Monthly Archives: August 2010

Champions League Preview: Group C

With Group A and Group B previews already in the books, we turn our attention to Group C.  Group C has the biggest collection of internationally known clubs out of the groups already previewed.  Three-time winners, Manchester United headline the group, which also contains Rangers F.C., Valencia CF, and Bursaspor.  Interestingly, none of the members of this group had to go through the qualifying rounds to make it to the group stage.  Manchester United qualified by finishing 2nd in the EPL.  Valencia earned their way into the group stage by finishing 3rd in La Liga.  Rangers were the Scottish champions, and Bursaspor won the Turkish League.

Alex Ferguson has Manchester United primed for another run in the Champions League.

Manchester United F.C. – Easily one of the most well-known clubs in the world, Manchester United have to feel they are the favorites in this group.  United are looking to rebound from, what was for them, a sub par showing in the Champions League last season.  The Red Devils were bounced from the competition in the quarterfinals by eventual runners-up Bayern Munich, their earliest exit since 2005-2006 (when they failed to make it out of the group stage).

Last campaign saw Manchester United relinquish the EPL title to Chelsea after three consecutive league championships.  In an effort to bring youth to the team and regain the title, United signed young defender Chris Smalling from Fulham, 20-year old forward Bebé from Vitória de Guimarães, and Mexican international forward Javier Hernández from Chivas.  Adding these three promising young players to a squad that already contained some of the best players in the world makes United even more dangerous this season.  With no major departures, United has the roster to compete and potentially win multiple competitions.

Unlike many of the teams already previewed, United has not stumbled out of the gate in their domestic league.  Through 3 weeks, the Red Devils are 2-1-0, with 3-0 wins over Newcastle United and West Ham wrapped around a 2-2 draw with Fulham.  I expect the group stage to go similarly well for United.  No team in Group C can hang with United.  With players like Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov (who is in fine form this season), Edwin Van Der Saar and Rio Ferdinand, United clearly have both the talent and star power to easily win this group.

Following the losses of David Villa and David Silva, Valencia will need Éver Banega to have a great season.

Valencia CF – Valencia are making their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 2007-2008.  That season, Valencia finished last in their group, behind Chelsea, Schalke and Norwegian club, Rosenborg.  If Valencia are going to have better luck this season, they will have to do so without the services of their two most influential players from last campaign.  Prolific striker, David Villa, has left for Barcelona, while Spanish international winger, David Silva couldn’t resist the lure of Manchester City’s spending spree.

The departure of two such important figures leaves Valencia with one massive question to answer: where will the goals come from?  In his time with Valencia, David Villa scored 129 goals in 212 total appearances. Looking at their rosters, I don’t see a player on the club who can even come close to matching the scoring prowess or sheer genius of David Villa.  They will also need to replace the pace, vision and (in 2009-2010) scoring of David Silva on the wing.  He scored 10 goals last season (in all competitions), good enough for 2nd on the team.  Valencia responded to the loss of Villa and Silva by signing Roberto Soldado, who scored 20 goals in all competitions for Getafe last season, and Aritz Aduriz, who led RCD Mallorca with 12 goals.  While both signings were shrewd maneuvers, neither will truly replace Villa.  Valencia are also going to need big seasons from Juan Mata and Éver Banega to help soften the blow of losing your top two scorers. Thus far, Valencia have played 1 game in La Liga, notching a 3-1 victory over Málaga.

Despite the departures of Villa and Silva, Valencia does have a talented team.  While they will clearly not push Manchester United, 2nd place isn’t out of the question.

Rangers are hoping James Beattie can add some firepower to the frontline.

Rangers F.C. – Another of the well-known teams in this group, though a team that is increasingly resting on its former international glory to carry its name.  The Scottish Premier League is one of the most top-heavy leagues in the world, with Rangers and Glasgow rivals Celtic F.C. accounting for every title since the SPL came into existence in 1998-1999.  As a result, the Scottish champions (an runners-up) do not play enough top-level soccer to truly compete, on a yearly basis, at the international level. Every year lately, it seems that the Scottish Premier League places one team in the group stage of the Champions League, only to see that team finish 3rd or last in their respective group.  Not since 2006-2007, when Celtic finished 2nd in their group, has a Scottish team advanced to the knockout rounds. Last season, Rangers were the Scottish champions and finished last in their group, with a 0-2-4 record and a -9 goal differential.

Rangers come into this season having won the last two SPL titles and looking to prove something following their rather meek performance in last season’s Champions League.  To that end, Rangers have imported attacking power from Austria and the EPL.  Joining the Gers are: James Beattie from Stoke City, Nikica Jelavić from Rapid Vienna, and Vladimír Weiss on loan from Manchester City.  As one would expect, Rangers are off to a flying start, having won each of their first 3 games.

Rangers are clearly the class of the SPL (along with Celtic) and will likely have a spot in the Champions League for as long as the current format remains in place.  Beyond gaining this place each season, it will take a major step up in competition, domestically, for Rangers to compete consistently.  Perhaps this team has enough attacking talent to make a push for 2nd, but Rangers will have to steal points from Valencia to do so.  A repeat of last season’s performance could be on tap.

Bursaspor represent, perhaps, the biggest unknown in this season's Champions League.

Bursaspor – Another team that I knew little about prior to my writing this preview.  As with Hapoel in Group B, Bursaspor hails from a league on the geographic fringes of Europe.  While the Turkish league has a history of placing competitive teams in the Champions League (usually in the form of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, or Galatasaray) this will be Bursaspor’s first appearance.  As a matter of fact, Bursaspor are the first team outside the “Big Four” (the aforementioned three teams from Istanbul, and Trabzonspor) to win the Turkish title.

Bursaspor’s team consists of mainly Turkish players, with several Argentinians, and a smattering of players from across Eastern Europe.  Bursaspor’s best known player (at least to Americans) might be Sercan Yıldırım, who made a 2nd half appearance in a friendly against the U.S. just before the World Cup.

The most successful season for a Turkish team in the Champions League was in 2007-2008 when Fenerbahçe made an unlikely run to the quarterfinals, eventually falling to Chelsea.  I don’t see Bursaspor making a similar run, though I believe they will surprise people (maybe even Valencia) and could secure a sport in the Europa League at Rangers’ expense.

Prediction: Manchester United win this group with ease, potentially nabbing all 18 points if they play their first choice squad throughout the group stage.  Valencia finish second, but not as easily as most might expect.

If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group B
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group B

Having already previewed Group A, we move on to Group B.  This group is, perhaps, the most intriguing in the tournament.  With Lyon, a semifinalist last season; Benfica, the Portuguese Liga champions; Schalke, perennial contenders in the Bundesliga; and Hapoel Tel Aviv, Israeli champions, this group is competitive from top to bottom, even if it lacks some of the star power of other groups.

Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon made a surprising run to the semifinals last season, their first appearance at that stage.  They made the jump to the semis after three straight appearances in the quarterfinals.  In order to make the semis, Lyon took out Real Madrid and Bordeaux along the way.  Domestically, Lyon finished 6 points behind Marseille, but earlier in the decade Les Gones won 7 straight Ligue 1 titles.

Lyon added French playmaker, Yoann Gourcuff in an effort to regain the Ligue 1 title and replicate their semifinal run from last year.

In Ligue 1 this season, Lyon currently sits at 1-1-1.  They started the season with a defeat of Stade Brestois, but then lost to SM Caen, and drew with AS Monaco.  Seemingly in response to this less than stellar beginning of the season, Lyon nabbed Yoann Gourcuff from Bordeaux for €22 million.  Gourcuff is widely regarded as the future of French soccer, and is often saddled with the “next Zidane” title.  Gourcuff was French Player of the year in 2009 and provides Lyon with the playmaker they have been lacking. Earlier in the summer, Lyon signed Jimmy Briand from Stade Rennes to bolster their attack.  Adding Briand and Gourcuff to a team that already included the stellar Hugo Lloris in goal, the dangerous Michel Bastos on the wing, and 2010 Ligue 1 player of the year Lisandro López, make Lyon a formidable team.

With no major subtractions from the team that made last years semis, Lyon is the favorite in this group. Last year, they made it out of a group containing Liverpool, Fiorentina and Debrecen (from Hungary).  This year’s group is easier. While the group is by no means a shoo-in for Lyon, they should take most of the points at home and steal a few on the road.

S.L. Benfica – Last season, Benfica lost only 2 games on their way to their 32nd league title, their first since 2005.  This season’s Champions League marks the first appearance in the Group Stage for Benfica since the 2007-2008 season. Benfica will look to replicate Porto‘s 2009-2010 form, when the Portuguese champions advanced to the round of 16.

Benfica will miss the talents of Ángel di María, who has signed with Real Madrid. Do they have enough talent remaining to make a run?

Of the teams that we have previewed thus far, Benfica have been the most active in the transfer market this summer, both bringing in players and seeing players leave the team.  Joining the team are: former Arsenal midfielder Alyaksandr Hleb (on loan from Barcelona) UPDATE: Turns out the news that Hleb signed for Benfica was still just rumor.  He has instead signed with Birmingham City; promising young forward Rodrigo (from Real Madrid); and young, Argentine defender Nicolás Gaitán.  While Benfica have added some talent, they have lost more than they gained. Winger Ángel di María and midfielder Ramires both have moved on to bigger clubs (Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively).  Replacing these players will not be easy, as di María’s attacking prowess and Ramires’s control in the midfield were vital to the Lisbon side last season.  Benfica have not brought in adequate replacements and have already seen a drop in form as a result.  They have sputtered to an 0-2-0 start, losing 2-1 to Académica in Lisbon and 2-1 to Nacional away.

Benfica need to figure things out and find replacements for di María and Ramires if they want to make it out of the group.  A Europa League spot may be in their future.

F.C. Schalke 04 – The Bundesliga runners-up last season, Schalke always seem to contend for the German title.  While they have not won the title in since 1958, they have finished second 3 times in the past six seasons and have not finished outside the top half since the 1999-2000 season.

Unlike several of the teams already previewed, Schalke actually imported talent from Real Madrid, adding defender Christoph Metzelder and forward Raúl.  In addition to the pair, Schalke also added forward Erik Jendrišek from Kaiserslautern.  Jendrišek scored 15 goals for Kaiserslautern last season in the 2. Bundelisga and will combine with Raúl to help replace the scoring lost when Kevin Kurányi departed for Dynamo Moscow.  Does Raúl still have some gas left in the tank? Schalke needs Raúl to recapture some of his former scoring touch if they hope to replace Kurányi, who has been in fine form for Dynamo, scoring 3 goals in 4 games.

Jermaine Jones is finally healthy and looks to help Schalke to the Bundesliga title and the Champions League round of 16.

Schalke has its first two games in the Bundesliga, by identical 2-1 scorelines.  With German international goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, captaining the side and U.S. international Jermaine Jones healthy once again, I expect Schalke to bounce back and compete for the Bundesliga title this season.  The battle for 2nd in Group B will likely come down to Benfica and Schalke, though both have the talent to pip Lyon to the top spot.  If Schalke can get production out of Raúl and recent signing Ciprian Deac (signed from CFR 1907 Cluj and unveiled on Friday) a spot in the round of 16 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Hapoel Tel Aviv F.C. – I will admit that I didn’t know much about the Israeli champions prior to writing this preview.  Israeli soccer is on the fringes of Europe, both geographically and on the pitch.  However, in each of the last two seasons, the Israeli champion has advanced to the group stages, despite entering the competition during the 2nd qualifying round.  Along the way, Hapoel defeated Bosnian champions Željezničar, Kazakh champions Aktobe, and Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg.  Ironically, Red Bull Salzburg was also the last victim of Maccabi Haifa on their way to the group stage last year.

Goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, is the key to Hapoel's chances.

Due to Israeli FA restrictions, only 5 non-Israeli players are permitted on the roster at any given time.  This rule handicaps Israeli teams when they enter European competitions, where most teams are a mix of domestic and foreign talent.  Hapoel’s best known player outside of Israel is probably Nigerian international goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama.  Enyeama acquitted himself nicely during this summer’s World Cup, putting on an acrobatic display against Argentina.

Hapoel will look to avoid Maccabi’s fate, as Maccabi lost all 6 games last season and failed to score a goal.  Hapoel has a better shot of pulling a result or two, especially at home, as Maccabi was in a group with Juventus, Bordeaux and (eventual runners-up) Bayern Munich.  This group is certainly easier, but it might be too much to ask for the Red Demons to advance.  The Israelis would do well to qualify for the Europa League.

My predictionLyon will win this group, though not as easily as they should.  Schalke finishes second.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group A

With the Champions League group stage draw announced yesterday, The Rally  Cap is bringing you a series of previews (1 for each group) over the next several weeks (prior to the first matches on September 14/15).  Stay tuned and check back often for updates.

The logical place to start is with Group A made up of Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente .

F.C. Internatiozionale Milano – The current Champions League holders and 5-time reigning champions of Serie A, Inter Milan, are a team that face one huge question mark entering the season.  Can they replace manager José Mourinho? Who left for Spanish giants, Real Madrid.  Mourinho’s class was on display as he out managed the rest of Europe and led Inter to its first European title since 1965, and the first treble (league, domestic cup, and European cup) in Italian history.  His brand of soccer might not be the flashiest, but it produces results.  With Mourinho at the Bernabéu, defending their titles will be tough.

