Sunday, April 30, 2006

Browns draft: Day 2

At least on paper, Browns GM Phil Savage is making good on his professed desire to build a dominant defense. Or at least a deep defense.
The Browns have made selections with all six picks they had in rounds four through seven. Combined with Saturday's first three picks, the Browns used six of their nine selections on defensive players.
Keep in mind that at the time I am writing this, the draft has not yet ended, and trades are still possible.

Fourth round

What happened: The Browns selected Miami (FL) linebacker Leon Williams at pick No. 110.

What this means: Linebackers are the heart and soul of a 3-4 defense, and the Browns are acknowledging that, selecting linebackers with three of their first four picks.
Williams is an inside linebacker like D'Qwell Jackson. While Williams is bigger than Jackson, he's probably not as advanced skillwise, but many scouts seem to think he has a boatload of upside. He'll probably spend most of his rookie year proving himself on special teams.

Fifth round

What happened: The Browns selected Washington State running back Jerome Harrison at No. 145 and Georgia cornerback DeMario Minter at No. 152.

What this means: The selection of Harrison would seem to indicate an imminent housecleaning at running back. Undersized at 5'-9" and capable of catching the ball out of the backfield, Harrison would seem to be the change-of-pace back the Browns have been looking for to back up Reuben Droughns. The days of William Green and Lee Suggs in Cleveland are probably numbered.
Scouting reports say Minter is a polished enough defensive back to contribute in nickel and dime packages in his rookie year. One has to wonder what Minter's selection says about last year's selections of Brodney Pool and Antonio Perkins, neither of whom impressed much.

Sixth round

What happened: The Browns selected Colorado fullback Lawrence Vickers at No. 180 and Stanford defensive tackle Babatunde Oshinowo at No. 181.

What this means: Vickers' selection further solidifies suspicion that Green and Suggs are going to be shown the door. Current fullback Terelle Smith might be gone by next offseason. Vickers is a lead blocker who can also carry the ball, though the scouts seem to think he's not athletic enough to develop into a feature back. He might become an ideal third-and-short muscle back, something the Browns have never really had.
Oshinowo is the first bit of attention the Browns have paid to their defensive front in this draft. Ironically, he was selected with the pick the Browns acquired from the Ravens in the deal that allowed Baltimore to move up and draft stud nose tackle Haloti Ngata. The scouts say Oshinowo lacks the athleticism to shine in the NFL, and probably won't be much more than a space-holder for an interior defensive line. He might develop into a capable backup nose tackle, but the Browns probably haven't found their apprentice for Ted Washington.

Seventh round

What happened: The Browns selected Virginia Tech defensive back Justin Hamilton at No. 222.

What this means: You have to admire a guy like Hamilton. He achieved draft prospect status through hard work and perseverance. He did whatever was asked of him at Va. Tech, playing receiver, running back, cornerback and safety in his four years.
Ideally, Hamilton will settle in as a special teamer, but be able to step into multiple roles, making a tackle here and a catch there. He could be valuable as a change-of-pace player, or if a rash of injuries hits. And if you follow the Browns, you know how hard the injury bug bites sometimes.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Browns draft: Day 1

By my estimation, the Browns could have done better today. That doesn't mean I think today was a bust, but I have to question a day in which the Browns:

A) handed a division rival a potential stud nose tackle in a trade.
B) burned yet another high pick on a wide receiver.

With that in mind, I am trying to back off snap judgments and look at the big picture of the entire offseason. I just think the Browns had a chance to have an A-plus first day of the draft, but instead walked out with a B-minus.

First round

What happened: The Browns waited until about a minute was left on the clock to announce they had swapped first-round picks with the Ravens. The Ravens moved up to 12th and selected beefy nose tackle Haloti Ngata, rumored to be the first option for the Browns should he still be on the board. Instead, the Browns selected Florida State defensive end Kamerion Wimbley at 13.

What this means: The Browns have the pleasure of facing Ngata twice a year for who knows how long. I wouldn't have had such a problem with this deal if it had been with a team outside Cleveland's division, but the Browns dropped a possible stud run-stopper into the lap of the Ravens, and all they really received in return was the Ravens' sixth round pick Sunday at No. 181.
Meanwhile, the Browns drafted Wimbley, a pass rusher who played defensive end in college and will have to make the move to outside linebacker in Cleveland's 3-4 defensive alignment. His speed and mobility should help him with the switch, but any time you are asking a player to make a position move at the same time he is making the leap from college to the pros, it is a roll of the dice.

Second round

What happened: The Browns traded their second round pick at No 43 plus center Jeff Faine to the Saints for their second-rounder at No. 34. With that pick, the Browns drafted Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who lead the ACC in tackles each of the last two years.

What this means: Probably the best move Cleveland made all day. Faine became a spare part when the Browns signed LeCharles Bentley, so to use him to move up nine spots in the second round and nab a linebacker with a reputation as a solid tackler was clutch. Jackson could be a starter by the end of this season.

Third round

What happened: The Browns selected Oklahoma wideout Travis Wilson with the 78th pick.

What this means: Another receiver? Does GM Phil Savage know how many receivers previous regimes have selected on Day 1 of the draft? The short list includes Kevin Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, Quincy Morgan, Andre Davis and Kellen Winslow. Not to mention Savage's own selection of Braylon Edwards last year.
Wilson has some speed, but lost the end of last season to a foot injury. With a clogged receiver corps manned by Edwards, Winslow, Northcutt, Joshua Cribbs, Frisman Jackson and Joe Jurevicius, adding another receiver this high doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.
When are the Browns going to start drafting offensive linemen this high on a regular basis?

Upcoming picks

Fourth round: 13th (110 overall) and 15th (112 overall)
Fifth round: 12th (145 overall) and 20th (152 overall)
Sixth round: 11th (180 overall) and 12th (181 overall)
Seventh round: 14th (222 overall)

King me

The Cavaliers-Wizards series is turning into a problem of who doesn't have an answer for whom.
In Game 1, the Wizards didn't have an answer for LeBron James. In Game 2, the Cavs didn't have an answer for Washington's outside shooting and stiff interior defense.
In Game 3, the Wizards were back to not having an answer for LeBron, and the Cavs got the road win they so desperately needed in the aftermath of their Game 2 loss at home. Cleveland now leads the series 2-1 and is assured of coming home for Game 5 with nothing worse than a series tie. Game 4 is tomorrow night.
In winning 97-96, LeBron reached double digits in points only, his first single-double of the series. His 41 points made him the Cavs' all-time leading scorer in a playoff game, eclipsing Brad Daugherty's 40 from 1993.
And the Cavs needed every one of LeBron's points.
After leading for a grand total of 55 seconds prior, the Cavs managed a 95-93 lead with less than 30 seconds to play. On the ensuing possession, Gilbert Arenas found a seam and penetrated full-bore. Caught between mauling Arenas or backing off and letting him tie the game, LeBron gave Arenas a mild hack, allowing him the bucket and the foul.
Arenas converted the free throw, giving the Wizards a 96-95 lead with 23 second left.
We probably thought we knew what was coming next. LeBron would get the ball, dribble the clock down to seven or eight seconds, drive in to the lane, suck in the defense, and kick the ball out to a waiting Donyell Marshall or Larry Hughes for a game-deciding jumper.
But LeBron, who is usually great at feeling out a game situation as it develops, decided the time was right to keep the ball as the clock hurtled toward zero.
He shed Jared Jeffries on the perimeter with a couple of juke steps, sprinted into the paint and took the full impact of the Washington defense head-on.
LeBron jump-stopped, pumped, stepped, nearly lost the ball, and forced up a muscle-on-muscle shot that hit the glass and floated through the net with less than six seconds remaining.
Players like Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade have hit similar shots with their quickness, but they have to strike rapidly and not allow the defense time to get on top of them.
LeBron is on the (very) short list of players who can blaze into the lane, stop to adjust, and still have the strength to power through the defense one it collapses on him. That's what he did to win Friday's game.
The time remaining after LeBron's shot allowed Arenas time to get a clean look at a would-be game-winning three pointer. But much like Kobe Bryant's buzzer-beater attempt that fell short against Cleveland in March, Arenas' shot was more of a Hail Mary than anything. It rimmed out, and Anderson Varejao corralled the ball as the clock ran out.
The win stabilizes what had been a listing ship for the Cavs after Game 2. It took homecourt advantage back from the Wizards.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cavs prevailed in a razor-close playoff game on the road, a game in which they trailed by eight points at halftime, a game in which they played far from perfect basketball.
Hopefully, the Cavs showed themselves that they are capable of squeezing out tough road wins in the playoffs. That would be another major stepping stone for the team, and for LeBron.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Checking in

It's Friday afternoon. Let's take stock of the situation in Cleveland sports:

The Indians
Where was this effort against Seattle, Detroit, Baltimore and Kansas City?
After losing nine of 14 heading into Wednesday, the Indians finally got tired of being pushed around, and responded with a pair of knockout blows against Boston.
They ripped the Red Sox 7-1 Wednesday, then came back with a 15-3 pounding of Boston Thursday.
Ben Broussard had his semi-annual "game for the ages," knocking in eight runs, including a grand slam in the first inning. The eight runs ties Manny Ramirez for second-most RBIs in one game by an Indian.
Now, we can expect Broussard to retract into his shell and hit .230 until he busts out with another eight-RBI game in September. But if you are going to go nuclear, might as well be against Boston.
Texas comes into town for a three-game series starting tonight.

The Cavaliers
Tonight's Game 3 against Washington is an important game for the Cavs psychologically. After a fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 2, the Cavs must respond with a more composed game tonight.
A win tonight, and the Cavs get some breathing room. The can do no worse than come back home with the series tied.
A loss, and this series could start slipping away from the Cavs in a big way. Game 4 immediately becomes a must-win on Sunday. Cleveland would undoubtedly begin feeling the pressure of approaching elimination, and a stressed Cavs team has not been an effective team this year. They still lack the mental toughness to dig out of a huge deficit over the course of a series.
A loss tonight could start a really bad snowball effect.

