Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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Let’s Play Some Baseball -2015 Red Sox Preview

I have a lot of favorite times of year in sports. I have favorite weekends, favorite months, even a favorite morning. But this upcoming week gets the nod as my favorite random sports week of the year. It’s got the NCAA Championship, the NBA playoff race, the Masters and best of all, Opening Day.

Despite what the New England weather might be telling us with gusts of freezing wind, baseball season is indeed upon us. And with the first pitch tonight at the newly modernized Wrigley Field, a new MLB year will be upon us. Memories of the 2014 Red Sox can finally be stowed away and we can be filled with the youthful optimism of Opening Day tomorrow. Few things are as gloriously hopeful as seeing the Sox take the field again.

Putting aside my blind Opening Day optimism for the remainder of this post, I want to outline my expectations for the coming year. With the lineup restocked with serious hitting talent, this team will be fun to watch at the very minimum. There’s no chance that a team with so many sluggers can stumble to a last place finish. So that’s good. But I have serious doubts about the team’s October chances with the current collection of pitchers. Sure, they’ll score in the regular season. But in the playoffs, when you’re facing the likes of David Price and Anibal Sanchez, runs will be hard to come by. Suddenly, you need a pitcher who can hold opponents to under three runs in big games. And I don’t think the Red Sox have that pitcher. But before I get to the pitching staff, I’ll start with the hitters.

Behind the plate, I’m not sold on Ryan Hanigan and Sandy Leon. That’s not a duo that can turn a mediocre pitching staff into a great one. Nor one who can hit enough to make up for it. I’m incredibly disappointed and saddened by Christian Vazquez’s surgery as I was excited to watch a defensive wizard handle this staff. But alas, injury strikes, and I fear Vazquez won’t be given another shot if Blake Swihart is ready next year. Catcher is clearly the team’s weakest position, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Red Sox had to make a move in late May or June for a short-term fix.

In the infield, I expect a big season from Mike Napoli. I’m a big believer that you have more energy when you sleep well, and it sounds like Nap’s finally getting good sleep. He’ll be a menace in the six spot in the order, and should clean up offensively. I see him easily eclipsing 100 RBIs. I’m less sure about Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia bouncing back. I’d be happy with any sort of consistency from the two at the plate. Both will be in positions to get good pitches to hit, but I’m afraid Pedroia’s lost some bat speed and that Bogaerts simply isn’t as good as we all thought. I’m worried a slow start could shatter the shortstop’s confidence. And for Pablo Sandoval, we all need to realize he’s not going to be David Ortiz. I think he’ll have a high OBP but a much lower slugging percentage than people will want. And as far as Ortiz goes, I think he’s due for a big year with some protection in the lineup for the first time in years. 34 home runs (the amount needed to get to 500 in his career) doesn’t sound too far-fetched.

Where last year’s outfield was a black hole, this one should be right at the top of the league in offensive production. I want to be cautious with my expectations for Mookie Betts, but frankly, I’ll be just as surprised as everyone else if he doesn’t come in and steal our hearts. He carries himself with so much confidence that I don’t see him backing down against anyone. In left, Hanley Ramirez is going to be the right-handed middle-of-the-order bat the Sox have lacked since Jason Bay in 2009. I’m really excited to see him play. And while I love the guy, I don’t expect Shane Victorino to be the starter in right field much past April. Either he gets hurt (which is probably the likely outcome), or he plays himself into being a trade target. Rusney Castillo has to get big-league at-bats soon.

Defensively, this team could be pretty bad. All the ground-ball pitchers will expose the fact that this infield isn’t as strong as it has been. Expect 20-plus errors from Bogaerts and another 10 each from Sandoval and Pedroia. I’m also worried that Pedroia’s lost a step at second. Be on the lookout for whether he’s getting to as many balls as he used to. And in the outfield, things could get messy, especially if Victorino’s not out there. There’s probably a reason most teams don’t switch often their life-long infielders into the outfield. And between Ramirez and Betts, the Sox have two of those guys. Sure, Betts will make some nice catches, but there’ll also be many poor reads and mistimed dives that lead to free bases Jackie Bradley Jr. didn’t allow.

When lamenting the fact that this team lacks an ace in the starting rotation, it’s worth remembering that Lester was hardly an ace for the last few years in the regular season. So this isn’t entirely new. But what is new is the lack of a marketable go-to guy in October. There’s nobody to trust yet. Among the starters, I’m confident that Rick Porcello can have a good year. But matched up against top pitchers in the playoffs, I don’t think we can count on him throwing a shutout. Behind him, I think Clay Buchholz can have a productive three or four months. When those months will be I don’t know, but he’ll either start strong or finish strong. The other three guys I don’t have much faith in however. Hitters have seen the ball well against Justin Masterson both in recent years and in spring training, so things could get ugly with him on the mound. And I’m not sold on Wade Miley or Joe Kelly as being good enough for the AL East.

