Don't Be Fooled, It Won't be That Easy

The city is abuzz thanks to yesterday’s resounding Game 1 triumph by the Cavaliers over the Washington Wizards yesterday afternoon.  An 11 point win that really wasn’t close after the middle of the second quarter will cause that excitement.  By the way, the playoff atmosphere didn’t seem to bother LeBron, did it?
However, this will be a close series.  The wine and gold played very well, and the Washington big three (Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler) did not shoot the ball well.  In the playoffs, it is all about adjustments.  Wizards’ coach Eddie Jordan will see what made the Cavs’ offense successful in the first game, and will change up his defense.  Offensively, Jordan will hope his main players make more shots.  For the most part, they had good looks, but the ball didn’t go down. 
I expect Washingto to come back with a revenge on Tuesday night.  If the Cavs’ can react and win that game, they will have a big leg up on winning this series and advancing to the conference semi-finals.  Look for Cavs’ head man Mike Brown to try to get Zydrunas Ilgauskas established early in the game.  One thing the Wizards’ have for concern:  Is there a defense for LBJ if the rest of the team is making their shots.
Now on to the Tribe.  No team looks good if the starting pitching stinks, and in the last four games, that describes the Indians’ starting pitching.  Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, and Paul Byrd have combined to give up 24 runs in 13 innings in their last stop.  This has put a tremendous strain on the shaky bullpen.
Eric Wedge has managed like a man with waning confidence in his relief corps.  He left Westbrook in at least three hitters too long.  Carmona should have been lifted after a leadoff double with a 4-3 lead.  When you have inexperienced guys in the pen, you should try to bring them in at the start of an inning. 
The key man for the Tribe is Jason Davs.  The club needs Davis to provide another set up man with Guillermo Mota to get to Bob Wickman until Rafael Betancourt gets back. 
The biggest help would be for the starters to give Wedge six or seven innings every day.  When the Tribe made its run last year, it went a long stretch without giving up four runs in a contest.  That’s what the Tribe needs starting today.

A Historical Matchup for the Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers will make their first playoff appearance in eight years this weekend.  They will take on either the Washington Wizards or the Chicago Bulls in the best of seven game series.  Either match up will have historical meaning to Cleveland fans, one with fond memories, the other with heartbreaking ones.
This is the 30th anniversary of the so called "Miracle of Richfield".  For those who are too young to remember this edition of the Cavs, they won the only division title in the history of the franchise.  The wine and gold missed their first playoff appearance on the last day of the season in 1974-75, so the title marked the team’s first visit to the post season.  The Cavs were arguably the hottest team in the NBA going into the playoffs, and beat the then Washington Bullets in a seven game series.  Most of the games went down to a final posession, including Game 7 when Dick Snyder’s runner moved Bill Fitch’s crew into the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics.
Prior to the Boston series, center Jim Chones broke his foot and couldn’t play.  Aging Nate Thurmond did an admirable job, but the wine and gold lost in six games and wouldn’t win another playoff series for 16 years.  The Celtics went on to win the title, leaving Cleveland fans to lament they would have beaten the Celts in Chones hadn’t gone down. 
At that point in time, the Coliseum was the loudest arena in the NBA.  The crowd would be standing and cheering at these playoff games a good 15 minutes before tip off.  It was a new experience for the town, its first competitive basketball team, and they responded.  Outside of the Lenny Wilkens led teams of the early 90’s and the arrival of LeBron James, it was the highlight of the franchise’s history.
The Bulls represent the other end of the spectrum.  They eliminated the wine and gold from the playoffs five times from the 1987-88 season through the 1993-94 season.  Several of those defeats are on the list of crushing Cleveland losses, most notably "The Shots" by Michael Jordan over the outstretched hands of Larry Nance and Gerald Wilkins. 
What people don’t remember was that early in Jordan’s career, the Cavaliers beat the Bulls on a regular basis.  When Jordan made the shot, the Cavs won every game that regular season against Chicago.  By the way, I’ve never heard an arena get quiet so quickly as when MJ hit that basket.  It went from a party to a funeral in a second. 
The only other time the Cavs made the Conference Finals, they were defeated by Jordan and the Bulls after winning series against New Jersey and Boston.
The best thing about these playoffs is that it will be James’ first appearance in the playoffs.  This is the first step in getting to the NBA title that LeBron, Danny Ferry, and Daniel Gilbert expect in the near future.  Enjoy the ride, and get used to playoff basketball in the NBA.  The guess here is it is the first of many visits down the road.

