October and April are my two favorite months when it comes to watching sports – April has the Masters, the beginning of baseball season, the end of March Madness, and of course the NHL playoffs. October has baseball playoffs, the NFL in full swing, important college football games, and (usually) the beginning of the NHL season. Let’s look at each topic briefly this week – unfortunately the timing of this column won’t allow a true playoff preview, but if possible we’ll try to do a more thorough analysis of the NLCS teams next week.
-We’ll start with the sport that remains silent – hockey. The regular season was to start this Friday, but already the league has canceled all games through the end of the month. As I detailed in an earlier column, this lockout is simple greed on ownership’s part – and has the potential, if it lasts long enough, to cause severe damage to the league. I am certain that owners are banking on ‘hardcore’ fans returning to arenas no matter how long this takes – and I think by and large that’s true – but there’s ALWAYS a tipping point, and given that the league lost an entire season just seven years ago, I question the wisdom of another extended stoppage so soon. The NHL does not have the NFL’s powerful ratings or fan base, or even baseball’s widespread popularity – the league needs to take a step back and solve this.
-The Steelers got a HUGE win Sunday, one that saved their season, and they should get another one Thursday against a poor Titans team. However, Troy Polamalu re-injured his calf and will likely miss extended time – it’s becoming apparent that he will likely never be the player he was even two years ago. He’s only 31, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the field consistently since 2008. The Steelers’ defense simply isn’t the same without him, and with Ryan Clark also aging Pittsburgh MUST address the secondary in the 2013 draft. If Polamalu misses the rest of the season – and I don’t expect to see him before Thanksgiving at best – the Steelers will struggle to win 10 games, even in a weakened AFC.
-Some of my NFL predictions are looking pretty good – Cleveland, Dallas, the Giants, and the Saints are all struggling as I expected – but already I had some pretty bad misses. My pick for the worst team, the Vikings, is 4-1 and leads the Packers by two games! I think they will fall back some, but QB Christian Ponder appears to be much-improved and their run defense is for-real. The Packers, on the other hand, are only 2-3 and have SERIOUS problems in their secondary. In fact, the Packers and Steelers have similar issues – both have given up too many long scoring drives, both are increasingly reliant on their QBs for their offense, and both appear to be suddenly in decline. I also picked the Patriots to win 14 games, and they will have to win out to make that happen – on the other hand, their schedule is really weak the rest of the way, and their division might be the worst in football.
-Finally, let’s look at the baseball postseason. The big surprise to this point has to be the collapse of the Texas Rangers – or if you prefer, the incredible rebirth of the Oakland A’s. On July 1, the Rangers were 50-30 and 12 games ahead of the 38-42 A’s. The Rangers essentially played .500 ball for the next three months – which normally would be more than enough – but the A’s went 56-26 and swept the Rangers in the last series of the season to win the division. That relegated the Rangers to the 1-game wildcard playoff against the Orioles, and they looked completely listless in a 5-1 loss. With Josh Hamilton about to become a free agent, and an aging core of bats, Texas will need to make some aggressive moves to contend in 2013.
-In the NL, the big story was the controversial infield fly call in the Cardinals-Braves game. Folks, the ump made the correct call – the rule simply states that the fly rule must be called when an infielder can catch a fly ball ‘with ordinary effort’. From the ump’s perspective, once the infielder camped under the ball it was an infield fly – the fact that it was 50 feet into the outfield simply does not matter for purposes of administering the rule. Furthermore, the reaction of the Braves fans – showering the field with debris and causing a 20-minute delay – was completely classless and uncalled for. Frankly, Atlanta fans have a long history of not supporting their teams – two NHL franchises have left, the Braves have struggled to sell out postseason games, and the Falcons only recently have drawn well – this incident only adds to my belief that Atlanta is simply not a good sports town.
-As of this writing (Tuesday) the Giants and A’s are both down 2-0, but the Giants are in worse shape because they lost both games at home. I simply cannot see the Giants sweeping three games in Cincinnati – I think the Reds will move on to the NLCS. The A’s have a fantastic home record at 50-31, while the tigers were sub-.500 on the road. If Oakland can win Tuesday, the series very well could go the distance.
-The other two series are tied 1-1 with an off day Tuesday, and both hold TONS of intrigue. The Orioles have managed a split with the vaunted Yankees at home, and if not for a rare 9th inning meltdown could be ahead 2-0. The Orioles’ lineup is a collection of castoffs and flawed hitters – their leadoff hitter is Nate McLouth!! – but they’ve done just enough all year to win. I still favor the Yankees – their lineup is SO much better – but the back of the Yankees’ rotation is nothing special, and Game 3 is crucial for them.
-The Cardinals blew out the Nationals Monday to even their series, and to me this series comes down to the rotations – both teams have pretty solid bullpens, both teams can hit, but without Strasburg the Nationals aren’t as deep in the rotation as they were. Both teams have leaned heavily on their bullpens – the team that gets solid starting pitching from here on should win the series.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.