Sunday, August 31, 2008

Postgame Report Card: Maryland 14, Delaware 7

The word of the game is... underwhelming. Maryland won, yes. But certainly not convincingly, and not with the offensive output expected (see 34-14 pregame prediction by yours truly). The way I'll tackle this along with other Maryland games is to give a detailed report card which can catalogue what went right and what went wrong in the game, along with a most(and least) valuable player. So without further ado...

Offense - Overall Grade: C
Quarterbacks: D
"Will this be a new Jordan Steffy?" No. Here's the problem, and it became more evident today than ever before; when things start to go poorly for Jordan Steffy, he has not shown the ability to bounce back. He started this game strongly but when he began to make mistakes he crumbled. That doesn't work in the big time. p.s. Turner didn't look like the answer either.
Running Backs: A+
Outstanding. Da'Rell Scott and Davin Meggett (loved the kid out of high school and he has not disappointed) were brilliant today, carrying the offense. They read their blocks exceptionally well, showed excellent burst and vision in the open field. When they were asked to make a play they stepped up. These young Terps are ready for prime time.
Wide Receivers: B
Made most plays when they needed to and compensated for some poor throws. Darrius Heyward-Bey again showed why he is arguably the finest receiver in the ACC. The unit still left some plays on the field.
Tight Ends: C
Disappointed in the clutch, particularly on the play action pass to Gronkowski. Decent blocking for Scott and Meggett.
Offensive Line: C
Good run blocking, overall better than expected. Delaware was able to generate far too much of a pass rush however, and the line has to get better if this team is going to go far in the ACC.

Defense - Overall Grade: A-
Defensive Line: B+
Controlled the line of scrimmage and put on a consistent pass rush. Did get worn down against the run on a couple of long Delaware drives in allowing them to convert on third and short.
Linebackers: B+
Showed excellent pursuit and shut down the outside running game for the most part. Experienced occasional lapses in pass coverage.
Defensive Backs: A
Fantastic. All around a brilliant job by the secondary, easily the most pleasant surprise of the game. This unit played smart and were aggressive to the ball, coming up with two interceptions and numerous pass deflections. Dominated in man coverage. One lapse however, which allowed Delaware's one touchdown, keeps this unit from getting an A+.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: C-
Kicker: F
0-3 on field goals for Egekeze, none of which required a supreme effort. That's how you lose games from special teams. Entirely unnacceptable. The only reason this is not an F- is because he converted two extra points.
Punter: B+
Made several above average punts, overall a superior performance. One punt should have been pooched, and instead was hit deep into the endzone for a poor net yardage.
Returners: B
Say what you will about not being a gamebreaker, Oquendo knows how to handle a punt and is a tough son-of-a-gun. Nothing spectacular here, but solid across the board.
Coverage: B
Nothing to write home about, but once this unit faces superior return men we'll be able to get a good guage on what the coverage team is made of.

Coaching - Overall Grade: C+
Offensive: D+
Hard to judge when the quarterbacks can't execute most of the plays, but fourteen points against Delaware is an awfully bad sign. Please, please someone read a book on how to properly run the option. Option left from the left hash with trips left?? Gee, I wonder where the defense is keyed in? This just in! The threat of the pitch to the running back is negated when there's no lateral space to work with!!! There, I'm done. But seriously! Don't run the option in a direction where you can't work in space, that just doesn't make sense! And certainly don't remove all doubt as to which side it's being run before the ball is snapped! Now I'm done, I promise.
Defensive: A
Chris Cosh, the day is yours. Only one score against this defense and it was on the player, not the play call. Applause.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) - Da'Rell Scott - 26 rushes for 196 yards. Enough said
LVP (Least Valuable Player) - Obi Egekeze - 0-3 on field goals (48, 44, 41), leaving nine points on the board in a game decided by only one touchdown. Enough said.
(Photo Credit: Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pregame Thoughts: MD-Delaware

Before we take on some notes for today's season opener for the Maryland Terrapins, there is an important announcement:

Our very own Falco of Around the Harbor will be a sideline reporter for the ESPN broadcast of MD-Delaware today at 3:45.
Tune in to see the Terps kick off and one of our own to make his ESPN debut! Knock em dead, Falco!

And now onto the game; certainly not a marquee matchup, but like all season openers there are a number of questions that we'll be looking to start to answer. In particular this Maryland season more than any in recent memory has a number of unknowns. There's a new offensive coordinator, questions at quarterback, turnover on defense, a raw offensive line, a new stable of running backs; how this team comes together will make the difference from the Terps struggling for a mediocre bowl or making a run at the ACC crown.

In that spirit, here's what to watch for in today's game:
1. Will this be a new Jordan Steffy? Jordan Steffy's season last year, prior to injury, was marked by an inability to make the big play. He would repeatedly check down and fail to take advantage of the deep threats in the receiving corps. With Heyward-Bey anchoring the wide receiver corps flanked by some star freshmen, Steffy has the weapons to make the big play. If the Terps are to make a run, he'll have to be able to take advantage of that, and certainly he must be capable of executing against an inferior Delaware defense.

2. Can the young offensive line come together as a unit? The Terps offensive line is marked by inexperience save for the senior Edwin Williams. Friedgen has expressed some concern with the lack of consistency blocking for the new young running backs in Da'Rel Scott and Davin Meggett. If this line cannot consistently open up holes for these backs against Delaware it could be cause for significant concern for the Terps in the future. These backs have explosive ability, and the potential to surpass the production of departing seniors Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore.

3. How will the defense react to the loss of Erin Henderson? In Erin Henderson's departure the Terps both lost a tremendous linebacker and a leader of the defense. Who fills that void in leadership on and off the field could dictate what sort of unit the Terps bring to the table. Historically the Terrapins have suffered from a lack of overall speed in the linebacking corps outside of a few notable stars, so it will be important to see how quickly the front seven can swarm to the ball this afternoon. Other important defensive issues include (1) Kenny Tate's transition to safety, (2) the performance of heralded free safety transfer Antwine Perez, and (3) whether or not the Terps can develop a consistent pass rush which has been lacking in recent seasons.

4. How will the players adjust to Franklin's new offense? James Franklin comes back to College Park, taking over as offensive coordinator for the Terrapins. His west coast offfense heavily utilizes the crossing routes and getting the tight end out in space. Franklin is aggressive and is looking to utilize his exceptional talent at the skill positions. So far reports have been good regarding Steffy's knowledge of the offense, but whenever the offensive system changes from one season to the next there are questions of adjustment. College Park fans will be looking for a reinvigorated offense which, by many accounts, underachieved last season.

This Maryland team is filled with unknowns from quarterback on down, which has made projecting this season a near impossibility. Hopefully this game can shed some light on what sort of team Maryland fans will be watching this season.

Game projection: 34-14 Terrapins -- Go Terps!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Free Kicks

I am traveling on Friday, so these Free Kicks are being put together on Thursday night (I just couldn’t bear to leave my regular segment to the whims of Windsor or Falco- I don’t want to make them stoop that low). Luckily the blog is a good deal more entertaining than enduring the flailing about of Casey Bramlet, not that I can blame him having been signed today. How exactly do you even begin to understand anything in a playbook in the 6 or 7 hours of study he was able to get in before being thrown out onto the field? Hell, I would imagine all he would know how to do would be how to line up for the kick.

Dead Means Dead… Unless You’re ESPN

I was already getting tired of commentators asking “Are the Yankees dead in the playoff hunt?” when the Red Sox-Yankees hysteria was renewed a few days ago. After the Red Sox won the first two games of the series, the second by convincing fashion, there was the regular rounds of asking whether there was any chance the Yankees would come back. Almost universally the answer was “No, the Yankees are done.” But what was today’s most prolific topic of baseball conversation after the Yankees orchestrated a comeback win? “Are the Yankees REALLY dead?” Look, dead means dead- or at least it should.

If you are going to say that it is over completely for a team, stick with it for a bit. At least 24 hours, that is all I ask. But without people making wild declarative statements and withdrawing them the next day, people might not lay down before the invented rivalry and begin to pay attention to the teams that are actually leading the standings. Has it occurred to anyone, by the way, that these teams are not even at the top of their division? Give me the NL Central race; even give me the NL West race. Being in New York or Boston doesn’t make you special- it just gives me a headache.

