Author Archives: Andrew Erickson

The A’s Contend for a World Series Title Without Breaking the Bank

If money could buy everything, then the Los Angeles Angels, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox would be popping champagne in preparation for postseason play.

As this wild 2012 Major League Baseball season has shown, however, general managers around the league should be tossing out their checkbooks and looking for young talent capable of carrying a team through the dog days of August into the pennant races of September.

Unfortunately for MLB scouts, heart doesn’t appear in box scores.  Instead it is usually read in the eyes of a few newbies who had been told by baseball pundits that they didn’t have a chance of making the playoffs with intra-division superpowers Texas and Los Angeles to contend with.

The Phillies, Angels, Red Sox, Marlins and Brewers all rank in the top ten for total payroll for the 2012 season.  None of these teams clinched a playoff berth and only the Angels and Brewers came remotely close down the stretch.

The Oakland Athletics, on the other hand, defied all odds, clinching a playoff berth despite doling out the least money of any team in the big leagues in 2012 at $49,137,500.  The New York Yankees also will be seeing postseason action, but have a payroll nearly four times that of Oakland’s at $195,998,004.

After a slow start to the season, the A’s were the MLB’s hottest second half team, earning a huge role in the playoff discussion as the result of posting a 19-5 record in July.

Headed to the postseason for the first time since 2006 in which they lost to the Tigers 4-1 in the ALCS, Oakland now finds itself tied with the Texas Rangers atop the AL West standings.  A win by rookie phenom A.J. Griffin on Wednesday means the A’s will forgo having to play in the one-game Wild Card round, which will be against the second-place finisher in the dangerous AL East.

Many wonder why Oakland, a team that sticks to a strict system of sabermetrics, an intricate series of statistical algorithms used to evaluate on-field performance and player values, to dictate personnel decisions and keep costs down, is even close to playoff caliber.

What has benefited Oakland so much this season has been a lack of funds to overpay free agents; in other words, the A’s have been blessed to be without a prima donna for the 2012 season.

Hitting .289 with 23 homers, Cespedes has proved to be one of the best free-agent pickups of the year.

No player on the team currently makes more than $8 million and the biggest “splurge” of theirs this past offseason was a contract for Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, who has been well worth the $6,500,000 paycheck he has earned this season, garnering a decent amount the AL Rookie of the Year talk behind Mike Trout’s lion’s share.

There are even 11 players on the 25-man roster who make under a million dollars.  Would these players like to play for more money?  Certainly–they are human after all.  But the lack of big names and big bucks to assemble the 2012 squad left the A’s with a very important advantage: the ability to have a talented team that can win games in the shadow of big-spending teams that take a great deal of criticism for underperforming.

Even watching a ballgame in Oakland makes it perfectly clear that the A’s have never been about playing big-money baseball.  The O.co Coliseum is arguably the least flashy stadium in the MLB, consisting mostly of concrete and chalk lines for Raiders games.  Despite increases in attendance during their impressive year, much of the upper-deck has remained covered in tarps.

Humble abodes aside, the A’s showed the rest of the majors this season that the phrase “on paper” means relatively little compared to things like a strong farm system and player compatibility.

As the Athletics now look to compete for their first World Series title since the McGwire era, Brad Pitt will still be asking Jonah Hill, “Can these guys get on base?”

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The Lions Find Themselves in an Early-Season Hole

The last time I ever went to an NFL football game, Cincinnati Bengals orange and black dominated the crowd.

Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson still made for a team to be reckoned with in those days and the Bengals defeated an anemic Joey Harrington-led Lions squad 41-17.

What I forgot to mention was that this game was actually a Lions home game at Ford Field and that fans were wearing Bengals colors out of protest.

Hundreds of Lions fans who considered themselves fed up with the Ford family and general manager Matt Millen donned paper bags for the entirety of the Lions’ final home game of the season and led painful chants of, “FIRE MILLEN!”

How long did the demonstration last after the game’s conclusion?  I certainly don’t know, as my Dad and I decided to leave mid-way through the fourth quarter, feeling we had seen enough.

