Tuesday, June 28, 2005

NBA Draft Report Card

In a draft filled with surprises, let's take a look at who did the best. Please note that the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks didn't have any draft picks. So there will only be 28 teams covered.

Atlanta Hawks: F Marvin Williams (2), SG Salim Stoudamire (31), G Cenk Akyol (59)

Comment- Can't do badly when you land the most talented forward and best outside shooter. They'll hope Akyol pans out at the point long term.

Grade: B+

Boston Celtics: SG Gerald Green (18), SF Ryan Gomes (50), PG Orien Greene (53)

Comment- Somehow the number one rated high school prospect fell into their lap. Then they were able to get an NBA ready player who can score and took a chance on Greene.

Grade: B+

Charlotte Bobcats: PG Raymond Felton (5), PF Sean May (13)

Comment- Going for two local players off the NCAA champions will please their fans. But will it lead to more wins?

Grade: C+

Cleveland Cavaliers: PF Martynas Andriuskevicius (44)

Comment- Originally drafted by Orlando, the Cavs acquired the rights to the 7-3 Lithuanian native in exchange for a 2006 second rounder and cash. He can step out and knock down three's. But when will he come over?

Grade: C

Denver Nuggets: G Julius Hodge (20), SF Linas Kleiza (27), SF Ricky Sanchez (35), PF Axel Hervelle (52)

Comment- Denver fans should love the versatility of Hodge. Kleiza and Sanchez were acquired from Portland in the Jarrett Jack deal. Too early to tell if they will pay off. Hervelle is from Spain and has upside.

Grade: C+

Detroit Pistons: PF Jason Maxiell (26), PF Amir Johnson (56), G Alex Acker (60)

Comment- Pistons go for toughness in Maxiell and potential in Johnson. Acker played his college ball at Pepperdine and will compete for a backup point guard job. What's disappointing is that Detroit didn't get an outside shooter.

Grade: C-

Golden State Warriors: PF Ike Diogu (9), PG Monta Ellis (40), PF Chris Taft (42)

Comment- Diogu is the only player ready to contribute with both Ellis and Taft projects.

Grade: C

Houston Rockets: SG Luther Head (24)

Comment- Taking Head here might have been a reach. But the athletic guard can shoot, pass and play D. Just what Jeff Van Gundy likes.

Grade: B

Indiana Pacers: SF Danny Granger (17), PF Erazem Lorbek (46)

Comment- Getting the athletic Granger at 17 is a steal. Lorbek is a great European prospect. But when will he be a Pacer?

Grade: B-

Los Angeles Clippers: SF Yaroslav Korolev (12), PG Daniel Ewing (32)

Comment- Korolev is just 18 and will probably stay over with CSKA Moscow a couple of more years. He has a lot of potential. Ewing comes from Duke and should be well prepared for the NBA. He could be like Chris Duhon was for the Bulls last year.

Grade: C+

Los Angeles Lakers: C Andrew Bynum (10), PF Ronnie Turiaf (37), SG Von Wafer (39)

Comment- The Lakers drafted for potential with Bynum, which doesn't make sense with Phil Jackson back. Turiaf is a solid pick who adds size to their frontline and can contribute right away. They'll hope Wafer can knock down some shots to take some pressure off Kobe.

Grade: C

Memphis Grizzlies: PF Hakim Warrick (19), PF Lawrence Roberts (55)

Comment- With Stromile Swift set to leave, the selection of the athletic Warrick makes sense. If his outside shot improves, he could make a few GMs pay the price. Roberts was acquired from Seattle for a 2006 second round pick. He didn't have a big senior year but he could still wind up contributing.

Grade: B

Miami Heat: PF Wayne Simien (29)

Comment- Smart pick by Heat because they could lose the services of Udonis Haslem this summer. The Kansas product is rock solid on the block and hits the glass.

Grade: B

Milwaukee Bucks: C Andrew Bogut (1), SF Ersan Ilyasova (36)

Comment- Bucks addressed their lack of size in the pivot with Australian Bogut. Out of Utah, he should be solid fundamentally. Ilyasova is a Turkey product who Milwaukee hopes will team up with Bogut for years to come.

Grade: B+

Minnesota Timberwolves: SG Rashad McCants (14), G Bracey Wright (47)

Comment- McCants is as talented a scorer as anyone but the questions are his attitude and defense. Wright is a gamble out of Indiana to replace Sam Cassell. Who's the last Hoosier guard to make it big?

Grade: C+

New Jersey Nets: SG Antoine Wright (15), C Mile Ilic (43)

Comment- The athletic Wright could be solid selection. Ilic is a Yugoslavian product who the Nets hope will develop similarly to Nenad Krstic.

Grade: B-

New Orleans Hornets: PG Chris Paul (4), PF Brandon Bass (33)

Comment- No brainer taking the quick and talented Paul to run the point. With P.J. Brown no spring chicken, team will look for Bass to take over at four.

Grade: B+

New York Knicks: C Channing Frye (8), PG Nate Robinson (21), PF David Lee (30)

Comment- The addition of Frye gives Knicks boost inside. Robinson is part of the Quentin Richardson deal from Phoenix for Kurt Thomas and second round pick Dijon Thompson. Robinson is the classic overachiever who will instantly become a fan favorite. However, the selection of Lee at 30 baffled me.

Grade: B-

Orlando Magic: PF Fran Vazquez (11), PG Travis Diener (38), C Marcin Gortat (57)

Comment- Taking Vazquez when they already have Howard at the same position doesn't make sense. Diener is a small guard who can knock down treys but how much PT will he get with Francis and Nelson ahead of him? Gortat's rights were acquired from Phoenix for cash. Are the Magic banking on the Poland native to fill center hole?

Grade: C-

Philadelphia 76ers: SG Louis Williams (45)

Comment- Sixers took a chance on potential with South Gwinnett Georgia HS prospect.

Grade: C

Phoenix Suns: SF Dijon Thompson (54)

Comment- Thompson was final piece to puzzle in trade with Knicks to acquire Kurt Thomas. What he gives them will be a bonus. The defensive minded Thomas was a must for Suns to contend next year. He'll fit in well in the pick n' roll with Nash.

Grade: B+

Portland Trail Blazers: SG Martell Webster (6), PG Jarrett Jack (22)

Comment- Portland wisely traded down to get the player they coveted. Webster had impressive workouts and became the first high school player selected. Picking up Jack from Denver is a wise move. While they have Telfair, Jack is older, bigger, stronger and plays with ferocity. They should form a solid duo at the point for years.

Grade: B

Sacramento Kings: SG Francisco Garcia (23)

Comment- Kings get an athletic shooting guard with size and heart from the Bronx projects. Garcia will become a fan favorite.

Grade: B+

San Antonio Spurs: PF Ian Mahinmi (28)

Comment- Spurs go for French big man who wasn't even listed in the Draft Guide. A San Antonio special.

Grade: C

Seattle Supersonics: C Johan Petro (25), SF Mickael Gelabale (48)

Comment- Sonics address potential void at center with Jerome James and Reggie Evans set to test market. Last year, they selected Robert Swift out of high school. Now they get Petro. Guess they'd rather be safe than sorry. If the two French players panout, just call them the French Connection.

Grade: C+

Toronto Raptors: PF Charlie Villanueva (7), SF Joey Graham (16), PG Roko Ukic (41), PF Uros Slokar (58)

Comment- Selecting Villanueva that early was a shock. The Brooklyn native could panout but why take him when they already have Chris Bosh? Graham is rock solid around the basket and was a nice choice. Ukic was rated as the fourth best point guard. Slokar will probably stay overseas in Italy.

Grade: C-

Utah Jazz: PG Deron Williams (3), SG C.J. Miles (34), C Robert Whaley (51)

Comment- Trading up with Portland to get the savvy Williams was a must. He is strong on the ball, tough and an unselfish player. He should fit in great with Utah. Jazz gamble on potential with two high school prospects. They'll have an excellent teacher in Jerry Sloan.

Grade: B

Washington Wizards: PF Andray Blatche (49)

Comment- Wizards go with South Kent Prep Connecticut star to provide what Kwame Brown couldn't inside.

Grade: B-

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Knicks, Nets Look to Hit It Big At NBA Draft

Tonight from The Theatre in Madison Square Garden, both the Knicks and Nets along with 28 other NBA teams will try to find a gem in this year's 2005 NBA Draft. For all participants, the draft is a way to improve your team's future. But GM's and scouts must guess right or face the gloomy prospect of being ripped apart down the road if their picks fail.

Barring a trade, the Knicks are slated to have two first round selections with their eighth overall and final pick of the round acquired from Phoenix via San Antonio. With a potential trade of power forward Kurt Thomas to the Suns in exchange for 25-year-old small forward Quentin Richardson and a conditional first round pick, the Knicks need a frontline player who can help fill the void inside. All indications are that if Arizona product Channing Frye is available at eight, the Knicks are expected to select the 7-0 center. He can play with his back to the basket and step out occasionally. But the athletic Frye can also bring a defensive presence and block shots, which is something the Knicks have lacked since trading away Marcus Camby to Denver in an '03 draft day package for Antonio McDyess. Even if they land Frye, it's expected that team President and GM Isiah Thomas will go big again at 30. Who they select depends on what's available.

Meanwhile, across the river, the Nets are fresh off a first round sweep defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat. If Jason Kidd is happy, then they'll have one less problem to worry about meaning that they could have an imposing starting trio of Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter. With center Nenad Krstic having a decent rookie year, the Nets appear to be formidable heading into next season. They could use an upgrade at power forward with the serviceable Jason Collins there. He's a diligent worker on the offensive glass but isn't much of a threat. The Nets are expected to select 15th in the first round. They could use an athletic forward who can run the floor. Former Syracuse product Hakim Warrick and ex-Uconn star Charles Villanueva both could be possibilities here. Warrick can fly up and down the court and plays above the rim on both ends. He needs work on his outside shot in the halfcourt set. Villanueva is a terror on the offensive glass who plays bigger than his size. He needs to become more consistent however.

Hopefully for both the Knicks and Nets, they will choose wisely.

Here's a look at how the first round could play out:


1.Milwaukee Bucks- Andrew Bogut, C, Utah
The athletic team oriented Bogut would fill a void at center. But the potential of swingman Marvin Williams could be too much to pass up.

