Friday, June 13, 2008

R.I.P. Lakers (& Kobe)

Ask anyone who considers him or herself an NBA fan, that game last night was a fairly obvious turning point. For Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, something changed in the 3rd quarter of Game 4.

Pierce became something more than a big-time scorer; he's now a big-time defender as well. While he had been doing an admirable job on Kobe throughout the first 3 games, last night's performance was remarkable. He held Bryant to just 19 points on 6-19 shooting. Even as LA was romping through the first half with an 18-point lead, Bryant was without a field goal. At the time, that stat was meant to show how balanced LA was and what a great distributor Bryant was. Yet, looking back, it's telling that Pierce was shutting Bryant down for an entire half. By the time Boston's offense got hot, and Bryant had to start shooting, it was too late to get a rhythm. Pierce used his size to trap and corral Bryant into difficult shots the entire game. Rarely was Bryant able to shoot cleanly. Too often, he had to pump fake or shoot fadeaways to get off a shot.

Combined with the record-setting comeback, Pierce's performance will undoubtedly vault him into the pantheon of Celtics' greats. In his 10th year with the team, Pierce has been a rock of consistency. He came back from multiple stab wounds and never missed a beat. He's played with great supporting casts and some downright awful ones. Yet, through it all, he never stopped putting up 20 a game. But, unlike past Celtics' stars, he had been unable to get his team to the Finals. They lost to the Nets in the 2002 E. Conference Finals but that would be as far as they'd get until this year.

Now up 3-1, a lead no team has ever relinquished in Finals history, the Celtics and Paul Pierce should establish a new legacy in Boston. It's been 20 years since the heyday of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, but Pierce finally has Boston back on top. You can now put the former Kansas star right up there along with Parish, Johnson, Havlicek, White, Cowens, Russell, etc. I know he doesn't have the number of rings that those guys do, but he also didn't have Hall of Famers surrounding him like they did. Until this year. Too often, an epic defensive performance will be glossed over in favor of the flashy shot. However, Pierce's play on defense in Game 4 should not be forgotten. He shut down the reigning MVP on the road in a game that LA should have won easily.

While Pierce's legacy just went up, Bryant's has just taken a major hit. Look at this scenario for a second. Up 24 in the first half, at home, about to tie the series at 2-2, the next game is at home, you have the reigning MVP, ... and they lose??? How does that happen?

This has to be on Kobe. His bench didn't do much, but Odom and Gasol combined for 36 points on 14-24 and 20 rebounds. That's more than enough.

It's Game 4 of the NBA Finals. You have a chance to tie the series with another home game looming on Sunday. The Lakers had an easy opportunity to go back to Boston up 3-2. If this is the league's MVP, I want to know why he let that slip away. If you want to be better than Jordan, or even Shaq, you have to be able to win a game like this.

As Boston was furiously storming back in the 3rd quarter, and continuing to outplay LA in the 4th, Kobe seemed powerless to stop it. He couldn't get off a clean shot and when he did, there wasn't any rhythm to it. Too often, it looked forced. But, against a defense as strong as Boston's, Kobe found it difficult to do much.

You know how often we talk about MJ's 'flu game' or his GW shot against Utah, I think this game may have the same effect on Kobe. He completely bombed in a game that LA had to have, and basically did have for half the game. His golden opportunity to bring LA back in the series was for naught. An MVP shouldn't be doing this at home in the playoffs (well unless you're Dirk Nowitzki).

Bryant is still a no-doubt Hall of Famer, and at age 29, still has plenty left in the tank. But, I'm wondering what his legacy will be if he never wins another title. Is it the 3 titles he won with Shaq? Or will it be Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals where he played horribly and let Boston erase a record-setting deficit?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The D-Train has D-Railed

Of all the things that have gone wrong for the Tigers in 2008 -- Bondo, Verlander, Zumaya and Rodney, Pudge, Granderson, etc. -- the biggest disappointment has been the shocking deterioration of Dontrelle Willis' skills.

Once one of the game's best and most exciting pitchers, Willis has lost all control of his pitches. He looks lost and frustrated on the mound. It's obvious even he doesn't know where to turn. Jim Leyland and Chuck Hernandez must be thinking the same thing. They've given him a rehab assignment in the minors, a stint in the bullpen, nothing has worked yet. There were certainly signs of this in 2006-7 when Willis walked 170 men. Compare that to his first 3 years where he allowed 174 walks. Apparently Hernandez doesn't have the magic touch that Leo Mazzone or Dave Duncan have. Because Willis has now walked 21 in 11.1 innings with the Tigers. What was once a warning sign is now an alarming trend. Unfortunately, there is little Detroit can do about it.

