Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dog Days Starting Early

Keep it interesting. That's all I ask. Ok, the World Championship in 2005 changed my expectations level somewhat, but still, all I really ask on the White Sox each season is that they keep it interesting. Be part of the race until September. Be part of the conversation on Baseball Tonight. I fear that won't be the case this year. I've feared that all along. The White Sox look like a .500 team. And that's how they're playing. Some days the pitching is there, some days the hitting is there, and some days they have it all and look like contenders. But they lack the depth on the mound or at the plate to do it consistently and truly compete with the Indians in the Central.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong. Look the Sox have played even worse than their record this season, but that record is not so bad. They are at the moment above .500, and only one game out of the Wild Card in the loss column -- a preposterous observation a quarter of the way into the season, if I do say so myself. But I just feel "blah" about the whole thing. Maybe going to Minnesota does it to me. That dome is one of the most soul-less places left in baseball after the recent wave of stadium construction and rehab. And, the team is the kind of group you'd love to root for, but who you absolutely hate to play against. They sap your will. It's not getting beat by Johan Santana and Justin Morneau that bugs me; it's getting beat by Nick Punto and Jason Tyner. It's losing because of ground balls that bounce 75 feet into the air off the green concrete that passes for a field there.

These doldrums are bad. I'm actually excited about inter-league play. Inter-league play is the kind of thing that's needed to drum up interest in places where they don't really care about baseball. Usually I view inter-league play as an annoying interruption of the divisional race. This year, I bought tickets for an extra Cubs-Sox game at Comiscular, and I find myself contemplating who excites me on the Houston Astros. A couple of weeks ago, I bought tickets for the Sox-Yanks game Monday because I heard that Clemens might be making his first start then. It paid off. But I find myself more excited about seeing Clemens start than going to a Sox-Yanks game.

Maybe this team will get on a role. As much as they lack depth, the top of their roster is very good. Unlike most .500 teams, the Sox have the talent to put together a really good record with the right combination of health and luck. Maybe the Sox will show passion and fire, and I'll get fired up, too. But I fear that the dog days of summer may drag a little more than usual this year.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

No Such Luck

Long shots were all the rage at last night's NBA draft lottery. Unfortunately, the Bulls weren't one of the teams cashing in. The Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Sonics each overcame long odds to jump to the top of the draft. Aside from the joy that I take (bizarrely) in seeing Bill Simmons and the rest of the Celtics' fan base suffer, I lament that the Bulls were an Eddy Curry tip-in from having Portland's odds of winning. Oh well.

The ninth pick remains an insanely valuable chit given this year's deep draft. Rumors are that Roy Hibbert will withdraw from the draft, which is a shame. I thought an athletic front line of Hibbert, Ben Wallace and Tyrus Thomas blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and throwing outlets to Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni was probably the Bulls' best bet to be something unique and very, very good.

Nevertheless, good options remain. I suspect the Zach Randolph rumors are nonsense. Still some kind of sign and trade packaging Andres Nocionin and whoever the ninth pick is for Randolph would make a modicum of sense. Portland will have Greg Oden and Lamarcus Aldridge to man the middle, and Nocioni would allow them to part ways with Darius Miles, which the Blazers would apparently love to do. The Bulls meanwhile would have Wallace, Randolph and Thomas up front, with Deng, Sefolosha, Gordon, Hinrich and Duhon in the back court. That team contends for the Eastern Conference title.

A more realistic option, I believe, is the Bulls moving up, probably with the Celtics, to take Yi Jianlian. John Paxson apparently loves the tall, versatile Chinese forward. He is big, and can score from anywhere on the floor. Yi will not be a foreign bust. I also think he'd fit in well with the Bulls high paced attack. If Thomas can guard centers, and there are few in the league right now big enough and skilled enough to be a problem, then he and Yi could make a dynamic duo for the future. Thomas, Yi and Deng might be the most athletic, exciting, and talented front line in the NBA one day.

