Your Two-Weeks-Too-Late MLB Preview

Forgive me for generalizing, but my take on Villanova’s baseball fanbase breaks down like this: thirty percent of the student body are Phillies fans, twenty-five  percent are Yankees fans, twenty percent are members of Red Sox nations, ten percent cheer for the Mets, and fifteen percent are split between the remaining twenty-six clubs. Keep in mind, I interviewed a grand total of zero people for this scientific polling data. For all I know, the Orioles have a huge ‘silent majority’ of fans waiting to don orange if the team ever escapes the AL East basement, but I think I have a decent handle on where Villanovans’ allegiances lie. So instead of breaking down every team’s chance at a title and boring you to tears as I diagnose the bullpens of the NL West, I’m going to tell you why each of those four teams can and can not win it all, and who will eventually be lifting up the ugliest trophy in sports this October.

 

Philadelphia Phillies

What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, the Phillies were the clear favorite to come out of the National League, despite not even reaching the World Series the previous season. Then come October, the Phils lost not only the Divisional Series, but also their best player – first baseman Ryan Howard – to an injury that threatens to put his entire season in jeopardy.  Couple that loss with second baseman Chase Utley’s knee problems, and the Phillies are without their top two offensive players for the foreseeable future, and if the (very) early returns are any sign, than the team is in for a rough patch. Before exploding for eight runs on Sunday, the team ranked next-to-last in run production, averaging just 2.5 runs per game. Thankfully the Phils still have arguably the best rotation in baseball, and if Doc Halladay and Co. can keep the team in sight of the Atlanta Braves until their two stars return, Philly will be able to coast to a sixth straight division title.

 

New York Mets

That last line sums up my thoughts on the Mets: it just isn’t going to happen this year. A 4-0 start is nothing to sneeze at, and the Mets were also able to take two out of three against the Phils over the weekend. But the season is long, and I don’t see a nine-game sample size holding up over 162 games. Having ace Johan Santana back in top form can’t be discounted, but this team made few changes from a squad that finished 25 games out of first place. At best, this team can hope for a third place finish in the division and sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card team.  They’ll need some help though: Santana has to his Cy Young form, the Phils need to continue to struggle, and the Mets probably need to add a bat at some point during the season.

 

New York Yankees

The Yankees made both my favorite trade and signing of the offseason, which says a lot considering how much I loathe the Evil Empire. The Bombers swapped prospect Jesus Montero for young flamethrower Michael Pineda, and also signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal, shoring up their rotation both in the short and long term. That assurance about the team’s rotation dissipated in March when Pineda went down with shoulder tendinitis, and team doctors don’t expect him back until at least May. But with perennial Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia anchoring the rotation, and a deep, albeit aging lineup, this team shouldn’t have much trouble picking up another AL East crown. Their slow start shouldn’t worry fans too much, as the AL East isn’t as top heavy as years past.

 

Boston Red Sox

Oh, my beloved Boston Red Sox. I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about the beginning of the Bobby Valentine era, and that was before the shoulder injury to MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury. Fortunately, the Sox have started to play up to their potential since getting swept by Detroit to open the season. The Motor City was unkind to Boston, especially on Easter, when the team blew two late leads before suffering their second walk-off loss of the season in the 11th inning. Fill-in closer Alfredo Aceves had an ERA of infinity after the first series, a microcosm of the bullpen’s struggles. Injuries define this team, as the team’s players currently on the DL (including Ellsbury, John Lackey, Carl Crawford, and closer Andrew Bailey) have salaries that total more than $60 million. Similar to Philadelphia, if Boston can get their stars back without falling out of the race, then they have a great chance not only of locking up a wild-card spot, but making a deep playoff run.

 

So who wins?

 

This year is as wide open as any in Major League Baseball. Especially given the new playoff format – two wild-cards team playing one game for a trip to the divisional series – this year could see any of these teams catch fire at the right time to make a run – think the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. However, I think the best team on paper is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels picked up the top two free agents this offseason, Albert Pujols and pitcher CJ Wilson. After failing to make the playoffs last year, the Angels are the team to beat in the AL after siphoning Wilson off division rival Texas. Another key piece: Kendrys Morales finally returned from nearly two years of injuries earlier this month, and if he can return to form, the Angels might have the best lineup in baseball.

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April’s Best: The Top Event in Sport’s Best Month

Author’s Note: This column appears in the April 12 issue of The Villanovan.

