Saturday, May 26, 2007

Party Time at RFK -- United Wins 2-1: A mosh pit broke out just inside of Gate E, as D.C. United fans celebrated their team's victory over the defending MLS' champs, the Houston Dynamo. United looked pretty good -- this was the team's most complete game, and they deserved the win.

My story? I just missed a Metro train, and it was almost 15 minutes until the next one. So, it was into my car, for a quick sprint around the belt, and down to RFK. $12 for parking??!!?? Anyway, I got a ticket, then a beer, and made my way to a seat, just in time to see Christian Gomez being brought down outside the 18-yd. box, about three minutes into the game. Gomez took the ensuing free kick, which he curled over the wall and just inside the near post. He was clearly very satisfied with his effort, as he played to the Barra Brava.

Later in the first half, it was Gomez again, with a nifty bit of skill to make some space at the top of the box, and slot a pass diagonally through the box ahead of Ben Olsen. The pass was perfectly timed, and Olsen drove his first touch right past Pat Onstad, the Dynamo goalkeeper, giving United a convincing 2-0 lead.

On the other end of the field, Troy Perkins was both lucky and good. Twice, he stretched over everybody to punch out dangerous corner kicks. On one crossing pass, Perkins slid over and found himself in just the right place, as Brian Ching's header went right into Perkins' midsection (Ching shot wide a few minutes earlier on another open header). A little later, Brad Davis sent a blistering shot on goal, but Perkins elevated to deflect it over the bar. While the Dynamo created more chances, United did more with their chances.

Last year's MVP, Gomez played his best game of this MLS' season, as he had several dangerous runs from midfield, through the defense. United's best player, though, was Perkins, who played a spectacular game. The most memorable play came midway through the second half, after Josh Gros handled a ball in the box. Brian Ching took the penalty shot, and Perkins guessed right -- he dove to his right and got enough of his hand on the ball to deflect it into the goalpost, before rebounded back into play. A minute later, the magical Dwayne De Rosario dribbled into the box, then made a sweet move, stopping, while defenders flew by him. With lots of space to shoot, DDR knocked home the Dynamo's lone goal. Perkins had no chance on that goal, but he was good enough to deny the Dynamo on a number of good chances.

NOTES: There was a Rod Dyachenko sighting, as the big Ukranian/man without a country, came on as a late sub for Gomez. Dyachenko looked much more confident than I have ever seen. He had a wonderful run in the 88th minute, before being taken down just outside the box. The foul was obvious to everyone but the officials. This was actually the ref's second huge omission. In the first half, with United winning just 1-0, Guy-Rowland Kpene was knocked off a long pass in the box by Eddie Robinson's shoulder charge. Kpene had the position, and Robinson's play should have drawn a penalty shot, but the ref waved play on.

Kpene started in place of Jaime Moreno, who is playing for his Bolivian national team. Besides the takedown that wasn't called, Kpene had one really nice move, but he couldn't finish, as he pushed his shot a bit wide. Luciano Emilio played a fairly strong game -- nothing like his sensational CONCACAF Champions' Cup efforts, but probably the best game he's played in MLS' competition. The United defense played pretty well against a very talented opponent -- though they allowed a number of good chances, it's hard to argue with a 2-1 win. All-in-all, there were plenty of reasons for United fans' post-game party.
Kearns Saves the Day! Amazingly, the Nationals just keep winning. The streak is now 11 wins in the last 15 games. Dmitri Young is putting up "softball numbers," batting at an almost .600 clip over the last week. Brian Schneider has homered twice on this road trip, and has been a .300 hitter in May. Felipe Lopez is piling up the hits on the road trip, after a prolonged slump earlier. The patchwork pitching staff is doing amazing work. And Nook Logan is hitting, including two doubles in Friday night's game.

The big news out of Friday's game is, however, the catch made by Austin Kearns. Perhaps a speedier rightfielder would've made the play in less spectacular fashion, but that doesn't take away from the spectacular qualities of this play, Kearns saved two runs, when he tracked down a line drive just shy of the right-field wall. Kearns, running towards the corner, dove towards the concrete and brick wall. He stretched his right glove as far as possible, and gloved the ball no more than a few inches off the ground. He slid to a stop just inches from the concrete barrier, pushed himeslf upright and threw to Dmitri Young to double the runner off first.

In a game that the Nationals ended up winning by one run, Kearns' play was the biggest -- a game-saver. It will be remembered as one of the finest defensive plays in team history, along with Ryan Zimmerman's highlight film, diving, over-the-head catch in short left field, last year.

Meanwhile, the team has already guaranteed that this will be a winning road trip. If they win one of the two games scheduled for this weekend, they will have won three straight series. Let's Go Nats!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Two Goals in Two Minutes -- Juan Pablo Angel was named MLS' player of the week in his first start with the New York Red Bulls. Angel hasn't had any adjustment issues in coming over from Aston Villa. The Red Bulls seem to have struck gold with the addition of Angel. In tonight's game against the Chicago Fire, Angel set up Jozy Altidore's goal-scoring drive a little over a minute into the game. Angel held the ball at the top corner of the box. As the defense fell back in reaction to Angel, he found John Wolyniec, with his back to the goal, just inside the six-yard box. Wolyniec redirected the ball to the top of the box, where Jozy Altidore slammed in just inside the corner. A minute later, Dane Richards drove down the wing, sent a pass into the box, which Angel neatly brought down, and then scored with his second touch, beating the Fire's goalie, to the far side. This gave the Red Bulls a 2-0 lead, just 2 minutes and 15 seconds in.

In the second half, Angel continued to dazzle. When Craig Stammler delivered a cross that made its way to Angel, standing just outside the six-yard box, Fire defender Chris Armas came sliding to block Angel's certain shot, which he was teeing up. Instead, Angel dummied with his right foot, allowing the ball to slide past him to his left. That left Angel with an amazingly easy shot for goal off his left foot. He didn't miss. It would seem that Angel will earn player of the week honors again, in only his second MLS start. It may be a little humbling for the MLS to see someone of Angel's quality plainly have his way with inferior defenders, but it's a huge leap forward for the Red Bulls. It might not be a stretch to say that Angel is the most talented player the league has seen -- certainly, he is the best since Marco Etcheverry was at the top of his game with DC United.

Bruce Arena, with some help from the free-spending ownership, has put together a team that is a delight to watch. They are everything DC United hoped to be this year. Although they have already been eliminated from U.S. Open Cup competition (they lost to the Galaxy in a qualifier, though by all reports, the Red Bulls were by far the better team) they will be a serious contender for the MLS title.

If only fans in the New York/New Jersey tri-state metro area start coming out, the project that Bruce Arena embarked on last summer will be a rousing success. He has brought in two exciting veteran American players, with Clint Mathis and Claudio Reyna, He has inherited the most exciting young American player, with Altidore. He's brought in the speedy Jamaican, Richards, to open up the offense. Now, with Angel, Arena has the international star needed to bring the team respectability, talent and polish.

The MLS has wanted, even claimed to need a winning team in New York. Now they have one. Will New York area fans live up to their end of the bargain?
Alexis Morales: You heard it here, first! -- Who? Alexis Morales is a Nationals' farmhand. He was recently called up from Potomac (the Nats' High-A team) to Harrisburg (the Nats' AA team). Another pitcher made the same trip last week -- John Lannan. Lannan is a starting pitcher, whose success at Potomac has been noted here before. More recently, the Washington Post has also noted Lannan's rise to AA. However, I have seen no mention of the stunning numbers put up by relief pitcher Alexis Morales.

Morales put up some strong numbers at Potomac last year. Alas, when he was called up to Harrisburg late in the season, he struggled mightily with his control. Morales allowed 16 hits in 15 2/3 innings, (a hit per inning). Worse, he surrendered 25 walks, with the AA club. So, Morales, a native of the Windy City, was back at Potomac, when the new minor league season started in April, to prove he could master the lower levels. Master them he has surely done. Morales gave up only three hits in over 13 innings with Potomac, and struck 8 batters, without walking any. That earned him a fairly swift promotion back to Harrisburg. This time around, Morales hasn't suffered from the jump up to AA ball. In over 9 innings with the AA club, he has allowed only 2 hits, struck out 5 batters, and again, hasn't walked anyone.

With those gaudy numbers, Morales may make a fairly quick jump up to AAA Columbus. In any case, if he keeps pitching this well, I expect that we will see him coming out of the Nats' bullpen to pitch in the majors before this season is over. Remember: You 'heard' it here first!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who Are These Guys? If the Washington Nationals could play their home games in Cincinnati, it seems they'd be a totally different team, offensively. On Monday night, the Nationals took an early 6-1 lead, but squandered it in the final innings, to lose 7-6. Last night, the Nats won on Felipe Lopez big smash, as the Nats put up a season-high 8 runs. Tonight, the Nats really outdid themselves, as they did their best 'Bash Brothers' imitation. Ryan Church, Brian Schneider and Ryan Zimmerman each homered, with Church doing the trick twice. This time the Nats went up 9-1. Though their bullpen surrendered a bunch of runs, the Nats scored in double figures for the first time this season, and held on to win 12-7.