But what would the cost be to move up? And is it worth paying when a player meeting the Bulls' immediate need will likely be available at nine? The Bulls need a guy who can settle on the block and score in the half court when teams slow it down and take away the Bulls pick and roll/pop game. Spencer Hawes is the most gifted post scorer in this draft, and he's a really good one at that. Everyone compares him to Vlade Divac. Don't you think Divac would have helped this team? Plus, he's a good enough face-up jump shooter to play pick and pop with Hinrich too. Again, Wallace, Hawes, Thomas, Deng, Nocioni, Gordon, Hinrich, Sefolosha and Duhon is the rotation of a legitimate contender.

The ping pong balls may not have bounced the Bulls' way last night. But that's no reason not to be very excited about this off-season, and the team's future.

Monday, May 21, 2007

David Aardsma: Traitor

David Aardsma must still be being paid by the Cubs. He must be a traitor to the White Sox' cause. That's the only explanation for the suddenly flammable nature of the previously effective reliever. His ERA went up 3.37. Not his ERA went up to 3.37, it went up that much. He entered the weekend with a 1.64 ERA and exited with a 5.01. Actually, Aardsma had an ERA over 5.00 in day games last year, so maybe that explains it. The sample size is too small to read much into, but Aardsma's ineffectiveness in day games may reflect some sort of truth about his pitching.

Anyway, Aardsma's ineffectiveness was just one odd aspect of an odd weekend. What else would you expect from this Crosstown Garbage. (I detest this series by the way. I relish the tribal aspects of sports. There is unity when everyone in US Comiscular is pulling together for the Sox to beat the Twins. There is much less enjoyable about the hostility felt at the ballpark when a third of the fans are suddenly rooting for the other team. And I certainly had no interest in being at Wrigley this weekend as part of a vocal minority). The Sox entered the series with one of the more effective bullpens in baseball. The Cubs saw the pen as their principle question mark. But it was the Sox' pen that blew up.

As expected, NL pitching provided something of a tonic for ailing White Sox bats. Paul Konerko has even found his way above the Mendoza line. What was less expected was the effect of Cubs' bats on our pitching. Oh well. Honestly, the Cubs have played better than the Sox this year. The Cubs have the stats and run differential of a pretty good team. The Sox have the numbers of a .500-ish team, and they're only that good because of heroic pitching so far. The bats really better wake up at some point.

Speaking of which, as much as Ryan Sweeney and Brian Anderson would make more valuable parts of the outfield picture than Luis Terrero and Darrin Erstad, its hard to fault the club for returning the struggling Sweeney to Charlotte. If it helps his long-term development into a starting major league outfielder, then the marginal loss of production is worth it. Sweeney wasn't doing much with the big club anymore anyway.

In other interesting prospect news: Joe Crede left Sunday's game with back problems. He's been playing with two herniated discs for two years. As the Redhead (Official Wife of the Fan Club, for those with short memories) can tell you: ouch. Anyway, I wonder if Crede is going to miss extensive time whether Josh Fields might not get a taste of the big time in his absence. Fields has been struggling early this year at Charlotte, but he's heated up of late, and offers some intriguing pop when he doesn't swing and miss.

Anyway, the Bulls are through. The Sox have reached the quarter pole above .500 and 4.5 games back of the Indians and Tigers. And, the Crosstown/interleague nonsense has begun. Sounds like baseball season is finally here.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Matadors Are Singing

The end of an opera is supposedly marked by a fat lady singing. The closest I can think of in the case of the Chicago Bulls are The Matadors -- the Bulls' dance team consisting entirely of fat, old guys. Anyway, those fat guys have sung. The Bulls are done.

It is odd that the Bulls led four of the six games at the half, and three games by at least 19 points, and yet lost the series four games to two. I should also note that the Bulls were outscored dramatically during this series when the Redhead wasn't watching. Last night she watched her Tivo'd episode of Ugly Betty during the third quarter. Somehow, she refuses to take responsibility for her role in the end of the Bulls' season.

