Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Easy Day For Top Seeds

On the heels of the big Gilles Muller upset of American fourth seed Andy Roddick Tuesday night, Day Three went more according to form. Third seed Lleyton Hewitt made quick work of one-time French Open winner Alberto Costa in 80 minutes, dropping just five games in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 opening round victory.

While Hewitt was disposing Costa, American Taylor Dent needed four sets to defeat German Lars Burgsmuller 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. It took two and half hours for the serve and volleyer to finally advance, serving 18 aces, 13 double faults and winning 62 percent of points at the net.

Both Hewitt and Dent are in the same section and are a win away from a third round match-up.

In the completion of the first round, two other seeds moved on to Round Two. Dominik Hrbaty (15) took out Andreas Seppi in four 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (6) and 6-2. French Open quarterfinalist David Ferrer (17) needed four plus hours to comeback and beat Agustin Calleri 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-1.

Other winners during the day session included Karol Kucera, Nicolas Al Magro, Michael Lammer and Jose Acasuso.

Meanwhile, the women's second round got underway without many surprises. Under windy conditions due to Hurricane Katrina, fourth seed Kim Clijsters prevailed over Fabiola Zuluaga 7-5, 6-0. The conditions threw both players off, forcing errors. Clijsters jumped out quickly 4-1 but was broken twice in a row by Zuluaga, who took a 5-4 lead. Clijsters even fought off a set point before holding and then breaking her opponent at love. After closing out the set, she coasted in the second, winning the final nine games of the match enroute to the third round.

Next up was top seed Maria Sharapova but not for long. She lost just one game against Dally Randriantefy winning 6-1, 6-0 in 49 minutes.

Meanwhile, Wimbledon champ Venus Williams (10) had little trouble with Maria Kirilenko dropping only four games in a 6-1, 6-3 victory. It sets up a third round match against Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova (20), who lost just one game in her win over Ma. Emelia Salemi. If Venus can win that, she could meet sister Serena in the Round of 16. During the night session, Serena (8) had no problem handling Catalina Castano 6-2, 6-2.

Serena will play Italian Francesca Schiavone (25) next, who defeated Emma Laine 6-2, 6-2. Schiavone could be a test to see how fit Serena is. Serena lost to her in straight sets earlier this year but that was on clay, Schiavone's best surface.

Also advancing was Nadia Petrova (9), Nicole Vaidisova (26) and Ai Sugiyama (30). The only seeded women who lost were Ana Ivanovic (18) and Vera Douchevina (33).

American Laura Granville also made her first ever third round at the Open in seven tries with a three set win over Nicole Pratt 6-4, 5-7, 7-5. The big upset specialist of defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova on Day One Ekaterina Bychkova was eliminated by Ivana Lisjak 7-5, 6-1.

After over an hour rain delay, the second night match got underway after 10 PM featuring men's second round action. Second seed Rafael Nadal defeated American Scoville Jenkins in straight sets 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. However, it was anything but routine against the 352nd ranked player with Nadal needing two hours and 29 minutes to complete the victory.

Jenkins, who last year lost easily in his Ashe Stadium debut to 2003 champion Andy Roddick, acquitted himself very well against the French Open champ. With an improved serve that topped out at 133 MPH, solid groundstrokes and an effective net game which produced 45 winners, Jenkins made Nadal work for every point. But the Spaniard was just better on the bigger points, converting four of 13 break chances compared to his opponent's one for six ratio.

After Nadal took the opening set, Jenkins raised his level making for an intense battle in a 56 minute second set. In almost a game of chicken, both players held serve to five all when Jenkins finally was broken by Nadal after a momentary loss of concentration. Two points from 6-5, Jenkins thought Nadal's looping forehand winner down the line went wide, which would have given him 40-love. But replays confirmed that Nadal's shot landed on the outside half of the white line to make the score 30-15 instead. Jenkins then double faulted and lost the next two points giving Nadal the break.

But if Nadal thought it was going to be easy, a determined Jenkins had other ideas, taking the first three points to setup triple break point to force a tiebreak. With the crowd fully behind the American, Nadal showed why he's ranked second, saving all three points including a gutsy forehand winner down the line on a mad scramble. From there, he closed out the set, winning the next two points to take a 2-0 lead, pumping his fist.

Jenkins didn't quit in the third set but Nadal proved to be too much on this night.

Day Four will feature Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport and Andre Agassi in second round action while the night session will feature Amelie Mauresmo and James Blake.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Muller Spoils Roddick's 23rd At Ashe

In the past, birthdays have been very kind to Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open. Tuesday, his perfect birthday record was challenged by up and comer Gilles Muller. In a shocker, Roddick's 23rd was foiled by Muller, losing in three straight tiebreaks.

Muller entered the match ranked 68th with a 17-19 record on the year. In his debut appearance at Flushing, the 22-year-old from Luxembourg proved early on that he would be no pushover for Roddick when he cameback to take the first set in stunning fashion. With Roddick seemingly in command up a break 5-2, Muller held serve and then took advantage of a brutal service game by the fourth seed to get back in the set. With the chance to serve for it, Roddick dropped all four points, making two crucial unforced errors. Until that point, he hadn't lost a point on serve or committed an error.

With the set back on serve, both players held easily to reach a tiebreak. In it, Muller took control early jumping out to a 4-0 lead. When the American closed the deficit to 5-4, the 6-5 powerful lefty didn't budge, winning both points on serve to claim the 38 minute first set 7-6 (4).

The quality of tennis in the opening set was good but the second set saw both players ratchet up the intensity. With his opponent showing no signs of letting up, Roddick was forced to summon up every ounce of energy he had early on. Facing three break points to go down 1-3, Roddick served his way out of trouble. After Muller held for 3-2, Roddick again had to fight off two break points, ripping two aces to keep it on serve. From then on, neither player budged until the second consecutive tiebreak.

With the capacity Arthur Ashe crowd urging him on, Roddick fought back from an early 3-1 hole to go up 4-3. From that point of the tiebreak, each player calmly stepped up and won two straight points on their serve. When Roddick had set point at 6-5, Muller hit a perfect ace out wide and then won the next point to 7-6. Roddick aced off Muller's first set point and then quickly got the next point to setup his second set point to level the match. But Muller wouldn't break, coming up with another ace and then hitting a forehand winner to reach a third point for a two set lead. This time, he capitalized when Roddick came into net and left a forehand volley up just enough for Muller to push a backhand down the line for a two set lead 7-6 (8). The set took 49 minutes.

At this point of the match, Roddick had just 10 unforced errors to his opponents' 27, which should have told everyone that he was in trouble against a very tough customer.

The third set was just like the second with neither player backing down, as each held serve till Roddick led 6-5. When Muller tightened up trying to serve into a tiebreaker, missing two forehands to 30 all, Roddick was two points away from the set. But Muller showed poise winning the next two, including a forehand rocket down the line to force the third tiebreak in a row.

With Roddick desperate for a good start on his serve, Muller had other ideas gaining a minibreak. From that point on, the confident unknown kept dictating play by hitting lines and jumped out to a 5-1 lead. As the pair changed ends, Roddick walked slowly with his head down, knowing that his best wasn't good enough on this night. After Muller forced a backhand error to reach match point, the victory was his when Roddick netted a backhand to drop a devastating third breaker 7-6 (1). He quickly got off the court looking crushed.

For Roddick, it's back to the drawing board. He entered the Open playing well, winning the U.S. Open Series and even was honored at Ashe on Opening Night. He definitely was one of the favorites to challenge Roger Federer for the crown. But just like that his slam season is over, ending in disappointing fashion. The 2003 champion and three-time quarterfinalist last bowed out in the opening round here in his 2000 debut as an 18-year-old.

It will be a very difficult loss for Roddick to digest because he lost just five less points than Muller, making just 15 unforced errors for the entire match while his opponent took more risks with 33 errors. To put in perspective how well Muller played, consider that he finished with 65 winners to Roddick's 39, outslugging one of the hardest hitting players on tour. Muller also outaced Roddick 24-17 and won 74 percent of points at the net to just 48 percent for Roddick.

What it boiled down to was that one bad service game Roddick had up 5-3 in the opening set swung the momentum in Muller's favor. Remarkably, Roddick converted his only break chance while his opponent was one-for-six.

For Muller, whose only slam success came at Wimbledon with a third round showing two months earlier, this match will be one to savor. It was his first ever night match and against a very popular opponent, he won over the crowd with brilliant shots. Whether it was his tricky serve, big groundstrokes or solid net game, he came up with great stuff earning cheers from the knowledgable fans. Muller even mixed in a deceptive forehand drop shot from beyond the baseline to keep Roddick off balance. That's how brilliant a match he played.

In a bracket that had the potential for Roddick to get through the early rounds and cruise to the semis, it's now anybody's guess who will come out. For all his hard work, Muller earned a tough second round match against American Robby Ginepri. Ginepri, who won his opening match in straight sets has been playing well. They played earlier this summer with Muller winning. So, it should be a good match. Ironically, Roddick lost to Ginepri the last time they played. Almost everyone expected the two to meet again but it won't happen.

Other upset winners on Day Two included Fernando Verdasco over Tim Henman, qualifier Arnaud Clement over Juan Carlos Ferrero and American James Blake over Greg Rusedski in straight sets. Blake played very well and could be a potential third round opponent for Rafael Nadal.

Higher seeded men who advanced to the second round included top seed Federer, who dropped just three games, Nikolay Davydenko, David Nalbandian, Radek Stepanek, Fernando Gonzalez and Mario Ancic.

On the women's side, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Mary Pierce, Anastasia Myskina, Nathalie Dechy, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Likhovtseva and Shinobu Asagoe were all straight set winners. Patty Schnyder and Tatiana Golovin advanced in three sets.

Weather permitting, Day Three features Lleyton Hewitt in first round action while Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova battle second round foes. The night session will feature Serena Williams in her second round and then Rafael Nadal in his.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Sharapova and Agassi Have Easy Night

On opening night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, crowd favorites Maria Sharapova and Andre Agassi had no trouble with their first round opponents. Both won in straight sets, easily through to the second round at the U.S. Open.

The women's top seed took centre court first against fiesty Greek Eleni Daniilidou, whose claim to fame was a first round Wimbledon upset of French Open winner Justine Henin-Hardenne two months prior. Early on, she tested Sharapova with impressive groundstrokes, forcing several unforced errors. But despite three break chances in the opening game, she couldn't cash in. On her serve, another lengthy battle took place with Sharapova notching the first of five breaks to gain a 2-0 lead. Amazingly, the first two games took over 20 minutes.