The Browns
Cleveland has a chance to put an exclamation point on what has been a productive offseason by having a good draft this weekend. Or they can whiff on picks and totally negate what they did in free agency.
The Browns, with the 12th pick, are slated to go on the clock sometime around 3 p.m. Saturday. Below are the top five picks I think the Browns have a chance to make at 12.

1. Haloti Ngata. He would give the Browns beef up front for years to come.
2. Chad Greenway. The Browns could move him to inside linebacker, where he could flourish as a leader.
3. Kamerion Wimbley. No, he's not Ray Lewis. But he could be another Jamir Miller.
4. Vince Young. Not to keep. But the team that holds Young's rights suddenly becomes very popular on the trade market.
5. Jimmy Williams. Sure, the Browns have enough defensive backfielders to sink a battleship, But they don't have a shutdown cornerback. And Williams could be that.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Drafting due diligence

With all the excitement surrounding the Cavaliers' playoff run and the start to the Indians season, the NFL draft has completely crept up on me.
I am not going to do an entire mock draft, because, quite frankly, I am in the process of changing jobs and I'm tired.
But I'm still chiefly concerned with what the Browns do Saturday and Sunday. In that vein, allow me to grade the Browns' draft probables on Saturday.
There are a handful of players the Browns could consider taking with the 12th pick. Some make sense, some make less sense, some are downright outlandish.
I'm only judging players I think might be available at 12. So A.J. Hawk, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Reggie Bush will not be appearing.

Good fits

Kamerion Wimbley, DE/LB, Florida State
Some people seem to think Wimbley would be a Courtney Brown redux. He's fast, he's reasonably strong, but he won't tear anyone's head off because he's too placid.
I'll go with the fast legs and work from there. The bottom line is the Browns have had a nonexistent pass rush for years, and Wimbley could give them one. Willie McGinest provides a valuable mentor for a young pass rusher like Wimbley. That, to me, is the closing argument for drafting Wimbley.

Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon
It might be a stretch to count on Ngata still being available at 12, but he might be, and if he's there, the Browns should snap him up. He'd even be worth trading up for if the price is right.
Ngata is likely the best interior defensive lineman in the draft. While I would normally tend to shy away from any defensive power player from a finesse conference like the Pac-10, Ngata is just what the doctor ordered for Romeo Crennel's 3-4 defensive alignment. He's a run-stopper who can take away a lot of the gaps between the tackles for north-south punishers like Jamal Lewis.
As with McGinest and Wimbley, Ted Washington could be a great mentor for Ngata.

Chad Greenway, LB, Iowa
Greenway isn't the strongest linebacker in the draft, but he is a defensive captain in the making. Known for his ability to lead, he could be the best inside linebacker the Browns have had since Clay Matthews. His ability to efficiently tackle could be a concern, but hustle and speed never should be.

Could do better, but they'll live

Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Florida State
You can't turn up your nose at someone who can better your defensive front if you are the Browns, but Bunkley probably lacks the size to have an immediate impact. As an outside defensive tackle, he also plays a position occupied by Orpheus Roye and Alvin McKinley, two players the Browns seem to have in their long-term plans.
Bunkley also has a long injury history, which should be an immediate red flag for any team drafting in the top 15.

Vince Young, QB, Texas
Odds are slim Young will slip all the way to 12, but if he does, he poses a vexing problem for the Browns.
How do you pass on a potential franchise talent like Young? If you pass and he turns into Donovan McNabb, that's egg all over your face. But drafting Young would mean ignoring more pressing needs on the roster. It could also create a knotted mess of a quarterback competition in training camp, something that could distract the rest of the team.
The Browns haven't decided on Charlie Frye or Trent Dilfer. What would the arrival of Young do to that?

Jimmy Williams, CB, Virginia Tech
Williams is a big, physical, chuck-and-run corner. The Browns do not have one right now. But what they do have is a bunch of leftovers from last year. Gary Baxter will return in training camp, and Cleveland used two of their top four picks last year to draft defensive backfielders Brodney Pool and Antonio Perkins.
Again, it comes down to needs, and while Williams would be a good pick, the Browns have more pressing needs in their defensive front.

Square peg in a round hole

Jay Cutler, QB, Vanderbilt
Four words: spread offense, dome team.
Cutler could put up some big numbers in his career, but it probably wouldn't happen playing for an outdoor, cold-weather team with a run-first offense. Let the Rams or Vikings take him.

Bobby Carpenter, LB, Ohio State
No matter how much scarlet and gray you bleed, Carpenter is not the consolation prize for not getting A.J. Hawk. If Carpenter falls to the second round, he is a worthwhile look. But he lacks the athleticism to warrant spending the 12th pick on him.

Any wide receiver
A pair of well-talented receivers should be available at 12 -- Florida's Chad Jackson and Ohio State's Santonio Holmes. But if the Browns burn a first round pick on a receiver, that would be the third straight year. And you know what that would make them? The Lions.
As a football executive, Matt Millen is a bad person to emulate.

Make some noise

Wednesday, I attended my first Indians game of the year. Flanked by black-belt bodyguards Justin and Joel, I watched the Indians snap a three-game losing streak and top the Red Sox 7-1.
It was particularly satisfying to beat the Red Sox, baseball's "it" team ever since winning the World Series two years ago.
When the Red Sox come to town, they don't bring fans. They bring an entourage. Thousands of people decked out in Red Sox gear. Some actually traveled here from New England, some are just local yokels looking to stir the pot. All are loud, and many are obnoxious.
The Cleveland players did the job Wednesday. Cliff Lee ended a string of shaky outings by Cleveland pitchers by allowing one run in six innings. Jason Davis and Bob Wickman locked down Boston in the final three innings for the win.
Jhonny Peralta provided the only runs necessary with a three-run home run in the first inning. Aaron Boone rebounded from a shaky start to hit an RBI double and conduct a defensive clinic. He had assists on all three putouts in the eighth inning.
But then there's the fans. We (myself included) have been on the Tribe for not getting the job done the past couple of weeks. Wednesday, the fans didn't keep pace with the team.
Maybe it was the chilly April weather. Maybe there were too many people exhausted from a day of watching "Spider-Man 3" shoots on Euclid Ave. But when the Red Sox fans began serenading the road team with chants of "Let's go Red Sox," the response was lukewarm at best.
Several fans tried to incite the crowd to drown out the Boston fans with pro-Cleveland chants, but most fans appeared to be content to let the Boston bandwagoners turn Jacobs Field into Fenway Park West.
Cleveland fans appeared more interested in trying to start "the wave."
When an uninvited guest comes into your house, props his feet up and pretends to own the place, wouldn't it be nice to fight back? I'm not talking about going Yankee Stadium on the Boston fans. We don't need gouged eyeballs in the trash. But swiftly and severely rebuking loud Boston fans with louder noise of your own should be a requirement.
When Wily Mo Pena took Lee deep for the only Boston run of the game, the cheers were startlingly loud.
I could understand such an uncontested response in a place like Kansas City, where the team is terrible, or in Tampa Bay, where the fan base just doesn't care all that much. But in Cleveland, one of the little guys' best hopes to fight the big market spoils system that allows teams like Boston to garner most of the talent, ergo most of the glory, we should be one of the peskiest and most stubborn fan bases around.
Dang it, when Manny Ramirez comes up, don't offer a lukewarm chorus of boos offset by cheers. Make a ruckus. Boo him from the start of the at-bat to the finish. Stomp your feet. Bang your chairs. You shouldn't need prompting from the scoreboard.
Ramirez is turncoat. His accomplishments in Cleveland will be swept under the rug. You saw him raised from a pup to one of the most feared hitters in baseball. You stood by him through all the defensive foibles. And the only thing he's ever going to be remembered for is being a member of the Red Sox.
And it's only because the voices of the Boston fans and media are louder. I don't know about you, but that ticks me off.
You can't change the fact that the Red Sox have the backing of the East Coast media machine. You can't change the fact that they are a higher-profile team. But you can change the reception the Red Sox get when they come to your town.
The Red Sox get enough love from a huge fan base, a bright media spotlight and hordes of frontrunners. They shouldn't be getting any love (at least audible love) at Jacobs Field.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The sequel flopped

The Cavaliers have LeBron James. The Wizards have everything else: the experience, the shooting, the coaching.
It was all on display in Game 2 as Washington won a knock-down, drag-out 89-84 decision, wrestling back the momentum they surrendered in Game 1. The Cavs, a far better home team than a road team, must now head to Washington for two games. They face the very real possibility that they might return home for Game 5 down 3-1 and attempting to stave off elimination.
The Cavs are 0-2 so far this year in Washington, but they absolutely must win one of the next two to have any prayer of winning this series.
In any situation, a Game 5 victory is a necessity. The Cavs simply cannot afford to lose another home game in this series.
Cavs GM Danny Ferry was right when he said Game 1 of a playoff series is an "adrenaline game." The Cavs played on pure emotion, fed by a raucous crowd, and caught the Wizards off-guard.
Humiliated, the Wizards trudged back to the nation's capital, cleared their heads, and regrouped. The soul-searching probably included watching hours of game film featuring LeBron and making myriad adjustments to their defensive attack.
Game 2 is an adjustment game, Ferry said. And Wizards coach Eddie Jordan did the job you'd expect a coach with 11 playoff games under his belt to do.
The Cavs ran off to a 23-8 lead, but then the light bulb went on for the Wizards.
They clamped down on defense inside, hitting the Cavs right where they are the best, driving to the hoop. Every time LeBron, Larry Hughes or Flip Murray attempted to drive to the basket, the Wizards were there to challenge. And it paid dividends as the Cavs blew untold layups.
Jordan apparently was betting that if they forced the Cavs into perimeter jumpers, there was no way the Cavs would be able to match Washington shot-for-shot. He was right.
The Wizards mounted a huge rally, gained the lead, and the game was a wrestling match from then on: slow-paced, physical, and decided by whomever played better down the stretch.
Welcome to real playoff basketball, LeBron and Co.
The Wizards won because the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler made clutch shots in the fourth quarter. They capitalized on most of their possessions down the stretch.
The Cavs, meanwhile, self-destructed with a bevy of turnovers and committed fouls. The final turnover was the most puzzling. With less than 15 seconds left and the Cavs trailing by three, LeBron had the ball heading up the court. Coach Mike Brown was screaming for a 20-second timeout, but no one heard him.
That would have been forgiveable if LeBron would have hoisted a three and made it, or passed it to someone who made a three. But he didn't.
Inside of 10 seconds, he found Anderson Varejao open inside. He was open for a reason: The Wizards knew the Cavs needed a three to tie, and were plastering their defense to the perimeter.
LeBron zipped a pass inside to Varejao, but as we all know, the Wild Thing couldn't get a good grip on the basketball if it had handles. Predictably, the ball squirted out of his hands and a rugby scrum ensued. Varejao was called for the foul.
With 30 seconds to play, looking for the quick two is fine. With less than 15 seconds remaining, you need the three. It was a momentary lapse of judgment by LeBron. It didn't cost the Cavs the game, but it cost them their last chance to tie and possibly force overtime.
There is no question the Cavs are loaded with offensive talent, and can play solid enough defense when they are so motivated. But consistent mental focus and an ability to adjust on the fly are two flaws in the Cavs' armor, and unfortunately, they are huge flaws this time of the year.
The onus is now on rookie coach Brown to match the adjustments Jordan made in time for Game 3 on Friday.
If the Cavs win Game 3, the mood around the team should brighten considerably and suddenly the series will look winnable again. If they lose Game 3, that wall will be inching ever closer to the Cavs' backs.

