Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011 MLB Predictions

** Note: I posted the record predictions prior to the MLB opener. The notes and pictures were posted at a later date.


AL East
Boston [97 - 65] ----
* NY Yankees [92 - 70] 5 GB
Baltimore [84 - 78] 13 GB
Toronto [81- 81] 16 GB
Tampa Bay [76 - 86] 21 GB

Notes: Boston will not only win
the East, the Red Sox will reign over all of Major League Baseball. How are the Sox, offensively? Terrific. With Carl Crawford and Adrien Gonzalez added to Youkilis, Big Papi and a healthy Pedroia, the Sox are armed and very dangerous. As for pitching? Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will continue the dominance they established last year. Beckett and Lackey bounce back from subpar seasons and Papelbon, if healthy, will be a solid closer - if not, the team has two strong back-up options in Josh Bard and Bobby Jenks ... The Yankees will have its pitching struggles this year. New York can always rely upon one of the best aces in baseball in C.C. Sabathia. After that, however, things get a little shaky. Phil Hughes could be a solid No. 2 and Burnett has to be better this year (He can’t be any worse than last year. Can he?). The Pinstripes offense - as always - will be one of baseball’s best. Teixeira, A-Rod and Robbie Cano anchor the team’s power-packed, high-octane batting lineup ... Baltimore has improved its offense from last season. However, the team’s pitching has yet to garner much success and will have a slim improvement (from last year) at best. Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman are keys for the staff’s success (Matusz, MLB’s No. 4 overall draft pick in 2008, Tillman a second round pick in ’06) ... Toronto has a solid offense, but the team lost Vernon Wells and it’s highly unlikely Jose Bautista replicates his performance last year. The Blue Jays pitching will be woeful. Outside of Ricky Romero, the Jays are a potpourri of unprovens and journeymen ... Tampa Bay finishes its 2011 season in its division basement this year. Evan Longoria will be the team’s only reliable bat, as Johnny Damon and Manny (“being Manny”) Ramirez will prove to be poor acquisitions. As for the Rays pitching rotation? David Price is a worthy ace, but the talent drops off considerably from there. Youngsters Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson will need to come up huge if Tampa hopes to be competitive.

AL Central

Minnesota [90 - 72] ----
CHI White Sox [88 - 74] 2 GB
Detroit [82 - 80] 8 GB
Kansas City [78 - 84] 12 GB
Cleveland [72 - 85] 18 GB

Notes: Unlike Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse (who predicts Chicago to win this division handily) I’m going to take Minnesota to win the AL Central by two games. Maybe I’m looking through my rose-colored Twins glasses, but I believe the Twins offense will be more than formidable - granted Mauer and Morneau perform to their capabilities. The Twins pitching is a little sketchy, but should be solid. Can Carl Pavano replicate his terrific 2010 season and can Liriano finally become that dangerous ace the Twins are in desperate need of? Those will be major keys to the team’s 2011 success ... While I like the Twins, Reusse has good reason to pick the White Sox as his Central champ. Chicago has added “Country Strong” slugger Adam Dunn to supplement an already potent offensive arsenal. The team’s pitching rotation is very good with the potential to be great. The Sox lack of speed could prove to be the team’s downfall in its competition with Minnesota this year ... Led by ancient sage Jim Leyland, Detroit should have a solid squad once again. However, there’s just not enough punch in either its pitching, offense or defense to post more victories that Minnesota or Chicago. Miguel Cabrera, the team’s 27-year-old All Star (who seems like he’s 35 with how many years he’s played), will rest-assured have another awesome year - even despite his offseason transgressions. Newcomer Victor Martinez will provide some pep as well, but after those two there’s really nobody else in the team's lineup that puts any fright into opposing pitchers’ psyches. Pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer will keep the team competitive, but the Tigers finish third this year ... Good ol' Kansas City, the team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2003. Can the Royals finally be a winning ballclub again? No. However, this KC team will be a much improved club over its 2010 team that finished 67-95 ... In the Central rear is Cleveland, who has little reason to be hopeful this season. Sure, the team has some great prospects (i.e. catcher Carlos Santana); but it’s funny how that phrase always equates with a load of losses. Unless Grady Sizemore is healthy and both he and Travis Hafner relive their glory days, Indians fans can look forward to watching a handful of position players and pitchers who could be good in the future.

