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2012 American League Cy-Young Award Winner David Price is having perhaps his best season amid constant trade rumors & speculation

Ever since the annual MLB Winter Meetings following last season, Tampa Bay Rays ace lefty David Price has heard his name swirl in numerous trade rumors. Most observers with knowledge of the MLB market system understand why. Tampa Bay’s limited financial flexibility makes keeping star players nearly impossible, a category this pitcher absolutely falls into. The organization has done a very good job combating this, using excellent scouting to perennially have one of the top farm systems in the league.

How has the soon to be 29 year-old handled all of this?

Only with what he calls, “the best I’ve ever pitched in my life.”

The overall numbers seem to reflect that notion: 22 starts — 162 2/3 innings pitched (most in MLB), 3.08 ERA, 183 strikeouts (1st in MLB) to only 21 walks (8.71 strikeouts per walk, 4th best among MLB SP). His WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) is an excellent 1.04.

He’s struck out 10 batters or more in 9 of his starts, including 5 straight such efforts from June 4th thru the 25th. No other pitcher had 5 10+ K efforts in a row since 2004. The only starter in 2014 with as many as 5 TOTAL 10+ strikeout efforts is Texas’ Yu Darvish, he has 6.

With Tampa Bay struggling to even stay at .500 this season, everybody in the baseball community expected Price to be dealt by Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline. At least, up until the last few days, that is.

Why is this the case? Well, a couple of other left-handed aces have only recently been made available by their respective clubs. Boston’s Jon Lester and Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels.

All three of the pitchers are having their best seasons, and are the staff aces of their teams. The asking return price for their services are not cheap.
Jon Lester’s situation has gotten the most attention, because he is the only one who is a free agent following this season. His open desire to stay with the Red Sox initially worked against him, the team presented an insulting first offer, and he no longer wants to stay at a discount. Because of this, Lester is easily getting the most attention with two days to go. Other teams know that Boston does not want to pay to re-sign him, thus lowering his value. He is also considered to be a rental player for anyone who acquires him. That is another knock against his value.

In the case of Hamels, he has 4 years remaining on his current contract at $90 million after this season. Therefore the asking price remains high on the pitcher. Rival executives believe that Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr. feels pressure to make trades, probably to save his own job. However, the large market Phillies could be better off rebuilding their MLB roster around Hamels.

That circles the conversation back to Price: what should the Rays do? The reality for the organization is a serious need of offense at every level. Even with the other pitchers crowding the market, he’s still the best pitcher of the bunch. However, the additional pitchers on the market decrease his value, thus making it far more unlikely a trade occurs. The other reason is that Price is under team control until after the 2015 season. Thus, there are three more opportunities for Tampa Bay to make the move: Thursday’s 4 PM EST deadline, this upcoming offseason, or next year’s trade deadline.

With the crowded market this trading season, and with no way to pinpoint next year’s team, look for the Rays to hold onto David Price for the rest of the 2014 season. Again, that’s not as much of a reflection of the team’s postseason chances this year. It’s entirely about maximizing value for the 8th year veteran out of Vanderbilt.

One thing is certain in the case of Price, whereas it still is not for his peers as of this moment.

The end result is making his home somewhere other than the place where he has spent his entire career in professional baseball.

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AceIn a well-documented contract year, Jon Lester is putting together his best season in his seventh full MLB season

 

Back in late January when Red Sox ace lefty Jon Lester expressed his desire to take a hometown discount to remain in Boston, many bought into his words and rejoiced.  I wrote about it here:  https://scottjronsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/jon-lester-not-your-average-major-leaguer/

 

At the time it seemed like a given that the Red Sox brass would jump at the opportunity to lock him up as quickly as possible.  Their pitcher stated, “These guys are my number one priority… I understand to stay here, you’re not going to get a free agent deal. You’re not going to do it.  It’s not possible.  You’re bidding against one team.  I understand you’re going to take a discount to stay,”  Lester told reporters at the annual Baseball Writers of America awards ceremony dinner.

“Do I want to do that?  Absolutely.  But just like they (the Red Sox) want it to be fair for them, I want it to be fair for me and my family.  If we can get to something in spring training, that would be awesome…”  All quotes are courtesy of the Boston Globe.

 

 

As I wrote then, Lester was going above and beyond what 95-97% of any other MLB players would do by saying those words.  His only (very simple) request was to get something done before the season began.  If not, he told reporters that he would prefer it be put off until after the season so it would not be a distraction to the team.

 

Now in late July, approaching the non-waiver July 31st trade deadline, Lester has done anything but let his impending free agency become a distraction.  Despite a borderline slap-in-the-face 4 year, $70 million offer, Lester has been more dominant in 2014 than in any other regular season.

 

 

 

In 20 starts he has compiled a 2.50 ERA (3rd in the American League), 1.14 WHIP (career best), 142 strikeouts (top-10 in MLB) to just 31 walks (a career best 4.6 K/BB, 2. 0 per 9 innings).  He has surrendered only 8 home runs in 137 innings pitched.  His success earned him his third American League All-Star selection, the first time since 2011.  After 8 shutout innings and a win against the Kansas City Royals, Lester has surrendered 2 earned runs or less in a remarkable 14 of 20 starts.

 

This does not completely demonstrate exactly how dominant he has been in 2014. 

 

How can anyone say that? Consider this:  Lester has had two poor starts all year (5/22 vs. Toronto, 6/7 @ Detroit) in which he allowed 22 hits, 12 earned runs, 3 walks, 3 strikeouts and 5 home runs across 10 1/3 innings pitched.  Yes, of course those starts are still there.  However, the larger  sample size of his other 18 starts demonstrate exactly how dominant the 30 year-old impending free agent has been for an offensively starved Red Sox team.

 

In those 18 starts, Lester has thrown 125 1/3 innings, allowed 100 hits, 26 earned runs, 139 K’s to 28 walks, while allowing only 3 home runs.  That equates to a 1.86 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.98 K’s per 9 innings, 2.0 BB/9, 7.1 H/9, 0.2 HR/9.

 

 

 

In a year where Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale are not pitching to their own career bests, Lester is probably your leading candidate for the American League Cy-Young Award with roughly ten weeks left in the regular season.  His 10-7 record does not tell the story:  his offense has given him only 3.35 runs of support per start.  Only 11 MLB starting pitchers have received less run support.  Despite that, it is overwhelmingly likely that he finishes 2014 with his sixth 15+ win season out of seven as a full time starter.

 

When writing about his contract negotiations in late January (here: https://scottjronsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/jon-lester-not-your-average-major-leaguer/), I made the comparison to Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels’ contract of 6 years, $144 million, which he signed at age 28 in July 2012.  Those comparisons ended up dead on after the Boston media began comparing Lester’s career statistics to Hamels’ prior to the All-Star break.  Even more ironically, national pundits reported the Red Sox were scouting Hamels.  After this season, the 2008 World Series MVP for Philadelphia will be due 4 years, $90 million on the contract he signed in 2012.

 

The unsuccessful free agent contracts of both Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford before the 2011 season caused a shift in the front office philosophy of the team.  Since those failed signings and their subsequent departure in the biggest salary dump Major League Baseball has ever seen, the Boston front office has committed not to pay over 5 years for players.  Often this has meant paying a large average annual value in order to get the player signed.

 

At age 30 Lester is looking for his only long term, big money contract over the course of his career.  The safe assumption is, since he wants to remain in Boston for his career, that he probably wants a 6 year deal.  He may even settle on a 5 year contract, but he undoubtedly no longer will accept a hometown discount.

 

Earlier in the season more than one report came out about other players being upset about the initial offer that Lester received.  Much to his credit (and to no one’s surprise), the prized pitcher has handled the situation perfectly.  He has answered every question without making it about himself.  He has gone out to the mound, and given the team his absolute best, with consistently excellent efforts through the first three and a half months of the season.

 

Durability is never in doubt with him either.  In a baseball era where torn ulnar collateral elbow ligaments have resulted in so many Tommy John surgeries it’s been deemed an “epidemic,” Lester has proven to be among the most durable starting pitchers in baseball.  He’s well on his way to 32 or 33 starts, a number he’s hit in five of his first six seasons (with 31 in the other).  He’s thrown at least 200 innings in five of the last six seasons.  He has only been to the 15-day Disabled List one time in his career, missing two starts in 2011 with a minor lat tweak.

 

Essentially there is zero doubt that Lester has greatly increased his value this season.  Now more than ever, there is a real possibility that Boston will lose their best pitcher.

 

There is no real argument, the Red Sox must swallow their pride to keep him.  With Philadelphia recently deeming that Hamels is not available for trade, it would cost Boston at least a trio of very good prospects to pry him away from the Phillies.  With so many young pitchers on the way to the big league club in the next 1-3 years, who better to mentor them than Lester?  With the way he’s pitched this season (and while Hamels missed the first month with a shoulder issue), the realization that they cannot afford to lose their 2002 2nd-round pick has come full circle to Boston GM Ben Cherington and President Larry Lucchino.

 

With so many young pitching prospects on their way up, it only makes sense that Lester is the guy who can teach them the most about being a successful big league starter.  The last thing the Red Sox should be trying to do is cheap out on a guy who has been integral in two World Series Championships, particularly in 2013.  They undoubtedly know that they made a huge error in judgment this spring, and the ball is now firmly in the burly hurler’s court.

 

 

 

 

Lester has said that he does not like change, that this is the place he wants to be.  That is the one mistake he has made in this entire drawn out process.  Yes, it is the best thing any fan of the team and player could hope for him to say.  However, he initially took all of the leverage away from himself.  He knew that at the time for sure.

 

After the borderline ridiculous/nearly insulting proposal, added to the fact he has pitched lights-out baseball, he has unquestionably regained that leverage and then some.

 

At this point, on July 20th, it appears as though his patience and resistance to change will continue to be heavily tested.

 

What is now clear to observers, and Red Sox Nation alike, is that the team owes this one to Jon Lester.  They need to come to him with their tails between their legs, admit they wronged him with the first offer, and give him what he’s earned over the course of his career.

 

 

 

 

 

The hometown discount that he was talking about?  It appears all but certain that is no longer an option for the Boston Red Sox.

All players found in these posts are 45% owned or less in Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball Leagues.  Of course, there are hundreds of places that you can get fantasy advice.  In turn, we try to dig a little deeper into player profiles in order to give you a better chance of success. We will select eight new players each week that we deem worthy of your squad in 12-team (and deeper) leagues.
THIS WEEK ONLY:  2 additional hitters and pitchers!  (as an apology for missing last week’s post)

WilyPeraltaAlways a power arm, Milwaukee SP Wily Peralta’s refined approach in 2014 has yielded a positive start to his season. 

 

The Hitters

Rajai Davis (DET – OF) — 38% owned as of this posting. 

Signed this past winter to a 2-year/$10 million contract as a free agent, Davis was expected to be a platoon left fielder and fourth outfielder for the Tigers.  Fast forward to early March, and fellow outfielder Andy Dirks goes down with a back injury.  As a result, Davis has played in 15 of Detroit’s first 17 regular season games.  He’s been slotted primarily as the leadoff hitter, and the early returns are far better than Detroit could have envisioned.  On the young season he is 17-for-56 with a homer, six RBI, 11 runs scored, and he’s swiped seven bags in nine attempts.  Even more encouraging are his numbers against right-handed pitchers so far:  13-for-45 (.289), with the homer, and four of his six runs batted in.  Northpaw hurlers have always plagued Davis (.256 BA, .299 OBP, .652 OPS career), so he’s been a delight for his real and fake team owners to say the least.  Davis has always been a burner (270/345 SB/SBA, 79.7% career success rate), and he will continue to be a good source of runs atop the strong Tiger lineup. Having Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez immediately following you in the batting order is a major advantage.  If you feel the need for speed, Rajai’s going to be in there almost every day until Dirks returns sometime in June.  Even then, he may still see sporadic starts against righties if he continues to have success against them.

 

Adam Dunn (CHW – 1B) — 35% owned as of this posting.

A couple of notes on our posts:  we list players in descending order according to ownership percentages.  In other words, it is not indicative of the order in which we recommend adding them.  Some players can help you in two categories, but hurt you in three others.  Adam Dunn is a great exemplary figure here.  He has been a full-time big leaguer since 2002.  Now in his 14th MLB campaign, he’s amassed 444 career home runs.  Many thought the big Texan was done in 2011 (.159 BA, 11 HR, .569 OPS), but he’s come back with 75 more dingers and 182 more RBI in the two full seasons since.  The man known as the Big Donkey is at it again so far in ’14:  four homers, 10 RBI in 60 at-bats.  Exactly one-third of his hits in 2012-2013 left the yard.  He is truly the ultimate peaks-and-valleys player.  Since the start of 2012, 45% of his at-bats have resulted in a home run or a strikeout.  That does not mean you should not give him a look, particularly if you are in need of some pop.  Hopefully the rest of your lineup sports a solid batting average, because a bad week from this guy will destroy it.  However, Dunn is a lock to finish the season at 30+ HR and somewhere between 85-95 RBI.  The White Sox lineup is much better than in past years thanks to the additions of Adam Eaton, Cuban import Jose Abreu, and a remarkable out-of-nowhere surge to start the season by Alexei Ramirez.  Basically, the opportunities are going to be there for him.  He will not always play against lefties, he won’t hit above .230, but he might just be useful to your team.

 

Marcell Ozuna (MIA – OF) — 34% owned as of this posting. 

Another installment of “Wiring,” another recommendation for a hitter doing his work in the Miami offense.  Ozuna debuted for the Fish on April 30, 2013 at the age of 22.  At the time of his call-up, Ozuna had only played in ten games above the SINGLE-A level.  As a part timer, he managed a semi impressive line given his circumstances:  .265 BA, 17 doubles, four triples, three HR, 32 RBI and five steals on six attempts.  Does not seem like much, but factor in his huge lack of experience, and the fact that he did not play regularly.  As the starting center fielder thus far in 2014 he has seized the opportunity:  24-for-73 (.329), 12 runs scored, four doubles, three homers, and 10 runs batted in.  He’s shown a better eye as well, his current 8.2 BB%  is up from 4.5% a season ago.  His .356 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) will certainly come down a bit, as he’s currently sporting a 1.55 GB/FB (groundball to flyball) ratio.  Basically, those two numbers mean you should not expect a .300 average over the long haul from the young Dominican outfielder.  However, we still recommend that you buy in.  He’s got the frame to hit for some power (6’1″ 230 pounds), and he displayed some of it before his 2013 two-level jump to the majors.  He homered five times in only ten games for the Double-A Jacksonville Suns prior to his call-up.  Couple it with him already matching his longball output of last year with only 1/4 of the at-bats, and Ozuna starts to look like a sneaky good play.  He has hit near the top and middle of a suddenly not-too-shabby Marlin offense.  Teammates Christian Yelich, Casey McGehee (featured in our last post), and especially Giancarlo Stanton (MLB leader in RBI) have brought legitimacy to that lineup.  We believe Ozuna can end up with an end-of-season line that looks something like this:  .277, 82 R, 14 HR, 68 RBI, 12 SB.  The former top-75 rated prospect by Baseball America did steal 42 bases on 51 attempts at the lower levels.