They brought their team batting average above .230 (the Nats are still the weakest hitting team in the NL), and brought their won-loss record even with the Reds' own. That means the Nats are on the cusp of giving up first position in the contest for the highest draft pick, at least among National League teams. Since they ended their previous road trip, the Nats have posted a 9-4 record. a hot streak that any team would be proud to have. So, I have to echo Bob Carpenter's words: "Who are these guys?"
Milan Conquers Europe -- Already leading Liverpool 1-0, AC Milan delivered the fatal blow about 10 minutes from the end. Kaka held the ball, while the Liverpool defense dropped back a step or two, bringing Filippo Inzaghi back onsides. Then, Kaka threaded a pass through the Reds' back line, as Inzaghi darted back towards the Liverpool net. Inzaghi grabbed the pass, clinically cut to his right to evade the onrushing Pepe Reina, then slotted the sharply angled shot beyond the reach of the diving Reina. That made the score 2-0 in Milan's favor.

Liverpool controlled play for much of the game, but the score was not in their favor. Perhaps it was a mistake to leave the team's leading scorer, Peter Crouch, on the bench, until the 78th minute. Despite the possesion advantage, Liverpool mounted few good threats. When the score was still 1-0, Steven Gerrard narrowly missed a tying goal, as his long shot sailed just wide. The Reds couldn't put a shot on net until Dirk Kuyt's header in the 88th minute beat Dida, for Liverpool's lone goal.

Kuyt's goal probably revived the debate regarding Inzaghi's controversial first goal, but it proved to be too little, too late for the lads from Merseyside. Over the final four minutes, Liverpool failed to mount another attack. In the end, in this match between two of Europe's most storied clubs, Milan avenged their 2005 Champions League final loss to Liverpool, winning tonight 2-1. The win is redemption for Milan, which narrowly avoided being disqualified from the tournament, as a consequence of the team's involvement in Italy's match-fixing schedule. One more title for one of the world's most famous sports teams.
AC Milan Grabs the Halftime Lead -- In the first half of the European Champions' League final, Liverpool looked the stronger side, but it was the crafty Milanese side that grabbed the 1-0 lead, just before halftime. In the 45th minute, Xabi Alonso fouled Kaka just above Liverpool's defensive box.

As Andrea Pirlo readied to take the free kick for Milan, the half moved into stoppage time. Pirlo bent his free kick around the Liverpool wall, where Inzaghi basically got in the way of the shot. Filippo Inzaghi had broken towards the goal, presumably to go after any rebound, but the ball found him on its way towards the net. As he twisted to try and get his arm out of the way, the ball deflected off of Inzaghi, changing directions completely. Liverpool's goalie, Pepe Reina, was caught diving one way, while the ball was redirected off of Inzaghi towards the other end of the Liverpool goal. Inzaghi gets the credit for the goal, but didn't really do anything more than get in the way of Pirlo's well-taken, neatly bending, free kick.

If Liverpool cannot comeback in the second half, people will be studying this goal for years to decide whether the goal should have been allowed. The ball appeared to hit Inzaghi's arm, and then was redirected into the net. The ball may have struck Inzaghi's chest, but it surely got part of his swinging arm. Did the ball play Inzaghi's arm or the other way around? Not exactly the "Hand of God," but this will be a pretty controversial goal.
The NBA Craps Out -- The NBA Draft lottery was held last night, and it seems to have confirmed that it really is a crapshoot. In most sports, the teams get ordered in the amateur draft, according to the inverse order of their won-loss records. The logic is to provide the worst teams with the best chance to improve quickly. In the NBA, teams with the worst records do get a weighted chance at the top picks, but they're not guaranteed as they are in other sports.

The lottery was instituted in the NBA, in 1984, because it seemed that teams were deliberately tanking to get the top pick in the draft. The NBA wanted to diminish the perverse incentive in finishing last. Given that the teams play so many games, and that the top draft picks usually do go on to star in the pros, the incentives were stronger in the NBA to finish with the worst record, rather than the third or fourth-worst record. So, the NBA tried to remedy that problem. The result is the strange doings taht took place, last night. The three worst teams were passed over in the lottery by the teams that finished ahead of them during the season. The bottom four through six, will pick ahead of the bottom three teams. The latter group includes my favorite team, the Milwaukee Bucks, who will pick sixth.

I guess these things go in cycles. The NBA put in the lottery because teams were tanking their seasons. Now, everyone is going to be criticizing the lottery, because the teams that need the help aren't getting it. Here in the nation's capital, we've got a baseball team, whose management decided to deliberately tank this season, because they are hoping for one of the top picks in their draft -- instead of spending money on getting new free agents or keeping their own.

Frankly, the Nationals' owners are not getting the criticism they deserve, because they've basically been up-front about it. Since even before spring training, they've made it clear that they expected to lose. They spoke hopefully of getting one of the top young players -- so much so, that it seemed the team was looking forward to having a truly horrible season, this year. And that's in baseball, where it's much harder to project who will be a star, if they even get to the major leagues.

At least, in basketball, if you tank deliberately, you could tell your fans to bear with "The Plan" (that's what the Nationals are calling it), because it will pay off in the long run (unless you draft Len Bias or Glenn Robinson) -- except that you might get screwed in the lottery. If there is any consolation, the Bucks have had the first pick twice in the last 15 years, and they made lousy picks both times. Moreover, the Bucks shouldn't have gotten the first pick the year they took Big Dog. Maybe, Oden won't turn out to be the best player in the draft....If they hadn't gotten then the first pick, they might have wound up with Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Donyell Marshall, or Juwann Howard -- all of whom have had better careers than Robinson.

OK, maybe I'm being unduly hard on Robinson. The truth is one expects more out of the first pick, especially in basketball. Although he's not in the NBA any more, he had a better career than Marshall or Howard. Certainly, Big Dog was prolific scorer with the Bucks. Even if Ray Allen and Sam Cassell were the real keys to the team, Robinson did contribute to one good playoff run for the Bucks. Yet, despite his offensive skills, Robinson wasn't the guy you expected to make the big shot, or to take over a big game. No one would suggest that Robinson was as good a pro player as Jason Kidd or Grant Hill turned out to be.

In any case, it's been over ten years since the Bucks came out of the draft with a worthy first-round selection. I don't think any team has a worse track record in the first round. The last time the Bucks did a good job in the first round was the year they swapped picks to get Ray Allen, instead of Stephon Marbury --- that was over a decade ago. Their best pick since then was Michael Redd, but he came in the second round. Maybe, the Bucks will end up with a stronger selection in the first-round, than they have over the last ten years. Or, maybe, they'll be back in the draft lottery next year.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nationals' Starting Rotation -- Take Two: Saturday night, Mike Bacsik will take the mound for the Nationals, instead of Jason Bergmann, who was placed on the disabled list. The significance of this start should not be overlooked. The Nats are now six weeks into the season, a season that began with the Nationals putting together a starting rotation of John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, rookie Matt Chico, and Jerome Williams. Though the Nats' pitchers had a rough go-around the first time through the rotation, this crew proved surprisingly effective.

Unfortunately, the Nats are down to their 'last man standing': Matt Chico. The other four starters are all now on the disabled list. This isn't entirely surprising, given the fact that three of the four were coming off significant arm injuries suffered last year. The Nats have been able to bring up Jason Simontacchi, an early contender for the rotation, who got bumped from consideration because of a groin injury he suffered in spring training. The other two most likely replacements would be Joel Hanrahan and Emiliano Fruto, but both of them are currently injured. So, it falls to Mike Bacsik, on Saturday. On Sunday, Micah Bowie will make what I believe may be his first start of the decade. Then, relief pitcher Levale Speigner will get his second consecutive start, before the Nats finally get back around to Chico, the lone survivor from the original rotation.

None of the injuries appear very serious, and mostly they might have been predictable for pitchers that were coming off previous arm injuries. The exception might be Hill, whose elbow pain is being attributed to a shoulder separation he suffered sliding back into third base, a few weeks back. The injury was to his non-throwing arm, but may have added stress to his pitching arm.

While the Nats seem to be victims of circumstance, one has to wonder why the Nats are suffering so many injuries. The New York Yankees went through a similar spell at the beginning of the season, and they canned their new fitness coach. Perhaps, the Nationals should take a look at their conditioning program, and consider whether they need to make changes in their practices or their personnel. Most pitchers will miss a start or two during a season because of some tenderness, or nagging injury. But so many pitchers, and all so early in the season? This cannot auger well for the rest of the season.
Nats Blow it on the Basepaths -- The record will show that Ryan Zimmerman just missed delivering another game-winning hit with two outs in the 9th inning, against the Baltimore Orioles, but the game was lost earlier. To be sure, the Nats were trailing by a run, with runners on first and third, and Zimmerman laced a 3-2 pitch, but not quite hard enough to get it beyond the reach of the leftfielder. Zimmerman had a great game at the plate, including a two-run home run in the 8th inning, that narrowed the deficit to just the one run. As good as Zimmerman looked at the plate, it must have been very disappointing for him to just miss delivering an extra-base hit that would surely have scored the tying and winning runs.