To Paraphrase Meat Loaf: Three out of Five Ain't Bad

Listening to baseball analysts all the time might sound tedious, but for those who love the game it isn’t.  Occasionally you pick up on small tidbits that make all the sense in the world.  I think Mike Hegan said this during a broadcast a few years ago, but I could be wrong.  He said ideally you want to win three out of every five games.  If you do that, you wind up the season with 96 wins and that should get you in the playoffs. 
I bring that up in case anyone is upset by the Tribe losing four of their last five games.  The Indians are still 7-5 for the season and if they win two of their next three, they will be 9-6 on the campaign, exactly the pace Hegan talked about. 
However, I do want to point out a couple of things that bothered me last week, a week the Tribe went 2-4 against the Mariners and Tigers. 
Bullpen issues:  There are two things relievers cannot do when they enter the game:  walk guys and give up home runs.  For the most part, Cleveland bullpenners have kept the ball in the yard, at least the ones who will get innings with the game on the line.  However, we have struggled with control.  The opener at Chicago was lost when Fernando Cabrera couldn’t find the plate, and Thursday night’s loss to Seattle was more of the same.  Rafael Betancourt (usually reliable) walked the lead off man with a 5-3 lead, and then gave up a bomb to Jose Lopez.  Guillermo Mota came on after another base hit, and had control issues as well, walking in a run. 
Last year’s pen did an outstanding job of coming in and throwing strikes, and they have to get back to that.  One of the reasons Cabrera was put on the DL was so he could get his mechanics under control after his injury heals.  Matt Miller has had control issues in some of his outings as well. 
That’s why bullpens are a crap shoot pretty much every year.  Most of these guys are in the ‘pen are there because they are not good enough to be starters.
The bench:  Teams that have productive benches generally make use of them.  Eric Wedge has struggled with this in the past, and so far this season that hasn’t changed.  Todd Hollandsworth finally got in the lineup on Saturday and contributed with two doubles and an outstanding catch.  Why he hasn’t been in sooner, I don’t know.  Wedge could have gotten him in there against Seattle subbing one game for Jason Michaels and another for Casey Blake. 
Kelly Shoppach has to play more to keep Victor Martinez fresh, and Ramon Vazquez can get a start once a week as well.  I realize many of the Tribe’s core players are young, so they don’t require as much rest, but the skipper has to keep his bench active so they can contribute when the opportunity arises. 
The season is early and the off days are plentiful, but these bench players are on major league rosters.  The season is a long one, and the regulars have to be kept fresh for the end of the year.

Message, Shmessage

Yes, the Cavaliers were thumped by the Detroit Pistons yesterday in Motown.  Yes, LeBron James hurt his ankle in the defeat.  Yes, Pistons’ forward Rasheed Wallace gestured at the Cavs’ bench after Anderson Varajao got in some retaliation for Wallace’s bloodying of Zydrunas Ilgauskas last month.  However, the whole posturing by the media was overblown.  The only message I took out of yesterday’s game was the Pistons are a much better basketball team than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Pistons have been to The Finals the past two seasons, winning the championship in 2003-04.  They are a polished, veteran group and they have the best record in the NBA again this season.  The two teams have played four games this year, and the wine and gold won once, about the same thing we could expect if the Cavs and Pistons met in the playoffs. 
Since the Cavs don’t have much playoff experience on their roster, the whole process will be a lesson for them, and they will be better for it in future years.  Mike Brown and his team will learn about the adjustments that will be made from game to game in a seven game series.  They will learn how and when hard fouls must be given.  They will learn the importance of a low post game.  It isn’t anything they can simulate.
Varajao’s hard foul on Wallace was definitely needed.  The Cavs’ players had to show that someone will step up when the Pistons were using the team as a door mat.  It should have been done the next time the two teams played, not a month later.  If the Cavs and Pistons do meet in the conference semi-finals, Detroit will try to intimidate again.  Cleveland has to even the score right away. 
The Cavalier players were probably down after being blown out, and as competitors they should be.  But as fans, last night’s game was just a re-affirmation that the Pistons are the best team in the East.  When the season ends, LeBron and company will look at Detroit as having something they want.  Then they have to make the adjustments necessary to get it.