 

James Loney (TB – 1B) — 9% owned as of this posting. 

Loney being rostered in 25% fewer leagues than the aforementioned Ozuna is pretty befuddling.  No, he’s certainly not nearly the most exciting player to own, but he’s a guy that will never hurt a lineup.  The latest Tampa Bay reclamation project hit a career best (min. 500 AB) .299 a season ago, knocking in 75 runs with 46 extra-base hits.  The knock on Loney has always been that he does not have the power profile of a good first baseman (87 HR in 3,782 career AB), yet he still brings plenty to the table.  His .326 BABIP in 2013 was slightly above his career average, yet he had by far his best career flyball % (41.7), lowest groundball % (36.7%) and best GB/FB ratio (0.88).  Add all that up, plus his history of being a good hitter (.285 career BA), and a .300+ average is certainly well within his reach.  He also owns seasons of 88, 90, and 90 RBI.  He probably won’t be quite that high in run production totals in a Rays offense featuring Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, and not much else.  However, if they get on in front of the veteran Loney, he will most likely knock them in (.307 career BA with runners in scoring position, .303 with men on base).  The eight year veteran from Houston, Texas is off to a hot start so far (.302, HR, 12 RBI, eight runs, SB, 8/4 BB/K ratio) and should absolutely be owned in more than one out of every ten leagues.  We most definitely recommend him over all of these more popular 1st basemen: Chris Johnson (55%), Mark Teixeira (54%), Michael Morse (53%), Kelly Johnson (50%), Adam LaRoche (49%), Nick Swisher (48%), Dunn (35%), Corey Hart (31%), Chris Carter (23%), Justin Smoak (18%), Kendrys Morales (17%… not on a team), Mark Reynolds (15%), Ike Davis (13%), and Daniel Nava (10%).  It’s truly amazing that he’s owned less than Smoak, Reynolds and Ike Davis.  Be the savvy owner who gets him in your league right now.

 

Dayan Viciedo (CHW – OF) — 5% owned as of this posting. 

The man they call “the Tank” is the beneficiary to a season ending shoulder injury to Avisail Garcia (we jinxed him).  Viciedo fell out of a favor on the south side of Chicago after a miserable 2013 which saw him launch only 14 over the walls, 11 fewer than his first full MLB season the year prior.  He was slated to spend 2014 as the team’s fourth outfielder, getting more playing time against left-handed starters.  With Garcia officially shelved, the 25 year-old Cuban has perhaps his last chance to live up to the expectations placed on him as he moved through the minor league ranks.  He hit .283 during that portion of his career (.296 his final full AAA season), with 40 bombs in just 205 games over his last two seasons at AAA.  Tank is too much of a free swinger to hit for that kind of average at the highest level, but his improving approach is a cause for hope.  Of course it’s a tiny sample size, but his six walks so far in 67 plate appearances are well ahead of his first two full seasons.  He only took a free pass 42 times in 988 plate appearances between ’12 & ’13.  Furthermore, he’s swinging at less pitches outside the strike zone (’14: 35.8%, career: 40.3%), more in the zone (’14: 76.9%, career: 69.7%), and making better contact on pitches in the zone (’14: 91.4%, career: 83.6%).  His total contact rate on all swings is also up over 5% from his career average.  It’s a fools errand to draw many conclusions from a 61 at-bat sample, but all of these are encouraging signs.  His current .361 average is on the heels of a .420 BABIP, so it will obviously come down.  Simultaneously, we think he can manage a .270 clip in his age 25 free-agency-upcoming season.  If nothing else his homer total should rebound to at least 2012’s level, and a career high would definitely not be out of the question.  He absolutely kills lefties (.317 career BA, 16 HR, .898 OPS in 331 AB), has past trouble with righties (.251, 30 HR, .692 OPS in 882 AB), but is off to a 18-for-44 start off right handers currently.  Get on board the Tank.

 

Scooter Gennett (MIL – 2B) — 4% owned as of this posting.

The soon to be 24 year-old out of Cincinnati won the starting second base job over long-since-washed-up Rickie Weeks with a solid spring training.  He impressed the Brew Crew brass with a .324 showing over 69 games as a part timer a season ago.  In the season’s first 20 games Gennett has made their decision look good:  .322, a homer, 7 RBI and a couple of steals.  He was also recently moved into the 2nd spot in Milwaukee’s order behind Carlos Gomez, ahead of Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy.  The move was designed to take pressure off of the slumping Jean Segura, and that’s an awfully good spot for the young second baseman to be hitting.  He may even have a chance to stick there in the lineup.  So far during his brief MLB career he’s made contact 93% of the time when he swings at a pitch inside the strike zone.  He also hit .297 across four minor league stops, stealing anywhere from 10-14 bases per season.  He does not possess a ton of power (HR every 72.7 MiLB at-bats), but you can view him somewhat in the same light as Loney.  Knock off a few homers, a couple dozen RBI, add 10-12 steals and a couple dozen runs scored.  They should hit for a similar average.  Gennett won’t walk enough to be a league leader in runs scored, because he does not walk very often.  Still, you could do far worse at a middle infield spot, particularly if Milwaukee keeps him at the No. 2 slot in the batting order for any significant length of time.  We absolutely insist on rostering him over Yangervis Solarte (39%), Dustin Ackley (34%), Kolten Wong (20%), Dan Uggla (14%), Alberto Callaspo (11%), Mike Aviles (9%), DJ LaMahieu (8%), and Marcus Semien (5%).

 

The Pitchers

Alfredo Simon (CIN – SP, RP) — 40% owned as of this posting.

After spending the first six years of his major league career as a journeyman reliever, Simon was inserted into the Reds starting rotation when news broke that Mat Latos would begin the season on the disabled list.  Latos has yet to even begin throwing a baseball again, so Simon’s spot would have been relatively safe anyway.  That’s before even mentioning his remarkable start to the season.  In three starts he’s thrown 21 innings, allowing only 13 hits, two earned runs, sporting a 13/4 K/BB ratio.  His earned run average (ERA) sits at 0.86, and his WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) registers at 0.91.  Simon has not exactly faced stiff competition over those three starts:  at Mets, home against Tampa Bay, at Cubs.  There have been two primary reasons for the successful transition.  First, he’s almost completely maintained his velocity that he possessed as a reliever in 2013, losing only one MPH off his four-seam fastball (94.5 compared to 93.5 average), and less than that off of his two-seam fastball (94.3 compared to 93.7 average).  Second, he’s stranded baserunners at an incredibly high rate of 90.4%.  Even though his ERA sits at 0.86 right now, the ERA estimators of FIP and xFIP sit at 3.12 and 3.84, respectively.  That means that some regression will occur eventually, but there’s no reason not to roll with him against the weaker lineups in the National League.  Those in daily leagues can grab him for a road matchup in Pittsburgh tonight.  Ultimately, he cannot sustain a strand rate at 9 of every 10 baserunners against him.  Furthermore, his HR/FB (home run to fly ball ratio) will most likely regress to his career norm of 11.8%, it’s sitting at 4.8% now.  His rotation spot is safe though, and even if those under-the-hood sabermetrics prove to be right, he can still be useful in mixed leagues right now.

 

Wily Peralta (MIL – SP) — 38% owned as of this posting.

Peralta’s first three starts were solid, yet came with little fanfare.  He was under 10% owned until a few days ago, and now everyone seems to be jumping on board.  The big right hander from the Dominican Republic always threw hard, and his high strikeout rate in the minor leagues led many to believe he would miss bats at the MLB level.  That did not happen in his first full big league stint in 2013 as he posted 6.33 strikeouts-per-9 innings, walking 3.58 per 9.  The 2.19 ERA he holds after four starts this season is a bit deceiving, he has allowed five unearned runs.  Officially, he’s allowed no more than two earned runs in any of his four starts.  To this point he’s refined his control, only issuing free passes to 2.19 hitters per 9.  He was also nearly at an even split using his four-seam and two-seam fastballs last year.  So far this season he has relied on the two-seamer nearly four times as much as his four-seamer.  The result has been an increase in ground balls (’13: 51%, ’14: 56.9%), and a drop off in line drives (’13: 21.3%, ’14: 15.3%).  He’s also throwing slightly harder than last year.  His two-seamer averages 95.3 mph while his four-seamer averages 95.0.  On the flip side, he’s allowed one home run in all four of his starts.  The improved control has helped him immensely in this regard.  The good news is that he won’t allow a home run on 20% of his fly balls moving forward.  The ERA estimators suggest he’s more of a mid-3’s ERA pitcher than where he stands currently, we agree with that.  You should still act quickly to pick him up off the wire if he’s available though.  Peralta possess a dominant out pitch with his slider.  Opponents have only managed to be .080 on that pitch this year, and 10 of his 19 strikeouts have come on the slider.  92 of his 169 career strikeouts have come on that pitch, and opposing batters are only .165 overall against it.  You will at least want to stream him this weekend against the Cubs.

 

Jason Hammel (ChC – SP) — 22% owned as of this posting.

In a move that received no fanfare, the Cubs signed Hammel to a one-year, $6 million contract as a free agent this past winter.  Surprisingly, Hammel has been worth every penny they gave him to this point.  He’s started off at 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 20/5 K/BB ratio over his first four outings.  The tall right hander had a similar run of success over a longer period of time back in 2012.  That year he struck out nearly a batter per inning, compiling a 3.43 ERA over 20 starts before a knee injury ended his season abruptly.  Pitching in the much friendlier National League, it’s entirely possible he could put up numbers similar to 2012’s.  He doesn’t have the same strikeout rate to this point, but is posting his lowest contact rates both in and out of the strike zone in his career.  Again, it’s an extremely small sample size.  His current 91.7% strand rate and .130 BABIP are not at all sustainable.  His next start in Milwaukee might be one to avoid, but you can certainly play matchups with positive yields from him.

 

Kyle Farnsworth (NYM – RP) — 38% owned as of this posting. 

This is the sort of recommendation that no fantasy “expert” ever wants to make.  This is on par with Matt Lindstrom in our most recent post prior to this one, except it may be worse.  After Jose Valverde went back to being himself, Mets manager Terry Collins chose Farnsworth as the next in line to work the 9th inning.  He converted his first chance with ease, and also hasn’t been scored upon in 9 1/3 innings thus far, for what it’s worth.  He was terrible last year in Tampa Bay after a great 2012, but he’s never had a prolonged record of success as a closer.  The main thing Farnsworth has working for him so far this year is his sinker, a pitch he only started throwing a couple of years ago.  Last season opposing batters hit .348 off of that sinker, but so far they have only managed a .167 clip against it.  We understand that there’s always a need to scour for the SV category, and that’s almost the only reason we can recommend adding 38 year-old Kyle Farnsworth to your team’s bullpen.

 

Pedro Strop (ChC – RP) — 18% owned as of this posting. 

Strop would probably have flipped ownership tags with Farnsworth if it was as clear cut that he is currently the closer on Chicago’s north side.  Offseason acquisition Jose Veras did absolutely nothing in that role through mid-April, forcing manager Rick Renteria’s hand into making a switch.  Strop’s numbers don’t blow you out of the water (3.52 ERA in 7 2/3 innings pitched so far), but nearly all of the damage was done in one outing on April 9th against Pittsburgh.  Hector Rondon actually got Chicago’s last save, but usage patterns suggest Strop will get the next shot to land the job.  Rondon has worked ahead of Strop in each of the Cubs’ last two victories, both of them four runs in non-save situations.  There is reason for optimism that Strop can stick in the 9th inning when his team finally provides him a save chance.  He’s got a dominant slider, a pitch nobody has managed a base hit against this year.  Over the course of his career, Strop’s slider has yielded only a .126 opponent’s BA  and is responsible for 104 of his 175 career strikeouts.  He also throws an above average two-seam fastball, which opponents are only hitting .182 off of this season. He’s not throwing it as hard as he has in the past (’14: 94.8 mph avg, career: 96.3), but he is coaxing ground balls with it 55.6% of the time this season.  We’re pretty confident that he is the guy, and even on a bad Cubs team he could still end up with 22 to 24 saves by year’s end.  Strop won’t hurt your ratios either.  Go get him.

 

 

Next week we’ll review our first three posts to check our accuracy.  PLEASE SHARE THIS!!

All players found in these posts are 45% owned or less in Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball Leagues.  Of course there are a million places that you can get fantasy advice, so we try to dig a little deeper into player profiles in order to give you a better chance of success. We will do our best to select eight new players each week. 

CT cubsox29.jpgIf you’re in serious need of some saves, Matt Lindstrom is currently unchallenged in the White Sox bullpen. 

 

This edition of “Weekly Wiring” is largely compromised of shorter term rental plays that can help your team.  Two current closer options are featured.  The other two pitchers, though, we believe will have some staying power throughout the season in 12-team (or deeper) mixed leagues.

 

The Hitters

Charlie Blackmon (COL – OF) — 45% owned as of this posting.

Many other entities have already profiled Blackmon, but this is yet another reminder that he’s a pretty solid add to most squads.  Blackmon is coming off a recent series over the weekend against Arizona in which he collected 10 hits in 14 trips to the plate.  That included a 6-for-6 showing on Friday, when he hit a homer, knocked in 5 RBI, and was a triple shy of the cycle.  Blackmon’s minor league numbers don’t blow you away (only 39 HR), but he did steal 94 bases down on the farm while only striking out 14.7% of the time.  Blackmon also hit .309 with 17 doubles, 6 HR, 22 RBI and 7 stolen bases (on 7 attempts) during a 246 at-bat audition with the Rockies a season ago.  One of his main competitors for playing time, Corey Dickerson, was recently optioned back to AAA.  He’s still competing for some playing time with Drew Stubbs, as well as Brandon Barnes.  However, both of them are known commodities with limited Major League success.  Blackmon may sit against left handed pitching, but is a guy who can help you in runs (he’s been leading off when active), steals, and he won’t hurt you in batting average.  He’s obviously going to cool down from his torrid 13-for-29 start, and he’s never going to be an All-Star, but he will help your lineup if you’ve got a rotational spot open.

 

Chris Colabello (MIN – 1B, OF) — 29% owned as of this posting.

Colabello tore it up during the season’s opening week, yet caught little fanfare for his work.  It’s not a huge surprise either:  he played his first seven years of pro ball in the Independent League.  When Minnesota took a chance on him in 2012, he rewarded them with solid AA success.  Then in 2013 he took it to another level.  As a 29-year old AAA ballplayer he hit .352 with 24 HR and 76 RBI in only 338 at-bats.  Yes, a guy who didn’t debut in the MLB until the age of 29 should probably scare you off.  However, he was consistent with the bat throughout his 9 year career prior to the call-up a year ago.  He’s off to a 10-for-27 start thus far with 5 runs, a homer, and currently leads ALL OF baseball with 11 RBI.  He’s obviously not going to hit .370, and probably not even .290, but he’s got an everyday job with the offensively challenged Twins.  He’s got a little bit of flexibility, and he’s worth a look at the back end of your roster if you’re in need of a quick fix.  Ride the wave, see how long it lasts, keep expectations low, and you just might be surprised with Colabello.