2.Atlanta Hawks- Marvin Williams, F, North Carolina
Just what they need. A potential superstar who will draw fans. Still need help at the point.

3.Portland Trail Blazers- Gerald Green, SG, Gulf Shores Academy H.S. (Tex.)
Someone to play with Sebastian Telfair if they don't trade down. Also a possibility they could shock everyone and take Martell Webster.

4.New Orleans Hornets- Chris Paul, PG, Wake Forest
If they don't select him, look for it to be Deron Williams.

5.Charlotte Bobcats- Deron Williams, PG, Illinois
Would they swap picks with the Hornets to get Paul?

6.Utah Jazz- Danny Granger, SF, New Mexico
Athletic forward can run floor and rebound.

7.Toronto Raptors- Raymond Felton, PG, North Carolina
Could replace Rafer Alston. If they opt to go elsewhere, it might be Channing Frye.

8.New York Knicks- Channing Frye, C, Arizona
If he's gone, don't be shocked if the Knicks take a chance on St. Joseph's Jersey prospect Andrew Bynum.

9.Golden State Warriors- Fran Vazquez, PF, Spain
Should be ready to make impact.

10.Los Angeles Lakers- Joey Graham, SF, Oklahoma
If they don't trade up for Portland's number three to select D. Williams, someone who can play right away will be the pick.

11.Orlando Magic- Antoine Wright, SG, Texas A&M
Stock is soaring for athletic scorer.

12.Los Angeles Clippers- Johan Petro, C, France
Chris Kaman hasn't panned out.

13.Charlotte Bobcats- Rashad McCants, SG, North Carolina
Has plenty of talent but could fall due to questionable attitude.

14.Minnesota Timberwolves- Charlie Villanueva, PF, Connecticut
Adds some size and athleticism to frontcourt.

15.New Jersey Nets- Hakim Warrick, PF, Syracuse
Can run floor and has enormous wingspan.

16.Toronto Raptors- Francisco Garcia, SG, Louisville
Athletic guard can fill it up from outside.

17.Indiana Pacers- Yaroslav Korolev, SF, Russia
Supposed to be very talented and isn't expected to fall out of top 20.

18.Boston Celtics- Julius Hodge, PG, N.C. State
Versatile guard could create matchup problems with size.

19.Memphis Grizzlies- Jarrett Jack, PG, Georgia Tech
With Jason Williams probably traded and Earl Watson a free agent, underrated guard could be choice.

20.Denver Nuggets- Ryan Gomes, SF, Providence
If they don't package this pick along with the 22nd to move up, skilled small forward can keep defenses honest.

21.Phoenix Suns- Martynas Andriuskevicius, C, Lithuania
With desire to move Amare Stoudemire back to power forward, Suns could take gamble on this 7-3 pivot.

22.Denver Nuggets- Ike Diogu, PF, Arizona State
Some more length added to frontline.

23.Sacramento Kings- Wayne Simien, PF, Kansas
Well schooled in post and can clean up glass.

24.Houston Rockets- Sean May, PF, North Carolina
If still around, is kind of energy player Jeff Van Gundy prefers to bring off bench.

25.Seattle Supersonics- Chris Taft, PF, Pittsburgh
With both Reggie Evans and Jerome James on the market, Sonics could take gamble on inconsistent four.

26.Detroit Pistons- Ersan Ilyasova, SF, Turkey
Desperately need a perimeter scorer but that probably won't be available.

27.Utah Jazz- Monta Ellis, PG, Lanier (Miss.) H.S.
Raul Lopez doesn't exactly remind anyone of John Stockton.

28.San Antonio Spurs- Roko Ukic, PG, Croatia
Just the kind of player they usually select.

29.Miami Heat- Nate Robinson, PG, Washington
Despite lack of size, we're betting on this Road Runner to make it.

30.New York Knicks- Ronnie Turiaf, C, Gonzaga
Big man had great workouts which could land him in first round.

Keep an eye on: Seattle Prep SG Martell Webster- 6-7 guard has been impressive in workouts and might spoil draft lists.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Hard Hits: Week Later, Yanks D-Rayled

It didn't take long for things to go wrong. After a promising six-game winstreak over the Pirates and Cubs to begin a 13-game homestand, the Yankees reverted back to the form that's seen them look rather pedestrian most of the year.

Out of all opponents, it was Lou Piniella's Devil Rays who once again took three of four from them, stalling any momentum. And here's the sad part. If not for a remarkable Yankee comeback in the second game of the series when they scored 13 runs in the eighth to win 20-11, they would have been swept. Hard to believe. But the D-Rays, who have won just five other road games all year, looked like world beaters.

In the past, the Yanks have handled Tampa Bay. But this season has been a different story with the lowly team from St. Petersburg taking seven of the first 10 meetings. When the Bronx Bombers were dominating competition, losses to teams that bad were unacceptable. Now, when they suffer defeats to them or are stunningly swept at Kansas City, it's no longer a shock.

That's how much things have changed for the worst team money could buy.

In the opener of the Subway series at home, the Yanks basically handed the game to the Mets committing two key miscues in the second. After being staked to a one-run lead on a leadoff blast by Derek Jeter off former nemesis Pedro Martinez, the ball club did their best to give it right back. Keyed by a one-out dropped fly ball by Bernie Williams and a poor pickoff throw at second by Mike Mussina, the Mets somehow scored three runs on sac flies in the inning to tie a major league record.

At worst, the Yanks should have been out of the inning tied at one on a legitimate sac fly by Ramon Castro. But instead, the Yankees' poor defense gave the Mets the momentum and a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Mussina, who never was sharp in six frames, made two costly mistakes when he left pitches up in the zone to Cliff Floyd and Carlos Beltran for solo homers. Meanwhile, Martinez got ahead of batters all night and tossed eight strong innings allowing just two runs for his eighth win of the season. He also got help from his defense when Beltran made a leaping catch crashing into the wall to take away a Hideki Matsui bid for an RBI extra-base hit. It was a terrific play by a player who had come under heavy scrutiny for inconsistent hitting and fielding thanks to a sore quadriceps.

Though the Yanks would get a two-run homer by Tino Martinez and put the tying run at the plate off closer Braden Looper, ultimately, they fell short. With one out, the Mets David Wright made the play of the game robbing Tony Womack of a bunt single with a tremendous barehanded scoop and throw that just got Womack. Considering that Jeter singled a batter later, that was huge because it saved Looper from having to face Gary Sheffield. Instead, he got rookie Robinson Cano to bounce out to end the game and extend the Yanks' latest losing streak to three.

The game was a microcasm of their whole season. Poor defense. Mistakes by starters. And not enough determined at bats to get Pedro out of the game early. That kind of play was put on display by Willie Randolph's ball club. If you wanted small ball, great pitching and clutch defense, the Mets gave it to you.

"I hope we find some consistency, because it's tough to play six months like this," Williams said afterwards.

That's how it's been all season.

Hitting Back:

-It was nice to see the Pistons and Spurs put on a good show in the final three games of the NBA Finals and produce the first winner take all Game Seven since Knicks-Rockets 11 years ago. It helped make up for how brutal the first four games were. But what this series came down to was a classic Game Five decided in OT by a last second Robert Horry three. If not for Horry's big shot and other key plays in that game and even his contributions in Game Seven, the Spurs don't win their second title in three years (third in seven). Big Shot Bob as he's known once again came up huge in winning his sixth NBA title for his third different team (Rockets and Lakers). There might not better role player in the history of the league, which speaks volumes.

-As huge as Finals MVP Tim Duncan came up in the second half, I would have given Horry the award. But you never see a role player get it. To Duncan's credit, after accepting his third such trophy, he referred to his teammates as 'a bunch of MVP's.' That's what makes him so likeable. He gets it!

-Say what you want about Larry Brown but he has endured a lot of problems due to his bladder condition. Even with all those health issues and the pressure to defend an NBA title, he had his team in position to repeat. It takes a special coach to be able to overcome all that. If it was his final game as coach, he still went out a winner. No other coach has ever won both an NCAA title and an NBA championship as he did with the '88 Danny Manning Kansas Jayhawks and last year's Pistons. In total, Brown won 100 NBA postseason games, passing legendary Red Auerbach for third all-time. Not a bad career for the Hall-Of-Famer.

-If this deal goes through between the Knicks and Suns with Kurt Thomas going to Phoenix in exchange for Quentin Richardson and a conditional first round pick, many critics will claim that it is the same silly move by Isiah Thomas. But here's my question to all these people: What NBA championship are the Knicks winning with him?

-It's a good thing Andy Roddick won his second round match at Wimbledon or he would have gotten an earful.

-It would be great if Annika Sorenstram could win the third leg of the grand slam at the women's U.S. Open. But she'll have to come from behind to win from six strokes back of Nicole Perrot over the weekend.

-Given the plight of both New York baseball teams, NFL training camp can't get here soon enough.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Hard Hits: Yanks Try To Make Statement

Since returning home bruised and battered on the heels of a 3-9 midwestern swing, the seven-time defending AL East champion Yankees have risen from the dead. On their longest homestand of the season (13 games), so far, they have taken care of business winning the first five. After sweeping the Pirates in impressive fashion with two brilliant pitching performances from Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson and their first come-from-behind victory after eight innings, aided by a missed double play call and a Jason Giambi walk-off upper deck shot; the Yanks have followed that up by taking the first two games against the Cubs.

The Cubs, who are in town visiting the Stadium for the first time since the 1938 World Series when the Yanks, led by The Iron Horse and Joe DiMaggio swept them; had been playing better ball coming in. Despite not having ace Mark Prior, second starter Kerry Wood and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra due to injuries, Dusty Baker's ball club had emerged from a sluggish start to challenge for the NL wild card with a 34-30 record. With first baseman Derrek Lee pacing the senior circuit in all three triple crown categories and third baseman Aramis Ramirez heating up, they seemed like a good test for the Bombers.

Particularly Friday night, when the Cubs rallied from a 4-0 hole against Carl Pavano and took a 6-4 lead in the sixth. What looked like an easy fourth straight win for the Yanks became in jeopardy. But showing some new found resiliency, New York knocked out Carlos Zambrano in a three-run seventh to regain the lead thanks to an Alex Rodriguez single and a two-run home run by a hobbled Hideki Matsui. Matsui had already knocked in a run earlier but wasn't done. An inning later, he put the game out of reach with a clutch two-run double to give closer Mariano Rivera some breathing room for his 15th consecutive save, in the series opening 9-6 victory.