The Bulls shot five of 18 from three point range last night. That's 27.8%, sad for a team that shot 39% during the regular season, second best in the league. Some credit goes to the Detroit defense on that front. They held opponents to 34% from behind the arc this year, fourth best in the NBA. Still, flat out bad shooting was part of it too. Kirk Hinrich was the worst offender, going 0 for three behind the arc and three of 13 overall. Given how poorly he was shooting, it's hard to criticize Hinrich for becoming pass happy in the second half. Nevertheless, this marked the fourth time this series (at least) that Hinrich played scared at key stretches of the game.

Maybe Hinrich will mature past the yips that plagued him this series (his over-passing resulted in a handful of turnovers in the second half). However, as the Bulls now begin their off-season, I think it's clear that if the team is going to move a member of its core group in a deal for an interior scorer, that guy should be Hinrich. Luol Deng is the team's best player. Andres Nocioni's value is at an all-time low coming off his injury. And, Ben Gordon brings a unique skill (the ability to score explosively) that no one else on the team can duplicate. I'm not sure the team needs to make a deal (Spencer Hawes should be available when the Bulls pick, and he's been compared favorably to Vlade Divac as an offensive minded center), but if they do, Hinrich has value, and his skill set can be replicated by Chris Duhon and Thabo Sefolosha.

The other guy who didn't bring much to the table last night was Ben Wallace. Wallace had six points and seven rebounds, and shot a brutal two of eight from the charity stripe. He was a team-worst minus-17 on the night. His achy back may have played a role in his struggles, but age, and the likelihood of injuries, are one reason why the contract the Bulls gave him was a mistake. He's also one dimensional, and when he can't control the game defensively, he offers nothing on the offensive end. Nevertheless, this contract is well structured as these things go, and Wallace is a valuable part of the front-court rotation going forward. He's just not worth max money. The Pistons have a similar component in Antonio McDyess at a much more reasonable price. In fact, McDyess's player efficiency rating was much higher than Wallace's this year. McDyess scored twice as many points per 40 minutes as Big Ben, and grabbed nearly as many rebounds per 40 minutes (11.5 to 12.2), all for $10 million less, this year alone.

This was a good year for the Bulls. They improved in the regular season, and advanced further in the play-offs than any time since MJ roamed the United Center floor. They discovered a stud scorer in Gordon, a budding all-star in Deng, a potential defensive stopper in Sefolosha, and a energizing, shot blocking, game changing young big man in Tyrus Thomas. But they also discovered some flaws that must be addressed. Namely, they need an offensive minded big man to add to Thomas and Wallace in their front court rotation. The Heat have gotten old, the Pistons will age, the Nets may be dismantled this off-season, the Cavs appear to be as flawed as the Bulls, and the Raptors probably even more so. The Eastern Conference will be wide open next season. Hopefully the Bulls will be ready to claim it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

NBA Ramblings

So, I wrote a brilliant (trust me) 1000 word post earlier this morning, and Blogger ate it. Now, you're all going to be deprived. But I will put together a shorter version, touching on my key points.

First, the Bulls played well, and shot the lights out, and return to the United Center down three games to two. It's tough not to ask what if. What if, during game three, Scott Skiles remembered that teams get timeouts in the NBA? What if Skiles wasn't the last guy in Chicago to realize that Tyrus Thomas had an important role to play in this series? The Bulls have led three of the five games by at least 19 points: what if they were coming home up three to two?

It's pointless to ask. Game four wouldn't have played out the same way if the Bulls held on in game three. Or maybe it would have. The point is that there's no way to know. At this point, I'd put the Bulls chances at less than one in four to win the series, but that's a heck of a lot better than as of Sunday morning.