I like the compilation of right-handed arms in the bullpen. The sixth, seventh and eighth innings will be in good hands if Junichi Tazawa, Alexi Ogando and Anthony Varvano can stay healthy. I’m not as confident in the left-handed options sans Andrew Miller, but maybe Craig Breslow can return to the pitcher he was in the 2013 regular season. And at closer, Koji Uehara’s health is a huge worry. I wasn’t a fan of the contract he received given his health concerns, and that could prove disastrous if he’s not able to take the mound every other night. Edward Mujica seemed to figure things out late last year, so he’s not the worst emergency option, but this team will need Uehara at or near his best to contend for a title.

All in all, I think the team will finish with a win-total in the upper-80’s and will earn one of the two wild-card spots. That’s where the lack of an ace could prove especially costly. But I’m confident that Ben Cherington will make a move for a pitcher at some point, though I don’t think it will be Cole Hamels coming to Boston. But even without a star pitcher, this team will be fun. Expect lots of runs.

Tomorrow at 3:05, another journey begins for the hometown nine. As Mookie steps in to face Hamels, we can all be optimistic that this is our year. We can forget about the miserable 2014 and the endless winter. Because on this afternoon, the sun will be bright and the grass will be green. And the Red Sox will be back playing baseball. Let’s play some baseball.



Oh, How Outsiders Must Hate Boston Right Now

Sports fans around the country must really hate Boston right now. I’ll be the first the admit that I’ve been seriously spoiled in my professional sports fandom. Not only do we win more often than not and possess money to dump on free agents, but we are wonderfully obnoxious about it all – think Bill Belichick deciding to get an extra touchdown rather than kneeling the ball. The last two days have been a spectacular microcosm for the relative power and arrogance of Boston sports that I hope never ends.

To recap, the Patriots routed the NFC North-leading Lions 34-9, doing Patriots things like sitting Sports Illustrated cover boy Jonas Gray for being late to a practice with no consequence at all and running up the score with a needless touchdown. I love that Bill Belichick left Gray active for the game even though he had absolutely no intention of playing him. It may have left the Patriots with one fewer player, but he made the Lions, TV announcers, and millions of fantasy owners wait the whole game to see how long the in-house suspension would last. And how annoyed must Steelers fans be, not to mention fans of any team needing a good running back, that LaGarrette Blount wryly worked his way back onto the Patriots with a serious of childish acts that ultimately will carry no consequences?

At the same time, we had our much overlooked New England Revolution playing in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Red Bulls and taking the first leg 2-1 on the road on a dubious Jermaine Jones goal. Hate us for scoring goals like that. Hate us for acquiring World Cup star Jones on a literal coin flip. And hate us for not caring one bit that we have a legitimately great soccer team right now – even the owners of the team, the Krafts, couldn’t be bothered to watch the Conference Finals.

There was a Celtics loss in the evening – we have to have one bad team, right? – but before the night was over there was news that the Red Sox had landed Hanley Ramirez for 5 years and 90 million dollars. Given their pursuit of Pablo Sandoval, the move was surprising, but maybe they’d gotten impatient with Sandoval, or believed his price was too high.

Wrong. We all woke to the news that Sandoval too was headed to Boston, for 5 years and roughly 98 million. Wow. The Red Sox spent almost $200 million in twelve hours on a pair of third basemen when the biggest need on the team is very clearly pitching. Somehow, Ben Cherington went in and stole the two best hitters on the market before everyone’s eyes. And it can be argued that he didn’t need to. You can sure hate us for that.

Cherington seemingly sold Ramirez on playing left field, a position he has never played in his big-league career. This is the same player who put up a stink for having to move from shortstop to third base not too long ago. Ramirez also will join an absurdly crowded outfield, although he won’t be the one worried about that. So what convinced him then that this was the place for him? The answer has to be money. Most teams can’t afford to spend money on superstars they need, but the Red Sox do it for players they want.

Sandoval on the other hand chose Boston over similar offers from two other teams, including the Giants, for whom he’d won three World Series titles and become a cult hero. He chose a worse team in a city with notoriously harsh critics in a more challenging league over his home team that didn’t try to undercut him. I can’t begin to understand why he’d make that decision, but I’m sure glad to have his switch-handed hitting bat in the lineup.