Daniilidou had three more opportunities on Sharapova's next service game to put the set back on serve but once again, couldn't convert due in large part to the Russian's resilience. That seemed to take the fight out as she struggled serving seven double faults. Sharapova breezed through the rest of the 42 minute first set and needed just 24 more to win 6-1, 6-1.

Back from a sore pectoral muscle, Sharapova showed no affects, serving four aces, no doubles and 22 winners to just three for her opponent. She'll take on Dally Randriantefy in the next round. With 14th seed Alicia Molik upset by American Shenay Perry 6-4, 6-4, it leaves no remaining seeds in the next three rounds for Sharapova. The only two left in her bracket are Nadia Petrova and Nicole Vaidisova, one of which could play her in the quarterfinals. That's if they don't fall victim first.

Entering his 20th consecutive Open, Agassi came out to rousing cheers from the New York capacity crowd. The two-time winner of the event then made quick work of Romanian Razvan Sabau, prevailing 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in just 69 minutes.

Looking sharp, the 35-year-old American got 67 percent of his first serves in, winning 87 percent of those points. He also won 74 percent on his second serve, allowing just one break in the match. Agassi fired 11 aces, just one double fault and hit 34 winners. The great returner of serve picked apart Sabau breaking him seven of eight times.

Afterwards, he still admitted to nerves early on because "people are taking time out of their day to watch me play," which drew a loud roar of approval from the spectators remaining. At his age, the crafty vet appreciates it more and seems to feed off the crowd. After all these years, Agassi still knows how to captivate an audience.

In what could be his final Flushing appearance, Agassi is trying for one more big run that could produce his third Open and ninth career slam title. Last year, at 34, he was the toughest out for defending champ Roger Federer, losing in a two day five set wind swept quarterfinal.

So, does he have one more run in him? He'll have a tough test in the second round against Croatian bomber Ivo Karlovic, who rocketed 32 aces in a four set win over American Mardy Fish. You know who most of the crowd will be pulling for on Thursday.

Also advancing were seeded players Guillermo Coria, Richard Gasquet, Thomas Johansson and Tommy Robredo.

Russian Shocker On Day One

It didn't take long for a huge upset to take place at the U.S. Open. For the first time in the Open era, a defending women's champion was eliminated in the first round when Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova fell victim to countrywoman Ekaterina Bychkova 6-3, 6-2.

The fifth seed never got untracked against the 97th ranked player in the world, spraying 45 unforced errors to just 15 winners in a lackluster day. Though she cashed in all three break chances against Bychkova, it didn't matter because her opponent converted six of 11 opportunities enroute to a straight set victory. Kuznetsova was equally as bad on first and second serves, winning just 48 percent on both.

It took 65 minutes for little known Bychkova to complete the stunner. For the 20-year-old Russian, her grand slam debut was a surprising success. Entering the match, she had only four career wins on tour against six defeats, improving her record to 4-5 this year. Now she'll take on the winner of Ivana Lisjak-Emilie Loit in the second round.

What this means for top seed Maria Sharapova is an even easier road to the semifinals. Kuznetsova was the big name at the bottom of Sharapova's draw and potential quarterfinal opponent. Now, that part of the draw is wide open with ninth seed Nadia Petrova left along with rising star Nicole Vaidisova. Both won in straight sets to advance to the next round. American Laura Granville eliminated 22nd seed Silvia Farina Elia easily 6-2, 6-1 to advance.

On Sharapova's side, 21st seed Dinara Safina and 28th seed Flavia Pennetta were ousted in three sets, leaving only Aussie Alicia Molik as the lone seed who could be in her path of cruising to the quarters.

Other seeded women's winners included: Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Daniela Hantuchova, Francesca Schiavone, Ai Sugiyama and Vera Douchevina.

On the men's side, Australian Open champ Marat Safin pulled out of the tournament due to a sore left knee. The 2000 U.S. Open winner played through pain at Wimbledon, losing in the third round to Feliciano Lopez before having surgery. He returned a couple of weeks ago at Cincinnati making the quarters before losing to American Robby Ginepri. Clearly not 100 percent, Safin withdrew from New Haven last week and decided not to play in Flushing Monday.

His loss will be felt in the men's draw where third seed Lleyton Hewitt potentially has an easy road to the semis if he gets through his half which includes Taylor Dent, David Ferrer and Dominik Hrbaty. The opposite end could open up for Tim Henman, Mario Ancic or Max Mirnyi if form holds. If not, a darkhorse like Fernando Verdasco, Paul-Henri Mathieu or Justin Gimelstob could emerge.

One upset on the men's side was ninth seed Gaston Gaudio going down in straight sets to 20-year-old American wildcard Brian Baker 7-6 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Gaudio was a potential fourth round opponent for Andre Agassi.

The slam debut of American phenom Donald Young was spoiled by Italian Giorgio Galimberti who defeated him 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-2. Though Young lost, he showed some good signs in the first set breaking Galimberti to force a tiebreak. But with a 4-2 lead and in control, Young dropped the final five points to lose the set. It was too much to overcome for the 16-year-old lefty.

Day One men's seeded winners included: Rafael Nadal, Mariano Puerta, Ivan Ljubicic, Jiri Novak, Mikhail Youzhny, Tommy Haas and Tomas Berdych.

First round matches were still in progress entering the night session, which features Sharapova and Agassi.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Past Champions Try To Dethrone Federer At Open

In as competitive a season as there's been on the men's circuit, the best player in the game is clearly top ranked Roger Federer. Even when he lost to Marat Safin in a classic Australian Open five set semifinal, he made Safin earn it. Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt to finally win his second career major after over a four year drought since capturing the 2000 U.S. Open. And so, the unpredictable Russian was back in the hunt to challenge Federer.

Meanwhile, Spanish prodigy Rafael Nadal rose up the rankings quickly, winning early and often. One such match where he fell short was a final in Miami against Federer back in March. Nadal had a two set lead but couldn't hold on. Even though he lost, the teenager announced to the world that he was coming. In a semi rematch on Nadal's best surface at Roland Garros, he was too much for even Federer besting him in four on the way to another four set conquest of Mariano Puerta for his first ever slam.

At Wimbledon, Federer continued his grass court mastery claiming his third straight title. In straight setting archrival Andy Roddick in a final rematch, Federer sent a message to the rest of the field that his best was far superior to everyone else's. As if to put it to test, he took off for over a month before returning to Cincinnati and winning the only Masters Series event he entered, defeating Roddick in two sets. It was his ninth title of the season adding to a remarkable season in which he's won 64 out of 67 matches.

One player who will be returning for his 20th straight Open is Andre Agassi. This year, the 35-year-old American vet has battled a nerve problem in his back. After it acted up in an excruciating five-set first round loss to Jarkko Nieminen at Roland Garros, he took two months off missing his second straight Wimbledon and other tour events. When Agassi returned to Los Angeles for a tuneup, he won five straight matches to capture his first title in a year. At his only Masters Series appearance in Montreal, he reached the final before losing in three sets to Nadal. Though he ran out of gas against Nadal, Agassi played well.

It's possible this could be Agassi's final grand slam event. He has never indicated due to his competitive nature and still enjoys playing. He has won the Open twice in '94 and '99. This probably is his last chance to win a ninth slam with his last victory coming at the '03 Australian Open. If ever there will be a fan favorite at this year's Open, it's Andre.

Can Agassi go out on top like Sampras three years ago? Can former champions Safin ('00), Hewitt ('01) and Roddick ('03) unseat the defending champion and world number one Federer?

Bracket One: This section features Federer, sixth seed Nikolay Davydenko, 11th seed David Nalbandian, 16th seed Radek Stepanek, 20th seed Juan Carlos Ferrero and 21st seed Fernando Gonzalez. A couple could be competitive against Federer.

Potential Sleepers: Andrei Pavel and Nicolas Kiefer are solid hard court players who can pound the ball from the baseline. Pavel has made the fourth round twice including last year while Kiefer was a quarterfinalist in 2000 and into the fourth round last year. Kiefer lost in the third round to Federer at Wimbledon. Both shouldn't be underestimated. Former '98 French Open champion Carlos Moya is an accomplished player who is really streaky with his serve and forehand. One potential first round match to watch is Paradorn Srichaphan versus Younes El Aynaoui. Both are capable of advancing as evidenced by Srichaphan's fourth round result two years ago and El Aynaoui's two quarterfinal appearances in '02 and '03. Keep an eye on Dmitry Tursunov. The third-year Russian had his best result at Wimbledon upsetting Tim Henman along the way to the fourth round.

Analysis: Federer's section should be routine through the first three rounds until he meets up with Ferrero, Pavel or Kiefer in the round of 16. The bottom half of the draw is more tricky and could produce upsets. Davydenko is a good player but could lose in the second round to El Aynaoui or Srichaphan. Moya should face Wayne Arthurs in the second round with the winner taking on Davydenko, El Aynaoui or Srichaphan. Nalbandian is always a dangerous player at slams who brings his best. Look for him to meet either Gonzalez or Tursunov in the third round and advance.

The Pick: None of these guys should be able to beat Federer. They might push him but that's all. I'll take Federer over Ferrero in a competitive fourth round rematch from Wimbledon. On the other side, Davydenko should hope for Srichaphan in the second round. El Aynaoui is a shot maker who feeds off the crowd. This has been Davydenko's best season with a quarterfinal showing in Australia and his first ever semi in Paris. His baseline game should be enough to get through the early rounds. I'll pick him into the round of 16 where he'll face Nalbandian. Nalbandian has had a tough year but plays better at slams as evidenced by two quarter appearances in Australia and London. I like him over Davydenko to face Federer in the final eight. He's given Federer trouble in the past, eliminating him in the fourth round two years ago. This time should be different.

Bracket Two: This features third seed Hewitt, fifth seed Safin, 12th seed Henman, 15th seed Dominik Hrbaty, 17th seed David Ferrer, 22nd seed Mario Ancic and 25th seed Taylor Dent. Any bracket that includes two former Open champions is tough.

