be even tighter.  There’s a bit more desperation in the NL West race, because all three teams are a bit behind the Braves in the wild card race (although this could change if the Phillies sweep Atlanta in their series).

All three teams were idle yesterday and return to action in road games today – the Giants against the Cubs, the Padres against the Dodgers, and the Rockies against the Diamondbacks.  This weekend will feature a critical matchup between the Rockies and Giants at Coors Field, while the Padres face NL Central leaders Cincinnati at home. 

In the final week of the season, the Giants will start out with a home series against the Diamondbacks, the Padres will go to Wrigley to face the Cubs, and the Rockies will face the Dodgers at home.  When the calendar flips to October, we’ll see the Rockies traveling to St. Louis to face the always dangerous Albert Pujols and the Cardinals while the Padres and Giants battle in San Francisco.

As you can see, the Cubs, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks will all act as spoilers down the stretch, as they face two of the three division contenders.

Who has the tought row to hoe during the season’s final fortnight?  Well, the Giants get to face the suddenly hot Cubs (winners of six straight) and have to face both the Rockies and Padres.  They do have a three game set against the Diamondbacks that should allow them to pick up some easy wins.

The Padres don’t have a cakewalk either, with series against two division leaders – San Francisco and Cincinnati.  Expect Cincinnati to have the pedal to the metal as they fight for a higher seed in the playoffs.  They are currently the 2 seed and certainly would not want to slip to the 3 seed and lose home field advantage in the first round.

That brings us to the Rockies.  On paper, it’s not a horrible schedule.  They face only one division leader (San Francisco) and those games are at home.  One of their road series is against the Diamondbacks, who are the second worst team in the National League.  They’ll finish with a four game series against a Cardinals team that will likely have nothing to play for.  But on the bad side, the fact that the Padres and Giants finish the season against each other provides an interesting obstacle – if they trail one of the other teams by 2 games with 3 games left to go, it will be impossible for them to make up the gap.  Why?  Because either the Padres or Giants must win at least 2 games in their 3 game series.  Yep – if the Giants lead the Rockies by 2 games and the Padres by 3 games going into the final series, the Rockie would be mathematically eliminated, but the Padres would still be alive.

So, what happens if there is a 3 way tie for the division?  Two of the teams will play an elimination game, with the winner hosting the third team.  The teams will be ranked on their head-to-head records, with the top seed (the Rockies have clinched this) deciding whether they want home field advantage (in both games) or to be the team that waits to face the winner of the first game (but has to travel).

Which is the correct choice?  Teams play better at home than they do on the road, but it’s not a slam dunk to take the home field advantage, since the home team must win two games.  In order for the home team to have the advantage over the team that needs to win just the final road game, there would need to be a 62% probability for the home team to win vs. 38% for the road team (.62*.62 = .3844).  And even though there are a few teams that exceed this rate, it’s also important to note that the home team would need to burn their best available pitcher in the first game, whereas the team-in-waiting would head into the second game fresh and rested.

My gut?  Be the team waiting on the sidelines and take the one road game.

In other (related) news …
My favorite player, Troy Tulowitzki, has been tearing it up lately, with 14 home runs in a 15 game stretch that ended Saturday (he was held without a homer on Sunday).  Tulo had 2 homers in 4 of those games and drove in a stunning 31 games during that stretch.  Hopefully Tulo can kept up the hot hitting down the stretch.