 

Casey McGehee (MIA – 1B, 3B) — 27% owned as of this posting.

Now here’s a guy who we didn’t expect to ever be writing about after he fell off the map during the 2011 & 2012 seasons.  It appears that a year overseas in Japan has done McGehee a world of good.  He’s started off the year going 9-for-28 with four doubles, a triple, and 10 RBI.  Furthermore, he’s got a 5/7  BB/K ratio, a .536 slugging percentage and .947 OPS.  He’s clearly seeing the ball well, and he’s cemented behind Giancarlo Stanton as the Miami Marlins’ cleanup hitter.  Granted it’s one of the only teams in the league where he would ever be in that spot, but it’s still a pretty good place to be.  He didn’t set the world on fire in Japan last year, but was respectable:  .292 average, 28 HR, 93 RBI, .891 OPS with 30 doubles.  Let’s also not forget that he hit a combined .291 with 39 HR, 170 RBI and 58 doubles across the 2009 and 2010 seasons.  Granted it’s been awhile, but he’s shown that he can get it done at the big league level in the past.  Whether you’re a concerned Ryan Zimmerman owner, an impatient Brett Lawrie or Xander Bogaerts owner, or you’re just looking for someone to drive in some runs from the utility spot, you can do worse than McGehee right now.

 

Yangervis Solarte (NYY – 3B, SS) — 19% owned as of this posting.

Solarte wasn’t any sort of ballyhooed prospect during his minor league career, but does have a solid track record down on the farm.  His power and footspeed won’t move the needle, but he was a .286 career MiLB hitter, only striking out 10.3% of the time in 2,539 at-bats.  Bottom line:  he puts the bat on the ball.  That’s been clearly evidenced over his first few MLB games.  He’s started off 11-for-24 with six doubles, seven RBI and four runs scored.  His dual eligibility makes him a sneaky option for those in need of some help at 3rd and short.  He’s going to be in the lineup daily while Kelly Johnson fills in for Mark Teixeira at 1st base as he’s recovering from his latest injury.  He gives the old Yankee lineup a much needed spark, manager Joe Girardi likes him, and he’s worth a look if your team needs a boost while he’s hot.

 

The Pitchers

Matt Lindstrom (CHW – RP) — 45% owned as of this posting.

Lindstrom is the basis for our “Necessary Evils” title of this week’s column.  You really do not want to point-and-click to add him, but he makes sense if you’re hurting for saves. The 34 year-old righthander owns a career 3.60 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and .273 opponent’s BA.  He didn’t have a great year in his only season as a full time closer (2010 with Houston:  23/29 SV, 4.39 ERA, 1.65 WHIP), but he’s had a couple of good seasons recently (2011 and 2012).  Robin Ventura named him the team’s closer over popular mid-round fantasy selection Nate Jones, and Jones promptly went on the DL with a hip issue after his first couple of appearances.  It will almost never be pretty, but Lindstrom is currently unchallenged in the White Sox bullpen.  His primary setup man is Ronald Belisario, a man with no experience or stuff to handle the 9th inning.  He’s the type of closer you don’t want to watch if he’s closing out a game on an MLB Network live look-in, but sometimes you have to take saves where you can get them.  The fact that Jose Valverde is owned in nearly 20% more leagues than Lindstrom is probably telling, but you may have no other option on your wire at this point if you’re looking for immediate saves with some stability.

Shawn Kelley (NYY – RP) — 43% owned as of this posting.

David Robertson was sent to the disabled list a couple of weeks ago with a Grade 1 (mild) groin strain.  Yankee manager Joe Girardi gave the first save opportunity in his absence to Kelley, a veteran righty with ordinary career ratios.  His 3.70 career ERA and 1.25 career WHIP don’t impress, nor does his 4.39 ERA of a season ago.  However, he did strike out 71 batters in 53 1/3 innings of work in ’13.  Furthermore, that 4.39 ERA of 2013 was a product of the longball (8 HR allowed), he only allowed a .233 opponent’s batting average.  His HR/FB rate was above league average, clocking in at 13.1% last season.  Furthermore, his FIP (fielder independent pitching) was 2.02, and his xFIP was a 3.88.  That means he pitched more akin to a pitcher with an ERA in the low 3’s.  Robertson may not be out much longer than the 15 days he’s scheduled to be, but Kelley is a solid add in the meantime.  If you’re in a league that counts holds, it may not be a bad idea to keep him on your roster after Robertson returns either.

 

Nathan Eovaldi (MIA – SP) — 24% owned as of this posting.

Eovaldi is a guy who’s always brought the heat yet only had semi-ordinary ratios to show for it.  Had he qualified, he would’ve registered the highest average fastball in the majors (96.2 MPH), and the sixth best slider at just over 86 mph.  Of course, velocity isn’t everything, and it hasn’t resulted in many strikeouts so far throughout Eovaldi’s big league career.  However, it appears that may be changing.  Over his first two starts, both at home, he’s thrown 13 innings and has a 14/1 K/BB ratio.  Eovaldi’s never had excellent control (3.5 BB/9 before 2014), but he was very much a raw talent during his first couple of go rounds in the bigs.  Eovaldi only turned 24 this past February, he’s still throwing hard (95.5 mph average FB, 85.3 mph average slider), and one of those first two turns was against an impressive Colorado lineup.  Other than a three-run home run against the Padres (he was one out away from escaping a jam in his final inning), he’s only allowed two earned runs thus far.  Don’t expect him to let up many taters either, he’s only surrendered 20 in 273 1/3 big league innings to this point.  Pitching in Marlins Park definitely doesn’t hurt either.  It’s one of the friendliest pitcher’s parks in all of baseball.  Eovaldi was actually better on the road last year as well.  Bottom line:  go get him now if he’s available.

 

Tyler Skaggs (LAA – SP) — 28% owned as of this posting.

Skaggs was the centerpiece of the package that the Angels got in return from Arizona for Mark Trumbo.  Skaggs battled some velocity issues last year, averaging between 89-90 mph on the pitch.  In his first start this year it averaged 92.2 mph, reaching as high as 94.5.  He was rated the #10 prospect by MLB.com and #12 by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season.  He struggled a bit in the hitter friendly PCL a season ago, but was dominant in every stop prior to it.  He struck out 9.8 batters per-9 innings a during his MiLB career, and had a solid 3.4 K/BB ratio as well.  Furthermore, he allowed just one unearned run in eight innings in his first outing this year.  Granted it was against the Astros, but he allowed only four hits, striking out five and walking just one.  He draws the lowly Mets in his next outing, followed by the A’s on April 16th.  We definitely recommend dialing up Skaggs for those two starts, and if he performs well there’s no reason he should not stick on your roster.

All players found in these posts are 45% owned or less in Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball Leagues.  Of course there are a million places that you can get fantasy advice, so we try to dig a little deeper into player profiles in order to give you a better chance of success. We will do our best to select eight new players each week. 

Erasmo Ramirez Erasmo Ramirez went undrafted in nearly 95% of leagues, potentially yielding one of the largest profits in 2014.

The Hitters 

Adam Lind (TOR – 1B) — 43% owned as of this posting.

Lind may not play as much this season against left-handed starters (.220/.343/.605 in 797 career AB’s), he sat on Opening Day against Tampa Bay lefty David Price.  However, he’s definitely worth starting any time he faces a right hander.  Over his last two seasons he’s compiled 601 at-bats against righties, hitting .296 with 29 HR and 83 RBI.  Last year he had a .539 slugging percentage and a .924 OPS (on base + slugging) against northpaws.  I’m not saying Lind will revert back to his 2009 form (.305, 35 HR, 114 RBI, 46 doubles), but he’s at least worth platooning or using in a utility spot on your roster when he’s squaring off with any right hander.  It’s not just the weaker opponents, Lind hit a 3-run bomb to dead center field against Tampa Bay starter Alex Cobb on Tuesday.  All Cobb did was go 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts last year.  You could do worse with your utility spot than Lind.

 

Kolten Wong (STL- 2B) — 32% owned as of this posting.

Perhaps most known for getting picked off of first base during the 2013 World Series, Wong was rated the #33 prospect by Baseballprospectus.com heading into the 2014 MLB season.  He’s slated to have the every day gig at second base for the top flight Cardinals offense, and he batted second on Opening Day.  Wong offers the upside of a solid batting average, plus a little pop (.301/.446/.811 career minor league slash in 1,129 AB’s).  Plus, he’s stolen 41 bases over his last two minor league campaigns on 53 attempts.  Hitting in front of Matt Holliday and Allen Craig has its perks as well.  Wong could be an asset in BA, Runs and SB.  I definitely would prefer him over more highly owned 2B’s such as Neil Walker (42%), Brian Dozier (49%), Kelly Johnson (52%), Anthony Rendon (54%), and even Howie Kendrick (74%).  Wong could approach double digits in home runs, 85+ runs and 15+ steals with a full compliment of at-bats.

 

Emilio Bonafacio (CHC- 2B,3B,OF) — 36% owned as of this posting.

This one is a bit harder for me to give my full endorsement on, but I certainly recommend him if you’re in a pinch for some speed.  Bonafacio has only had a full time gig twice in his prior six big league seasons and is only a .264 career hitter, but his speed has never been a question.  He’s been successful on 139 of his 175 attempted stolen bases throughout his career, a 79.4% success rate.  He may not play every day, but his versatility will help keep him in the Cubs lineup more often than not.  He did manage a .296 average with 40 steals as a full timer for Miami in 2011.  The following year he only had 244 at-bats, but still managed to swipe 30 bases (only being caught three times).  35 steals are a good bet if Bonafacio manages to get to even 350 at-bats.

 

Chris Owings (ARI- SS) — 17% owned as of this posting.

Owings is off to a 6-for-13 start with a stolen base over the first four games for the Diamondbacks.  He’s had a couple of miscues in the field, but he won the job outright over a better defender in Didi Gregorius after a .288 spring training.  He was named the 2013 Pacific Coast League (AAA) MVP with a .330/.482/.841 slash line.  He hit 12 HR, knocked in 81 runs, scored 104 and stole 20 bases on 27 attempts.  The 73/436 BB/K ratio is a little concerning, but he has a good batted ball profile that should translate to the Majors.  The D’Backs were willing to give him the job over the much better defender in Gregorius, so they obviously believe in his bat.  If you’re looking for a player on waivers with 15/15 upside that can hit .270 or better, Owings is a good middle infielder to own.

 

Avisail Garcia (CHW- OF) — 39% owned as of this posting.

Garcia was the main piece in the three team trade that sent Jake Peavy to Boston and Jose Iglesias to Detroit at least year’s trade deadline.  He was formerly labeled as “Miggy Jr.” during his time in Detroit because of his similar complexion to Miguel Cabrera.  The 6′ 4″ 240 pound outfielder does not have the track record of power throughout the minors that Cabrera did, but does have above average speed for his size.  He only has 44 home runs in 2,213 at bats in the minors, but did hit for a .290 average.  He has 78 steals over that time frame, though, on 109 attempts.  He’s hit .292 in limited time so far in the Majors, proving that he’s at least got some chops to hit at this level.  Chicago is going to be giving Garcia everyday at-bats in the middle part of their lineup.  We feel pretty strongly that he can hit in the .275-.280 range with 15 HR and between 12-18 stolen bases.  Your utility spot can certainly be worse off with the likes of a B.J. Upton (52%) or a Dexter Fowler (55%).

 

The Pitchers

Dan Straily (SP- OAK) — 39% owned as of this posting.

Straily had an ordinary showing in his first big league season last year, posting a 10-8 record with a 3.96 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 7.3 K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings).  However, underlying indicators suggest the 25 year-old could have a breakout sophomore campaign for Oakland.  He got better as the competition got tougher at each stop in the minors, culminating it with a 16 start stretch between 2012 and 2013 in the hitter dominated Pacific Coast League.  Over those 16 starts he threw 98.1 innings allowing just 64 hits (5.9 per 9), 19 earned runs (1.74 ERA), a 0.93 WHIP, 115 K’s (10.5 per 9), only 28 walks, and just 4 home runs.  The bottom line is: grab Straily now if he’s available.  You can thank us later when he’s posting an ERA in the low 3’s with a K/9 rate right around 9.0.  He has very good control, induces weak contact, and will help your ratios.

 

Erasmo Ramirez (SP- SEA) — 28% owned as of this posting.

Ramirez was a man on many sleeper lists during the 2013 preseason only to be plagued by injuries, and resulting ineffectiveness.  The soon-to-be 24 year-old posted a 1.14 ERA over 23.2 innings this spring, sporting a 20/2 K/BB ratio.  While spring stats mean next to nothing, he followed that up by cruising through 7 innings against the loaded Los Angeles Angels during his first official start on Tuesday night.  The young Nicaraguan scattered six hits, allowing only two runs with no walks, striking out six.  Ramirez only walked 102 hitters in 586.2 minor league innings (1.6 per 9), suggesting his polished command is no fluke.  He also only allowed 39 balls to leave the yard over those nearly 600 innings.  Ramirez’ secret weapon is a devastating changeup which he will throw in any count to any hitter.  His ownership has already jumped from 6% last Wednesday to 28% after last night’s start.  Act fast.

 

Jenrry Mejia (SP- NYM) — 5% owned as of this posting.

There are plenty of other good pitchers we could have chosen for this spot, but they will undoubtedly be written about in this space very soon.  Mejia is, admittedly, a bigger flier than most would recommend.  However, he has improved his command in recent seasons.  He’s also been given a shot to start the season in the New York Mets’ rotation.  No, not a great supporting cast, but a tremendous home ballpark to pitch in.  Mejia had very poor showings during his first two MLB auditions (2010, 2012), but had a strong five start cup of coffee in 2013:  27.1 IP, 2.30 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 27/4 K/BB.  Mejia’s had a bevvy of injury problems in the past, but the minor league profile checks out as well: 2.87 ERA, 352 K’s in 398 IP, only 7.3 hits per-9 innings.  We prefer him to likes of, say, Mike Leake (26%), Tim Hudson (36%), Jose Quintana (37%) and Kyle Lohse (40%).  Reach deep for the potential upside of Mejia, and you just might be rewarded handsomely.

 

Look for another edition of “Weekly Wiring” next Wednesday, and every Wednesday throughout the 2014 MLB season.

 

SochiOlypmiclogo2014

After an impressive flurry of action through the first two weeks of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, only four teams remain in the quest for this year’s Gold Medal. 

 

Three of the four teams seemed like shoe-ins to arrive at this point:  Canada, Sweden, and the United States.