A Good First Week

The Indians started off the 2006 season by taking 5 of 6 against their biggest competition to win the AL Central Division title, the White Sox and the Twins.  With all of the hand wringing following the opening night loss, much has changed for supporters of the Tribe in the last week.
However, we cannot expect the club will roll through the season like the 1995 edition of the Tribe, one that won the Central Division by 30 games.  This division will be a dogfight for the entire season as the two teams the Indians just played will hang around all year.  Also, it appears from the first week of the season (I know it’s a marathon not a sprint) that the Tigers could be better than expected.
In the midst of this winning streak, there are a few things I was disappointed in the first week of the season:
Jhonny Peralta’s contact:  The young shortstop whiffed 128 times last season, and has already fanned nine times in six games in 2006.  Peralta hit .292 last season, but it’s difficult to believe he will approach that mark again consistantly in the future unless he makes better contact.  Peralta will be a productive player, but will not be able to hit third in the order if he doesn’t correct this problem. 
Ronnie Belliard is pull happy:  Belliard is off to a slow start, but it appears he is trying yank everything.  The second baseman’s game is using the entire field, but he has been swinging early in counts trying to hit the long ball.  Perhaps he is trying to show Mark Shapiro he is worthy of a contract extension, but he needs to relax and go the other way once he recovers from his pulled leg muscle.
Lefty in the pen:  Scott Sauerbeck made two appearances, one in the blowout loss last Sunday night in Chicago, and the other in a key situation against the White Sox on Wednesday.  He came into face Scott Podsednik, a lefthanded hitter, and promptly walked him.  After a sacrifice, he intentionally walked Jim Thome, which was the correct move.  However, since the Tribe has only one southpaw in the ‘pen, it is imperative that he throws strikes.  If Eric Wedge doesn’t have confidence in Sauerbeck, GM Mark Shapiro will be looking at either Felix Heredia in Buffalo or another alternative for the relief corps.
The Tribe is off to the good start the team and its fans wanted after the last few years when they buried themselves in the standings.  The Indians seems to have continued the mantra of their manager, take it one series at a time.

A Lesson in Baseball Strategy

I was listening to WKNR while the Tribe game was going on yesterday afternoon and of course I had to hear all these "experts", including the host talk about baseball strategy, particularly when and when not to bunt.  Most of the baseball writers I read talk about what a waste the bunt is, and I agree with them.  However, most fans who want the hitters to bunt do not understand the ramifications of the act.
First of all, baseball is not a game driven by time.  The only measurable thing about the actual playing is the 27 outs in a nine inning game.  Having a hitter lay down a bunt forfeits one of those precious outs.  So, there better be a very good reason for doing it.
In the fifth inning of yesterday’s game, with the Tribe leading 2-1, Grady Sizemore and Jason Michaels singled putting runners on first and second with no one out and the #3 hitter Jhonny Peralta at the plate.  The young shortstop hit .292 last season with 24 HR’s.  So, why would you want him to bunt?  If he does, you now have runners on second and third with one out, and Ozzie Guillen would likely pitch around Travis Hafner to set up a double play.  The people who complained they should have bunted because Hafner flied out to center and it would have been a sacrifice fly are wrong because Hafner likely would not have swung the bat.
Now go to the White Sox seventh inning with lefty Scott Sauerbeck on the mound.  Scott Posednik walked to start the inning, and Guillen had Tadahiro Iguchi bunt him over to second.  Tribe skipper Eric Wedge immediately walked Jim Thome intentionally.  The Sox manager took the bat out of Thome’s hands.  Yet, Kenny Roda and his callers loved Guillen’s move.  Wedge then brought in Rafael Betancourt to get Paul Konerko, who hit into a 6-4-3 double play. 
In the 11th inning, it made sense to have Sizemore bunt Casey Blake over, because you are playing for one run, and Sizemore was facing Neil Cotts, who is tough on lefties.  This bunt worked as Michaels plugged the gap for a double and the lead run.  And amazingly for all those grandstand managers, the Tribe beat the Pale Hose in a one run game. 
Managers get paid to think ahead.  They have to look two or three batters ahead when mapping out a strategy.  That’s what fans do not understand, and I guess some sports talk show hosts as well.