Kirk Hinrich largely shed the fear and panic that have plagued him in the fourth quarter earlier in the series. I'd like to thank the league for not suspending Captain Kirk for what may or may not have been a below the belt shot to Flip Murray (although it was clearly above Kirk's belt, since Flip's bait and tackle were about forehead high on Hinrich at the time). Anyway, it was also nice to see Ben Gordon finally have a good shooting night. Luol Deng continued to quietly be the Bulls' best player. And, Thomas brought energy, athleticism and complete chaos to the proceedings, all of which the Bulls thrive on.

It was also fun to see a classic Rasheed Wallace melt down. It's not clear why Wallace's antics warrant a single tech, whereas standing in the wrong spot can bring down a full suspension. Of course, the NBA has a moral code designed for fourth graders. You can't walk too far from the bench, um, because I said so. The Spurs have now been rewarded -- two Phoenix starters suspended for a game versus one Spurs reserve suspended for two is a win for San Antonio -- for thuggishly trying to injure the Suns' best player. Stu Jackson has explained this travesty by saying that any rule applied consistently is fair. He has also explained that the NBA can't possibly have a rule that requires officials to make a judgment call about the severity of a player's infraction or his intentions in leaving the bench.

First off, this argument is complete bullsh*t in this setting. This is a court of basketball, not law. The only goal is to create an even playing field on which the best players and team can prevail. That goal has been thwarted here. Considerations of rule of law, procedural and substantive due process, and equal protection are out of place in this context. Second, the rule sucks. Officials are asked to make judgment calls all the time: was that defender still moving, who initiated contact, does Sheed's tantrum deserve a second T? Even this rule asks the league to determine whether an altercation was on-going when the players left the bench. That judgment call is why Tim Duncan wasn't suspended when he wandered out to the key area from the bench while the game was going on the other night. And if the NBA wants to pretend that it has formal legal system to govern player's actions, well the law is full of judgment calls. Prosecutors decide whether or not to prosecute a crime, judge's weigh the relevance and improper prejudicial value of evidence, and juries (notoriously terrible decision making bodies) determine defendants' intentions all the time. Instead of sticking to their arena of competition, the league seems to be trying to govern itself by playing at something it doesn't really understand. The end result is that the Suns got screwed, and whether the rule was applied consistently or not, the integrity of this year's playoffs are undermined.

Um, now that that rant is over, we return you to your regularly scheduled blog. Go Bulls.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Staying Alive

Well, that was a stupid title. Now I'm going to have a disco song stuck in my head the rest of the day. If you do too, I apologize. Nevertheless, it is what the Bulls were doing on Sunday. The Bulls are still almost certain to lose the series, probably in game five in Detroit. Still, it was nice to get a win.

The Bulls once again built a big lead, more than 20 points this time, but unlike Thursday, they held on to win yesterday. I can identify three differences between Thursday's game and yesterday's. First, Skiles actually called a time out early enough to slow Detroit's roll at a crucial moment. Second, Skiles inserted a fresh Tyrus Thomas into the line-up at a key time, and the rookie brought energy and fearlessness to the floor. And, third, the Red Head stayed awake. The Red Head, Official Wife of the Fan Club, fell asleep Thursday with the Bulls up by 19. Yesterday, she made it through the game. You tell me if you see the difference.

Anyway, a correction from my post about game three. The Official Father of the Fan Club -- it's family week here, apparently -- reminded me that it was Greg Anthony, and not Anderson Hunt, who had the testicular fortitude to keep taking shots against Duke in 1991. Hunt froze up as bad as Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon. That's why it was so devastating when Anthony fouled out. Also, my friend Eisy would like me to clarify that Grant Hill wasn't really a bust as a pro, he was just injury prone. The point remains, however, that he was a better college player than pro player. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Chicago Sports Blog.

Hubie Brown yesterday, in a rare moment of lucidity, called the Bulls' guards out for over-passing, leading to too many turnovers. He mentioned it while Detroit was making a run, and I pointed to the same problem as a big part of the reason why the Bulls blew their lead in game three. The Bulls are a ball movement team, so it's tough for Skiles to criticize his players for passing too much. However, all series the Bulls, especially Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, have been prone to take tough passes over easy shots. It shows in the turnover numbers, and it cost the team game three.