As a 5-year veteran, Willis has the right to refuse any minor league assignment. Obviously, Willis needs some work where he doesn't have any pressure on him. Letting him work this out in A-ball seems like the best idea, but for someone like Willis who has played in a World Series and won 22 games, why would he accept that? And, are we going to put this high-priced pitcher into the backend of the bullpen? With his control, we could really just use him in mop-up situations. I highly doubt that would cure his psychological or physical problems. It would just embarrass and frustrate him even further. Best-case scenario, we convince Willis to go on the DL with some injury like "tired arm" or tendinitis. Then, we can still pay him his major-league salary and he gets to rehab on his own without any pressure. 

In a game as hard as baseball, players can make the most difficult plays seem like a cinch. Yet, when those same players lose that ability, it can happen rapidly and often times, it's downright sad to watch. Most baseball fans know about the Steve Blass Disease. Named after the former Pirates pitcher, Blass won 78 games between 1968-1972. Then, he lost all ability to hit the strike zone. In 1972, Blass walked 84 in 249.2 innings. In 1973, he walked 84 in 88.2 innings (he also hit 12 and threw 9 wild pitches). He came back once more in 1974, but was done after walking 7 and allowing 8 runs in 5 innings.

After Blass, there were the famous cases of Mark Wohlers, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel. Wohlers saved 97 games for Atlanta between 1995-1997. In 1998, he had a 10.18 ERA after walking 33 in 20.2 innings. After missing all of 1999 while trying to get his control back, Wohlers would come back for 2000-02, pitching for Cincinnati, New York AL, and Cleveland. But, he was never more than a league-average reliever.

Knoblauch was once a Gold Glove second baseman for the Minnesota Twins before being traded to the Yankees. Other than his rookie season, Knoblauch never made more than 11 errors in a season for the Twins. With New York, he averaged 18/yr before moving to the OF. He simply could not make the throw to first base. Seemingly the easiest throw on the infield, it became torture to Knoblauch and the NY media were all over him. His offense couldn't support the move to the OF and he retired at age 33.

Ankiel may be the best-case scenario for Willis, actually. Once the game's top pitching prospect, Ankiel bewildered lefty hitters in the NL with his big, looping curveball in 1999 and 2000. At age 20, Ankiel was already starting for the Cardinals in the playoffs. But, it was in that 2000 postseason that Ankiel imploded. In 4 innings over 3 games, Ankiel walked 11 men and threw numerous wild pitches that were nowhere close to the catcher. At first, it seemed as if it was just the high-pressure situation getting to the youngster. But, the spring of 2001 found Ankiel no different. He still couldn't find the plate and he was sent to the minors. After a couple arm surgeries, Ankiel found himself back in the majors in 2004. He didn't embarrass, in fact, he only walked 1 man in 10 innings. But, the Cards brass and Ankiel both knew he wasn't the same dominating pitcher. From there, Ankiel went back to the low minors and became an outfielder. Now, in his 2nd year as the Cards' CF and only 28 years old, Ankiel has become an above-average hitter and a solid defender.

For Willis, is the Ankiel route possible or even necessary? I honestly think it may be. The 3-year trend is there, and while he hasn't thrown the ghastly wild pitches that got Ankiel into trouble, Willis is nowhere near the pitcher he was in 2005. He has become a liability to his team. With the way he can hit the ball, I have no doubt that Willis can be a major league outfielder, and probably out-hit Ankiel. Baseball Prospectus recently named Willis as the game's best hitting pitcher. They noted that he gives his team an extra 8.7 runs a season with his bat, which is a full 2 runs better than runner-up Micah Owings. Last year, Willis had 7 extra base hits in only 63 ABs. The big difference is that Willis is already 28 years old, Ankiel was 24 when he made the switch to hitting. It took him a little over two years to get back to the majors. Assuming Willis would want to switch, it probably wouldn't happen until next season, after he's exhausted all options from the pitching side. At that point, Willis will be 29. If he made Ankiel-like progress, he'd back in the majors at age 31 or so. That would still give him about 5 years to be a productive hitter. But, I'm not convinced he'd want to switch at his age. Still the similarities between the two young lefties are hard to ignore, and it would be quite interesting to see Willis bat full-time.