Football is Here, Hide the Children

I love college football, I am seeing a game this weekend and I couldn’t be more excited. I love pro football- if the tickets didn’t cost more than a kidney on the black market I would be able to go. A world where every game has playoff implications (or the imaginary college National Championship) is absolutely thrilling in stark contrast to the 162 game marathon of baseball that is wrapping up. Soon the sports world will be overwhelmed with the “next Boise State” or the “next New York Giants” or any “next” the sports commentators decide to come up with. I care about South Carolina-NC State (I am rooting for the Ol’ Ball Coach, by the way), I will care about Jets-Dolphins in Week 1. Baseball is great, but there is nothing like the suspense and excitement of a great football game. Go Terps, Go Ravens, and enjoy the season.

Some things are Just Baltimore things

My girlfriend is from out of state, and while a big college sports fan and a big tennis fan, she has yet to form a strong tie to any professional teams. Naturally, I have tried my best to subtly (and not so subtly) nudge her towards the Ravens and Orioles. I am lucky- I grew up here. You can’t explain to someone why a game at Camden Yards is such a wonderful place to go even when the Orioles lose (and is special because you can still call it a great day even after the loss). You can’t explain to someone how a 10-3 defensive struggle from the Ravens D is somehow just as exhilarating as a 38-31 shootout. It is hard to teach someone why the memory of the Baltimore Colts still matters, or why Cal Ripken is a hero in retirement (and why the name “Ironbirds” is so very clever for his team). Some things you don’t understand unless you have been here for your youth, unless you have grown up in the spirit of this overlooked but beloved city of Baltimore (and state of Maryland, for that matter). Oh well, I guess I’m just lucky.

Prospect Report - Nolan Reimold

On popular demand (Falco), next up is Nolan Reimold, who has long been one of the headline power-hitting prospects for the Baltimore Orioles. Lost in the magical starting pitching of his Bowie Baysox and the meteoric rise of Matt Wieters has been the steady power bat of this right fielder. Nolan Reimold has played between the 4th and 5th hole in the lineup for the majority of the 2008 season. After years of being slowed by injuries, Nolan is looking to break into the bigs this September and to take residence in left field in Camden Yards.

So, who is Nolan Reimold?
Nolan Reimold was first drafted by the Orioles early in the second round of the 2005 First Year Player Draft out of Bowling Green. Nolan was the MAC Player of the Year in his senior year, and upon drafting immediately became the Orioles premier power prospect, being ranked the O’s 4th best overall prospect at the end of 2005. After blasting out of the gate in 2005, he was set on the fast track in 2006, beginning the season at High-A Frederick. At Frederick Nolan struggled at times with his swing, batting only .255 for the season and striking out 107 times in 415 AB. Reimold still belted 19 homers that season, making the Futures team as a backup. In 2007 Reimold was set off track, suffering an oblique injury early in the season, limiting him to only 50 games with the Bowie Baysox, where he batted .365 with 11 homers. Fully healed with some extra playing time in the Arizona Fall League, he came into the Spring hoping for a shot at making the club in Spring Training; the chance did not come, but this season he has presented a strong case to management that his star isn’t fading. As an everyday player, Nolan Reimold has played in 134 games with the Baysox this season, hitting to a .282 average with 22 home runs.

Strengths: Nolan’s biggest strength is his ability to hit for power to all fields. He has an ideal frame (6’4”, 209 lbs) for a power hitter and does an excellent job of using that leverage in his swing. Complementing that size is surprising speed on the base paths and a very capable defender in the outfield. His stolen base numbers (7 SB in 134 games this season) certainly don’t leap out, but those numbers can be somewhat deceptive. He is a very capable right fielder, and has shown the capacity to play center and left. If he intends to play in Baltimore, certainly that versatility will be necessary to get him to that goal.

Weaknesses: From his drafting, Nolan Reimold’s biggest problem has been his high strikeout rates. This can be attributed to a few factors; (1) maturing knowledge of the strike zone, (2) time lost due to injury, (3) impatience. This season he has cut down on those strikeouts and has improved plate discipline, but certainly this will need more work moving forward. His swing has some holes still in it, and the onus will be on Nolan to make those corrections as he faces higher pitching. If he does that, his future should be in his own hands.

Projection: Because of injuries, Nolan has too often been looked over this season by the fan base when projecting the O’s future. Of the proverbial ‘five tools’ (power, average, speed, arm, defense) Nolan grades out as no less than average at each one. His power is certainly plus, but there is no one tool that would peg Nolan as a one-dimensional player. It’s in that spirit that I believe Nolan will come up to Baltimore following the Bowie playoff run, and compete for a starting job in Spring Training of 2009. Nolan Reimold will make the club out of Spring Training in 2009.

Quarterback Woes: Final Preseason Game

WBAL's Steve Davis said it best. The Ravens quarterback situation is the worst in the NFL. Not Chicago, not Green Bay, not San Francisco, Baltimore is. The Ravens are the only team who has no idea who the starter will be.

Kyle Boller's shoulder injury is much more serious than previously believed as the Ravens did their best New England impression. Though he isn't getting surgery yet, he won't play in the final preseason game and probably won't be ready for the start of the season.

Troy Smith is still having health issues. Apparently it is a tonsil problem, before it was a stomach virus. He is 50-50 for the game vs. the Falcons. Either way, the Ravens have not gotten the production they wanted out of Smith this preseason.

Joe Flacco, though healthy and not playing badly for a rookie, is still a rookie going from I-AA to the NFL. With the offensive line issues and the memory of what happened to Boller after the Ravens drafted him, is it safe to throw him out there this early?

To save the day (or at least have someone else), the Ravens claimed Casey Bramlet off waivers after recently being released by the Chargers. But don't expect him to be much help. He's never seen a down in the regular season and the Ravens make his sixth team he's been on since being drafted in 2004. He's mainly here so the Ravens have a healthy backup that doesn't cost much money.

So what can the Ravens do? A number of people are thinking free agency. Not a bad group out there, including Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, possibly Chris Simms if he gets released by the Bucs. But this isn't the answer. It isn't worth it to throw a million dollars (more likely for some) to sign these guys when chances are this year's Ravens aren't a solid team, and these quarterbacks wouldn't make them any better.

Smith should recover, giving the Ravens three healthy quarterbacks. But will they be ready. I'm sure that with Boller's injury, Cam Cameron and company want to start Troy Smith so they don't have to throw Flacco to the wolves, but it is looking more and more like the rookie from Delaware will be the Week 1 starter against Cincinatti. Let's hope this isn't a repeat of 2003.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)
(Trackback: Jamison Hensley, Baltimore Sun: Ravens's starting QB vs. Falcons still a tossup)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ravens Have a Long, Long Way to Go

It seems as though the entire city of Baltimore (and the whole state for that matter) is in denial when it comes to their beloved football team the Baltimore Ravens. It may be the same psychological condition that afflicted many in the Baltimore area when they insisted that the Orioles were “one or two players” away from contending for the playoffs in the American League for the last ten years. It took an intervention by Andy MacPhail to get the fan base out of that condition and onto the road to recovery, but it appears they may have lapsed back into this state, but for another local team.

From my opening post on this blog I have hinted that perhaps Ravens fans should curb their enthusiasm somewhat for this season, that the football team had more holes than it could possibly plug, and that the door may have shut for this era of Ravens success. A topic on Free Kicks and the occasional other mention may not do it however, as I believe the hysteria has reached an epidemic level, and some harsh reality needs to be laid bare in front of fans before the season begins.

How many years have we said that the Ravens D was approaching their last legs? Now we sit back and assume the defense will be alright while the offense may struggle a bit. Have we forgotten that we are relying on the health of Trevor Pryce, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Samari Rolle, and Chris McAllister? These are quality starters, but this defense reminds me of a heavyweight fighter in the waning years of his career- he will occasionally get the knockout blow, but sometimes he will embarrass you by falling flat against a younger, faster opponent. And who is at nickel or dime back? Corey Ivy and a 1st round bust in Fabian Washington. Please, excuse me if I hold my applause. All injuries aside, this is not a unit that is as good as it used to be- and that is fine, it is the cyclical nature of the NFL. But the cyclical nature of the NFL also assumes that as the defense weakens, more emphasis will be placed on the offense.