Carrying the momentum of that win into Saturday, rookie hurler Chien-Ming Wang had his most impressive start, going eight strong innings, allowing just a solo homer to fellow rookie Jason Dubois in an 8-1 triumph. Wang, who last week had his worst outing in an error-filled 8-1 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals, bounced back in a big way. The 6-3 right-hander out of Taiwan shutdown the Cubs offense on just 88 pitches (57 strikes) giving up just four other hits, walking one and fanning five including the locked in Lee. He improved to 4-2 with a 3.97 ERA.

The rejuvenated Bomber offense got on the board in the first on a key two-out A-rod single that plated Gary Sheffield. In the fourth, Jorge Posada extended his hit streak to 10 with an RBI double that scored the red hot Matsui, who had doubled earlier off Cub starter Glendon Rusch. Since turning his ankle against the Cards last Sunday, Matsui has hit safely in all five wins including three dingers and nine RBI's. If he struggles again this season, maybe he should turn the other ankle.

After tacking on a third run an inning later courtesy of a Sheffield run-scoring single that plated rookie Robinson Cano, the Cubs finally got on the board when Dubois led off the sixth with a blast to left for his sixth of the year. But after that, Wang retired nine of the last 10 he faced before giving way to reliever Tanyon Sturtze, who tossed a one-two-three ninth for the Yanks' fifth consecutive win.

The big blow came in the bottom of the sixth when the Yanks loaded the bases for team captain Derek Jeter. Jeter, who had never hit a grand slam in 136 previous at-bats, broke his major league worst drought among active big leaguers by connecting on a 2-1 Joe Borowski sinker to death valley to break the game open 7-1. The blast extended his hitting streak to 11 straight. Afterwards, the soldout crowd of 55,284 urged Jeter to take a curtain call, to which he finally obliged much to their delight. The next time he came up in the eighth, with fans chanting his name, Jeter hit his second straight dinger to right when it just cleared the wall bouncing off the the railing. It capped a five RBI day, matching a career high.

They now take this five-game streak into today's game when Mussina goes up against Sergio Mitre. If they can sweep the Cubs, it would send a message.

At 35-32, the Yanks still have their work cut out for them. They still trail first place Baltimore by five games and face an uphill battle with the Twins, Red Sox, Rangers and even the Indians ahead of them for the wild card. It all means that this summer could be like no other in New York. It's up to the Yankees to continue to play resurgent ball and keep pace so they have a chance to make the postseason. Nobody is going to roll over for them this time.

If they beat the Cubs later today for their sixth in a row, it won't mean a thing unless they take care of business against the Orioles at the end of the month and the Red Sox in a big four-game set at Fenway in mid-July. Those are the games they will need the edge in to comeback the rest of the way.

It promises to be exciting and nerve-wracking. Imagine that. A summer where the Yanks are finally challenged.

Hitting Back:

-It was a very sad conclusion to Mike Tyson's career. But after realizing he had nothing left against Irish pushover Kevin McBride, Mike showed a more humble side in the postfight interview with Showtime's Jim Gray. He admitted that he no longer had the passion or stomach for fighting. Tyson was only doing it to pay off his debt. He showed a lot of remorse for how his career ended on the stool quitting after six and wished fans at the MCI Center could get their money back. If this really was his last act, Tyson looked more at ease despite the result. He talked about how his family are more important at this stage of his life and boxing hadn't been fun for him since 1990 when he lost in Tokyo to Buster Douglas. Just the way he handled himself told a lot about his character. This was not the same animal or brawler anymore. It was a more mature man who understood that it was finally time to move on. I wish him best of luck at getting his life together and whatever his future holds.

-Glen Johnson-Antonio Tarver II on HBO was another good competitive fight. Tarver took the rematch by unanimous decision to reclaim the IBF light heavyweight title. Now that the prize fighters have split the first two fights, hopefully, there will be a trilogy.

-Could Larry Merchant take anymore cheap shots at Tyson and rival Showtime? What a hypocrite. If Tyson were fighting for HBO, everyone knows he'd draw just as many fans and Merchant wouldn't utter a word.

-It's nice that at least the NBA Finals between the Spurs and defending champion Pistons are knotted at two going to the pivotal Game Five at The Palace tonight. But could both teams at least show up and make the final two or three games for the ring watchable?

-At least the NBA and the union aren't dumb enough to risk losing a whole season like the NHL and the NHLPA.

-Over a week ago after Pedro tossed a complete game two-hitter against Houston, the Mets were making some noise and looked like they'd be there all year in a crowded NL East. Since that point, they have managed to lose eight of their last 10 and fall into the basement. They better get their act together soon or it could be another predictable year at Shea.

-Does Tiger have one last run in him to comeback from six strokes down against Retief Goosen at The U.S. Open?

-Not many people watch MLS soccer here. But if you didn't see the Metro Stars 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew, you missed a quality game.

-Afleet Alex sure showed a winning kick down the stretch at Belmont last week to take two-thirds of the triple crown.

-Now that Michael Jackson was found not guilty, could people just leave him alone?

-Over/Under on Tom Cruise engagement to Katie Holmes: Four months.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Sharapova Goes For Repeat At Wimbledon

Last summer, 17-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova took Wimbledon by storm, capturing her first career slam by shocking two-time champion American Serena Williams in straight sets. A year older, she will attempt to repeat at the All England Club. The road promises to be tough.

Sharapova enters the tournament ranked second overall and seeded second. If she were to win it again, she would eclipse American Lindsay Davenport as world number one. For now, Davenport holds the distinction and will try to defend that honor.

Last year, they played a competitive three set semifinal, which Sharapova came back and took with some impressive powerful groundstrokes and graceful shotmaking.

While the two highest seeds should be favorites, they'll have their work cut out for them with the first two year's slam winners- Australian Open champ Serena Williams and French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne in their collective paths. Williams is seeded fourth while Henin-Hardenne is seeded seventh. Both have won their share of slams and could make runs at taking their second major of the season.

Other contenders could be third seed Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, fifth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and 15th seed Kim Clijsters.

Mauresmo has never won a slam title. Her story continues to be one of coming close but falling short under pressure.

Kuznetsova, the defending U.S. Open champ has the game to challenge her rivals. However, she is coming off a quarterfinal collapse against Henin-Hardenne at Roland Garros. It should be interesting to see how he she reacts to a similar kind of match on the grass court.

In her return from injury to a slam event, Clijsters won her first three matches at the French but couldn't finish off Davenport in the second set, losing in three. She has as much ability as anyone on the WTA tour. But she has never won a major. If she continues to play well, that could change.

Two players who aren't what they were are Anastasia Myskina and Venus Williams.

Myskina, the '04 French Open champ has struggled since battling inconsistency and deep thoughts of her ailing Mom. The combo was too much for her at Roland Garros, where she became the first women's defending champ to lose the following year in the opening round. She mentioned a complete loss of confidence in her ability to make shots. It's unknown how the ninth seed will perform at Wimbledon.

Venus is a former two-time Wimbledon champion and four-time grand slam winner. The 25-year-old vet hasn't been the same since 2001 when she won her third and fourth slams (Wimbledon and U.S. Open).

After a tough fourth round loss to Aussie Alicia Molik in Melbourne, Venus suffered an upset third round defeat at the hands of 15-year-old Bulgarian Sesil Karatancheva in Roland Garros. The early exits dropped her to a 14th seed at the All England Club. For the first time in forever, Venus is in the same corner as her sister Serena, meaning that if they won their first three rounds, both would meet in a surprising round of 16 match. The question is does big sis have anything left? That remains to be seen.

Other possible contenders could be Russians Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova.

The 23-year-old Dementieva is more talented. If she's serving well, she is capable of going far. Her best two appearances at Wimbledon were when she reached the fourth round in '02 and '03. At this year's event, the '04 French and U.S. Open runner-up will attempt to go further as a sixth seed.

Petrova, 23, has appeared in the fourth round twice including last year. At Roland Garros, she lost in the semis to eventual champ Henin-Hardenne in straight sets. She has solid groundstrokes but is very streaky. The eighth seed will try to put it all together on grass.

Bracket Breakdown: Davenport's section isn't bad. She should cruise through the first two rounds and could meet 30th seed Dinara Safina in the third round. Safina, the younger sister of Marat Safin, could push Lindsay. If she gets through that, there could be a round of 16 rematch with Clijsters. At the French, she came back to win in three. Clijsters might face 23rd seed Ai Sugiyama in the third round. She should get through that and advance to play Davenport again for a shot at the quarterfinals.

On the other side of the bracket, Kuznetsova shouldn't have any problems early on but could run into trouble against talented 16-year-old Czech Nicole Vaidisova in round three. In her young career, Vaidisova's best result is the third round at this year's Australian Open. She might not be quite ready for prime time. Look for Kuznetsova to advance to the fourth round and meet 10th seed Patty Schnyder. The unorthodox lefty's baseline game could pose some problems for Kuznetsova.

Mauresmo's top half of her bracket doesn't look too bad. She should advance to the third round easily and could meet up with 25th seed Karolina Sprem. Sprem, a quarterfinalist a year ago could give Mauresmo trouble making this match a toss-up. The winner could play Russian 13 seed Elena Likhovtseva for a chance at the elite eight. The seasoned vet has never really had a lot of success but she recently made the semis at Roland Garros.

The bottom half should be smooth sailing for Dementieva. A third round match against American vet Amy Frazier could take place. But she shouldn't have any problems making the round of 16. If her compatriot Myskina plays well, they could face off for a shot at the quarters.

The third section is interesting. At the bottom of the draw, if the two Williams sisters win their first three matches, they would square off in a fourth round showdown. That could pit two two-time Wimbledon champions against each other in an intense match-up. There is no one to threaten Serena. If she plays to her capability, Venus should win her first two rounds but could run into some competition against 20th seeded Daniela Hantuchova. The 22-year-old Slovakian does possess some talent but has never taken it to that next level. She did make the quarters on grass three years ago. So it could be an interesting match.

The top portion of the draw shouldn't be as difficult for French Open champ Henin-Hardenne. She should cruise through the early rounds but might play a rising opponent in the round of 16. Serbia and Montenegro's Ana Ivanovic turned pro this year. Just 17, she hasn't fared too badly at her first two majors. A third round showing at her debut in Melbourne and a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros might give Ivanovic some added confidence heading into Wimbledon. If that's the case, she should advance to the third round to play French Open runner-up 12th seed Mary Pierce. The winner of that match should meet Henin-Hardenne for a chance at the round of eight.

