Kobe’s defense steals spotlight

It has been the talk of the night – the block heard ’round the world. With a little under three minutes remaining in the 2013 NBA All-Star game, LeBron James looked to cut the West’s lead to just six points. But as he took off for his jumper from the top of the key, Kobe Brant timed his own jump perfectly, and swatted away the otherwise open look.

Like most NBA All-Star games, the first two or three quarters are mostly filled with alley-oops and a multifariousness of playground moves. But those final 12 minutes can be as intense as any regular season game, and fundamental basketball returns. The point guards run plays, picks are set, and defenders start to get up close and personal.

But I don’t know if we’ve ever seen anything quite like this. Not in an All-Star game, at least. Even from the clip, you can see that both Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant were ready to double-team James, but when he went to shoot, neither defender even came close to putting a hand in his face. Bryant had something different in mind.

Kobe Bryant relished his chance to defend King James.

Kobe Bryant relished his chance to defend King James.

“He was talking during the timeout saying he wanted to take [James] one-on-one, and he did a pretty good job,” West All-Star Tony Parker said.

Did playing around fellow All-Star caliber players reinvigorate Kobe’s game? We all know he’s a competitor, but it almost seemed like no one was playing as hard as the 17-year veteran, especially down the stretch. I’m sure L.A. fans are curious to see how this display of hard-nosed defense, even in a relaxed setting, affects his teammates back home. Will this inspire them, as well? Can the Lakers start playing cohesively, or will it be too little, too late?

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Pitt enters Big Dance as number one seed

Let’s take a break from professional sports just for a moment so we can all bask in the glory that is college basketball.  More specifically, March Madness.  My alma mater, Pittsburgh, is ready to take names.

After losing four starters going into the 2009-10 season, including NBA draft selections Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, I figured that Pitt would go into a transitional phase as younger players figured out their roles.  My fear was that the program would fall into a brief one or two year stretch of Big East mediocrity.

Ashton Gibbs, who leads the team with 16.7 ppg, hopes to take his team deep into the tournament.

Fortunately, and somewhat shockingly, Pitt retained its poise under Jamie Dixon, who had won the Naismith College Coach of the Year award just a season prior.  The school finished the year fourth in the rough and tumble Big East, a 25-9 record, and a #18 national ranking.

The magic eventually ran out in the NCAA Tournament, as Pitt fell in the second round to Xavier.  It mattered little though, since the team had already far exceeded expectations.

This year was different.  The bar was set high, as the team returned four starters and the bulk of their reserves.  Preseason polls ranked Pitt in the top-10 and favorites to win the Big East.

Living up to the hype, the Panthers won the regular season Big East title with a 27-5 record, going 15-3 in conference play.

Hopes of taking home the Big East Tournament crown were dashed when Pitt bowed out in their first game against UConn after a double bye, losing on a Kemba Walker buzzer beater.  I’d like to think that losing that game was a blessing in disguise, as Pitt now has had the last week off to rest and prepare for the Big Dance.

Gary McGhee will need to stay on his feet against his next opponents.

Even with the loss, Pitt was still able to lock up a one seed, along with Ohio State, Kansas, and Duke.  Pitt is the only one seed not to win its conference tournament.

Under the new format, there will now be four play-in games instead of one as in previous years.   The Panthers will take on the winner of the NC Asheville/Arkansas-Little Rock game.  St. John’s, who beat Pitt late in the season this year, is the only other Big East team in the Southeastern bracket.

Despite its regular season success under Jamie Dixon, the Panthers have struggled in the NCAA tourney.  When I was attending Pitt, the team made to the Sweet 16 only once.  For a couple years, it seemed like a struggle just to win a game in the second round.  In 2009, the team went to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1984.  Is this a sign that Dixon is ready to take his team to new heights?  Or was it just a tease?  Either way, I’ll be watching intently as the madness unfolds.

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Bottom of the barrel no longer. Orioles hope to make impact in AL East, Part 2

Part 1 here.

For many years, life was miserable for teams in the AL East other than the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.  In the past decade, the Yankees have won their division seven times, and the Red Sox have finished second in the division seven times, winning it outright in 2007.