Well the good news is that there is certainly emphasis on the offense, even if there isn’t success. I will place the quarterback controversy aside, as it is like choosing someone to hire between the employee who has 5 years experience doing poorly or the kid straight out of college who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Flacco isn’t in this discussion, and no I don’t care how far he can throw the football. The offensive line is offensive. Excuse the pun, but even last year the o-line was in the bottom half of the league. Without Ogden you are left with the dreaded p-word “potential.” Translation: whoever the quarterback (or running back for that matter) is, they will be on their back as much as they are on their feet. As for the tight ends, are there any left on the team at this point? Moving Edgar Jones to tight end (from a thin position to an even thinner one) should be some indication that if we ever see Todd Heap on the field again, he won’t get much help. The lone bright spot could be the continued maturation of Demetrius Williams, should he finally take the leap to starter material.

This will not be a bounceback season like it was two years ago. The Browns are better, the Steelers are just as good, and the Bengals will still score on the tired legs of Samari and Chris as they have for the last 2-3 years. Add in a brand new coaching staff and, well, this won’t be pretty. I simply don’t see any part of this team that is particularly strong and reliable down the stretch (Dwan Edwards is already on IR), and with everything being in flux as it is, 4-12 is not an unlikely outcome for this team.

I am not saying that Ravens fans shouldn’t be excited- they should. They should be excited in the same way they were excited for the Orioles season to start. Not an excitement about doing well necessarily, but an excitement of seeing young players take shape and the future of the Ravens begin anew. For a fan base that seems oblivious to the disastrous signs ahead, this could be a rude awakening. However, it could be an opportunity to take a peak at a brighter future much further down the road.

(Photo Credit: AP, David Duprey)

UPDATE: ESPN is reporting that Kyle Boller may be out for the season with a shoulder injury, though he will be consulting another physician before he makes a decision. Well I guess we are down to Smith and Flacco. This should be fun...

Monday, August 25, 2008

2008 NCAA Men's Soccer Preview

The 2008 NCAA men's soccer season is about to kick off next weekend, and the state of Maryland has some solid teams in the mix. Maryland and Loyola look to head back to the NCAA Tournament while a few others try get in after missing it last year. Let's preview the top-5 teams in the Old Line State.

Maryland Terrapins (#3 in College Soccer News)
-Last season: 10-6-5, fell in round of 16 to Bradley 3-2, 2OT
-Formation: 4-4-2, diamond midfield (Joe Mauceri, College Soccer News)
-Starters returning: 9
-Key loss: Stephen King (four-year starting midfield, 2 G, 13 A)
-Head Coach: Sasho Cirovski (15th season)

The 2005 national champion had yet another heartbreaking loss in the round of 16, losing to Bradley 3-2 in double overtime after being up 2-0 with less than three minutes to go. Now with the #1 recruiting class in the nation with only two starters lost, the ACC powerhouse looks to make a title run.

-Depth: Maryland lost only two starters and gains three of the top-10 recruits in the country. Add that redshirt sophomore Jason Herrick and sophomore Kevin Tangney are returning from injury, this Terps team is full of talent.
-The Back Line: Despite the loss of four-year starter Stephen King, Maryland brings back three back line two-year starters, pre-season All-American junior Omar Gonzalez (pictured), senior Rich Costanzo, and senior A.J. Delagarza. Sean Flatley has also shown promise as a defender.

-Goalie: Will Swaim was the reason Maryland lost to Bradley in the NCAAs last season, allowing two goals in the final three minutes of regulation. The top goalkeeping prospect in the country, Zac MacMath, is in Maryland, but a lot of questions come between the pipes for the Terps.
-Go-to scorer: The primary problem last season for the Terps. Senior attack Graham Zusi (6 G, 6 A) and sophomore midfielder Rodney Wallace (6, 1) will need to step up with Herrick to score goals. Depth isn't an issue, but Maryland needs a solid scorer for difficult matches.

Loyola Greyhounds (#28 in College Soccer News)
-Last season: 19-3-1, MAAC Champion, fell in round of 32 to Maryland, 0-0 (4-2 PK)
-Formation: 3-5-2
-Starters returning: 8
-Key loss: Julian Cantillo (two-year starting midfield, 9 assists)
-Head Coach: Mark Mettrick (8th season)

The Greyhounds had the advantage in penalty kicks vs. Maryland in the NCAAs, but couldn't seal the deal. This deadly defensive squad with solid international players may be ranked only #28, but they look to show the soccer world what a shut-down defense can do.

-Defense: Junior Milos Kocic (pictured) could be the best goalie in the country. With junior defender Tennent McVea, who with Kocic is on the Hermann Trophy Watch List, Loyola had 17 shutouts last season, including 14 of their final 15 contests. Kocic allowed only 0.47 goals per game last year.
-Shooting: The two English sophomores Phil Bannister and Eddie Dines combined for 22 goals last season. With Kocic's cannon leg and their speed, counters and fast breaks are a strong strategy for the Greyhounds.

-Strength of Schedule: Loyola isn't playing anyone in CSN's preseason top-30. While this could change depend on changes in that top-30, this isn't going to help the Greyhounds. They will need to be solid nearly every game and/or win the tournament to gain favor with the NCAA committee.
-Midfield play: Because Loyola plays quick strike offense, other midfielders can gain an advantage by slowing it down in the middle. With Cantillo graduated, Dines and company will need to step up play or allow other teams numerous shots from the midfield.

Towson Tigers
-Last season: 12-7-2
-Formation: likely 4-4-1-1 (Joe Mauceri, College Soccer News)
-Starters returning: 6 (only nine full-time starters last season)
-Key losses: Bill Chiles (goalie, 1.00 GAA), Pat Healey (midfield, 8 goals, 9 assists)
-Head Coach: Frank Olszewski (26th season)

Towson was very close to making the NCAA Tournament, losing in PKs to Old Dominion in the CAA Championship. The Tigers will have to deal with big losses, including their All-American goalie and leading scorer, but they have a number of players with experience. Maryland transfer Matt Beckman and senior Cesar Cisneros both scored five goals last season and upstart sophomore Scott Horta will lead the defense.

UMBC Retrievers
-Last season: 8-7-5
-Formation: 4-4-2
-Starters returning: 8
-Key losses: Bryan Moffa (defender, 5 assists), Philippe Bissohong (defender)
-Head Coach: Pete Caringi (18th season)

Despite a solid 8-4-3 start, UMBC couldn't win its last five contests, keeping them away from the NCAAs. Senior Steve King only allowed 0.72 per game, but UMBC will need to replace its two solid defenders they lost in graduation. All four players who scored at least three goals last season, including senior Kevin Gnatiko (4 goals, 4 assists) and junior Andrew Gillis (5,2) return.

Navy Midshipmen
-Last season: 7-8-2
-Formation: 4-4-2
-Starters returning: 3
-Key losses: two goalkeepers, Doug DeVueno (forward, 4 goals)
-Head Coach: Rich Miranda (4th season)

Despite a win against ranked-West Virginia, an 0-7 conference record kept Navy out of contention for the NCAAs. A major rebuilding effort will be needed with only three starting returning. But the Mids do return two of their offensive catalysts, senior forward Adam Pennington (4 goals) and junior midfield Mark Garcia (1 goal, 5 assists).

You can check out the College Soccer News preseason top-30 and mini-previews of those teams here.

(Photo credits: University of Maryland (Gonzalez), Loyola College (Kocic)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ravens QB Competition: Preseason Game 3 (Red Alert!)

Welcome to the life of head coaching John Harbaugh. Maybe you should talk to Steve McNair and see if he'd like to give one more season.

The Ravens planned to start Troy Smith against the Rams for the second consecutive preseason game. The reason given was that Kyle Boller had seen a lot more time and that Harbaugh wanted to see Troy more, but Boller's apparent shoulder injury might have had something to do with it. But a stomach virus sat Smith down. Joe Flacco now got the start vs. the St. Louis Rams, and had to play all game.

The Ravens defense couldn't stop the Rams attack, allowing 21 points in the first half in a 24-10 loss. Flacco ended the night going 18/37 for 152 yards and a touchdown.

Flacco still looks like he's improving, but it is clear he still isn't ready. In the first half, the Ravens failed to take any of their six drives more than 17 yards. Harbaugh kept many starters in for the first drive of the second half, where the Ravens drove the ball 75 yards for a touchdown thanks to four complete passes to Derrick Mason. But other than that, Flacco still shows rookie issues, including not having solid accuracy leading the receiver and staying in the pocket too long. But, as many have emphasized, he is going from I-AA to the NFL. It will take time to learn. But, this was a great learning experience for the young quarterback.

