Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cavs-Magic Game 4 Running Diary

With tonight's Sox-Twins game conflicting with Game 4 of Cavs-Magic, and with LeBron James in full blown "watch me play or you will regret it forever" mode, I have thought better of submitting a Sox-Twins recap, in favor of a Bill Simmoms-esque running diary of Game 4. Originality be damned....let's do this!

(Just for the record, since the Magic's tragic dismantling of my beloved Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, I have jumped on the Cleveland bandwagon so hard that I may have broken the wheels and shattered the axles...and I don't feel bad about it. And you can't make me. Needless to say, if you are looking for objectivity and an unbiased perspective, you came to the wrong place.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Twin City Nail Biter

The Red Sox rode the wave of residual momentum from their 12-5 shellacking of the Mets to a 6-5 Memorial Day victory over the Twins. This victory came with considerably more drama, including the enigmatic Jonathan Papelbon giving up his second two-run 9th inning home run in the last three games. The first of these squandered a 2-1 9th inning lead over the Mets on Saturday night in Fenway, resulting in Pap's first blown save since September. The second (given up to the suddenly power-hitting Joe Mauer, who has surpassed his home run total of last season in one month of this season) allowed the Twins to creep within one run, and likely created a collective conniption across Red Sox Nation. Fortunately, both for Papelbon's psyche as well as the mental well being of Sox fans, he managed to slam the door on the Twins and preserve the win, collecting his 12th save in the process.

The Sox victory put an end to the Twins four game win streak, and provided the Twins with only their second loss in their last ten home games. Jacoby Ellsbury extended his hit streak to twenty games with a slow roller over the mound that Minnesota pitcher Francisco Liriano was unable to field. Mike Lowell put together an impressive 4-5 effort, filling in for Ortiz as the DH. Youkilis and Bay each contributed crucial two-run doubles.

Boston pitcher Brad Penny, despite a 5.96 ERA, has quietly put together an impressive 5-1 record in his inaugural Beantown campaign. Overshadowed by the likes of Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, and Boston institution Tim Wakefield, Penny has proved to be an invaluable offseason acquisition. He bounced back from an early home run given up to Michael Cuddyer to pitch into the sixth inning (scattering six hit and three earned runs) despite a sinus problem that caused an upset stomach and vomitting between innings.

Hopefully this win will provide Boston with the requisite confidence and momentum to carry them through the remaining nine games of this season long road trip. Or perhaps some of the momentum can be used to rejuvenate Ortiz's swing, something that the collective will of every Sox fan has failed to do. It will be surreal and bittersweet to see Big Papi return to the lineup outside of the number three spot (which in all likelihood will be the case), but his lackluster performance thus far this season leaves Terry Francona no choice. But even as Papi strikes out by failing to catch up to a 91 mph fastball in his next plate appearance, I plead you to remember the good times and all the he has done for this previously star-crossed franchise, before tossing him under the proverbial bus. And remember, the season is young, and there is more than enough time for Ortiz to get into a rhythm and at least resemble a mere shadow of his former self. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

On the Road Again

On Sunday, the Rex Sox logged a much needed victory at Fenway against the Mets. Although contrarions will be quick to point out the insignificance of a single victory in late May (especially as Boston stands at 26-18), I believe this victory is momentous for morale across Red Sox Nation. A three game sweep at the hands of the Metropolitans would have been devastating heading into their upcoming season long ten game road trip (against the likes of surging Minnesota and resurgent Toronto), especially after squandering arguable ace Josh Beckett's best start of the season (8.0 IP, 1R, oER) the previous night on Jonathan Papelbon's first blown save since last September.

Tim Wakefield delivered his typical shaky-yet-solid performance (6.0 IP, 7H, 5ER) and the bullpen slammed the door on the Mets, allowing only one hit over the final three innings. The precocious Jacoby Ellsbury extended his hitting streak to 19 games, JD Drew had a four-hit day, and David Ortiz's painful struggles at the plate continued. But perhaps trumping all of that was the biblical weather that befell Fenway Park, resulting in a 36 minute rain delay. Seeing golf ball sized hail rain down upon the Fenway faithful on a May afternoon seemed to be an ominous portent of doom for the Sox, but fortunately such was not the case.