Potential Sleepers: Fernando Verdasco is a left-handed baseliner from Spain who might pose problems for Henman in Round One. His best showing at Flushing was the third round in 2003. Paul-Henri Mathieu is better than his ranking and can slug the ball from the baseline. In Montreal, he upset Roddick in the first round and made a surprising run to the semis before losing to Nadal. He made the third round here last year. Max Mirnyi is always dangerous on hard courts but he takes on Justin Gimelstob in the opening round. Whoever wins could make the third round.

Analysis: Hewitt should be through the first two rounds with relative ease but could face Dent in an entertaining third round. Ferrer could play Mark Philippoussis in the second round. If he gets through, he should have no trouble making the round of 16. On the bottom half, Safin enters with an achy knee, which he took time off for this summer. He could be tested right away against Alexander Popp. If he's playing well, Safin should coast to the fourth round. Look for Verdasco or Henri-Mathieu to eliminate a struggling Henman. Either should be in the third round where they could face Ancic. That's if Ancic overcomes his first round history at the Open.

The Pick: Hewitt should be pushed by Dent. He took a set off him at the fourth round of Wimbledon. But the quicker Hewitt should advance to the round of 16 where he could meet Ferrer. He'll win that and be waiting for Safin. Don't be surprised if Henri-Mathieu makes the fourth round and challenges Safin. If the Russian is on, he should setup a rematch of the Australian Open final against Hewitt. This would be a compelling quarterfinal with two top five players slugging it out from the baseline. Safin prevailed in four over Hewitt at Melbourne. Here, I like Hewitt to avenge that loss to setup a Wimbledon semi rematch with nemesis Federer.

Bracket Three: This features fourth seed Roddick, eighth seed Guillermo Coria, 10th seed Puerta, 13th seed Richard Gasquet, 18th seed Ivan Ljubicic, 23rd seed Jiri Novak and 26th seed Feliciano Lopez. It might be the easiest bracket to project.

Potential Sleepers: American Robby Ginepri had a great summer winning Indianapolis, reaching the quarters at Los Angeles and the semis at Cincinnati where he routined Safin and took Federer to three before losing. At Indianapolis, he beat Roddick in three close sets. They could play in Round Two. German Tommy Haas is a streaky player who can rip shots from the baseline and hit big serves. Last year, he made the final eight but has struggled this season. He's still formidable. Teenage American prospect Donald Young will be making his grand slam debut. He takes on a qualifier in Round One.

Analysis: Other than Ginepri early, Roddick's section shouldn't pose any threat. The rematch should take place and won't be easy for A-rod but he still should advance. Roddick could play Haas in the third round but should get through to the round of 16. Look for him to face rising Frenchman Gasquet. Only 19, he has an all court game. At Wimbledon, he made the fourth round. This is his Open debut. On the top portion, Coria hasn't been great this season but the hard courts are to his liking. He was a quarterfinalist two years ago. Coria should advance to the third round where he could meet big lefty server Feliciano Lopez. Lopez had a nice run to the quarters at London but shouldn't beat Coria here. If French Open runner-up Puerta plays well, he could be a potential round of 16 opponent for Coria.

The Pick: Roddick is clearly the best player in this section. If he doesn't come out, he'll hear about it. He had a very good summer winning his fourth title in D.C. and losing to Federer at Cincinnati. He did tweak a thigh towards the end of that match. If he struggles, that could be a factor. But Andy is tough and still should cruise through to a fourth round match against Gasquet. That might be entertaining but Roddick should prevail. Coria should meet Roddick in the quarters. If that match comes down, it would be another rematch from Wimbledon, where Andy won in a competitive straight sets. Look for a similar result here putting Roddick into the final four.

Bracket Four: This features second seed Nadal, seventh seed Agassi, ninth seed Gaston Gaudio, 14th seed Thomas Johansson, 19th seed Tommy Robredo and 24th seed Mikhail Youzhny. On paper, this looks like easy pickings for Nadal and Agassi.

Potential Sleepers: Czech Tomas Berdych is a talented baseliner whose ranking is up to 37th and playing well. The 19-year-old made the semis in D.C. before losing to Blake and upset Nadal in the first round at Cincinnati. He lost in three sets to Youzhny the following round. He is capable of making some noise and could see Agassi in Round Three. Both Greg Rusedski and James Blake are playing well heading into their opening round match. The winner could give Nadal problems in Round Three. Sebastien Grosjean is a sound player who can run down shots from the baseline but his best results are on grass where he lost to Roddick at the Wimbledon quarters. Gustavo Kuerten is an exciting player who made two quarter appearances in Flushing but is he healthy?

Analysis: Nadal's best surface is clay but he proved recently that he could win on a hard court, beating Agassi at Montreal for his ninth title. He is an impressive 65-9 heading into his first round with Bobby Reynolds and should have plenty of confidence. He plays with fire and can make impossible shots due to his speed. Nadal should meet either Rusedski or Blake in the third round. I like Johansson to win his first three matches and be waiting in the round of 16. On the top half, Agassi should handle either Mardy Fish or big server Ivo Karlovic in the second round setting up a potential third round match against Berdych. Youzhny should meet Gaudio in the third round. I like Youzhny to pull the upset and make Round Four.

The Pick: This is a tough bracket because there are players who could ruin a Nadal-Agassi quarterfinal. Nadal will have his hands full against Blake, who should edge Rusedski. Blake will have the home crowd on his side but Nadal is tougher and should advance to play Johansson in the round of 16. The Swedish vet is has a potent serve and a lethal forehand in his arsenal. He made the semis at Wimbledon and should be competitive against Nadal but I'll take Nadal to reach the quarters. Berdych has a chance against Agassi but in that environment, Agassi should have enough to win. Youzhny is a similar opponent but I like Agassi to prevail and meet Nadal in an entertaining quarter, which would be great. Agassi's experience versus Nadal's youth. At Montreal, Agassi couldn't hurt Nadal from the ground and had trouble reading his serve. However, he's great at adjusting and this tournament means too much. Only cause of that, I feel Agassi will find a way to advance and setup an all-American dream semi against Roddick.

Breaking Down The Final Four: In one semifinal, you'd have Federer against Hewitt, an opponent he dominates. It's amazing because Hewitt is one of the best players on tour. But he can't hurt Federer because Roger has too much game. In last year's final, Federer bageled Hewitt in two of three sets which tells you how remarkable he is. He'll win again to reach the final but it won't be that lopsided.

The other semi would be the old guard versus the new guard. Roddick has been here before when he played Sampras three years ago in the quarters and got blitzed in straight sets. That was then and this is now. The fans would be torn with who to pull for because Agassi is one of the most popular players and it could be his last hurrah. Many rooted for Sampras three years ago and it helped him go out on top with a record 14th grand slam. I just feel Roddick would have too many big serves and forehands to lose this match. Agassi is a great returner but Roddick has more to lose here. He must win to setup a championship rematch of Wimbledon.

Who Will Be Holding The Trophy: Roger Federer, Switzerland. Federer is the best player since Sampras and is a threat to his 14 slams. If he wins, it will be his sixth career slam at 24. He plays the bigger points better than anyone and can beat opponents a variety of ways with shots that defy logic. Whether it's the running forehand crosscourt or the backhand down the line or a drop volley or ace, he can pull it off. Federer is the best at shifting from defense to offense and has great court coverage. This doesn't mean Roddick won't have a chance. He'll be on his best surface where he won his only major and have tons of support turning it into a Davis Cup match. It will be very difficult to defeat a man who doesn't lose to him or in finals.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Women's Draw Competitive at U.S. Open

The final tennis grand slam of the season kicks off Monday, August 29th in Flushing at this year's U.S. Open. For the WTA Tour, it promises to be ultra competitive. There's a new number one ranked player heading into the star studded event. It's 18-year-old Russian teenager Maria Sharapova. The 2004 Wimbledon champion is the fifth youngest world number one on the women's side with only Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Tracy Austin and Steffi Graf holding it at a younger age. A semifinalist at each of the first three slams, Sharapova will try to justify her elite status.

Last year, Svetlana Kuznetsova became the first ever Russian to win the U.S. Open. However, she was the third different Russian woman to win a major in 2004- Anastasia Myskina (French Open), Sharapova (Wimbledon). This year, Kuznetsova has reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The defending champ enters this tournament as a fifth seed. Can she repeat?

This season has been a different story at the slams with familiar faces winning. First, it was American diva Serena Williams taking time out of her busy schedule to claim her second Australian Open and seventh career major. At Roland Garros, Justine Henin-Hardenne ruled Paris for the second time in her career, capturing her fourth slam. At the All England Club, a name from the past rose back to prominence. Venus Williams entered Wimbledon without many expecting her to do well but she had other ideas; going through defending champ Sharapova in the semis and fighting off championship points against Lindsay Davenport to win a three set epic for her third Wimbledon and first slam title since the '01 U.S. Open.

Ironically, all three women will be lower seeds. Henin-Hardenne is seeded seventh while Serena eighth and Venus 10th. They all have won at the Open- Henin-Harden ('03), Serena ('99, '02), Venus ('00-'01). This might not be good news for the rest of the field. That said, it's time to breakdown who has the best chance of winning this year's trophy.

Bracket One: This features top overall seed Sharapova with defending champ Kuznetsova at the opposite end. Other competitive players include ninth seed Nadia Petrova, 14th seed Alicia Molik and rising star Nicole Vaidisova. The 16-year-old Czech is over six feet and hits thunderous groundstrokes like Sharapova. She recently pushed Henin-Hardenne before losing in two close sets at Toronto a week ago. This will be her second appearance in Flushing.

Potential Sleepers: Sharapova could have a tough opening round match against Eleni Daniilidou. Daniilidou knocked out French Open champ Henin-Hardenne in three close sets in the first round at Wimbledon. Dinara Safina is the younger sister of Marat Safin. She has been on the tour over three years with her best slam result coming here two years ago when she reached the fourth round.

Analysis: It's hard not to like Sharapova to breeze through the first three rounds. There just doesn't seem to be anyone who can push her. That could change by the round of 16 where dangerous Aussie Molik could loom. Molik made a great run to the quarters in Australia this year but missed the last two slams with an injury. She's never made it past the third round in Flushing but that could change. On the bottom portion, Kuznetsova shouldn't be challenged until the third round where she could meet up with Vaidisova. If that match comes down, an upset is possible. Petrova is the overlooked player in this section because she has enough game to get to the second week. A quarterfinalist here a year ago, she should be waiting in the fourth round for either Kuznetsova or Vaidisova.