While Rafa Benetize be able to replace the Special One and lead Inter to glory?

To replace the Special One, Inter brought in Rafael Benítez. The oft-maligned former manager of Liverpool F.C. will still have plenty of top class players at his disposal in his effort to win his 2nd Champions League trophy (he won his first with Liverpool in 2005-2006).  The core of the team that won last year’s title remains, with no major additions and only the loss of Mario Balotelli (to Manchester City) and Ricardo Quaresma (to Beşiktaş J.K.) qualifying as even semi-important.  The subtraction of Balotelli might be an addition, as his moody attitude will not be missed in the locker room.

With Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and World Cup star Wesley Sneijder leading the attack, Inter should have a potent offense.  One thing that is troubling is the lack of forward depth behind Milito, Eto’o and Pandev.  If one of them goes down with an injury, Milan will have to rely on David Suazo or unproven Jonathan Biabiany. The defense and the midfield remain solid, with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso holding in the middle of the park just in front of some combination of Lúcio, Wálter Samuel, Maicon, Thiago Motta, Iván Córdoba, and Cristian ChivuJúlio César will once again be between the wood work.

Inter is certainly primed for a run in the Champions League, and certainly should advance from this group.  I don’t see any team in this group being able to trouble Inter.  Perhaps a team might steal some points when they play Inter at their respective home stadiums, but Inter should coast to the top spot in Group A.

SV Werder Bremen – Werder Bremen sneaked into the Champions League by finishing third in the Bundesliga last season.  They entered the competition at the play-off round and needed some late game heroics to make to the group stage.  If not for Markus Rosenberg’s goal in the 93rd minute (which sent the game into extra time) and Claudio Pizarro‘s goal in the 100th minute, we’d be talking about Sampdoria in the group stages instead.

If Werder hope to advance, they need to find somebody to replace Mesut Özil.

Like Inter, Werder lost one of its most influential figures to Real Madrid this summer.  World Cup breakout star, Mesut Özil, followed Mourinho to the Spanish capital and left a huge whole in the Werder midfield.  Werder Bremen made a move to fill the gap, signing Brazilian midfielder Wesley from Santos and  Felix Kroos from Hansa Rostock, but I just don’t think is enough.  With no other major additions how can Werder think Wesley (who has scored 13 goals in his entire career) and Kroos (who hasn’t scored any goals in the top flight) will replace Özil (11 goals last season)?  Beyond Özil’s goals, will Kroos or Wesley be able to replace his creativity in attack?

Werder does have veteran leadership in the form of midfielders Torsten Frings (USMNT fans love him!) and Tim Borowski and in defender Per Mertesacker.  If the veterans can lead the show the youth how to play in Europe, Werder has a shot of advancing from this group.  That said, they have already lost to TSG Hoffenheim 4-1 to start the Bundesliga season and need to right ship if they hope to advance.

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. – Spurs enter their first Champions League campaign with high hopes.  Spurs finally broken into the top four in the English Premier League, thanks to a late season 1-0 victory over Manchester City.  Spurs opened the EPL season with a 0-0 draw against Manchester City, a team that has spent has spent £325 million over the past two years to bring in new talent.  Following the draw, Spurs defeated Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium.

Gio Dos Santos hopes Spurs can make it out of the group stage the way Mexico did this summer at the World Cup.

The team has many names familiar names, including forward Peter Crouch (he of the robot goal dances), Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos, Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios, and forward Jermain Defoe.  Spurs also have a couple of my favorite players to watch: Aaron Lennon, who uses his amazing pace to make defenders look foolish, and Luka Modrić whose play making ability is world-class but gets little recognition for his stellar play (sort of like when a player like Hanley Ramirez puts up huge numbers in relative obscurity with the Marlins)

Tottenham’s only major addition over the summer has been William Gallas, meaning the team goes into this season with a measure of stability that is unusual in top flight English soccer.  I expect this familiarity to work to their advantage, and would not be surprised to see this ambitious team advance to the knockout round.  However, in order to do this, Spurs will need to play more like the team that beat Young Boys 4-0 at White Hart Lane (securing a spot in the group stage) than the team that lost 3-2 in Bern.

F.C. Twente – A recent fixture in the Champions League qualifying rounds, having made it the past three seasons, Twente finally broke through this season.  Twente will make their first appearance in the Group Stage, and hope to have better luck than last year’s Dutch entrant (AZ Alkmaar, who finished with 0 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses).  Twente have made a steady climb up the Eredivisie table over the past 5 or 6 years and finally won the title last season, pipping Ajax. Former English national team manager Steve McClaren led Twente during its resurgence, but has since left for the greener pastures of the Bundesliga, taking over at Wolfsburg.

Who will replace the scoring of Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz if he makes a move to Liverpool or Sevilla? Twente's chances may rest on the answer.

How well Twente will compete in this group is anybody’s guess.  They should certainly not be written off, but with McClaren gone, all-time leading scorer Blaise Nkufo now playing for Seattle Sounders FC, and last season’s leading scorer, Bryan Ruiz the target of clubs such as Liverpool and Sevilla there are many questions surrounding the team.  With Nkufo gone, if Ruiz leaves, who will score?  Can new manager Michel Preud’homme continue the run of success started under Fred Rutten and continued by McClaren?  Will keeper Sander Boschker stand up to international competition?

I expect Twente to be a tough game when they play in the Netherlands, but not trouble the bigger clubs when they play on the road.  Twente would do well to qualify for the Europa League out of this group and might be happy if they do.

My prediction:  Inter easily wins the group.  Tottenham finish 2nd, edging Werder.

Check out the previews for:
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

Missed Opportunities

The Liberty Bell at Citizens Bank Park hasn't rung much in the past 9 games. If the Phillies want to make the playoffs it needs to ring a lot more often.

What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday (8/17), I was in attendance for the game where the Phillies took the Wild Card lead from the San Francisco Giants.  Since that game, the Phillies are 3-6.  They have ceded the Wild Card lead to back to the Giants, and the offense has looked anemic.  This 9 game slump is reminiscent to the offensive struggles the team experienced during June and July.  Since the game I attended, the Phillies have scored 25 runs, an average of just 2.78 runs per game.  It’s amazing they have won three games!  Somehow they managed to score 8 runs against the Giants on the 18th and 6 against the Nationals on the 22nd (both wins).  The other win came in a 1-0 win over the Nationals, where Roy Halladay was his usual dominant self.  During this stretch, the Phillies have lost games where their starters have given up 1 (Joe Blanton on 8/23 against the Astros), 2 (Cole Hamels on 8/24, the 16 inning game), and 3 (Halladay on 8/25, the revenge of J.A. Happ).  These are games the Phillies should win.  The offense, which a year ago was so potent but this year has been streaky, should score more than 2.78 runs per game.