I was only 12 at the time, but “Fire Millen” still rings in my ears from time to time.

The most depressing part about this Lions memory—the 2005 season was just the tip of the iceberg named Lions Mediocrity.   After firing coach Steve Mariucci at the end of the 2005 season, the Lions went on to post a 12-52 record over the next four seasons, including an 0-16 2008 campaign that featured the quarterbacking prowess of Dan Orlovsky (don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of him either at the time).

Detroit had a football team that was the laughing stock of the NFL and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1999.  Even then, the franchise managed to take away the competitive spirit of the NFL’s greatest running back, Barry Sanders, with a constant carousel of quarterbacks and a losing attitude that forced him to retire early.

Considering this depressing history, 2011 was a breath of fresh air for Lions fans everywhere.  New quarterback Matthew Stafford went from a first-round bust with a bum shoulder to one of the best quarterbacks in the league.  Ndamukong Suh was one of the most feared players in the league and Calvin Johnson went from being called a good wide receiver to Megatron.

The Lions finished with more than nine wins for the first time since 1995 and it looked as though the franchise had finally turned a corner.  It didn’t even matter that they were thrashed in a Wild Card game matchup against the New Orleans Saints.  Being able to say the word “playoffs” in Detroit was a statement of pride in and of itself.

Megatron has been a huge part of the Lions’ resurgence.

This year, the Lions have begun to realize that consistency is central to growing a perennial powerhouse.  Wins are never guaranteed, and that’s a major reason why Detroit now finds itself 1-3 after losing to a young Minnesota Vikings team.

To revert back to form for the Lions is to become content with “almosts.”  The team has not lost by more than eight points in any one of the three losses, but saying, “Hey, at least we were close” is a curse that the Lions have accomplished far too much to fall victim to.

Their next game, in Philadelphia two weeks from now, could have major playoff implications for the Lions.  The scary thing is it’ll only be Week 7.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s no question the Lions have made tremendous strides since my last live NFL experience in 2005.  But what they have to realize now is that for their team and the City of Detroit, going back is not an option.

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Call in the Replacements: Monday Night Meltdown

There was plenty of excitement to go around on Monday night in Seattle.  The Seahawks were fresh off a win against the Cowboys and ready to show off Russell Wilson, a rookie at the helm of a team with one of the NFL’s most loyal fanbases.

The primetime spotlight and a national TV audience gave the Seahawks the attention they had long been waiting for.

Sacking Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eight times in the first half, the Seahawks didn’t disappoint either, providing the offense with an opportunity to secure a win that could potentially be a good indicator of a turnaround in the Pete Carroll era.

That opportunity was glorified by one final play.  On fourth down and ten yards to go with a mere 8 seconds left on the clock and the Seahawks trailing 12-7, Russell Wilson rolled left, squared up and fired a pass into triple coverage in the back left corner of the end zone.

The questionable call improved Seattle’s Monday Night record to an amazing 17-8.

After hanging in the air for a split second, the ball appeared to have been picked off by safety M.D. Jennings, a play that would have effectively ended the game for a feisty Seahawks squad.

At the last possible moment, however, Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate got a hand on the secured ball and the two fell to the ground and were smothered by players from both teams, making it difficult to see who had the ball for the longest time.

In what was widely considered to be an outrageous call, both referees signaled a touchdown on the play, giving the Seahawks a 13-12 lead and the victory on the field.

A booth review following the 24-yard touchdown in question led to even more incredulousness.  Not only was it revealed that Jennings did in fact have control over the ball at the “moment of truth,” but also Tate pushed Packers defensive back Sam Shields to the ground before leaping to “make the catch.”

The call should have been offensive pass interference and would have, again, ended the game with a Packers win.

Instead, the Seahawks now have a 2-1 record and hold a signature win that could give them the confidence to make a run at either the NFC West crown or a Wild Card spot.

League officials have acknowledged that the ruling on the field was incorrect Monday night but did not make any efforts to condemn the play and certainly didn’t attempt to reverse the call.