Defending champ Sharapova should have an easy time with most of her bracket. However, an intriguing second round match-up could pit her against 15-year-old French Open semifinalist Karatancheva. Expect Sharapova to get through. Once she does, there won't be many roadblocks to the quarterfinals.

The top half of the bracket also should not be too challenging for Petrova. If she plays well, Petrova could wind up meeting 11th seed Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round for a trip to the quarters. The 20-year-old Moscow native has lost in that round at Wimbledon the past two years. This could be the year she breaks through.

Picking The Final Four: Davenport should meet Clijsters in an appealing fourth round rematch. A firm striker of the ball, she should have a slight advantage on the baseline. Clijsters should be quicker though. At Roland Garros, Clijsters beat herself with a ton of unforced errors and double faults. Barring that kind of collapse, I like Clijsters to advance in a three-set battle against Davenport. Clijsters should face the winner of Kuznetsova-Schnyder. Look for Kuznetsova to move on and meet Kim in a strong quarter. I'll take Clijsters in three to reach the semifinals.

A semifinalist last year, Mauresmo should play Sprem in a competitive third round match-up. I'll take Sprem in an upset to advance to the round of 16. It's uncertain who she will play. There aren't many great grass court players in her section. If form holds, it would be Likhovtseva. I'll pick Sprem to advance and meet Dementieva in the round of eight. Unless Myskina snaps out of her funk, it should be smooth sailing for Dementieva. Against Sprem, I like Dementieva to advance to the semis against Clijsters.

The third bracket points to a sibling showdown between the Williams sisters in round four. Would it really shock anyone if it didn't come down due to inconsistent play by Venus? I hope she shows up ready to play inspired tennis. If so, then she could give Serena a tough match. But look for Serena to triumph and cruise into the quarters. Henin-Hardenne shouldn't run into trouble until she faces Ivanovic. But she should have too much experience for her and play Serena in a classic quarter. This match could go either way. Both match-up well. They're both extremely talented, can rip the ball and are mentally tough. It definitely should be a two-plus hour marathon with no tiebreak in the third. As much as I like Henin-Hardenne, I just can't see her getting by Serena on this surface. I'll pick Serena in a three-set epic, winning the final set 8-6 to get to the final four.

Sharapova's bracket is much easier and that might be a factor when she reaches a rematch of last year's final against Serena. Her bracket is a joke. If she doesn't win it, that would be a huge upset. I like Zvonareva to upset Petrova in the fourth round and meet Sharapova in the quarters. But Sharapova just has too much game.

Clijsters against Dementieva in one semi should be a competitive match between two women who can strike the ball with authority from the baseline. But Clijsters' experience should win out and get her to the final. The other semi should be the championship. But it isn't. Serena already avenged her Wimbledon final defeat in a classic three-set semi win down under against Sharapova. But if she plays Venus in the fourth round and Henin-Hardenne in the quarters, that could take a lot out of her. Meanwhile, the younger Sharapova should be well rested, which is a huge advantage. With that probably a factor, I'll pick her to advance past Serena in straight sets.

Final Prediction: It's hard to pick against Sharapova here. She hits the ball with so much power and moves opponents around the court like a championship boxer. Clijsters has great foot speed and can run down a lot of shots. But against the taller Russian, the Belgium native will be up against it. I think it will go the distance but I like Sharapova to win her second consecutive Wimbledon and become the number one player in the world.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Roger Goes For Three Straight Wimbledons

The most coveted Grand Slam gets underway next Monday at the All England Club in London. Swiss spectacular Roger Federer will attempt to win his third consecutive Wimbledon. If the 23-year-old world number one can achieve the feat, he will become almost as synonymous on grass as American legend Pete Sampras. Sampras won a remarkable seven of his men's all-time best 14 slams there.

While it still would pale in comparison to Pistol Pete, if Roger wins again, he can match Sampras' run of three straight Wimbledons ('93 - 95) at the same age. It would also be his fifth career slam in the last three years, which ironically began with a straight set conquest of Aussie Mark Phillippousis.

In a disappointing season by Federer's standards, having been eliminated in the semifinals at both the Australian and French championships, he will have plenty of incentive to hoist the trophy again.

Amazingly, despite a brilliant record of 51-3 with seven titles this year, it doesn't measure up because Federer is now judged on how many slams he wins. If he were to fall short on grass, it would be considered a major disappointment for the world's best player. The great players raise the bar and that's where Federer is in his career.

So, who will challenge him in his quest for a three-peat?

Last year's runner-up in a hard fought four set final and second seed Andy Roddick should be one of his adversary's prime competition at this year's event. The 22-year-old American is the game's hardest server and possesses a dynamite forehand in his arsenal. He hasn't won a major since the '03 U.S. Open and should be determined to win his second career slam. He recently won his third straight championship at Queens Club in London, a warmup event. With disappointing results thus far, a semifinal defeat in Sydney to Lleyton Hewitt and a second round exit at Roland Garros, Roddick has much to prove.

Soon to be married Aussie Lleyton Hewitt also will be returning for this year's third slam. After a great showing back home, losing to Marat Safin in four at the Australian Open final, the 24-year-old third seed missed the French Open with a thigh injury. But the fiery competitor is finally back on the court and will look to make a run at his second Wimbledon and third career slam. Hewitt was the last man besides Federer to win at the All England Club, when he defeated David Nalbandian in straight sets for the title three years ago.

The enigmatic Safin took Australia by storm, finally capturing his second slam after more than a four year drought since taking the 2000 U.S. Open over Sampras. The 25-year-old Russian has finally matured and could be primed for a run on grass. After his thrilling five-set semifinal victory over Federer in Australia, he put everyone on notice that he was back. Recently, Federer exacted some revenge at Halle, Germany, besting Safin in three hard fought sets. It was his third straight year with a win there and 29th consecutive win on grass. Roger's last defeat came to Mario Ancic in the first round of '02 Wimbledon. Ancic could be a threat this year as last year he made it all the way to the final four before losing to Roddick in five.

Another contender could be London's own Tim Henman, a four-time semifinalist at the event. Now a seasoned vet, the 30-year-old Henman will be seeded sixth. This could be one of his last opportunities to make a run at the title. The British faithful will be solidly behind their man in his attempt to become the first Englishman to capture Wimbledon since 1936 when Fred Perry took the title.

Teenage Spanish sensation and French Open champion Rafael Nadal will be seeded fourth despite not being known as a grass court player. The clay court specialist will try to build on his impressive season. Though he doesn't have a huge serve, Nadal carries a lethal forehand and can run down any shot. His flambuoyant personality should serve him well in unfamilar surroundings.

Former 1992 champion and eight-time grand slam winner Andre Agassi pulled out of the tournament for the second year in a row with a nerve injury. The same injury was too much for the popular American star to overcome in a five set first round loss to Jarkko Nieminen at the French Open. At age 35 and needing cortisone shots just to get back on the court, it looks more and more like retirement could be on the horizon. It would be sad to see such a great player leave the sport not on his own terms. But it doesn't make sense for him to continue playing with such discomfort. Time will tell.

Other players who will not be competing are Carlos Moya and Gaston Gaudio due to shoulder injuries.

Bracket Breakdown: In Federer's bracket, if he does run into trouble, it could be against Swedish bomber Joachim Johansson. If Johansson can serve his way through the bottom half, he could wind up meeting Federer in the quarters. Despite being seeded 11th, Johansson might be the most dangerous player in that bracket. He is an imposing figure with a huge serve and Roddick-like forehand. That should give him a shot on the fast surface. One slam note: Federer's last two semi defeats at the Australian and French came on his opponents' birthdays. Ironically, Johansson turns 23 on July 1st. If you believe in that kind of karma, keep a close eye on that if they meet.

Hewitt's bracket is loaded with stiff competition. He could wind up playing American nemesis James Blake in the second round. In the past, their matches have been heated but Hewitt has always prevailed. He could wind up meeting American Taylor Dent in the fourth round. Much will depend on Dent's health. In the bottom half, Safin could have his hands full in the second round against '03 finalist Philippoussis. Last year, after a first round exit, the Russian proclaimed that he'd never return to play there. Well, if he is to meet Hewitt in the elite eight, he'll probably have to go through Philippoussis and Ancic.

Nadal's bracket doesn't have many great grasscourt players. However, if he is to advance, he could play Frenchman Richard Gasquet in a third round rematch of the French. If he gets by him, '02 finalist Nalbandian could be waiting in the round of 16. The top half of the draw is wide open. Highest seeds are Guillermo Canas, Thomas Johansson and Tommy Haas. It's possible that form won't hold. If it does, Canas could meet either Johansson or Haas in the fourth round. If there are upsets, a darkhorse like Max Mirnyi or Andrei Pavel could get through to meet either Nadal or Nalbandian in the quarters.

Roddick's bracket is filled with quality grasscourt players. In the bottom half of the draw, Roddick could meet Croat Ivo Karlovic in the second round. This would not be an easy challenge considering Andy defeated him in two tiebreaks at Queen's for the title. If he gets by him, the third round should be a breeze. But the round of 16 could pose a problem if Xavier Malisse comes through. He would have to get by Guillermo Coria in the second round and possibly Ivan Ljubicic in the next round. The top portion consists of Henman, Sebastien Grosjean and David Ferrer. Henman should cruise through the first two rounds and could play Alexander Popp or big server Wayne Arthurs in the third round. If Ferrer gets through his first two matches, he could square off against Grosjean for a chance to get to the round of 16. Henman should probably meet Grosjean for a chance to play Roddick in the final eight.

Picking The Final Four: It's hard to pick against Federer. He should cruise through the first four rounds before he's challenged in the quarterfinals by Johansson. Look for Roger to prevail in four to reach the semifinals.

Hewitt is projected to face Safin. But don't expect it to happen. Safin's draw will drive him nuts. If he gets by Philippoussis, Ancic will be waiting in the fourth round. Considering that this is Ancic's best surface and he made the semis last year, look for him to take out Safin and set up a potential classic quarter against Hewitt. With contrasts in styles, it should go five. Logic would point to Hewitt's grit and stamina wearing down the bigger player. But this is Ancic's match to lose. I'll pick him in an upset.