The Nats didn't come up short because Zimmerman's liner fell into the outstretched glove of Freddie Bynum. Rather, the Nats came up short because of a couple of blunders on the basepaths. With two outs in the fifth inning, and the Nats trailing 3-0, Felipe Lopez singled, and Cristian Guzman walked. Ryan Zimmerman had his first chance at heroics in this game. The first pitch to Zimmerman was a ball. The second pitch was in the dirt and the Orioles catcher, Ramon Hernandez couldn't control it, as it deflected off him and towards the Orioles dugout. Lopez easily reached third, but Guzman reacted late, and he was thrown out easily at second base, ending the threat.

Still, the Nats were able to generate a couple of runs the next inning, as Ryan Zimmerman drew a leadoff walk, and scored on a homer by Dmitri Young. They came into the ninth inning, trailing 5-2 though, because the Nats bullpen surrendered a couple of runs, after over 23 scoreless consecutive innings. In the 9th inning. the Nats would surely have tied the game, but for another base-running error. Nook Logan walked, and then stole second -- his first steal of the year. Logan should have taken third base, when Ronnie Belliard hit a dribbler back to the third base side of the pitcher's mound. Instead, while Belliard was being thrown out at first, Logan stayed on second base. The next batter, Lopez, grounded out, hitting a bouncer to the right side, that advanced Logan to third. If Logan had advanced earlier, on Belliard's grounder, he would have scored on Lopez' ground-out.

Logan's timid base-running put the pressure on Zimmerman to deliver with a two-out hit. Zimmmerman almost did, but it wasn't his fault that the Nats were still trailing, when he came to bat. If they had been smarter, quicker, and more aggressive, the Nats might have already won the game, or at least they could have tied the score just before Zimmerman came to bat.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Afternoon Baseball - Nats Keep Rolling; Mets Rally Big in 9th -- It was getaway day, with the Nationals trying to pile on to the visiting Atlanta Braves' misery. Yesterday, the Nats rallied to beat the Braves, while the Mets waited out a long rain delay, before they whipped up on the Chicago Cubs. The result: The Mets moved past the Braves to regain first place, for the first time since the Braves snatched it away over a month ago.

Today, the Braves wanted to grab the top spot back again, and at one point in the afternoon, it looked like they would. The Braves had a 3-1 lead over the Nationals, in the fifth inning, and the Mets had fallen behind the Cubs 5-1, in the sixth inning at Shea. The Nats kept pecking away at the Braves' lead, though. They had scored one run in the fourth inning, after the Braves had grabbed a 2-0 lead. Trailing 3-1, the Nats inched closer, with a run in the bottom of the fifth. The Nats grabbed their first lead, in the bottom of the sixth, on Dmitri Young's pinch-hit two-run single. Once again, the Nats' bullpen completely shut down the Braves in the game's final innings, completing a surprising and impressive series, with the Nats winning three of four against the Braves.

Watching the Nats' game on MASN, I heard Bob Carpenter report that the Mets were trailing in the ninth, with Ryan Dempster on to try and close for the Cubs. So, I clicked on my XM radio and listened to the Mets' game, while I watched the Nats leave two men on in the eighth. The Mets needed four runs just to tie the game, but Dempster couldn't stop the Amazin's.

The Mets did it, with contributions from surprising places. David Newhan led off the ninth with a single. After Ramon Castro flied out, Carlos Gomez, still in his first week in the big leagues, singled. In a rare pinch-hitting appearance, Carlos Beltran worked out a walk, to load the bases. Dempster then walked Endy Chavez, making the score 5-2.Surprisingly, manager Willie Randolph left Ruben Gotay in to hit, with David Wright sitting on the bench. Gotay is another recent call-up, but Gotay performed like a cool veteran, coming through with a single that made the score 5-3.

When Scott Eyre replaced Dempster on the mound, Randolph countered by using Wright to hit for Shawn Green. Wright drove in a run with a single, bringing the Mets within a run. Then, Carlos Delgado came to the plate. Delgado has struggled mightily this season, and this afternoon had been no exception, as the big man had struck out twice, and left 3 men on base. Delgado, though, is hitting over .300 against lefties. In the ninth inning, it was that fact that proved to be the most salient one. Delgado singled home the tying and winning runs.

Within a couple of seconds of the Mets' dramatic finish, Jon Rauch finished off the Braves, to earn his third save since temporarily becoming the Nats' closer last week. The fireworks exploded over RFK, signaling the Nats' win, which was bad news enough for the Braves. The Braves couldn't know that the Mets had just won seconds earlier, so the news would only get worse for the Braves, when they went into the visitors' clubhouse and they learned of the Mets' improbable rally.

A nice afternoon for those of us who still root for the Mets, but are becoming big Nats' fans. The Mets go into the big interleague Subway Series weekend, with a 1.5 game lead in the N.L. East. The Nats go into their Baltimore-Washington Parkway/I-95 series against the Orioles with six wins in the first seven games of this homestand (Some call it the Battle of the Beltway -- which is a misnomer. Battle of the Beltways would be more accurate, since each city has its own beltway. I'd go with the I-95 Championship, or the Battle of the BWP). A footnote: This was the first time since 1999 that the Mets had overcome a four-run (or larger) deficit in the ninth inning. A nice afternoon, indeed.
Jorge Sosa? While fans of the Nationals are salivating over the recent performances of Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann, fans of the New York Mets may have found a surprising pitching gem of their own, in the last couple of weeks: Jorge Sosa, who had shown only flashes of brilliance amidst a wildly inconsistent career that was not living up to early billing. The Mets gave Sosa a chance to win the fifth spot in the rotation this spring, and Sosa stunk the joint out. So, Sosa was sent down to New Orleans, where he pitched terrifically, and won his first four decisions. Then, El Duque came up lame, and the Mets needed a replacement. Unfortunately, Hernandez' injury came too late to prevent Sosa from making one of those starts. Chan Ho Park was called up to make one abysmal start, and then it was Sosa's turn.

Sosa is now 3-0 for the Mets. After waiting out a 3-hour rain delay (not much of a wait compared to the month Sosa spent in AAA ball), he pitched brilliantly tonight, carrying a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning, before finally allowing a run. He has been brilliant. In fact, as John Maine has begun to struggle a bit, Sosa has been the Mets most effective pitcher during the last three turns through the rotation. Mike Pelfrey, who beat out Sosa for the fifth starter's job, pitched unconvincingly, and has been sent back down. The Mets will need one more spot start before El Duque returns to the rotation, but Sosa looks like he's up for the duration.

In fact, if Sosa keeps pitching the way he has in his first three starts, the Mets will have a very tough decision to make later in the summer, should Pedro Martinez complete his comeback. Martinez is supposedly on track for a late July or August return to the rotation. It will be interesting to see how the Mets pare six starters down to five. It will also be incredibly ironic, given the fears that many fans and so-called experts had about the Mets' rotation. Anyone remember the talk in March? There was the old guy, Glavine, and four question marks (there were a lot of skeptics regarding Maine and Hernandez, and no one seemed to believe that Oliver Perez belonged). Come August, the Mets may have an embarrassment of riches.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Surprise! The Nationals Are On a Roll! -- The Nats got an unexpected win tonight, against the Atlanta Braves. With Shawn Hill out, the Nats started reliever Levale Speigner. The timing was propitious for the Nats, as they faced the Braves' weakest link, Kyle Davies. In the early going, Davies was better than Speigner. The Nats' emergency starter didn't pitch badly, but he was hit fairly hard in both the first and fourth innings. Speigner surrendered a pair of runs in each of those innings. Though Ryan Zimmerman hit an RBI double, and added his first solo home run, Davies cruised through the rest of the Nats' batting order, until the fifth inning.

The Nats took advantage of a rare Braves' error to put together their best rally of the season. With runners on first and second, it seemed that Cristian Guzman had grounded out into an inning-ending double play. Kelly Johnson, the Braves' second baseman, tried to hurry the play and dropped the ball, literally. That kept the inning alive, and set the stage for a serious rally. Ronnie Belliard hit a ground ball also, but he avoided a double play when he beat the throw to first base. Ryan Langerhans scored on the play, bringing the Nats within a run. Ryan Zimmerman worked out a walk to load the bases, and it fell to Ryan Church to deliver the clutch hit. Church has not been a great hitter in situations like this, and he has been in a slump besides. Church, however, came through with a huge, bases-clearing double.