Tribe Loses Opener, Fans Declare Season Over

The Tribe dropped their opener last night in Chicago, losing 10-4 in a rain soaked affair at US Cellular Field.  Manager Eric Wedge is now 0-4 in season lidlifters.  Of course, with 161 games remaining in the schedule, many fans have declared the Indians have no chance to beat Chicago in 2006. 
It’s one game fans!  It is totally conceivable that Cleveland could win the remaining two games of the series on Tuesday and Wednesday, then what will people say?  The other typical reaction after a Tribe loss is the blasting of C.C. Sabathia.  Since Sabathia suffered a slight abdominal pull during the third inning last night, everyone is talking about his conditioning.  These fans forget he threw over 90 pitches in his last exhibition start last week.  Also, the big lefty did not hurt his arm, he tweaked a stomach muscle, likely the same one he had a problem with last season.
The reason Cleveland lost yesterday was the inability of the relief pitchers to throw strikes.  Danny Graves, Fernando Cabrera, and Matt Miller combined to walk eight Sox hitters in a span of 3-2/3 innings.  That is never a formula for success.  The one concern here is Cabrera.  He had control problems in training camp last season, and some in Winter Haven this year.  If he can’t get ahead in the count, he will be in Buffalo very, very soon. 
Even if Sabathia’s injury isn’t serious, look for him to be placed on the DL today or tomorrow.  Jason Davis will likely get the call to replace him, but only until a fifth starter is needed, which may not be until next week.  The Tribe can slide Jason Johnson into the start on Saturday against the Twins, and Jake Westbrook can be moved up to Sunday.  The Indians will not need a fifth starter until they take on the Tigers on April 15th. 
Relax, Tribe fans.  It’s only one game.  They play again tomorrow, and then 160 more times.  Please don’t overreact to the opener. 

What Can Cleveland State Do?

I was stunned to read in the paper this morning that Cleveland State Head Basketball Coach Mike Garland has resigned.  Not stunned because of the great job he is doing, but surprised that he was not given a fourth year to get the program going.  Now Athletic Director Lee Reed has to find a new man to make the hoops program competitive again.  What should he be looking for in a candidate?
Since a 22-6 record in 1991-92 under Mike Boyd, the program has been circling the drain.  Bringing in former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino was not the answer, he didn’t want to put the work in at his age to rebuild the program.  Bringing in a top assistant from a NCAA basketball power like Garland hasn’t worked either.  He seems like a good basketball man, but perhaps is more of an aide than someone who can lead a program.
The truth is CSU’s program has only enjoyed a brief moment in the sun, and that was during Kevin Mackey’s tenure when they made a Sweet 16 appearance in 1985-86, and two NIT berths in 86-87 and 87-88.  The athletic department has searched for that magic ever since. 
Reed should be looking for a young (under 40) assistant from a name program who is looking for his first head coaching gig.  CSU supporters have to understand that any coach they get will be using the job as a stepping stone.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Look at the University of Tulsa, a school with a solid program and numerous NCAA tournament appearances.  Since 1980, they have employed Nolan Richardson, J.D. Barnett, Tubby Smith, and Bill Self as head coaches.  They accept the fact that no one is staying there for 20 years.
The Vikings AD should also be looking for someone who coaches a different style of basketball.  Lining up and playing mano a mano against teams with better talent usually means defeat.  Mackey won with a full court pressing style that wore down opponents.  Rick Pitino’s early Providence teams relied on a flurry of three point attempts.  Each style allowed those teams to win against better teams.  CSU needs that type of style to get the program back on its feet.
It would also help to be able to recruit in northeastern Ohio.  Although this area is not the hot bed of hoops like say, a Washington DC is, there are talented players here.  The new coach will not get a kid being recruited by Ohio State or another Big Ten school, but there are kids who wind up going to mid major schools who should be persuaded to stay home. 
Do I have any names in particular?  No.  But every great head coach has to start somewhere.  It wasn’t too long ago that Thad Matta was coaching in the Horizon League.  That’s the type of guy that the Cleveland State administration must find.  Otherwise, the program will continue in its losing abyss.