I like Nalbandian to eliminate Nadal if the French Open champ gets there. He could meet Haas or Johansson for a chance to get to the final four. Nalbandian should beat either.

Roddick should get through the first four rounds. He'll meet the winner of Henman-Grosjean. It's hard to pick against Henman in that atmosphere. But Grosjean is a tough opponent which probably means it will go the distance. I'll take Henman because I think he's got one last run in him. Against Roddick, that would be a epic battle between the big server and the beautiful striker of the ball up at net. But Andy's draw is easier. He should be able to wear down Henman and prevail in four despite the overwhelming support for Tim.

In what promises to be a great match, look for Federer's experience to win out against Ancic. Roddick should get by Nalbandian in a grueling five set marathon much like their U.S. Open semi showdown a couple of years ago.

Final Prediction: Championship rematches rarely occur. Especially at the All England Club. But I feel these are the two best players on this surface. If it comes down, look for it to go five this time. I still like Federer to prevail and take his third straight Wimbledon. It should be thrilling.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Yanks Drop Two of Three To Cards

Well, there seems to be no end in sight to this miserable Yankee season. By losing two of three at Busch Stadium to the Cardinals, the Yankees concluded their 12-game road trip with a paltry 3-9 record, dropping all four series.

And while the defending NL champions were at least a quality opponent, the way they lost twice this weekend should not sit well. During Friday night's listless performance in an 8-1 defeat, the team made fundamental mistake after another, butchering routine plays and basically handing St. Louis the opening game. While the final boxscore indicated just three errors and none to first baseman (if you really can call him that) Jason Giambi, anyone who watched this horrorshow knows how pathetic it was. Though rookie Chien-Ming Wang wasn't sharp, he got no help from his defense. In particular Giambi, who remarkably was not credited with any errors from the St. Louis official scorer. Maybe they felt sorry for the big guy since he has fallen rather dramatically.

After manager Joe Torre blasted his team for their awful display in the first game, they responded by taking Game Two. A clutch two out single by Derek Jeter followed by an RBI double by Hideki Matsui set the tone. The real Randy Johnson also finally showed and shutdown the Cards for seven scoreless innings in a much needed 5-0 victory. With a fastball that topped out at 99 MPH, the Big Unit dominated for the first time all year striking out seven and allowing just four hits. Amazingly, it was the first outing all season he didn't permit a run. When Joe Torre lifted him on just 94 pitches for Tom Gordon in the eighth, the move looked questionable when Flash put runners on second and third with two out. Due to taking a ground ball off his finger, Torre lifted him for closer Mariano Rivera. Rivera quickly froze Larry Walker to end the threat. After an A-rod infield RBI single in the ninth, Mo shutdown the Cards in order impressively fanning three of the four batters faced for save number 14. It's too bad the team hasn't been winning regularly because Rivera has been throwing great.

The rubber match was a well played game that matched Carl Pavano against undefeated seven-game winner Matt Morris. Pavano for the second straight outing pitched well enough to win. But it wasn't meant to be thanks to Tanyon Sturtze's unusual implosion in the seventh. With the team ahead 2-1 due to clutch two out hits by Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui two innings apart, Pavano had limited the Cards to a run on six hits with a walk and two K's in six frames.

On came seventh inning specialist Sturtze to close the door. But for the first time in a while, he didn't get the job done. After allowing a one out single to Yadier Molina, St. Louis sent up journeyman Scott Seabrook to pinch-hit for Morris. As if a running joke, Seabrook crushed Sturtze's first offering into the left field seats for a 3-2 lead. Btw... Seabrook made his major league debut with you guessed it. The Yankees in 2001. Four years later, he was rounding the bases for his first career home run, crushing his former team in the process. Ironically, it was the first homer Sturtze had allowed all year. Afterwards he put two more Cardinals on base around a second out. But instead of letting him get out of it, Torre made the mistake of bringing in Mike Stanton to face Jim Edmonds. Stanton has been washed up forever. Once you've been rejected by the Mets bullpen, there's no hope. Apparently, that message didn't get through to Torre. Edmonds quickly made him pay with an RBI single that plated two when Matsui turned his ankle in right. Why is Matsui playing right anyway? He is a left fielder. Even if you're resting Gary Sheffield, you could have started Ruben Sierra there. At least he's more experienced out there and it would have made sense. But not these Yankees.

So, what began as a 2-1 lead turned into a 5-2 deficit against one of the best teams in baseball. Although Jorge Posada hit his eighth dinger off Julian Tavarez in the eighth, the game was over. Jason Isringhausen retired the Yanks in order to close it out for his 18th save.

Now the Yankees return home to The Stadium Tuesday night for the first of three against the Pirates. Mike Mussina (6-4, 4.33) opposes Dave Williams (5-5, 4.06). How fitting is this match-up? The Pirates actually come in with a better record at 30-31 and a much cheaper payroll. They play hard for manager Lloyd McClendon. So, what will give?

Yankees (30-32) haven't had a two-game winning streak since taking their fifth straight against Boston back on May 27. Since that point, they have freefalled, dropping 11 of 14 to fall into fourth place in the AL East six games behind Baltimore. They're lucky the Orioles have struggled or it could be much worse.

They are now a major league worst 0-24 when they score three runs or less.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A-rod Blasts Into History, Sparks Yanks To Win

Alex Rodriguez became the youngest ballplayer ever to 400 home runs when he blasted two in a 12-3 rout of the Brewers to salvage the final game of the series at Miller Park last night. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and came just in the nick of time with George Steinbrenner lurking.

When he came up in the eighth inning against Milwaukee reliever Jorge De La Paula, the only question remaining was whether this would be the night he'd go into the record books. When he served De La Paula's offering into the right field seats to make the score 11-3, A-rod pumped his fist as he rounded the bases and was congratulated by teammates in the dugout with some pats on the back. In recognition of what he accomplished, the crowd of 37,586 gave him a deserved warm reception.

"It was a very special day for me, especially if you do it in a win that we needed most desperately," Rodriguez said afterwards.

"It's a special number," he added. "I'm actually just excited to do it with this uniform on."

He became the 40th player to ever reach 400 and surpassed Ken Griffey, Jr. for the fastest to the magic number. Griffey was 30 when he did it. A-rod doesn't turn 30 till July 27th.

"That's pretty incredible," skipper Joe Torre said. "The shape he's in, the way he works, who knows where he's going."

Entering the game, Rodriguez had been ice cold having gone 34 at bats without a long ball and 12 games without an RBI. But that would change in an instant when he stepped into the batter's box with two out in the first. After Gary Sheffield reached on a Wes Helms' error, the 29-year-old slugging third baseman took advantage by crushing a mamoth shot into the second deck in left for homer number 399 off Chris Capuano.

But the 2-0 lead was shortlived when starter Mike Mussina gave it right back in the bottom half of the frame with two outs. With Junior Spivey on second, major league RBI leader Carlos Lee knocked in Spivey with a double. A batter later, Lyle Overbay ripped a Mussina pitch over Bernie Williams' head for a double to tie the game.

But unlike recent games where the offense had been stagnant, the Bombers' bats finally awoke erupting for nine runs in the final five innings.

With fill-in left fielder Ruben Sierra and Rodriguez on second and third, substitute first baseman Tino Martinez roped a ground rule double to put the Yanks ahead to stay 4-2. Martinez got the start due to Jason Giambi suffering from back spasms. An inning later, he would get an early exit from the game for arguing with first base umpire Larry Vanover on a Brady Clark check swing. Joe Torre also was ejected for protesting vociferously.

After Mussina retired the Brewers in order in the fourth, he got more run support when Rodriguez and Sierra had runscoring singles and Martinez' double play plated a seventh run before his departure.

With two out an inning later, the captain got into the act with a solo shot to center for his sixth of the year to make it 8-2.

After Lee tacked on RBI number 55 with his 15th dinger of the season, Robinson Cano hit a two-run pinch hit blast for his fourth of the year to make it 10-3, turning the game into a laugher.

One inning after Rodriguez' milestone long ball, a bases loaded walk to Jeter forced in the 12th and final run.

Mussina improved to 6-4 going six innings of three-run ball with a walk and eight strikeouts.

Hideki Matsui did not start the game for the first time since September 26, 2003. However, he did get into the contest with a pinch hit infield single in the last inning to extend his consecutive games streak in Japan and the majors to 1634. He has participated in all 384 games since joining the Yanks.

Despite playing in two leagues, he would rank third all-time behind Cal Ripken, Jr. and Lou Gehrig.

After the game, Matsui didn't make a fuss over not starting. "We won the game, and I had a great base hit, too," he said. "I can't complain."

For the Yankees (29-30), there wasn't much to cry about on this night. With the victory, they picked up a game on suddenly sliding first place Baltimore. Despite being only 2-7 on this 12-game midwestern swing, they are six out.

Notes: A-rod's two homer game was his fourth of the season and 40th of his career. ... John Flaherty spelled catcher Jorge Posada and Rey Sanchez got a rare start at second. ... After Martinez was ejected, replacement Russ Johnson went 2-for-2 with two runs scored. ... Closer Mariano Rivera threw just six pitches in the ninth for his first appearance in four days. ... According to Torre, Kevin Brown will miss his next start Friday against the Cardinals with a sore left shoulder. Rookie Chien-Ming Wang (3-1, 4.03) will take his place.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Hard Hits: Pedro, Not Big Unit Lighting Up New York

When the Mets signed Pedro Martinez to that four-year deal worth $52 million, most fans were skeptical due to the length of the contract. The 33-year-old Dominican dandy was coming off a down season with the Red Sox in which he won 16 games but saw his ERA climb to 3.90.

Coming to Shea Stadium, he was supposed to be on the downside of his career. Pedro was done. Washed up. Just another aging pitcher who would flame out with the Mets. Mets fans had been accustomed to seeing guys their ball club acquired fall apart. Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and even Tom Glavine had all been examples of why the Mets were second fiddle to the Yankees.

But this season, something strange has happened in just 10 weeks. Somehow, with all the pressure of New York, Pedro has flourished taking the city by storm. Meanwhile, in what is fast becoming the Bronx Zoo from yesteryear, the Yankees' big acquisition Randy Johnson has been average, looking more like Sterling Hitchcock.