On a quick tangent, the Red Sox now have to sort out the mess in the outfield and acquire frontline starting pitching. I think it has to start with Jon Lester. Wouldn’t that be the cherry on top of this month if he signed? And then go after Cole Hamels with a package that includes Deven Marrero (whose path is now blocked for at least two years) and a couple other top prospects. Yoenis Cespedes probably has to go somewhere, so if the Phillies want him, he could be a chip. Next, trade some combination of outfielders for a second-tier pitcher.

I think out of the outfielders left, I want to keep Betts, Victorino, Nava and Castillo. We can’t bank on Victorino being healthy, but if he turns out to be anywhere near what he was two years ago, he’d be a valuable piece in right. And Nava’s left-handed bat and versatility could come in handy as a fourth or fifth outfielder. That leaves Craig, Holt, Bradley Jr., and Cespedes on the outside looking in.

At one point early Monday morning, 4 of ESPN’s top 6 headlines were Boston related. And frankly, although it was a pretty great day to be a fan, it wasn’t particularly out of the norm. We’ve had many days like that in years past. You should hate us for being obnoxious and arrogant. But I hope this run of excellence across the Boston sports never ends.

I don’t know if I necessarily believe that a culture of winning breeds winning, but I believe that a culture that expects winning demands winning. And as fans, we more than any other fan group won’t put up with losing at this point. Lose and we won’t accept it.

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Covering My Bases

It has been far too long since I last wrote about sports. School has been getting increasingly busy and extracurricular activities are piling up such that I rarely have the hours necessary to sit down and watch a game – much less write about it. But I wanted to take this brief window I have before Halloween festivities to touch on a bunch of sports topics.

I’ll start with the Red Sox. I definitely wanted the Sox to bring Koji Uehara back as opposed to gambling on a young pitcher or an Edward Mujica-type, but when I saw the 2-year/$18 million contract he signed, my immediate reaction was that is a lot to invest on a forty-year-old pitcher who broke down at the end of this year. Based on market value, and the pitching talent teams would get for that sort of deal, it would seem to be a good contract for the Red Sox. But I’m just not sure how effective he’s going to be in 2016. The two year deal will force John Farrell to look long-term next year with Uehara, and I would not be at all surprised if he tries to limit how often Uehara goes two days in a row. This deal was made with an eye towards immediate contention though, which I’m happy about.

Everybody wants Andrew Miller and Jon Lester back, myself included. But the prices for those two pitchers will be absurd. If the Red Sox splurge on the two of them, there won’t be a ton left to spend. And if they are back, then you are left with a 2015 Red Sox team that looks very similar to the 2014 team. I don’t think the brass will want that. So realistically, I don’t see either coming back. My guess is there will be one minor free agent signing in the rotation and the rest of the changes will come through trades.

To the Celtics. I was able to watch most of Wednesday’s opener and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that game very well might be the best the Celtics will play all year. Beyond Rajon Rondo being back to his assist-happy ways, and an improved Kelly Olynyk, my favorite part about this team is the bench. Too often, recent Celtics teams have lacked second-units that look to score. Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner sure take care of that problem. Add in Marcus Smart’s defense and that second-unit may start to dominate the second quarter. I still think this team will be bad. But they will be able to win games against teams that aren’t 100% focused that night. Teams won’t like playing in Boston this year.

More than anything though, I’m just happy basketball season is upon us. Davidson basketball starts up too in a couple weeks, which I’m pumped for. It’ll be an interesting year for the ‘Cats. There is more talent on our squad than pundits and coaches are giving us credit for – I know the A-10 is good, but there is no way a Bob McKillop coached team finishes 12th out of 14 in the conference. We’re going to have a fantastic backcourt, with Brian Sullivan, Jack Gibbs and Tyler Kalinoski returning to form one of the best guard trios in the conference. And Jake Belford’s 3-point ability will stretch defenses enough to open the drive up. However, the lack of experience and size at the 4 is frankly alarming. I’ve been hearing good things about the freshmen, but they can’t be expected to come in and find their footing right away.

Regardless of how successful we’ll be, I am really excited for the move to the A-10. It’s a necessary step up for a program that had found sustained success in the SoCon. From a fan’s perspective, I’m looking forward to having quality team come to Belk Arena and hopefully the students section can get fired up for some games this year. And as we’re going to rely heavily on the 3-ball, there might be a few upsets over the course of the year. I’ll be posting anything I write about the team on here, so there will be some Davidson basketball coverage on here for sure.