AL West

Texas [87 - 75] ----
LA Angels[ 85 - 77] 2 GB
Oakland [80 - 82] 7 GB
Seattle [ 70 - 92 ] 17 GB

Notes: Texas is poised for another postseason chase. There have been a couple changes to its roster, but the ballclub still boasts a cast of highly-talented offensive employees. Back to full strength, Ian Kinsler returns to a strong Rangers lineup 1-through-9. Kinsler, added with Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, will form arguably thee most talented offensive trio in baseball. Catcher / first baseman Mike Napoli, veterans Adrian Beltre and Michael Young will also support this Texas batting barrage. Rangers pitching is fairly average; but with that fabulous bat attack, average arms might be all they need to win the West ... Los Angeles, which unfortunately are still officially labeled the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim,” will be the Rangers' top division competitor this season. This Angels team will be sneaky-good, with having a lack of household names but a lot of talent. Even with its mighty first baseman’s (Kendry Morales) health in question, the Halos core of veterans Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells stabilize a solid batting lineup. Relative unknowns Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis provide good defensive and underrated offense. The team’s pitching staff is led by Dan Haren and Jered Weaver - two unflashy, quietly composed hurlers who continue to lull opposing hitters into strikeouts ... Finishing in third place is Oakland, who continues to produce high-caliber pitchers each and every year. Despite its offensive deficiencies, the Athletics have a lot of hope with its young pitching talent. This year’s crop features 23-year-olds Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, 25-year-old Gio Gonzalez, and 27-year-olds Dallas Braden and Brandon McCarthy ... Lastly, sorry Mariners fans. Enjoy watching your team compete every five games - when ace Felix Hernandez takes the mound. Because when King Felix is not on the mound, baseball is very sleepy in Seattle.


NL East
Atlanta [92 - 70] ----
* Philadelphia [91 - 71] 1 GB
Florida [84 - 78] 8 GB
Washington [79 - 83] 13 GB
NY Mets [74 - 88] 18 GB

Notes: Surprise, surprise, all you Philly fans. This year’s NL East belongs to Atlanta. The Braves pitching is not as good as Philadelphia’s, but it's still pretty good. Savvy veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe lead a group of highly talented youthful Braves pitchers in forming a more than serviceable staff. The Chop Shop is very stout on the offensive side as well. Martin Prado at lead-off and a 3-through-6 of Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward provide the team with a fearsome collection of bats. First-year manager Fredi Gonzalez successfully carries the torch passed on to him by longtime Braves skipper Bobby Cox ... Okay, okay. Relax, Phanatics of Philadelphia. While the Bravos overtake you for division honors, your squad still makes the playoffs and also has the better shot at winning the NL pennant and World Series. The Four Horsemen of superstar pitching - H²OL (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee) - will live up to its highly ballyhooed expectations. However, the team’s offense will not be as productive as many may think. Ryan Howard is healthy and will have another tremendous season. The Phillies peripheral batting talent, however, is not very strong. Chase Utley is a huge question mark (with his knee injury), J-Roll (Jimmy Rollins) has appeared to have faded the past couple seasons and slugger Jason Werth has departed for D.C. ... Led by its stellar ace pitcher, Josh Johnson, the Marlins will finish seven games behind Philadelphia in third place. Flanking Johnson in the team’s rotation is veteran hurler Javier Vazquez and a surging young trio of Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad. Pitching will be this team’s strength, but Florida should have a formidable offense as well. Centered around superstar shortstop Hanley Ramirez, the Fish lineup also includes veteran catcher John Buck and a handful of rising talents (i.e. Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez and Mike Stanton). The progression of its youth will be Florida’s key in having a winning ballclub this season ... Next up are the 2011 Nationals, who, in its seventh season (since the franchise’s relocation from Montreal) are hoping to become the franchise’s first winning ballclub. Can it happen? Sorry, Nats fans. Close, but no cigar. Ryan Zimmerman plays a mean third base and swings the bat well, and Washington’s prized acquisition, Jayson Werth, also provides a lot of offensive punch; but the Nationals’ surrounding talent - both offensive and pitching - are not enough to make D.C. a winner ... Finishing a few notches below the Nats are the last place Mets. New York has some nice talent in its left side infield tandem of Jose Reyes and David Wright, but there’s not a whole lot to speak of outside of them. Johan Santana isn’t likely to return from his shoulder injury until at least mid-season. Five-time All Star Carlos Beltran is supposed to be healthy this season, but his production can not be counted on.