The Pick: Sharapova hasn't had many problems with Kuznetsova. If they play in a quarter showdown, the choice is obvious. However, it's possible she could have trouble with Molik. Off her Wimbledon victory last year, she bowed out to Mary Pierce in the third round. A year more mature and driven, she should be able to reach the final four.

Bracket Two: This section features the hottest player on the tour, fourth seed Kim Clijsters. Clijsters recently won The Rogers Cup in Toronto defeating Belgian nemesis Henin-Hardenne in straight sets to capture the U.S. Open Series. She has been on fire this season winning a tour high 49 matches and six titles including three this summer to lift her ranking into the top four. Other main competitors in the bracket include Serena and Venus Williams along with 18th seed Ana Ivanovic. This is Ivanovic's first slam year on tour. Her best result has been the quarters at Roland Garros.

Potential Sleepers: Daniela Hantuchova and Francesca Schiavone have both made quarterfinals at Flushing and can compete well from the baseline but neither should be a surprise. The one player who could be a dangerous opponent is Chinese teenager Shuai Peng. She is another powerful baseliner who can fire winners from both sides. She's never advanced past the second round but if somehow she did, Peng could be a potential third round opponent for Serena.

Analysis: Clijsters has nobody that can threaten her in the top half. If she's on, it should be cruise control till a possible quarter showdown with either Williams sister. After winning down under, injuries prevented Serena from competing at Roland Garros. When she returned at Wimbledon, she still was on a badly hobbled leg, which might explain an awful third round loss to Jill Craybas. She's only played one match since forced to default in the round of 16 at Toronto over a week ago. It's hard to predict which Serena will show. If healthy and motivated, she shouldn't have a problem reaching the fourth round. Venus should have an easy first two rounds and could face Hantuchova in the third round. If she's on her game, a round of 16 sister match-up looms.

The Pick: Clijsters has an easy first three rounds. The only potential for a competitive round of 16 match is Ivanovic and that's a big if. She should be waiting in the quarters for either Serena or Venus. At Wimbledon, their anticipated fourth round match never came down but this time, it should. Though she hasn't had much success against her younger sister, a fitter Venus should prevail to setup an elite eight showdown with Clijsters. That match would be a toss-up because both are extremely quick and can go from defense to offense. In a recent final at Stanford, Clijsters won in straight sets. She's playing great. So, we'll take her to setup a semifinal showdown with Sharapova.

Bracket Three: Section three features third seed Amelie Mauresmo at the bottom with Henin-Hardenne on the opposite end. Other top competition includes 12th seed Mary Pierce and 13th seed Anastasia Myskina. Mauresmo, Henin-Hardenne and Pierce all have had solid seasons and could come out of this bracket. Myskina struggled earlier this year but is playing better and shouldn't be taken lightly.

Potential Sleepers: Elena Likhovtseva is a veteran who has reached the fourth round in Queens four times. This year, the 29-year-old Russian made her first ever slam semi at the French. She's good enough to play into the second week and be competitive. Serbia and Montenegro's Jelena Jankovic is in her third year. Only 20, the 17th seed had her best showing at a slam reaching the third round in London. This is her second U.S. Open. If there is the potential for a surprise, it could come from Bulgaria's Sesil Karatantcheva. In her first full slam season, she upset Venus at the French on her way to the quarters. The 16-year-old is a talented baseliner who could make some noise.

Analysis: Henin-Hardenne shouldn't have much trouble early on but could play American Angela Haynes in the second round. Haynes gave Serena a tough first round match at Wimbledon. She has a lot of talent from the ground but has never been consistent. Henin-Hardenne should be weary of that. She should get through and reach the fourth round where she could face Pierce. At the bottom, Mauresmo could meet Karatantcheva in the second round but her depth of groundstrokes and experience should be too much. She should be waiting in the round of 16 for either Myskina or Likhovtseva.

The Pick: Henin-Hardenne had no trouble beating Pierce for the French Open title. But Pierce shouldn't play as badly if they meet in the round of 16. Henin-Hardenne should still advance to the quarters and await either Mauresmo or Myskina. Mauresmo has been more consistent this year and usually goes deep into tournaments. She should play Henin-Hardenne for a chance at the semis. But when push comes to shove, Henin-Hardenne is tougher in big matches and should make the final four.

Bracket Four: This section features second seed Lindsay Davenport, who held the number one ranking since last October before a bad back forced her to the sidelines during the U.S. Open Series allowing Sharapova to claim the top spot. She just returned this week at New Haven and hasn't had any problems. The bracket also includes sixth seed Elena Dementieva, 11th seed Patty Schnyder and 15th seed Nathalie Dechy.

Potential Sleepers: Japan's Shinobu Asaqoe is a vet who reached the quarterfinals last year. However, her best result at slams this season has been the second round. France's Tatiana Golovin is only 17 but in her second full year. She made the round of 16 twice last year and went into the third round in her U.S. Open debut. Golovin enters play seeded 23rd. Croatian Karolina Sprem is always under the radar but she's never advanced past the opening round in her previous two tries. But the 20-year-old is talented enough to get to the second week.

Analysis: If her back doesn't act up, Davenport should have no problems reaching the fourth round. Once there, she could wind up playing Dechy or Golovin. Dementieva hasn't had a great season but the '04 Open runner-up should advance into the round of 16 without a sweat. A potential match with the tricky Schnyder could be on the horizon.

The Pick: Davenport defeated Dechy in an Australian Open semifinal but made the match an adventure. If she's right, look for her to win easier this time and get to the final eight. Dementieva's best showing is the fourth round in each of the year's first three slams. She has a chance to advance further but will probably have to play Schnyder. Schnyder is a difficult opponent because she's a lefty and has a variety of spins on her shots. But Dementieva is more talented and should advance to play Davenport for a shot at the semis. Unless her body is broken down, Davenport is the choice to reach the final four and meet Henin-Hardenne.

Breaking Down The Final Four: Clijsters would meet Sharapova in one semifinal. Both are exceptional baseliners who can run down shots. Sharapova has more steam on her serve and forehand but Clijsters is great at keeping points alive and is more consistent. All year, Sharapova has fallen short in big matches. Clijsters' problem has been losing twice in tough three setters to Davenport in the fourth round at the last two slams when she had a lower rank. She has never won a slam and usually tightens up in big spots. But she has been building towards changing that. I like her to reach her fifth slam final.

Davenport has been the best player on the WTA Tour since last August. But she still hasn't been able to win her fourth career slam since triumphing at the 2000 Australian Open. Her biggest issue lately has been health. When nothing's bothering her, she hits the cleanest ball on the circuit. Henin-Hardenne also endured health problems earlier this year, which contributed to a first round loss at Wimbledon. However, she is better now and should be a handful for Davenport because of her footspeed. This match is a toss-up because both can wear down. It should go three sets. I'll pick Davenport to advance to her second straight slam final and third of the season.

Who Will Be Holding The Trophy: Kim Clijsters, Belgium. Clijsters would have to conquer her toughest opponent in Davenport to claim the prize. But she has been playing great tennis. Davenport could wear down on the hard court, which should benefit Clijsters. She has indicated that she might retire in 2007 due to injuries, which should be more incentive to win. If she does, it would be the 22-year-old's first ever major. Long overdue.

Rucchin Flies To Rangers

Adding veteran depth to their roster, the Rangers acquired center Steve Rucchin from the Mighty Ducks Tuesday night in exchange for minor league enforcer Trevor Gillies and a 2007 conditional pick.

Rucchin, 34, had played his entire 10-year career with Anaheim since '94-95 when he posted six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in his rookie season. In 616 career games, he's tallied 432 points (153-279-432).

The former Ducks captain helped lead the franchise to their only Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2003, falling in seven games to the Devils.

In '03-04, Rucchin played in all 82 games for the second straight season, scoring 20 goals and adding 23 helpers for 43 points. The 6-2 pivot also won 53.6 percent of draws taken.

A two-way center who can setup teammates and possesses leadership skills, Rucchin should be a key addition to the Blueshirts. He enters the final year of his contract due 2.26 million.

Gillies, 26, was signed as a free agent by the Rangers last summer on July 20, 2004. In 49 games with AHL affiliate Hartford, he contributed two assists and racked up 277 penalty minutes, ranking first on the club in that category.

The six-year AHL vet has never made it to the NHL. He'll try to change that in Anaheim.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Rangers Sign Immonen

The New York Rangers came to agreement on a professional contract with Finnish center Jarkko Immonen.

Immonen, 23, originally a Toronto Maple Leafs eighth round pick in the 2002 Draft, was acquired by the Rangers along with Maxim Kondratiev, a 2004 first round pick (Lauri Korpikoski- from Calgary) and a 2005 second round pick (Michael Sauer) in exchange for defenseman Brian Leetch on March 3, 2004.

Last season, Immonen played for JYP Jyvaskyla of the SM Liiga in Finland where he totaled 47 points (19-28-47) over 54 games, finishing tied for sixth in scoring. His 28 helpers were good enough to tie for third in the league. In three postseason games, he tallied two assists, tying for first in scoring on JYP.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Willie Learns Lesson

With his ball club well on its way to a second straight victory against the Nationals, Willie Randolph called off the dogs after six innings, pulling ace Pedro Martinez with an 8-0 lead.

The game was over. Or at least that's what he thought. No way could the lowest scoring team in the majors comeback from that kind of deficit with three innings left. But not so fast. With washed up middle reliever Danny Graves in, suddenly Washington scored a couple of runs and loaded the bases with an out forcing Randolph to bring in Dae-Sung Koo. But after Koo whiffed Nick Johnson for the second out, it got even hairier when Ryan Church plated two more runs with a single to center.

Suddenly, what was a laugher turned into a ballgame. Adding insult to injury, Randolph's third reliever Aaron Heilman reloaded the bases when he hit Preston Wilson and then gave up another two-run hit to Brian Schneider. Just like that it was a two-run game.

With the Mets never a lock when things are tight, you just knew somehow Braden Looper would blow it in the ninth. As is his custom, he recorded the first two outs on weak groundouts. But then suddenly, the right-handed version of Mitch Williams imploded. He gave up consecutive singles to Church and Wilson to put runners on the corners before Schneider ripped a double into the gap to miraculously tie the game, sending off a chorus of boos at Shea Stadium.

Unbelievably, Pedro's 13th win was gone and so too was an easy win. Luckily for Randolph, fate would be on their side in the 10th. When 40-year-old reliever Roberto Hernandez put runners on the corners with two out and Johnson crushed a pitch 400 feet, fortunately it was hit to the deepest part of the ballpark with Carlos Beltran hauling it in on the track.