Some weeks, it’s easy to pick a sports-related topic to write about in this space. Something either gets me really excited or really upset, and it’s not hard to focus that into 800-1000 words that get about .5 laughs per week. But as I sat at home this weekend, stuffed full of Easter ham—my second ham dinner of the week— (Kanye & Jay-Z, eat your hearts out), I couldn’t think of an event or a player or an issue that was really calling out to be written about. So much of my weekend revolved around sports—and people making jokes about Jesus and YOLO, myself included—that I didn’t know where to start.

Do I talk about the dismal start to the season that the Red Sox and Yankees had? My Opening Day was spent at Fenway Park, even though the team that plays there wasn’t. The last time those two teams started 0-3, they finished ninth and tenth in the league. That league had ten teams. Both teams blew leads late, both teams saw reliable starting pitching do spot-on impressions of Sidney Ponson and both teams’ fans are convinced that this team might just go 0-162. Well maybe that’s just me and my Sox.

Or maybe I should have spent my words on the greatest four days of golf: The Masters. I’m not the world’s biggest golf guy, but when you have a sport’s top event go into extra innings/time/holes, it’s always going to be riveting. When Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen both missed a chance at a green jacket by about half of an inch, only to then shank their drives at the next tee, it showed both how incredibly talented the two golfers are, and also how unforgiving golf as a sport can be. Switching back and forth between the Sox collapse and the back nine at Augusta made for some choice Easter Sunday couch time. And if you didn’t see Oosthuizen’s albatross on the fourth hole on Sunday, or Watson’s second shot during the second playoff hole, stop what you’re doing and find them online. Shots like that are the reason why professional athletes get paid to play a game, and also why we pay to watch them.

I could have talked about Chelsea’s miracle win against Wigan, the implosion of the Orlando Magic or Petrino-gate. No. One sporting event, which kicked off last night, trumps them all in my mind.

The Stanley Cup playoffs.

 

That’s right, the playoffs of the National Hockey League, the red-headed stepchild of the “Big Four” of American professional sports. No other sporting event offers such a sustained level of high quality, fast-paced action over the course of a two-month tournament. But what sets it apart from the rest of the month of April—arguably the best sports month of the year? I’ve got four reasons:

1. These teams don’t like each other, and they’re allowed to show it.

When players on your team are given the role of “enforcer,” sparks are going to fly. A week and a half ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers met in an emotional game which ended with the coaches nearly coming to blows. In a twist of fate that benefits fans of both hockey and fighting, these two Pennsylvania squads will be matched up in the first round of the playoffs. Personally, I don’t like hearing stories about players from opposing teams meeting up after games for steak and beer. With series such as Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia, there’s no love lost.

2. Anyone can win it all.

Similar to the NCAA Tournament, seeding determines the matchups, but has little to no effect on the winner. Take the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, which pit the No. 7 Flyers against the No. 8 Canadiens. The Habs upset the No. 1 Washington Capitals and No. 4 Penguins on the way to the Eastern Finals, and the Flyers ousted the No. 2 New Jersey Devils and No. 6 Boston Bruins. Speaking of my beloved Bruins, last year’s team entered the playoffs as a No. 3 seed, picked by many to be upset in the first round. Two months later, they were hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Sure, seeing No. 15 Norfolk State beat Mizzou was fun while it lasted, but they had no shot at making it to the end. Not the case for the NHL.

3. They have the best announcer in sports.

No, it’s not Gus Johnson. Fun fact: Gus Johnson is actually a miserable announcer. Sure, it’s awesome to hear him scream, “He hit that one from the parking lot!” as Syracuse gets upset, but Gus’ screaming masks the fact that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Not the case for hockey announcer Doc Emrick. Emrick—an Emmy award-winning play-by-play announcer—is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, the only member to be inducted for contributions to media. When people use the phrase “he wrote the book,” it usually is colloquial. Not for Emrick. The man literally wrote the NHL Pronunciation Guide, which is the guide by which all other announcers pronounce names like Kostitsyn and Bryzgalov. And try to not get excited while listening to a game called by Emrick. When he yells “And a drive…” as a shot heads to the net, you feel almost as if you’re sitting right in the arena.

4. Playoff Beards

Do I really need to say more? What sport wouldn’t benefit from some extra facial hair? I’m looking at you, NBA. Puck’s in your court.