The craziest statistics I came across while researching for this post showed just how under supported Halladay and Hamels have been this season.  In Hamels’ 27 starts. the Phillies have scored fewer than three runs 14 times (follow the link and scroll to the bottom to see the breakdown).  Of those games, the Phillies have been shutout in 4 of them!  With Halladay it is even worse.  While the Phillies have been shutout just once with Doc on the mound, they have scored fewer than three runs 16 times.  Of those 16 games, they have scored one run in 6 of them.  When your two best pitchers have ERAs of 2.22 (Halladay) and 3.40 (Hamels, who has been excellent in the 2nd half with an ERA of 2.83) the team should win more games.  Period!

Thankfully for the Phillies, the Braves have lost three straight and are 5-5 in their last 10 games.  While the Braves have been swooning, the Phillies have missed opportunities to pick up games.  During the last 9 games, the Phillies have lost 5 games to teams they should have beaten (1 to the Nationals and 4 to the Astros).  Given that the Phillies won 2 out of 3 against the Nats, I can’t complain too much about that loss.  What is incomprehensible is the sweep by the Astros.  The team is 11 games under .500 and came into the series 15 games under .500.  While the Astros have played better over the last couple months – they are 26-21 (.553) during July and August – they aren’t a contender.  During that same period, the Phillies are 29-21 (.580).  Most of their starters, with the exception of Hunter Pence (and he might not), wouldn’t start for the Phillies. Their pitching staff consists of a bunch of former Phillies (Brett Myers, Nelson Figueroa, and the aforementioned Happ), Wandy Rodriguez and a guy best known for ESPN comparing him to Chuck Norris after his first start (Bud Norris).  Not exactly a staff that strikes fear into many teams, and one the Phillies certainly should have handled.

Given the Phillies previous dominance at home and the Astros weakness on the road, the sweep is even more difficult to understand.  Going into the series, the Phillies were 42-22 (.656) at Citizens Bank Park.  On the flip side, the Astros were only 22-36 ).379) on the road.  Combine these stats and most would have predicted a Phillies series win, if not a potential sweep for the Phils.

As with the Braves, the Phillies’ main contenders for the Wild Card have been playing poorly over the last 10 games.  The Cardinals are 3-7, while the Giants are 4-6.  The Phillies should give thanks that these teams decided to play poorly at the same time they were slumping.  Entering tonight’s games, the Phillies found themselves. 5 games behind Giants, and were even on losses. The Cards have 3 games in hand (but are playing tonight) and have 1 fewer loss.  Right now, all Phillies fans should cheer for the Nats who take on the Cards tonight.  It could be a tough game for the Nats, as Chris Carpenter is on the hill.

Looking forward, the Phillies need to find their offense and kick it into high gear.  Of the teams they are now battling with, the Phillies have the toughest schedule remaining.  With a West Coast trip – including stops in San Diego, LA and 1 game in Colorado coming up – the Phillies face tough competition over the next week and a half.  The Phillies play just one team the rest of the way who are currently under .500 (the Nationals, for 6 games).  According to the latest Hunt for October on ESPN, the Phillies remaining strength of schedule (SoS) is .505.  By comparison, the Braves have a SoS of .485, the Cards .467, and the Giants .485.

To make things even more difficult for the Phillies, they have 22 road games and just 13 home games remaining. This does not bode well for a team that is 28-31 (.475) on the road.  If the Phillies win 47.5% of those 22 games, that would give them 10 (maybe 11) wins.  If they win at home at their current pace, the would give the Phillies 8 (maybe 9) more wins.  I’m not sure that between 88-90 wins is enough for the Phillies to win the division, and it will be just as tough to win the Wild Card with that number of wins. What all Phillies fans have to hope for is one of their now patented September runs.  If all goes well, the season ending series against the Braves in Atlanta could decide the division and may decide which team is golfing come Columbus Day.

The Phillies clearly have the toughest road ahead and need to take advantage of any missteps the Braves, Cards or Giants make. They haven’t done that over the last few days and might look back at these past 9 games and wonder what might have been.

Robert Nutting and His Ownership Group = True Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates Fans have had to endure 18 straight losing seasons, while the team made $29 million in profits during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Like robber barons of old, Robert Nutting and his ownership group are pocketing large sums of money while the fans that support the Pittsburgh Pirates watch their team continue a streak of haplessness that has now extended into its 18th season.  According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the Pirates made $29.4 million in profits during the 2007 and 20o8 seasons while they won a combined 135 games.

I agree with the sentiments expressed by David Berri, president of the North American Association of Sports Economists:

“The numbers indicate why people are suspecting they’re taking money from baseball and keeping it — they don’t spend it on the players,” said Berri, the author of two books detailing the relationship between finances and winning. “Teams have a choice. They can seek to maximize winning, what the Yankees do, or you can be the Pirates and make as much money as you can in your market. The Pirates aren’t trying to win.”

The Pirates clearly weren’t interested in winning during this time period.  While they have made some strides in spending on the draft (signing Jameson Taillon for $6 million and Stetson Allie for $2 million) they have traded or allowed nearly every potential all-star or decent player leave the team.  As noted in the ESPN/AP article:

[T]he Pirates have shed former All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson in trades, along with nearly every other player who was arbitration eligible — or close to it — or free agency: Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Ronny Paulino and Sean Burnett.

They also dealt slugger Jose Bautista to Toronto for a backup catcher who has since left their system, and cut NL All-Star closer Matt Capps without getting anything in return because he sought a $500,000 raise.

The Pirates have seen gate receipts decline considerably since PNC Park opened, due in large part to the idiotic philosophy they have embraced.  Fans would come to games if they believed the team could win and if ownership was building a team that could compete.  While the Pirates seem to be changing the culture around the team lately, as evidenced by the willingness to spend money on the draft, it will take years for those draft picks to make an impact.  In the meantime, Pirates fans will watch their team stretch their streak of losing seasons to 20 or more.

The fact that the team appears uninterested in winning and takes the revenue sharing money, paid to MLB by teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox, to pad their accounts is unconscionable.  While the team is a business, I don’t begrudge them making profits, to make profits that large while the team flounders is crazy. Owning a sports franchise is different from owning a business of any other variety.  Sports franchises and their owners have a duty to the fans that support the team.  They need to reinvest revenue from the team in an attempt to build a winner.  A winning team will in turn beget more revenue. Like other businesses sports teams depend on sales to bring in revenue.  Unlike other businesses, sports teams represent communities; they give people a common cause to rally around.  They allow people to live vicariously through their on-field heroes; while many of us can only dream about playing baseball or any other sport at the highest level, cheering for those players that represent us is nearly as exciting.