After that, it was on the Nats' bullpen to close out the Braves over the final four innings. The Nats' relievers performed brilliantly, including Chad Cordero, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning. Billy Traber got the win, with a strong fifth inning, before he was lifted for a pinch-hitter. Jon Rauch earned a save, with a dominating ninth inning. Including Speigner, the Nats used seven pitchers out of their bullpen. They'll want some innings out of tomorrow afternoon's starter, Matt Chico, but the combination worked tonight. The Nats have won 5 of 6 games on this homestand, and can register a surprising series win over division-leading Atlanta, with a win tomorrow.
It's Coach Bradley -- No More "Interim": US Soccer is acknowledging the obvious -- that Bob Bradley has done an awfully good job in his first months on the job as the "interim" head coach of the men's national team. Of course, there may have been some question as to whether the job would be sufficiently attractive to an experienced European coach. By rewarding Bradley's early success, USSF President Sunil Gulati is avoiding any further disappointment like last year's courtship of Jurgen Klinsmann. Announcing the "upgrade" for Bradley now, also comes as a strong endorsement of Bradley, without any indication that he is anything less than USSF's first choice (or, at least the first choice, after Klinsmann). So, it's full steam ahead, with Coach Bradley at the helm. Destination: South Africa, and, at least, advancing to the second round of the 2010 finals (the round of 16).
Congrats to Jason Bergmann, for an extraordinary effort at RFK, Monday night. His command was incredible. The Braves' hitters were totally overmatched, as Bergmann took a no-hitter into the 8th inning. I was against giving the Lerners any of my money this year, since they were also determined, this year, to spend as little as possible of their money. Still, when there are performances like Shawn Hill's on Friday night, the 9th inning rally that began after 1:30 in the morning to win Saturday night, and Bergmann's near perfect outing on Monday, it's a real shame that there aren't more people in the stands. If Bergmann had completed his no-no, it would have been a little embarrassing to see shots of a stadium that was two-thirds empty.

I'm still angry at the contempt and disregard the Lerners have shown the Nats' fans by not spending on a new centerfielder, and at least one starting pitcher. I don't buy into the canard they are peddling to the Washington Post that you can save the money until next year, and expect to see great results on the field next year, and great support in the stands. I don't even believe they are being honest in holding out the prospect of going after top free agents, to fill seats in the new stadium.

Right now, I don't expect that the Nats will spend much money in the free agent market, after this season, or any other. The evidence is that the Lerners have no interest in spending on players' salaries. They might want to win, but they intend to do it on the cheap. Until I see any evidence otherwise, I expect that the Nats will try to win the way the Cleveland Indians did in the early 90s, with young talent from their own system. If that's the model, it's not a good one. The Indians did make the World Series once, but they came up short. They lacked all the pieces they needed to win, and the great core eventually moved on.

This year's Nationals' team seems to have real potential, and a good core to build around. "Build around" -- that means bringing in top players to fill the gaps that the farm system can't fill. I'm not optimistic that the Lerners will spend the money it will take to build a consistent winner, and a championship team, although I hope that I am pleasantly surprised in years to come.

Even though I buy my tickets from scalpers outside the stadium, I don't feel good about paying for beer and hot dog. Still, I think the Nats' players deserve support from the Nats' fans. They're playing their hearts out, and creating some memorable moments. We should show our appreciation by turning up for the games.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Sweep? A Sweep! Didn't get to watch the game, but I can say that this was a delightful result for all Nationals' fans. The Nats came into the series against Florida, hitting only .218 against lefthanders. They had two of their best games offensively, against Olsen and Obermuller. They got a decent start out of Jason Simontacchi, which they will need to see repeated, with Shawn Hill on the mend. They got a save out of Jon Rauch. Right now, the Nats are a patchwork affair, but they held together just fine this weekend. If the Nats had dropped these games, they would already be on a pace to obliterate the '62 Mets all-time worst won-loss record. Instead, things are looking up at RFK. The division-leading Atlanta Braves come into town next, for a real test.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

1:42 a.m. Zimmerman Sends 'Em Home Happy! -- I don't imagine there were two many folks left in the stands at RFK, after two separate rain-delays, totalling over three hours. Me? Well, let's put it this way. Zimmerman should be paying me to drive to New York. On a Saturday afternoon, almost a year ago, I was listening on my XM radio, in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on the NJ Turnpike, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a a game-winning home run of the walk-off variety, against the New York Yankees. Another Saturday, and I was headed to my ancestral hunting grounds in New York, for Mother's Day. I looked forward to listening to the Nats' game on the way up to New York. I listened to the first four plus innings, until the rains hit RFK, and play was stopped. I checked in before bed to hear if the game was still going on. It turned out the teams were about to resume play, following the second rain delay, with the Marlins holding a 3-2 lead in the 9th inning.

Nook Logan was on first base, when Dmitri Young delivered one of the Nats' few successful pinch-hits this year. The Nats' pinch-hitting has been so bad that it's almost inconceivable that the hitters being replaced, including the pitchers, would have done as badly. Even with Young's clutch single, you can count the number of pinch-hits with your fingers on one hand. Still, Young's effort had to be applauded. It's a shame so few were left to applaud. Logan took third on the play. Felipe Lopez then singled to right field, to tie up the game. After Cristian Guzman struck out, Ryan Zimmerman came to bat with two outs, and the bases full.

This was the second time the Nats had loaded the bases during the game. Their track record with the bases loaded has been almost as bad as their pinch-hitting average. Three hits in thirty-one chances coming into the game, for a batting average of just over .090, with the sacks full. In the fourth inning, Austin Kearns flied out, on a 3-2 pitch, with the bases loaded, to continue the Nats' incredible ineptitude in such situations. In the ninth inning, early this morning, Zimmerman had the chance to exorcise the demons that produced all those missed opportunities.

Mysteriously, the Marlins brought in Jorge Julio to face Zimmerman. As I've written before, bringing in Julio with the game on the line, is almost akin to throwing in the towel, in a boxing match. Watching Julio pitch in the 9th inning, can make Nats' fans grateful we have Chad Cordero. Even when he's struggling, Cordero has a 50/50 chance of succeeding. Julio has maybe a one-in-ten chance, and that's only if the other team helps him out, with some bad at-bats.

After a high and tight fastball that got Zimmerman's attention, the Nats' young star drove the next pitch over the wall in left-center field, for a game-ending grand slam. That's two Saturday trips to New York for me, and two walk-off homers for Ryan Zimmerman. If the Nats, or Zimmerman, are interested in contracting me to make this a regular gig, they can reach me at

Friday, May 11, 2007

Who Were Those Guys (in the Nats' uniforms)? I just got home from RFK, and a few of us waiting for the Metro were wondering just who those guys were -- the ones that pounded out 15 hits, and shutout the Florida Marlins (who are the highest-scoring team in the National League), winning 6-0. Apparently, the Nationals just needed a little home-cooking to snap the seemingly endless losing streak that began in San Diego, and continued for swings through Chicago and Milwaukee. Were those really the Nationals?

The Nats weren't perfect, but they were pretty darn good. They left 8 men on base, and probably should have scored more than 6 runs, considering how many hits they had. Austin Kearns made one boneheaded play, when he took off from second base on a fly to centerfield that had a chance of falling in for a hit, but was caught by the Marlins' Alfredo Amezaga. Kearns whipped around third and then stood and watched in bewilderment as the Marlins' doubled him up with a throw into second. The infield botched a couple of throws to first base, as well.

Despite all that, the Nats looked pretty good, and they beat up on the Marlins' getting a little revenge for last month's 12-6 drubbing in Miami. No home runs, but the Nats hit some balls hard, and hit some 'seeing-eye' singles. They also had some good defense, including the team's most spectacular outfield catch, when Ryan Langerhans dove for and robbed Miguel Cabrera of an RBI line-drive double that would have ruined the shutout.

The Nats weren't perfect, but starting pitcher Shawn Hill nearly was. He retired the Marlins in order through the first four innings. In the fifth inning, he got ahead of Josh Willingham, and nearly struck him out, but just managed to hold up his swing on the two-strike pitch. The Nats appealed the call, but to no avail. Hill seemed a little rattled by that decision, and lost his bearings. His next three pitches to were balls, giving the Marlins their first baserunner. Hill also walked the next batter, Aaron Boone but then retired the final three batters of the inning, preserving his no-hitter.

As Hill finished his warm-ups for the sixth inning, Manny Acta came out to the mound, and Hill's day was done. Early reports are somewhat encouraging, saying there was no one moment when Hill injured himself. He has an inflammed elbow, and will have an MRI next week. With luck, there is no serious injury, and Hill will return to the rotation in two weeks. Hill is on the verge of stardom. He has pitched as well as anyone in baseball. He has a history of elbow trouble, but if he can avoid any further serious injury, Hill will become an ace starter.

Still, Hill's injury -- coming while he was in the middle of a no-hitter, and on the night the Nats played their best game to date -- is the kind of bad luck that seems reserved for the Nationals. Manny Acta has to wonder what he has to do out a major-league team on the field, and win some games. At least the Nats got their 10th win, and started the home stand on a pretty good note. Hopefully, that will continue with a few more wins, and some good news about Hill's elbow.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hollywood Ending Outside Madrid -- Getafe Dumps Barcelona -- In a win almost as unlikely as the "Miracle on Ice," Getafe routed Barcelona, and ousted them from the Copa del Rey tournament in Spain. The teams met last month, in Barcelona, in the first leg of their tournament semifinal match-up. As expected, mighty Barcelona, with its star-studded lineup, ran tiny Getafe out of the park, with a 5-2 drubbing. The game was really memorable only because it proved to be Lionel Messi's coming out party. The Argentine teenager not only notched a hat-trick, he contributed the most spectacular dribbling run and goal of the last 20 years.