Luol Deng has been the one fearless guy this series, and has reinforced my belief that he is on the verge of joining the league's elite. For everyone clamoring for a post scorer who can demand a double team, Deng will be that guy soon. Keep in mind that Michael Jordan was that guy when the Bulls won six titles. It doesn't have to be a power forward or center, it just has to be a guy who creates a mismatch. Deng, with his long arms and increasing strength and knowledge of how to use his body, is becoming a mismatch for small forwards on the block. And he's too quick for a power forward. Throw in smart passing out of double teams, and you have your mismatch guy. Starting next season, the Bulls offense in the half court should probably flow through Deng first and foremost. And when they need to create a good, quality shot, the ball should go to Deng on the block.

Anyway, he got some help finally last night in the form of Tyrus Thomas. Thomas had 8 points, 4 rebounds and a block in 9 fourth quarter minutes. He actually led the team in 4th quarter shot attempts. Thomas has actually been the Bulls' most aggressive player this post-season. Usage measures the number of possessions a player "uses" per 40 minutes. A player "uses" a possession if he attempts a shot or free throws, or makes an assist or turnover. Thomas's 26.3 per 40 minutes leads the Bulls. Deng and Gordon are next at 23.0 and 22.8 respectively. Obviously, usage isn't necessarily a good thing. Missed shots and turnovers are uses of a possession. But in a series in which the Bulls have been too passive, Thomas's aggressiveness serves a purpose. I hope he gets more minutes in game five. Skiles should put him in whenever the Bulls show signs of being scared or passive.

One final note: my friend Purd thinks Hinrich intentionally punched Flip Murray in the ball-sackal region on Murray's facial of Captain Kirk. To examine the evidence, go here. I think he flailed wildly and happened to "pick a peach," as Purd put it. Purd believes the most damning evidence is around the 20 second mark of the footage. What do you guys think?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Out Manned

This isn't about who has more talent. This isn't about who has more skill. This series is about a lot of things the importance of which I normally downplay in sports. The Pistons have out manned the Bulls -- not in a their players are simply better than ours kind of way, but in a their players have more courage, determination and savvy than ours.

It almost makes me feel nostalgic. Before there was MJ, Scottie, and Horace winning championships, there was the Bulls getting maimed by the Pistons. The Bulls would get knocked down, and they wouldn't get up again. The early 90's Pistons were the fiercest team I've ever seen on a basketball court. I'm not sure the Bulls ever overcame that. It's just that by the time the Bulls swept the Pistons in 1991, the Bulls were so sublimely talented that no degree of toughness could slow them down. Plus, the talent half of the Pistons' talent plus toughness tandem was fading due to age and injury.

This year's Bulls were always much better at home than on the road. Opening against the Heat at home they gained confidence and momentum, and were able to keep it going in Miami. Opening against the Pistons in Detroit, the Bulls were beaten down and embarrassed. It was apparently enough for Chris Duhon to punch his own ticket on the end of his Bulls' career. He no-showed a film session and collected a DNP-Coach's Decision in game 3. Ben Wallace has taken to mixing spurts of energy and production with periods of skulking about, both on and off the court. He showed up late for game 3, played well early, but spent much of the third quarter not getting back on D.

Returning home, the energy and confidence of the crowd, which remains one of the best in basketball even in the UC can't channel that energy the way Chicago Stadium could, got the Bulls off and running. The Bulls needed to stake the Pistons last night. Up 19 points in the 3rd quarter, the Bulls needed to not only hold on to win, but to put the Pistons away. Instead the Bulls played scared, the Pistons came back, and we can all start debating Roy Hibbert vs. Spencer Hawes.