As a baseball fan, I hope that this information leak will force Nutting and his ownership group to spend more money on returning a once proud franchise to glory.

More information (including the documents) from Deadspin and Biz of Baseball here.

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Boston Red Sox: Once Promising Season, Dead After 123 Games

The Blue Jays exit the field after their win. The scoreboard, in the background, shows the carnage.

The Boston Red Sox 2010 Season, once promising with the additions of John Lackey to the pitching staff and Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron to the lineup, has died.  The season was just 123 games old.

The Boston Red Sox 2010 season died on Friday, August 20 with a sold-out Fenway Park in attendance.  The Red Sox had been battling a systemic illness brought on by poor play and mounting injuries to key players.

Even my Rally Cap couldn't help save the Red Sox night or season.

The Red Sox, a team that has been close to contention for most of the season, placed 6 players on the All-Star Team, could not overcome season ending injuries to Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, and an injury that saw Dustin Pedroia miss nearly 50 games.  Pedroia, who returned to the DL Friday, will likely not return until sometime in September, and could be done for the season.  No major league team can hope to compete against the Yankees and (now) Rays while battling the injuries the Sox have contended with all season.  The Red Sox had been within 4 games of the Wild card leading Tampa Bay Rays as recently as last week.  However, following a 16-2 drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays it became evident to all in attendance that the Red Sox season (already on life support) would be unable to sustain itself.

Yunel Escobar squares to bunt in the 1st. This was the beginning of the end for Lester and the Sox.

The first signs that last night was the end came when Jon Lester, arguably the Red Sox ace, gave up 5 runs in the first inning.  Prior to last night, Lester had given up 4 runs in the 1st inning in his 24 other starts combined.  The night got progressively worse, as the Blue Jays pounded 3 3-run home runs and scored in every inning except the 4th and the 9th.  To add injury to insult, the Red Sox saw two more players go down during the early portion of the game.  Mike Lowell sustained an injury in after colliding with John McDonald, and Scott Atchison (who had pitched well in relief of the ineffective Lester) left the game after taking a line drive off his leg.

In a season where the philosophy was, “win with pitching and defense”, the offense has, surprisingly, carried the Sox for most of the season.  With Josh Beckett and Lackey both ineffective for long stretches and Daisuke Matsuzaka inconsistent at best, the Sox have relied on good outings by Clay Buchholz and Lester to carry them.  Unfortunately, last night Lester did not deliver.  His lack of command (51 pitches, only 26 for strikes) doomed the lefty and dealt the death-blow to the Sox season.

Despite the gloom of last night’s game and the season, there have been several bright spots and reason to hope for the future.  The Sox have gotten contributions from several players in their farm system. Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish and recently promoted, Yamaico Navarro (who got a hit in his MLB debut last night) come to mind.  If the Sox can make some offseason additions (Hello Jayson Werth!), the team should bounce back and compete next season.

The grounds crew did a phenomenal job maintaining the field. The best work of the night at Fenway.

Survived by the 35,000+ fans in attendance each night at Fenway Park, and the millions of members of Red Sox Nation, the 2010 Red Sox season will go down as a lost season.  With this season dead, a familiar refrain could be heard as I exited Fenway Park, “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”

Check out some more pictures from the game on my flikr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/therallycap/

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Wild Night = Wild Card Lead

Citizens Bank Park - My 2nd baseball stadium in less than a week.

Last night, I completed the finally leg of my baseball-centric road trip – taking in the Phillies-Giants game at Citizens Bank Park.  It was a fun game and a special occasion for me, as my family and I celebrated my father’s birthday and my birthday.  The Phillies certainly delivered a great present for both my and my father, winning what became a wild game.  In addition, Chase Utley returned from the DL, which afforded me the opportunity to see my favorite Phillie in action.

Domonic Brown and Jim Jackson doing an interview for Phillies radio prior to the game.

Walking through the stadium to our seats, we were treated to seeing rookie Domonic Brown being interviewed by radio personality, Jim Jackson.  It was pretty cool to see Brown up close and listen to his interview with the former voice of the Flyers, now the voice of Phillies radio.

When I heard the pitching matchups announced for the series, I was happy that Roy Oswalt vs. Barry Zito was the contest for the game I would be attending.  I had seen Zito pitch earlier in the year when I went to a Giants-Cardinals game in San Francisco, so I would have liked to have seen another Giant pitcher (maybe Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum) but I can’t complain too much.  I was exciting to see Oswalt toe the rubber for the Phillies.

Roy Oswalt pitching to Andres Torres

The game did not disappoint, right from the start.  Pat Burrell made his triumphant return to Citizens Bank Park and received a hearty ovation both during lineup announcements and prior to his first at-bat.  He promptly thanked Phillies fans by smashing a home run into the left-field stands to give the Giants a 2-0 lead.  Matt Gelb, Phillies beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, tweeted after the home run “So that’s twice this year when Phillies fans have cheered an opponent (Thome, Burrell) only to have them homer. Stick to booing, obviously.”  Funny, how Phillies fans defy all the stereotypes that sports people want to assign them and are then rewarded with home runs that hurt their team. I suppose people might say that karma is a bitch.  Following a rocky first inning, Oswalt settled down and looked dominant until surrendering a home run to Jose Guillen in the 7th.

For the Giants, Zito pitched well through the first 4+ innings, but then the Phillies strung together a mini-rally in the 5th to tie the game and another in the 6th to take the lead.  Of course, I missed the rally to take the lead, as I was in line to get Crab Fries from the Chickie’s and Pete’s stand.  The line to get the fries was incredibly long, rivaling those at Disney World.  Crazy!  Philly sure does love those Crab Fries.  During the 6th, Jayson Werth finally did something with runners on base (though Placido Polanco wasn’t in scoring position).  Werth has been terrible with runners in scoring position all season, but maybe his double while Polanco was on base will jump-start his season.

Chase Utley, safe at 2nd after a throwing error by Mike Fontenot in the 8th.

The game took a comical turn in the 8th, as the Giants handed the Phillies insurance runs on a balk by Ramon Ramirez and a throwing error by Mike Fontenot.  By the time the Giants committed these errors, the Phillies had already taken a 7-3 lead, but a couple of free run to pad the lead certainly were welcomed.  As for the Phillies pitching, Ryan Madson (he pitched the 8th) and Chad Durbin (pitched the 9th) both looked good.  Madson continued his scoreless innings streak, it’s now 10 1/3 inning over 10 appearances.  Not too shabby.