Climbing the hill

Providing today's persistent cold drizzle departs, the Indians and Cavaliers will both be in action in downtown Cleveland tonight.
The Cavs will draw 20,000 for a playoff sellout. The Indians will be lucky to draw that many on what will be a cold, damp night, with or without raindrops.
Each team will have their own hill to climb. The Cavs face a Game 2 that could, in retrospect, be pivotal to the outcome of their first-round series.
They have a chance to put a half-nelson on the Wizards with a win tonight, going to Washington up 2-0 with the knowledge that Games 5 and 7 would be back at The Q if needed. With a loss, however, the series is back to even with the next two in Washington, and suddenly the Cavs could very well be fighting for their playoff lives the next time the series shifts to Cleveland.
Don't expect LeBron James to have the monster game he had in Game 1. There have been a multitude of conflicting theories on how the Wizards should try to stifle LeBron. Some say Washington should double- or triple-team him. Some say they should force LeBron to his left, his weaker side ("weaker" being a relative term).
Some say they should just man up on LeBron and concentrate on shutting down LeBron's teammates, and that's what I bet Washington tries to do. As Wizards guard Jared Jeffries said after Game 1, Washington can live with LeBron's 32 points. That's his average. What killed the Wizards were the 11 assists and 11 rebounds LeBron also provided.
The Wizards know that the Cavs are 1-2 all-time when LeBron breaks the 50-point barrier. It means he's trying to do too much. By contrast, the Cavs' record is stellar when LeBron notches a triple-double. It means he's getting his teammates involved, and making the team as a whole far more dangerous.
The battle plan for the Wizards could likely be to clog passing lanes and reduce LeBron's options to score and score some more. They will probably bet that, no matter how good LeBron is, he won't be able to singlehandedly beat them.
In turn, that means LeBron's teammates -- Flip Murray and Larry Hughes in particular -- will have to initiate the offense more and make more thinks happen for themselves and their teammates. Someone besides LeBron will have to serve as an offensive igniter. That's the only way the Wizards will be forced into focusing on something besides taking away LeBron's options.

The Indians
The eight-game homestand scheduled to begin tonight could mean the difference between a short-term losing skid and a long-term losing trend.
The Indians didn't cash in against the Mariners, Tigers, Orioles and Royals, which means they must now make up ground against the far tougher Red Sox, Rangers and White Sox.
And watch out for that first step. It's a lu-lu.
Tonight, the Indians must try to beat Curt Schilling, who is off to a start reminiscent of his Philadelphia days (4-0, 1.61 ERA). The Indians counter with Jake Westbrook, who has stumbled to a 2-2 start with an ERA just under six.
The tasks don't get any easier for the remainder of the Boston series. Wednesday, the Indians will face knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and Thursday brings Josh Beckett.
Knowing the luck the Indians have had recently, the temperature will rise to 80 degrees and high humidity tomorrow with a stiff breeze blowing out to center -- ideal conditions to keep a knuckleball dancing all the way to the plate.
If the Indians gag on this homestand, it will put them behind the eight-ball just like last season. With a 2-6 record, the Tribe would fall to 12-15 just as the White Sox appear to be heating up.
It's only April, but the Indians could very well be fighting for their season at Jacobs Field as the Cavs are fighting for their season across the street.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Bad mojo on the mound

Apparently there's only so much good mojo to go around in Cleveland sports.
With the Cavaliers in the playoffs and LeBron James notching a triple-double in his NBA playoff debut, apparently someone had to be the fall guy.
That someone is the Indians.
While the Cavs have been riding on cloud nine, the Indians slogged through an embarrassing 4-6 road trip against Detroit, Baltimore and Kansas City.
A 10-day stretch of baseball that could have solidified the Tribe as an American League power has instead dragged them back to mediocrity. Cleveland now stands at 10-9 with a difficult homestand against Boston, Texas and Chicago set to begin tomorrow.
Granted, it's only April, and a 10-9 mark is still on pace for a far better April than the miserable opening month they had last year. But there is no disputing the fact that road swings through Detroit, Baltimore and Kansas City need to be capitalized upon. Soon, the road swings will go through far less hospitable places like Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Indians didn't get it done the past week and a half. And the primary culprit might surprise you.
The starting rotation did it. In the kitchen, with the candlestick.
We spent all March wringing our hands over a potentially-suspect bullpen and an offense that still featured Casey Blake and Aaron Boone. But this month, for the first time in two years, the Indians have an unreliable starting rotation.
Remove one quality start against Detroit, and Paul Byrd has been positively wretched in his first month with the Indians. C.C. Sabathia was injured three innings into the season, and Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee and Jason Johnson have shown a bad tendency to hit the wall in the fifth or sixth inning, forcing manager Eric Wedge to use his middle relief corps far more than he'd probably like to.
The shaky nature of the starting rotation stretches the bullpen out, exposing its weaknesses. The result is a team that can't stop the bleeding when it falls behind.
That's how a team posts 18-9 and 9-4 losses to the Orioles, and an 11-5 loss to the Royals.
Last year, the Indians possessed arguably the best one-through-five starting rotation in baseball. The dominos lined up neatly almost every night. The starter would give Wedge six or seven strong innings, allowing him to shorten his bullpen to his late inning specialists, who got plenty of work to stay sharp.
It wasn't clockwork. But it was darn close. The Indians used only six starters all last season. They've already used that many this season.
With starting pitchers who can't seem to make it out of the middle innings, we are subjected to extended looks at Danny Graves, Jason Davis, Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Slocum in long relief roles.
The faltering starters make the relievers' workload disjointed, full of three-inning mopup duty assignments. Nobody ever gets into a rhythm or clearly defines their role.
To boot, the late-inning specialists who are supposed to close out wins (Guillermo Mota and Bob Wickman) get considerably less work and gather rust.
Teams can bounce back from bullpen flameouts. Teams can work around a stagnant offense for short periods of time. But few things can derail a season like bad starting pitching. For better or worse, the starters set the tone for the rest of the team.
And for the Indians, that tone has been off-key recently.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Some sundry items

I have joined as a sports columnist. An extended version of the post below will hopefully be available on the site in the near future.
I will hopefully be able to post on there frequently, and as Zach does, post those columns on my blog as well.

And if you look below on the right side, you will see the arrival of something that has been missing from this site for a long time: a link list. Visit the sites often.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Cavaliers 97, Wizards 86

There is a moment for LeBron James where time nearly stands still. A moment where the entire world seems to be in his hands.
He has the ball, up top, eye to eye with his defender. Right then, he can do anything and everything. And anything and everything is what he did this afternoon.
In his first playoff game, LeBron became the second-youngest player to notch a triple-double in the playoffs with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. The only player younger? Magic Johnson.
LeBron looked like a man who had waited three years for his playoff debut. He seized the moment with a vise grip and a lot of help from his teammates. Eric Snow and Donyell Marshall played like veterans who are used to the playoff atmosphere. They will need to be the players that help LeBron shoulder leading this team, and today they answered the bell.
Washington, meanwhile, had their shooting touch abandon them, thanks in large part to swift defense from the Cavs. Gilbert Arenas didn't break out of a scoring funk until the fourth quarter, and fouled out with less than a minute to play.
It's a long series, and will probably still be a dogfight. But LeBron and the Cavs made a statement today. The regular season is over, and they are ready for the challenge of the postseason.

The starting gate

Brace yourselves. This will be the first time I have blogged myself through a Cleveland playoff series. Expect emotion to take over. You will be there to watch my spectacular highs and heartbreaking lows. Probably as you're feeling them too, considering the bulk of my readers are likely Cleveland fans as well.
So, I'll set the stage with about five hours to go before today's 3 p.m. tipoff, the first Cavaliers playoff game since April 1998.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Fourth seed, 50-32
Home games: 1, 2, if necessary 5 and 7
Projected starters for Game 1: Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Why the Cavs will win
LeBron will be the best player on the court, bar none. Snow and Hughes are a solid defensive backcourt when they put their minds to it. Hughes is especially motivated to play his old team. Z gives the Cavs a walking mismatch in the middle, which they should exploit early and often. Cleveland's bench is deeper and provides a good mix of shooters (Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall), slashers (Flip Murray) and rebounders (Anderson Varejao). Above all, they have the first two games at home along with the safety net of Game 7 on friendly turf.