Actually, last night's game reminded me of something other than the old Pistons-Bulls rivalry. Ironically, this memory comes from March of 1991, the same year the Bulls finally toppled the Pistons in the east. In 1990, UNLV mauled Duke in the NCAA finals 103-73. Entering the national semi-final in 1991, UNLV was on a 45 game winning streak and heavily favored over Duke again. But this Duke team was a group of stone cold killers. As much as Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill have disappointed in the NBA, the three were the toughest, most confident, savviest group of college players that I've ever laid eyes on. Guys like Brian Davis and Thomas Hill had also picked up that swagger, allowing them to play far above their talent and skill. In fact, it was Davis who would connect on the three point play (the old-fashioned way) that gave Duke the lead for good down the stretch. But what I remember most about that game, and what I was reminded of last night, is how scared UNLV looked down the stretch.

UNLV led at the half. They led by four with three minutes left. And then they fell apart. Greg Anthony may or may not have been scared, but he fouled out fairly early. Moses Scurry probably wasn't scared, and in any event looked like a hardened criminal (probably a good guy and gentle soul, just scary looking), so no one would say he was anyway. But Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon were quaking in their free sneakers. The two best players on what some were calling the best team of all time, and they were terrified. They were afraid to shoot. They dribbled too much, passed too much, and when they did shoot, hesitated first and then missed because they were out of rhythm. Johnson missed free throw after free throw down the stretch, and their final possession deteriorated into complete chaos.

Ladies and gentlemen, playing the roles of Johnson and Augmon last night: Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. From the mid-third quarter on, the two of them looked terrified. They dribbled too much, over passed, and were afraid to take big shots. Luol Deng, like Anderson Hunt in 1991, kept firing away, but his teammates lacked the guts to back him up. I wonder if energy guys like Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha and Andres Nocioni could have helped lift a flat team in the third quarter. We'll never know. Skiles never called their numbers. Nocioni entered with less than three minutes left in the period and neither Thomas nor Sefolosha played in the second half.

This is not a condemnation of Gordon, Hinrich or the current Bulls. They're young. Unlike the Rebels on 91 who were done after that year, the Bulls can learn and grow from this experience. Hopefully they will. The Pistons are ageing. Chauncey Billups is a free agent. They'll probably resign him, but that may mean they can't resign guys like Carlos Delfino and Jason Maxiell, who were necessary pieces to eventually replace ageing guys like Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber, Antonio McDyess, etc. A window will open for this Bulls team, and hopefully they'll be more ready when that time comes.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Better Luck This Time

There's nothing like a series against the hated Twins to re-focus attention on the South Siders. In fact, win, lose or draw (well, no decision, at least), I was planning to take a look at White Sox rookie John Danks this morning. As it turns out, the young hurler (the Baseball Writers' Association of America requires that label to be placed on all pitchers under the age of 26) came up big for the Sox in Minnesota.

Danks has had a weird year so far. Before collecting his first big league win last night, Danks was 0-4. Clearly, he had pitched better than that. But his ERA was hovering above 5.00, so he hadn't pitched that well, right? Last night he gave up one run in six and a third innings. Suddenly, he is 1-4 with a 4.33 ERA. So, does a 1-4 record with a better than league average ERA indicate he's still a tough luck starter? Or, has he not really been as good as his 4.33 ERA indicates?

Prior to last night's game Danks had a normalized runs allowed of 4.63. League average is 4.50. He had a defense-adjusted ERA of 4.73. Again league average is 4.50. What that tells us is that the Sox defense has been playing well behind Danks. Danks has pitched well by some measures. His 7.2 strikeouts per nine, and 2.1 walks per nine are both much better than league average. Even his 10.0 hits allowed per nine is just slightly worse than average. Danks's problem, before last night, has been the long ball. He's allowed 1.5 HR per nine, much higher than the AL average, which is less than one per nine innings.