UPDATE: Willis has been sent to Class-A Lakeland. There, he will be able to work on his mechanics with no pressure or a timetable for return. I love this idea. Let him work out what he needs to work out. He won't have to deal with the spotlight of the major league media or major league hitters. I'm glad Dontrelle has accepted this assignment and I wish him the best in his recovery from whatever is ailing him right now. As sad as it is for the fans to watch, it must be that much worse for him to go through it personally. 

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Wings Win Again

Now, I don't claim to be the most knowledgeable hockey fan. I know much, much more about basketball, baseball, football, and even golf. But, I know the rules, the good players and teams, some history. It's the lesser players and strategy that escape me.

After all, I've really only enjoyed hockey in person, never on TV. When the subject of the Red Wings came up, I'd always make some sarcastic comment about how hockey sucks. In fact, I've usually rooted against the Wings just to piss off everyone else. It's not nice, I know, but it made me feel better. I felt that the worse the Wings were, the worse it was for hockey fans. But, I think the tide may be changing for me. After watching more hockey in the past week than I have in the past 3 years, I feel like a born-again hockey fan. I'm not ready to call myself a Wings fan yet. I would never jump on a bandwagon like that. I've seen enough girls in pink Red Sox hats to know differently. But, I can certainly be a hockey fan, can't I? Maybe I'm overreacting, this could just be a high from watching the Finals with a large group of friends. 

I watched Game 6 at a friend's house before heading to downtown Royal Oak for the celebration. The streets were lined with people, horns were going off left and right, and I think I gave more high-fives than I care to admit. A couple of my buddies and I just set off down the street and took it all in. We stopped to have one drink at a bar, but that turned out to be fairly anticlimactic. Simply going up and down Main St. was more exhilarating. Mind you, this wasn't a weekend night. This wasn't the victory parade. This was simply a bunch of sports fans gathering to celebrate a Stanley Cup together. I ran into people I hadn't seen in years, including, Steve Feeman, with whom I played baseball when I was about 11. He was nice enough to remind me of the MVP Award I should've received in our travel baseball league. That was around the peak of my athletic abilities apparently.

Whether it's hockey, baseball, football, whatever, this is what sports is all about. Which is why I'm confused now as to why I always hated hockey. It's low scoring, but I enjoy watching the World Cup. It has a lot of foreign players, but then so does every sports league now. Maybe I was just being stubborn, my little rebellious move to be different. Yet, there I was last night celebrating with everyone else on Main St. When people ask why I love sports so much, the scene in Royal Oak has to be near the top of my list. Granted, the numbers and analysis are pretty darn compelling, but when it comes right down to it, there's not much better than the people.

I don't mean to get too preachy here, but sports can bring people together from all walks of life. I'm sure most of you have sat a bar or sporting event and talked with someone you've just met about the game. When the team does well, you celebrate together. When the team does bad, both agree that you could do better than any of them. All of sudden, you're arguing with complete strangers over who should've won the MVP or whether the ref made a bad call in the first period. I've argued with a 300 lb. Puerto Rican at 3:30 am in South Bend over how many points Scottie Pippen averaged in 1994. Of course, that's a tad extreme, but you get the point. When you have nothing else in common, sports will give you something to talk about.

Last night proved to me once again how great sports can be, even the ones that I don't necessarily love. I may not know exactly who Jiri Hudler or Brett Lebda is, even if I can name the entire Pistons roster from their Bad Boy teams or who won the World Series in 1926. But, it's something I'll work on for next year in hopes of adding hockey to my arsenal of sports knowledge. Lord knows if I'm going to be celebrating with the real hockey fans, I better start acting like one as well.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Flip Saunders Fired

Well, I'm sure we all saw this coming. I know I did. No Pistons coach has lasted more than 3 years since Chuck Daly from 1983-1991. The last 3 coaching stints have been particularly strange.

Rick Carlisle won 100 games in '01-02, yet was fired because he supposedly didn't see eye-to-eye with Joe Dumars and Bill Davidson.

Larry Brown won 108 games the next 2 seasons, including an NBA title and a Finals loss, but was canned after looking for another job during the season. Basically, Brown had his bags packed and ready to leave before the Pistons closed out the regular season.