 

The one surprise:  Finland.  Carried by superb goaltending in their quarterfinal match up with host Russia, they stunned the powerhouse team with a 3-1 victory in Wednesday’s contest.  Rask of the NHL’s Boston Bruins made 37 saves on 38 shots.

 

The following is a quick look at each team’s road to the semifinals, as well as what you can expect to happen in the final four.

 

Road to the Final Four: Sweden

The Swedish national team opened its Olympic play in what was expected to be a tightly contested match with the Czech Republic.  However, they combined their relative youth, speed, and timely stops by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to control much of the contest.

Halfway through the first period, they opened scoring with a slapshot from the right point by Ottawa Senators Defenseman Erik Karlsson who got it past the glove side of Czech goalie Jakub Kovar.  The shot was aided by Detroit Red Wings forward and teammate Daniel Alfredsson, who was set up in front of the net screening Kovar’s view.  Just three minutes later, Patrik Berglund of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues would add onto the lead on a beautiful feed by teammate Oliver Ekman-Larsson, defenseman for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes.

Up 2-0 after one period of play, the Swedes would not waste time as Captain Henrik Zetterberg (also of the NHL’s Red Wings) got one past Kovar with assists from Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche, NHL) and Red Wings teammate Niklas Kronwall just 51 seconds into the 2nd.  Just over three minutes later, Karlsson would add another goal — this one on the power play — and Sweden never looked back.  Despite two unanswered goals from the Czechs in the second, Sweden remained in control winning 4-2.

In game number two of their preliminary round action, Sweden faced a stiff challenge from heavy underdogs Switzerland.  The Swiss national team only carried eight NHL players, as opposed to 24 out of 25 for the Swedes.  However, Switzerland proved that it’s not always about the size of the dog in the fight, but about the heart inside the dog.  They out-shot Sweden by a 13 to 5 margin in a scoreless first period.  Then, they withstood heavy pressure as the Swedish team found its rhythm with 17 shots on goal in the second period.  The game was still tied headed into the third period at 0-0.

With 7:41 remaining in regulation, it was Daniel Alfredsson from Berglund and Karlsson getting the first goal of the game.  It would turn out to be the only goal, as Henrik Lundqvist turned aside all 26 shots put up by Switzerland in his third career Olympic shutout.

In their third and final game of opening group play, Sweden was again a heavy favorite, this time versus the team from Latvia.  It was without question that Latvia would be hungry, they were searching for their first Olympic victory in twelve years.

The Latvians threw everything including the kitchen sink at the Swedes, keeping them off the board until Patrik Berglund got one by goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis with 4:10 to go in the opening period of play.  It came on the power play, with assists by Erik Karlsson and Alexander Steen (St. Louis Blues, NHL).  Latvia would respond with a surge, tying it up with an even strength goal from Lauris Darzins with 1:12 to go in the first.

With the game tied 1-1 after one, things would get chippy in the second period.  Fourteen penalty minutes would result in seven power play opportunities (four for Latvia, three for Sweden) during the period.  Latvia would be the first to capitalize on it’s man advantage with Janis Sprukts (Lokomotiv Yaroslavi, Russia) scoring only 1:22 into the middle period.  This gave Latvia its first lead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.  However, it would not last for long as Erik Karlsson would score only 1:23 after the goal from Sprukts.  Karlsson’s third goal of the Sochi games came on the heels of assists from Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals, NHL) and Daniel Alfredsson.  His tally was also on the power play, all three of his goals to that point had come with a man advantage.  The score would remain tied at 2 a piece, until more power play action added to the goal totals.

Alfredsson got involved once again as he got one past Gudlevskis (Syracuse Crunch, AHL, Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate), with 3:46 to go in the second to make it 3-2 in favor of Sweden.  Roughly two-and-a-half minutes later, Jimmie Ericsson (Skelleftea AIK, Sweden) would get his first tally of the Olympics to make it a two goal lead.  All four of Sweden’s goals to that point had come courtesy of the power play, Latvia did an excellent job of creating pressure at even strength throughout this game.

Down 2-4 with one period left, Latvia would pull to within one on a power play goal from Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo Sabres, NHL) at 1:28 to inject life back into their squad.  The six combined power play goals between the two clubs tied an Olympic record set back in 1980.  Unfortunately for Latvia, it was clear that they had expound a great deal of energy to hang with the Swedes to that point.  A beautiful wrist shot by defenseman Alexander Edler (Vancouver Canucks, NHL) beat Gudlevskis high on the stick side with 7:40 to go in the game.  The 5-3 lead proved insurmountable for Latvia, and Sweden held on to go 3-0 in preliminary round action with 9 points.

Their quarterfinals match pitted them against a Slovakian team featuring 14 NHL players, but that had only managed to go 0-2-1 in their group match ups against Russia, Slovenia, and the United States.  Sweden thoroughly dominated play, winning 5-0 and becoming the first team in the tournament to secure a spot in the semifinals.  They would face the winner of the quarterfinals match between Finland and Olympic hosts Russia.

 

Road to the Final Four:  Finland

Coming into the Sochi games, many experts appeared to look off the Finnish national team.  However, some (yours truly being one) saw them as dark horse candidates to medal as they had assembled perhaps the finest goaltending in all of the tournament.  Among three superb candidates, Finland turned to Boston Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask to lead their team into the quest for the gold.  Rask is third among NHL goalies with at least 30 starts in goals against average at 2.11, and tied for fourth among all NHL goaltenders with a .928 save percentage.

As alluded to above, Finland would play in a quarterfinals match with home team Russia for a chance to move into the final four.  Two things could surely be counted on by the Fins as they prepared for their opponent:  Russia had all of the pressure on them, and they would do everything in their power not to disappoint on their country’s ice.

In front of a sellout crowd of 11,564 in Sochi, Russia came out firing in the win-or-go-home match.  They put up 13 shots in the first period to Finland’s 9.  One of those 13, a power play tally by former NHL’er Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St. Petersburg, KHL), would put the Russians on the board first at 7:51 into play.

Finland would respond quickly, tying it only 1:37 later on a goal from Juhamatti Aaltonen (Karpat Oulu, Finland) at 9:18 in the first.  Rask would shut down the Russians from there on out.  Teemu Selanne (Anaheim Ducks, NHL), playing in his fourth Olympics for Finland, would put them up 2-1 with under 3 minutes to play in the first.  Despite getting 38 shots on goal, Russia could not find the back of the net again.  Finland got another goal on the power play at 5:37 in the second from Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild, NHL), holding on to win by the 3-1 score despite only registering 22 shots on goal.

Prior to the quarterfinal match with Russia, Finland displayed plenty of firepower in the preliminary round group contests.  They combined to outscore Austria and Norway by a 14-5 margin in their first two group matches, both decisive victories.  Then, they played right down to the wire with the Canadian team at a goal apiece through three periods.  Despite being outshot nearly 2 to 1, they gave Canada everything they could handle.  Eventually, though, Canada would get their second goal of the game from Drew Doughty (LA Kings, NHL) with an assist from NHL teammate Jeff Carter just over halfway through the overtime period.  Finland ended up 2-0-1 in group play, setting them up with the aforementioned game against Russia.

Thanks to 78 saves on 85 shots by Rask, as well as 20 of 21 by fellow goaltender Kari Lehtonen against the Norwegians, Finland now stands a win away from a shot at the gold medal.

 

Road to the Final Four:  The United States of America

The gold medal contest against Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics was one that undoubtedly sparked a new breed of interest in the sport of hockey across the United States.  Despite losing that game 2 to 1 in overtime, the United States played an excellent game, part of what is widely regarded as one of the best Olympic contests of all time.  The Americans surely entered the 2014 Olympics with the memories of Vancouver weighing heavily on their minds.  With that substantial chip on their shoulder, as well as a plethora of talent in the wings, many expected the USA to compete for the gold medal.

In the preliminary group stages of this year’s tournament, the red, white & blue definitely showed they were a force.  First, they dominated Slovakia in a 7 to 1 drubbing in their first game.  The USA had six different goal scorers:  John Carlson (Washington Capitals, NHL), Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks, NHL), Paul Stasny (Colorado Avalanche, NHL), David Backes (St. Louis Blues, NHL), Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL), and Dustin Brown (LA Kings, NHL).  The Americans had 11 different players score at least one point in the convincing performance.

In their second game, the United States would take part in perhaps the most dramatic hockey game of the 2014 Winter Olympics to this point.  Their opponent was none other than their rival of 34 years earlier, nobody on the current roster had even been born when the Miracle on Ice occurred back in the 1980 games.  Even though that game took place over three decades prior, both teams played with an intensity of the most bitter rivals in any sport.

Despite 23 total shots and one power play apiece, the teams finished the first period with no score on the board.  Tension began to mount among the 11,678 attending the game in Sochi.  Without question at least 99% of the fans watching in person were rooting for the host squad of Russia.  Their team would provide the first spark, as Captain Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings, NHL) would open scoring at 10:45 remaining in the second period.  The center for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings had recently returned from a lower-body injury, and was playing heavy minutes for his home country despite still clearly being hampered by the ailment.  His first goal of the Olympics came courtesy of assists from Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens, NHL) and Alexander Radulov (CSKA Moscow, KHL).

The team facing the least amount of pressure in this one would respond to that goal like something shot out of a cannon.

It took their third power play attempt of the contest, but the United States would finally break through with 3:26 remaining in the second period.  With only 43 seconds remaining on that power play, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler was able to bury a one-timer high over the glove side of Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from just beyond the goaltender crease.  Bobrovsky had no chance on the play as it was set up beautifully on a cross-ice pass from the boards near the left side slot by Toronto Maple Leafs forward James Van Riemsdyk.  The game would remain tied by those tallies heading into the final period of regulation play.

Bobrovsky and United States goaltender Jonathan Quick (LA Kings, NHL) would provide the highlights for the first half of the third period making plenty of great stops on quality scoring chances by the opposing attackers.  The third goal of the game would not come until 10:33 remaining in the game when Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks, NHL) buried home a one timer stick-side high past Bobrovsky on a ridiculous cross ice feed by Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane.  Now up 2-1, the Americans appeared to be in control for the next three minutes of the game.  However, a kneeing penalty by forward Dustin Brown at 12:26 would put the Russians on the man advantage.

The host country did not wait very long to make the most of their opportunity.  Just 18 seconds into the power play it was Captain Datsyuk playing hero once again on a feed from Markov.  Aided by a screen in front of USA goalie Jonathan Quick, Datsyuk was able to slip the wristshot just under Quick’s left leg pad to tie it up for Russia.

Tied at two, Russia appeared to put themselves out in front just a few minutes later.  A blazing slapshot from the left point by Fedor Tyutin (Columbus Blue Jackets, NHL) beat Quick over his right shoulder, just sneaking in under the crossbar and finding the back of the net.  The Sochi crowd instantly became deafening with joy as their team appeared to be roughly three minutes away from a dramatic victory.  However, replays from the camera installed in the net behind Quick showed the goal had been unintentionally dislodged from its moorings just before the goal took place.  In international play, this forces the referees to disallow any goal scored when the goal is displaced.  Regardless of the rules, the United States clearly caught a big break here.  While it was not at all an unfair ruling, the net was so minutely dismounted that it was not even noticed by the officials until they were summoned to a replay.  The goal was taken off the board, and the teams would remain tied at two after three periods.  In overtime, neither team could beat the opposition’s goaltender on five total shots in the five minutes of four-on-four play.  One of those five included a golden opportunity on a breakaway by Kane, but he could not beat Bobrovsky between the goaltender’s leg pads.

Still tied after overtime, the stage was set for what surely would be a dramatic shootout between the old-time Cold War rivals.

Dramatic would be a drastically heavy understatement as it would turn out.

For those unfamiliar, a shootout normally consists of three rounds in a penalty shot scenario:  one shooter versus the goalie of each side.  If the teams are tied in goals after three rounds, the shootout moves into sudden death.  In the NHL, a different player must shoot each time.  However, in international competition the same player can shoot an infinite number of times after the first three rounds.  The shooters for the USA:  T.J. Oshie (St. Louis Blues, NHL), James Van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL), and Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks, NHL).  For Russia:  Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL), Captain Pavel Datsyuk, and Kovalchuk.

Oshie would open the shootout’s first round by hesitating on Bobrovsky, then burying the puck past his pads through the “five hole” to give the United States the early advantage.  Malkin’s attempt on Quick would result in a shot that went wide to the right side of the net.  In the second round, Van Riemsdyk’s attempt against Bobrovsky was snared in the goalie’s glove.  In the attempt to answer for Russia, Datsyuk could not beat Quick through the five hole.  Joe Pavelski then had an opportunity to win the game for the USA opening the third round, but Bobrovsky was able to deny him with an excellent stop despite a variety of dekes by the San Jose Sharks forward.  The attention turned to Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk, who needed to get the puck by Quick to keep Russia’s hopes alive.  In their history against one another in the same scenario back in the NHL, Kovalchuk was 1 for 1 in his only other shootout attempt versus Quick.  Kovalchuk would make it 2 for 2, acting like he was going for a quick wrist shot but opting for the equivalent of a change-up in baseball, Quick never had a chance as Kovalchuk beat him to the glove side.

Tied after three rounds, everybody watching with a rooting interest began simultaneously holding their collective breath.  This time, the Russian federation would opt to shoot first.  They went to Kovalchuk first after the ridiculous shot he had executed seconds earlier.  This time, though, Kovalchuk’s fakes would not work on the Connecticut born US netminder.  Despite the embarrassment of riches at his disposal, American head coach Dan Bylsma decided to rest his team’s fate in the contest on Warroad, Minnesota’s T.J. Oshie.  As mentioned earlier, Oshie had already made the Russian goaltender look foolish in the first round of the shootout.

With a chance to win it in the first round of sudden death Oshie would juke his way to opening up Bobrovsky’s high glove side, but the puck rode up the blade of his stick, and he wound up airmailing the attempt well above the crossbar.  Russia countered by opening the fifth round with Datsyuk, this time he would get it past Quick.  Oshie would come back onto the ice needing to score to keep the United States alive in the game.  At a time when most people watching the game were at the edge of their seats, holding their breath, or too afraid to look, Oshie was never the least bit rattled.  He once again buried the puck through Bobrovsky’s leg pads, keeping the United States afloat for another round.

Russia would send three-time 90+ point NHL scorer Kovalchuk back onto the rink to open the sixth round of the shootout.  The former Atlanta Thrasher and New Jersey Devil proved he was the thorn in Quick’s side, slipping it past the former Conn Smythe trophy winner for the second time in three tries.  The attention, the pressure, and the spotlight shifted back to the St. Louis Blues forward.  By that point one had to believe Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky felt helpless in the net as Oshie had beaten him every time, only failing to score when he fanned on a rolling puck.  Still, the nerves of an entire nation rested squarely on Oshie’s shoulders.  Up to the task once more, he got Bobrovsky leaning to the blocker side, then beat the netminder between his left leg pad and glove hand.