Now to Arkansas. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the Mississippi State game tomorrow than I should be. The pressure is off Arkansas this weekend. The monkey that’s been on our backs all year will feel lighter on the road against the nation’s top team. The Hogs know they can play with anyone, and with all the pressure on State, I’m hopeful Arkansas comes out firing tomorrow. It’s very much a trap game for the Bulldogs and Arkansas should be able to take advantage of that. With Brooks Ellis coming back, I think the defense is up to the challenge of stopping Dak Prescott. Give Jonathan Williams the ball and let the offensive line do the rest. At this point in the season, the Hogs have nothing to lose in this game. It’s time for some Razorback magic.

Lastly, to Arsenal. In theory, tomorrow’s game against Burnley at The Emirates should be a walk in the park. This is the type of fixture that Arsene Wenger should be able to win even with significant squad rotation. He should rest his injury-depleted squad for the midweek Champions League tie. And Arsenal should still be able to win 3-0. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that Wenger will not rotate the squad at all, Arsenal will labor for much of the match against the parked bus that is Burnley, and the match will be decided by a single goal.

I would like to see Joel Campbell get a start ahead of Santi Cazorla. Cazorla hasn’t looked right recently, and Campbell deserves a real chance. He has looked lively in short bursts so it’s time to see if he can provide the energy needed to break down Burnley. I also think Danny Welbeck could use a break, so maybe Campbell could even be given a chance up top. I wouldn’t be opposed to Yaya Sanogo either. But most importantly, Nacho Monreal should not be playing center back, whether Kieran Gibbs is fit or not. Slide Calum Chambers into the middle and let Hector Bellerin loose, especially in a game like this.

Hopefully, Arsenal will be far enough ahead that Theo Walcott will be able to make a substitute cameo in the second half. His return is vital to Arsenal’s success in the next two months. Before reinforcements are brought in during the January transfer window and before Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud get healthy, Arsenal need to find their form. The Premier League can’t be won in the first half of the year – yes, Chelsea is still beatable – but it can be lost. The way the Gunners are playing, I don’t think they’ll make it to January within 15 points of Chelsea unless Walcott gets going quickly.

My predictions for tomorrow are a 3-1 win for the Gunners and a 27-26 loss for Arkansas.

What are you excited for this weekend? Basketball? Football? Soccer? Please comment below.

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One Year Ago Today: Looking Back on Game 2

The Red Sox season is long over. I have gone through my “It doesn’t feel right watching October baseball without the Red Sox” phase and have emerged in time to watch two thoroughly entertaining Championship Series. I think at this point, I’m rooting for a Cardinals-Orioles World Series, but I don’t have a huge rooting interest. The best and simultaneously strangest part of this postseason is watching our boys John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Andrew Miller play starring roles for other teams. I love those guys to death, but it still always feels weird seeing World Series-winning, former Red Sox have another run in the postseason in other colors.

But today, I am looking back. Because today marks one year to the day that David Ortiz saved the Red Sox’s 2013 season. I doubt anyone could ever forget it, but here’s the video:

It’s easy when looking back on 2013 to remember it as simple. But lest you forget, the Red Sox nearly lost the first two games of the ALCS against the Tigers at home. In Game 1, Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers bullpen carried a no-hitter into the 9th. Only a Daniel Nava bloop single to left saved the Red Sox from an embarrassing start. And then in Game 2, Max Scherzer also had a no-hitter going with the Tigers up 5-0. Shane Victorino broke it up in the sixth and Papi tied it in the 8th. But through the first 14 innings of the series – all at Fenway Park – the Red Sox had one hit. And Justin Verlander had not yet pitched. Things weren’t looking good.

But all that has been forgotten because of one swing. One beautiful, incredible swing. If we weren’t expecting it, we should have been. Because nobody has proven to be more clutch than David Ortiz when it comes to playoff baseball. That grand slam will forever rank among the best moments in Red Sox history. The accompanying photo will also go down as one of the best sports photos ever taken.

That night now seems a distant memory. So much has changed on the Red Sox front in the last year. But we will always have the memory of this night to make us believe anything can happen in sports. Never count yourself out.

Here are some other fun notes about Game 2:

Max Scherzer’s line – 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 R, 2 BB, 13 K – I don’t know about you, but I’d be up for shelling out some serious cash to bring him to the front of the 2015 Red Sox rotation.

The Red Sox were aided by a Jose Iglesias error in the 9th, one of two big defensive miscues the former Red Sox wizard made that series at shortstop. As bad a year as Xander Bogaerts had both at the plate and on the field, there weren’t too many cries that Iglesias should have been playing. Jake Peavy may be gone from Boston, but at this point, it’s safe to say the Red Sox won that deal in the short term. I wish Iglesias the best of luck in his recovery from his shin injuries this offseason. I always liked him.