The Ravens had hoped that this situation would be settled by now. But I don't see how Harbaugh or Cameron can choose a starter yet. Flacco should be clearly out, he needs at least a year on the sideline to transition to the NFL. So that leaves Boller and Smith, neither of whom have stood out. Boller still can't control the ball and Smith still can't pass well. As much as the coaching staff hates the situation, they need to use the last preseason game before they decide. Right now I believe Boller is in the lead, but neither has locked anything up.

The Ravens final preseason game is this Thursday when they come home to play the Atlanta Falcons. Expect Troy Smith to start with Boller and Flacco both seeing time.

(Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images)

Free Kicks

Your Free Kicks are coming a day late this week, but I figured y’all had to hear about the Bowie trip before it was no longer relevant. They won again last night, so I suppose one of the Orioles teams is headed to the playoffs. As for the one in Baltimore, well we know that is a slightly different story. The hype over the Ravens quarterback situation continues to balloon out of control to the negligence of defensive questions, the US took bronze in their last Olympic game until at least 2016, and all I want to do is line up for the kick.

If My Word Processor Sees the Word “Bullpen” One More Time, it will Explode.

Not that the O’s are playing badly, but last night’s loss was a giveaway. The Orioles consistently had opportunities to score early in the ballgame and simply did not put up the numbers they would need to overcome an exhausted bullpen. Moreover, Trembley made a key error in taking Radhames Liz out of the game with 2 outs in the 5th inning. Let Liz finish the inning, especially as Alex Rodriguez was 0-2 so far that game. Despite giving up the two consecutive solo shots, Liz was still utilizing different pitches in different places in the count, particularly with his 3-1 changeup. Last night’s performance should be considered a step forward for Radhames, who might perform just well enough to be the band aid the pitching staff needs for the rest of the season.

Keep Your Eye on Fabian Washington…

…because he will be your starting cornerback at some point this season. Much is being made of the offense, which has been riddled with injuries along the offensive line, tight ends, and even wide receivers, not to mention hampered by inept quarterback play (I am still a Troy Smith fan, but no one will save this offense). However, not enough is being made of the problems on defense. Remember, we have been saying that Samari Rolle is on his last legs for the past two years now, and Chris McAlister sat out half of last season with various injuries. As we saw last year, Corey Ivy is not the answer. Fabian Washington is the most likely candidate to step up, and Coach Harbaugh will have to hope that he finally can live up to first round status. The defense lacks much depth and with a few injuries (caused partially by the exhaustive time they will have to play with an offense unable to hold onto the ball) they could crumble down the stretch.

Best in the World? Not Quite.

I am one of those who threw my hands up in anger and anguish when baseball and softball were voted out as Olympic sports, but now looking back I can understand why baseball went that way. Frankly, the Olympic committee knew they weren’t getting the best talent in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing Jake Arrieta out there, but he is the best America has to offer? No. Give me Michael Young tossing to Brian Roberts who fires to Mark Teixeira for a double play on Ichiro Suzuki and Kosuke Fukudome. But you won’t see that because the Olympics take place in the middle of baseball season. What is out there is simply not an accurate representation of the best team in the world- which the Americans would not necessarily win.

As for softball, this will be rectified sooner rather than later, especially with the US loss this Olympics to the Japanese. It seems as though the US dominance had doomed Olympic softball, with critics claiming there was no competition to the American squad. Ironically, the loss by the best team in the world might have saved the sport in the long run.

Sidney Ponson Still Doesn't Like Baltimore

There was a time when Sidney Ponson looked like he was going to be a star in Baltimore. By the end of 2003, the Orioles re-signed him after trading him to San Francisco at the deadline. He was only 27 and the previous year had gotten 17 wins (14 with the O's) with lower than a 3.80 ERA.

Most know what happened from there. Ponson arrived in training camp way overweight, and in 0'4 and '05 had a combined 18-26 record with an ERA of 5.30 and 6.21 in the respective years. After infractions including punching a judge in Aruba and a DWI, the Orioles claimed a violation of contract, and released Sir Sidney.

Ever since then, he has had five stints on four different teams, all of those composing of less than 15 starts each. The only decent one, with the Rangers earlier this year (4-1, 3.88 ERA in nine starts), ended abruptly when Texas designated him for assignment, with GM Jon Daniels releasing Sidney for "disrespectful and adverse reactions to situations unbecoming of teammates." The same team that dealt with Milton Bradley going after an opposing announcer apparently couldn't deal with Sir Sidney.

And now, Sidney is back with the Yankees, benefiting from the Bronx's pitching woes. Right now he is 3-3 with a 5.46 ERA with New York.

Jeff Zrebiec, Orioles beat for the Baltimore Sun, said on WBAL's Sportsline today that Sidney Ponson has refused to talk with the Baltimore media for years. It goes so far that Sidney remembered a Seattle reporter who used to work in Baltimore, and refused to talk to him.

Now look, I can understand if Sidney doesn't like the Baltimore organization for trading him and not trying hard to help him with his problems.

But come on, most of this he did himself. The Orioles were 100% right to release him, he was getting $10 million a year, struggling big time on the mound and kept getting in trouble. He's the one who came to camp overweight after his finest year in the majors. He's the one who punched a judge. He's the one who had two DUIs. He's the one who many consider a bad teammate. And frankly, with his recent track record, it is a wonder he even has a job! You really hate the Baltimore media for that? What did they do?

All other sports media would have been just the same with a player like him; a pitcher with good potential wasting it on off-the-field behavior. If the Rangers felt they had to release Ponson, what does that say about him? The fact is, it is Sidney's fault, no one elses. He needs to grow up.

(Photo credit: NY Daily News)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Brandon Erbe: In Control (ATH and Report)

Before the summer ends, I traveled to Frederick to see the Keys for My friend Michael Jaffe sent me to check out Brandon Erbe on Thursday, and we chose the right day. You can check out the article here. Hopefully I'll be checking out a few more games before seasons end.

Brandon Erbe: In Control

Brandon Erbe made a good first impression in his full season debut in 2006 leading to lofty expectations in what turned out to be a disappointing 2007. This year, Erbe is reaching those expectations, putting 2007 behind him. Inside, find out what has contributed to Erbe's turnaround.

Brandon Erbe, Baltimore’s 3rd Round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, had a disappointing 2007 despite the high expectations a solid full season debut in 2006 created. In his second year with Frederick, the 20-year-old has worked on his complimentary pitches and sharpened his mechanics, greatly improving from last season. In one year’s time, he has dropped his ERA from 6.26 in 2007 to 4.71 this season.

Thursday night, Erbe threw six shutout innings, notching six strikeouts in a 2-1 extra innings victory over the Lynchburg Hillcats. Though 97 pitches were thrown, only five runners reached base, two on walks, the fifth consecutive start Erbe has walked three or fewer batters.

Already armed with a powerful mid-90s fastball, a lot of the year has been spent working on refining Erbe’s other pitches, including his changeup, curveball, and slider. The Carolina League has solid fastball-hitting squads, giving Erbe the chance to work on the latter pitches.

“I’m gonna need my changeup in the future, and you really don’t get better with it unless you throw it, that’s what I did tonight,” Erbe said about tonight’s performance, “By the end of the game they were looking for changeups, looking for curveballs, so I threw a few sliders.”

Erbe said that today’s win “gives me confidence in my other pitches like my changeup and my slider, so I know I can throw them when I need to.”

Frederick pitching coach Blaine Beatty, who has worked with Erbe his entire time with the Keys, has been helping Erbe change his delivery while improving his pitches, and was very happy about Erbe’s performance Thursday night.

“Tonight when he went into the game, we wanted to establish the fact that this is a good fastball-hitting team, and he had to use all of his pitches, especially his changeup,” Beatty explained “That changeup was a key pitch tonight.”

In addition to improving command, a stress this season has been working on the slider and change. One stat that generally indicates an improved change is the batting average against for left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers, and vice versa. Erbe has limited lefties to a .236 average, more than 50 points lower than last year.

Though the ERA may seem high, Erbe has established solid control during the season. He leads the Keys with 142 strikeouts to only 47 walks in 143.2 IP, reducing his walks per nine innings to the lowest of his career, 3.06 BB/9 IP.

Coach Beatty isn’t worried about the high pitch-count. Erbe does have two complete games, the only ones Frederick has this season.