The world of hockey could not have asked for a better shootout to decide a game.  Many have debated endlessly over whether or not any game should ever be determined by a one-on-one skills competition, let alone on the biggest stage it could possibly have to offer. By the end of this one many of the doubters were probably at least hesitant regarding their original position.

Russia continued its strategy to alternate two of its three most skilled players (Alexander Ovechkin being the other), trotting Datsyuk back onto the ice as the shootout began resembling a baseball game: now in it’s seventh round.  This time it was Jonathan Quick showing his mettle.  Despite a series of moves from the skilled Russian captain, Quick stonewalled him.  Rather than being faced with a do-or-die scenario, T.J. Oshie had a chance to win it for the red, white, and blue.  Perhaps knowing that he had the 2012-2013 NHL Vezina Trophy Winner in his grasp, Oshie tried something different from his previous four attempts in this shootout.  As he moved in on Bobrovsky, he faked from his forehand to his backhand, getting Bobrovsky to commit in the process.  Unfortunately for the USA he could not keep the puck on his stick as it rolled away from him to keep the home team alive.  With Kovalchuk returning to the ice once more, Quick would have to come up with another stop on his new found nemesis.  He came up to challenge the shooter taking away many of Kovalchuk’s options, and forcing the dynamic goal scorer to miss the net entirely.

Oshie came out once more for what NBC play-by-play announcer Mike Emerick called, “the bottom of the eighth inning,” looking for one last home run to shock the hometown crowd.  By that point Oshie had already established himself as a household name back home, but he was a goal away from being the number one trend on all of twitter.  He glided in seemingly effortlessly on Bobrovsky one last time, sniping the wristshot quickly past him.  Oshie celebrated while his teammates jumped for joy on the bench, his second reaction to the game winner was a stick salute to his teammate, goaltender Jonathan Quick.  The United States had defeated the Russian team in the most dramatic of victories, 3-2.

In their final tuneup game in the preliminary round, the Americans carried that momentum to cruise to a 5-1 victory the very next day against Slovenia.  The effort was made that much easier thanks to a hat trick by Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL), who scored the first three goals of the game.  All of the goals featured an assist from Joe Pavelski.  The fourth US goal was potted by Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers, NHL) only 1:12 after Kessel finished the hat trick.  David Backes would make it 5-0 for the Americans early on in the third period, and the USA finished preliminary play with two victories, one in overtime, for a total of 8 points.

Three days later, a date with the Czech Republic stood between them and a trip to the semifinals.  Most observers believed the rested Americans would handily defeat an aged Czech team playing for the fourth time in five days.  They would do just that, riding the strength of three first period goals (by Van Riemsdyk, Backes and Dustin Brown) to control play in a 5-2 victory.  It was a 3-1 score after the first, with the Czechs scoring on an own goal by US defenseman Ryan McDonagh when he attempted to clear a puck in front of the net, but instead hit the back of teammate Ryan Suter’s (Minnesota Wild, NHL) skate to deflect the puck by Jonathan Quick.  The victory put the United States into a game with the winner of defending champions Canada, and their surprise opponents from Latvia.

 

Road to the Final Four:  Canada

Entering the 2014 Sochi Winter Games many observers, casual and expert alike, believed that it would be a near impossible task to take down the ridiculously talented Canadian team.  The defending gold medal winning country sports enough talent to field perhaps two Olympic caliber rosters.  However, being the best on the NHL statistical leaderboards and on paper does not mean they would just be able to show up and steamroll the competition.

Their first game in preliminary action versus the Norwegian national team would certainly prove the previous statement to be an accurate one.  After nearly being equaled on shots in the first (9 to Norway’s 8), Canada was held scoreless until 6:20 into the third when defenseman Shea Webber (Nashville Predators, NHL), got a point shot past Norwegian netminder Lars Haugen (Dinamo Minsk, KHL) with an extra attacker on the ice via assists from defenseman Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks, NHL) and forward Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins, NHL).  Up 1-0, they began taking control over the Norway squad featuring only one player deemed worthy of the NHL (Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers).  Canada registered 14 shots while only allowing two in the middle period of this one, getting another goal from Dallas Stars center Jamie Benn (with assists by Bergeron, and LA Kings defenseman Drew Doughty) with 4:41 remaining in the second.  Norway would score only 22 seconds into the third, pulling to within a goal, but Doughty would put Canada back up by two only a minute and fifteen seconds later.  Canada took their first game 3 to 1.

The second game of opening round action proved much less of a test for Canada as they blanked Austria 6-0.  Doughty and Weber scored again, LA Kings forward Jeff Carter had a hat trick, Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf had a shorthanded tally, and Canada outshot Austria 46 to 23.

Their third preliminary round contest was highlighted earlier in the article, a very tightly contested tilt with the Finnish team.  As noted, Canada managed to pull it out on a Drew Doughty goal 2:36 into overtime for a 2-1 victory.

Canada may have overlooked their quarterfinal opponents in Latvia as they took the ice at the same time as the United States did with the Czech Republic.  However, they were about to see what happened when underdog pride & heart was met with talent & expectations.  Canada did heavily outplay the Latvians, fresh off their first Olympic win since the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. They put up a ridiculous 57 shots on goal in the contest, throwing everything they could at Tampa Bay prospect Kristers Gudlevskis.

Both teams scored in the first period.  Canada struck first as Patrick Sharp (Chicago Blackhawks, NHL) registered his first goal of the tournament on an assist from New York Rangers center Rick Nash.  Latvia responded only two minutes, four seconds later when Lauris Darzins recorded his second tally of the Olympics.  Darzins was Latvia’s only multiple goal scorer over their four games, yet was the only player in the entire tournament with no affiliated club at any level.  The game remained tied 1-1 through the first, and no scoring took place in the second either.  Canada had outshot Latvia more than three to one through the second period.  They put up 35 shots through forty minutes while Latvia only managed 11.  Despite his team being unable to mount any sort of consistent scoring threat, Gudlevskis continued to stand on his head in hopes that his fellow countrymen would eventually find a way to push another puck by Canadian goalie Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens, NHL).  It would not happen, though, as Canada finally broke through on their third power play attempt of the game.  Defenseman Shea Webber supplied the dagger to the hopes of the Latvians, getting a slapshot from the point by Gudlevskis with only three seconds remaining on the man advantage.  Only 6:54 remained for Latvia, who would only be able to put two more shots on goal up against the stout Canadian defense from that point forward.  The 21-year old AHL goaltender Gudlevskis stopped an incredible 55 of 57 shots, but his team could only manage 16 as they fell in the quarterfinals.

Canada became the final team to punch its ticket into semifinal play, where a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game with their neighbors to the south will determine if they are to play for a chance to repeat as Olympic gold medalists.

 

SEMIFINAL ONE:  Sweden vs. Finland, 7:00 AM ET, February 21st

The contest between the Swedish and Finnish national teams is a rematch of the 2006 Gold Medal game, won 3-2 by Sweden.  It was the second Gold for Sweden in 19 trips to the Olympics with the other coming in 1994.

Five players from that team are on the 2014 team:  Captain Henrik Zetterberg, forward Daniel Alfredsson, forward Daniel Sedin, defenseman Niklas Kronwall, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Five players from the 2006 for Finland are also contributing in 2014:  six-time Olympian forward Teemu Selanne, forwards Olli & Jussi Jokinen, defenseman Sami Salo, and defenseman Kimmo Timonen.

Key injuries: Swedish Captain Henrik Zetterberg has missed the team’s past three games with a recurring herniated disk injury that has forced him to miss time at two different junctures during the 2013-2014 NHL season.  Team doctors have ruled him out for the remainder of the Olympics, and fear he may miss the remainder of the NHL season as well.

Finnish forward Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers, NHL) sustained a knee injury during the team’s preliminary round match with Norway.  Barkov averaged 16:40 of time on ice in the two games he played, tallying an assist and a +3 rating.  He was ruled out for the remainder of the Olympics with the ailment, and is expected to miss a total of four-to-six weeks as a result of it.

Both of the aforementioned injuries are certainly not minor blows to their affiliated clubs, but neither has halted either squad’s progress in search of the Gold.

Sweden has won all four of its games to this point, registering 15 goals while allowing only five.  Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has stopped 92 of 97 shots against him, a .949 save percentage.  He has registered two shutouts, the second and third of his Olympic career.

Finland has compiled a 3-0-1 record leading up to the semifinal match.  They have found the back of the net 18 times, while only surrendering eight.  Four of those eight goals against came in their first game, which they won 8-4.  That was also the only game in which Finland allowed multiple goals in regulation.  Tuukka Rask has started three of the four games, winning two.  He has turned aside 78 of 85 shots against him for a .918 save percentage.  Kari Lehtonen (Dallas Stars, NHL) started the team’s second game against Norway, stopping 20 of the 21 shots he faced in that contest (.952 save %).

Strengths:

For Finland, their biggest strength is undoubtedly their goaltending.  While starter Tuukka Rask only has a .918 save percentage, remember that he allowed four goals on 20 shots in the first game alone.  Since that he came he’s been remarkable:  62 saves on 65 shots against the powerhouse offenses of Canada and Russia.  That equals out to a .954 save percentage.  Rask is also battled tested on big stages, having helped carry the Boston Bruins to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup finals only eight months ago.  Rask is currently leading all NHL goaltenders with five shutouts during the 2013-2014 campaign.  He will surely be facing a barrage of difficult shots from the immensely talented team from Sweden.

Finland is also equipped with some heavy firepower from their forwards.  Ten of their fourteen forwards have compiled at least one goal so far through four games.  Four of those scorers have multiple goals (Selanne, Jarkko Immonen, Lauri Korpikoski, and Mikael Granlund) including three from Minnesota Wild winger Mikael Granlund.  They have put up an impressive 32 shots on goal per game.  Their best line combination has featured the Jokinen brothers, Olli and Jussi, teamed up with Granlund.  The trio have combined for 41 of the team’s 128 shots on goal (32%) and five of its 18 goals.  The combination of those three, as well as veteran leadership from 43 year-old Teemu Selanne are more strengths for Finland.

For Sweden, their biggest strength may be goaltending as well.  Henrik Lundqvist already has a Gold medal, Vezina Trophy, and three Olympic shutouts to his credit.  He is also a three-time NHL All-Star, fourth among active goalies with 48 career shutouts, and fifth among them in wins with 298.  He has multiple seasons of 10+ shutouts.  After struggling heavily through the first three months of the current NHL season, he’s been brilliant since the calendar turned to 2014:  14 starts, 10-3-1 record, 1.93 goals against average, and a .937 save percentage for the New York Rangers.  Combine those numbers with his Olympic totals through four games and he’s downright unstoppable:  18 starts, 14-3-1, 1.77 goals against average, .938 save percentage.  The bottom line for Finland:  they will need to throw a ton of shots at Lundqvist in order to beat Sweden.

Of course, Sweden is also very impressive up front.  Their coaching staff has leaned heavily on the combination of Nicklas Backstrom, Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson.  While the trio has only registered two goals, they’ve combined for seven assists and registered 22 shots on goal.  They are a combined +5 rating. Sedin & Eriksson are averaging just under 19 minutes of time on ice per game, while Backstrom averages just under 18.  Another big time forward for Sweden is Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues.  Steen has only managed to find the back of the net once, but he’s taken over four shots on goal per contest (17 total).  He can get rolling at any time as he’s shown this NHL season with 28 goals in 46 games played.  Beyond those four, future NHL Hall-of-fame forward Daniel Alfredsson cannot be overlooked.  Though only averaging 14:04 of ice time per contest, Alfredsson has tallied four points (2 G, 2 A) through Sweden’s first four games.  He’s played in a line combination almost exclusively with Patrik Berglund of the St. Louis Blues.  Berglund also has two goals so far in these Olympics.  Finally there is Colorado Avalanche winger Gabriel Landeskog.  Landeskog has 48 points through 56 NHL games in the current season, but only one so far in Sochi.  He is another weapon up front for Sweden.

It is not only the forwards that can do damage for Sweden.  Defenseman Erik Karlsson has already amassed seven points (3 G, 4 A) in Sweden’s four games, averaging 21:07 minutes of ice time per contest.  He has been paired primarily with Niklas Kronwall of Detroit.  The two balance each other well, because Kronwall plays a physical defensive-minded style while Karlsson is almost exclusively offensive oriented.  They have well rounded blue-liners who can stymie any opposition’s offense beyond that top pair.  Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, both of the Chicago Blackhawks, are two very polished defensemen.  They have only combined for one point and eight shots on goal, but have a +2 rating through the first four games.  Sweden’s defensive pairings go even further deep as Detroit’s Jonathan Ericsson is also logging healthy ice time at 16:11 per contest, and he could be paired up with Vancouver’s Alexander Edler for the game against Finland.  Edler missed Sweden’s first two games as a result of a suspension from a knee-to-knee hit on Canada’s Eric Staal during last summer’s world championships.  Since returning, he’s compiled two points in two games (1 G, 1 A) while logging 17:26 of ice time.

The bottom line for the Swedish team:  they really do not have much of any apparent weakness.  The one player who it is possible to exploit is Erik Karlsson, as he’s below average in defensive coverages, but he is also extremely dangerous on the offensive end as noted.

Weaknesses:

As mentioned above, Sweden may only prove to be weak in some aspects of their defensive coverages.  Both Erik Karlsson and Alex Edler have excellent offensive skill sets, but as defensemen for their respective NHL squads are a combined -37 rating.  That means that when they have been on the ice, their teams have given up 37 more goals than they have scored.  It’s an alarming number, and something that has yet to show up so far in the 2014 Winter Games.  The bigger ice surface of international competition benefits both of these players.  They also have not been paired together by the Swedish coaching staff, probably as a case of knowing what they have to work with.  While those two are -37 at the NHL level, they currently sit at +7 during the Olympics, perhaps making the point entirely moot.  Still, Finland may be able to use their creativity and speed to catch the Swedish defense off guard.

Finland’s biggest weakness may also be one of Sweden’s biggest strengths:  special teams.  While the Fins have converted on 25% of their power play opportunities (3 for 12), they have also allowed 33% of opponent power plays to find the back of their net (3 out of 9).  The problem for the Finnish penalty killing unit is a combination of a lack of size with their forwards, and a lack of speed with their defensemen.  Two of their more experienced players on the blue line, Timmonen and Salo, are often called upon to kill penalties, yet they are both very advanced in age compared to some of their opponents.  One thing to definitely pay attention to are the penalties in this game, because with such evenly matched teams you can expect scoring to happen when one is at a man advantage/disadvantage.

The Swedish power play is a very potent one.  Six of their 15 scores have come via the man advantage.  They have managed those six tallies on 17 opportunities, a ridiculously high conversion rate of 35.3%.  They have also afforded opponents with 17 power play opportunities, and their penalty killing unit has successfully done its job on 15 of those attempts (88.2%).  Clearly the Swedish special teams should be viewed as nothing but a weapon for them.