With no salary cap in Major League Baseball, teams are free to spend however much they would like on contract extensions and free agent pickups.  And make no mistake; huge six-figure deals are the bread and butter of the two northeastern juggernauts.  Projected for 2011, the Yankees’ team salary tips the scales at $206 million, while the Red Sox are in second at nearly $161 million.  To put that in perspective, these two teams’ salaries are more than the Indians, Marlins, Rangers, Athletics, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Pirates salaries combined ($341 million).

Derrek Lee (L) and Vladimir Guerrero proved they still had some pop left in their bats and hope to give a jolt to the Orioles offense.

Normally, the Orioles are close to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to payroll.  This year, however, they are right in the thick of things, with a projected opening day payroll of $81 million (ranked 17th in the league).  Although that places them in the bottom half of the league, Baltimore may be getting the most bang for their buck.

First, the steal: Adam Jones, a true five-tool player, and also a guy who has yet to reach his full potential.  The 25-year-old center fielder will be making a paltry $465,000 in 2011.  Not too bad for a player who is on the verge of having his first 20-20 season of his career.

The Orioles bullpen is full of great deals.  Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year, Jim Johnson (3.42 ERA), and newcomer Koji Uehara, who had a ridiculous 11-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season, will make an average of $2.48 million in 2011.  This is most impressive considering what teams were paying for relievers this offseason, headlined by New York’s 3-year/$35 million deal for Rafael Soriano.

Impact-wise, the largest improvement to the Orioles came in the form of veteran bats.  Both Derrek Lee (19 HR, 80 R, 80 RBI last year) and Vladimir Guerrero (.300, 29 HR, 115 RBI) will both be 36 this year, but each has shown that they can still swing the bat.  And although they are coming off down years, JJ Hardy and Mark Reynolds are two players entering the primes of their careers.

Along with homegrown talent such as Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters, the new additions make the Orioles’ offense one of the scariest in the league for opposing pitchers – on paper that is.  How the season actually unfolds could be another story.

Buck Showalter will try to pick up where he left off after finishing 34-23 to end the 2010 season.

What about the intangibles, like the leadership of new skipper Buck Showalter?  After being appointed manager late in the season, the Showalter-led Orioles finished 2010 at 34–23, the best record among American League East clubs during the same stretch.

And what about the starting rotation?  Unless you’re a diehard Orioles fan, there’s a good chance you can’t name three of Baltimore’s starting pitchers.  Their ace, Jeremy Guthrie, has pitched better than his stats have indicated.  He lost more games than he won last year, but he kept was walks down and held opposing batters to a .243 average.   Brian Matusz, the young fire-baller entering just his second full season, has a lot of potential.  With a more potent offense backing him up this year, there little doubt that he will be able to improve on his 10-win rookie season.

Brian Matusz could be primed for a breakout year in 2011.

The rest of the rotation, consisting of Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Justin Duchsherer, is a huge question mark.   Other than Duchsherer, who is coming off of a hip injury that kept him out all of 2009, the 3-4-5 guys are young, unpolished, and wild.

There’s no question that, on the offensive side, the Orioles can compete with the best in the AL East.  But with such a thin starting rotation, it might be a struggle to win three or four game series.  Fortunately, their cast of relievers is compiled of enough solid veterans that they should be able to consistently limit the damage in later stages of the game.  Indeed, the Orioles management had “crisis control” on their minds when they focused on bolstering the bullpen.

My prediction for the 2011 AL East final standings?

1.)    Boston Red Sox

2.)    N.Y. Yankees

3.)    Baltimore Orioles

4.)    Tampa Bay Rays

5.)    Toronto Blue Jays

Will the Orioles win their division?  Not this year.  But they won’t lose 90 games in 2011.  And they won’t be in the AL East cellar, either.

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Bottom of the barrel no longer. Orioles hope to make impact in AL East, Part 1

Teams can often show a lot of promise before falling into generation-long slumps.  The Pittsburgh Pirates, who have now strung together 18 consecutive losing seasons (a major league record), were coming off of three straight National League Championship Series appearances.  Likewise, the Baltimore Orioles were a team that appeared in the 1996 and 1997 ALCS before starting a streak of 13 losing seasons.

Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit fouls off a pitch in a spring training game. No doubt the Pirates' 2011 season will also miss its mark.