Tonight, the teams met in the return match. This time, the setting was Getafe's intimate stadium, before 16,000 fans, who couldn't have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that their heroes would recover the three-goal deficit and advance to the Copa final. Incredibly, that's exactly what happened. Getafe got two goals in the final ten minutes of the first half. As the second half played out, Barcelona seemed completely impotent, and needed a couple of terrific saves from backup goalkeeper, Albert Jorquera, to keep Getafe from gaining the advantage in the series, based on their away goals.

If you were scripting this, for a Rocky-type movie, you would, of course, build expectation towards the totally improbable outcome. Your script would have to include shots of the rabid fans, pulsing, ready to explode out of their seats, as they sensed the crucial goal was coming. No doubt, these scenes were being played out, for real, across the stadium in Getafe.

Sure enough, as if it had been scripted, just shy of 26 minutes into the second half, Getafe got a free kick in a dangerous position. The kick bent down and found the head of team captain Vivar Dorado, whose last name means "golden." His touch was certainly golden, as he pushed the ball low and towards the corner, beyond the reach of Barca's 'keeper, Jorquera. Not even two minutes later, Getafe sprang Daniel Güiza, who blasted the ball past Jorquera, for the "insurance" goal, giving Getafe a 4-0 lead, and a 6-5 aggregate goals lead.

Barcelona finally showed some life in the last ten minutes. First, Samuel Eto'o displayed his incredible skill in bringing down and controlling a long pass into the box, while defenders watched helplessly. Eto'o gained a clear shot at goal, but pushed the ball over the crossbar. A few minutes later, Getafe's goalie, Luis García, denied Ronaldinho a chance to put Barca on the scoreboard, as he charged the Brazilian superstar and deflected the shot across the box. As Garcia scrambled to his feet and raced to get back into position, Getafe's defenders twice stopped shots that seemed like sure goals.

Having survived Bareclona's greatest threat, all that remained for the underdogs was the celebrations, as Getafe's fans joyously bounced and sang as the final minutes and seconds ran off until this most unlikely upset became official. Without question, this will be regarded as the most memorable win in the team's history, even if Getafe goes on to beat Sevilla in the final -- just as the U.S.A. hockey team's semifinal win over the U.S.S.R., in the 1980 Winter Olympics, is what everyone remembers, instead of the gold medal game against Finland.

This may been the most remarkable result in football/soccer since the U.S.A. beat England in the World Cup, in 1950. A truly fantastical finish that would seem contrived if you read it in a script, or saw it on the screen -- but, this night, in Getafe, it really, truly happened.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Baseball Fans should check out tonight's ESPN game. This will be one of the most interesting debuts by a pitcher in a very long time. The Giants' Russ Ortiz is hurt, so the Giants are starting Tim Lincecum. His minor league numbers are simply staggering: In 2006, Lincecum struck out the highest percentage of batters (minimum 100) of any Minor League pitcher in the last 10 years, 30.9. This year, he has a 0.29 E.R.A. In his minor league career, with 62+ innings, he has over 120 strikeouts, and has surrendered 26 hits and eight runs. Giants' fans were wondering how long their team could keep this wunderkind down on the farm. You can be sure none of the Giants' starters wanted to be the one to get hurt, because it may be hard to make a case for being allowed back into the rotation. Remember Wally Pipp?
D.C. United!!! One Win and Counting -- I made my first appearance this year in the Barra Brava/Screaming Eagles section, in the third row. Sitting (I should say standing) there is the greatest sports experience in the capital region. On a sunny afternoon, I think that it is one of the coolest things a sports fan can do in this country. These folks know the game, and they are not quiet about vocalizing their support, nor are they shy about criticizing the guys in the black United uniforms. Admittedly there's a few cheers that aren't exactly family friendly, but it's all in fun.

As for the game itself, United got a wonderful first goal, as Benny Olsen got himself a little space in the corner, and crossed the ball into the goal box. Guy-Rowland Kpene, making his first start, skillfully deflected the ball past a couple of defenders, where it set up for Cristian Gomez. Last year's league MVP, Gomez volleyed the ball into the net, to put D.C. on top, 1-0.

A little later on, an even younger rookie, Kasali Yinka Casal, grabbed a long pass on the wing, and tried to cut back inside of the defender, before going down hard. It appeared from my perch that Casal might have forced the issue, as he tried to run through the defender, after pushing the ball into the box. Whatever the case, the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Jaime Moreno hit a cheeky lob down the middle of the goal, just under the bar, as the Chivas goalie dove to his left.

With a 2-0 lead, it felt like a rout might be in the offing. Chivas USA had other notions. The game suddenly turned in their favor. United's offense appeared to be completely spent. Gomez and Moreno played as if they were completely out of gas. Gomez was eventually replaced, but Moreno was either unable or unwilling to do any more running. On the other end, Chivas began to find holes in the United defense. Maykel Galindo got back one goal for Chivas. A shot by Ante Razov was deflected slightly by United's goalie, Troy Perkins flatfooted and beaten, but United were saved by the crossbar. Perkins made two spectacular saves to preserve the slim lead, including a game-saving stop of a header by Francisco Mendoza, a highlight reel save, coming in the 89th minute. Along the way, Perkins made several other good saves, one off a header by Claudio Suarez, for good measure.

Time ran out on Chivas, and D.C. United had its first victory. The players showed real appreciation for their cheering section, as they came over and applauded the fans. Sometimes, this is a perfunctory gesture, but the United players seemed completely thrilled by their support.

Sure, United struggled late, but this could be a galvanizing victory that really sets them on the path towards the championship everyone was expecting back in the preseason. Of course, I know it's early, and United is still only 1-3-1. On the other hand, United finally won a game. It's a sunny day. Optimism abounds.

Report card: First the new guys -- Though he flubbed a near-certain goal with a header that bounced to the goalie, off a corner kick, Kpene turned in yeoman's work. I expect that Coach Soehn will be seeking opportunities to work Kpene into the lineup. Casal looked fairly good, too, particularly on defense, where his work-rate was more in evidence. On offense, he seemed to become a spectator too often, especially when he was in an offside position. He needs to get himself back onside, rather than waiting for the game to come to him. Justin Moose got a surprising start. He had two fine opportunities to score, On the first, Moose seemed indecisive about whether to shoot or pass. It appeared that he chose the in-between option. His centering ball went wide of the net, but went through the goal box, just beyond the reach of the charging Ben Olsen. Moose also struck one good shot that sailed just a little bit high. His defense was a little spotty, and he picked up a needless yellow card. Moose found himself on the bench to start the second half.

The veterans -- Gomez' goal was a good bit of skill, but he seemed out of sorts for most of the game. Moreno didn't have his best game either, but his penalty shot goal was a beauty. The defense made good plays, but had some real breakdowns late in the game. Josh Gros was the least effective of the defenders, and it was Gross who was beaten on Galindo's rush that resulted in Chivas' lone goal. Boswell, Namoff, Carroll -- they all made excellent plays to break up Chivas' attacks. Facundo Erpen played fairly solidly, though he made one curious play with a bicycle back-pass to the goalie.

Speaking of the goalie, Troy Perkins seemed a little nervous -- his confidence may be a bit shaken from the rough start -- but he really came up huge in the final minutes. The save that stoned Mendoza just at the 89th minute may have been the most spectacular, and the most important of Perkins' young career.

Finally, Ben Olsen. Always, Ben Olsen. He's a marvel of consistency. He has his limitations, but he works hard and he's the guy who makes this offense go. It will be Kpene and Gomez who get the kudos for the first goal, but it was Olsen who made their skillful touches possible. Bravo, Ben.
...And, Sometimes, a Tie is Thrilling -- I wrote that D.C. United fans couldn't be satisfied with the tie Thursday night. However, the fans of Real Salt Lake must be thrilled with their team's tie, this night. Coming into this game, RSL looked outmatched by the New York Red Bulls on every level, including the coaching. Jason Kreis was making his coaching debut, after his sudden retirement and elevation, and was taking on the most experienced coach in U.S. Soccer, the Red Bulls' Bruce Arena.

The Red Bulls broke out to a 2-0 halftime lead, and looked well on their way to their 5th straight win to start the season -- and RSL's rookie goalie, U. of Md. star, Chris Seitz, was looking especially overmatched, as his misplays were at least partly to blame on both goals. In the second half, RSL got one goal back on Chris Klein's terrific blast from distance. Then, the Red Bulls also lost their starting goalkeeper, Dutch international Ronald Waterreus. RSL fans must have thought things were moving their way, but New York's Clint Mathis punctured the balloon with his second goal of the game.