NL Central
Milwaukee [90 - 72] ----
Cincinnati [87 - 75] 3 GB
St. Louis [83-79] 7 GB
CHI Cubs [ 81 - 81] 9 GB
Houston [78 - 84] 10 GB
Pittsburgh [69- 93] 21 GB

Notes: Despite Milwaukee and Cincinnati both having injury problems, those two teams will still be the ones duking it out for first place in NL Central this year. In the end, the Brewers prevail. Both teams’ offenses are very dangerous, but the Beer Makers pitching is slightly better than Dusty Baker’s Reds. Joining budding star Yovani Gallardo in the Brew Crew rotation this year is Cy Young award winner Zach Greinke (from Kansas City) and Toronto’s Shawn Marcum (a 13-gamer winner last season). Add wily veteran Randy Wolf into the mix and that’s a very formidable rotation. Milwaukee’s offense - featuring Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart - may be the NL’s best ... The Reds will certainly battle the Brewers ‘til the end. But, as opposed to last season, Cincy will come up a tad short. The tandem of Reds first baseman Joey Votto (arguably MLB’s breakthrough player of the year last year) and rising talent Jay Bruce are poised to punish opposing pitchers this season. Surrounding Votto and Bruce in the team’s lethal lineup are Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs and Jonny Gomes. The offense is potent, but Cincinnati's pitching staff is mediocre-at-best. The health and effectiveness of the Edinson Volquez and the evolution of Aroldis Chapman will be the big keys for the Reds pitching success ... The loss of ace Adam Wainwright greatly dooms St. Louis this season. Having another ace (Chris Carpenter) helps, but the rest of the Cardinals are not good enough to carry them to back to division supremacy. The team’s offense - led by Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday - will definitely score its share of runs, but it will not be good enough to propel the Cards past Milwaukee or Cincinnati ... The Cubs, America’s lovable losers, will not make the playoffs this season. However, Chicago should improve from its 75-win 2010. Offense will have to carry the Cubbies, as the team’s pitching is very suspect. A balanced lineup featuring a handful of established veterans has the potential for greatness. The team can achieve this greatness if rising stars Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin can live up to their expectations. Veterans Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza will be counted upon to lead Chicago’s pitching staff ... Houston has a couple nice pitchers (Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers) and a few good hitters (Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn), but not enough to compete with the big boys yet ... Perennially pathetic Pittsburgh completes another woeful season. The 2011 Pirates will finish its campaign with a Major League-worst 69-93 record.

NL West
San Francisco [90 - 72] ----
LA Dodgers [89 - 73] 1 GB
Colorado [ 83 - 79] 7 GB
Arizona [76 - 86] 14 GB
San Diego [73- 89] 17 GB

Notes: The defending World Series champs will have an opportunity to repeat as San Francisco wins the NL West once again on the wings of its impeccable pitching staff. Starters Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain headline a stellar rotation as relievers Brian Wilson, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo highlight a stifling bullpen. The team’s offense could be quite pedantic again - although perhaps a tad better, with a full season from its 2010 NL Rookie of the year catcher, Buster Posey. In any regard, mediocre bats can be carried by the Giants’ pitching, which, as great as it was last year, should be even better this season. The team’s primary three cogs - Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez - are emerging in the prime of their careers. Add in the promising, young Madison Bumgarner and this staff is in store for a spectacular season ... Don Mattingly’s Dodgers - the Giants’ arch rival - are very strong and will fight Frisco to the brink this season. Los Angeles has a very formidable pitching staff and a better offense than the Giants. Clayton Kershaw, L.A.’s 23-year-old ace, could very well be in line for his first Cy Young award. Chad Billingsley and the addition of veteran Ted Lilly support Kershaw in a stout Dodgers rotation. Offensively, Los Angeles should be very sound. The middle of the team’s lineup - Andre Either and Matt Kemp - are poised to put up monster numbers this season ... Colorado will go as far as its top two hitting stars - Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki - can take them. CarGo and Tulo might each belt 25 HRs and drive in 100 runs, but it will not be enough for the Rockies to nab a playoff spot. Ubaldo Jimenez is a bona fide ace, while pitchers Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin are also very talented. This team is nice, but not spectacular. By season’s end, the Rocks will land themselves six games behind L.A. for third place in the division ... Justin Upton, Chris Young and Miguel Montero give Arizona a strong nucleus in its batting lineup, but the Diamondbacks are far too young (as a whole) to make a playoff push this season. Young arms Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy can give the D-Backs potential pitching prowess, but the team is still a year or two from being a serious contender ... San Diego won 90 games last season. This year, however, a combination of a paltry offense (now without All Star slugger Adrien Gonzalez) and a pitching staff that significantly overachieved last year equates to a tough 2011 for the Padres. The team’s ace - Mat Latos - begins this season on the disabled list, leaving Aaron Harang and Clayton Richard as its top starters. Heath Bell is a great closer, but the aforementioned pitchers and a batting lineup featuring Orlando Hudson, Brad Hawpe and Ryan Ludwick as its 3-4-5 hitters mean it will be very difficult for the Padres to make many ninth innings with a lead.