Now, Dumars has shown Flip Saunders the door today after winning 176 games over 3 years. Saunders' great downfall was his 3 consecutive Eastern Conference Finals losses.

Dumars can continue to fire coaches every couple years, but it seems to me that the problem lies elsewhere. We've had largely the same cast of characters for the past 5 years and nothing has changed. Every year, we win 50+ games, cruise through the first two rounds of the playoffs, then, bam!, something changes. All of a sudden, we go through scoring droughts and commit dumb fouls. We struggle to keep our emotions intact as the deficit grows. As a veteran-laden team, that type of immature behavior and sloppy play at such a crucial time of the year is mind-boggling.

I think the time is right to move on from some players, rather than coaches. We've gone as far with this current core as we can possibly go. I hope Dumars realizes this as well and begins making the necessary changes.

Wallace is the first to go in my opinion. He turns 34 in September and will be in the last year of his contract. If we can get the right price for him, I would certainly set him free. His technicals were down in the regular season, but they went right back up in the playoffs. His inability to contain his emotions is no longer a source of motivation and inspiration for us. It's a nuisance and something that shouldn't be tolerated from a supposed team leader.

The Pistons have solid replacements for him in Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson. The pair is younger, cheaper, and a whole lot more athletic. For some reason, perhaps matchups, Maxiell's minutes have yo-yoed up and down recently. To maximize his full potential, we have to give the man some consistent time. There's no other way to establish a rhythm. Saunders was hesitant to use Maxiell against taller players, but I think his leaping ability and strength compensate for his smaller stature. Johnson ran into too much trouble to receive more PT, but a little more practice can cure that quickly. He too is extremely athletic and an intelligent player for his age. I already see tremendous potential in his post moves and ability to shoot a mid-range J. Given more regular playing time, I can easily see Johnson and Maxiell surpassing Wallace's production.

I also wouldn't be surprised to see Dumars move Billups or Hamilton, if he finds the right deal. Both have tons of extra mileage on their bodies and are on the wrong side of 30. Historically, guards have shown to break down quicker than big men. That may be more true of someone like Hamilton who takes such a pounding moving off the ball. Whomever Dumars chooses to move, he has a future All-Star waiting in the wings in Rodney Stuckey. The Eastern Washington alum can play the 1 or 2 because of his size/speed combo. While I think Wallace will be moved before either starting guard, some type of shake-up must happen. Moving a starting guard would send that message.

Early reports have Michael Curry being named the new head coach. This may look radical at first, given Curry's lack of coaching experience (1 year as a Piston assistant). However, he has always been that "coach on the floor" type similar to Avery Johnson. And, look at the job Johnson did with his limited coaching experience. Curry was a captain for the Pistons and the Bucks, while also serving for a number of years as the NBA Players Union President. I actually love this decision, should it go through. Earlier, I said that the coach wasn't the problem, but since Saunders is already gone, I am in favor of hiring Michael Curry. The Pistons starters seem to really respect Curry and what he has to say. If you watch the players during timeouts and before they go back to the floor, look at who they are talking to. It's rarely Saunders; it's usually Curry or Terry Porter. While Dumars has allowed Porter to interview with Phoenix and Chicago, he has kept Curry under lock and key. Now, we know why. Dumars was saving Curry for this job. Let's not just hire a big name to satisfy a few fans. Hire the guy who will do a good job and have players respect him. Because really, that's all that NBA coaching is about: Getting the players to respect you and work hard for you.

Saunders may have won almost 60 games a year, but in this new world of Palace sellouts and yearly contention, that was not enough. All of the facial tics and quasi-mullets weren't going to save Flip from losing his job. He never seemed to connect with the players or fans. There was always one more thing he could've done or one thing he didn't do right. Those problems came to fruition moreso in the playoffs with the heightened expectations. Saunders never got over that final hump. Whether it was truly his fault will never be determined. But, I think Dumars has to start over for 2008-09 and it begins with a new coach. Soon enough, we could wave goodbye to Wallace, McDyess, maybe even Hamilton. One thing is for certain, this is bound to be an intriguing summer, starting with the Draft on June 26.   

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Chi-Town, Son

So, I've been in Chicago with my boys this weekend and I must say, this is an incredible sports city. We partied in Wrigleyville on Friday after the Cubs comeback win. Where else can you find a jam-packed bar at 4 on a Friday?