Last night, Danks didn't give up any home runs, so even though his strikeout totals were typical, and his total base runners allowed was typical (fewer hits and more walks than his normal outing), the results went from below average to above. Wins don't tell you much about a pitcher because offense and bullpen play such a large role. But the bottom line is that Danks had been below average (but close enough for a fifth starter) before pitching really well last night.

So, can Danks sustain last night's success, or is he more likely to return to his slightly below average form prior to last night? Well, Danks's .279 Batting Average Against on Balls in Play (BABIP) is the worst among White Sox starters. On the other hand, that's still better than his 90th percentile projection from PECOTA. And, PECOTA expected Danks to be as homer happy as he's been. Two things speak especially well for Danks's future: he misses more bats than expected, and he misses the strike zone less than expected. My expectation is that Danks will be an even better piece of the puzzle than we expected when we acquired him. But for this season, I think we'll be seeing the slightly below average pitcher from his first five starts more often than the really good pitcher who showed up last night.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Not Just a Fugly Mascot

Southpaw, the White Sox thing-a-mabob mascot, is fugly. He's also apparently the only southpaw on the team. That's the only way to explain how Justin Morneau wound up hitting against righty Nick Masset in the 10th inning last night. Oh wait, there's another explanation -- more on that in a second.

Between work and the Bulls' run, I haven't dedicated much time to the White Sox yet this season. And, frankly, it's still too early to get any real big picture answers about this team. But it's not too early to focus on Ozzie Guillen's inexplicable bullpen usage last night.

Obviously, it's not Ozzie's fault that Mike MacDougal couldn't get his job done last night. There will be nights like that. Anyway, MacDougal's off night wasted a great start by Javier Vazquez. However, thanks to a solid outing from David Aardsma (who leads the league in consecutive a's), the Sox reached the Twins' half of the 10th still tied at four.

Ozzie called on Andrew Sisco at this point to fac Luis Castillo. Castillo is awful against lefties. Ozzie had now turned to a lefty to get him out twice in one game. In the eighth inning, Matt Thornton induced a run-scoring ground out from him. Now in the 10th, Castillo came through with a double off of Sisco. With another lefty due up in Jason Kubel, Ozzie stuck with Sisco, who rewarded him with a strike out.

One out, man on second, and Torii Hunter due up. Hunter is a righty, and he's been crushing the ball this year, but he's hit righties nearly as well as lefties. He's followed by another righty, Michael Cuddyer, who over the past three seasons has had nearly identical success against righties and lefties. And just behind him sits the Twins' best hitter (with Joe Mauer out injured), left handed first baseman Justin Morneau. Unlike Hunter and Cuddyer, Morneau has a distinct platoon split. He kills righties; he's mortal against lefties. One other note, Sisco has nearly identical numbers against righties and lefties as well.

But Ozzie chose Nick Masset. And then he intentionally walked Hunter. So, if we take Hunter out of the equation, Ozzie's choice was between Sisco against Cuddyer and Morneau, or Masset against Cuddyer and Morneau. Obviously, the match-up most likely to kill you here is the righty killer Morneau against Masset, which is exactly what happened. Wouldn't you rather take your chances with Sisco against Cuddyer than giving a favorable match-up to the reigning MVP in the 10th inning?

But Ozzie even had a third option. See, the Sox are carrying a bloated 12 man pitching staff. Among this dirty dozen is the mysterious Boone Logan, last seen on May 4th, when he threw a taxing inning in which he unleashed eight whole pitches. But it must have been taxing because even though the Sox have three lefties for no discernable reason except when a guy like Morneau surfaces in the 10th inning of a game, Ozzie didn't use Mr. Logan. Might Cuddyer have beaten Sisco? Sure. So, Ozzie used Masset to get him. He still could have brought in Logan to face Morneau. Do I like Logan? Not especially. But lefties are only two of seven off him this year, and as I mentioned, Morneau kills righties.