Prediction: Look for Sweden to control the tempo of this game throughout, and for Finland’s goaltending to keep them in the game.  It will be a low scoring affair.  Finland struggles on its penalty kill, but only commits half as many infractions as does Sweden.  Look for power play tallies by Alex Steen and Erik Karlsson, 30+ saves by both goaltenders, and a low scoring victory for Sweden.  They will find themselves awaiting the winner of the United States vs. Canada. 

 

SEMIFINAL TWO:  United States vs. Canada, 12 PM ET, February 21

As mentioned countless times in this space, as well as every other media outlet imaginable, this is a rematch of the thrilling 2010 Gold Medal game won 2-1 by Canada’s Sidney Crosby in overtime.  Canada also won Gold at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, making them winners in two of the previous three Olympics heading into Sochi.

13 players from the 2010 United States team are on the roster for this game: David Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel, Ryan Miller, Brooks Orpik, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Jonathan Quick, Paul Stasny, and Ryan Suter.

11 players from the 2010 Canadian team remain on their roster in 2014: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Drew Doughty, Ryan Getzlaf, Duncan Keith, Roberto Luongo, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, and Shea Webber.

Key injuries: Canadian center John Tavares suffered a torn MCL and meniscus in their 2-1 victory over Latvia in the quarterfinals.  Tavares will miss the rest of the NHL season with the New York Islanders as a result.  Though he primarily played on Canada’s fourth line, averaging only 10:39 of ice time per game, Tavares is one of the most dynamic centers in all of the NHL.  He will likely have another chance to play for Canada in the 2018 Olympics, should the NHL allow its players to participate in the event.

The United States team comes into the match against Canada with a fully healthy roster.

Both teams have won all four of their games heading into the semifinals, each have won three in regulation.  Canada won in overtime against Finland 2-1 as mentioned earlier.  The United States won in a shootout for the ages against Russia 3-2 last Saturday.

The Americans lead all teams in scoring with 20 goals in their four games.  They have only allowed six goals to be scored against them, third fewest in the tournament.  The Canadians have only scored 13 goals thus far, the fewest of the four remaining squads.  Six of those 13 came in one game, a shutout victory in their second game of the tournament versus Austria.

Jonathan Quick has started in net for three of the four games played by the Americans.  He has won all three, combining to stop 72 of 77 shots (.935 save percentage).  2010 Olympic Silver Medalist Ryan Miller started the team’s third game, a 5-1 victory over Slovenia.  Miller turned aside 17 of the 18 shots he faced in that contest, a .944 save percentage.

Carey Price has been the starter for team Canada in three of its four contests thus far.  He has only faced 51 shots in those three starts, turning away 48 of them for a .941 save percentage.  2010 Gold Medalist Roberto Luongo started in Canada’s second game versus Austria, turning aside all 23 shots he faced for his second career Olympic shutout.

Strengths:

Taking the easy way out here would be to simply say: both teams are extremely well rounded, deep both at forward and at the blue line.

While the above statements are true, it is easy to see that Canada is struggling to produce offensively based on the overall scoring numbers.  In fact, seven of Canada’s 13 goals have been scored by two defensemen:  Drew Doughty and Shea Webber.  Throw in Jeff Carter’s hat trick from the game against Austria, and we are talking about a team seeing 77% of its goals being scored by three of its 25 players.  Canadian captain Sidney Crosby leads the NHL with 78 points already this season, he’s only registered two assists.  Teammate Ryan Getzlaf is second in the league with 67, he has three points (1 G, 2 A).  John Tavares is third in the NHL with 66 points, he had zero for team Canada before his injury in its fourth game.  Getzlaf’s teammate for the Anaheim Ducks Corey Perry sits tied for sixth in the league in points scored, yet he only has one assist through the first four games.  Perhaps it is due to a lack of team chemistry, perhaps it is due to a sense of complacency being picked by so many to win, but it is no secret that the Canadians are struggling offensively.

Luckily for them, their strength on the blue line has had a chance to shine in these close games.  The Canadian coaching staff has chosen to rely almost exclusively upon three pairs of defensemen, much like a regular NHL team would, despite having eight of them at their disposal.  Canada’s defensemen are so good that 2012-2013 Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban has only played in one game thus far.  Meanwhile Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis has dressed for the three that Subban has not, but he’s only averaging 6:22 of ice time in those games.  Instead, Canada has relied on a heavy and lengthy pairing of Duncan Keith and Shea Webber.  The two of them are averaging well over 21 minutes of time on ice per game, have combined for six points, and register a +7 rating combined.  When those two have not been on the ice, the combination of Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues, NHL) have done their fair share of the lifting.  Those two have combined for seven points (six by Doughty), log over 18 minutes a piece per game, and are a combined +6.  The third pairing used by Canada to stifle opponents is Jay Bouwmeester (St. Louis Blues, NHL) and Marc Eduoard-Vlasic (San Jose Sharks, NHL).  While they haven’t registered a single point, they combine to a +4 rating in roughly 16 minutes time on ice per game.  When attempting to determine the strength of the Canadian defense, all one must do is look at the opposing shot totals.  They are allowing under 19 shots per game to their opponents.

Meanwhile, the United States have been clicking very well with their offense.  They’re scoring at a five goal per game pace, tallying at least that many in three of their four games to this point.  Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel leads all scorers in the 2014 Olympics with eight points (5 G, 3 A).  A man not known for his big game performances before this tournament, Kessel has silenced his critics to the delight of USA hockey fans.  He has been known for never seeing a shot he does not like: his 17 shots on goal lead the team by six.  Of the 22 American players to have played in all four games, only defenseman Paul Martin of Pittsburgh has not registered a point.  Besides Kessel they boast three other forwards with multiple goals:  Backes with three, Brown with two, and Paul Stasny with two.  They also have eight players that have registered at least three assists.  The only dim spot in the offense has been the scoring output of their line combination with the most time on ice.  Captain Zach Parise, center Ryan Kesler and winger Patrick Kane have only combined for two goals.  However, they do have seven assists between them.  It would be more than fair to say that offense is a strength for team USA.

Another strength for both sides are special teams.  The American team has gone 3 for 11 on its chances with a man advantage, a 27.3% success rate.  They have also managed to kill off 9 of 10 opponent power play opportunities.  Canada has only been given seven power play chances, but have managed to cash in on two of those.  They have also killed off 12 of 13 oppositional power plays, a 92.3% success rate.  Do not be at all surprised if these two play a clean game, not wanting to put the other side’s potent attacks on the man advantage.

More strength!  The United States certainly has plenty of it between the pipes.  2011-2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick has already shown off his impressive skill set in the Sochi games.

Weaknesses:

This will be the shortest section of the article because of how good these two teams are.  We can only see one aspect on each team that COULD expose itself as a weakness during this semifinal contest.

For the United States, it is the defensive pairing of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik.  The two Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen have been solid so far in this year’s tournament, combining for a +5 rating.  They are not being counted on to shoulder a heavy burden either, Orpik only averages the sixth most ice time per game among American defenseman (Martin averages the third most), but their are some holes in their games that could be exposed. Both of them are a bit older for Olympic style hockey (Martin is 32, Orpik is 33), and both have them missed substantial time during the current NHL season with major injuries.  The top defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh have been very good for the United States, but the pairing of Orpik & Martin is one perceived weakness to look out for.

For the Canadians, it is actually goaltender Carey Price.  While Price has been very good in these Olympics he has rarely been tested, only facing 17 shots per game on average in his three starts.  This is certainly not Price’s fault as it’s been more due to a combination of excellent defensive play from the Canadian blue liners, and perhaps not much in the way of very stiff competition from their opponents to this point.  In past NHL seasons, particularly in postseason play, Price has sometimes shown a tendency to come up small in big games. In 30 career postseason starts, Price has only a 9-17-0 record.  His save percentage is a pedestrian .905 while his goals against average is an unimpressive 2.90.  Still, the NHL postseason and Olympic Winter Games are two very different stages, and Price has been more than up to the task so far in Sochi.  It is another perceived weakness, but one we think you ought to keep an eye on.

Prediction: Look for Canada to come out with a lot of energy early in this one.  It is extremely unlikely that their Captain Sidney Crosby could possibly be held without a goal in Olympic play.  Look for him to tally one, while his Pittsburgh teammate Chris Kunitz will also score for team Canada.  Do not be surprised if Anaheim teammates Getzlaf & Perry get in on the scoring as well.  These players are all far too good to be held back for as long as they have been already.  However, do not count on the United States to allow more than three goals in this game.  Expect Patrick Kane to score his first of the tournament for the US, while T.J. Oshie and David Backes could come up big once again.  The key to the game may be Phil Kessel.  If he can continue his scoring flurry, the United States stands a much better chance to take down Canada.  We would not advise you to count on it.  We will gladly applaud being incorrect on this prediction (much like the Super Bowl prediction), but expect Canada to defeat the United States by a 3-2 score in regulation. 

 

 

If you stuck with us to this point in the post, we owe you a batch of homemade cookies.

While I do not currently have any play-by-play experience, this is an example of what it would look & sound like if I did.  The footage shown is a Cape League regular season game from July 2, 2013 between the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox and the Wareham Gatemen.  The game is a rematch of the 2012 Cape League Championship Game, won 8-6 by Wareham in 10 innings.

 

The fifteen minute video displays the bottom of the 2nd inning of this game.  Please feel free to comment on YouTube, any and all comments are appreciated!

 

(The recording and production of this video would not be possible without my friend Michael Riley from Rhode Island PBS.  His work is impeccable.  Many, many thanks go out to him for all the help he gave me with this.)

On Tuesday former Major League pitcher Curt Schilling revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer, he did not disclose which type, only saying that he was being presented with another challenge that he vowed to beat. 

In the wake of the news many headlines and articles around the media circles have labeled Schilling as a “Baseball Tonight Analyst for ESPN.”  While this is of course true, having recently signed a multi-year extension to stay on with ESPN, Schilling should not be looked at for his analytic baseball merits alone.

Those who followed the career of the former five-time All-Star know that Schilling used to keep a notebook on all of the hitters he faced during his career, making his post-career choice to be a baseball analyst come as a surprise to nobody.  He’s quite good at it, too, often very critical of what he sees and never afraid to pull punches when calling out players.

However, only praising Schilling as an analyst would be doing him a major injustice as a player in the game.

While Schilling’s overall career record of 216-146 may not be the most impressive, a 3.46 ERA during a time where many of baseball’s hitters have been linked to anabolic steroid use is certainly no small feat.  Schilling has been labeled by many pundits as a “borderline Hall-of-Fame” player, and rightfully so.

The 47-year old from Anchorage, Alaska pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros before catching on with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1992 at the age of 25.  While still unpolished, Schilling showed signs of dominance that season by leading the league with a 0.99 WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched), and having a league best 6.6 hits allowed per 9 innings.  He also posted 10 complete games, and four shutouts during that season.

The following season saw Schilling post a 16-7 mark in 34 starts, but injuries would derail parts of his next three seasons.  He only made 56 starts from 1994-1996, managing just a 18-23 record during that span.  However, he managed to post eight complete games and two shutouts during the ’96 campaign, leading many to believe that he was on his way back to the potential he showed during his breakout 1992 year.

At age 30 in 1997, Schilling finally came to realize all of the potential scouts raved about over ten years earlier when he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 2nd round of the amateur draft.  Schilling led the league with 35 starts, making his first All-Star team, and had an incredible 319 strikeouts to lead the league.  He amassed those strikeouts over 254 1/3 innings pitched, giving him a career best 11.3 strikeouts-per-9 innings rate.  He also finished fourth in the National League Cy-Young Award voting that season for the Phillies.

He was even better in 1998, once again making 35 starts.  While his earned run average was marginally higher than the year before (2.97 to 3.25), he led the league with an incredible 15 complete game efforts.  He once again made the All-Star team, and hit the 300 strikeout plateau once again with an even 300.  His 268 1/3 innings pitched led the league, and were the most innings he ever pitched in a single season.

Despite posting a 15-6 record and making his third consecutive All-Star team, injuries derailed Schilling in the later stages of the 1999 season.  His strikeout rate dipped from 10.0 the year earlier to 7.6, and rumors began swirling that he wanted out of Philadelphia.  The following season he got his wish, making 16 starts for the Phillies before being shipped west to the Arizona Diamondbacks.  At 33, many people around the game began to question if Schilling had reached his ceiling and was beginning to trend downward.

However, the burly right hander was determined to prove that he still had plenty of gas left in the tank.

2001 saw Schilling post a career best 22-6 record, the 22 wins being the most in all of baseball.  He made his 3rd All-Star team and led the league with 256 2/3 innings pitched.  He finished 2nd in Cy-Young Award voting to teammate Randy Johnson, amassing 293 strikeouts that season.  It pushed his K rate back to the 10 per-9 mark for the first time in four seasons.  The 2.98 ERA he posted that season was the fourth lowest of his big league career as a starter.

That postseason, Schilling celebrated his first World Series Championship victory with the Diamondbacks, earning World Series Co-MVP honors with Johnson.  Schilling started the ’01 postseason with three complete games, one of which was a shutout.  Then in the World Series against the New York Yankees, winners of four World Series the previous five seasons and three straight, Schilling made three starts.  In Games 1, 4 and 7, Schilling hurled 21 1/3 innings allowing only four earned runs.  He struck out 26 batters while allowing just 12 hits during the dramatic World Series victory for Arizona.

The following season was of similar success for Schilling during the season: 23-7 record, 3.23 ERA, 35 starts, five complete games, 259 1/3 innings pitched and 316 strikeouts.  He posted a career best 0.97 WHIP, 1.1 walks-per-9 innings, and an incredible 9.58 strikeouts-per-walk.  All three of those marks also led in terms of qualified MLB pitchers.  Big No. 38 once again made the All-Star team, and once again finished second in National League Cy-Young Award voting.  Unfortunately for Big Schill, Arizona was bounced in the first round of the playoffs that year. At age 36 in 2003, Schilling went 8-9 during an injury riddled season for Arizona in which he only made 24 starts.  He still had very good counting stats: 2.95 ERA, three complete games and two shutouts, 194 K’s in 168 1/3 innings, and a league-best 6.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  Once again, though, the critics questioned whether Schilling had finally run out of gas.

A reunion with the team who once drafted him would prove that the three time 20-game winner was far from done.

Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein flew to Schilling’s home on Thanksgiving night of 2003 to show the team’s commitment to signing their draft pick of 17 years earlier.  On November 30, 2003, Schilling accepted a trade to Boston with the promise of an agreement to a contract extension. Eventually, Schilling would sign a three-year, $37.5 million deal with a $13 million option for the 2007 season.

According to quotes from an ESPN.com on that day, Epstein had plenty of praise for Schilling, “Curt wasn’t out for every last dollar. Very far from it. He wanted to structure his deal so the Red Sox would be competitive for every year of his contract,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. “He deserves a lot of credit, because that’s a rare request coming from a player.”

Schilling vowed, “I want to be a part of bringing the first World Series in modern history to Boston, and hopefully more than one over the next four years.”

There is absolutely no chance the Red Sox would have ever captured the titles he wanted to be a part of without his doing.