Placido Polanco standing on first base after one of his 4 hits.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Placido Polanco’s awesome night.  All he did was go 4-5, to take the lead in the NL batting race from Joey Votto.  Polanco ended the night batting .325 to Votto’s .324.  It should be fun to watch Poly make a run at the batting crown.  Hopefully, he has many more 4-5 nights before the season is over.  The Phillies need those types of performances to make the playoffs, and it would be great to see a Phillie win the batting title.  If Poly can hang onto the lead, he would be the first Phillie since Richie Ashburn in 1958 to win the crown!

The Phanatic was happy with the outcome of the game, and is excited the Phillies are now in the lead for the Wild Card.

With the win last night, the Phillies took the lead in the Wild Card race.  They are 19-5 in their last 24 games, and now have a 1 game lead on the Giants and a 1.5 game lead on the Cardinals.  Following the game, Baseball Prospectus puts the Phillies’ chances of making the playoffs at 52%, up 5% with the win.  If the Phillies can win one of the next two games against the Giants, they should end this week in possession of the Wild Card lead.

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A Lesson in Futility

The Cleveland Indians' home stadium, now Progressive Field, but forever "The Jake".

Part of the objective of this road trip, which included a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame, was to see baseball games in Cleveland and Philadelphia.  Last night, my wife, her aunt and her uncle went to Progressive Field to see the struggling Cleveland Indians take on the now (under manager Buck Showalter) white-hot (if you can describe a team that is 40-74 as white-hot) Baltimore Orioles.  Some might argue my previous statement about how hot the O’s are, but they have won 4 games in a row and are 8-1 under Showalter.  Clearly, the change of manager has fired up the O’s.  Will it continue? Probably not as the Orioles have to play the Rays and the Rangers in the next two weeks.  But it will be fun while it lasts for any O’s fan who has had to endure an otherwise wretched season.

Indians fans haven’t had much to cheer about either, as the Tribe has a 47-67 record, and appears to have thrown in the towel on the season.  Just before the trade deadline, the Tribe traded away one of their best starters (Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals), one of their best power bats (Austin Kearns to the Yankees) and their closer (Kerry Wood to the Yankees).  Last night was a display of two teams that appear to be headed in opposite directions, and the game only served to illustrate that point further.

The Orioles banged out 13 hits against Josh Tomlin and the Cleveland bullpen; however, they were only able to plate three runs.  You might say the O’s scattered their 13 hits, and that would be pretty accurate.  There was little drama in the game, aside from Orioles’ starter Brad Bergesen taking a no-hitter into the 5th.  Usually, when I go to games between teams that I don’t really care about, I root for the home team, but I was cheering for Bergesen to continue his no hit bid.  The Indians looked lifeless, though they did manufacture a run with one walk, one hit and two productive outs in the 5th. In the end, Bergesen pitched a complete game, two-hitter, and won his first game in three months.  Nothing like playing the Tribe to help your stats.  Prior to last night’s game, Bergesen had an ERA over 6, but has pitched well in his last three starts (23 innings, only 4 earned runs).

Luke Scott batting against the Indians. Scott is one of the O's best power hitters.

The Orioles have a decent offense, with the likes of Luke Scott, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Ty Wigginton, but their pitching has been suspect for most of the season, ranking 28th in ERA.  If the O’s can get consistent pitching for the rest of the season, which is a big if, they could make trouble for playoff hopefuls.  The Tribe on the other hand looks like a team without direction.  They are clearly geared toward a youth movement, but many of the players don’t appear to be ready for prime time.  Half of the Indian lineup is made up of players with batting averages of less than .240.  You aren’t going to win many games when that is the case.  The only player who would be a starter on most other teams is Shin-Soo Choo.  Choo is a nice player, but he certainly cannot carry the team.  Carlos Santana, their best offensive prospect, went down following a gruesome collision at the plate against the Red Sox and will not play again this season.  The injury could be a major problem for Santana, as knee injuries for catchers tend to make staying behind the plate even more difficult. The Tribe has a recent tradition of being a contender. Perhaps if Santana can regain his health and the rest of the Tribe’s kids can mature, they might have a shot at making a run in the next few seasons in the AL Central (though the Twins will be tough to beat).

Heritage Park at Progressive Field.

The true focus of the trip to see the game was to see Progressive Field.  Consistently voted one of the best ballparks in MLB, it did not disappoint.  The sight lines are excellent, Heritage Park (the Indians’ Hall of Fame) was beautiful, and the concessions were yummy.  I highly recommend the bratwurst.  The Jake is truly a gem and I hope that the Tribe can build a team that will once again fill the stadium.

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Baseball Hall of Fame

Baseball's most hallowed ground.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to check something off my bucket list. On the way to Lake Erie for some downtime, my wife and I stopped in Cooperstown to enter the hallowed halls of the Baseball Hall of Fame. As we drove into this little town in Upstate New York shops sprang up on both sides of the street selling memorabilia for teams from Boston to Seattle. As we walked toward the Hall of Fame, we passed many people sporting the colors of their favorite baseball teams.  Nowhere is it more evident that America’s pastime is alive and well than here.

Upon parking the car, I was giddy with excitement.  To be in Cooperstown, the historic birthplace of baseball, made me feel like a kid again.  Upon entering the Hall, I was overcome with a feeling of awe.  I was finally here.  I was in the same building as Roger Maris’ 61st home run bat, the “Bloody Sock” and the most expensive baseball card in history.

Touring the facility is impressive.  There is so much baseball history in this one building.  There are balls and bats from games that took place in the mid 1850s, jerseys from the earliest heroes of the game, seats from long since imploded stadiums, and paraphernalia from this season’s many no-hitters. It took several hours to make our way through the museum.  Obviously, I was the most excited about the Red Sox and Phillies memorabilia that was on display. It was almost overwhelming the amount of memorabilia on display, and what is displayed is a fraction of the objects the Hall possesses.

There were several interesting displays, including ones on the impact of Latinos on baseball, the Negro leagues, and women’s baseball. The display on Latinos in baseball was one of my favorites.  There were jerseys from teams in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela and elsewhere, and such interesting items as Roberto Clemente’s first pro contract and a scouting report on a young Venezuelan lefty names Johan Santana. A display like this was long overdue in my opinion, as Latinos have had a huge impact on the game and continue to impact the game today.

Satchel Paige's jersey from the St. Louis Browns

Following the Latino display, the Negro League display was my second favorite.  I wish that there were more space devoted to the Negro Leagues at the Hall.  Some of the greatest players to run the bases or toe the rubber were not able to play in the Major Leagues.  Early baseball did not have a color bias, but it quickly developed in the late 1800s.  It wasn’t until Jackie Robinson finally re-broke the color barrier that African-Americans were allowed to once again compete on the highest levels of baseball.