Why the Cavs won't win
The Cavs showed an inability to stop Washington's big scorers during the regular season. They are a mediocre defensive team prone to lapses of concentration. They match up terribly with the Wizards. They are fighting an uphill battle against a team that reached the second round a year ago. Hughes' "bring it on" attitude could backfire by motivating the Wizards even more. And let's not forget the "OIC" factor. Cleveland teams in the playoffs have a long history of falling victim to dagger shots and terrible mistakes at the worst possible times.

Washington Wizards
Fifth seed, 42-40
Home games: 3 and 4, if necessary 6
Projected starters for Game 1: Gilbert Arenas, Jared Jeffries, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood

Why the Wizards will win
The Wizards have two rounds of playoff experience from last year. Arenas is a small combo guard who can shoot the lights out -- the exact type of player that has given the Cavs fits all season. The Wizards are loaded with shooters, and have never hurt for open looks against a slow-rotating Cleveland defense. Jamison is among the best-shooting big men in the league. Antonio Daniels is Jones and Murray rolled into one, quite possibly the best bench player for either team. Eddie Jordan will probably win the coaching battle against Cleveland's Mike Brown.

Why the Wizards won't win
Washington has been woefully inconsistent all year. They are better than their 42-40 record would indicate, but have never been able to rise above the middle of the pack. The Wizards' defense might actually be worse than the Cavs, certainly inside. LeBron, Hughes, Murray and Z should have a field day against Washington's marshmallow interior. Arenas and Daniels are their only real penetrators, meaning the Wizards can be forced into becoming a one-dimensional team from the perimeter. If that happens and the Wizards' outside shooting abandons them for long stretches, they are in trouble.

Friday, April 21, 2006

NBA Playoffs: first round

As a writer, these previews are so much easier on the typing fingers than the NCAA Tournament.


(1) Detroit Pistons vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks did win a game in the regular season series, but only after the Pistons had gone into full-coast mode. I admire Milwaukee's ability to turn from a scrub into a playoff team in the span of a year, and I think Andrew Bogut should at least be on the Rookie of the Year radar, but this series holds about as much suspense as a 1-16 game in the NCAAs.
Prediction: Pistons in four

(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) Chicago Bulls
In Chicago's corner: scrap, hustle and pluck. In Miami's corner: Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade. Miami is going to get some serious revenge for those '90s beatdowns at the hands of the Jordan Bulls.
Prediction: Heat in five

(3) New Jersey Nets vs. (6) Indiana Pacers
Do you realize how compelling this series would be if the Pacers still had Ron Artest? I'd go so far as to call them the better team. Alas, Artest is a nutjob and the Pacers parted ways with him, turning Indiana from Eastern Conference sleeper to just another finesse basketball club.
Prediction: Nets in five

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Washington Wizards
If the Cavs can't contain Gilbert Arenas, they might as well start setting up tee times or rap studio times or whatever it is basketball players do in their free time. If the Cavs can contain Arenas, Cleveland should scrape by in a dog fight of a series.
Personally, I think having the first two games and Game 7 at home should count for something for the Cavs.
Prediction: Cavaliers in seven


(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Sacramento Kings
All that toughness the Pacers lack now belongs to the Kings. Artest makes Sacramento a lot less of a pushover, but this is the one time finesse should beat muscle. Handily.
Prediction: Spurs in five

(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant keeps this series close, but unfortunately, he'll be dragging the rest of the roster around like a sack of rocks. Steve Nash, on the other hand, will be turning a limping Suns roster into a well-oiled machine.
Prediction: Suns in six

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Los Angeles Clippers
It should be noted that the Clippers, with the better record, will have homecourt advantage. This series will be much more of a staredown than you might think. And, you know what? I'm giving the edge to the Clips.
Prediction: Clippers in seven

(4) Dallas Mavericks vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
The 60-win Mavs are a fourth seed. That alone should force the NBA to re-think its playoff seeding system. Although I respect the job Mike Fratello has done with the Grizzlies this year, this series shouldn't be too suspenseful.
Prediction: Mavericks in six

Thursday, April 20, 2006

50 wins and a flameout

The good news: the Cavaliers won their 50th game of the season, albeit barely, in last night's season finale.
The bad news: the Wizards nabbed a gimme win over a Pistons team that stopped seriously competing several weeks ago, and will arrive in Cleveland for Game 1 with the Cavs Saturday.
The really bad news: while all that was going on, the Orioles took my Wednesday post on how bad they are and turned it on its ear.

The Cavs
Cleveland's first 50-win season in 13 years came with some difficulty. The Cavs barely survived Atlanta, 100-99.
Coach Mike Brown sat LeBron James and Larry Hughes because he would have been run out of town if either one of those guys would have sustained a major injury three days before the playoffs begin.
They faced a Hawks team playing loose, their season already branded a bust long ago, and fell behind by 12 in the first half.
Cleveland eventually rallied to take control of the game in the second half, before falling asleep at the switch down the stretch. When Donyell Marshall missed a pair of free throws with less than seven seconds left in the game, Atlanta had a chance to win as time expired, but a three-ball missed at the buzzer.
Kudos to the Cavs organization, which organized an elaborate postgame ceremony in which players personally gave their jerseys and shoes to selected fans.
The Cavs are the toast of the town. Winning would be enough. But the Cavs did up "Fan Appreciation Night" right. In addition to the jersey and shoe giveaway, the Cavs also awarded trips and cars, among other prizes totaling about $500,000.
The Cavs, however, came in second with regard to fan appreciation giveaways during the final night of the regular season. In Dallas, the Mavericks gave every fan in attendance a free plane trip from American Airlines. That's about 19,000 plane tickets to be awarded.

The Indians
Did I say the Orioles were awful? Either they used my blog as bulletin board material (less likely) or they were so thoroughly humiliated by Tuesday's 15-1 thrashing by the Indians, they decided to do something about it (more likely).
The Indians pitching loomed utterly helpless Wednesday night. Jake Westbrook was terrible, and the bullpen was even worse. The Orioles mashed out 21 hits, trumping Cleveland's 20 on Tuesday, and had a cathartic 18-9 ass-whupping of Cleveland.
Westbrook was spotted a 7-3 lead, but was knocked out when he surrendered seven in the fourth inning.
On came the bullpen, which is quickly showing an inability to keep deficits close. Matt Miller was bad, then left with a strained elbow. Punch his ticket for the disabled list right now.
Rafael Betancourt relieved, and promptly strained his back. Exit, stage left.
Jason Davis provided a rare bit of relief, working a scoreless inning. But manager Eric Wedge didn't keep him around long.
Next up was Danny Graves, who is quickly becoming a failed experiment. He gave up five runs on five hits over 1 2/3 innings. His ERA now stands at 7.71.
I know Graves' friendship with GM Mark Shapiro helped him get that final bullpen spot, and will probably help Graves stick around in Cleveland for a while. But whatever Graves had that made him a dominant closer in Cincinnati has deserted him.
I am starting to get that Jose Jimenez feeling whenever Graves trots out of the bullpen. That feeling where you know something bad is going to happen.
Question: why not give these multi-inning mopup assignments to the guys you are going to be relying on in the future? If the Indians have finally committed to Davis as a reliever, give him the innings to sharpen himself.
Once Graves is cut or shipped to the minors, the Indians are still going to be figuring out how to plug in Davis. My guess is that two innings of Davis (1.80 ERA) would be a heck of a lot better than 1 2/3 of Graves.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Run for 50

Fifty wins isn't a magical number. But for the Cavaliers, it would be a significant accomplishment.
With a win in tonight's regular season finale against Atlanta, the Cavs would finish the season 50-32. It would be an eight-game improvement over last year, and would clinch just the fourth 50-win season in franchise history.
The Mark Price-Brad Daugherty led Cavs netted three 50-win seasons in five years from 1988 to 1993. The 1988-89 club, eliminated in the first round by Michael Jordan's famous (or infamous) shot, set a franchise record that still stands with 57 wins. The 1991-92 club duplicated the mark, losing to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals.
The 1992-93 club won 54, and lost once again to the Bulls, this time in the second round.
Some of LeBron James' teammates seem to think that 50 wins would increase his legitimacy as an MVP candidate. I don't buy that. I think most of the writers have made up their minds already and won't be casting their first-place votes for LeBron.
Let's face it -- LeBron inspires equal parts awe and resentment in sportswriting circles. Some writers thoroughly enjoy watching his breathtaking talent manifest itself in every game. Some think a vote for LeBron is equal to climbing on the King James bandwagon and selling out. Some are just jealous of the fact that a 21-year-old is superlatively talented and filthy rich, and will try to tear LeBron down under the guise of "journalistic objectivity."
But I digress.
Fifty wins won't get LeBron an MVP award this year, but it will give the Cavs a valuable toehold on the outskirts of elite status. Winning a playoff series would do even more, but a lot of that depends on who the Cavs face in the first round.
After the last buzzer sounds this season, whenever that is, the focus shifts back onto owner Dan Gilbert and GM Danny Ferry, and what they can do to add the few pieces this team is missing. If they manage 50 wins and a playoff series win this season, the ability to challenge Detroit as the top dog in the East will be a requirement for next season.