Miraculously, RSL won a penalty kick, in the 89th minute, when the Red Bulls' Jeff Parke fouled Carey Talley. Jeff Cunningham buried the kick to move RSL within a goal of New York, with the game now in stoppage time. The home crowd of over 14,000 surely went home ecstatic, when RSL got the tying goal less than two minutes later. Chris Brown chased down a long pass over the defense from the young'un, Freddy Adu. Brown spun with the ball at the edge of the box, and went around the defender as he drove towards goal. Brown finished the play, beating Red Bulls' goalie Jon Conway with a shot to the far post, for the tying goal, before the final whistle.

RSL's tie tonight was very reminiscent of the win they pulled out against D.C. United last July with a penalty kick in the 89th minute, and another goal in stoppage time to beat United 2-1. That game seemed to signal the drastic reversal in United's fortunes last year. Before that game, United had dominated the other MLS teams. After that crushing loss, United became an average team, at best. The Red Bulls will have to be stronger than United was in rebounding from the disappointment of letting the win get away, giving up two goals in the final minutes.

Some ties are better than others. Not a bad start for Jason Kreis' coaching career -- it might ease the pain he'll feel, when Jaime Moreno passes him for all-time league scoring honors tomorrow (it could happen).... D.C. United hosts Chivas USA -- a game that features the only two active players with more than 100 goals: United's Moreno, and Chivas' Ante Razov.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dempsey Got a Goal! Way to go Clint! OK, I was promising that I would shift my focus to American sports, but I can't ignore Clint Dempsey getting his first E.P.L. goal. With Clint Dempsey, it's never pretty, but he just seems to have a knack. He's no gazelle, but he possesses a sudden burst of acceleration, an instinct for scoring, and a touch with the ball that serve him well. Today, he bulled his way through the middle of the Liverpool defense, pushed the ball to a teammate on his right wing, and then knocked in the return pass, for the only goal in a 1-0 Fulham victory. It's been a struggle for Clint, four months spent just working his way into the Fulham starting lineup. Today's win secures a place for Fulham in the E.P.L. for next season. Hopefully, Dempsey will be rewarded with a regular place in the lineup, and a chance to continue his arc to stardom.

Speaking of American internationals: My brother reports that he was on the No. 2 subway line in New York, headed from Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan on Wednesday morning. He was engrossed in reading an article in the New York Times, on the new sports stadiums being built in the New York metropolitan area. As my brother got up to exit the train, at Chambers St., he noticed that the guy sitting directly opposite him, reading the Times' sports section, was none other than Captain America -- Claudio Reyna.

The former U.S. national team captain, the finest soccer player this country has produced, went completely unrecognized by the other riders. As he exited the train, my brother stared, probably open-mouthed, at the seated Reyna -- while other riders probably wondered what my brother was looking at. I guess Reyna probably appreciates that he can ride the New York subway in such anonymity, but it seems we have a long way to go before American soccer players reach a status we can call "stardom." Meanwhile, Reyna's New York Red Bulls are in action tonight, vying to continue their stunning start, having won all four of the team's games in the young MLS season.

Tomorrow's Chelsea-Arsenal match (11:00 EDT on FSC) could well decide the EPL title. Chelsea needs a win to stay alive in the chase, or else Manchester United has its first title since 2003. Not quite as long a run as the New York Yankees have had without a championship -- however, in 2003, no one would have imagined that it would be another four years until the next one for the world's most famous football club. At the other end of the table, I'm personally delighted by West Ham's thrashing of Bolton, which moves them past Wigan and out of the relegation zone. It will be a pleasure to see the exciting Carlos Tevez playing for the Hammers in the EPL, next season.

Speaking of the New York Yankees -- I would never want to jinx a no-hitter (I may have already done that once this year, when I left a message for a friend after six innings of no-hit ball by John Maine), but if you're near a television, turn to the Yankees' game on FOX. Update: Chien-Ming Wang lost his perfect game on a home run in the 8th inning.
What am I supposed to drink when Kentucky Derby day falls on Cinco de Mayo? Anyone got a mint julep recipe that calls for tequila?
Turn on the Nats, and See Something Special -- No, not any of the Washington Nationals. The Chicago Cubs' rookie pitcher, Rich Hill. With two outs, Ryan Zimmerman singled, and stole second. That gave Ryan Church the chance to drive in a run. Rich Hill threw the wickedest curveball you will see, leaving Church off-balance and flailing away at a ball that wound up in the batters' box on the other side of the plate.

I've seen Hill on ESPN highlights, but it's just not the same. You don't get a real sense of the majesty of his curve, unless you're watching it as it happens. Hill is reputed to have the best curve ball in the majors. I might go further, I can't recall anyone who ever threw a better one. Check it out. Let me know if you agree.

While you're at it, you get the added bonus of watching Derek Lee hit. He's got a 13-game hitting streak, and is batting almost .500 over that stretch. Talk about being in the zone....

Friday, May 04, 2007

The play of the game came with one out in the first inning, with the Washington Nationals already beating the Chicago Cubs, 4-0. Dmitri Young put a charge into the ball, but Jacque Jones chased down the ball in right center, laid out and made a spectacular backhanded, diving catch. The Nats' had their best start to a game, yet. Felipe Lopez led off the game with a triple, and came home on a professional ground-ball out by Belliard, to the other side. Ryan Zimmerman walked, Ryan Church doubled, and Austin Kearns drove a three-run home run to center field. If Young's smash had fallen, it was at least a double, and perhaps a triple, even for a porker like Young. There was a good chance of the Nats adding to their lead. More to the point, it's likely that the Cubs' starter would have been relieved.

Instead, the Nats relied on their own starter Jason Bergmann to shut the Cubs down. He did will, until there was one out in the third, when the other crucial play occurred. Alfonso Soriano had a check swing hit, that got past Bergmann, and left Ronnie Belliard with no chance of throwing out Soriano. Two batters later, Derek Lee got the Cubs on the board with a two-out, two-run shot. Then, Aramis Ramirez doubled. Ramirez would score an unearned run, when Ryan Zimmerman's wild throw went over Young's head at first base, on Michael Barrett's grounder.

It was game on, at that point. The lead got away from the Nationals, in the fourth inning. Once again, Bergmann had trouble getting the third out, and it was costly. Soriano hit a run-scoring double, and then scored on Cliff Floyd's single, both coming with two out.

In the ninth inning, with the Nats down 6-4, Belliard delivered a two-out single, but the game ended when Ryan Zimmerman fanned on a 3-2 pitch. Zimmerman is in a serious funk. Baseball is not an easy game, but Ryan Zimmerman has made it seem easy. That changed for him, when the Nats broke camp and headed north from Florida, five weeks ago. Few of the Nats are getting key hits with men on base, but Zimmerman may be the biggest disappointment in this regard. This is especially true, because he set such high expectations based on his performances, in a late season call-up in 2005, and a marvelous rookie season last year. As a Nats fan, you feel for him, but you also wonder what he has to do to turn things around.

Meanwhile, this was the kind of loss that we expected to see a lot of, but hadn't yet. The Nats getting a good lead, but then fizzling at the plate, while the Nats' pitchers squandered the lead. I'll say it again: It's a long season. Teams lose games in lots of different ways. This game was one the Nats should not have lost, but the Cubs went out and won it -- so they are the better team.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

If a Tie Is Like Kissing Your Sister, then how are D.C. United fans supposed to feel about tonight's game against the New England Revolution? Frankly, United didn't deserve so much as a tie. On the other hand, after three straight losses to open the season, United fans have to feel at least some relief that their team didn't lose.

D.C. United had a few surprises in their lineup, as two new players made their debut. Without a doubt, though, the central figure in this match was the referee, Terry Vaughn. From my vantage point, it seemed as if the officials got more calls wrong than they got right. Calls that went New England's way should not have, and some of the calls that went United's way were probably even worse.

In the first half, Cristian Gomez was pulled down from behind, with a yank on his jersey, as he waited for a pass in the penalty area, but there was no call. I led the crowd in delivering a second round of catcalls for that glaring omission. As a United fan, one had to hope that the referee would try to atone for that bad mistake. Boy, did he ever!

The Revolution opened up the second half with their strongest counter-attack, as Shalrie Joseph's long ball sprung Taylor Twellman past the fading Facundo Erpen. Twellman's shot was saved by Troy Perkins, However, Andy Dorman had also slipped his defender, and he was there to knock the rebound in for a goal -- even as many fans had not even returned to their seats.

Five minutes later, though, Jaime Moreno was the one trying to run down a long pass for United. Moreno was knocked off the ball with a shoulder challenge by the defender, James Riley. Moreno went down, and the ball rolled to the Revolution's goalie, Matt Reis. A penalty was awarded on the play. During the second half, I sat almost directly in line with the penalty spot, and almost in line with the spot of the alleged foul. I believe I had a much better view than the referee, who was racing across midfield to cover the play. It looked to me that this was no more than the usual shoulder challenge that goes on for most loose balls, except that the defender wasn't able to reach the ball, and the contact occurred in the penalty area.