In the bottom half of the frame, Gerald Williams worked a one out walk. After everyone's favorite whipping boy Kaz Matsui lined out to right, Jose Reyes walked forcing Williams to second. At that instant, Randolph made a move that made sense, sending up Chris Woodward to pinch hit for Hernandez. Woodward, who was a hero earlier this year with a walkoff homer, came through with an RBI single up the middle to win the game, sending 51,785 home happy.

With his team in a crazy wild card race, Randolph took a calculated risk pulling his best pitcher early. He had done this before and gotten away with it. Why take out Pedro when he only threw 78 pitches? The bullpen all year has been inconsistent. Would sending him out for another inning have hurt? At least then he could have gone with his best guys for the final two frames.

Randolph is a first year manager and should be given some leeway. However, in the heat of a playoff race with teams in front of them seesawing back and forth for the wild card lead, he can't be messing around. The Mets need every game. They are 63-59 and trail the Phillies by two games. One in the loss column. In between them, the Astros, Marlins and Nationals sit making this too unpredictable to call.

There's roughly 40 games remaining for almost everyone. One bad move can prove costly. For Willie, last night should serve as a lesson.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Hard Hits: Time For Torre To Show Who's Boss

With his team continuing to underperform after losing two of three to AL East cellar dweller Tampa Bay in tough fashion, Yankee manager Joe Torre has once again come under fire from owner George Steinbrenner. Torre's club has lost a lot of nailbiters this season and has not been without fault. However, reading an irate Boss continue to take shots at the classy manager through PR spokesman Howard Rubinstein has gotten old.

Is this the same owner who gave his manager of nine seasons a three-year $19.3 million extension that runs thru 2007 back in March? Now because the $200 million dream team that Steinbrenner's Tampa cronies helped put together might not be good enough for an 11th straight postseason appearance, Torre could be on the firing line. Is that how it works?

Blame the manager for why the geriatric Big Unit is average. Blame him for handing the overly sensitive big baby a two year extension through 2007 worth $30 million before he even threw a pitch. Who cares if he was 41? He was going to be great forever and never break down.

As soon as Jaret Wright returned from the disabled list and pitched the Yanks to a win Monday at Tampa, it took just a couple of days for Steinbrenner to praise the work of pitching guru Billy Connors. The same Connors who has produced hardly any worthy pitchers in the minors the past few years. Does he get credit for how awful Jose Contreras was in two years or how inconsistent Felix Rodriguez and Scott Proctor have been? What about Wright's brutal four starts during April and missing nearly four months? I almost forgot. That was the Boss' geniuses in Tampa.

It's amazing how Connors gets all the credit when someone does well but pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre never does. Not even for how well Chien-Ming Wang pitched before he went down. Instead, Stottlemyre gets lambasted in the papers by King George every chance he gets. But never directly because he no longer has the audacity or maybe not the energy anymore.
Stottlemyre has been here as long as Torre and was a big part of those championship pitching staffs. But now, when he can't save a washed up Kevin Brown from back aches, somehow it's his fault that Brown can't pitch anymore.

Should Torre take the blame for how poorly free agent flop Carl Pavano pitched before he wound up on the DL with elbow tendinitis? In George's mad world, of course! The manager is to blame for everything.

Torre has not had a great season. He has made some questionable decisions along the way. Against the White Sox over a week ago trailing by a run in the ninth, he let Alan Embree pitch to Paul Konerko, whose mammoth home run wound up the difference. This past Tuesday, with a five-game win streak on the line after Mariano Rivera blew his second save in three chances, he elected to load the bases in the 11th with a wild Proctor on the mound. Proctor, who already balked Carl Crawford to third and pitched around Yankee killer Eduardo Perez, promptly missed the plate badly on four straight pitches to Jonny Gomes forcing in the winning run.

Even I was scratching my head on those two. However, during a 162 game season, nobody is perfect. Torre explained his reasons for why. As the expression goes, damned if you do and damned if you don't. It must be tough being manager of the most successful sports franchise.
That's until you look at what Torre has accomplished during his tenure.

Four World Series championships. Six pennants. Nine consecutive postseason appearances. Eight division titles. Two AL Manager of the Year Awards in 1996 and 1998. He entered this season with a .610 winning percentage in 1456 regular season games in the Bronx. Only legendary skippers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel had over a .600 winning mark in over 1000 games in the Yankee dugout. With a 6-0 shutout at Oakland on May 8th, Torre won his 900th game as Yankee manager. He entered Friday night with a record of 952-621. Recently, he passed Ralph Houk on the all-time franchise list for fourth winning-est manager trailing just McCarthy, Stengel and Miller Huggins. Pretty impressive company.

His team trails Oakland by 1.5 games for the wild card and are four behind division-leading Boston. Beginning with a three-game set at the White Sox, there are 43 games left. Still enough time for Torre's club to save the season.

With the heat on, you can tell that Torre does not like off field distractions. He has maintained that he will answer Steinbrenner after the season. Instead, he has emphasized winning on the field, which is how he's gone about it since the beginning.

If his ball club doesn't make the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (excluding '94 strike season), Torre could be out. But if it happens, I hope he sticks it to Steinbrenner and gets in the final word by resigning. He's put up with a lot of shenanigans. Wouldn't it be fitting if Joe told George who was boss?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Rangers Re-sign Five Players

It's been a busy week for the Rangers. Tuesday, the club announced the re-signing of defenseman Tom Poti, agreeing on a one-year deal worth 2.3 million. He was acquired from Edmonton on March 19, 2002 along with Rem Murray in exchange for Mike York and a 2002 fourth round pick.

In '02-03, Poti finished tied for seventh in scoring among NHL defensemen, posting career highs in assists (37) and points (48), making his first ever All Star appearance. The following season, he had 24 points (10-14-24) in 67 games.

As a Ranger, the 28-year-old Worcester Massachusetts native has recorded 22 goals and 58 assists for 80 points over 158 contests. For his seven-year NHL career with Edmonton and New York, Poti has 185 points (49-136-185) in 443 games.

Wednesday, the club reached terms with RFA Jozef Balej on a one-year deal. The 23-year-old Balej became a Ranger on March 2, 2004 when the team traded Alexei Kovalev to Montreal in exchange for him and a 2004 second round pick (Bruce Graham). In 13 games with the Rangers, Balej tallied a goal and four assists including his first career goal against Martin Brodeur of the Devils on March 15, 2004 at Madison Square Garden. Last season in the AHL, the Czech born right wing scored 20 goals and added 22 assists in 69 games for Hartford.

Thursday, the Rangers re-signed Jamie Lundmark, Garth Murray and Chad Wiseman.

Lundmark, 24, was drafted ninth overall by the club in 1999. He has appeared in 111 career games for the Rangers registering 10 goals and 19 assists for 29 points. Last season with Hartford, the Edmonton native scored 14 goals and 27 assists for 41 points in 64 games.

Murray, 22, was selected by the team in the third round of the 2001 Draft. In '03-04, he made his NHL debut versus the Sabres on January 30, 2004. In 20 career games, the Regina junior product notched his first NHL goal against Pittsburgh on March 21. With Hartford last season, he tallied nine points (4-5-9) and racked up 182 penalty minutes.

Wiseman was acquired from San Jose in exchange for Nils Ekman on August 12, 2003. The 24-year-old Ontario native has appeared in eight NHL contests (four with San Jose in '02-03) including four with the Blueshirts in '03-04, registering his first career goal and point against the Devils' Martin Brodeur on January 15, 2004. Last season, he scored 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points in 60 games with Hartford.

Rangers Sign Prucha, Holt and Pikkarainen

At a team function welcoming back Adam Graves as part of the organization with season subcribers on hand at MSG, Rangers Assistant GM Don Maloney confirmed the signings of forward Petr Prucha and netminder Chris Holt. Prucha was selected in the 8th round of the 2002 Draft out of the Czech Republic. Holt was taken in the sixth round of 2003 and starred at the University of Nebraska-Omaha the past two seasons....Blueshirts signed Finnish rookie free agent defenseman Hannu Pikkarainen to a contract.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hitting Back

-When Mike Cameron dove head first trying for a highlight reel snag Thursday in San Diego and collided head on with Carlos Beltran, it was one of the scariest moments ever in baseball. Cameron suffered a broken nose and two fractured cheekbones, which required surgery Saturday. Beltran had one fractured cheekbone and a concussion. As crazy as it sounds, one of them could have died on that field. Going full speed like that is dangerous, especially when neither called off the other. Most outlets focused on the extent of their injuries, which was good. But let's be honest. That should have never happened. These are major leaguers who both have plenty of outfield experience. One of the most important aspects of going after a fly is communicating with teammates to make certain someone makes the catch and prevent serious injuries. It's taught in little league. Maybe both guys should take a course.

-Alex Rodriguez put an exclamation point on becoming the first right-handed Yankee batter to hit 20 home runs at Yankee Stadium, when he demolished a Juan Dominguez pitch into the old Yankee bullpen Saturday. The ball traveled an estimated 485 feet. The last time someone hit a ball that far in the Bronx, it was Jay Buhner, who drove one next to an ambulance for Seattle several years back. It's safe to say A-rod has earned his stripes this year.

-If the Mets knew Jae Seo was going to pitch this well, don't you think they wouldn't have traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano last year?

-Is there a bigger hot dog when it comes to catching fly balls than 'team leader' Gary Sheffield?

-David Wright at 22 is already doing things that most seasoned vets could only dream of.

-Is there a better future at third and short than Wright and Jose Reyes? You remember Reyes. The young shortstop who couldn't stay healthy. Look at the havoc he can create when he's 100 percent. Reminds me of a young Vince Coleman before the fire cracker incident outside Shea.

-2004 AL MVP Vlad Guerrero has 25 homers and 85 RBI's in just 98 games for the Angels. Beltran has 13 homers and 59 RBI's in 107 games for the Mets. Do you think Mets brass wants a do over here?

-Are we supposed to hand the Jets the Lombardi Trophy because Paul Hackett is no longer around? Last time I checked, they still had that great 'clock management' coach Herm Edwards. Doesn't that concern Jets fans or are their recent memories in need of a battery charge?

-So because the Jets defense thinks so highly of itself, it's okay for them to play rough with the Giants during a practice? After seeing what transpired and hearing some of the comments from both sides, that meaningless August 26th preseason game against Gang Green could be worth watching.