Brandon Workman and Felix Doubront were the Red Sox relievers who kept the game close, combining for 2 and 2/3 scoreless innings in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. The two of them didn’t give up a hit. Only a year later, both of those pitchers have seen their careers implode. Doubront got shipped out of town and Workman played himself out of a job. I bet 2013 seems even longer ago for the two of them.

In the 2 and 3 holes, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia combined for 3 hits and 2 runs. Don’t sleep on the two of them after subpar, forgettable 2014 campaigns. They’ll be driven all offseason by everyone counting them out, and I predict both to have bounce back years. Right now, my 2015 Red Sox outfield is Yoenis Cespedes, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino with Jackie Bradley Jr. the fourth outfielder.

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America’s Favorite Diminished Rivalry

(Originally written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as Sports Editor of the biweekly newspaper)

Growing up in New England in the pre-2004 era, the first thing I learned as a sports fan was to hate the Yankees. Sure, hate is a strong word and all, but we still hate the Yankees.

I never quite understood it back then. I would see people wearing shirts that equated the joy we got when the Red Sox won to that which we felt when the Yankees lost. I thought those shirts were stupid. Of course I’d rather see the Red Sox win. Who cares if the Yankees lose?

I’d be at a game at Fenway Park against the lowly Detroit Tigers of the early 2000s, and the Red Sox crowd would suddenly start chanting “Yankees Suck.” Or in the eighth inning, there would be a sudden cheer from the crowd. I’d hear somebody around me say, “The Yankees just lost” and realize the cheer came because the out-of-town scoreboard changed the “9” in the inning column to an “F.” The Yankees didn’t have to be anywhere near Boston to be on the minds of fans.

I think it was 2003 when I truly started hating the Yankees and all their players. Around then, steroid chants started echoing around Fenway. The Yankees always won, and it was easy to hate Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi. Why wouldn’t I hate them?

Things weren’t only hostile in the stands, but also on the field. Be it Karim Garcia, Don Zimmer or Clemens, there was always a clear antagonist on the field. The disdain the Red Sox had for the Yankees was real.

We all know what happened in 2004 forever changed the relationship Red Sox fans have with baseball. The Evil Empire was defeated in spectacular fashion that postseason, but so was the rivalry.

Since that memorable comeback that sparked the end of an 86-year curse, the Red Sox and Yankees have played roughly 18 times a year, with no meetings in the playoffs. After meeting in two straight epic ALCSs, they haven’t played each other with a whole lot on the line. And it’s showed.

ESPN and Fox might still pick up the games and bill them as rivalry games, but there isn’t the same hostility at this point. Aside from Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury switching sides, Red Sox fans don’t seem to be as invested in hating the Yankees. And save for Ryan Dempster taking it upon himself to drill Alex Rodriguez a year ago, the players certainly aren’t looking to start any fights, especially with Joba Chamberlain and Kevin Youkilis long gone.

This past weekend, the Red Sox organization, fans included, staged a love fest for Derek Jeter. It was fully deserved, and the gesture showed a tremendous amount of class on the part of the front office, but would the Red Sox have done anything like that ten years ago? Certainly not.

The weekend’s farewell to Jeter also got me thinking: Is there a Yankees player (other than A-Rod) that I can look at and say I truly hate? I have always respected Jeter, so this isn’t necessarily so much about him, but I don’t think there are any of those players left.

This ambivalence toward the opposing players is in stark contrast with my Arsenal fandom. This past weekend was also the North London Derby, a thoroughly bitter rivalry match between Arsenal and Tottenham. As I watched that match thinking about the impending Jeter ceremonies, I realized that I genuinely hated every single Tottenham player. I looked at them and instantly became angry. It reminded me of how I used to feel about the Yankees.

It would be easy to say that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has become watered down because of how many times a year the two teams play each other. Or that nobody cares anymore because the games take too long. It would also be easy to say that Red Sox fans no longer have an inferiority complex after winning three World Series titles in the last ten years.

But I think it boils down to the fact that these two teams haven’t played one another in the postseason in a decade. Bad blood starts and ends in the postseason. Sure, little things might tick everyone off in the regular season, but you can only truly learn to hate a team when you meet in the playoffs. The simple fact is that the Red Sox and Yankees haven’t had reason to hate one another.

I want nothing more than for the rivalry to be reignited. Baseball is so much more fun when the players and fans are at each other’s throats. For this to happen, the Red Sox and Yankees need to improve drastically. As long as they are bottom dwellers in the AL East, nothing will change.

So as Derek Jeter rides off into the sunset to loud chants of his name from Red Sox fans that booed his every mention for years, hopefully his exit will help usher in a new era of the hatred, one marked by the return of the bad blood that used to define America’s best rivalry.