At 37, Schilling rebounded to form pitching in the American League for the first time since 1990.  He posted a 21-6 record (a winning percentage that led baseball among starters), a 3.26 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and a league-best 5.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  He made his fifth All-Star team, finishing second to Johan Santana in the American League Cy-Young Award voting.

His most memorable contribution to that 2004 Red Sox squad, however, came during the postseason.  After injuring his right ankle in starting Game 1 of the American League Championship series versus the New York Yankees, Schilling appeared to be finished, but he promised he would do everything in his power to get back on the mound to help the team beat the hated rival Yankees.  They lost Game 1 10 to 7, and eventually fell behind in the series three games to none.  After winning Games 4 and 5 in dramatic fashion, Schilling took the mound for Game 6 in his most famous start of all time.

He consulted with the Red Sox team doctor, undergoing a numbing and suture procedure which numbed his ankle enough to pitch through the pain in a win-or-go-home game.  In the “bloody sock” performance, Schilling gutted out 7 innings, allowing only four hits and one earned run.  He threw 99 pitches, 67 for strikes.  The Red Sox won 2-1 in the unbelievable performance, and Schilling cemented his legacy in the team’s storied history.  The team thrashed the Yankees in Game 7, then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series for the team’s first championship in 86 years.  Schilling threw 6 innings in Game 2 of the Series, allowing only one unearned run.

The ankle injury compromised his 2005 season, as he struggled to come back from the injury that eventually required surgery.  He posted a career worst 5.69 ERA in 32 appearances (11 starts, 21 relief appearances) in a season where Boston eventually tried him out as their closer.  He did post nine saves, but his repertoire as a power pitcher had been sapped with the coming of age (now 38), and the very serious injury to his plant ankle.

He would return as a starter in 2006 and 2007, posting a 24-15 record over 55 starts during his final two seasons.  He would once again back up his intentions as he helped lead the Red Sox to yet another championship in 2007.  He went 3-0 during that postseason.

Overall in his postseason career he went a remarkable 11-2, posting a 2.23 ERA with 120 strikeouts in 133 1/3 innings pitched.  His teams went 14-5 in his postseason starts, and he dealt four complete games with two shutouts.

The point?  Curt Schilling is much, much more than an analyst for Baseball Tonight on ESPN.  Hopefully we can all appreciate that as he goes through yet another difficult time in his life.

MetLife Stadium New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium will be the first cold weather venue to host an outdoor Super Bowl. 

Full disclosure:  We acknowledge that weather is going to factor into this game.  However, this article WILL NOT feature a full fledged, detailed weather report.  Sorry.

The two week wait is almost over, and the biggest game of the professional football season is nearly among us.  Super Bowl XLVIII featuring the National Football Conference champion Seattle Seahawks (13-3) and the American Football Conference champion Denver Broncos (13-3) is now just over 24 hours away.  With each Super Bowl you can almost always count on a few things:  a great game, good commercials (for once all year), lots of betting, strange halftime shows, and a bizarre twist.  This article will delve into most of these topics.  We will leave the gambling section of it to the experts in Las Vegas, where assuredly millions upon millions of dollars will switch hands pending the final score.

For those wondering, the Broncos are still holding steady as two point favorites.  If you forgot to make your last minute bets, we’ll be here when you get back.

The Venue

Super Bowl XLVIII will be the first of its kind in that it will be held in a cold weather outdoor stadium.  MetLife Stadium, home to both the New York Jets and New York Giants, was opened in April 2010.  It seats to a capacity of 82,566 fans, who according to cbssports.com, will pay an average of $2,646 to attend the game in person.  As of this hour, game time temperatures are expected to begin in the low 40s, falling through the 30s as the game progresses.  Wind chills will, at times, be in the upper 20s.  Winds are not expected to gust over 15 mph.  Not a full fledged weather report, though many fans will surely be disappointed about the lack of precipitation in this first ever cold weather Super Bowl.

Since both teams will be traveling far from the west, it is difficult to gauge precisely which fan base will show up to represent their team the most.  Our best prediction tells us the Seahawks fans will travel a bit better, since the state of Colorado has recently incurred some extracurricular expenses that could surely make a large travel check seem that much larger.  Feel free to draw your own conclusion from that statement.

Now, a breakdown of the game played on the field.

OFFENSE

If you have not been paying much attention to the media hype surrounding this game for the entire sum of the past two weeks, we cannot blame you at all for doing so.  However in, “the match up that everybody wanted,” this Super Bowl will feature the top ranked offense in Denver versus the top ranked defense in Seattle.

More specifically, Denver ranked first in points with 606 (37.9 per game), yards with 7,317 from scrimmage (457.3 per game), yards per pass attempt (7.8), passing yards (5,444), and passing touchdowns (55).  Denver quarterback Peyton Manning broke the individual records for passing yards and touchdowns with the final two statistics.  Their running attack was not quite as good, though it was obviously not asked to do very much heavy lifting.  They still had the 11th most rushing attempts (461), 15th most yards (1,873), 7th most touchdowns (23), but were just 20th of the 32 teams in yards per attempt at 4.1.  The Broncos also had 26 total turnovers on offense (10 interceptions, 16 lost fumbles), slightly into the lower half of the league in that category.

Seattle were certainly no slouches on the offensive side of the ball themselves.  They managed to rank 8th in the NFL in total points (417), and only had the 4th fewest amount of turnovers with 19 (9 interceptions, 10 lost fumbles).  Despite being next to last in passing attempts, quarterback Russell Wilson managed to throw the 10th most TD passes (27) and 3rd fewest amount of interceptions (9) while averaging the 6th highest yards per pass attempt in the league at a healthy 7.0.  Seattle’s running attack was the bread-and-butter of their offense: they had the 2nd most attempts (509), 4th most yards (2,188), 12th best yards per carry average with 4.3, and the 13th most touchdowns with 14.

With the number one defense in the NFL it meant that the Seahawks could rely less on their offense, running a total of 207 fewer plays than did the Broncos.  Of course, the era in which the National Football League now sits is very much akin to the “steroid era” in Major League Baseball.  The rules regarding what the defensive players are allowed to do in terms of tackling and pass coverage have truly softened to all time levels in the past few seasons.  The softening of these rules can largely be blamed on the “newly discovered” awareness of concussions across all levels of football, but more likely because of the resulting lawsuits the league has encountered from former players which stem from those findings.  This has led many players, former and current, to criticize the current state of the game.  Perhaps the most notable quote of the 2013-2014 season came from San Francisco 49ers linebacker Navarro Bowman, who after being flagged for a “roughing the passer” call in a game that cost his team critically in an eventual loss to the New Orleans Saints, called the game “BS… watered down football.”

The point being:  what Seattle’s defensive unit was able to accomplish in this day and age of professional football is nothing short of remarkable.

 

DEFENSE

As mentioned previously, Seattle ranked first on this side of the football for the regular season.  Though that rank is only determined on total points allowed (231, just 14.5 per game), they also ranked first in: yards allowed (4,378), total turnovers (39; 28 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries), pass yards allowed (2,752), interceptions (28), yards per average attempt against (4.8), and rushing touchdowns against (only four in 16 games).  They ranked second in passing touchdowns against (just 16), seventh in rush yards against (1,626), 10th in yards per rushing attempt against (3.9) and 11th in total forced fumbles with 11, as mentioned earlier.

 

Combining their 18 regular season and playoff games, Seattle’s defense only allowed three opponents to score over 20 points against them.  25 of the 32 NFL franchises managed to average 20 points or better per game.  Again:  Seattle’s defense is very good.

 

However, Denver has proven recently that they themselves are no slouches on the defensive side of the ball.  While their ranks are not at all impressive:  22nd in points allowed (399), 19th in yards (5,696), 16th in forced turnovers (26), 27th in pass yards against (4,070), 21st in passing touchdowns against (29), 12th in interceptions (17), 17th in yards per attempt against (6.2), 23rd in rushing touchdowns allowed (15), and 21st in fumble recoveries (9).  They did show plenty of consistency against the run, though, tying Seattle’s defense for 7th in yards allowed (1,626) and for 10th in yards per attempt (3.9).

 

As you will see in the next section Denver’s defense has chosen the correct time to come together, and get hot going into the biggest game of their careers.

 

ROAD TO THE SUPER BOWL

Super Bowl XLVIII features the top seeded team from each conference for the first time since 2009, but for just the second time in the last twenty years.  Both squads finished the regular season with a 13-3 record, securing first round bye weeks, and winning two home games to advance to New Jersey.

Denver

Denver won its two playoff games without the same offensive flash of the regular season, but still quite convincingly in both cases.  First, they seemingly dominated the sixth seeded San Diego Chargers until their inter-division foes attempted a very late comeback against them.  The Broncos led that game 17-0 going into the final quarter of play.  San Diego finally got on the board with a 16 yard touchdown pass from QB Philip Rivers to wide receiver Keenan Allen with 13:03 remaining.  Denver answered with a 4 minute, 44 second touchdown drive of their own, going back up by 17 with the score now 24-7.  San Diego moved into their no huddle offense on the following possession, which resulted in yet another 16 yard touchdown strike from Rivers to Allen.  Down by ten points with only 5:49 remaining in the game, San Diego went for one of the most unlikely plays — the onside kick — and managed to recover it.  Once again going no huddle, they managed to get down to the Denver 12 yard line and make a 30 yard field goal to get it to within 7, the score now 24-17.

 

Figuring lightning could not possibly strike twice, the Chargers kicked the ball deep and forced Denver to start at their own 27.  They still had two of their three time outs remaining.  With 3:53 remaining in the game, Denver took over.  A false start penalty by lineman Zane Beadles forced Denver back 5 yards, then a draw play from the shotgun on the next play resulted in a two yard loss.  The 2nd-and-17 play from Peyton Manning to WR DeMaryius Thomas fell incomplete.  The next play, 3rd-and-17, was easily the season defining play for the Chargers.  Denver chose not to play it conservatively, and Peyton Manning did not fold in the clutch as he had so many times in the past.  This time he connected with Thomas on a 15-yard out pattern towards the right sideline, and the wide receiver managed to pick up six more yards to net the first down.  San Diego was forced to burn their time outs, and they could not stop Denver from there after clearly being gassed.  Their defense had spent more than half of the game on the field in the thin Mile High air to that point.  Denver eventually won by that same score, 24-17.

 

Denver managed 363 yards on offense during the game: 230 through the air, 133 on the ground.  Their defense put in a dominating effort.  That unit only allowed 259 total yards in the game (194 passing, 65 rushing).  However, San Diego put up 160 yards of offense in the short felled comeback attempt of the fourth quarter.  That meant that Denver shut them down completely through three quarters, only allowing 99 total yards.

 

Their victory over the New England Patriots was even more impressive.  Much of the national media hype throughout the week centered on the two quarterbacks:  Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.  It was the 15th time those two had met head-to-head.  Despite Brady’s teams getting the better of Manning’s in 10 of the previous 14, a win in this game for the Broncos meant the two future first ballot hall of fame players would have the same amount of playoff wins against one another in four match ups.

 

The affair was largely a one sided one between the AFC East division champion Patriots and the AFC West division champion Broncos.  New England’s much hyped running attack only managed 64 yards on 16 attempts.  They only put up three points through the first three quarters, trailing Denver 23-3 going into the final quarter.  Despite mounting a late charge — a seven-yard touchdown pass from Brady to WR Julian Edelman, as well as a five-yard touchdown run by Brady — a failed two point conversion attempt with under three minutes to go sealed the season fate of the Patriots.  An early game injury to Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib put their already over-matched defense into dire straits.  They only managed to force Denver to punt once, and it was with 9:30 to play in the first quarter.  Peyton Manning had perhaps the best playoff performance of his entire career completing 32 of 43 pass attempts for 400 yards and two touchdowns.  He did not miss any of his reads, and his throws were on target all game long.

 

Denver rolled up 507 yards of total offense on New England:  400 through the air and 107 on the ground.  The final score of 26-16 put Denver back in the Super Bowl for the first time since hall-of-fame-former-quarterback-turned-owner John Elway played his final game in Super Bowl XXXIII some 15 seasons earlier.

 

Seattle

Seattle’s vaunted defense, at least by the total yardage numbers, appeared to have taken a step back on the surface in their two playoff victories on the way to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2005.

 

First, they faced a rematch with a New Orleans Saints team that they steamrolled by a 34-7 score just six weeks earlier.  That game was never remotely close.  Throughout much of the Divisional Playoff round it was largely the same result for New Orleans, though the score was much closer and the game had a different feel.  Seattle led by the score of 16-0 going into the final quarter.  New Orleans had been mounting a long drive since the late stages of the third, resulting in a one yard touchdown run by RB Khiry Robinson with 13:14 remaining.  RB Mark Ingram successfully converted the two point attempt to put New Orleans within eight points.  Seattle’s conservative game plan saw them pick up one first down on the following possession, running the ball on a 3rd-and-10, and eventually punting the ball back to New Orleans.  The Saints could not take advantage though, punting the ball back to the Seahawks with 7:18 to go in the game.

 

Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch carried twice for eight yards, and a third down throw by QB Russell Wilson was batted down by New Orleans defensive back Keenan Lewis.  Seattle again punted the football, and New Orleans took over on their own 28 yard line with 5:31 to go in the game.  After a holding penalty on each side, they had the ball at their own 23 when QB Drew Brees hit WR Robert Meachem on a long bomb up the left seam for a pick up of 52 yards.  Following their second time out with 4:04 remaining, Brees missed two short throws to the right side.  Then, newly signed placekicker Shayne Graham missed a 48 yard field goal attempt.  Seattle’s offense followed up the untimely miss with two plays in the clutch to ultimately seal the game.  Wilson hit WR Doug Baldwin up the left side for a 24 yard pickup, a play that was reviewed and upheld.  On the very next play, bruising RB Marshawn Lynch (also known as “beast mode”)  did something akin to what he did to the Saints three years earlier on the same field.  He broke off a 31 yard run for a touchdown, putting Seattle up 23-8 after the extra point.  Only 2 minutes, 48 seconds were left on the clock at that point.

 

New Orleans marched down the field in a somewhat brisk fashion, eventually seeing Brees hit WR Marques Colston for a 9-yard touchdown with just 32 seconds to go.  They went for an onside kick themselves, and they like San Diego recovered it.  However with only 26 seconds left and one time out, they could not mount one more touchdown drive to tie it up.  Seattle won by the score of 23-15.  The Seahawks only managed 277 total yards (103 passing, 174 rushing) while giving up 409 (301 passing, 108 rushing).  They played a conservative style on their home field, running it nearly twice as much as they threw it (35 to 18).  The 409 yards allowed were the second most all season by Seattle, but New Orleans got 177 of them in the fourth quarter playing catch up down by multiple touchdowns.