This trend may be attributed to playoff futility and the team owners’ blind desires to bring home a title at any cost.  Even successful teams that win a lot of games yet falter in the playoffs fire managers and trade stars in hopes of finding that perfect championship caliber chemistry.  Heck, remember Willie Randolph of the Mets?  In three full major league seasons, his teams averaged 89 wins.  That’s enough to take the wild card spot most years.  But since the Mets had high expectations, and merely making the playoffs wasn’t enough, management felt a shakeup was necessary.

For the Orioles and Pirates, this restructuring phase went horribly awry.  Usually, when a team enters the rebuilding phase, a couple things happen.  First, one or more of the team’s older, reliable vets are traded in return for either prospects or young, up and coming stars.  The team may also trade for draft picks in order to hand select talent out of college or high school.

Can the Orioles return to prominence and make Cal Ripken proud?

Trouble arises when these players don’t exactly pan out as expected.  In other leagues, amateur drafts are considerably smaller.  For instance, the NBA draft consists of two rounds.  Both the NHL and NFL drafts proceed for seven rounds.  The Major League Baseball Draft lasts 50 rounds, seeing more than 1,500 players chosen.  With so many players chosen, only a small percentage ever make it to a major league roster.  And unlike other sports where a top draft choice is expected to have an immediate impact on the team, a number one pick in baseball is first sent to the minor leagues where he usually stays for two or three years.  From there, it’s anyone’s guess as to how his career will unfold.

Teams with losing seasons that span over a decade either have terrible luck, incompetent coaches, bumbling managers, lousy scouts, or maybe a little bit of everything.  The Orioles hope to buck their losing trend this year with a revamped lineup and manager.  As for the Pirates?  Well, let’s just say their fans have come to accept losing and shouldn’t be too disappointed when the Buccos invariably drop another 90 games in 2011.

In the next part (found here), we’ll review the Orioles lineup and how they hope to contend with teams in the AL’s toughest division.

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Helmets for pitchers? Possibility may become reality

Josh Beckett showed us that a pitcher doesn’t necessarily have to stand on the mound to put himself in danger of taking a line drive to the head.  While shagging balls yesterday in the outfield, Red Sox coaching staff assistant Ino Guerrero attempted to return one of the balls by hitting it back to the infield.  Unfortunately, Beckett’s head got in the way.

“At first I was pissed, but I know he didn’t do it on purpose,” Beckett said. “It’s one of the deals. Was it stupid? Yes. It was stupid and I think he realizes that now. There’s no sense making him feel worse than he already does.

“Maybe this will get all the pitchers out of shagging from now on.”

Thankfully for Beckett, he is displaying only minor concussion symptoms and should be able to return to playing form in a few weeks, if not sooner.

Now although the risk of catching a liner to the head in the outfield is small, the same can’t be said for pitchers standing 60 feet, six inches away from home plate.

Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda was carted off the field after taking a line drive to the head.

One of the most recent incidents took place on August 15, 2009.  Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda was struck in the head by a line drive.  It was a horrifying scene.  The impact of the ball on his skull was clearly heard on the TV broadcast, and Kuroda remained motionless on the field for nearly ten minutes before being carted off the field. The injury landed the right-handed pitcher on the DL, but miraculously only kept him out for a little over two weeks.

Other players haven’t been so lucky.  On May 21, 2008, then-Padres pitcher Chris Young took an Albert Pujols line drive to the head and missed over two months before returning.  Another former Japanese Dodgers pitcher, Kaz Ishii, suffered a fractured skull in 2002.  And in May of last year, 12-year-old Brady Frazier, pitching against a high school team, died after a line drive struck him in the head.

On the mound, pitchers are virtually helpless to avoid such drives.  Off the bat, line drives can reach velocities close to the actual pitch speed.  So, let’s say a pitcher hurls a 95 mph fastball.  The ensuing line drive may reach the pitcher just as quickly.  The problem here is the batter is expecting it.  In contrast, pitchers will still be in their motion as the ball is flying towards them.

If the idea of baseball pitchers wearing helmets seems like a silly idea, consider this: players in little league all the way through the college level are already doing so.  Matt Hiserman of the University of San Francisco wears a protective shield under his cap that extends over his temples.  This precaution seemed like a no-brainer after he was hit in the head not once, but twice by line drives.