Although the Chi Sox are on tv, the North Side is definitely a Cubs-only territory. I'm one of the biggest Braves fans you'll meet, but I found myself strangely rooting for the Cubs this weekend. It's infectious how the Lovable Losers affect you.

I know this is supposed to be a sports blog. And, we did watch the Pistons and Wings at the bar. But, something about this town just turns it up a notch. Suddenly, a Pistons loss doesn't feel so bad, the friendly confines of Wrigley capture our spirits and it doesn't matter so much anymore.

It's a Sunday afternoon and we just hit up the brunch buffet at a local bar called Duffy's. 105 mimosas later and we're ready to go home. But, if we had the money, we would definitely stick around. $5 beers do a number on the wallet for sure.

I have to give thanks and the utmost respect to my lifelong friend, the Shue, and his roommate Ross. This is normally a 100% sports blog, but the absolutely gorgeous stuffed pizza, waitresses , and bachelorette parties take priority.

Much thanks to Andrea, Ashley, Jake, Annie, Steve and his thumbs-up. Let's just say that Hydrate is a rousing good time and you should never leave home without the boys you grew up with.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thursday Thoughts

- Pistons and youngsters just don't go together do they? In recent times, our coaches have been reluctant to play the newbies. Granted, we've have a terrific veteran starting five, but eventually those guys are going to decline or move on. It seems Joe Dumars finally realized this and gave an edict to Flip Saunders to play the young players this season. Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo, and Amir Johnson all played major minutes off the bench in 2008. While Saunders has slashed the rotation in the playoffs, Stuckey and Maxiell have still been playing in crucial situations. I've seen the evolution of Maxiell long enough to expect solid play from him. But, even I couldn't foresee the excellent play of Stuckey in this postseason. Not since Tayshaun Prince's coming out party in 2003 has a Piston rookie contributed like this. Back then, Prince was inserted into the lineup in the Orlando series over Michael Curry after barely playing in the regular season. He helped shut down Tracy McGrady and bring the Pistons back from a 3-1 deficit. Then, he made the game-winning spinning hook shot against Philadelphia (which I heard about from a teacher as it was during our senior formal). 

Now we have Rodney Stuckey picking up the slack from a hobbled Chauncey Billups. I've never been more excited about the future of the Pistons than when I watch Stuckey drive fearlessly to the hole and draw a foul. His strength and quickness combination is uncanny. For a guy who played just two years at Eastern Washington and missed 25 games this year, I can't believe he's already playing fourth-quarter playoff minutes against the Boston Celtics.

Depending on the health of Rip Hamilton's elbow, we may see Stuckey starting on Friday night. He certainly has the height (6'5") to play the 2-guard. And, our offense doesn't miss much when Billups is coming off screens instead of handling the ball.

- Regarding the Hamilton injury, I hope this doesn't have the same effect it had on Miami in 2005. That season, Wade got hurt just as Miami was going up 3-2 in the E.C. Finals. Detroit proceeded to take the final 2 games with Wade less than 100%. Now, Detroit is facing elimination with its leading scorer disabled. Now, I'm positive Stuckey offers more production than Damon Jones or Keyon Dooling did. We've seen what Stuckey and Hunter are capable of. But, if Hamilton does have to sit out, will Saunders go to Jarvis Hayes, Arron Afflalo, or Juan Dixon. Hayes was a great shooter for us in the reg. season, but he has seen his minutes dwindle in the playoffs. Afflalo and Dixon might as well of stayed at home once April ended. Something tells me Saunders would go to Hayes. Dixon has been with the team for only a few months and I don't see Saunders trusting him now. As for Afflalo, it's more a case of not wanting too many rookies on the court. Having him and Hunter on the floor might work as a defensive unit for short bursts actually. I can see that being reminiscent of the Mike James/Hunter combo in 2004. However, we would need a solid offensive frontcourt in place for that rotation. Hayes, however, offers offense and big enough body to play defense for a spell. He won't remind anyone of Prince, or even Hamilton, but I think he has the talent to play more than he is now. You know what, let's just hope Hamilton plays and this scenario never happens.