A number of the replacement refs were actually fired by the Lingerie Football League.

The league doesn’t have the authority to reverse a call from any game, but the play brings up the bigger issue of poor officiating throughout the first three weeks of the season.

Currently, NFL referees are in the midst of negotiating a contract with the NFL and have been locked out until a deal is reached.  “Replacement” referees from the NCAA, Arena Football League, XFL and even the Lingerie Football League have been brought in to try and fill the void and have been berated and criticized by NFL players and coaches for a plethora of blown calls.

NFL refs are trying to gain more complete 401k’s and better compensation, an increase in pay that would cost the NFL just under $40,000 per referee.

While the price is a bit steep to bring these officials back on Sundays, the consistent incorrectness of the replacement refs is making the new contract appear more and more worth it every week.

It’s unclear when we’ll be seeing the likes of Ed Hochuli’s biceps on the field, but for now all we know is that the Packers are 1-2, the Seahawks are 2-1 and there are a lot of unhappy football fans across the nation.

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Miguel Cabrera Sets His Sights on the Triple Crown

1967 was an interesting time for America—the Rolling Stones made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was the talk of cinema fans everywhere and Super Bowl I ended with a 35-10 victory for the Green Bay Packers over the Kansas City Chiefs.

It was also the last MLB season in which all three categories of the American League batting Triple Crown (batting average, home runs and runs batted in) were won by the same individual.

45 years ago, Hall of Fame inductee Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox dominated his American League competition, finishing with a .326 batting average, 44 homers and 121 runs batted in.

The Tigers slugger is closing in on a feat that has not been accomplished since 1967.

2012 provides baseball fans everywhere with yet another opportunity to witness a feat more rare than a perfect game.

With yet another home run in the fourth inning of the Detroit Tigers’ Saturday afternoon game against the Minnesota Twins, Miguel Cabrera moved into a tie for a league-leading 42 four-baggers, giving him at least a share of the AL lead in batting average (.332), homers (42) and RBI (131).

Since 1878, there have been 23 perfect games but only 15 Triple Crowns (to only 13 different players) won in Major League Baseball.

The Triple Crown was won twice by both Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams, but both thrived in eras (1920’s for Hornsby, 1950’s for Williams) in which opposing pitchers and potential competition for batting titles were not as muscular, physically fit or well-versed in film study.

The Detroit Tigers third baseman has quietly found himself knocking on the door of history, however.  Rookie phenom Mike Trout of the Angels received a great deal of attention when he had an AL-leading .350-plus batting average in late July and Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton was setting an unprecedented home run pace during the first two months of the season with 21 homers as of May 29.

Hamilton put up Home Run Derby-like totals for the first two months of the 2012 season.

Though Hamilton currently sits at an impressive 42 home runs and Trout should be a unanimous AL Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove choice, the two have cooled in later months, Trout due to the fact that he is a rookie who is not used to a 162-game schedule and Hamilton because he’s, well…human.

After a somewhat slow start, Cabrera has been wielding a hot bat of late, hitting .357 over the last two months.

Detroit has 12 games remaining on its schedule, and it’s certain that Cabrera won’t be spending those final matchups thinking about the Triple Crown but instead about the heated division race his team now finds itself in.

As of Saturday night, the Tigers (80-70) trailed the Chicago White Sox by .5 games in the AL Central.  The two teams will not play head-to-head in the season’s final two weeks, but intra-division matchups with the Royals and Twins will make for an interesting sprint to the finish.

For these last 12 games, much of the Tigers’ success will depend directly on the personal offensive success of Cabrera.

Though it won’t be his primary focus, contending for a Triple Crown is nothing to be taken lightly.

Considering the company Cabrera would join and the length of time the Crown has been without a home (nearly half a century), Tigers box scores will certainly be worth peeking at in the coming days.

 

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Bucs vs. Giants: Was the Final Play Dirty?

The Giants were well on their way bouncing back from a Week 1 loss to the Cowboys, leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-34 late into the fourth quarter.