Awful O's

ESPN recently placed the Baltimore Orioles on the short list of the worst teams in professional sports.
They are off to a surprising 8-7 start, but Tuesday against the Indians, they looked worthy of the unenviable collection of teams.
Baltimore starter Bruce Chen apparently didn't get the memo that soft-tossing lefties are supposed to give the Indians fits. He was rocked. Not just rocked. Rocked hard. Rocked Motley Crue hard, like four-day benders, STD-infected groupies and used heroin needles hard. Chen gave up eight runs and eight hits in four innings.
The bullpen wasn't much better, allowing another seven runs in the ensuing five innings.
All told, the Indians banged out 20 hits and 15 runs, while the Orioles managed one shutout-averting run late in the game.
From the standpoint of an Indians fan, it was fun to watch. But from the standpoint of a baseball fan, I couldn't help but lament how far the Orioles have fallen.
The O's are above .500 now, but don't expect that to continue. This team has been in disarray for quite some time. A few spending binges in the mid-90s brought a couple of ALCS appearances, but the sad fact remains that the Orioles haven't produced a star-caliber prospect since the the Reagan administration.
And with one of the worst farm systems in baseball, the odds of a savior stepping up anytime soon is not good.
All this is happened as the Washington Nationals begin to encroach on Baltimore's fan base. A team that actually has a farm system Barring another short-term spending binge, there is little the Orioles will be able to do to prevent themselves from losing fans to Washington. The organization is wrecked to the point that it could take years, possibly a decade or more, to correct.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dumb Idea Award

The Class A West Michigan Whitecaps win the "Dumb Idea Award" this week for a promotional stunt in which they allowed kids -- some as young as five, some as old as 12 -- to trample each other in a mad outfield dash for airborne money.
Some of the kids were injured. At least one went to the hospital. Apparently, nobody saw it coming.
The idea to have a promotion where kids scramble for cash thrown from a helicopter is stupid enough. But leave it to team spokeswoman Katie Kroft to twist the knife a bit more.
"It's for fun and games," she told The Associated Press."This is why we have everybody sign a waiver."
OK. Just so long as the team is absolved of any legal responsibility. We can be assured that the Whitecaps will also have everybody sign waivers when they have "Lawn Dart Night" and the "Running With Scissors Infield Relay."

Playoff Central

In the NBA, 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs, so it isn't the achievement it is in baseball, where eight of 30 get in.
But it's still worth menitioning that the Central Division has accomplished a rare feat. All five teams are headed to the postseason. The Pistons, Cavaliers, Pacers, Bucks and Bulls are going to be playing next week.
It is the first time since the 1986 Midwest Division that every team has made it to the postseason. That was a six-team division.
It means the Central is a quailty division stacked with competitive teams. But it would be a stretch to call the Central the league's best top-to-bottom division. That title probably still goes to the Southwest Division, where the Spurs, Mavericks and Grizzlies reside.
Below are some pre-playoff capsules for the Central. The current conference seed is in parenthesis.

Detroit Pistons (1)
Out of the five teams in the Central, only the Pistons are a legitimate title contender. Detroit should reach the conference finals without breaking a sweat, and I can't see Miami or New Jersey getting the better of them over seven games. Punch their ticket for the NBA Finals.

Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
The Cavs are a solid candidate to win a first-round series ... if they don't draw the Wizards, who currently hold the five-seed. But a team getting their first taste of the playoffs in eight years in an unknown quantity. They could take care of business and advance, or could succumb to first-date nerves and gag against lesser competition.

Indiana Pacers (6)
The Pacers are playoff-decorated and finally have the Ron Artest fiasco behind them. With Artest traded, however, they lose a lot of their toughness. The Pacers would be far better-served drawing the finesse Cavs or Nets in the first round, rather than the brutish Pistons or Shaq and the Heat.

Milwaukee Bucks (7)
The Bucks are a surprise team. Bad enough to win the first overall pick in last year's draft lottery, they used that pick to draft Andrew Bogut, who has helped Michael Redd and Co. back to respectability. They could extend the Cavs or Nets to six games, but would be drop-kicked into Lake Michigan by the Pistons or Heat.

Chicago Bulls (8)
After overachieving to a fourth seed last year, the plucky Bulls have probably found their level this year. An ideal first-round opponent would be the Cavs, the only team the Bulls can trump with regard to playoff experience. Though they swept four games from Chicago this season, the Cavs have a nasty habit of slacking against what they perceive as lesser opponents. Cleveland is probably the only potential first-round foe Chicago would have a prayer of upsetting.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

They put a spell on you

A few weeks back, I said I hoped the Cavaliers draw the Wizards in the first round. I thought it would be the one team that could keep the Cavs motivated over the span of seven games.
I take that back after watching the Wizards dismantle the Cavs today 104-92. The game wasn't even that close.
Now, the Wizards are the one possible playoff opponent I want no part of. Which means the Cavs will almost certainly draw them.
Washington finished the regular season 3-1 against the Cavs. Today's game was indicative of the kind of series it has been. The Cavs are persistently tormented by undersized point guards and wing players who can shoot. It's a big reason why Cleveland is 1-2 against the lowly Knicks, and should by all rights be 0-3.
Washington has a quick, undersized combo guard who can shoot the lights out in Gilbert Arenas. He used to be a poor man's Allen Iverson. Now, he's in Iverson's league, the type of player who can alter a game.
But Arenas is just the tip of Washington's iceberg, and the Cavs are doing a good job of mimicking the hull of the Titanic.
The Wizards have a wing player who can shoot in Caron Butler, a big man who can shoot in Antawn Jamison, and a pretty darn good bench player in Antonio Daniels. He can shoot, too.
In a nutshell, the Cavs match up terribly with the Wizards. Good shooting teams can only be stopped with with on-the-ball perimeter defense that takes away open shots. The Cavs are filled with lane-cloggers and ball-stealers, but Eric Snow is their best on-the-ball defender, and he's not that great.
Should the Wizards and Cavs match up, there is every reason to believe the Wizards will be able to capitalize on open looks and bomb the Cavs into submission. Once the Cavs panic and spread their defense out, Washington will be able to take advantage of soft interior defense for repeated dunks and layups.
If that happens, the Cavs would be lucky to extend the series to five games.
I might also mention that the Wizards have a terrific coach in Eddie Jordan who piloted his team to an upset of the Bulls in a 4-5 series last season. The Cavs, meanwhile, will just be getting their feet wet in the postseason.
The Cavs will have the first two games against any first-round opponent at home. That should count for something. But against the Wizards, winning the first two at home is paramount. If the Cavs and Wizards split the first two at The Q, suddenly it becomes a best-of-five series with three in Washington.
At that point, the Cavs will need another miracle to knock off Washington, 30 years after the Cavs knocked off the Washington Bullets in the "Miracle of Richfield."

Fantastic Fausto

Fausto Carmona's victorious debut in Saturday's 7-2 win over the Tigers is exactly what I mean when I say the farm system must step up for the Indians to be successful this year. After watching Paul Byrd stagger in his first two starts, I'm half-tempted to say the more prospects called up, the better.
But I know there will be a point in the season where having veterans like Byrd will be a plus. I just hope it's not when the Indians are buried 10-plus games back. Two weeks into the season, and I can already see that the AL Central is going to be a tough, hyper-competitive division that will likely go down to the wire.
Chances are, a team is not going to emerge from the pack the way Chicago did last year. I think Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and quite possibly Detroit could be in the division race into September. One week of bad baseball could cost any one of those teams a shot at the playoffs.
The Indians can't afford too many spans of four losses in five games, like they are enduring now. They had better dig a trench at the .500 mark and not allow themselves to slip below.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Gross clinic

Dodgers closer Eric Gagne has just been nominated by the Mayo Clinic for "arm surgery you'd least want to read about during your breakfast bran muffin."
Well, not really. But he should be.
Last week, Gagne's arm was sliced open yet again, this time to remove a nerve. That's right, a nerve. Those narrow strands of tissue that allow you to feel things.
Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers team physician who pioneered "Tommy John" ligament transplant surgery in the 1970s, reportedly said Gagne kept feeling a "jingle" every time he threw a ball. I assume Jobe meant a jingle of pain.
I took enough health classes in school to know that pain is your body's way of telling you something is wrong. In Gagne's case, his elbow is messed up beyond belief, and will get more messed up the longer he elects to pitch.
Gagne's elbow is so messed up, apparently the option of removing the cause of the pain is no longer realistic. The only other option is to kill the messenger and clip that annoying little nerve out of there.
Media reports say Gagne will no longer have feeling along part of his forearm. The over-under on when his elbow snaps clean in two should be about three years, I'd think.
This is probably the most disgusting arm surgery a ballplayer has undergone since former Astros reliever John Hudek had a rib removed in 1995 because it was cutting off blood flow to his arm. He later was seen wearing the rib on a chain around his neck.
Maybe Gagne can make a bracelet out of his severed nerve.

(By the way, the title of the post is a play on words from the title of this painting by Thomas Eakins. I dare you to study it while eating breakfast.)

Friday, April 14, 2006


What just happened to the Indians?
For a week and a half, they had pitching to match their hitting. Then came the final two games of the Seattle series, and suddenly, the Indians couldn't pitch their way to water from a boat.
The past two games have been everything Indians fans feared coming into the season: Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson looked unworthy to carry the athletic supporters of Kevin Millwood and Scott Elarton, and the bullpen needed a "caution: flammable" sign.
Byrd and Johnson, the two free-agent acquisitions from this offseason, provided a trip down memory lane to the all-hit, no-pitch Indians of the late '90s. But those teams could slug their way to the playoffs atop a lousy division.
This team needs pitching, or they are going to get buried in the middle of the pack.
It's just two losses. It's still too early to fret. But if the Tribe's stellar offense has to begin lugging the pitching staff around like a ball and chain, this is going to become a frustrating season.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Piston poundings