-Someone should get a memo out to Terrell Owens and his agent Drew Rosenhaus that their circus act is wearing thin. It's still hard to believe TO found someone as arrogant as him. They deserve each other.

-Even if WFAN's Chris "Mad Dog" Russo didn't get upset when the Giants Tiki Barber called broadcast partner Mike Francesa 'the one with all the knowledge,' you know that had to sting Russo inside. Maybe next time Russo won't mention fumbling and Barber in the same sentence, even if he insists it was a joke. Tell you one thing. It makes for entertaining radio.

-Is it just me or do Joe Benigno and Sid Rosenberg sound a lot better by themselves? Shhh...don't tell FAN. Wouldn't want to hurt their feelings.

-Listening to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith discuss other sports besides basketball is like watching Michael Jordan play baseball.

-I wasn't around when it happened but Pistons owner Bill Davidson calling Larry Brown a bad person was hypocritical and unprofessional. Was Brown such a bad guy when in one year after being hired, he guided Davidson's Pistons to their third NBA title? Davidson talked about how the Pistons became too much Brown and not enough of his players. Please! If he was such a distraction off the court, how come the Pistons were able to comeback against the Heat and force a Game Seven against San Antonio for all the marbles? If he thinks Flip Saunders is such a great replacement, maybe he didn't follow the Timberwolves that closely.

-With that being said, I would like to admit that I was wrong about the Knicks getting Brown. In a previous column over a month ago, I endorsed Herb Williams. Apparently, all the stars were aligned for Knicks President and GM Isiah Thomas. It still doesn't make what he put the classy Williams through right. The only saving grace is that Herb will be Brown's top assistant on the bench. Hopefully, when Brown gets tired of this group, Williams will replace him as coach. We'll put the over/under at two years.

-Is Stephon Marbury offering to play the two under Brown some kind of great unselfish move? I always thought Marbury wanted to be the star point guard and have it all on his shoulders. But apparently, that's not the case. Hey Steph...wake up and smell the coffee!

-So much for the Nets bringing in that 'final piece' Shareef Abdur-Rahim. But they still got that team player Jeff McInnis who cried his way out of Cleveland and traded for Marc Jackson. Are these moves really supposed to put them over the top?

-Where are all these golf experts who had Tiger Woods winning the PGA Championship for his second straight major and third in four this year before he drove a ball? One thing about golf. It is the most unpredictable sport because anything can happen. One bad swing or funny bounce and nothing's certain. Lucky for Woods, Phil Mickelson is living up to his reputation. Hint: Not when he won his only major at last year's Masters.

-It's still a pleasure to watch Andre Agassi strike a tennis ball. He's making a nice comeback at this year's U.S. Open Series. Already captured his first title in a year and might win another this weekend. Hopefully, he can go out the same way at this year's U.S. Open like Pete Sampras did a few years ago.

-And finally, it sure is nice to have hockey back. Missed all the torment of going to Ranger games. Apparently, the Rangers are thinking of renaming themselves Team Jagr. So much for things changing.

Hard Hits Special Part II: End of Road For Yankees???

Tell Tale Signs

This team was flawed from the very beginning and management shut its eyes. They never had a backup plan if starters went down or if the pen got thin. Nobody anticipated Cano becoming the everyday second baseman when they signed Tony Womack. When Womack is now their best option in center, that doesn't say much. With Ruben Sierra out with a strained left hamstring, there aren't many options on the bench. John Flaherty backs up the declining Posada. Crosby is used mostly as a pinch runner or late inning defensive replacement. Tino Martinez has provided some power and D at first but that was mostly in May, though he has hit better lately. Andy Phillips is a decent fastball hitter but hasn't proven he can hit anything else.

The signs have been there all year. From losing three out of four at Tampa to being swept by the worst team in baseball, the Triple A Royals, the Yanks have failed to take advantage of teams they used to beat up on. Those losses could comeback to haunt them.

For a decade, the Bronx Bombers have dominated like no other team in baseball, winning four world championships and reaching six World Series. Only the Braves have made the postseason for a longer stretch.

They have never had a season like this where so many starters went down. The key to those championship seasons during that run of four in five years was pitching. They always had guys who came up big and most importantly, stayed healthy. Whether it was Jimmy Key, David Cone, Andy Pettite, Dwight Gooden, David Wells, Roger Clemens, El Duque, they always had enough proven pitchers who got the job done and tossed it over to the pen for the final three frames. That meant Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd, Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland in '96. After '96, Rivera took the baton and saving games in the postseason to a whole new level with much of the same relief core which included Brian Boehringer, Ramiro Mendoza and Jason Grimsley along the way.

When you look at the names in that pen, it was more than two or three guys. They were like a perfect unit who each had a role and more often than not, shutdown opponents. Teams knew that if the Yankees had the lead after six, it was basically over. That kind of depth and intimidation is long gone.

Dominant Mo

Now, the Yanks have to outslug teams to win and hope they can protect leads long enough so Rivera can get the ball. He's the one sure thing on that staff. In a season that began with two consecutive blown saves to the same team that rallied off him in Game Four of last year's ALCS, doubts began that the once unshakable closer was done.

So how did the 35-year-old Panama native respond? By doing what he does best. Since the third game of the season when he was touched up for five runs (four unearned) by Boston, Rivera has saved 31 consecutive games. In dominating fashion, he is having arguably his best regular season, posting a 5-3 record with a remarkable 1.03 ERA. Rivera's best ERA for a season was 1.66 two years ago. In 52.1 IP, he has allowed only six earned runs of 12, giving up just 27 hits (1 HR- Jason Varitek on April 5) with 11 walks and 59 strikeouts.

To put in perspective how lights out Rivera's been this year, his WHIP is an incredible 0.73 and opponents are hitting .148. Compared to last season when he recorded a career high 53 saves, he has been far more stingy. He had a 1.94 ERA in 2004 with 65 hits in 78 plus with 20 walks and 66 K's with a 1.08 WHIP and .225 average allowed.

A-rod Answers Critics

Just as big this year has been A-rod. After much criticism last October for failing in the clutch during the Yanks' collapse against Boston, the 30-year-old third baseman has comeback with a vengeance. Coming into Friday's game, Rodriguez was leading the AL in homers (33) and among the league leaders in RBI's (90), batting average (.314) and runs scored (83). As noted earlier, he tied a Yankee record for most long balls hit by a righty in the Bronx. With seven weeks left in the season, there should be a new Bomber atop the record book.

Not only has he been terrific overall, but the New York native has excelled in key situations. With runners on, A-rod has produced 15 homers and 72 RBI's. With runners on and two outs, he's taken pitchers deep eight times and driven in 34. With men in scoring position, he's slugged six homers and driven in 53. With RISP with two outs, he's hit four long balls and had 25 base knocks. Most notably, Rodriguez has hit .444 with a homer and 14 RBI's with the bases loaded.

After starting the season batting second behind Jeter, Rodriguez was shifted to fifth by Torre. There, he was able to relax and start hitting like arguably the best player in the game. When he was behind Hideki Matsui, he hit .347 with 16 dingers and 44 RBI's. But after spending 41 games there, Torre finally moved Rodriguez up to the cleanup spot. Since then, he's hit .301 with 16 homers and 40 RBI's in 61 contests.

All season, Rodriguez has been locked in and resembled more of the 2003 AL MVP who starred for Texas that Yankee brass thought they were getting for Alfonso Soriano last year. A-rod's big year has included a jawdropping three home run, 10 RBI game vs. the Angels on April 26. For the season, he has four multi-HR games. It has to be one of the most satisfying seasons he's had.

Giambi Is Back

While Rivera and Rodriguez have been great, Gary Sheffield and Matsui are both on pace for 100 RBI's, making the middle of the order lethal. Toss in the reemergence of Jason Giambi and the offense has been explosive.

Giambi, who was under heavy scrutiny for a San Francisco Chronicle leak of his admission that he used steroids, took a while to round into form. Once he started playing regularly, he gradually rediscovered his stroke. The transformation began in June when he hit over .300. By July, Giambi was all the way back to being the dangerous first base slugger teams feared. He won player of the month hitting a torrid .355 with 14 homers and 24 RBI's with four two-HR games. He recently added his fifth multi-homer game at Cleveland August 4th.

With him returning to form and Rafael Palmeiro recently testing positive for a banned substance, questions have arisen as to what turned around Giambi. The 34-year-old California native has maintained that it was hard work with hitting instructor Don Mattingly that signaled his renaissance.

Unfortunately for Giambi, there will always be lingering doubts due to the vast knowledge that he used performance enhancements during his run to the top of the sport. Hopefully for the former Oakland Athletic 2000 AL MVP, he's not as clueless as Palmeiro.

Putting It In Perspective

Jeter and Cano have been solid at the top of the order with the captain getting on base at a .388 clip and the Rookie of the Year candidate hitting close to .290. Even with as good a top six as there is in baseball, it still might not be enough.

It's possible that the Yankees could sweep the MVP, Cy Young and ROY Awards and not make the postseason. If they miss, whose fault will it be? There's a saying in sports that you win as a team and you lose as one.

Maybe George Steinbrenner should remember that just in case.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Hard Hits Special Part I: End of Road for Yankees???

As the season has gone on for the New York Yankees, one thing has become abundantly clear. How unprepared the organization was in case their winter plan backfired.

Johnson No Sure Thing

All season long, Randy Johnson has looked every bit his 41-year-old body (soon to be 42). Acquired to anchor the staff, he has been anything but automatic. With consistency lacking, ranging from effective outings where he goes deep into games to subpar ones where he serves up batting practice, allowing 24 home runs and posting over a 4.00 ERA, he has not been worth it for the Yankees. While Johnson has 11 wins and averages almost a strikeout-per-inning (152 K's in 159.1 IP), he has allowed four more hits than innings pitched.

Not only has the team been underwhelmed by his performance but they also must contend with whether his back is healthy enough for each turn in the rotation. Thursday, Johnson was unable to make a start due to his achy back. If things had gone as planned at this juncture of the season, this might not have been cause for concern. However, the Yankees entered Thursday trailing Boston by five in the loss column and found themselves four behind both the Athletics and Angels for the wild card.