Did I mention Morneau is the defending MVP? Presumably Ozzie is aware that Morneau's OPS was 140 points higher against righties than lefties from 2004-06. Certainly he's aware that his OPS is a full 200 points higher against righties than lefties this year. So, Ozzie, armed with enough relievers to defend Sparta, what the heck were you thinking last night?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Oy Vey

I'm too busy at work to really write today. However, I don't want anyone to accuse me of going away and hiding following the Bulls' lost weekend in Detroit. I argued loud and long that the Bulls were simply a better team than Miami. And I've insisted that the Bulls are about as good as Detroit, so we should expect a long series. Um, about that last part . . .

Actually, I still maintain that the Bulls were about as good as Detroit during the regular season. After all, they had a better scoring margin than the Pistons. And I still expect this to be a six or seven game series. Actually, I'm not sure how much you can learn from a couple of 25 point blowouts. I mean, I don't think the Pistons are really 20 points better than the Bulls.

Nevertheless, at this point the Pistons are more likely to sweep or win in five than the Bulls are to come back and win the series. So, work beckons, but for anyone who needs it, here's an opportunity to rub the last three days in a Bulls' fan's face.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Just Like Old Times

Okay, so maybe it's not quite like old times. Ben Gordon can get as hot as any scorer around, and I love Luol Deng's all-around game, but they're not exactly MJ and Scottie yet. Plus, while Bulls' fans remain among the two or three smartest, most enthusiastic groups in the NBA (where else would fans cheer extra loud when Thabo Sefolosha is the first guard off the bench just because they believe he's a better third guard than Chris Duhon), the intensity has never been the same at the United Center as it was in the barn. Chicago Stadium was a hot, hazy shoe box of an arena, where you could feel the hot breath of the crowd bearing down on the Pistons at the height of their battles with the Bulls.

Come to think of it, while this iteration of the Pistons has accomplished a lot, they too don't quite measure up to their predecessors. Chauncey Billups is great, but he's no Zeke. Rip and Prince are dynamic, lack the steadiness of Joe Dumars and frightening explosiveness of the microwave. Rasheed, Chris Webber and McDyess are a formidable front court rotation, but they're not evil-incarnate like Lambeer, Rodman and James "I Look Like a Convict" Edwards. And no one on this era's Pistons can match the unique talents of an Adrian Dantley or Mark Aguire. But most of all, I never remember Pistons' fans in the 80s needing that asinine "Deeee-troit Basket-baaaaaaalll!" call to get them going.

Still, there is something reassuring about a Bulls-Pistons playoff series. Order has been restored to the NBA universe. So, while an insane work week has kept me from writing all week, I couldn't let this series begin without comment. Against Miami I was telling anyone who would listen that the Bulls were likely to win because they were simply a better team than Miami. After sitting in the stands with me for game 2, the official brother of the fan club even agreed with me. This is remarkable. He never believes anything I say (he's older, it goes with the territory). His affectionate nickname for me is Shithead. Plus, he's a Pistons' fan because he grew up with his mom outside Detroit.

Anyway, it's certainly not the case this time. The Bulls are definitely not a better team than the Pistons. Of course, the Pistons aren't a definitely better team than the Bulls either. In fact, I'd say the Bulls have been, by the slightest of margins, the better team this year. They've outscored opponents by 5.2 points per game, whereas the Pistons have only outscored the opposition by 4.2 points per game. Both team's finished strong. The Pistons upped their scoring margin to 5.8 points per game over the last quarter of the season. The Bulls were even hotter, beating opponents by 7.3 points per game over that stretch -- second best in basketball behind the Spurs.

So, the Bulls outscored opponents by a little more than the Pistons all year, and finished even hotter than Detroit. But not by enough. Because one area where the Pistons outpaced the Bulls slightly was wins: 52-49. And that means four of the next seven games will be in Detroit (and I do think there will be seven games). And that edge is more than the razor thin difference between the teams. So, as much as it pains me, I have to take the Pistons in seven. And this is one time I hope I'm wrong.