Am I the only one who is nervous about a possible second-round playoff matchup between the Cavaliers and Pistons?
Let's count our chicks before they're hatched for a minute. Let's assume the Cavs knock the Wizards out in the first round, and let's assume the Pistons snack on whatever appetizer happens to be waiting at the eighth seed.
It's not just the prospect of getting swept by the Pistons. It's not just the prospect of losing two or three games by 35 points or more.
I'm worried about what the Pistons would do to the Cavs physically.
Last night, Cavs fans had a collective stomach-lurch when we saw LeBron James emerge from a midair collision with Tayshaun Prince on the ground, writhing in pain, grabbing his ankle. It appears he just sprained it to the point where he might miss a game or two, but it could have been a lot worse (as if any Clevelander needed to be reminded).
Later, Alan Henderson walked to the locker room holding a dislocated finger.
Four games against the Pistons this year, a 1-3 record, and three injuries, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas' infamous bloody head.
Sure, those injuries could happen against any team, but when playing the Pistons, the odds of needing gauze and splints goes up.
The Pistons don't just beat you. They make you their bitch. They are, without a doubt, Ike Turner manifested in professional basketball. They play with a menacing physical presence rooted in sharp elbows, hard fouls, open-handed blows to the head and any other dirty trick they can get away with.
We make fun of the fact that Rasheed Wallace recently served a one-game suspension for accumulating 16 technical fouls this year. The Pistons know that is a valuable piece of psychological intimidation on their side. Would you go down low against a guy who isn't above throwing an elbow in your face, consequences be damned?
I want the Cavs to reach the second round. I want them to have the experience of playing a championship-caliber club like Detroit in the playoffs. But I want the Cavs to emerge in one piece. And, come playoff time, a team like Detroit is going to bring the pain. Rasheed and Ben Wallace won't admit it, but they know if LeBron is knocked out of the lineup, the diffculty of playing the Cavs in a seven-game series drops. With LeBron, the Cavs can can be as tenacious as crocodiles at feeding time. Without LeBron, the Cavs more closely resemble small lizards scurrying for cover when a rock is moved.
Think the Wallaces are above taking LeBron out with a flagrant foul? I don't.
Having LeBron or Z laid up until next spring with some grisly injury does the Cavs no favors. But blowing homecourt advantage and losing to the Wizards in the first round ends the season on a flat note.
In the long run, getting bounced by Detroit in the second round should fuel the Cavs' fire to get better. Hopefully, with the knowledge gained from a postseason body slam, Cavs GM Danny Ferry will attempt to increase the size and toughness of the team's frontcourt. In the long run, matching Detroit's frontcourt muscle is probably the only way to take them out in the playoffs. But the Cavs have to survive the early beatings first.
Every up-and-coming team has to take their medicine against the league powers before they can proceed on to title-worthiness. But, when playing the Pistons, "take your medicine" can become a literal thing. As in, laid up in a hospital bed.

A new job

Get ready for a change, folks. Your neighborhood sports blogger has landed a new job.
As of May 1, I will be a staff writer for Smart Business Network, a chain of national business trade publications based in Westlake, Ohio.
Smart Business targets CEOs of small- and medium-sized companies by relaying stories of how other CEOs overcame problems at their businesses, such as battling back from bankruptcy, maximizing profits and keeping employees motivated.
I am told I will be in charge of writing cover stories for the Smart Business editions in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit and Columbus.
I have no idea how (or if) this will affect my blogging frequency. I am still going to spout my sports opinions here as often as possible, so keep reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Who is MVP?

The 2006 race for NBA Most Valuable Player is one of the most muddled in recent history.
No clear-cut favorite has emerged from the pack. Some dark horses have even come up to the lead pack.
Who, at the start of the season, thought Chauncey Billups would be a legitimate MVP candidate? No you didn't, Pistons fans.
A case can be made both in favor of and against each of the five leading MVP candidates. It's to the point that the selection of one shouldn't surprise more than the selection of the others.
Below, I prop up and tear down the cases for all five candidates, listed randomly. You decide.

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks

The case in favor: Nowitzki is having a spectacular offensive season without the benefit of feeds from Steve Nash, without Michael Finley to draw defensive fire away from him, without anyone else in his class on the Dallas roster. If the Mavericks didn't have Nowitzki, they might be a lottery team.

The case against: Much of the credit for the Mavs' success goes to a shored-up defense, and much of that credit goes to head coach Avery Johnson. As great as Nowitzki is offensively, he is far from a premier defensive player. Stats don't always tell the whole story.

Steve Nash, Suns

The case in favor: He is the defending MVP, so in the eyes of the voters, Nash has performed on this level before. He not only softened the blow of losing Amare Stoudemire for virtually the entire season, the Suns have maintained themselves as an elite team. Nash is the ultimate floor general in the modern NBA, with top-notch passing and shooting skills.

The case against: Is Nash really worthy of back-to-back MVP awards? Usually, that type of honor is reserved for guys with names like Jordan. When teams lose a frontcourt talent like Stoudemire, most don't have a fallback like Shawn Marion. The Suns do.

LeBron James, Cavaliers

The case in favor: LeBron has reached rarified air that few players in basketball history have touched. He recently scored 35 or more points in nine straight games, a mark eclipsed only by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. LeBron has steadily stepped up his game all season, to the point that he might be the single best player in the league at the moment. He has dragged the Cavs out of the muck of eight non-playoff seasons, and they are now locked into the fourth seed in the East.

The case against: He's only 21. Most voters won't seriously consider a player that young. While LeBron has elevated his own game all season, he hasn't been able to consistently elevate his team along with him the way Nowitzki and Nash have. Cleveland has had bouts with streakiness, and must win three more games to get to the 50-win plateau.

Kobe Bryant, Lakers

The case in favor: If the majority of scorers in the league run on high-octane gasoline, Bryant runs on rocket fuel. When he is hot, he is an unreal scorer. An 82-point game against Toronto this year is the high point of a stellar scoring resume. The rest of the Lakers roster could combine for 30 points, and Bryant could still lift them to a win.

The case against: The only way Bryant honestly makes his teammates better is by scoring more than them. To that end, he hasn't really done a good job of carrying the Lakers on his back this year. As of today, they are limping along at 41-37, bound for a first-round playoff date with the powerful Spurs or Suns.

Chauncey Billups, Pistons

The case in favor: Remember when Billups was a selfish, underachieving player who couldn't latch on anywhere? Now, he is the mature, polished floor general for the league's best team.
Billups is the engine that makes the Pistons offense go. Granted, his job is made a lot easier my the presence of multitalented players like Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, but without Billups, Detroit might actually be in danger of getting dropped prior to the NBA Finals.

The case against: With Billups, the Pistons are a championship contender. Without Billups, they still might be a championship contender, just not as powerful. The Pistons are so deep and so talented, it's hard to identify a team MVP, let alone a league MVP.

Other, less-serious MVP contenders: Dwyane Wade, Heat; Elton Brand, Clippers; Tim Duncan, Spurs

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Another game-winner

The great players always find someone to hate. It keeps them motivated.
Larry Bird once found motivation to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series by focusing his anger on Cleveland fans who were heckling him.
"Let them boo all summer," he snarled in the spring of 1985. Then he set about eliminating the Cavs in four games.
Michael Jordan found the key to six NBA titles by antagonizing pretty much everyone in an opposing uniform.
Maybe LeBron James finally found his bad guys in Monday night's win over the Hornets in Oklahoma City. They were wearing whistles.
LeBron has at times been derided for being way too diplomatic with the opposition. He was spotted embracing members of the Pistons following a two-game beatdown at the end of February. You remember, when Rasheed Wallace made Zydrunas Ilgauskas' forehead resemble a first aid video.
The one group LeBron has never had trouble expressing displeasure with, at least on the court, is the officials. Among all the basketball moves LeBron has perfected or nearly-perfected, he has also become well-versed in the incredulous, you-cannot-be-serious gesticulations of a man that has either been hacked with no whistle, or was tagged with a foul for breathing on someone.
The former appeared to happen late in the fourth quarter Monday. With the Cavs leading 101-100 and less than 30 seconds to play, LeBron penetrated the paint with a hop, step and jump. He negotiated a sea of Hornet arms before laying a shot off the glass that failed to find the hoop. As the Hornets grabbed the rebound and sprinted to the other end, LeBron hung back for a second, arms extended, pained expression on his face, staring at a ref. He might as well have had "Where's the foul?" tattooed across his forehead.
Replays did show arm-on-arm contact during LeBron's drive. But officials have been known to let play continue through that type of contact, certainly with the game on the line.
But to LeBron, it was an officiating gaffe. And it apparently lit a win-now fire under him.
When Desmond Mason was fouled and missed one of two free throws, leaving the game tied at 101, LeBron apparently felt the onus was on him to prevent an official's non-call from forcing overtime.
With five seconds remaining, he took the inbounds pass, dribbled a few times, sized up the situation and made his move. He jab-stepped inside the three-point arc, pulled back, shot a 20-footer and made it with .5 seconds to play. When the Hornets failed to get a shot off in the remaining time, LeBron had his second game-winner in a month.
The play was almost identical to the shot that beat the Bobcats in overtime last month at The Q. Now LeBron has a game-winner on the road. Not just on the road, but in front of a loud, animated sellout Oklahoma City crowd fully embracing their first taste of big league pro sports.
And it all might be due to a perceived non-call by a ref.
At least we know that, when provoked, LeBron is capable of inserting the dagger.

Monday, April 10, 2006

2 out of 3 ain't bad

In the most recent baseball power rankings, we find out that:

A)'s John Donovan thinks that the Indians rock, unabashedly placing them in first place.

B) also places the Tribe in first place, but makes it sound like it was the result of throwing condiments against a wall.