With 5 seconds left on the clock, the Giants rolled out the standard victory formation, with a couple extra linemen lined up sideways for protection but not expecting any sort of resistance.

All of a sudden, the Buccaneers defensive line dropped down as if to begin running a 40-yard dash and plowed into the center of the offensive line, dropping Giants quarterback Eli Manning on his rear.

Justin Tuck tried to remain calm following the Bucs’ play-in-question.

The immediate reaction from the Giants sideline was anger.  It could be seen in Tom Coughlin’s face, Eli Manning’s confusion and defensive end Justin Tuck’s words.

“I am trying to be politically (correct),” Tuck said. “I thought it was a classless play. That is how you get guys hurt. I have been in this league for eight years and that is the first time that I’ve ever seen that. There have been guys that’s been in here a lot longer than I have and that is the first time they have seen it.”

The play brings up a few important questions: is the final play of an all-but-in-the-books NFL game something to be taken seriously?  Where does concern for safety begin and the hunger to fight until the final whistle end?  Why is this even an issue?

Giants players, coaches and fans do have an argument: the way the play was run appeared to be a bit malicious, though technically legal.  Three of Tampa’s defensive linemen locked in on center David Baas, taking him out just above the knees and forcing him into Eli Manning.

Coverage on this final play looked like more of a punt-block package and was overly aggressive considering the fact that a fumble recovery would have left either one second or no time at all on the clock to run a Hail Mary for the tie.

Still, what kind of message does it send to young football players and children in general to assume the last play of the game is meaningless?  No team enjoys losing, so it’s not exactly fair for the Giants to assume that the Bucs should submit while Eli Manning gallops off into the sunset with the game ball.

Though attacking the victory formation is extremely unorthodox, especially at the professional level, but it is something that worked for first year head coach Greg Schiano in the past.

Schiano, formerly the head football coach at Rutgers, looks to revamp a Bucs team that disappointed many last season.

At Rutgers, Schiano employed this never-quit play call numerous times, forcing four fumbles in his last five years with the program, so given this success it would make sense that he would try it at the next level, even though higher player awareness limits the possibility of catching the offense napping.

Regardless, the “bull rush” is something that won’t be forgotten by Tom Coughlin, Justin Tuck and the rest of the New York Giants anytime soon.

Fortunately, both teams will have time to cool off before their next meeting, which won’t be until at least next season.

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Wild Card Within Reach for the Angels

In 2002, no one expected the Angels to come back.

It was the seventh inning of Game Six of the 2002 World Series and the San Francisco Giants had champagne on ice, leading 5-0 and 3-2 in the series.

Up to the plate stepped Scott Spiezio, a lifetime .255 hitter.  Sporting his trademark soul patch and the same can’t-lose attitude that has made him a postseason legend, Spiezio locked in and knocked a Felix Rodriguez pitch into the right field stands to narrow the margin to 5-3.

The now-retired Spiezio has had heroic efforts in his only two World Series, one with the Angels and the other in 2006 with the Cardinals.

The Angels would go on to win Game Six and then the World Series in Game Seven, their first and only title in franchise history.  And it all came down to that one moment.

Though the remainder of the 2012 regular season provides the Angels with a bit more time for heroics, gutsiness a la Speizio may be needed to vault them past either the Yankees, Orioles or Athletics for one of two Wild Card spots.

7.5 games back of the Rangers with 15 games to play, winning the AL West is all but impossible.  The Tigers recent woes have taken them out of the Wild Card race and into a dogfight with the Chicago White Sox for the AL Central title and the Tampa Bay Rays are now gasping for air after losing five of six against the Yankees and Orioles last week.

Now the AL Wild Card picture figures to be an odd-man-out three-team battle between the A’s, who are comfortably into the first Wild Card slot, the second-place finisher in the AL East and the Angels.

In Anaheim, the last mile of the season-long marathon will prove to be difficult.  9 of their remaining 15 games will be against division leaders (White Sox and Rangers) and the remaining six are face-offs with the Seattle Mariners, a team that is far better than many expected at 70-77.