In short, it was a surprising decision, and it might have been influenced by the reaction to the missed penalty call in the first half. In any case, Moreno tied up the game with a successful penalty kick, going the other way, when Reis dove to his right. Although it was not entirely deserved, it was probably sweet redemption for Moreno, who sat on the bench during the first half in favor of the young Jamaican, Nick Addlery.

Addlery is big and strong, and fairly quick, but his resume, which includes a stint playing in Vietnam, and two stints in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as playing for the Virgina Beach Mariners, where he came to United's attention. He was not especially effective, and Moreno was a welcome substitution. One wonders whether Coach Tom Soehn was just sending a message to Moreno, or whether he sees a new role for the aging Bolivian striker.

Several minutes after Moreno's penalty kick tied the game, the Revs' Joseph was ejected for a hard tackle on Ben Olsen. Admittedly, I did not have a good view of the play, but it seemed that a red card was grossly excessive. The foul was probably deserved, and possibly even merited a yellow card. A red card was not warranted. Apparently, the TV announcers agree with my sense of the play.

The man advantage largely removed the Revolution's threat, as they chose to go into a defensive shell, and take way any open space in their own defensive 18-yard box. United showed little creativity, as they kept trying to penetrate this gauntlet by punching through the middle. The few forays down the side were unconvincing and amounted to nothing.

Finally, in stoppage time, United began to look like their attack might be able to generate a goal on its own, without an assist from the officials. Moreno had the ball along the end line and lofted the ball in front of the goal. Olsen sent a header towards the post that beat Reis, but rang off the crossbar. A few seconds later United had a corner kick, and the ball made its way to Bryan Namoff. This time, it was Namoff who lofted the ball into the middle, and this time it was Luciano Emilio, who got his head on the ball. He directed the header towards the other post, where Matt Reis made a spectacular diving, one-handed save, stretching for the ball and getting enough strength behind his effort to push the ball out of danger.

I suppose the strong push at the end should give United fans some hope that their team might yet regain their scoring touch. I think that might be a tad optimistic, for now. United played much of the second half with a man advantage, but only generated a handful of shots on goal, and no goals.

There were some good signs. Coming off the bench at halftime, Jaime Moreno played exceptionally well on both ends of the field. Although he only played a few minutes, after coming on for the injured Fred, newly signed Ivorian native Guy Rowland-Kpene, looked like he might be an exciting addition to an againg squad that could use some youthful energy and pace. Fred also looked like he could be a big part of United's offense. He showed some anticipation, and a strong shot, from about 30 yards, that Reis handled cleanly. a few minutes earlier, it appeared that Fred passed up a great chance to shoot on a break winside the box, and his ill-advised centering pass ended that threat. Overall, though, Fred played pretty well.

Goalie Troy Perkins turned in a good game, as well. I suspect his leg injury continues to hamper him, as he only punted the ball once, and that was a weak effort. He made a nice play to save a header by Twellman, in the first half. Perkins wasn't able to intercept the pass, and he backed off in time to get in position to make a reaction stop on Twellman. If Twellman had headed the ball more solidly, he probably would have beaten Perkins, but sometimes goalies make their own luck. Certainly, Perkins appeared to be blameless on the Rev's goal.

Problems abound for United. The offense still lacks enough imagination to create any real openings. Gomez seemed hesitant and too often lacked the hustle to get open and give his teammates a passing target. Still, Gomez did have one great chance that Reis was able to save by knocking the ball over the crossbar, and Gomez did feed Emilio with one of Emilio's best opportunities. Emilio's shot appeared as if it would have Reis beaten, but it was deflected wide of the net by Jay Heaps. Unfortunately, Emilio also seemed to disappear for large chunks of the game.

Looking at the game as whole, the defense did a pretty good job shutting down a formidable Revolution attack, even in the first half, when the teams were at even strength. However, the Revs' goal showed once again that United's defense, especially Facundo Erpen, is still too susceptible to breakdowns. True, United was playing their biggest nemesis, but there is a lot of room for improvement. A point is better than no point, but this tie was nothing that D.C. United can feel very good about.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Bump in the Road -- For three innings it looked like another quality start for a Nationals pitcher. According to Tom Boswell's column earlier today, the Nats' starting pitchers had allowed three runs or less in 18 of the Nats' last 22 games, coming into tonight's game. Making his first start in front of family and friends in his native San Diego, Matt Chico weathered a bunch of hard hit fly balls, but did not allow a hit until there were two outs in the third inning, when a ball dropped just in front of the onrushing Austin Kearns' glove.

Chico ran into some considerable trouble in the fourth inning, allowing three bases on balls and five runs. He surrendered an RBI triple by Khalil Greene, and then walked the bases loaded. The Nats' rookie pitcher couldn't quite shut the Padres down. First, he gave up a sacrifice fly, and then got truly unlucky, when Geoff Blum hit a run-scoring bloop double that landed just inside the right field foul line, and another double to Marcus Giles that plated two more runs. When the dust settled, Chico was out of the game, and the Nats were suddenly trailing 5-1.

The Nats simply do not have the hitting to come back from that kind of deficit, especially against the quality pitching the Padres threw at them. Help may be on the way, though. The Nats dealt Chris Snelling, who had been a real drag on the team, to Oakland, in exchange for Ryan Langerhans, whom the A's had just picked up from Atlanta. Langerhans had only three hits in over 40 at-bats with the Braves, but he is a better hitter than that. He had been expected to be the Braves left fielder, but his struggles forced the Braves to look elsewhere. Langerhans gives the Nats increased depth in the outfield, and first base.

The Nats got off to an unusually good start, scoring in the first inning for only the second time this season. Felipe Lopez led off with a double, stole third, and scored on a one-out hit by Ryan Church. The Padres' starter, Chad Hensley left the game in the third inning, with an injury, but that only meant the Nats had to face the Padres' bullpen, which has been nothing short of spectacular, from top to bottom.

The Nationals also put together a decent rally in the 7th inning, scoring the first two runs that Clay Meredith had allowed this year. It should have been three runs, but Robert Fick really botched up things, when he failed to score on a one-out double by Kory Casto. The ball carried to the wall, over the head of the centerfielder, Mike Cameron, but Fick ran back to second base to tag up. At the time, that mistake appeared as if it might be crucial, since it forced the Nats to play for two runs over the final two innings. It became a moot point when the Nats gave back two runs in the eighth inning.

Though they have dropped two of three to the Padres, the Nats are looking like a much improved team these days. Casto is an improvement over Snelling, and, tomorrow, the team will add Langerhans to the roster. Monday, they are expected to activate both Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan. Manny Acta will have some decisions to make about who will stay on the roster.

They will have an extra outfielder and/or first baseman. Presumably the Nats will send Casto back down, but if he hits some more doubles between now and Monday, Acta may have to think twice about that move. They are almost certain to trim one pitcher from the roster. That pitcher will probably be Ray King, who surrendered a ninth inning home run tonight, that really put the game out of reach.

From the Minor Leagues: It looks like the Nats may have a phenom at Hagerstown. Cory van Allen has struck out 18 batters, without allowing a single base on balls. Van Allen struck out the astounding total of 12 batters in five innings last Saturday. If he keeps that up, he will leapfrog Colin Ballester as the Nats' top pitching prospect.

American League: I don't write much about the junior circuit, but Josh Beckett's turnaround is worth a mention. After dealing future All-Star Hanley Ramirez to acquire Beckett from Florida, the Red Sox were hugely disappointed in his effort last year. He had an E.R.A. above 5.00, and only one other pitcher allowed more home runs. This year, it's a different story. Beckett is 6-0, and the early front-runner for Cy Young. I'm still not sure that the Marlins didn't get the better end of that deal with Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez, but if Beckett can pitch this way all year, the Red Sox faithful will forgive management for dealing Ramirez. Right now, the trade looks better than the infamous one that sent Jeff Bagwell to Houston for Larry Andersen.
AC Milan Routs Man Utd -- A.C. Milan has secured a berth in the finals of the European Champions League, with a thorough 3-0 drubbing of Manchester United. The game began in a driving rainstorm in Milan. Milan dominated the first ten minutes, and Seedorf nearly gave the Italian team a 1-0 lead in the first minutes. Van der Sar made a terrific reaction save to direct Clarence Seedorf's blast over the crossbar. The home team grabbed the early leg up, an fine strike by Kaka, coming in the eleventh minute. Kaka took a back-pass header from Seedorf, at the top of the box, and struck a left-footed drive across his body, that beat Edwin van der Sar, the Manchester United goalie.

That first goal gave Milan the lead in the game, and the lead in the series. Though the teams were even at 3-3 in the aggregate, Milan would have advanced on away goals. With Milan already leading on Kaka's goal, Seedorf got his goal, about a half hour into the match, when he intercepted a wayward pass, stepped around a defender and beat van der Sar with a rocket to the corner.