And so the Sox hit the road, riding the hot bats of Ellsbury and Youkilis and a starting rotation that finally seems to be rounding into shape, after being prematurely dubbed as one of the league's best. Also, look for Ortiz to finally move down in the batting order, much to the chagrin and dismay of Red Sox Nation. Manager Terry Francona will sit Ortiz for the Memorial Day game against lefty ace Francisco Liriano, and expect to see Big Papi return to the lineup against Minessota's righties somewhere besides the number three batting spot that has owned during his auspicious stint with the Sox.

With the Sox standing atop the AL East standings for the first time this season (0.5 games up on Toronto, 1 game up on New York), this road trip appears to be as important as a ten game stretch in late May can be. With the slugging Yankees finally hitting their stride and nipping on Boston's heels (amazingly, A-Rod's presence in the lineup has single-handedly rejuvenated struggling slugger Mark Teixeira), the Sox have their work cut out for them if they wish to remain atop the standings for long.

The Forgotten Superstar

Superstars are the lifeblood of the world of sports, and no sport is in more dire need of the benefits of star power more than hockey. Still recovering from the fallout of the ignominious lockout and the subsequent canceling of the 2004-2005 season, the NHL is desperately trying to rid itself of the stigma of "niche sport" and return to its rightful place among the four major sports. Thanks to a much needed infusion of young talent and a riveting 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs (including a renewal of the Bruins-Habs rivalry and Gary Bettman's dream scenario of a 7-game Pens-Caps series), an auspicious future lies ahead for the NHL. Many credit hockey's recent pseudo-resurgence to the much ballyhooed rivalry between Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin, but lost in this debate is possibly the only under-the-radar superstar of any sport: Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (the one possible exception: Kevin Durant).
If it is possible to lead the NHL in regular season scoring and be a Hart Trophy finalist while flying - or in this case, skating - under the radar, Malkin has pulled it off. His on-ice exploits are no secret to puck die-hards, but he is largely unappreciated by the casual fan (as is the sport itself). After being the second overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft, the gifted centerman burst onto the scene by winning the 2007 Calder Trophy (as the NHL's top rookie), being named a Hart Trophy finalist in his 2008 and 2009 campaigns, and winning the 2009 Art Ross Trophy (as the NHL's scoring champ). Quite a resume for a team's so called "second best" player.

Lacking the notoriety and bad boy image of fellow Russian Ovechkin and avoiding the limelight and pressure that seems to be reserved for teammate and NHL golden boy Sidney Crosby, Malkin has flourished, forcing himself to be included in the "NHL's best player" debate. At the time of this posting, Malkin is the leader in postseason scoring (28) and second in postseason goals (12), legitimizing his status as a big time playoff performer. Anyone who is not yet convinced of Malkin's place among hockey's elite, check out his video game-esque goal which clinched a hat trick against stellar netminder Cam Ward in Game 2 of Pittsburgh's Eastern Conference Finals matchup with Carolina. That filthy backhand certainly rivals Ovechkin's much hyped one-on-five goal in Game 5 of Washingon's first round series against the Rangers. You be the judge.

Ultimately, I believe it is time that the NHL's other talented Russian* receive his due as not merely one of the NHL's best young players, not simply a second fiddle on a talent-ridden Penguins roster, but as a legitimate superstar. It would be disingenuous not to put Sid the Kid and Alex the Great atop that list as well, as they are the standard to which all elite NHL players should be judged. But Malkin, the forgotten superstar, is closing fast...to the abject horror of opposing players and coaches across the league.

As the Penguins enjoy a 3-0 series lead over Carolina, all but assured of a second straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance, Malkin stands upon the cusp of greatness - five victories away from hockey immortality and a place in Pittsburgh lore, among the likes of Lemieux and Jagr. And with Malkin and notable cohorts Crosby and Jordan Staal all 22 or younger, the Penguins appear poised to dominate the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the entire league, for potentially the next decade. As a Bruins fan, I am terrified. As a hockey fan, I am pinching myself. Rest assured, Evgeni, you won't be forgotten for long.

*Not to suggest that Malkin and Ovechkin are the only talented Russians in the NHL. Other notable talents include Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, and Washington's Alexander Semin, among many other natives of the reservoir of hockey talent that is Russia.