Five Reasons The Tribe Will Make the Postseason in '06

With Opening Day less than a week away, it’s time for Cleveland sports fans to start thinking about baseball.  The Tribe missed the playoffs by less one game last season thanks to a horrible last week of the campaign.  Here are five reasons a poor finish like that won’t back a difference in 2006, because the Indians will make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
The young players will get better.  Historically, ball players hit their peak between the ages of 27 and 29.  I feel guys like Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta will be even better this season.  Travis Hafner (28) and Victor Martinez (27) numbers should not be in decline as of yet.  If Hafner can avoid injuries this year, he will be an MVP candidate.
More depth this year.  Last year, management had no alternative when Aaron Boone got off to a horrible start.  That will not be the case in 2006.  If Boone struggles, Andy Marte will get the call.  If the first base platoon struggles, the Tribe can call up Ryan Garko.  If Casey Blake scuffles, Franklin Gutierrez might be an alternative.  On the pitching side, it appears Fausto Carmona could hurl effectively in the bigs.  Jason Davis and Jeremy Sowers could get the call as well.  In the bullpen, Andrew Brown showed the brass he is ready to take the next step as well.  And if a trade is needed, one or more of these guys could be involved too.
Experience.  This group of guys as experienced many different things during the rebuilding stage, and the next time the situation occurred, they succeeded.  If the Tribe needs to win in the last week of 2006, they will know what they are up against.  They learned how to handle themselves in a pennant race, and that could come in handy this season.
Still have good pitching.  Although the team lost AL ERA champ Kevin Millwood to free agency and set up man Bob Howry left through the same method, their still is talent to came up for these losses.  Paul Byrd won the Angels only game in the ALCS vs. Chicago in 2005, and had more quality starts for the season than Millwood.  Guillermo Mota is a quality set up man, and between him and Fernando Cabrera they will make up for Howry’s departure.  Jason Johnson might be a more reliable fifth starter than Scott Elarton.
Competition.  Despite the White Sox World Championship and subsequent trades for Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez, it says here they will not be as good in 2006.  The Pale Hose’s tremendous record in one run games was the main reason they beat out the Tribe last year, and that is more luck than talent.  Plus, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras had career years last year.  Chicago will miss Aaron Rowand’s defense in center field as well. 
Even though Cleveland will not win as many games (93) as they did in ’05, they will still get to around 90 victories.  That will mean a playoff berth in 2006.  It won’t be another 40 years between playoff appearances like the drought between 1954 and 1995.

Cross One More Thing off LeBron's To Do List

Yes, I know the Cavaliers win last night over the Charlotte Bobcats shouldn’t have been that close, and Flip Murray pulled the team’s collective butts out of the fire by hitting that three at the end of regulation (assist by LBJ).  However, the highlight of the game was LeBron James making the game winning shot, the first of his career.  It wasn’t a three pointer, nor did he take the ball to the basket the way many have suggested, it was an 18 foot jumper that found the bottom of the net.
So that is one more thing the LeBron critics can stop complaining about.  I’m sure that the TV pundits will not come up with another thing James hasn’t done so they can harp on that. 
LeBron James is still a 21 year old kid.  He looks older than that, and he deals with the media in a more mature way than some 15 year veterans, so we tend to forget how old he really is.  When Michael Jordan was 21, he was playing his last year at North Carolina.  James is one of the best players in the NBA. 
Really, when you think about it, who is playing better than King James?  Kobe Bryant?  He scores more and is a better defender, but doesn’t pass and he team is playing .500 ball.  Allen Iverson?  He’s a warrior and a scorer, but can’t rebound in double figures like LBJ.  Dwayne Wade is a great player, but as long as we plays on the same team as Shaquille O’Neal, we don’t know how much his success is linked with the big man.  You can make very good cases for Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzke, and Steve Nash, but I don’t think you can say any of these guys are clearly better than James in terms of ability. 
I know Duncan has the rings, but in terms of basketball ability is he more talented that The Chosen One?  Part of being a superstar is everyone picking out the little things you cannot do.  That’s where the critics are with LeBron James.  He seems to good to be true, so people have to find faults.  When you go to a game at the "Q",  you are seeing the best player in the NBA.  He may not win the title for a few more years, but it says here he is the best player.