 

Seattle’s next test came in the form of their hated division rival San Francisco 49ers, a team they split the season series with at a game a piece.  This one had a heated feeling to it throughout.  San Francisco led throughout much of the football game, going into the fourth quarter with a 17-13 lead.  The final period of play started with a 3rd-and-22 for the Seahawks, who were struggling to gain any traction on offense throughout the contest.  That play resulted in a completion to tight end Zach Miller from Wilson for a gain of 15.  It set up a 4th-and-7 from the San Francisco 35 yard line.  Seattle lined up for a 53 yard field goal attempt, but could not do so in time and was forced to burn their first time out.  Coming out of the time out, something that appeared very peculiar on the surface was happening.  Seattle had their offense back out on the field, they were going to go for it in a spot where a field goal or a punt seemed like a much smarter idea.  What happened next was a perfect midair strike from QB Wilson to WR Jermaine Kearse, threading the needle between to San Francisco defenders for a 35 yard touchdown.  Truly one of the most spectacular plays of the entire NFL season had the Seahawks out in front for the first time, 20-17 after the extra point with 13:52 remaining in play.

 

From there, Seattle’s defense took the game over.  After moving it 23 yards in roughly three minutes, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick was strip sacked and fumbled the ball back over to Seattle, it was recovered by LB Michael Bennett for a 17 yard return.  While that appeared to seal the fate of the 49ers season, Wilson would fumble the ball back to them on the goal line.  San Francisco had new life with 8:29 remaining in regulation.  That vanished quickly, however, as Kaepernick turned the ball over again.  This time on an interception going for a deep throw to WR Anquan Boldin.  Now with 7:37 to go, Seattle only moved it 11 yards but chewed up nearly four minutes of game clock.  A 47 yard field goal try by K Steven Hauschka was good, and the Seahawks now led by 6.  That meant there was still plenty of time for San Francisco to mount a go-ahead touchdown drive.

 

Starting at their own 22 yard line with 3:32 to go, the 49ers marched up the field, only using one of their three time outs remaining with 55 seconds left as they moved it 54 yards.  With only 35 seconds to go the ball sat on the Seattle 18 yard line, Kaepernick heaved a pass into the end zone looking for WR Michael Crabtree.  The ball was tipped by All-Pro CB Richard Sherman, picked off by LB Malcolm Smith, and sealing Seattle’s trip to the Super Bowl.  Of course, Sherman’s much maligned “choking” taunt and subsequent rant followed after the game concluded.  You can find the analysis of that fiasco in many, many other places online.

 

Seattle totaled 308 yards of offense (193 passing, 115 rushing) and allowed the same amount (147 passing, 161 rushing).  The three fourth quarter turnovers forced by their defense obviously changed the entire complexion of the game.  The result was the two teams that many “experts” believed would meet in the Super Bowl before the season even began.

 

THE BIG GAME:  WHO HAS THE EDGE? 

When Denver has the ball…

Look for Seattle’s stout defense to use a model similar to what the New England Patriots did during their regular season victory over the Broncos.  In that game the New England coaching staff devised a defensive scheme centered around showing Peyton Manning a “two-high shell” look throughout the game.  This strategy was expounded upon by Patriots CB Aqib Talib following that game.  All quotes courtesy of csnne.com.

 

“Peyton’s a smart quarterback, man,” said Talib after the Patriots won, 34-31. “We knew we were going to come out and show that two-high shell. He sees that two-high shell, he’s going to run the ball. That was our plan, to get him to run it more than he throws it.”

 

For as much as Manning loves to throw the football, he will change his preset play into a running play if the defense shows him the appropriate coverage.  In that game he only threw for 132 yards in frigid temperatures, but the Broncos rolled up 280 yards on the ground.  Of course it’s more than likely that Manning heard those comments, and it will be harder to get him to bite the bait in the same scenario moving forward.

 

With that in mind, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll is highly regarding as one of the greatest defensive coaches in the history of the NFL.  Players that have played for both he and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick have repeatedly said Carrol is either just as good, or a better defensive mind than the man once dubbed “a defensive genius.”  Look for Seattle’s physical defensive backs to bump and jam the Broncos receiving corps at the line of scrimmage, where those actions are still legal.  Additionally, you can all but guarantee the Super Bowl will feature less penalty flags than most any game of the entire season.  No football official wants to be scapegoated for a disastrous penalty call on the game’s grandest stage.  The end result should be a physical brand of football, which will play into the hands of Seattle’s defense.

 

With Manning frustrated early on in the passing game, expect the Broncos to lean heavily on RB’s Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball.  They should have relative success in doing so, as the Seahawks are only slightly above average against the run as mentioned.  They define the characteristic of “bend, but don’t break” as a defense against the run, as they only allowed four touchdowns on the ground all season.

 

When the ball is in the air the key match up will be Seattle All-Pro CB Richard Sherman squaring off with Denver WR DeMaryius Thomas.  Sherman has been talking a big game for the better part of the last two weeks, and a lot of the chatter has been self centered.  Our prediction:  Sherman will try to jump a route and pay for it, getting burned for a big play by Thomas for a touchdown at a critical point during the game.

 

For the Broncos it will all depend on how much they are able to open up the passing game by using the run early on.  The old mantra of “defense wins championships” is one that’s rapidly dying out in today’s NFL.  Even though it appears the match up favors Seattle’s defense when Denver has the ball, look for them to find consistent success as the game moves into the second half.

 

When Seattle has the ball…

Earlier on we highlighted Seattle’s reliance on the run: they ran it nearly a hundred times more than they threw it during the regular season.  If they choose to play the same way this Sunday it will be right into the hands of Denver’s improving defense.

 

For all of the praise he receives for being a great defensive mind, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll does not have a track record of success in big games.  This is his first Super Bowl appearance as the head man, and the two previous Seahawk games leading up to this one reflect a basic conservative coaching style.  Despite having so much confidence in the lead man, QB Russell Wilson, Seattle ran the ball 64 times against only 43 pass attempts in their two playoff victories.  It is definitely difficult to argue for messing with success, but Denver is a top-10 ranked defense against the run.  In order to score points the NFC champions will have to throw the football more often than they have all season.

 

When they are forced out of their normal element, expect Seattle to make some mistakes.  It is not always appropriate to make out anything of media attention, but the difference in how the two teams are acting approaching the game is fairly noticeable.  Most notably in the case of Richard Sherman, Seattle definitely appears to be the looser team.  Sherman has generated plenty of smack talk, even commenting that Peyton Manning “throws ducks” during media day.  His teammates have followed suit.  The ‘Hawks are also led by a very vocal-yet-relaxed head coach in Carroll, who always expresses the utmost confidence in his bunch.  Undoubtedly the Seahawks are feeling less pressure than the Broncos, you can bet that this will lead to some undisciplined unforced errors during the game.

 

COACHING

As we just mentioned, Seattle head man Pete Carroll does not have a huge track record of success in important games.  He’s also leading a loose, possibly entitled bunch into what could easily be the only time all of his players reach the Super Bowl.  Seattle has the look of a cocky, entitled team, and it will be Carroll’s job to reel them in before the 6:30 pm kickoff on Sunday night.

 

By contrast, Denver head coach John Fox has already been to a Super Bowl back in February 2004.  If anybody understands why the opportunity should not be taken for granted, Fox is definitely that person.  His Carolina Panthers team played in one of the best Super Bowls in history, falling just short of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII by a 32-29 score.  Fox also collapsed on a golf course earlier this season and needed to have a heart procedure much sooner than he anticipated.  Having been ten years removed from his last appearance, the head coach definitely understands the opportunity at stake.  As a result, his team appears to be the more focused of the two heading into this year’s contest.  From the coaching aspect we have to believe Denver will have a slight edge based on past experience and demeanor.

 

THE TWIST?

Now more than ever, the media coverage of the National Football League focuses more on an individual versus another individual than any other team sport.  This holds true in only the past few years especially, but often much of this focus is pitted on the quarterback position.  The game of football is comprised of 53-man rosters, and each week it takes so many more than that just to put a team in a position to succeed.  This preface is a bit of a disclaimer for the prediction of our twist.

 

Peyton Manning, truly one of the best ever to play the game, only holds an 11-11 career record in playoff contests.  Coming into this postseason his teams had sustained a first game loss in 8 of their 12 appearances in the playoffs.  Before this postseason the man dubbed by some as “by far the best quarterback ever to play football” had an under .500 winning percentage in the playoffs.  It is semi-common knowledge that despite all of his regular season successes, Manning’s one championship ring compared to Tom Brady’s three (to a lesser extent, his younger brother’s two) is something that still keeps his wheels spinning with every passing year.

 

One of the biggest knocks on Manning, at least before 2006, was “he chokes in the clutch” and “cannot win the big game.”  Even though he broke through with a victory over the Chicago Bears seven years ago, he still came under criticism because the opposing team’s quarterback was Rex Grossman.  Three years later, Manning threw an interception returned for a touchdown that sealed his Indianapolis Colts a loss in Super Bowl XLIV.

 

The twist in this year’s game, you ask?

 

Peyton Manning will come up big in the waning moments of the game.  He’s heard all of the criticism, he’s got the team around him to do it, and the weather in East Rutherford will not be any worse than a November home game in Denver.  With his team trailing he will lead only his second career postseason comeback ever.  Rather than a late game interception it is a late game touchdown strike by Manning that sends Denver to their first championship in 15 years.

 

Our prediction:  Seattle 23 @ Denver 27

 

 

mlb_g_lester_200SP Jon Lester has helped lead the Boston Red Sox to two World Series Championships in the past seven seasons. 

When Jon Lester arrived onto the scene in 2005 for the Boston Red Sox, scouts raved endlessly about his potential as a starting pitcher.  He struggled with his command for much of that season as a rookie in the major leagues, but his talent was inherently apparent.

Then, a cancer diagnosis.  On September 3, 2006, Lester was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a treatable yet of course dangerous form of cancer.

By 2007, Lester had come full circle.  He returned to the mound on July 23rd of that year, throwing six innings of two-run ball in a win over the Cleveland Indians.  By that October he was rounding into the pitcher the scouts expected him to become, hurling five and two-thirds shutout innings in the deciding fourth game of the 2007 World Series.

The following season, on May 19, 2008, Lester hurled a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals.

Over his eight full MLB regular seasons, he’s compiled a 100-56 record, with a 3.76 ERA,  10 complete games, three shutouts.  He’s allowed less than a hit per inning in six of his eight campaigns, and struck out more than a batter per inning in two of his seasons (2009 and 2010).  He’s also a two-time All-Star, and finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting following the 2010 season.

In the postseason Lester has been even better, and nothing short of dominant.

In 76 and two-thirds postseason innings, Lester has allowed only 59 hits, 18 earned runs, with a 7.9 strikeouts-per-9 innings ratio.  His earned run average sits at just 2.11 during the most important time of the baseball season.

In the 2013 postseason he was even better: a 4-1 record, a 1.55 ERA in 34.2 IP (innings pitched), and only five extra-base hits (doubles, triples and home runs) in five starts.  Many baseball pundits and “experts” alike noted that, “(Lester) is earning himself quite a bit of money with these performances.”

After the season, the Red Sox exercised a $13 million team option to keep him under contract for one more season.  When you consider the enormous contract Dodgers left-handed starter Clayton Kershaw just received (7-years/$215 million), most would have to agree those writers will probably be right.  Of course, Kershaw is a demonstrably better pitcher than Lester with two Cy Young Awards to his credit, but the amount of workhorse, consistent left-handed starters are a certain rare commodity in the MLB.

Last night at the Boston chapter’s annual Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards dinner, Lester showed why he’s no ordinary ballplayer in perhaps the biggest way yet.  All of the following quotes come courtesy of the Boston Globe.

“These guys are my number one priority,” Lester said “I understand to stay here, you’re not going to get a free agent deal. You’re not going to do it.  It’s not possible.  You’re bidding against one team.  I understand you’re going to take a discount to stay,”  quipped the 30 year-old lefty from Tacoma, Washington.

“Do I want to do that?  Absolutely.  But just like they (the Red Sox) want it to be fair for them, I want it to be fair for me and my family.  If we can get to something in spring training, that would be awesome…  I want to win.  If that means taking a Pedroia deal where you stay here for less money to be happy and be competitive and win every year, let’s do it.  Let’s get it done,” Lester continued.

He references the 8-year/$110 million deal that Dustin Pedroia signed with the Red Sox in the middle stages of last year.  Pedroia is represented by the Levinson brothers, the same agents who represent Lester.

“I enjoy it.  My family loves it here,”  he said “When it all comes down to it, we want to be here.”

If the two sides could not reach an agreement before the season officially begins on March 31st, the burly starting pitcher prefers to put off negotiations until after the season.

“That way, everybody’s relaxed and everybody is in the same place and then when the season starts you don’t have to worry about it and just focus on baseball.   Hopefully we can do that one way or the other.  I would like to, if we don’t get something done, try to put it off as long as we can to not make it a distraction.”

Red Sox fans:  this is exactly why you have to love Jon Lester.  How many other ballplayers can you honestly name besides he and Pedroia that would openly accept a discount to stay in one place?  Certainly not Robinson Cano, he of the massive 10-year/$240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners earlier this off-season.  It was always a central thought that he would be staying on with the Yankees, yet he ran to the west coast for an extra some-odd million dollars.  While nobody would blame Cano, he unquestionably sacrificed an opportunity to win for a paycheck.

The question is:  how much money should Lester make?  (Given the market landscape of baseball, of course)  For a fair comparison, there’s another left-handed starter over in the National League that draws as a pretty comparable one to the Red Sox starter.  Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels.

During the 2012 season, the Phillies signed Hamels to a 6-year/$144 million extension thru the 2018 season (with a $20 million team option for the 2019 season).  At the time, Hamels was 28, a full two years younger than Lester is now.  However, their bodies of work in the major leagues are very similar.  By the end of that 2012 season, Hamels’ record sat at 91-60, his ERA at 3.34 and his K-per-9 rate at 8.5.  He had compiled just a third of an inning more than Lester over the same span (seven seasons) in just nine fewer starts.  The result was what many considered to be an overpaid contract graded against Hamels’ performance:  one that averages out to $24 million per season.  The argument can be made that had Hamels pitched in the American League, as Lester has, instead of the National league where the pitcher hits, that his numbers would literally mirror Lester’s.

As the discussions go on about what the Red Sox should attempt to sign Lester for, you can be sure that Hamels’ contract will be mentioned frequently.  Perhaps, even C.C. Sabathia’s will be as well.  Sabathia signed what was the richest contract ever for a lefty (before Kershaw’s) with the New York Yankees for 7-years/$161 million before the 2009 season.

Red Sox fans can rest assured that Lester probably will not require quite that much money.  They can also rest assured that, in all likelihood, their staff ace probably will not be going anywhere for this season or the next five to six.  Even though Boston’s most recent philosophy has been to sign free agents to shorter contracts with higher annual value, Lester has come up through the Red Sox organization.

Our prediction:  look for Lester to leave some money on the table, signing for around 6-years and $120 million.  The deal will be completed before the Red Sox open their season on March 31st at Baltimore.