While Johnson struggles to get out no-names such as Emil Brown and Jeff Cirillo, Pedro shuts down all comers, mixing a 90-91 MPH fastball with a wicked curve or slider, baffling opponents in the process. And the best part? He does it in a fun demeanor, showing much emotion on the mound and lifting his teammates in the process.

He cheers when they make good plays behind him. This seems to have become a regular occurrence when he's on the mound. Last week against Arizona, Mike Cameron stumbled in right chasing a fly ball but stuck his glove out while flat on his stomach and somehow caught the ball. Pedro pointed to Cameron and clapped. His defense has given him plenty to be excited about.

Free agent pickup Carlos Beltran seems to love playing when the righthanded ace pitches. Just ask him why he has hit all seven of his homers while Pedro has been out there.

In his most recent outing Tuesday night against the Astros, Pedro had great stuff early and the 39,953 Shea spectators including 10,000 walk-ups sensed that they might be a part of history.

Martinez was in control right away retiring the first nine Astros. After he walked Orlando Palmeiro to start the fourth, Pedro quickly induced rookie Chris Burke into a six-four-three double play and then retired Craig Biggio on a fly out to Cameron. By the time he fanned opposing starter Roy Oswalt to get through the sixth, the fans were even more energized, hoping to witness the first ever no-hitter in Mets history.

But with one out in the seventh when Burke got a hold of a 1-1 offering that had too much of the plate and hit it into the Mets bullpen for his first major league homer, the no-hitter was history and the game was just a 2-1 lead for the Amazins. Martinez would give up a single to Lance Berkman in the frame but when the Mets tacked on a run, Martinez finished strong, retiring the final seven batters, including the last four by strikeout. He K'd 12 Astros. While he dominated, Pedro even got his second hit of the season (first to outfield) and scored a run.

When he got his revenge on Burke looking to end the game, Pedro pumped his fist and the home crowd went wild and started chanting, "Pedro, Pedro, Pedro!" Martinez, who was doing a postgame interview with MSG's Matt Loughlin saluted the fans and talked about how from the very beginning on Opening Day, those fans gave him a loud ovation, embracing him as one of their own. You could tell it meant a lot to the flambuoyant pitcher. When it was over, one fan in particular, who couldn't have been older than 10, bowed down to Pedro. This was the kind of electric atmosphere GM Omar Minaya had envisioned. For once, the Mets have gotten one right.

Martinez 110-pitch complete game two-hit masterpiece was his second CG of the season. He is now 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA and an NL leading 104 strikeouts. If not for the bullpen blowing three other games, he could have 10 wins. All season long, Pedro has given up just 46 hits and walked just 13 in 88 innings. That translates to a remarkable 0.67 WHIP. It means that he has been so dominant, that if the season ended today, he'd win his fourth career Cy Young and first since 2000.

All this from a pitcher who was supposed to be 'damaged goods' according to Boston brass. Think they couldn't use him now with Curt Schilling nowhere close to returning and with their starters struggling?

The Mets come out looking like geniuses. How great a pickup has this been? Martinez even discovered a flaw in Glavine's delivery. Since he corrected it, suddenly the 39-year-old crafty lefty has been pitching better. This is what great pitchers can do. He has brought instant credibility to a franchise that has been a laughingstock since losing in five to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

The Mets are the team two games over .500 coming together and showing fire on the bench while making some noise in a crowded NL East.

Meanwhile, the Yankees just look old and slow. They show little energy these days. Oh. And Johnson is just 5-5 with a subpar 4.07 ERA and 12 homers permitted. Carl Pavano is 4-5 with a 4.38 ERA and 14 long balls served up. Kevin Brown continues to struggle with a 4-6 record and an ERA over 5.00 with one alibi after another. Even Mike Mussina is just 6-4 with a 4.33 ERA. Do any of these guys given how they've pitched strike fear into opponents and can anchor a staff the way Martinez has?

Know who the most reliable starter has been? 25-year-old rookie Chien-Ming Wang. He's 3-1 with a 4.03 ERA and has gone at least six innings every start and just allowed one homer. Contrast that with all the other aging pitchers who have a tendency to leave pitches up and put their team behind.

Maybe this is the start of the Mets taking over New York again like they did back in '86 and '88.

One other thing about what Pedro has done for the Mets. He has given them the kind of dominant hurler they haven't had since Dwight Gooden. Gooden was the last pitcher with the kind of electric stuff and aura that could create a stir. Sure. They had David Cone. But nobody captured Queens like Gooden.

Pedro gives that to them almost 20 years later. He sure is a lot more fun to watch on the mound than the stoic, emotionless Johnson.

Who would have thought that back in April?

Hitting Back:

-If the Spurs didn't explode in the fourth quarter of Game One of the NBA Finals against the Pistons, it would have been unwatchable.

-Is anyone more exciting in this series than Manu Ginobli?

-If these games started any later, I'd swear they were TV-MA rated and should be on Showtime.

-He's a great baseball and football announcer but Al Michaels doesn't have a clue about basketball. Don't tell the geniuses at ABC that. They never make a mistake. Not like Mike Breen would have been a better choice!

-Kudos to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for doing the right thing for New York City and saying no to Mayor Bloomberg's ridiculous West Side Stadium proposal. Finally, a politician with principles who gets it. Maybe now Bloomberg will get the message that you can't buy everything.

-Rafael Nadal's enthusiasm on the tennis court along with his game makes him a must watch.

-Why do we have to know every gory detail about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Sure, they make a cute couple and Jolie is a knockout. But can't the press finally leave them alone?

-A summer later, finally the NHL and NHLPA are on the right track to reaching a new CBA agreement. My question is where was the same urgency last year?

-When does Randy Johnson finally blame his poor outings on CBS' Duke Castiglione and that cameraman?

Yank Bats Go Quiet Again

In the second of a three-game series at Miller Park, the Yankee bats were silenced by Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets in a 2-1 defeat. Sheets (2-5), who had struggled in his two previous starts since returning from the DL, found a team who could get him out of his funk. The suddenly inept Bomber offense was just what Sheets needed to record his first win since Opening Day.

In limiting them to two hits with five strikeouts over seven strong innings, the Milwaukee right-hander sent the slumping Yankees to their ninth loss in 10.

For the second consecutive night, the Yanks were only able to manage four hits against Brewer pitching.

All Milwaukee needed to make Sheets a winner was shortstop Billy Hall's one out two-run home run to right in the second inning off hard luck loser Carl Pavano (4-5). The long ball was Pavano's 14th allowed this season. To put things in perspective for the free agent pickup from Florida, last season during his career best 18-8 year, he only gave up 16 dingers.

Despite just four hits, the Yanks did have their chances. With the bases loaded in the third and two outs, Hideki Matsui stranded the runners with a weak grounder to second.

With two runners on via walks in the sixth with two outs, Jorge Posada chased a pitch out of the strike zone and popped up to Hall to end the threat.

Last but not least came a similar conclusion to Game One in the ninth. As if to hint of what was to come, Jason Giambi drove a ball off closer Derrick Turnbow to the right field warning track before Geoff Jenkins hauled it in for the first out. After a Jorge Posada single to left, rookie Robinson Cano ripped a ball to right that Jenkins dove for. But as he fell to the ground, the ball came out of his outstretched glove and Cano hustled in with a double to put the tying runs on.

Needing a big hit, they wouldn't get any. Instead, Bernie Williams RBI groundout to second scored Posada to make it 2-1 leaving it up to Derek Jeter for the second straight night. Like deja vu all over again, Jeter didn't waste any time swinging at Turnbow's first pitch. But unlike Monday when he had a good swing and was robbed of a tying hit by Jenkins, this time his impatience resulted in a routine comebacker to Turnbow for an easy final out. It was Turnbow's 10th save of the year.

It's rare that Jeter makes the last out two games in a row in that situation. With how the season has gone, it seemed fitting.

The Yankees should have realized early on that they were in for a tough night. Sheets fanned the side in the first to set the tone.

They are now just 1-7 on this disastrous midwestern trip that threatens to finish them off. Luckily for the Yanks, Baltimore blew a 5-2 lead in the eighth at Pittsburgh losing 6-5, keeping them seven games out of first.

Yankees (28-30) are two games under .500 the latest in a season since September 5, 1995 when they were 60-61. That team rallied to win 19 of their final 23 games to make the playoffs for the first time since '81 as a wild card. That was when this postseason run began. Now it could be coming to an end a decade later.

Notes: Jeter is 3-for-9 since returning from a severe chestcold.

Pavano went six innings giving up two earned runs, five hits, walking two and whiffing three.

Yanks are now 0-22 when scoring three runs-or-less.

Rodriguez, the AL leader in HRs (17) and tied for first with Baltimore's Miguel Tejada in RBIs (49), has gone 11 straight games without either a homer or RBI. During that stretch, he is 8-for-33 (.242) with 2 runs and 10 walks.

Hard Hits: Why The NHL Needs Sidney Crosby On Broadway

I know. I know. I can hear the 'conspiracy theorists' kicking and screaming a mile away. Sidney Crosby a Ranger. These fans will have you believe the NHL will fix the draft lottery (and there will be one once the new CBA is announced) so that he winds up on Broadway.

I'm here to tell you critics and cynics that if they get him, it will be because they were one of the worst teams over the past few years, making it legitimate. The Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets are two of the teams who should have a decent shot of landing the 18-year-old phenom. If the league really wanted to fix the draft, he'd wind up in Detroit, Colorado, Philadelphia, Dallas, Toronto or even Ottawa, Tampa Bay or New Jersey. Those teams have been very successful in recent years, which is why they should be excluded from landing Crosby because they don't need him.

What I do believe to be true is that if Crosby became a Ranger, he would be going to the largest media market in The States. The Rangers have missed the playoffs seven years running. Luckily for them, the '04-05 season never was played because make no mistake about it, in the kind of condition they were in, it would have been an embarrassing eighth straight year of booking tee times in April.

For the naysayers who can't stand the thought of Crosby landing in New York, I have some advice. Don't read the rest of this column. But in the event you opt to, have your boxes of Kleenex ready!