Kaka's goal put Milan in the catbird's seat, but Seedorf's shot may have given United too big a challenge to overcome. Manchester United need to score twice, but one goal seemed too much for a United side that could not seriously threaten the Milan goal. United struggled badly, both on offense and defense. They had but one real shot on goal, which came in the 20th minute, when Ryan Giggs tested Dida. The final goal came late, on a breakway by Alberto Gilardino, but the game already seemed well out of United's reach.

Two days ago, the football world was anticipating a Champions League final that would pit Chelsea against Manchester United, the two teams that have dominated the English competitions this year. In a stunning reversal, these two teams, with the highest payrolls in the sport, were both badly outplayed by their opponents, and shown the door. Milan advances to the Champions League final, on May 23, in Athens, against Liverpool. The game will be a rematch of the 2005 final, which saw Liverpool rally to overcome a 3-0 deficit, with three goals in six minutes, finally beating Milan 4-3. As they were two years ago, A.C. Milan will be the favorite, but Liverpool certainly has the capability to give Milan a much stronger test than they faced tonight against a depleted and disorganized Manchester United side.

'Extra Time' Notes -- I anticipate that I will post an entry on the Champions League final, and maybe another post or two on the final days of the English football season. I will be turning my focus almost exclusively to American sports, and politics -- with the occasional comment on world affairs.

Tomorrow night, D.C. United plays at RFK, against the New England Revolution. One might have looked forward to the game as an opportunity for United to avenge its loss to the Revolution in last year's MLS Eastern Conference final. However, the game means even more than that to United. The preseason favorite to take league championship honors, United has lost its first three games, and looked fairly inept in doing so, in both ends of the field. Only the expansion club, Toronto FC, has a worse record. There is considerable pressure on the players and the coaching staff to right the ship, but they can expect a good crowd rooting them on. See you all there.

One last note -- FIFA President Sepp Blatter has identified four countries that would be considered as replacements to host the 2010 World Cup, should South Africa fall short in its preparations to host the tournament. The United States, Mexico, England and Australia are the possible destinations, because they each have the necessary infrastructure in place. The real significance of the announcement is that it is the first official indication that FIFA is, at least, considering contingency plans, rather than issuing solid, unwavering commitments to South Africa as the 2010 host.

This might just be meant as a kick in the rear to spur on the South Africans, but it is looking increasingly doubtful that South Africa can manage to get it together in time. There is too much to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. In my view, if FIFA is going to switch the host country, it would be better to do this sooner, rather than later. They could acknowledge the time pressures, and simply promise South Africa the 2014 or 2018 Cup. This would allow the South African organizers the time to make the preparations in a more thoughtful manner, without spending huge sums rushing to meet the 2010 deadline. Moreover, FIFA is set to decide the location of the 2014 Cup tournament. It would be best to make that decision after FIFA has made the final decision to either cut or go with South Africa in 2010.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It's Liverpool over Chelsea, in a shootout-- A classic, thrilling match at Liverpool's Anfield Stadium home. Needing at least one goal to counter Chelsea's 1-0 win last week, Liverpool dominated the game at the outset, culminating with a brilliant run-on shot by Daniel Agger on a set piece. Agger ran on to Steven Gerrard's free-kick pass, and buried his shot through the Chelsea defense and just inside the post. The explosion of joy among the Liverpool faithful was as raucous and joyous moment as ever witnessed at a sporting event. Agger's goal brought the crowd to ecstasy, but it also seemed to wake up slumbering Chelsea, who began to press the attack. The Blues' best chance came when Didier Drogba got past the Liverpool defense, and blasted a shot that was nicely parried by goalie Jose "Pepe" Reina.

The second half was a pulsing back-and forth affair. An off-balance Didier Drogba just missed a wonderful chance, as he tried to touch a crossing pass into a vacated net. In truth, it appeared that Liverpool's Jamie Carragher had saved Liverpool, deflecting the ball over the goal, before Drogba could reach it, but the officials awarded the goal kick to Liverpool. Chelsea had other moments, but were unable to beat Reina, who made some big plays. The best chances, however, belonged to Liverpool. Peter Crouch rose above the Chelsea defense to send a header down towards the goal. Crouch's shot nearly made it through Petr Cech's legs. Later in the half, Cech was beaten on a shot by Kuyt, but the blast ricocheted off the crossbar.

In extra time, Liverpool continued to be the more dangerous side, but was undone by several close offsides penalties. One such penalty overturned a seeming goal, when Kuyt broke through the defense, just as a long shot came through, and tested Chelsea's Cech. The rebound came to Kuyt, who buried the ball in the net, over the sprawled Cech. The offsides flag eventually quieted the round of celebratory cheers that had erupted, following the apparent goal. The second extra time period was a little more subdued than the first, but it was not without excitement. As the teams readied for penalty kicks (Liverpool brought on Robbie Fowler), Kuyt teed up a shot from just outside the penalty box, but was unable to get it past Cech.

It's always a shame that such results have to be determined by penalty kick shootouts, but no one can say that the fans didn't get their money's worth of exciting football over the first 2 hours. Liverpool's Boudewijn Zenden buried his team's first attempt, while Chelsea's Arjen Robben was denied by a diving Reina. On the second attempt, Cech guessed correctly but wasn't quick enough to reach Xabi Alonso's blast. Frank Lampard kept Chelsea in the game with a well-struck attempt over the sprawling Reina. Gerrard went the other way on Cech, making it 3-1 in favor of Liverpool. Reina then came up big once again, as he denied Chelsea substitute Geremi Njitap. Finally, Kuyt, who nearly won the match in extra time, knocked home the clincher.

Liverpool is again on its way to the Champions League final (they won in spectacular fashion, with the most famous comeback ever, in 2005), while Chelsea is again denied honors in what might be manager Jose Mourinho's final run with the club. Chelsea was missing some of the team's finest players (including defender Ricardo Carvalho, midfielder Michael Ballack, and striker Andriy Shevchenko), but that will be little consolation to the highly touted Blues. Tomorrow, A.C. Milan will be seeking to duplicate Liverpool's effort, as they host Manchester United. The Italian squad is trailing 3-2 on aggregate. Milan will have visions of getting a rematch in the finals with Liverpool, and a chance to avenge their '05 loss. Facing Manchester United, though, requires complete focus. It would be a stunning upset, if Milan could beat United, but Liverpool's effort against Chelsea shows that expectations mean little at this juncture.
9 Wins and Counting -- Once again, the Nats won the first game on the road trip, beating the San Diego Padres. They're still on a pace to lose more than 100 games, but good signs abound. The pitcher who was supposed to be the teams' "ace," John Patterson, finally pitched a good game. He was touched for a home run by former National, Termel Sledge (Sledge actually hit the first home run for the Nationals, on Opening Day 2005, in Philly). That was all the Padres could manage in six innings against Patterson. They did load the bases in the sixth inning, but Patterson pitched out of the jam -- he got a weak fly ball out to short right field, and then got some defensive help, when Ryan Zimmerman cleanly fielded a first pitch smash by Khalil Greene. Patterson finally hit 90 on the radar gun, and shows signs of finally getting back his arm strength. The team, its fans and Patterson should all be encouraged by this start.

The big hit came from Kory Casto, who was back with the big club, after hitting the cover off the ball, during 10 games with AAA Columbus. With the Nats up 2-1, Casto hit an RBI double, after fouling off his attempt to lay down a sacrifice bunt. That brought home the Nats third, and decisive run. Although the Nats loaded the bases, after Casto's double, they were unable to add to their lead. Earlier, Ryan Church doubled, in the second inning, and scored the Nats' first run -- a rare instance of the Nats scoring in the first two innings. In the fourth inning, Church was hit by a pitch, and then stole second base, He scored on Austin Kearns RBI single.

The most impressive part of this win is that the Nats beat the Padres' ace, Jake Peavy. Patterson's effort, outpitching Peavy, was the fifth straight outstanding start by a Nationals' pitcher. Although they lost two of those games to the Mets, they were within one out of winning on Saturday night -- losing despite Jerome Williams' one-hit performance over seven innings. On Sunday, Jason Bergmann outpitched John Maine, but the Nats got beat by Carlos Beltran's solo shot. The Mets' pitchers were just good enough to shut out the Nats, who couldn't get the clutch hit they needed to score, despite several good chances.

As I've written repeatedly, the biggest question mark for the Nats, coming into this season, was always the starting rotation. This past week, it's been really good. If they do that week in and week out, the Nats' season will have been a success, regardless of their final record. This year is about building a foundation. If they know they have the pitchers, the Nats' management can go into the free agent market looking to beef up their lineup.

There's a long season ahead. The Nats still have the worst record in the National League, and they're still on pace to lose 100 games. Still, there are things to like about this team, and reasons to think they will only get better as the season goes along, especially if they can get Nick Johnson back before too long. Chad Cordero, who earned his third save, is showing signs of getting back on track, despite the Mets' two-out rally on Saturday night. The Nats' likely number one set-up man, Luis Ayala, is now pitching in rehab stints in the minors. Right now, things look pretty good for a team with only 9 wins against 17 losses.