With no spot starters left, Joe Torre called on reliever Scott Proctor in a big spot. To his credit, despite permitting a leadoff homer to ex-Yank Dave Dellucci, Proctor limited Texas to three runs over five plus innings of work. When your ace is no sure bet with under 50 games remaining in a pennant race, you're in trouble.

Injuries Decimate Staff

Aside from Johnson's struggles, the Yankee staff has been decimated by injuries. A Tampa contingent thought it was a good idea to give oft-injured Jaret Wright a three-year deal worth $21 million. Wright was coming off a career year with the Braves under the tutelage of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, where he won 15 games with a respectable 3.28 ERA in 32 outings. In his previous five seasons, Wright won a combined nine games in just 22 starts; never coming close to reaching 100 innings due to a history of arm trouble. Maybe that's why the Braves balked at re-signing him. You would think this would have sent red flags up but not with The Boss' crack committee. Not only should that have been a warning sign but with the 29-year-old righthander initially failing his physical, it should have guaranteed that he not wind up in Pinstripes.

As luck would have it, Wright got tattooed in four outings, allowing 36 hits in 19 plus, serving up six gopher balls with a Coors-like 9.15 ERA before going on the 60-day DL with a right shoulder inflammation.

Out since April 24th, Wright is finally ready to return and will start next Monday vs. Tampa Bay, taking the place of Columbus call-up Aaron Small. Small has only been brilliant in his four starts, going 3-0 with a 2.67 ERA. If not for White Sox hurler Freddy Garcia, who matched him pitch for pitch in a classic duel in which each allowed just a run Wednesday afternoon, Small could easily be perfect.

A 33-year-old journeyman who hadn't started in over nine years when he pitched for Oakland, Small knows how to pitch and most importantly, throws strikes. He doesn't look like he wants to go back down. And how do the Yankees reward his effort? By demoting him to the bullpen. When manager Joe Torre was asked why, all he could say was that Small was the most flexible and felt Wright will do the job because he's worked hard to get back. Say what? But it has nothing to do with the fact Wright makes a ton more money? The manager would never indicate if he's under that kind of obligation.

Over the past two weeks, Small has been the team's most effective starter in the heat of a playoff race. At this point, it shouldn't matter where he came from. You have to go with your best. Small deserves to stay in the rotation.

Meanwhile, the team's biggest free agent signing was former Marlin Carl Pavano. To be fair, the New Britain Connecticut native was one of the most sought after starters last winter. After winning a career best 18 games posting a 3.00 ERA last year, the Marlins, Red Sox, Tigers, Orioles and Yankees all were vying for his services. When the dust settled, the 29-year-old righty chose the Bronx for an astronomical price of $40 million over four years. With it came a lot more pressure. Pavano knew that going in but wanted to pitch here.

After a decent start in April going 2-2 with a 3.10 ERA in five outings, the wheels came off the next two months, where he gave up a ridiculous 95 hits in 71 innings, including 14 long balls; going 2-4 over 12 more starts. Making matters worse, Pavano couldn't pitch at Yankee Stadium, giving up 73 hits including 10 homers in just 47 frames, posting a 1-3 record with almost a 7.00 ERA in nine outings. By contrast, he went 3-3 in eight starts on the road with a solid 2.89 ERA, including his only shutout of the season at Seattle on May 17.

When he gave up four runs over six in a no decision against Baltimore on June 27th, Pavano reached 100 innings for the season. However, the next day he complained about shoulder tightness and was held out of the rotation. By July 7th, the ball club placed him on the DL with a sore right shoulder. It wasn't known how long he'd be out but it didn't sound that bad. However, a little over a month later this past Wednesday after he visited specialist Dr. James Andrews, it was discovered that he had rotator cuff tendinitis, meaning that Pavano would be sidelined another six weeks, which basically translates to the rest of the season.

Even worse is the continued unreliability of injury prone Kevin Brown. The embattled 40-year-old has struggled through an awful season. In 13 starts this season between DL stints, he was 4-7 with a larger than life 6.50 ERA. The definition of BP, Brown has allowed an astounding 107 hits in just over 73 innings, which translates to a .341 batting average against. And that's with only permitting five homers. That's right. Just five left the ballpark!

Injured again, the washed up sinkerballer has been out since July 24th with a right lumbar strain. At last check, Brown was back home in Georgia working with a physical therapist on strengthening his back, hoping to return next month. Don't count on it.

The string of bad luck even spread to impressive rookie pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. Wang, 25, had been a breath of fresh air for the Yanks, going 6-3 with a 3.89 ERA in 13 appearances. Before the All-Star break, he was their most consistent starter, pitching into the seventh inning in nine of 12 starts. He won his last two games against Detroit and Cleveland five days apart. Despite not having his best stuff, Wang gave up just three earned runs in 13.2 innings.

A couple of days later, he complained of soreness and the team shut him down. Wang soon landed on the DL retroactive to July 9 with a right shoulder strain. After some time off, he finally threw on flat surface 120 feet this past Tuesday. Wang could work off a mound soon and might be able to return before the season ends. Hopefully for the pitching desperate Yanks, it happens.

The one starter who hasn't been sidetracked is Mike Mussina. Moose has made 24 starts going 11-7 with a 4.01 ERA. Like Johnson, the crafty 36-year-old righthander has been inconsistent. He has thrown two shutouts but served up 19 homers. His batting average allowed has gone up for the third straight year as a Yank: 2003- .238 BAA, 2004- .276, 2005- .283 thus far. At least he can be counted on to take the ball every fifth day.

Yanks Look At Other Options

With so many injuries to their staff, the Yankees even took a flier on 39-year-old vet Al Leiter, who the Marlins waived in July. After a great debut at Fenway on July 17 where he held the vaunted Sox offense to a run in six plus, fanning a season best eight, the erratic southpaw has reverted to form. All over the plate, he can load the bases in an instant and pay dearly or dance out of trouble. He entered his sixth start as a Yankee Friday night with a 2-3 record, 4.68 ERA with more walks (19) than strikeouts (16) and more hits (28) than innings (25).

Recently, the team acquired former Rockie Shawn Chacon in exchange for prospects Ramon Ramirez and Eduardo Sierra. In three outings, the 27-year-old righty has been brilliant posting a 1.42 ERA in 19 frames. Despite that output, he has been the victim of hard luck, losing once and getting two no decisions. The way he's pitched, Chacon should stick in the rotation. Unless of course, some over the hill vet comes along. Hideo Nomo anyone?

Bullpen Issues

With starter inconsistencies from one game to the next, it's taken a toll on the bullpen. The once reliable setup duo of Tanyon Sturtze and Tom Gordon have been less than stellar lately.

After a solid first half, Sturtze has struggled mightily with a 6.23 ERA in 14 appearances before Friday. So much so that when he entered Thursday night's game against Texas with a three-run lead, the first pitch to Michael Young was hit out to tie the game. Fortunately for Sturtze, Derek Jeter hit a solo homer in the bottom half making him a winner.

In the same game, Gordon entered the eighth to protect a one-run lead. Anything but automatic, he loaded the bases with two outs, forcing Torre to call on Cy Young candidate Mariano Rivera to record a four out save.

Though Gordon's second half hasn't been bad, he already has allowed as many HRs (3) in 17 plus as he did in 42 innings before the All Star break. The most alarming difference is Flash's control. Usually with good command, Gordon has walked one more batter than he's fanned (9 BB, 8 K's in 17.1 IP). In the first half, his ratio was 19 walks to 42 K's, allowing 14 less hits with a miniscule .185 batting average against. By contrast, he has given up almost a hit per inning and seen opponents' average increase to .246.

With Sturtze and Gordon having problems, it's been tougher for Torre to find the right combo that can get the ball to Rivera.

Two Gutwrenching Losses

This past week, the team lost two of three to the major league best White Sox. But it was the way they lost the final couple that might sum up their season. After taking the opener 2-1, they dropped the series in excruciating fashion.

It started Tuesday night when former Yankee free agent bust Jose Contreras outdueled Chacon in a 2-1 game. With the game hanging in the balance and his team down a run starting the ninth, Torre elected to stay with Alan Embree. A waiver pickup from Boston, the lefty had been awful most of the season and had an ERA over 7.00. But with little confidence in Sturtze and trying to rest Gordon and Rivera, Torre let Embree face dangerous slugger Paul Konerko. Big mistake. The only legit power threat in the White Sox order hammered an Embree pitch 460 feet off the left field bleachers giving his team a two-run cushion.

When MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez led off the bottom of the ninth with a homer, his 19th at the Stadium; it tied a Yankee record by right handed hitters shared by Joe DiMaggio and Gary Sheffield. Unfortunately, the team's two out rally fell short when Bernie Williams lined out to Konerko leaving runners at the corners.

With questions surrounding why Torre left in Embree and heavy criticism by an enraged Boss, the manager cited that Konerko's numbers were much worse against lefties for the season. However, at a time when his team needs every game, would it have killed him to have Rivera start the inning and keep the deficit at one?

Wednesday was no better. This time, the score was tied at one when Torre was forced to pitch Rivera in the ninth and 10th. Desperate for a win, he went with his best. Unfortunately, the closer wound up on the losing end when Juan Uribe hit a ball into the right center gap that the aging Williams couldn't track down. With the center fielder not recovering the ball quickly, Uribe stretched a double into a three-bagger. On the flip side, White Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand had been a thorn in the side of Yankee hitters, robbing several of sure hits and covering more ground than Williams.

In a tight series where each game was decided by a run, it was a huge difference. This isn't a knock on Williams. It's not his fault GM Brian Cashman never could find a reliable defensive replacement. Torre had little choice, opting to keep Williams in over Bubba Crosby because the game was even.

Needing a strikeout with an out, Rivera induced Scott Podsednik to hit a sharp grounder to Robinson Cano, who fired home. But Jorge Posada's tag was too late as Uribe snuck a foot in. Just like that, the Yanks had fallen short again.

Games like those could be the difference between making the postseason for the 11th straight season and packing up for an early winter.

See Part Two

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hard Hits: Bernie All Class Till End

As his career winds down, Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams continues to go about his business the only way he knows. In as trying a season as there's been for the switch-hitter, he's handled everything well.

It started when the Yanks got off to an awful start, losing three of four at Tampa Bay in the beginning of May. While the team was struggling on the field, Yankee brass was meeting off the field to discuss the plight of their club. It was then decided that their starting center fielder for over the last decade would no longer play on a regular basis. For the first time in his 15-year career, Williams was a role player. Did one of the most popular Yankees complain? Of course not. It's not his style to be selfish, instead putting the team first. Whatever Joe Torre wanted was fine.