The NHL more than ever needs Mr. Crosby to be drafted by the Rangers and save this dead Original Six franchise. For the league to regain instant credibility in America, Crosby centering the Rangers' top line with say Jaromir Jagr would be a huge draw. You think the top Canadian junior player couldn't handle it? Think again. We're talking about a cool, calm and collected 18-year-old who was born to carry the torch and restore order to a dying league. Crosby isn't a cocky kid like Alexandre Daigle, who never cared one iota about fulfilling expectations. Crosby is a nice looking young man who has prepared himself well for the future. He doesn't blink when asked questions but instead, rolls with the punches and gives thoughtful responses. Such maturity for a teenager with the weight of a country and the balance of a league on his collective shoulders are big reasons why he will be successful. Indeed, he can handle himself.

Imagine playing under the bright lights in the city that never sleeps at The World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. Lately, that has changed to World's Most Dead Arena. That is why Crosby must fly on the ice for the Rangers. He can bring back disenchanted season ticket holders who tossed in the towel long ago. He can pack the house and make it sound the way the building did in 1994 when the team finally broke a 54-year Stanley Cup drought. Ironically, the league was on top of the mountain during that time.

People might point to Jagr. But what else do the Rangers, a team the NHL needs to have success to draw fans back; have that will make fans flock to the arena? Bobby Holik? Who's coming to watch his ugly grinding style? Tom Poti? I've seen women that hit harder. Jamie Lundmark? Once deemed a future star, he'll be lucky if he makes it as a third liner. Michael Nylander? Can you say overpaid, small and aging center without yelling? Mike Dunham? Are you kidding? Darius Kasparaitis? He can throw some decent hits but that's about it. Fedor Tjutin and Maxim Kondratriev??? Tjutin looked good in his initial Ranger stint as a 20-year-old. Kondratiev was acquired from the Maple Leafs as part of the Brian Leetch deal. Both will be decent two-way defensemen (imagine that Ranger fans) but neither will be a franchise player.

If you combine these players with the Dom Moore's, Garth Murray's, Alexandre Giroux's, Jed Ortmeyer's, Ryan Hollweg's, Chad Wiseman's, Bryce Lampman's and Jason LaBarbera's who starred at Hartford, this is what will likely comprise of the Ranger roster. Barring a couple of free agent signings depending on how much cap room the team will have to spend. Don't bank on any big superstars coming here given the team's current state.

This roster doesn't exactly strike me as entertaining. Who is going to MSG to watch this bunch? A diehard like myself will be there because I have wanted to see the team rebuild since the Dolans created this mess. However, realistically, this team would be lucky to get 60 points. And I guarantee there would be plenty of empty seats. Haven't Ranger fans gotten sick of the increase in Devil, Islander and Flyer fans that have stormed the Garden making it an adopted home. Before those fans get annoyed, you couldn't find a ticket on the street back in '97 when the Rangers were playoff bound.

What a player of Sidney Crosby's caliber could do for the Rangers would be remarkable. He could make them the team to see again because I can tell you right now, nobody is going to watch the maxed out Knicks. Talk about the definition of dull and overpaid.

Crosby playing with Jagr would be worth the price of admission. Fans would finally have a reason to get out of their seats. And we don't mean to purchase another beer or to leave after the first period. The Rangers would finally have a real first line centered by a future superstar from the beginning of his career.

If you stuck Crosby on the top line, Holik, Nylander and Moore could center the other units. Suddenly, the Rangers wouldn't look that bad down the middle. The lines could be more balanced, which would take pressure off the supporting cast because they could ease into their roles.

Would there be pressure on the kid? Without a doubt! The intense scrutiny would be immense. But I think this kid would thrive under it. He has the right personality and approach. He's got character and a smile that will light up the sky.

During a feature on second-year Heat teammate Dwyane Wade that aired on TNT's pregame before Pistons/Heat Game Seven, Shaq made a valid point about what a superhero is. He refers to Wade as "Flash" because of how cool he is on the court. What he said was that superheroes are usually quiet and reserved out of the spotlight. But when they're conducting themselves in their surroundings, a super quality comes out which defines why they're cool.

I see the same thing with Crosby. Imagine what kind of nickname they would give him in New York.

Not only would it be super if the wiz kid wound up here, but the endorsements and potential sponsors that would come crawling back to the league when it starts up again would be overwhelming. With a league that's a year removed from one of the darkest periods in sports history, this kind of attention and money is exactly what it needs to comeback strong. Marketing this player is not just essential to the league's survival but to its prosperity. Here in New York, there's no better place for a kid of this magnitude to lace up the skates. You think networks won't be scrambling to try to get a piece of the action?

If he doesn't wind up a Ranger, other suitable places could be Edmonton or Montreal. Imagine what Crosby would do for one of those struggling Canadian franchises. Under the old rules, neither club could compete seriously for a Cup. If you looked at both rosters, they don't have a franchise center like Sid. Imagine Crosby bringing back the glory days in Edmonton, reminding Oiler fans of another quiet superstar named Gretzky. That would be instant credibility for Western Canada and a real shot in the arm for Canada. Imagine the hometown kid plays for his favorite team up in Montreal. The Molson Centre would turn into the old Forum and the game would explode financially up north. This would be a welcome sight.

Other places that could be good fits are Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim or Columbus.

The Blackhawks have been an awful franchise for a while. Though they saw the playoffs a few years ago, this once proud Original Six franchise hasn't had the kind of team a once diehard hockey city could wrap their arms around. With cheapskate Bill Wirtz running the franchise into the ground, a player like Crosby could make the Blackhawks a legit playoff contender again. Team him with Tuomu Ruutu and one of the NHL's biggest markets would be alive and well again.

The Kings were a decent playoff team not too long ago. But severe concussions to Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh damaged the team's future. In a fairly new arena at Staples Center, the Kings could use Crosby. Imagine the endorsements he could get in a large market such as LA.

Ditto for struggling franchise Anaheim. Only two years ago, led by Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks had a miracle run to the Cup finals before losing in seven to the Devils. Now, the franchise finds itself with a new owner and a lot of uncertainty. Sergei Fedorov is still with the team. But other than him, there really isn't much to get excited about. In order for Anaheim to survive, they could use a player such as Crosby to attract new fans.

I know what you'll say. Why would Columbus, Ohio be a good spot for the game's next great star? Enter Rick Nash, soon to be the game's most dominant power forward. And enter Nikolai Zherdev, soon to be a rising star who will light scoreboards up. Put Crosby with these two and you have a super trio who would bring instant credibility to the Blue Jackets franchise. Already one of Gary Bettman's best expansion teams in recent history due to the outpouring of support from fans, getting Crosby would make this a playoff team and a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Two other franchises which could use a boost are the Penguins and Capitals. Both did well in last year's draft with the Caps drafting Alexander Ovechkin first overall and the Pens landing Evgeni Malkin second. However, considering how both have fared recently, it wouldn't be bad if Crosby landed in either city. The MCI Center had been dead for a while but they came crawling back when the Wizards finally won a playoff series. They'd do the same thing if Crosby teamed up with Ovechkin in the nation's capital.

Pittsburgh has struggled financially for years. Rumored to be getting a new owner, this franchise is in desperate need of a superstar who could do for it what Mario Lemieux once did. Hockey roots are strong in this city and it would be ashame if they lost their team. But if Crosby wound up there teamed with Malkin, they would be saved.

So, the question is where will he wind up? Hopefully for the NHL, it will either be in a market that can take advantage of what Crosby has to offer or a franchise that desperately needs him, which is what the lottery should do.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Yanks Suffer Another Horrible Loss

Just like a broken record, the Yankees continued to invent new ways to lose. Facing a familiar script against an inferior opponent talentwise in the Brewers at Miller Park, the worst team that money could buy lost in heartbreaking fashion 4-3 Monday night. It was their second consecutive loss and eighth in nine, dropping them back under .500 (28-29) and seven games behind first place Baltimore.

Becoming more of a season trend, Randy Johnson was just average. While he did throw 120 pitches over six innings striking out eight, once again, the Big Unit was hittable. After Doug Davis (8-5) kept the Yanks off the board in the first, Milwaukee quickly pounced on a shaky Johnson. Before he retired Geoff Jenkins on a deep fly to left, leadoff hitter Brady Clark had already come around to score on an RBI double by journeyman Jeff Cirillo. With one out, cleanup hitter Carlos Lee knocked in Cirillo with an RBI single. It was his 53rd run batted in of the season.

Trailing by two runs in the third, Johnson served up a leadoff homer to Cirillo making the deficit 3-0. After putting two more runners on via a hit batsman and a walk, he got out of further trouble by fanning Wes Helms and Junior Spivey.

Finally, in the fourth, the Yanks showed some signs of life by scoring three runs to tie the score. The rally started after Gary Sheffield struckout. After Alex Rodriguez drew a walk and Jorge Posada singled him to second, Jason Giambi came through with an RBI single to score A-rod and move Posada to third. Remarkably, that would be the final hit of the team's four on the night. Rookie Robinson Cano's RBI fielder's choice scored Posada to make it 3-2. With Giambi on third and Johnson at the plate with an out, a Davis wild pitch got away from Milwaukee catcher Chad Moeller allowing a hustling Giambi to tie the score. With the team looking for more, Davis buckled down by whiffing Johnson and Jeter to end the frame.

After Johnson held the Brewers off the scoreboard in the bottom half of the inning, a huge turning point occurred in the top of the fifth. Call it another typical Yankees moment. After Davis started the inning by loading the bases on three consecutive walks to Hideki Matsui, Sheffield and Rodriguez, somehow, the Bombers didn't take advantage. After Posada chased Davis' first offering out of the strike zone, he quickly put himself in a hole he couldn't get out of and K'd. A batter later, after Giambi worked the count full, he grounded into a killer four-six-three double play. Just like that, Davis got out unscathed.

Though Johnson would get his ballclub to the sixth tied, the Yankee bats had gone silent. When Spivey led off the bottom half of the frame with a dinger to left, just like that, Johnson (5-5) was on the losing end once again.

After the fifth inning threat, Bomber bats went silent when Davis and reliever Matt Wise retired 12 in a row until Bernie Williams drew a leadoff walk off closer Derrick Turnbow in the ninth. With Williams advancing to second on a wild pitch, it looked like the Bombers were in the driver's seat to knot the game. But just like the fifth, they came up empty.

First, Cano struckout swinging on a payoff pitch. Then, pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra grounded out to third for the second out. In his first game back after missing the last two with a severe chestcold; with half his team's production on the night and his team needing a two out hit, Derek Jeter swung at Turnbow's first pitch and lined a drive that seemed destined to fall into the right field corner for a clutch RBI double. But like how things have been going, it wasn't meant to be when right fielder Jenkins raced over and made a nice shoe string catch with little real estate to end the game. It was Turnbow's ninth save of the season.