The Hall has clearly made an effort to show the impact of people other than white males on the game of baseball.  They also had a display on women’s baseball that showed the impacts of women on baseball, both on and off the field.  Most people will likely think of A League of The Own when they think of women’s baseball, but the impact goes far beyond that.  Women have played an integral part in the game, ranging from owner to writer to player.

One of the coolest things I was able to do was sit in seats from Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, the former baseball stadium that housed the A’s (during their time in Philly) and the Phillies before Veteran’s Stadium.  My father went to games in this stadium, but I was never able to, as the stadium was demolished in 1976 (5 years before I was born).  It was exciting for me to see jerseys worn by some of the Phillies and Red Sox greats, from Mike Schmidt to Ted Williams.

Harry Kalas, the Phillies former broadcaster and man who's voice called many of my most memorable games of my life.

One thing I wish the Hall would do is expand the area devoted to writers and broadcasters.  I was looking forward to seeing some artifacts from the greatest writers and broadcasters who have covered the game.  I had hoped that there would be something from Harry Kalas, the Phillies late, great announcer, but all that was on display was a small plastic plaque mentioning that he won the Ford C. Frick award.  Perhaps the Hall could expand this section, because without the writers and broadcasters, the game lacks a voice.

I am glad that I was able to make a trip to Cooperstown.  It is every little boy who loves the game of baseball’s dream to make it to the Hall and I finally fulfilled that dream.

For more photos from the Hall, check out my Flikr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/therallycap/

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Random Thoughts on the NFL and MLB

NFL: Wednesday, I was sitting at the bar waiting for a friend to show up for dinner when I saw on Pardon the Interruption that the NFL is thinking of installing German microchip technology in footballs to help with goal line/first down calls.  Michael Wilbon argued that the NFL needed to embrace the technology.  He said that if there is technology to improve the product that sports should use it.  I, wholeheartedly, agree.  The NFL needs to make this change, and they need to make it soon.   I remember in the 1996-1997 playoffs, the Eagles were playing the 49ers in the Wild Card round.  During the game, which the Eagles lost 14-0, there was what looked like a sure first down taken from them when the officials placed the ball at an incorrect spot.  In addition to the poor spot, it seemed that the referee tilted the marker to deny the Eagles a first down.  While this could just be the clouded memory of a bitter fan, this scenario could not happen if the current technology existed at the time of the game.

Tennis already uses technology to help the chair umpires and lines people with in/out calls.  The “Hawk-Eye” technology uses high-speed video cameras to capture the flight path of the ball and comes up with a composite picture of where the ball landed on the court.  This has helped to eliminate some of the arguments, though not all, on calls during the match.  FIFA has toyed with the idea of installing this technology on the goal line, which would have helped during this year’s World Cup when Frank Lampard scored against Germany but neither the referee or the assistant saw the goal. FIFA has also explored adding the chip technology to their soccer balls, but again has been slow to accept the new technology.  I suspect that we may see changes soon due to the controversy generated following the World Cup.  While the technology the NFL is looking at is not Hawk-Eye technology, the principle is the same:  determine where the ball was at a given time and determine whether it crossed a line or not.

I am glad to see that the NFL is exploring the technology and I hope that FIFA and MLB will follow suit and embrace technology.  Think of all the controversial calls in the last few months that could have been avoided.  The Lampard “goal”. Armando Galarraga‘s “perfect game”.  There was even a call in last night’s Phillies/Marlins game (Gaby Sanchez‘s “hit” that was called foul) that might have gone the other way if MLB used chip or even replay technology.  Like Wilbon said, if there is technology to improve the product, use it!

MLB: The Red Sox found out yesterday that first baseman, Kevin Youkilis, will miss the rest of the season following thumb surgery.  This is a huge blow for a team that is trying to make up 5.5 games in the standings over the final 2 months of the season.  Going forward, I expect a platoon of Victor Martinez and Mike Lowell to cover the first base duties.  Neither is as good defensively as Youk, and Lowell’s bat is a shadow of its former self.  In addition, if Martinez plays first, somebody else will have to catch. With Varitek still on the DL, will we see newly acquired Jarrod Saltalamacchia called up?

This injury changes everything, as Youk has become the heart and soul of the line up.  With his bat missing, and Dustin Pedroiaweeks” away from being activated, the Sox are missing a good deal of their power potential.  While Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, and Martinez are still in the line up, it has just become exponentially more difficult for the Sox to catch the Yankees and Rays.  This weekend’s series with the Yankees takes on even greater importance with Youk out.  The Sox have to hope that their rag-tag bunch of fill-ins can keep up their collective magic because the team can ill afford a poor series in the Bronx.

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Upcoming Posts

Starting Saturday, I will be on a road trip/vacation that will see me hit Cooperstown, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. During that time I plan to blog about my trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Indians game I attend, the Phillies-Giants game on August 17 (I’m hoping for a Tim Lincecum/Roy Halladay matchup) and maybe the first Eagles pre-season game against the Jags. During that time, there may also be a post on the U.S. Open going up, courtesy of resident tennis expert, Vito.

I’m not sure what Indians game I will be going to, though I have the excellent choice of seeing them play the Orioles or the Mariners. The only way my choices could be worse would be if the Pirates were involved. I’m hoping to see Fausto Carmona, the Tribe’s one good pitcher, pitch. I am wondering if the Reading Phillies (my hometown team) game against the Akron Aeros, the Indians’ AA affiliate, wouldn’t be better.

A Week that Could Make or Break Contenders

With the trade deadline come and gone, pennant races throughout both leagues will heat up. In both the NL and AL East, the race has gotten much closer over the last week. The Phillies have pulled to within 2.5 games of the Braves. The Rays are a scant 1 game behind the Yankees after winning their weekend series. Trailing the AL East leaders, the Red Sox are making a run, having won 5 out of their last 6 games. This week could see some movement in the standings, as the contenders all have some tough games ahead of them (some against each other). With the races becoming so close, this week could propel a team into first place, or could crush the hopes of fans along the eastern seaboard.

With the Phillies looking to cut into the Braves' lead, Roy Halladay will go to the mound twice this week.

Both contenders in the NL East have tough weeks ahead of them. The Phillies start the week (on Tuesday) with a 3 game series against the Marlins in Florida, while the Braves take on the Mets in Atlanta.  The Braves and Mets have played 8 times this season, with the Mets owning a 5-3 advantage.  If the Mets can win the series, it will give the Phillies an opportunity to pick up a game of two on the NL East leaders.  While the opportunity certainly exists, the Mets had a horrible July (going 9-17), while the Braves own an MLB best 34-13 record at home.