“That might be his M.O. for a while until he really settles in gets it doing with his new delivery.”

Though Erbe is improving, he knows he has work to do, but tonight was a good sign for the future.

“Tonight is what I kind of approach, I have to throw my off-speed stuff for a strike and be consistent around the zone. If I can keep guys off my fastball and guessing a little bit, that’s when success is going to come.”

There is no word on whether or not Erbe will pitch in the fall or winter for the Orioles. But for now, he’s focused on the remainder of the season, as the Keys are currently 4 games out of a playoff spot with 9 games remaining.

No Shortage of Future Orioles at Bowie

“Could the Bowie Baysox beat the Seattle Mariners?”

“No.” quipped Windsor, suddenly pausing for a moment. “Well, depends who’s pitching.”

Windsor and I trekked down to Bowie last Sunday to catch the Binghamton Mets face off against the O’s double-A affiliate on what turned out to be a very special event. It was Fan Appreciation Night, and this club certainly knows how to throw a good event like this. All the players were out signing autographs up until 15 minutes before the game, with the Matt Wieters line longer than 90 feet by my estimation. I was getting the autograph of Ryan Finan when he motioned to the player next to him and said to me, “You gotta get David Hernandez, he is incredible.” The sportsmanship and good will of the players was exemplary towards the fans, and Bowie remains one of the best parks I have been to to watch a baseball game (and there is quite a bit of competition there). Oh, and they did eventually play the game…

Brad Bergesen impressed from the first pitch. He had no fear about going right at batters from the very start of the count, throwing first pitch strikes to the first 15 batters he faced. When he did miss the strike zone, it wasn’t by much. As a result, most hits against Bergesen came on a pitchers count because the batters knew that Bergesen wasn’t going to go outside the strike zone. It appeared that every pitch was going to be hittable if the batter knew where it was going in the zone. I am not sure whether this was by Bergesen’s design or whether Matt Wieters was calling the game that way, but it was astounding how he was able to pound the strike zone.

Moreover, his composure on the mound was Even when he went up 0-2 on batters Bergesen did not back off, consistently forcing the Binghamton batters to swing into easy outs. In his six innings of work, Bergesen gave up two solo home runs, after each of which he retired the next batter. He has a short memory, and immediately went back to work after each home run. He could have gone out for the 7th in my opinion, but even so this was an incredibly strong outing for the future Oriole.

That was the good news for the pitching. The bats were largely another story. We did not get to see Nolan Reimold or Matt Wieters sport the offensive numbers they have been known for. I would best summarize Nolan Reimold’s at bats with the phrase “swing away.” It seemed that on every pitch he saw the potential for a home run, and would only lay off the ball if it was down in the dirt. I understand why O’s fans are so enamored with the idea of Nolan Reimold, but there is a reason he is 24 and has not had a prolonged stay in the majors yet. He is batting .278 at AA and has strikeout numbers reminiscent of Corey Patterson. In fact, he reminds me of Luke Scott with LESS patience at the plate. His fielding is mediocre, and aside from the home runs he leaves little for a major league team to have faith in. I am sure he will get some sort of late season call-up, but what I saw on Sunday did not inspire me.

Matt Wieters didn’t get a hit either, but he was far more mature in his approach to his at-bats than nearly anyone else on the team. He came into the game sporting a .358 average which was down to .352 by the end of the night but he worked every count near full and drew necessary walks, which were unfortunately followed up by a lineup that had gone suddenly cold on the warm Sunday evening game. Most spectacular however was Wieter’s defense, gunning down runners and apparently calling a beautiful game for Brad Bergesen. We won’t see Wieters in September, but we will see him on April 1st, 2009. Yes, he is as good as advertised.

Jonathan Tucker. No, I didn’t know who he was either. Not only did he go 2-3, but he scored on a sacrifice fly by making an acrobatic headfirst slide into home plate, narrowly avoiding a tag that for most other runners would have been applied easily. He is hitting .375 in his last 10 games, and aside from that I know he stood out to the fans as the only true offense the Baysox could rely on on a night when nothing else seemed to be going right at the plate.

Free Kicks back tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Prospect Report - Chris Tillman

Good to be back on the prospect reports, and certainly good to be talking about a brighter future for the O’s pitching staff. Chris Tillman has lived up to his top prospect status this season, and is en route to a commanding finish as he attempts to bring Bowie back to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Last night Tillman was strong again, pitching six shutout innings with eight strikeouts. Following a rough patch in late July many were saying he had hit a wall for the season, but has come roaring back in August with a 1.88 ERA in four starts, with a K/BB ratio of 36:6 in 24 innings. On the season, Chris Tillman sports a 9-4 record, posting a 3.32 ERA with 139 strikeouts (2nd in the Eastern League behind only teammate David Hernandez).

So, who is Chris Tillman? Chris Tillman stands at 6’4”, and at 20 years old is the youngest starting pitcher in the Eastern League. Chris Tillman last season was the Seattle Mariner’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and came over to Baltimore in the blockbuster Bedard trade. Regarded as a first round talent coming out of high school, he fell to Seattle in the second round of the 2006 Amateur Draft. In his first season Tillman thrived in Rookie ball but fared poorly at Short Season Everett, still collecting a high strikeout rate of 13 K/9 IP. 2007 r
epresented a similar pattern for the right hander, as he thrived initially at Class A Wisconsin, but struggled at Advanced-A High Desert where he posted a 5.26 ERA in 102.2 innings. Going into the offseason Tillman was rated by Baseball America as the third-ranked prospect for Seattle Mariners. Tillman was then traded to Baltimore in the famous trade/heist that sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners for five players (Jones, Tillman, Mickolio, Sherrill, and Butler).

Strengths: Certainly there is no shortage of positives for this young right hander, but his biggest strength in my opinion has to be his delivery. Chris Tillman's delivery is smooth and repeatable, drawing rave reviews from scouts and coaches alike. His delivery is so fluid in fact, that people would gather around during O’s Spring Training just to see him throw. This repeatability will prove invaluable moving forward, in his consistency, his ability to adjust, and in reducing the risk of future injury. He sports two plus pitches, a 91-93 mph four-seam fastball which can touch 95, and an excellent 12-6 curveball. He’s also shown advanced maturity for his age, as he’s been by and large one of the most consistent starters in Bowie and has shown the ability to make adjustments.

Weaknesses: Tillman, while sporting two plus pitches, has not as of yet established a third or fourth quality pitch. In high school he began to utilize a splitter, but has been by and large a two-pitch pitcher for Bowie this year. While he should be able to get by on those two pitches, to reach his potential as a top starter he must establish at least a third pitch. Chris also has been occasionally susceptible to the long inning; although this could be attested to youth, only time will tell whether this becomes a significant problem or not.

Projection: The future is bright for Chris, and at worst he projects as a third starter in the majors. His ceiling, provided he can widen his repertoire, could be as a staff ace. He will remain at Bowie for the playoff run, and will start next season at AAA Norfolk. Barring a sensational season performance at Triple-A the organization will be cautious to not rush him to the majors. Chris Tillman will enter the starting rotation out of Spring Training in 2010.

Déjà Vu

Or, I think I’ve heard this before somewhere… I’m sorry everyone but something very strange is happening. It’s been very uncanny recently, I keep hearing sports stories that I could swear I must have heard somewhere before. Possibly in a dream… (a bad one)

(1) The Orioles desperately need a fourth (and fifth) starter, tempted to bring up a young buck before his time. (2) The Terps, because of his fantastic practices, make the unpopular decision of naming Jordan Steffy their starting quarterback. (3) The Ravens have a tough decision (or indecision, if you choose to look at it that way) at the quarterback position.

Now let’s put them in perspective, and try to lose the angst (not to mention headache) brought on by each strangely familiar story.

Where oh where is the pitching?
The struggles of the O’s pitching staff have certainly been well document. Now that Garrett Olson has been removed from the rotation in what is regrettably a necessary move, the Orioles are left with only three starters. THREE. And the third? Chris Waters. No offense, but that’s a lot of pressure for a rookie who has only had one quality start, albeit against the best team in baseball in his debut. So where do the Orioles go from here? Simply put they need to go to Hayden Penn for- what? He’s injured and most likely shut down for the year? There’s that funny feeling of déjà vu again… isn’t it creepy? In all seriousness, the Orioles are only left with the option of dipping into the farm system, as there are no bullpen arms to insert into the starting staff(Lance is too necessary in the rotation and JJ is now the closer, so there’s that.). The O’s most likely options include Andy Mitchell (not a prospect, more of a stopgap option a la Chris Waters), Radhames Liz, Brian Burres, Bradley Bergesen, and David Hernandez.