Notes: Jason Giambi has hits in six of his last seven starts going 7-for-22 (.318) with three RBI's in that stretch.

Yanks are now a major league worst 0-21 when they fail to score four runs-or-more.

Nadal Conquers Paris

Spanish teenage sensation Rafael Nadal won his first grand slam title at Roland Garros Sunday by defeating unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta in four sets, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1 and 7-5. On this day, a new tennis star was born. While Nadal had already handled world number one Roger Federer in four two days earlier on his 19th birthday, the mark of a great player is when they win a major. Now that Nadal has won the French Open, the future looks bright for the charasmatic, musclebound lefty to win more majors on other surfaces.

Though it is true that the clay courts are his best surface, with a booming forehand and blinding speed, able to rundown any shot and make improbable winners from ridiculous angles, this guy looks like he could be a force. Nadal also possesses a will to win. He never gives away points. This was evidenced by how he fought off three set points against Puerta that would have leveled the championship match and sent it to a fifth set. But Nadal broke to make it five all and then held serve. He would then get to championship point at 6-5 on Puerta's serve. When the Argentine misfired a forehand wide into the double's alley, Nadal raised his fist and fell to the ground in jubilation.

The victory for the Spaniard was his 24th consecutive overall- the most by a male teenager breaking an Open record set by Andre Agassi. Coincidentally, Agassi once was a teenage sensation who made a surprising run to the French semifinals before losing to eventual champ Mats Wilander 17 years prior. Since that point, Agassi has gone on to win eight slam titles, including a triumph at Paris in '99 to complete a career grand slam.

The victory made Nadal the youngest man to win the French Open title since American Michael Chang, who won it in '89 as a 17-year-old.

He also became the first male to win it on his initial try since Wilander back in 1982.

Overall, he ripped 54 winners and made just 28 unforced errors. A remarkable ratio for the new champion.

Puerta, who was a year removed from a drug suspension that dropped his ranking to 440th, was just 8-16 at majors before this event, made the match entertaining. By taking a competitive first set tiebreak, he proved to be a worthy opponent. Though the 26-year-old dropped the next two sets, he went down swinging in the fourth and made Nadal earn it.

"Unfortunately, Nadal didn't let me play the fifth set,'' Puerta said. "I could still be playing now, in fact. But it was a beautiful match all the same.''

Nadal gave Puerta his due afterwards. "He was hitting me where it hurt,'' he said. "He made me move a lot and run a lot. I think this is the match where I ran the most in the whole tournament.''

After coming in ranked 37th, Puerta will leave Paris ranked a career best 12th overall. As he noted, this should be beneficial. "I believe that in a certain way I was resuscitated,'' said Puerta. "Now I'm going to be able to face excellent players. I will walk onto the court with a different state of mind.''

What's left from how well Nadal played is how mature he is. He plays a very physical brand of tennis and imposes his will out on the court. Can this grinding style work on the grass courts at Wimbledon?

"I know (grass) is not my best surface,'' Nadal noted. "Is a little bit fast. I need to improve some things in my game (to) play better in grass and in the fast courts.''

One area which could be a problem is that he doesn't possess a big serve. That could be a factor in how well he fares at the All England Club in a few weeks.

One thing is certain. Nadal is here to stay and that is good for tennis. It gets a winning personality who enjoys himself out there. Two-time defending Wimbledon champion Federer is already on notice. Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick beware.

Brown, Team Implode In Sixth

For five innings at The Metrodome, Kevin Brown shutdown the Twins. But it all fell apart in the sixth for "Punch Wall" and teammates in a 9-3 loss.

Staked to a 2-0 lead thanks to Robinson Cano's third dinger in the first and a Jason Giambi RBI single, Brown seemed to be on his way to win number five on the season. That quickly changed.

It started when the sinkerballer lost control with one out, hitting two batters in the Twins five-run inning. After plunking Torii Hunter and allowing a single to Jacques Jones to put runners on the corners, Brown ran into some awful luck. With Matt LeCroy sending a deep drive to right field, Gary Sheffield couldn't haul in the ball on the warning track. Instead of being a two out sac fly, it went for a runscoring double. After Michael Cuddyer was intentionally walked to load the bases, Brown forced in the tying run when he hit Mike Redmond. A batter later, rookie shortstop Luis Rodriguez singled home LeCroy for the go-ahead run knocking out the Yankee starter.

With Tanyon Sturtze on in relief, the Twins caught the Yanks napping when Michael Ryan squeezed home Cuddyer. Sturtze's hurried throw got away from Jorge Posada. By the time the inning was out, Brent Abernathy had plated the fifth run on a sac fly.

The damage was done. Somehow, a game which seemed in control had gotten away. That sums up the Bombers' season. Anything that can go wrong does.

"I don't think anybody ever walks out on the field and thinks, 'Maybe I'll walk out and lose,''' Brown remarked afterwards. "That's not your plan.''

The Yanks did make it interesting in the eighth when Hideki Matsui laced an RBI single that scored Cano to cut the lead to 5-3. But with two runners on and none out, MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez grounded into a fielder's choice, Giambi flied out to center and Posada was robbed of a base hit by reliever Jesse Crain to end the threat.

With Paul "BP" Quantrill on in the bottom of the frame, the Twins took advantage scoring four times with two outs to put the game away.

Just how predictable was this defeat. Entering the game, the Yankees were 0-19 when they scored three runs-or-less. They now are a major league worst 0-20 in those games.

The starting rotation now has a 4.81 ERA, ranking 11th in the AL. Unless that changes, it's going to be a long, hot summer for the ball club and Joe Torre's staff.

Derek Jeter sat out his second straight game with a headcold.

The Yanks (28-28) have now lost seven of eight and are just 1-5 on this 12-game road trip through the central time zone. They travel to Milwaukee (26-30) tonight for a three-game set. Randy Johnson (5-4, 3.92 ERA) opposes Doug Davis (7-5, 3.62 ERA) in Game One, Carl Pavano (4-4, 4.50) faces Ben Sheets (1-5, 4.34) in Game Two and Mike Mussina (5-4, 4.32) takes on Chris Capuano (5-4, 3.01) in Game Three.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Rookies Pave The Way

With team captain Derek Jeter out due to a headcold and Jorge Posada getting a night off, the Yanks relied on two young guns to help break their six-game losing streak with a come-from-behind 4-3 10 inning victory over the Twins.

In seven innings of work, Taiwan product Chien-Ming Wang made just one mistake, allowing a three-run home run to Jacques Jones in the fourth that gave the Twins a 3-0 lead. But after the long ball, the surprising 25-year-old rookie retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced in seven innings of work, giving his team a chance to comeback.

Slumping first-year second baseman Robinson Cano had a huge night going three-for-four with a run scored and a key two out fifth inning two-run double that cut the score to 3-2. The 22-year-old out of the Dominican Republic entered the game three-for-his-last-27. He plated the tying run on a Hideki Matsui RBI groundout in the eighth after the Bombers took advantage of some shoddy Minnesota defense.

The Yanks got strong relief pitching from Tom Gordon, who went two solid innings fanning two and permitting just one hit for his first win of the season against three defeats. He has been one of the few bright spots lately in what has been a struggle for the ball club. It seems Gordon has regained his confidence from last October and is showing signs of being the dominant setup man he was for most of last season. His curve is down and his cutter is biting. They will need Flash to continue to be lights out.

After Gordon retired the Twins in the ninth, the Yanks finally showed some signs of life with a one out rally against Minnesota closer Joe Nathan. After Gary Sheffield struckout, Matsui walked and then came the biggest play of the game. With Alex Rodriguez coming through with a single to center, Matsui, who is an underrated baserunner, decided to test Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter's arm. He just beat the throw into third. This would prove pivotal when Ruben Sierra hit a sac fly to deep center to give the Yanks the winning run. The RBI was Sierra's 10th of the season and second since coming off the DL May 20th. Two innings earlier, Sierra had a chance to be the hero in similar fashion to Game Four of the AL Division Series. Against Juan Rincon in last year's come-from-behind win, he hit a tying three-run homer to turn the tide. But this time with the bases loaded, he whiffed to end the threat. He certainly atoned for that later on.

Mariano Rivera pitched a flawless 10th fanning two Twins for his 13th save of the season and first since the Yanks' last victory over Boston at the Stadium May 27th. Mo has not allowed a run in 11 straight appearances. So much for his demise. He continues to get sharper as the weather warms up. Hopefully, for the Yankees (28-27), when he enters games, it will continue to mean something in August and September.

Getting back to Wang. This guy has come from nowhere to become a reliable starter. In his six starts, he has pitched at least six innings in every one. The only game he didn't pitch well was against Tampa Bay, when he gave up five earned in six frames. Other than that, this guy has pitched into the seventh giving up three runs-or-less in the other outings. Very impressive for an unknown. He doesn't have overpowering stuff. He has only K'd 15 in 44 and two-thirds innings. However, what's refreshing about Wang is his ability to throw strikes. Out of the 93 he tossed Saturday, 60 were strikes. What also should be noted is that just nine batters have drawn walks off him. This tells me that he is not afraid to rely on his defense. Entering last night, opposing hitters were batting .243 off him.

If Wang continues to have quality starts, the Yankees will have a dilemma with what to do with him. Jaret Wright could be due back soon. And we all know how ineffective he was in his first month as a Bomber. Should a guy the team committed a lot of money automatically replace Wang in the rotation? I don't think so. The Yanks have a reputation of going with the guys they signed. Maybe they need to take a different route with Wang. You don't want him to lose confidence if he goes to the bullpen.

In any event, it should be interesting to see if Wang can keep up his reliable pitching. With Carl Pavano struggling and Randy Johnson average, Wang has provided a spark.

Today, Kevin "Punch Wall" Brown (4-5, 5.14 ERA) takes the mound against Carlos Silva (3-3, 3.09 ERA). As much as I kill Brown, he has pitched better lately. He had a four-game win streak snapped at Kansas City Tuesday. He has gone seven in two straight. He needs to come up big like he did last year vs Minnesota in Game Three. Ironically, he outpitched Silva in that game. Maybe he'll wake up on the right side of the bed.