The Phillies need to win their series with the Marlins, who are coming off a 16-10 July in order to keep pace with the Braves. With Ryan Howard hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Phillies might be without their most consistent offensive threat for some portion of the series. Howard believes he could be back in the lineup for the series opener on Tuesday, but you have to wonder if the Phillies will rest their slugger for a game or two using him for pinch hit duty if necessary. If Howard is rested, Ross Gload or Cody Ransom would likely start at first.  The Phillies will have Roy Halladay, Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt going against the Fish.  Thankfully, the Phillies will avoid Josh Johnson, and will contend with Sean West, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad.  West and Volstad are middling pitchers, neither should scare the boys from South Philly.  Since both are going against superior pitchers, the Phillies are in a good place to win those games.  Will they win those games?  That is another story.  Both are winnable, but they have to go out and get the job done.  Sanchez, on the other hand, is a tough pitcher having a very good season (including a complete game shutout of the Giants in his last outing), and will pitch against Kendrick.  That game looks like the most likely loss for the Phillies; however, Kendrick has pitched well in his last two starts, throwing 13.1 innings, striking out 8 and giving up only 2 earned runs.  The Phillies are in an excellent position to win this series, even sweep it, but they have not performed well on the road.  Their road record currently stands at 23-30, they were just 3-11 on the road in July, and lost 2 of 3 to a Nationals team that is 17 games under .500 and was without their best pitcher in Stephen Strasburg.

Phillies fans will be rooting for Lincecum when he takes on the Braves this week (and not because he is on their fantasy team).

At the end of the week, the Braves will host the surging San Francisco Giants, while the Phillies will return home to the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park to host the Mets.  The Braves will face the top of the Giants rotation, with Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain pitching the first three games.  The series finale will see Jonathan Sanchez take on Derek Lowe.  The Giants won the last series between these two teams (2-1) and posted a .714 winning percentage in July (20-8).  Coming off a weekend sweep of the Dodgers, there is hope for Phillies’ fans.  San Francisco winning is a bit of a double-edged sword, as they are the current leaders in the Wild Card race and could put more distance between themselves and the Phillies.  Despite this fact, I know that I will be rooting for the boys in orange and black (it seems natural for a Philly sports fan, no?).

While the Braves take on the Giants, the Phillies will renew their rivalry with the Mets.  The Mets currently own a 4-2 edge in the season series, but as stated above have been less than stellar over the past month.   The Phillies will face Hisanori Takahashi, Jonathon Niese, and Johan Santana during the three games series, and will counter with Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels and Halladay.  Takahashi was tough on the Phillies in his only start against them this season, pitching 6 innings of shutout ball, striking out 6.  Though, if Blanton can pitch even moderately well, the Phillies should have a chance to win all three games.  Hamels is a better pitcher than Niese, and has been on fire lately.  The Phillies may not face Niese though, as there are rumors that his turn in the rotation will be skipped after he was blasted by the Diamondbacks in his last start.  Sunday’s match up between Santana and Halladay should be a great one, as two of the best pitchers over the last decade will be squaring off.  The last time Santana faced the Phillies he had one of the worst outings of his career, giving up 10 runs in 3.2 innings; and the Cardinals pounded him in his last start, scoring 7 runs in 5.2 innings.

Given the Phillies play of late, I think they pick up a couple of games this week, placing them in excellent position to retake the division lead within the next couple of weeks.  Of course, this prediction is predicated on Ryan Howard coming back to play most of the week.  Without Howard in the lineup, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez would need to continue their torrid post-All-Star play for the Phillies to have a chance.

There hasn't been much good in Cleveland sports for the last several months, and it is unlikely to change against the Sox at Fenway.

Turning our focus to the Al East, the Sox have a massive opportunity to cut into their deficit.  They start the week playing four games against a Cleveland team that just traded its best starter (Jake Westbrook) to the Cardinals, and one of its best offensive weapons (Austin Kearns) and its closer (Kerry Wood) to the Yankees.  The pitching matchups clearly favor the Sox, with John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka lined up for the series.  While the Sox will have to contend with Fausto Carmona in the first game, the pitcher for the 2nd game of the series is undecided, former Sox player Justin Masterson will pitch the third game, and Josh Tomlin, a 25-year-old rookie with 2 starts to  his name (though he has been impressive in those two starts, giving up just 2 runs over 12.1 innings) will start the finale.  While these games might seem like locks, the Sox are only 2-2 against the Indians this season, despite Cleveland’s season-long mediocrity. With momentum from two straight walk-off wins, the Sox are in an excellent position to win 3 or 4 of the games against the Indians.   As for their competition in the AL East, The Yankees face the Blue Jays in New York, while the Rays face white-hot Twins (9-1 in their last 10 games) at Tropicana Field.  Neither series will be easy for the teams with the two best records in baseball.  If either falters, the Sox need to take advantage by winning a very winnable series.

Following the series against the Indians, the Sox will travel to the Bronx to take on the Yankees for 4 games.  Just 3-5 against the Bronx Bombers this season, the Sox cannot afford to lose this series if they want to have a realistic shot of catching the Yankees.  The already potent Yankees lineup was augmented through two trades just before the deadline.  They captured the aforementioned Kearns (8 HR, 42 RBI, .271 avg, and .768 OPS), as well as Lance Berkman from the Astros.  Berkman, a shadow of his former MVP caliber self, still has some pop and fits in excellently at DH.  The Big Puma has struggled at the plate this year, batting just .242 – by far the lowest of his career, but still has 13 HR and a .794 OPS.  He provides an upgrade at DH over the oft-injured Nick Johnson, and can spell Mark Teixeira at first base.  Because the series is 4 games, the Sox aren’t lucky enough to avoid C.C. Sabathia, who will pitch Saturday’s game against Lackey.  The first game will pit Clay Buchholz against Javier Vazquez, while Sunday’s game will be a battle of former Marlins with Beckett taking on A.J. Burnett.  This series presents the Sox with an opportunity to cut into the Yankees’ lead, the question is can they do it?  While the Sox and Yanks battle in the Bronx, the Rays will be taking on Toronto in Tampa, not exactly an easy series.  Pending the outcome of the Sox-Yankess series, the Rays could find themselves in first place at the end of the week.

Big Papi and his clutch hitting have returned for the Red Sox. Will it continue against the Yankees?

I think the Sox will carry their new-found momentum through the Cleveland series, winning at least 3 of the games.  The biggest test of the season for the Sox will come starting Friday.  With their offense and pitching back on track, the Sox have a good chance to split the series with the Yankees.  If they can win the series, they will have passed their biggest test, and shaved at least 2 games off the Yankees lead.

Right now, the Phillies have a 31.9 % chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus, while the Sox have a 26.5% chance.  Hopefully, both the Sox and Phillies take care of business this week.   One of my teams needs to make the playoffs!

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