O’s management has played their minor leaguers, for the most part, far better than in previous seasons. Despite the struggles of Liz and Olson, both callups were the right move at the time. Olson was dominating AAA and Liz had made significant strides (though again, they had originally wanted to bring up Penn and give Liz more time). For that reason I doubt they go straight to AA for their fourth starter. Andy Mitchell might be a safe move, but I’m leaning toward the organization bringing back up Liz for the fourth starter’s role. For this Friday’s start (when they will need the starter) Liz will be on regular rest, and he’s coming off of a dominating performance at AAA. There is something to be said for momentum, and keep in mind when he originally came up from Norfolk this season while he was on a roll he started exceptionally strong. I can see the O’s bringing up Brad Bergesen as a fifth starter. I wouldn’t agree with this move, as major league hitters will absolutely hammer him if he does not keep the ball down. He does not have room for error; I’ll leave further elaboration on Bergesen to Expatriate, who has a scouting report from Bergesen’s Sunday start. Also shameless plug, you can reference my earlier prospect report for a more detailed breakdown.

Jordan Steffy? But… but why??
College Park is famous for sports riots. But rarely before school has started. Message boards and sports show call-in lines have exploded as of late, as the bulk of Terp fans have conducted a riot of sorts in wake of the announcement of Jordan Steffy as starter. There is no question that Jordan Steffy is a fantastic guy and has had some terrible luck. But last year he was named the starting QB coming into the season over the popular Florida transfer Josh Portis, and disappointed in the regular season. While he took care of the ball effectively, Jordan far too often settled for check downs and was indecisive on taking the ball deep. A common opinion was that while Jordan could manage a game, the team could never be great with him at the helm. After he suffered a concussion, the second of his career, Chris Turner exploded onto the scene and enamored himself with College Park fans.

But consider the flip side; it’s easy to forget that Chris Turner faded badly down the stretch, despite the victories against Rutgers and Boston College. While head coach Ralph Friedgen has not accomplished enough to be beyond reproach, he certainly would not put in a quarterback he didn’t think could win. He would catch very little flak for starting Turner or Portis instead of Steffy and unlike last year there was no unspoken understanding that it was Steffy’s turn to take over. Coach Friedgen repeatedly expressed frustration at Jordan’s inability to take the ball deep in games, and one can only think that he has seen enough to feel that that has changed.

Jordan Steffy has all the tools to be a very good quarterback, and this year represents a fresh slate. Terp fans should give him a chance; after all, it’s about the team winning, not about ‘being right’. Riiiiiiight?

Who’s willing to hang on to the hot potato?
“Hot potato, really? That’s the pun you’re going with?” Yes, I am. Because both times a Ravens quarterback has been given the limelight of starting this preseason they’ve thrown it away, let’s be very honest. As of yet neither Troy Smith nor Kyle Boller has shown that they want this job when the chips are down. There’s no doubt that both of them want it, but it’s about performance. You do have Flacco in the mix, but the coaching staff has made it relatively clear that he will be holding a clipboard to start the season. Kudos to the organization on that, it is possible to learn from mistakes.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Troy Smith must be the starter to begin the season. Yes; Kyle has looked better in practice, and is certainly the better pure thrower. However, this season the team needs a leader they can believe in, and a quarterback who can mask deficiencies in his supporting cast (O-Line anyone?). The team’s confidence in Troy (and lack thereof in Boller) has been the most poorly kept secret in Baltimore. Neither will set the league on fire, but Smith has the versatility and leadership to elevate the team.

Let’s try to keep our heads up and take a deep breath. This time it could be different. Wait, haven’t we heard that be– oh forget it.

(Photo Credit: AP, Nick Wass)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Death March Down Memory Lane

Windsor joined me for a two-game swing over the last couple days, visiting Bowie on Sunday and going to Camden Yards today. I will be sure to share my Sunday notes later this week, but for now my mind is on the 6-3 thrashing (or at least it feels that way) at the hands of Red Sox Nation- and it seems as though the entire nation was in attendance at Camden Yards. At least I think it was Camden Yards; that’s what the sign said. Those in the stands might have disagreed, given the wild chants of “Let’s Go Red Sox” drowned only slightly by the weak pleas by Orioles fans. The “LUUUKE” cry when Luke Scott came to the plate only a whisper to the roar of “YOUUUUU” that followed Kevin Youkilis stepping up to bat. The stands were even more slanted towards Red Sox fans than usual, a 70-30 Sox to O's fans ratio would be a generous one for the Orioles faithful who stuck it out. I have never been all that eager to go to Fenway Park, but now I feel as though I have already been there.

But this game was more than that. It was the feeling after strike one when you knew the Orioles batter was already done. It was silly swings on 2-0 counts. It was that sinking you get in your stomach when you know the game is over as soon as the bullpen starts warming up. It was getting within 3 feet of an Aubrey Huff would-be home run to tie the game, only to know that in the end it wouldn’t be enough.

I witnessed the most obnoxious fans outside of Columbus, Ohio scream their heads off after a bloop single, erupt in a chorus of swearing and screech like banshees after every ball and strike. It was more than passion, it was the unloading of the worst parts of the Red Sox bandwagon. Moreover, it was the entire stadium, not merely a section of fans here or there as so often accompanies the Yankees visits. I actually don’t mind being at a Yankees game anymore. Yankees fans have a cooler confidence about them, they are smug and convinced of their own superiority, but they save their energy for when it matters, and are far more respectful of other fans (still not very, but far more than “the Nation” can boast).

However, this travesty of a game started me thinking about the worst experiences I have had at a sporting event, and after reflection, perhaps this wasn’t so bad after all. I mean, I have had worse…

Third Place: October 6th, 2001- Cal Ripken’s Last Game
Okay, I am sure you all are scratching your heads on this one. I know I should be thrilled simply to have been at this game, but my disdain for Brady Anderson finally boiled over in this one. In the bottom of the 9th inning, the stage was set perfectly for Cal to make his final at-bat. Brady Anderson was batting with Cal on deck in a clear loss to the Mariners. Anderson, however, was being dealt nothing near the strike zone. The crowd was chanting “One More Time” as Anderson was determined to get a hit out of this wild frenzy. It seemed as though even the Mariners wanted to give Ripken another at-bat. Sure enough, Anderson did what he did so many times in his Orioles career- swung and missed at a ball at the shoulders and struck out. The ceremony was wonderful, but I could not get over that anticlimactic finish ruined by the likes of Brady Anderson. Giambi shaved the ‘stache, why couldn’t Brady shave the sideburns?

Second Place: December 22nd, 2007- American University at Maryland Terrapins
This wasn’t so bad because of the result (67-59 loss by the Terps that wasn’t even as close as the score), but because of the implications. My brother had gone out of his way to acquire our extended family tickets to this game over the Christmas break, so all our cousins and siblings loaded up and drove to College Park to see the Terps in action. The family is spread over the east coast and for all our Maryland state pride he is the one member of the family to decide to attend the University of Maryland. This was his big opportunity, it seemed, to bring the focus back from everyone’s respective alma mater to the flagship institution of the Old Line State. Well, the game was a testament to Gary William’s critics. Poor fundamental play, out-hustled for every loose ball, and a lackadaisical reliance on pure talent that wasn’t necessarily there. I am blessed not to have to watch Dave Neal pretend to be a basketball player for several months before Coach Williams begins subbing him into key situations where he doesn’t belong.

First Place: September 1st, 2007- Appalachian State Mountaineers at the Michigan Wolverines
Yes, I attended one of the greatest upsets in sports history, and had to endure the devastation of being on the losing side. In fact, I wrote a preview for the game on a blog I used to contribute to in which I predicted a final of 35-18 Michigan, explaining that the spread offense would give Michigan quite a bit of trouble but that talent in the end would have to prevail. I was ripped by commenters and the other contributors that I was giving ol’ App State too much credit; that the Wolverines would invariably steamroll the upstart Mountaineers.