C) Dayn Perry of still thinks the Indians suck.
Now that he has predicted the Tribe to finish third behind the White Sox and Tigers, we can look forward to a summer of sparse compliments, heavy criticism, and negative spin from Perry. The Indians won't crack the top three in Perry's rankings, no matter how well they play, because that would be admitting he was wrong. And the first time they lose three in a row, Perry will probably drop them to 20th.
Do I sound bitter? Good. Because I want this to get under the Indians' skin. I want them to be urinating on Dayn Perry-shaped urinal cakes by the all-star break. I want this team to stay as motivated as they are now. Keep it coming, Dayn. Jackass.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Barons sign off

Not to take anything away from the good things that are happening in Cleveland sports. And for the first time in a long time, good things seem to be falling out of the trees.
Just this weekend, the Indians completed a sweep of the Twins to improve to 5-1 on the young season. The Cavaliers posted an impressive win against the Nets Saturday afternoon, and have formally nailed down the fourth seed in the East.
But I have to take a timeout to write a small eulogy. While Travis Hafner and Casey Blake have been piercing the cold April air with home run balls, while LeBron James continues to stretch the boundaries of imagination and description, the Cleveland Barons have been laying down to die, yet again.
Saturday, Cleveland bid farewell to yet another hockey franchise with the Barons' home finale. The Barons will be reborn next fall as the Worcester Sharks.
Chances are you don't care. That's part of the problem.
It appears the Barons came to Cleveland with the idea that a small-but-loyal cult following would be enough to survive. It wasn't, not when they had to compete against three major-league franchises for dollars.
For five years, by design, the Barons flew under the radar of public consciousness in Cleveland. They promoted themselves with newspaper ads and not much else. Their presence on television and radio was virtually nonexistent. They reaped what what sown: four-figure crowds, sluggish merchandise sales and suffocating apathy from the vast majority of Cleveland fans.
Barons management must have realized within a few years the franchise was in over its head in a major market. When Barons management began looking for a place to relocate last year, they looked at cities that were similar to Lexington, Ky., where the Barons had previously existed as the Kentucky Thoroughblades.
First, the franchise was rumored to be headed to the Quad Cities area of Iowa. This year, management settled on Worcester, Mass.
In retrospect, the Barons were probably doomed the instant George Gund sold the parent San Jose Sharks. Their fate was sealed when brother Gordon sold the Cavs and Gund Arena last year.
The Sharks-Barons connection made sense in 2001, when the Barons arrived. The Gunds owned the Cavs, the Sharks and their home arenas. Having the Sharks' top farm club play in Cleveland was a great way to pocket more revenue.
But with the Gunds out of the picture, that connection was cut, and suddenly the Cleveland-San Jose affiliation made no sense at all.
It is just another in a long line of things that just didn't add up about the Barons. And hockey fans in Cleveland are the ones who have to ultimately pay the price.
At Saturday night's game, one thing stood out to me before I even found my seat. Every hockey franchise Cleveland has ever had was represented by at least one jersey in the crowd.
The original AHL Barons. The WHA Crusaders. The NHL Barons. The IHL Lumberjacks. The current Barons. At least one fan was wearing a jersey for each. Some were represented more than once.
Though Cleveland only had NHL hockey for two seasons in the 1970s, there are fans who embrace the long, if fragmented, history of pro hockey here.
Cleveland may never get an NHL franchise again, certainly not with the Columbus Blue Jackets playing two hours away. But Cleveland should be more than a hockey halfway house for disorganized, financially-withered teams.
The onus appears to be on Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who reportedly is finalizing a deal to buy the dormant Utah Grizzlies of the AHL and move them to Cleveland. He must find a way to get Cleveland to rediscover hockey on a large scale.
The first step is in place. Gilbert and his staff will keep the franchise in drydock for a year so they can formulate a business and marketing strategy for the new team. In a major-league town, slick marketing and tightly-managed money are the only ways a minor-league team can survive.
Cleveland hockey fans deserve as much. Five hockey franchises have failed in Cleveland's history. Here's hoping Gilbert's franchise isn't the sixth.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Blake the bomber

One of two things were going to get Tribe fans to stop riding Casey Blake this year.
He needed to get benched, demoted or traded, or needed to have a year that redeemed himself from an atrocious 2005, when he at times looked like a scared, lost minor leaguer playing in the big leagues.
Most of us systematically eliminated the second option, figuring what we saw with Blake in '05 was pretty much was we were going to get: a player who had some pop in his swing, but was incapable of reacting and adjusting to good major league pitching.
It was a matter of talent, we figured, and there was probably a reason why Blake wasn't a major league regular until age 29. Even when he arrived in the majors to stay, in 2003, it was on an Indians team searching frantically for a stopgap at third base after Travis Fryman retired.
Nobody, maybe not even Blake, thought this was going to turn into a long-term relationship.
Not only has it turned into a long-term relationship, it is going to turn into a career if early returns on Blake's 2006 season stay true.
Don't look now, but out of the gate, he's hitting .385. In 2005, "385" would have been the number of Jacobs Field fans booing him after any of his many called third strikes.
He picked up the pace in the Chicago series. But he saved his best for Friday's home opener, in front of the fans that have branded him inept for three years.
Sure, Twins starter Kyle Lohse grooved a fastball. And yes, he is most definitely not Johan Santana. But the point is, Blake seized the day. Bases loaded, two out, Indians clinging to a 4-3 lead, and he took Lohse's fastball and crushed it. Not just a grand slam, a knockout blow when his team needed it most.
The slam turned out to be the difference in an 11-6 win.
We can accuse Blake of being the blind dog that finds a bone. We can call it the law of averages catching up to Blake, dismiss it as Blake closing his eyes, swinging and randomly finding paydirt.
If Blake is hitting .230 a month from now, it will be easy to do. And his detractors will be right.
But what we have to go on now is four games, a grand slam, and what appears to be a rejuvenated Casey Blake, ready to make peace with himself and Cleveland fans.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Joltin' Jimmy Rollins

Watching Jimmy Rollins pursue Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was kind of like watching George Mason in the NCAA Tournament.
Your logic-brain kept telling you not to get too caught up, that there was no way he was going to approach DiMaggio, just like there was no way George Mason was going to sniff a national championship.
But your emotional brain kept you starry-eyed enough to keep believing in miracles.
Logic won out at the end as Rollins' hit streak was snapped at 38 games Thursday, and you might feel a bit stupid for thinking that Rollins could reach 56 games. But that's what sports sells: hope.
I doubt anyone will ever break DiMaggio's record. What he did in the summer of 1941 was downright freakish and in violation of all the checks and balances inherent to the game of baseball. To manage one hit a game for almost two months regardless of opposing pitchers, regardless of travel schedules (this was in the days of train travel), regardless of any annoying injury DiMaggio might have been playing through, is the king of all abberations.
Even if you take away all those factors, you still have to overcome well-hit balls that find their way to fielders. Baseball doesn't reward strength all the time, contact hitting all the time, or great hitters' eyes all the time. Baseball rewards, as Willie Keeler was purported to have said more than 100 years ago, the ability to "hit 'em where they ain't." And as a hitter, you can't control the fielders.
We would be apt to think a contact hitter like Rollins would be a prime candidate to reach DiMaggio's record. Contact hitters put the ball in play, after all. Keeler, who set the widely-accepted previous record of 45 games with a hit in 1897, played in an era when hitters were almost exclusively contact-seekers.
But again, DiMaggio flies in the face of logic. He was a doubles-hitter with a long, graceful swing. Pete Rose and Paul Molitor, who also climbed the DiMaggio ladder, were not true poke-and-jab contact hitters. Molitor especially beared similar hitting traits to DiMaggio.
So maybe Rollins isn't a prime candidate. Maybe there isn't a hitter we can classify as a "prime candidate" to upstage Joltin' Joe.
It's probably a crapshoot. This month, it's Jimmy Rollins. In June, we might be sitting up and taking notice as Jim Thome rides a 30-game hitting streak.
Not likely? Neither was George Mason in the Final Four.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Revenge served sorta warm

What, you thought the Indians would win a series against the White Sox, and I'd forget to blog about it?
Wednesday was an example of all the things that need to go right for the Indians to have a chance in the Central this year. They got clutch hitting, great bullpen work, a get-me-over start from Cliff Lee, and a typical Bob Wickman save delivered on a trembling platter.
Grady Sizemore and Jason Michaels took charge with seven hits between them. It was Michaels' double in the top of the 11th inning that provided Cleveland with the winning run.
If both Sizemore and Michaels hit .300 this year, the rest of the offense can fall into place behind them and the Indians should seldom hurt for runs.
The 4-3 extra-inning win was only the third game of the season, but it was significant for the Indians. It was a one-run win for a team that lost all nine one-run decisions against the White Sox a year ago. It was a series win for a team that went 5-14 against the White Sox a year ago.
The White Sox led the division wire-to-wire last year. This year, we can already say that won't be the case.
Like I said previously, the tale of the tape will build quickly for the Indians. If they take two of three from the Twins starting Friday, they would begin the season 4-2. Then the Mariners come to town.
If the Indians get off to a fast start, fan interest catches hold, and suddenly, the summer looks a lot more exciting in Cleveland.

Big, rotten Apple

Just to check: the Cavaliers know the Knicks are terrible, right?
They know the Knicks are a pathetic, wretched, awful team that was missing its best player Wednesday night, right?
Just checking. Because no one would have known it last night as the Knicks beat the Cavs 96-94. The game was only that close because of a spirited fourth-quarter run that erased a 19-point deficit.
And let's not forget Jamal Crawford. Against any other team, he's ... well, he's Jamal Crawford. Against the Cavs, he turns into Allen Iverson, repeatedly knocking down lethal shot after lethal shot. He dropped 37 on the Cavs last night, including the game-winner with less than 10 seconds to play.
It was reminiscent of the game-for-the-ages Bobcats guard Ray Felton had two weeks ago in nearly pulling off a huge upset at The Q.
The more I think about it, the more I want the Cavs to play the Wizards in a first-round series instead of the Bucks. The Wizards are a tougher team.
Gilbert Arenas has killed the Cavs before. He'll keep Cleveland on their toes over the course of a series. The Bucks, whom the Cavs handled in three of four meetings this year, offer the chance for a letdown and an embarrassing first-round exit.
We have repeatedly seen how the Cavs sleepwalk against lesser competition. Last night's loss to the 20-54 Knicks drops the Cavs to 0-2 against arguably the worst team in the league this year. The only other team the Cavs have failed to beat this year are the lottery-bound Golden State Warriors, whom the Cavs are also 0-2 against.
Toss in a home loss to the Hawks and two razor-close wins over the Bobcats, and you have a Cleveland team that has a positively shaky record against bad teams.
When the Cavs think they have to rise to the occassion, they can beat any team in the league, certainly at home. When they view a game in the same bothersome light as a 7 a.m. shootaround, they can lose to just about any team in the league.
There are no excuses acceptable. Even if the Cavs won last night, it wouldn't have been deserved.
The next three games are on the road, one of them against the white-hot Nets and another against a team that needs no introduction, the Pistons. With that in mind, Wednesday's loss might be the loss that prevents the Cavs from reaching 50 wins.
With the playoff-tested Wizards showing signs of life behind them, let's hope it won't be the loss that prevents the Cavs from clinching homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Uncharted Waters