* Wild Card winners

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ohio State leaves Cleveland with look of a champion

This year’s George Mason Patriots basketball team entered Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena this afternoon with a purpose of proving they ARE this year’s Patriots, and not the 2006 team.

With a 26-point deficit by halftime, the team certainly proved its claim.

This year's Patriots definitely are not the 11-seed 2006 George Mason team that toppled three elite programs to reach the NCAA Final Four. Nope. This year’s eight-seeded squad ended its run with an embarrassing loss in the field of 32.

Led by 17 points from fifth-year senior David Lighty and freshman Jared Sullinger’s 13 points and seven rebounds, the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes pounded George Mason 52-26 ... by halftime.

On cruise control in the second half, the Buckeyes proceeded the demolition en route to a 98-66 blowout.

Prior to the game, George Mason players said they appreciated the comparisons to the 2006 club, but tired of the talk as well. Team members sported T-shirts reading "We ARE this year's George Mason" to separate themselves from the team from five years ago.

The Patriots looked promising early on in this game. Up 6-2, senior star Cam Long pumped up a shot from beyond the arc that clanged off the back of the hoop’s rim. The ball bounced up about six feet high before falling and serendipitously rattling its way in for a seven-point George Mason lead.

Ryan Pearson followed Long’s shot with a bank-in to put the Patriots up by nine.

That’s when Ohio State figured enough is enough.

Seconds after Pearson’s hoop, Lighty responded by pulling up and calmly sinking his first of his five first half three-pointers as the Buckeyes immediately snatched momentum and seized control.

George Mason’s 11-2 lead vanquished in a hurry as Sullinger pounded the paint and his Buckeyes teammates poured in a barrage of three pointers to end the half on a 54-13 run.

By game’s end, Lighty absolutely lit it up, scoring 25 points on ten shots. The sixth-man extraordinaire came off the bench to go a perfect 7-7 from three-point range and 9-10 overall to lead the Buckeyes attack.

Sullinger had 18 points and nine rebounds, junior William Buford matched Sullinger with 18 as well, while senior marksman Jon Diebler connected on four treys in contributing 13 points for the game.

The Buckeyes leave their home state looking like champions. Next up are the highly athletic Kentucky Wildcats, whom Ohio State will face Friday in Newark, New Jersey.

Kentucky qualified for the fourth round with wins over Princeton and West Virginia. John Calipari’s squad may match the Buckeyes in athleticism, but seniority favors Ohio State. The freakishly athletic Sullinger is arguably the best freshman in the country, but Lighty headlines a fearsome force of upperclassmen who guide the Buckeye ship.

As the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Ohio State will be favored over the four-seeded Wildcats. However, Kentucky will be certain to have its ample supply of supremely talented athletes and boatload of fervent fans.

Kentucky Blue or Buckeye Red, this Sweet Sixteen match-up should be a memorable one.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Century Swim Team’s Big Dance was Saturday

Century swim team’s Big Dance was Saturday
Team places fourth overall, Freeman wins 500 Freestyle

As the calendar page turns to March, the madness of sports fans builds throughout the country as the NCAA basketball tournament nears. For the Rochester Century boys swim team, its Big Dance occurred two days ago.

“A lot of kids come in here and think, ‘oh my God, this is the big dance!’” explained Century Coach Linda Freeman, describing the atmosphere at the Boys Class AA State Swimming and Diving competition Saturday night at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.

Having been mentally preparing for this meet for a long time, Freeman said her team came into the competition relaxed and ready. It appears she was right, as Century claimed fourth place in the meet’s overall team rankings.