A week and 4 quarters later, as Michigan lined up for that final ill-fated field goal attempt I uttered words that I may regret for the rest of my life. “Okay, okay, they have had their fun, now Michigan is going to win it. They blocked one earlier, but there’s no way we haven’t adjusted for it this time.” Same rush, same side, same result, and the 112,000 in attendance could not leave fast enough. Along with the other Wolverines faithful I walked numb, my heart in my hands in utter disbelief, feeling my maize and blue apparel chafe more and more as the harsh reality sunk in and my sunburn sting that much harder with every heavy step out of the stadium. I'm not gonna lie, this one is still with me.

No, I suppose a 6-3 loss isn’t so bad, thank God for the 162 game season. And to think, the college football season is just around the corner…

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ravens QB Competition: Preseason Game 2

The second preseason game for Baltimore saw more excitement from Michael Phelps then the Ravens themselves, with the Vikings taking the victory 23-15 with a 20-point first half.

The Ravens changed the starting quarterback for this game, going with Troy Smith. Boller took over for the third quarter, and Flacco took most of the 4th. So, how did the three stack up this time?

Troy Smith: C/C-
Troy Smith has shown he can run, find the hole, and get out of the pocket to the outside. But the Ravens need a quarterback, not a running back. Smith only threw five passes, completing three, and got sacked twice plus an interception on the first pass of a two minute drill. He looked good running the ball, getting 35 yards, but Smith really didn't look solid in the pocket at all and had a bad passing day.

Kyle Boller: D
I'm being a little nice since a few situations were hurt by factors out of his control, including a low block penalty on Ray Rice, but Boller looked terrible. His only throw past 10 yards (it was 11) was on a 3rd and 19 and still had problems keeping the football. A decent performance could have secured the starting job for Boller tonight, but an interception, fumble, and very short passing was just bad for #7.

Joe Flacco: C-
Before the two minute drill, Flacco was fumbling the ball and staying the pocket too long; typical rookie mistakes that hopefully he'll change with experience. On the drill, he used short passes to drive down the field, and despite the almost interception (pulled back due to penalty), Flacco looked decent in a no-huddle offense. Flacco had a much better performance than against the Patriots, but still has a lot of growing to do.

Rumor was that the starting quarterback would be decided today. I really hope not, Smith and Boller have failed to standout. I say give them one more week, even though it isn't good to wait on such decisions, neither looks ready to lead.

(Photo credits: ESPN (Boller), Ohio State University (Smith), University of Delaware (Flacco))

Orioles get Matusz, draft signings successful

Like many first rounders, Brian Matusz waited until the last day to sign the dotted line, but eventually did. The lefty starter from San Diego caps the August 15th deadline for the Orioles, signing a 3.2 million dollar signing bonus in his major league deal (Dan Connolly, Baltimore Sun). Only two first rounders, Aaron Crow for the Nationals and Gerrit Cole for the Yankees, didn't sign.

With the signing, the top nine picks plus picks 11-15 have been signed to the Orioles farm system. Along with Matusz, notables include:
--Xavier Avery: 2nd round, CF, had committed to play football for Georgia
--L.J. Hoes: 3rd round, 2B/OF, local phenom who had committed to UNC
--Kyle Hudson: 4th round, OF, hit .411 for Illinois in 2008
--Gregory Miclat: 5th round, SS, solid contact hitter with speed for UVA
--Jesse Beal: 14th round, P, had committed to Maryland (I reserve judgement on this one, Maryland really, really needs pitching)
--Brian Conley: 16th round, OF, from Towson
--Chad Durakis and Oliver Drake: 38th and 43rd rounds respectively, both played for local colleges (Maryland and Navy)

Overall, this draft was very successful for the Orioles, They landed their top nine picks, mainly focusing on prospects that were likely to join the Orioles and not head to college (Avery, Hoes) as well as already established college juniors (Matusz, Hudson, Miclat). They didn't go for high-risk players who didn't want to sign, and they got paid off by getting who they wanted.

The only thing that would have made the draft perfect for the Orioles would have been to sign Kevin Brady, a player taken in the 44th round who had 3rd round talent, but didn't want to sign for 3rd round money. The Orioles had a throw away draft pick, and tried to entice the fireballer, but couldn't. But no big loss. The fact is the Orioles had a solid signing time and they should be real happy with the new crop of players.

(Photo credit:

Free Kicks

Well everyone, Free Kicks is coming a day late today; I hope y’all can excuse my absence. Life called, and apparently I am behind on my payments. I had to get something in before the end of the week, so perhaps you can enjoy some bonus weekend coverage on ATH. As the Ravens get ready for tonight’s game, let’s line up for the kick.

Waters Down the Drain?

We didn’t expect Chris Waters to one-hit every team through 8 innings, but we didn’t exactly expect this either after his gem against the Angels. In his last two starts, Waters has allowed a total of 8 runs in 8 2/3 innings against the Tigers and Rangers. Even if we can give him a pass against those electric bats of Texas, it still must give us pause to consider that it took Waters 90 and 98 pitches to get through 4 and 4 2/3 innings. As has been the problem all year, Orioles starters just can’t seem to stay in the game. I am tired of seeing Lance Cormier, the last of the true middle relievers, come out for 2-3 innings every other day. As of now he is still the best available option to Dave Trembley, but that isn’t saying much. The bullpen ERA continues to balloon (4th worst in the AL), and the starters are doing very little to give them any break.

Feeling a Draft

For the second straight year, it took to the final day before the Orioles signed their top pick, though at least this time it didn’t go until 11:50 PM. Around 3 PM, Brian Matusz and the Orioles agreed to a 4-year deal that will be worth at least $3.47 million. Matusz, 21, could see action in Baltimore late next season as he was considered the most major league-ready pitcher in the draft. Our resident prospect guru raves about Matusz, who joins 13 of the other top 15 Orioles draft picks in signing before the deadline. The lone exception was 11th round selection Nathan Moreau. Every time I begin to doubt this staff they put something incredible together and get things done. When was the last time you were excited about the Orioles draft? Yea, I can’t remember either.

Man of Troy

Troy Smith will get the nod tonight for the Ravens against the Vikings, and don’t think it is just to balance out the start Coach Harbaugh gave to Kyle Boller last week. Troy Smith entered training camp as the favorite to win the starting job, and he has somewhat disappointed this month in camp. However, where Smith excels is when plays break down, when he is forced to make split second decisions to save a first down. Behind this inexperienced and, frankly, poor offensive line, Smith’s skills will be far more valuable than Boller’s arm or his experience. With players like Boller and Joe Flacco in camp there will be a natural tendency to dissuade their QBs from running, and the coaching staff needs to be careful to tailor their teaching to each quarterback’s individual skills.

We will see tonight whether Troy Smith can turn in a Heisman-like performance against the Vikings. His attitude has been exceptional, helping him become a popular signal caller with the other players, Bart Scott referring to him as “Willie Beaman,” Jamie Foxx’s character from “Any Given Sunday.” He may be a Buckeye at heart, but if he can win I want him as my quarterback. Flacco might be waiting in the wings, but I’d rather see the Blue Hen on the sidelines.

Katie Hoff getting a bad rap

As Michael Phelps is putting himself in the record books, Katie Hoff is also making Towson and the USA proud.

Most 19-year-olds worry about getting used to college life in their freshman year. Katie Hoff is representing her country in the Olympics against the fastest and toughest swimmers in the world.

And yet, even though she won three medals (two silver, one bronze) in the six events she competed in, the media is grilling her for the lack of a gold, many calling her performance "disappointing."

Many media's thoughts are summed up in an article by Pat Forde of ESPN on August 15th. He starts off by say she needs to stop "Phelpsing" it and it is "a lesson learned the hard way."

One question. Since when did Hoff says she was like Michael Phelps? I can answer that, Pat Forde did a little over a week ago. Katie never did, even saying that "I'm not supposed to be Phelps" in the Aug. 15th Forde article, and her coach said the comparison wasn't fair (same article). So Hoff and her coach aren't making such a comparison, so why should any of us blame her for not getting a gold just because Phelps got many?

The success of Michael Phelps has been great, but on the flip side the media has been attacking Hoff for not getting a gold. And now an columnist who probably never covered swimming before a few weeks ago actually attacks her because his comparison of her to Phelps wasn't correct? Hoff probably has struggled, but the fact that she is only 19 and she got five top-4 finishes in six events against the top swimmers in the world is very impressive. Leave Hoff alone, we know she isn't Michael Phelps. It just took Pat Forde a lot longer to realize it.