For the first time in a long time, Cleveland State's basketball program has made a good decision. And hopefully, it will lead to more good decisions.
The Vikings are hiring former Kent State coach Gary Waters to lead their program. Even though he sputtered for the past five years at Rutgers, compiling a 79-75 record before resigning in March, he still has a track record that should give fans of the skin-and-bones Cleveland State basketball program reason for hope.
Waters, at least in the past, found a way to make a midmajor progam that could compete with the big boys.
Waters' Golden Flashes were a perennial Mid-American Conference power thanks to a large talent pipeline he built from the Detroit area. Waters' Detroit-area recruiting brought him Trevor Huffman and Antonio Gates, two cornerstones of the 2002 Kent State team that came within a win of the Final Four.
Waters recruit Nate Gerwig was a freshman on that team. He helped the Flashes to yet another NCAA berth this year.
It is folly to think Waters can show up at Cleveland State and wave a magic wand. The situation is rather different from Kent. While Kent State can offer a campus atmosphere and the college-life experience, Cleveland State is a downtown commuter school that counts a converted hotel as its lone dormitory.
It will be more difficult for Waters to sell talented out-of-town players on Cleveland State than it was to sell them on Kent State. Detroit recruits can stay at home, go to Detroit Mercy or Wayne State, and get the same experience Cleveland State can offer. Waters is going to need to be a first-rate salesman for his program and give those players a reason to come to Cleveland.
Then there's the Vikings' home, which is a double-edged sword. Cleveland State has the 13,000-seat Wolstein Center for a home court, a far better facility than Kent's MAC Center, which looks like a beefed-up high school gym.
But few things are more deflating to team morale than playing in front of 12,000 empty seats per night. Waters' presence might boost ticket sales a bit, but the Wolstein Center still figures to be a cavernous void until the Vikings start winning.
As it stands, Waters comes in with little ammo at his disposal this summer. He has one scholarship to award, which means the team that former coach Mike Garland left behind is virtually the same team Waters will start with.
But anything that has to do with Cleveland State basketball should be viewed as a long-term plan. Viking basketball is as bad as it has been in quite some time, riding a string of three straight losing seasons and no Horizon League tournament wins in five years. So Viking fans need to take baby steps with their expectations.
First, be thankful for what Waters isn't: he's not a former assistant from a big-name program who will be caught off-guard by just how much of an uphill recruiting battle he's fighting, like Garland was.
He's not a one-hit wonder trying to stave off retirement for a few more years, like Rollie Massimino.
He's not a caretaker head coach who was thrust into the job, like Mike Boyd.
And let's hope Waters is constructed of far better moral fabric than Kevin Mackey.
Waters isn't a magician. But he is the best coach the Vikings have had in quite some time, certainly as a recruiter.
His arrival won't part the clouds tomorrow, but if he is as diligent as he was at Kent State, the skies over the Cleveland State basketball program should steadily lighten over the next few years.

Free Pressing

If you live in the Toledo area, you can pick up a copy of the Toledo Free Press to witness my triumphant return to Northwest Ohio print journalism for the first time since the spring of 2003.
Not only did Matt Sussman give me run on his blog, he gave me a mention in his column in the sports section of the Free Press.
I am really hoping some of Sussman's national-media-attention-grabbing mojo rubs off on me, and the city of Cleveland. I feel like a thinner version of Sally Struthers, drawing attention to the plight of a famine-plagued and oppressed people. Except Clevelanders eat more pizza and swear more than Ethiopians.

The drought ends

The Cavaliers clinched their playoff berth on March 29, a week ago today.
On, Matt Sussman points out that I pointed out the length of the combined playoff drought of all three Cleveland teams. As of March 1, it stood at 1,151 days, dating to the Browns' wild card loss to the Steelers on Jan. 5, 2003.
The Cavs' clinch snapped the playoff drought at 1,179 days. But since the Cavs won't play their first playoff game until April 22 or 23, you can technically tack another 24 or 25 days onto that. So by the time the Cavs actually play their first playoff game in eight years, the playoff drought will official end at 1,203 or 1,204 days, or slightly under three and a half years.
It has been 1,636 days since a Cleveland team last won a playoff game. But it was a doozy. On October 13, 2001, the Indians defeated the Mariners 17-2 in Game 3 of their division series.

(A math-checking assist goes to Marc Gibbons.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Feeling better

Maybe Sunday's rout by the White Sox wasn't a dark harbinger of trying times.
This afternoon, Indians pitching was sharp as starter Jake Westbrook allowed just two runs over seven innings, and Cleveland cruised to an 8-2 win.
Aaron Boone -- yes, that blind-as-a-bat Aaron Boone from a year ago -- had four hits incluiding a home run as the Indians kicked Chicago starter Freddy Garcia out of the game after four-plus innings.
Boone also stuck his neck out, crashing into White Sox catcher A.J. Pierszynski to jar the ball loose on a play at the plate. Boone scored on the play.
The Indians answered Chicago's six-run rout with a six-run rout of their own. Touche.
And so the drama begins.

Brackets: Part 8

So Florida wins in the end, and sophomore forward Joakim Noah has suddenly become hot property. If he decides to declare for the NBA draft this year, he is a possible lottery pick.
If you predicted all that, you earn a gold star.
Myself, I finished sixth in The Gazette's NCAA pool out of 27 entrants. Not bad, considering only one of my Final Four made it. If I had picked UCLA to bow out in the championship game instead of the semifinals, maybe I could have cracked the top three.
That's life in the big-city bracket pool.

Here are some of my tournament awards:

Most surprising team: George Mason
As if you had to ask. They were the first small school to broach the Final Four since 1979. Too bad their exit was so unceremonious.

Most disappointing team: Duke
They were a Final Four-caliber team, but they simply died against LSU.

Most on-par team: UCLA
They made the Final Four as a second seed, advanced to the championship game and were oustered by a more athletic team.

Coach of the tournament: Jim Larranaga, George Mason
For three weeks, he got his too short/too slow/too small Patriots to play over their heads. Emphasis on "for three weeks." Unfortunately, some desperate school with deep pockets will brand him a savior and hire him away, and he'll flop badly. Northwestern, anyone?

Player of the tournament: Joakim Noah, Florida
Much like with Larranaga, some desperate NBA team is about to select Noah way too high should he declare for the draft. My unsolicited advice is that Noah stay in college for at least one more season and add some muscle. He has the athleticism to play in an NBA frontcourt. But with his skinny frame, he wouldn't be much more than a slightly-more-coordinated version of Anderson Varejao at the moment.

Overhyped player of the tournament: J.J. Redick, Duke
He's the shizznit at the moment, especially after winning the AP Player of the Year award. But I have a nasty feeling he is going to be another Dukie who can't live up to the hype at the NBA level. He isn't amazingly athletic, which calls into question his ability to penetrate and defend in the NBA. If he can't get his celebrated outside shot off quickly enough for the NBA, he is going to be buried on the bench somewhere.

Teams to watch out for next year: UCLA and Ohio State
Both teams had great formative years, though UCLA is more advanced at the moment. The Bruins should be a national championship favorite next year, and the Buckeyes should be a Final Four contender with a fantastic freshman class coming in.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Return of Hughes

The Cavaliers did it. They weathered the storm.
Tuesday against the 76ers, Larry Hughes will reportedly be back in uniform.
Between New Year's Day, when Hughes was told to have surgery on his broken finger, and now, the Cavs have played more than 40 games. LeBron James elevated his game to new levels, Flip Murray was acquired from Seattle and the Cavs are now riding an eight-game winning streak.
As soon as the Cavs clinch the fourth seed, they can start resting guys and giving Hughes a chance to knock the rust off.
With Murray and a healthy Hughes in the lineup, the Cavs suddenly become one of the more dangerous teams in the East's playoff picture. I still don't think they can take Detroit or Miami in a seven-game series, but advancing to the second round is suddenly realistic. Maybe it should even be expected.

White Sox 10, Indians 4

It's only the first game. There are 161 more (and 18 more with the White Sox) to play. But I think some trends are already starting to emerge.

1) Jim Thome will torment the Indians this year
Much like a lot of Indians fans, Thome loves GM Mark Shapiro, but I don't think he's too crazy about owner Larry Dolan.
He left town feeling low-balled, and now he's back in the AL Central to wreak havoc. He gave a sample of what is to come with his no-doubt homer off Fernando Cabrera in the fourth inning, re-energizing what had become a sparse Chicago crowd thanks to a three-hour rain delay.
After just seven homers and 59 games last year for Philadelphia, Thome is primed for a breakout year. The Indians, especially, are going to feed his comeback year.
My early prediction: Thome hits at least 10 homers against the Indians this year. It's going to be tough to make headway against the White Sox when Thome threatens to change the game every time he steps to the plate.

2) Yet again, C.C. Sabathia's conditioning is called into question
A strained oblique muscle can happen to any baseball player. But this is the second straight year C.C. has yanked a side muscle.
He left the mound in the third inning. Given the fickle nature of muscle strains, who knows when he'll be back? Last year, the injury cost him just about all of spring training and the first two weeks of the season.
I still don't think C.C. knows exactly how comprehensive your conditioning has to be as a major league pitcher. It's not just running and cardio. You need to stretch a lot to guard against injuries just like this.
C.C. is physically a high-maintenance pitcher. His height makes his mechanics liable to get thrown out of whack. His weight makes him a candidate for joint and muscle injuries. If C.C. doesn't realize that, it's up to the Indians coaching and training staff to monitor him, and press him when needed.

3) Fernando Cabrera is pitching his way back to Buffalo
Something isn't right with Cabrera. This isn't the guy who posted a 1.47 ERA for the Indians last year.
He had a rocky finish to spring training. Last night, albeit in unconventional circumstances, he looked terrible. Ten of his first 13 pitches were balls, he needed a great diving catch by Jason Michaels to save an extra-base hit, and he committed the cardinal sin of grooving a shin-high fastball to Thome.
The Indians have to get Cabrera straightened out. If he gas-cans his way back to Buffalo, that's a major piece of the Indians bullpen out of commission.