Matt Hiserman shows protective headgear doesn't have to be oversized and comical (a la David Wright's spaceman helmet).

How many times were batters hit in the head before helmets were mandatory for them?  Sadly, it will take a few more serious pitcher head injuries before significant talk begins on whether or not helmets should be worn on the mound.  Does someone in the majors have to actually die before these talks begin?  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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Big ol’ Bartolo to make MLB return

Let’s get one thing straight: Bartolo Colon is out of shape.  In 2009, he was listed at 5’11”, 245 lbs.  He was out of shape then, but he has since managed to pack on even more weight for the upcoming season.  Ballooning to a robust 270 lbs, the 37 year-old journeyman hopes to make the Yankees starting rotation.

Originally signed by Cleveland back in 1993, Colon has played for five teams in the past nine years.  His most recent stint for the White Sox produced underwhelming results.  Coming off of surgery to remove bone chips from the elbow in his pitching arm, Colon compiled a 3-6 record and a 4.19 ERA.

Most notably, though, was his decline in strikeouts.  Over his career he has averaged over seven strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9), but in 2009, his SO/9 was down to 5.5.  Colon was also giving up long balls at an alarming rate.  During his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2005, opposing batters took him yard on average once every 33 at-bats.  But his last season in the majors saw batters teeing off, smacking one homerun every 19 at-bats.

Bartolo Colon hopes to have an impact in the Yankees starting rotation.

What does Colon have left?  What can he offer?  Well, to the Yankees, he might be quite the asset.  Since Andy Pettitte announced his retirement earlier this month, the Yankees’ starting five suddenly seems pretty thin.  The only safe bet is C.C. Sabathia, and after that, the skill level takes a sharp drop.  AJ Burnett, who used to terrorize the Yankees and other AL East teams while he played in Toronto, suddenly can’t miss the bats of opposing hitters.  Phil Hughes had a hot start in 2010, but tapered off and later imploded, losing two key games in the ALCS to Texas.  The rest of the possible rotation is composed of young guns and unproven starters.

The best possible scenario I can see is that Colon earns the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation and acts as an inning eater.  There’s no doubt that this guy is a workhorse; 200+ inning seasons used to be his bread and butter.  As long as he can keep his ERA around the 4.00 mark, the still-potent Yankee offense should be able to provide him with ample run support.

The worst possible scenario is that he simply can’t keep up with the rigors of an entire MLB season.  Colon needs to lose weight and get in better shape if he hopes to make 25-30 starts in 2011.  It just seems like a long shot, since he has only averaged 64 innings over his past four seasons in the majors.  I expect him to be in the starting rotation to start the year, but I doubt he’ll be there by the All-Star break.

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Surprise? Six players can’t take down Sixers

If you’ve been following the implosion of the Detroit Pistons this season, you have to feel a little bad for them.  And if things weren’t bad enough, they somehow got worse last night.

Taking on the 76ers in Philadelphia, embattled Pistons coach John Kuester had only six players on his squad suit up for the game.  This stems from a recent boycott of a morning shootaround practice by key players such as Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Tracy McGrady.  In last night’s game, as Kuester was being shown into the locker room following his ejection, McGrady could be seen smiling and laughing at the incident.

Between the five Pistons starters, each played an average of over 42 minutes with point guard Will Bynum playing the entire 48 minutes without a break.  In contrast, the Sixers, playing with four subs, were able to better rest their players and soundly won by a score of 110-94.

Pistons head coach John Kuester's days are numbered.

The question I find myself asking most in all of this is why Rip Hamilton has fallen so quickly from grace (at no fault of his own, I might add).  Last year, Hamilton sat out a total of 36 games, but he still had valuable contributions when he played, averaging over 18 points in games he played.

This year, however, Kuester has kept a healthy Hamilton on the bench for a number of games, allowing him just one appearance since January 10th, and greatly reducing his minutes in games he gets to play in.  The 33-year-old still has a lot of ability left, and if injury prone Tracy McGrady is starting, certainly Rip can still provide something more than just cheerleading from the sidelines.

Alas, with this most recent player uprising, I doubt we will see Hamilton back on the court for the rest of the year.  But although it’s pretty much guaranteed that he’ll be back playing next year (in Detroit or elsewhere), I can’t say the same for Kuester.  He should be fired long before the season is over.

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