The M’s have relied on solid pitching to compensate for an offense that fares no better than 29th in the MLB in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and now look forward to an opportunity to spoil any postseason plans the Angels may have.

In order to avoid a possible media circus this offseason, heart is a must down the stretch for the MLB’s third most highly-paid team at $154,940,524.

A 7-year, $126 million contract owed to Vernon Wells has many Angels fans shaking their heads.

With the second-best batting average in the MLB, one would think the playoffs would be a foregone conclusion, but for the latter part of the second half hitting hasn’t been an issue.

Instead, bullpen pitching has acted as their Achilles heel.  In a ten game road-trip in early August that made a tremendous comeback even necessary for the Angels, the team’s bullpen ERA was an atrocious 10.54.

Numbers aside, the “clutch” factor has at times been absent.  Last Sunday, the Angels had an opportunity to at least draw a tie with the A’s in a crucial four game set, trailing 6-5 with runners on first and third with no one out in the ninth.

Needing a mere sac fly to tie the game, the Angels buckled.  Kendrys Morales struck out and Howie Kendrick grounded into a game-ending double play.

While that is probably the most dramatic example of failing to deliver the Angels have had all season, it should serve as a reminder of what not to do in the coming two weeks.

They have the offense, they have the pitching, now it’s just a matter of clutching up as the season draws to a close.

Besides, growing a soul patch never hurt anyone, did it?

 

 

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Chargers Attempt to Avoid December Catch-Up

For years, the San Diego Chargers have been a team of almosts.

Spanning from the “Air Coryell” years in which Dan Fouts led the league’s most potent offense to the near decade-long reign of runningback LaDanian Tomlinson, the Chargers have always seemed to have talent worthy of Super Bowl excellence.

Converting that talent into rings has proved to be slightly more challenging.

After missing the postseason twice in a row, a rocky 2012 season will likely have coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith updating their resumes.

The goal this season for a San Diego franchise that has spent the last two years scratching its head at the final standings will be to tally wins right out of the gate.  In years past, the Chargers have lost no-brainer games in September and October, which has created the need for tremendous comebacks in the season’s last two months.

Though San Diego has an impeccable record in the month of December as of late, the Bolts have simply found themselves running out of games down the stretch.

On Monday night the Chargers looked to flip the script on their traditionally slow starts by notching a win in Oakland on national television, and thanks to the efficient quarterback play of Philip Rivers and the clutch kicking of Nate Kaeding, the Chargers were able to do themselves a rare favor, defeating the Raiders 22-14.

The NC State alum completed 72.7% of his passes on Monday night.

Rivers was 24 of 33 passing for 231 yards and a touchdown.  He distributed the ball effectively, with 7 different receivers catching at least two passes.

Though impressive, Rivers was upstaged by kicker Nate Kaeding, who in his first game back from an ACL tear in last season’s opener was 5 for 5 from three point range, rewarding bold fantasy owners everywhere and accounting for all but seven of San Diego’s 22 points.

Defensively, the Chargers looked their most ferocious in recent memory, totaling three sacks, nine tackles for loss and five hits on Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer.

It was a fundamentally sound performance in all three phases for San Diego, but they were not playing against the same Oakland Raiders.

Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore were both inactive and gave way to recent undrafted free agent signee Rod Streater at wide receiver.

A concussion to starting long snapper Jon Condo proved to be nightmarish.

Backup long snapper Travis Goethel, who hadn’t long-snapped since high school, bounced a snap and rolled another in punt situations, giving the Chargers better field position than they could have ever have hoped for, especially with San Diego starting runningback Ryan Mathews nursing yet another injury.

Would you want to showboat in front of this guy? Me neither!

San Diego showed poise with the lights on in front of arguably the NFL’s meanest crowd, but could have had an even cleaner victory (an Antonio Gates dropped touchdown pass comes to mind) in their season opener.

Still, an uncharacteristically hungry defense and the ability to pull out an intra-division win in September shows worlds of improvement for the Bolts.

Up next for San Diego is another should-win: a home opener against an anemic Tenessee Titans squad.

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