- Boston has wilted in the 4th quarter in the last two games. They collapsed down the stretch in Game 4, allowing Detroit to pull away. In Game 5, they had a large enough lead that their collapse didn't prevent a win. Still, that type of play at home has to say something about Detroit's chances to come back. For all the Pistons fans who have watched this team since 2003, you know Detroit will come out with a renewed passion in Game 6 and win going away. The question is what happens in Game 7. Can Boston really win 3 Game 7's in a row? If Ray Allen continues to play like he should, then Detroit is in for a tough battle. We weren't exactly running roughshod over the Celtics when he was struggling. Now that his shot is back, our defensive assignment just got that much tougher. I'd love to see what Afflalo can do for a few minutes, but like I said earlier, I don't think Saunders is confident playing yet another rookie. Really, though, Afflalo played in two consecutive Final Fours at UCLA. It's not like he's never seen a pressure-packed situation before.

- On to the Tigers. Gary Sheffield has made his long-awaited trip to the DL and it should be a while before he returns. Detroit called up 25-year-old lefty slugger Jeff Larish from AAA to replace him. Larish was hitting .277/.372/.592 at Toledo. He'll likely play DH against righties and may play some 1B if Leyland gives Cabrera a rest. Larish has done nothing but rake since being drafted out of Arizona St. I expect a little more out of him than Matt Joyce who was more of a late bloomer. Joyce had a terrific start to 2008 at AAA after inconsistency throughout the minors. Larish's track record suggests a better player and one that should contribute immediately.

- Larish, Joyce, Armando Galarraga, Clete Thomas, Freddy Dolsi. Who among us expected these names to dot the 2008 Tigers roster before the September 1st callups? This story has beaten like a dead horse already, but one thing bears mentioning. Detroit traded away its top prospects, save Rick Porcello, for a run at the Series this year. Now, that injuries and ineffectiveness have hit, we've had to turn to our second-tier prospects. This is obviously the worst-case scenario, but let's look at the positives. It hasn't been the fault of the youngsters. Galarraga has been our most consistent starter. Dolsi has made the jump from Single-A and only allowed 2 runs in 9.2 innings. Thomas showed little power in his first go-round with Detroit but he made contact and got on-base at a reasonable clip. Joyce was sent down this morning after striking out in 6 of his last 10 ABs. There was no question that the kid could smash a fastball. But teams soon figured out his weakness for the breaking ball and crushed his spirits. Nevertheless, I think Detroit has found an above-average corner outfielder for 2009. 

Photo Credit:Photo by D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

NCAA Baseball Regional

This weekend, Michigan will be host to one of the 16 NCAA Baseball Regionals. It's the first time the Wolverines have hosted the event since 1986. Competing with Michigan will be #1 seed Arizona, #3 Kentucky, and #4 Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines are the only #2 seed to host a regional in 2008.

Many people have debated whether Michigan deserves a hosting nod. Critics point to their 1-4 record against the RPI top 64. The weak schedule has been a thorn in the Wolverines' side for years now. Their location in the North means they have to play the first month of the season on the road. While most of the good teams are located in the South and West, Michigan can't afford to overload its schedule on these teams to improve its schedule. Playing on the road for a month at a time is difficult enough. That's why the Wolverines have consistently played lower-class Southern teams in advance of the Big Ten campaign. 

Again, Michigan can't be faulted for its Big Ten schedule. The league is very much a mid-major in baseball, routinely sending only one or two teams to the NCAA Tournament (Michigan is the lone representative in 2008). But, while basketball teams like Memphis and Gonzaga can compensate for weak conferences by scheduling tough opponents early in the year, the poor Northern weather forbids Michigan from doing the same. Playing multiple tough opponents on the road would do nothing to help our reputation. Their needs to be a good balance of home and road competition for that tactic to work. Or else, our team would be deflated from traveling thousands of miles down to Arizona or Florida to play a top-ranked squad.

Also, while many of these top warm-weather programs can schedule mid-week games against good competition, Michigan is forced to pick among the nearby MAC schools for its games. Obviously, it's tough to find a team to travel far for a Wednesday afternoon game with classes going on. Whereas it's too difficult to find tough nearby competition for warm-weather schools.

That was a bit of a rant, but I'm trying to put into perspective the odds that the Michigan baseball squad goes up against. Now, while some critics have questioned the hosting nod, there are others that have been confident for awhile that the Wolverines would get the regional.

Even before the season began, the NCAA was leaning towards helping the Northern and Midwestern schools. It established a uniform start date for games as February 22. Before 2008, many warm-weather schools got a head-start because of the balmy January and February climate. Schools like Michigan would then come down to start its season during its Spring Break and already be behind 20 games.