“Look at Minnetonka, all these kids, Edina, all these kids, Eden Prairie, and then here’s little Century with seven kids,” said Freeman - Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Edina finished first, second and third, respectively. “To hold on and finish a strong fourth in this field, with such deep Twin Cities teams, it’s a bit of a miracle, but it’s very well deserved because they worked so hard, so hard, it was wonderful.”

Using the words “so hard” twice is fitting, perhaps, as preparing to compete with such powerhouses might be twice as hard for her squad as it is for the others.

Leading the Panthers attack was senior Chris Freeman, the coach’s nephew, who took home first place honors in the 500 Yard Freestyle.

Freeman’s time - 4:32.24 - was 0.55 seconds off the Minnesota all-time Class AA record.

“It felt really good,” said Chris.

“I have to tell you, when Chris won that 500, I lost it,” exclaimed Coach Freeman, who watched her nephew poolside. “I was so proud of him, I was so grateful.”

“That record, to be honest, I thought it was gonna go today,” the coach added. “I thought it was, and he got very close. What Chris did today ... it’s almost impossible.”

The 500 Freestyle Class AA state record - 4:31.69 - was set in 2006 by former Mounds View swimmer Pete Stacy.

As evidenced by their reactions, Chris and Linda are very different in terms of expression of emotion.

“The guy is just crazy good and he’s very humble,” said the elder Freeman. “It’s hard to get him to talk much.”

Chris would have won two titles Saturday were it not for Edina’s Mike Gratz, who swam neck-to-neck with Freeman before pulling away and defeating him for the 200 Freestyle championship.

Gratz, who finished his swim with a mile-wide smile you couldn’t shake off his face, came close to the all-time Minnesota record with a score of 1:38.98 - current Minnesota Gophers 10-time All American Curt Carlson owns the record (1:38.35), which he swam in 2007 as a senior at Maple Grove.

The Edina senior carried his beaming smile and indelible glow throughout the remainder of the meet as well. He swam the final leg for his team’s 400 Freestyle Relay championship and nearly topped another individual state record in the 100 Freestyle.

“I’m just feeling ready,” Gratz said, following his 100 Freestyle swim. “I’ve rested what I need to do, I’ve eaten [right], just done everything I needed to do for a good meet.”

The Hornets swimmer swam his 100 Free in 45.13. His time finished 0.17 seconds behind Jordan Watland - who swam the 100 Freestyle in 44.96 seconds for Minnetonka in 1998.

“I do not know [Watland],” said Gratz. “But that’s a really fast time and I was going for it; but 45:13 is really good for me, so I’m happy about that.”

Coach Freeman said she knows Gratz very well from watching him compete with Chris for many years now.

“Michael Gratz and Chris Freeman have been swimming head-to-head since they were 10 years old,” Coach Freeman said. “They’re both elite swimmers, you put each one of them in a position to win and they will not be denied.”

Both seniors, Freeman and Gratz hope to compete at the college level next year. Each swimmer is undecided as of now, but Gratz said he hopes to for St. Olaf while Coach Freeman said Chris’ hopes are to swim for the Gophers.

The other Century swimmers who helped their team to its fourth place finish include senior Andrew Grosback, junior Chris Tri and sophomore Nikita Dolin.

Century had three team events. The Panthers were seventh in the 200 Freestyle Relay (1:28.57), ninth in 400 Freestyle (3:16.07) and 11th in the 200 Medley (1:41.06)

Grosback placed 10th in the 200 Individual Medley with a time of 1:59.45. He placed 14th in the 100 Breaststroke (1:01.49). Tri placed sixth in 500 Freestyle (4:46.55). Dolin took fourth place in the 100 Backstroke (52.89) and fifth in 200 IM (1:57:09).

John Marshall and Mayo Class AA results
Rochester John Marshall competed in four events Saturday. The Rockets finished 14th in the 200 Freestyle Relay (1:30.56). Seinior Conner Garrett took sixth place in the 1 Meter Dive with a score of 371.00. Junior Tanner Nimke finished seventh in the 100 Freestyle (47.90) and 15th in 50 Freestyle (22.09).

Rochester Mayo swam in two team events. The Spartans placed 15th in the 200 Freestyle Relay (1:30.82) and 16th in the 200 Medley (1:43.47).

**Written for the Rochester Post-Bulletin (Monday, March 7th) newspaper. Photos by Post-Bulletin photographer Jack Boder - top (Rochester Century's Chris Freeman, Edina's Mike Gratz), bottom (Rochester John Marshall Diver Conner Garrett)