Hoff will be 23 for the 2012 Games, she'll be great in those. Let's hope the Phelps comparisons don't continue then. But for now, most people are proud of Hoff for her accomplishments in Beijing. We sure are in Maryland.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prospect Report: Jerome “L.J.” Hoes

In this fourth installment… Windsor is M.I.A. Apparently he has too much work today catching up from his week off to fulfill the beloved Thursday Prospect Report. As such, the highlight of this blog falls to me this week (hold your applause, please). Don’t worry though, Windsor sent me a mountain of opinion and information to make me appear much smarter than I am, so we should be in good shape. I will struggle valiantly to give you some insight into a player who could become a staple of the Orioles lineup in 3 or 4 years.

While much attention has been paid to O’s pitching (or lack thereof), fans should remember way back to April, when the emphasis was 4 or 5 years down the road. Does anyone remember that? It seems so quickly that the fan base has gotten back into the “reload” mentality, and forgotten that what we give up now will benefit us far more in the future. One such player in that bright future is Jerome “L.J.” Hoes.

So, who is L.J. Hoes? Hoes is a 6’0”, 190 lb. high school player out of Bowie, MD and was drafted by the Orioles in the June MLB draft with the 5th pick in the 3rd round. Though he played the outfield almost exclusively in high school, the Orioles project Jerome as a second baseman down the road. He is considered a player with all the tools necessary for a superior infielder, and was thus announced as a second baseman (but if he is athletic as advertised I would predict he may wind up at shortstop). More than anything else, LJ’s bat projects perfectly at second base. The difficulty with high school stats are that they are far overblown and a terrible predictor of future success, but nevertheless a .524 avg. with 32 stolen bases in a high school season is nothing to sneeze at. He has begun his young career with the GCL Orioles, and has not appeared to be affected with the transition to the minor leagues (though rookie stats can also be very misleading). Through 38 games Hoes has hit .306 with only 1 HR, but with one very welcome surprise. Hoes sports 27 walks contributing to a .428 OBP, indicating patience at the plate, which is surprising for a position player of his age.

Strengths: Speed and hitting. Hoes has a similar mold to Brian Roberts at the plate- he is patient, draws walks, and can turn a single into a double with ease. He has the speed to run out ground balls and steal bases, and could be a very reliable lead-off man down the road. Jerome has struck out only 18 times in 124 at-bats, impressive for a player of his inexperience. It is clear that he has a very mature understanding of pitchers and does not press for a hit when it isn’t there. Had Hoes not signed with the Orioles he likely would have wound up at the University of North Carolina, one of the top baseball programs in the country. He has certainly shown why at the plate this season.

Weaknesses: Fielding. Although Hoes is said to have all the physical tools necessary to make plays in the field, he has committed 11 errors already this season, averaging to more than one every 4 games and ranking him second on the team for highest number of errors. Much of this can be attributed to Hoes changing positions, and will likely work itself out as he takes some more time with coaches in the instructional league in the offseason to better learn how to field the position.

Projection: This is part of that 4-5 year plan, and L.J. will likely be one of the last pieces to be added. As he works his way through the minors he will certainly be a player to watch. He has said he would not have signed with any team but the Orioles (that may be the first time I’ve heard that in 10 years), and his attitude towards this franchise has translated into an exceptional work ethic and a discipline not found in many position prospects in the Orioles system. I anticipate he will see Delmarva to start next season and be kept there for the duration if he turns around his fielding some. After that it become a bit murkier- high school players, even those as promising as Hoes, are difficult to project. However, the very earliest we might see him in Camden Yards would be the tail end of 2012 or more likely midway through the 2013 season.

(Photo Credit:

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Michael Phelps Is Who Everyone Wants to Be

Michael Phelps continues to be absolutely spectacular in Beijing, earning five gold medals with five world records set in the pool.

He must be in the best shape of any swimmer who ever existed, having a pure fruit and veggie diet and exercising ten hours a day, right?

According to the New York Post and ESPN, his diet is, get this, 12,000 calories a day!!!!! Man, I'm taking the wrong approach towards athletics. Normally an average diet is 2,000 calories per day, but Phelps is six times that.

From the New York Post (Clemente Lisi): "starting off his day by eating three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise.

He follows that up with two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar and three chocolate-chip pancakes.

At lunch, Phelps gobbles up a pound of enriched pasta and two large ham and cheese sandwiches slathered with mayo on white bread - capping off the meal by chugging about 1,000 calories worth of energy drinks.

For dinner, Phelps really loads up on the carbs - what he needs to give him plenty of energy for his five-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week regimen - with a pound of pasta and an entire pizza.

He washes all that down with another 1,000 calories worth of energy drinks."

Damn that's awesome. This will likely make doctors and other swimmers nuts. He does burn all of that off with five hours of swimming a day, but still, wouldn't you have expected America's greatest ever swimmer to be an extreme health nut? Nope, he's a regular guy who eats a ton and sets world records. And right now, this "fat" American from the Harbor is on the verge of getting eight gold medals.

(Photo credit: CBC. By the way, nice to have you back Windsor.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Witnessing Greatness

Or, what it means to be a sports fan. I was instructed upon my return from vacation (very nice job by my colleagues by the way) to write a posting on Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, both admirably representing our great State and Country in Beijing. However I have to slightly deviate from that, as I witnessed something last night which touched home for me and, in my opinion, for any sports fan who watched it. The event I am referring to is the United States 4x100m relay team surging past the heavily favored French to take the gold medal.

This event, this moment in sports, epitomized the ideals of the Olympics; of national pride, of athletic competition in its purest form, of standing in the moment while feeling the weight of history and legend. Cynics dismiss the Olympics as being meaningless and outdated, but what is so outdated about thousands of athletes and spectators from across the globe coming together in the spirit of competition? What makes Olympic competition trite while professional football meaningful? I daresay what we all witnessed last night served as a wakeup call to every Olympic cynic out there that there is something truly special about Olympic competition.

Four Americans– Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak – lined up to challenge a race in which they all, as one commentator put it, had to each run a perfect race to have a chance at gold. Famed swimmer and 100m world record holder Alain Bernard of the French team boldly proclaimed before the race that the French would “smash” the Americans, and by most all accounts, they were going to. In the race that ensued, the relay teams of five countries would break the world record and combine for arguably the greatest Olympic swimming race in history. Drama, national pride, teamwork, and unparalleled greatness within this event were presented both by the victors and the entire competitive field.

Here is how the race unfolded:
-At the starting buzzer Phelps took off strongly, gaining an early lead over the French. As they approached the first turn at least three teams were already ahead of the world record pace.

-Phelps hands off to Garett Weber-Gale in one of three seamless switches for the United States. The lead notably slimmed heading into the turn, with France gaining the lead as Weber-Gale’s leg came to a finish.

-Cullen Jones takes over for Weber-Gale, losing ground to the French in transition. France increased it’s lead to over half of a body length going into the final stretch. The smashing, it seemed, was on.

-Enter Jason Lezak for the United States and Alain Bernard for France. Alain Bernard is the world record holder for the 100m freestyle, and a sure-thing closer. Jason Lezak, a 3-time Olympian who has never taken gold in the relay (his premier event), had a daunting challenge. Through the first turn Lezak was desperately riding the wave of Bernard but seemingly could not gain any ground on the Frenchman. With 50 meters left to go I remember distinctly one person in the room I was with shake his head – the race seemed all but over. Heading into the final 30 meters Jason Lezak made a furious comeback, and as he gained ground I could hardly hear the play-by-play over the growing roar of the crowd both in the stands and in the room I was in. Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale frantically stomped, shouted along with the rest of the viewing audience to bring Jason home.

With a flourish the race was over, and the stadium erupted. The world record was smashed. The hard-luck 32 year old swimmer beat the elite French swimmer’s lap time by over .6 seconds, and the US team edged out the French by eight hundredths of a second. Michael Phelps’ potentially history-making drive for eight gold medals was still alive. The heavily favored French who bragged about smashing the Americans were stunned.

In conclusion, we watch sports to witness greatness. We see it in the coverage of Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, even Barry Bonds. And sports fans are constantly looking for the next great player, the next great moment which can be retold for years to come. So I say this to all of the Olympic cynics out there: Try and beat that.
Photo Credit (above): Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Photo Credit (right): AP