With that rule change in place, there were also rumors that the NCAA wanted to find a northern school to host. When Michigan began romping through the Big Ten, I believe the NCAA selection committee was quite happy. With a Big Ten record 26 wins and 45 overall, it was easy to pick Michigan as a host.

I'm also leaving out perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle: The Fred Wilpon Complex and Ray Fisher Stadium. Michigan's newest athletic achievement comes courtesy of New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. The Wolverines' recent success no doubt provided the motivation to rebuild the venerable stadium. With the new complex and added amenities, the NCAA was given even more reason to award a regional to Michigan. I went to almost every home game this year, and I can say, the stadium looks great. There are new concession stands, bathrooms, luxury boxes, press boxes, chairback seats, indoor hitting facilities, and a so-called Brick Monster in leftfield. The wall in leftfield is meant to give the stadium a bit of character, though I feel it looks out of place so far. Power-hitting righty Zach Putnam might agree with me as well.

As the #2 seed, the Wolverines will play Kentucky on Friday. The Wolverines are loaded on offense. Just take a quick glance at this lineup

SS Jason Christian .321/.428/.554
2B Leif Mahler .300/.378/.414
1B Nate Recknagel .372/.466/.758
P/DH Zach Putnam .309/.398/.543
3B Adam Abraham .342/.411/.525
CF Kevin Cislo .363/.471/.435
LF Derek VanBuskirk .303/.391/.505
C Chris Berset .245/.339/.300
RF Ryan LaMarre .290/.354/.374

Coach Rich Maloney will also slide Recknagel to catcher and play Mike Dufek (.317/.355/.465) at 1B. He may also play Alan Oaks (.444 SLG) over LaMarre to add more power.

The top 7 spots in the order are all difficult outs, especially Recknagel. Take another look at that slugging %. With 23 HR, Recknagel set the school's single-season record. He needs 3 more to tie Casey Close for the Michigan career record of 46. However, if you add his five HR at Oakland in his freshman year, Recknagel would have 48.

There is little doubt the offense can put runs on the board, especially in their home park. My fears lie in the pitching. Michigan has 3 tremendous arms, two starting and one in the pen.

Chris Fetter leads the team in ERA (2.39), innings (86.2), strikeouts (75), batting average against (.205), and complete games (4). At 6'8" 230, the big righty used his intimidating presence and solid command to amass a 10-1 mark. In fact, he tends to be a softer thrower than teammate and Big 10 Pitcher of the Year Zach Putnam.

Putnam, 6'2" 215, has long been one of the state's top players. Drafted by the Tigers out of Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Putnam chose to attend Michigan. He has been the school's top two-way player ever since. He hit a career-high 9 HR this year, but also tallied a 2.64 ERA with an 8-0 record. 

Those two will start the first two games of the regional. Coming out of the pen will be Michael Powers. He was named Big Ten Tournament MVP after saving all 3 games last weekend. His 26 appearances were 8 more than any other pitcher on the team. Surprisingly, he was third on the team in innings pitched because Maloney couldn't settle on a solid rotation.

And, that question mark behind Putnam and Fetter will be the biggest test of the weekend. The Wolverines need a 3rd and 4th starter to step up for Sunday and possibly Monday. Right now, I imagine those two starts would go to Eric Katzmann or Kolby Wood. However, both have K/BB ratios hovering around 1/1. Last year's #3, Mike Wilson, has fallen to a 8.73 ERA in 9 starts and can no longer be trusted in close games. Playing teams like Kentucky and Arizona, who both totaled more than 38 victories playing in the SEC and Pac-10, it will be imperative to stay in the game early. If we get down 3 or 4 runs quickly, that may take our home crowd out of the game and force the back of our bullpen to pitch. 

I'm not going to pretend to analyze Arizona and Kentucky. I don't know nearly enough about college baseball outside the Big 10 to make that up. All I know is those teams have plenty of experience and talent. For a little perspective, Arizona split its season series with Arizona St. while Michigan lost twice to the Sun Devils. But, that was back in February and neither Putnam or Fetter pitched. Michigan has been on a roll lately, tearing through the conference. I predict a couple low-scoring pitching duels Friday and Saturday before Michigan's bats have to come alive for the (please, please) championship on Sunday.