This from a guy who had been one of their best players during the team's run of four World Series championships in five years. In the ball club's 10 straight postseason appearances, Williams has come through with many clutch hits in October, including an all-time playoff best 22 home runs and 79 RBI's in 115 games, the most ever in baseball history. One such big hit was an extra inning walkoff homer against the Orioles in Game Two of the championship series which evened the series up, shifting the momentum in the Yankees favor on their way to their first World Series title since '78. Williams took home the ALCS MVP hitting .474 with 2 HRs and 6 RBI's.

It's more than just the postseason which has made the center fielder one of the most popular Yankees in team history. It's the level of consistency Williams has shown at one of the hardest positions to play in all of sports. Playing center for the Bronx Bombers comes with a lot of pressure. From the great Joe DiMaggio to the larger than life Mickey Mantle, it has been a position where expectations were always high. Such was the case for the cool and collected San Juan, Puerto Rico native.

He made his major league debut on July 7, 1991 as a 22-year-old. Though he struggled early on and couldn't play regularly due to starter Roberto Kelly, Williams showed enough progress in his second year to give the team a reason to trade Kelly to the Reds for Paul O'Neill. The move would turn out to be brilliant because it made Williams the starting center fielder and O'Neill became one of the best players on those great Yankee teams.

Still, even as Williams improved in '94 and '95, a slow start in 1996 almost got him traded. Luckily for the Yankees, general manager Gene Michael didn't listen to The Boss. They would be rewarded when Bernie turned it around and had his best season as a pro, hitting .305 with career bests in homers (29) and RBI's (102), pacing the ball club in long balls. From then on, he became one of best outfielders in the game for almost a decade.

However, this good stretch began a year earlier when he helped get the Yanks back to the postseason for the first time since the '81 World Series when they lost to the Dodgers. Though they fell in excruciating fashion to the Mariners in a five-game classic wild card series, it was the start of something big. Ironically enough, that series defeat was the only postseason baseball popular team captain Don Mattingly ever saw.

For Williams, that season was the beginning of his rise to stardom. Over those eight seasons stretching '95 to '02, Williams averaged over .300, 24 homers and 102 RBI's, winning one batting title (.339 in '98), making five consecutive All-Star appearances ('97-01) and winning four straight Gold Gloves ('97-00).

One memorable Williams moment was after Scott Brosius had thrown across to Tino Martinez for the final out of the '98 World Series in a sweep of the Padres for their second World Series title in three years. As the final out was recorded, Williams knelt down in center and pounded his glove because it could have been his final game in Pinstripes. After the season, he was due to become a free agent. It was about as emotional as you'll ever see the stoic Williams.

In fact, a month later, he almost went to bitter rival Boston. They were pushing hard to get him but when George Steinbrenner found out, he quickly offered Bernie a comparable contract which kept him a Yankee. At the time, Williams signed a seven-year deal worth $89.5 million (12.8 average) becoming one of the highest paid players in baseball history.

Williams has been a very good player throughout most of that contract. However, since 2003, he has been hampered with injuries and declined. Though he was still productive last year hitting 22 long balls with 70 RBI's in 148 games, his average for the second consecutive season slipped under .300, finishing .262. It was his worst mark since his first full season in '93 when he hit .268 in 139 games.

His 15th major league season has seen a steady fall from grace that's included a couple of dropped routine fly balls and mental mistakes which opponents have taken advantage of. It's been hard to watch Williams struggle. With that the case and the Yanks even trying to convert free agent second baseman Tony Womack to center, it was clear that this would be his final season in Pinstripes. The ball club finally indicated as such last Monday, when they failed to pick-up a $15 million team option for 2006.

Even with that the case and going through his worst season, Williams continued to exude class the next day when he spoke to reporters.

"It's something they felt they had to do," he said during batting practice for Tuesday night's game at Cleveland. "I'm still playing for this team and I'm going to do all I can to help this team win."

"It wouldn't be fair to talk about it at this point in the season," he added.

This was exactly how you would have expected the soft spoken Williams to handle the situation. In an era of me-first athletes who put themselves ahead of their teams, Bernie is a throwback who understands what's really important. Winning.

That's why it's always been easy to root for him. Once the Yankees signed him as a 17-year-old amateur on his birthday 20 years ago on September 13, 1985. A month away from turning 37, Williams is closing in on the finish line. In that time, he's done himself proud and been a model Yankee.

It will be a sad day when #51 no longer patrols center field at Yankee Stadium. However, they'll never forget Bernie.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Rangers bring back Rucinsky again

Martin Rucinsky has already been a Ranger twice. He made it a trifecta late Wednesday night when he agreed to a one-year deal worth three million. Once again, the 34-year-old veteran left wing will play for New York, where he fit in well during previous stints.

Rucinsky became the third Czech free agent in two days to ink a deal with the club. They also signed Marek Malik and Martin Straka a day earlier. Rucinsky will rejoin Jaromir Jagr, who he combined with to score the gold medal winning goal against Canada at the 2005 World Championships at Austria back in May. He also could possibly team up with Straka when the season gets underway two months from now.

Originally acquired from the Dallas Stars along with now deceased Roman Lyashenko on March 12, 2002 in exchange for Manny Malhotra and Barrett Heistein, Rucinsky played very well in the final 15 games of that season registering three goals and 10 assists.

After playing a year with in St. Louis, Rucinsky returned to New York for the '03-04 season. The interchangeable forward often complemented Bobby Holik, Eric Lindros and Jagr on various lines. His superb speed and grinding two-way style meshed well with each. In 69 games, he tallied a solid 42 points (13-29-42) along with a respectable +13 rating before being dealt to Vancouver for Martin Grenier and R.J. Umberger on March 9, 2004.

Rucinsky can play in any situation and virtually in any role. Whether he's used on a scoring line or a checking line, he can excel. The former Edmonton Oilers '91 draft pick is always a threat shorthanded due to his rock solid skating and excellent defensive instincts.

Having played for seven different NHL clubs (Edmonton, Quebec/Colorado, Montreal, Dallas, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver), the well traveled Rucinsky will be entering his 15th season. He hasn't lasted an entire season with one team since '00-01 with Montreal when he played in just 57 contests registering 38 points (16-22-38).

In his Ranger career, Rucinsky has gone 16-39-55 in 84 games with the club. The Czech wing has 208 goals and 300 assists for 508 points in 817 total NHL games.

Blueshirts Add Two More And Re-sign Third: Thursday, the club announced that it had reached deals with Ville Nieminen and Jason Ward. Nieminen, 28, is a pesky wing who can get underneath the skin of opponents. He last played a key role on 2004 Stanley Cup runner-up Calgary, where he tallied eight points (4-4-8) in 24 postseason games. The former '97 Colorado selection will be joining his fifth club. Ward, 26, is a former number one choice (11th overall, '97 Draft) of the Montreal Canadiens. Though he has decent size (6-3 200), Ward has never been able to fulfill expectations. In 105 career NHL games, he's scored just 10 goals and 10 assists. However, more than half that production came in '03-04 when he appeared in a career best 53 contests tallying 12 points (5-7-12) with Montreal. ... Rangers re-signed RFA defenseman Thomas Pock to a three-year contract. Pock, 23, was originally signed as a free agent out of The University of Massachusetts on March 23, 2004. That same day, he dressed as a Ranger and scored his first career NHL goal against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. In six games, he scored twice and added two helpers. He played last season with Hartford and Charlotte. In 50 games with the Pack, Pock had just six points in an injury plagued season.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Rangers Ink Trio

With the NHL finally back in business thanks to a more management friendly CBA agreed upon by the owners and players two weeks ago, the free agency period got underway Monday. The big question for the Rangers was would they stick to the rebuilding plan assistant GM Don Maloney mentioned at last weekend's entry draft in Ottawa.

Based on the signings of 2003 number one draft pick Hugh Jessiman, 2004 number one Al Montoya and Rick Kozak, it looked like the organization was serious about going in a different direction.

By buying out malcontent Bobby Holik last Friday, it left only five NHL players signed for the '05-06 season, set to kickoff October 5th at Philadelphia.

With so few players under contract, it left the door open for the Rangers to dip into the market and land a couple of free agents. Yesterday, they made good on Maloney's vow to not just go after the biggest stars but rather brought in role players who could fit in better.

With a glaring hole on the blueline, the Blueshirts inked Marek Malik to a three-year deal worth $7.5 million (2.5 average). The ex-Canuck defenseman tied with Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis for the best plus/minus (+35) in '03-04. He's a stay-at-home type who is responsible defensively. While he is big (6-5, 215), the 30-year-old Malik is not overly physical. Instead, he relies on sound positioning. The lack of hitting might infuriate fans but if he plays his game, he could fare well on Broadway.

The team later agreed to terms with Martin Straka on a one-year contract worth three million. Straka has a history with star right wing Jaromir Jagr, forming solid chemistry in Pittsburgh and on the Czech national team where they combined for an Olympic gold medal in Nagano ('98). Now reunited, look for Straka to fill a hole and play left wing on the top line with Jagr and center Michael Nylander.

Straka, 32, is a versatile playmaking left wing who can also shift to center if needed. He last played for the Kings registering 14 points (6-8-14) in 32 games after being acquired from the Penguins. The only risk with Straka is that he is injury prone. He had some really bad luck staying on the ice in '03-04 due to a sprained knee, missing 28 games. Hopefully that won't be an issue this season.

Team president and GM Glen Sather also came to terms with veteran goalie Kevin Weekes. Last summer, he signed a one-year deal dependant on a season. The 30-year-old ex-Hurricane still was restricted, which gave the Rangers a chance to re-sign him. He agreed to a three-year contract worth an average of 1.9 million-per-year.

In '03-04, Weekes posted solid numbers for Carolina, winning 23 games with a respectable 2.33 GAA, .912 save percentage and six shutouts. If the athletic netminder can duplicate that in New York, he should be a popular Ranger.

The Rangers now have over 22 million in salary committed to eight players, leaving about 16-17 million left in the cap to get other players signed. They are expected to re-sign Group II free agents Tom Poti and Blair Betts.

Rangers still have several RFA's to re-sign including Jozef Balej, Alexandre Giroux, Bryce Lampman, Jamie Lundmark, Dominic Moore, Garth Murray, Jed Ortmeyer and Chad Wiseman.